CLEVELAND -- After the Indians struck out an astounding 1,269 times as a team last year, manager Manny Acta knew something needed to change.
Acta and his coaching staff put an extra emphasis on quality at-bats during Spring Training, particularly hitting with two strikes. The Indians hit just .176 with an on-base percentage of .241 in two-strike counts last season. The strikeouts, though, were the most concerning thing.
"Put the bat on the ball, you give yourself a chance," Acta said. "Strike out, you've got no chance. You're just going back to the dugout either to complain about the pitch or ask somebody if it was too high or too low. That's all there is to it. ... The productive at-bats, moving guys over, getting the sac flies -- if you strike out, that's completely out of the question."
The Indians hitters have changed their two-strike approach this season, and it's showing. Entering Thursday, they were hitting .192 with a .273 on-base percentage in those situations, ranking them among the American League's top five in both categories. Cleveland also has only 518 strikeouts, 90 fewer than it had at this time last year.
"We've got a lot of guys grinding out at-bats," said first baseman Casey Kotchman, "and trying to make the most of the opportunities we get."
Acta said he constantly stays on his players about having quality at-bats, but he was quick to point out that all quality at-bats don't always look the same. It doesn't have to end in a walk or a hit to be productive. Mostly, it's about making the opposing pitcher work, like the Indians made Angels starter Ervin Santana work on Wednesday. Cleveland forced Santana to throw a lot of pitches in the first inning, and chased him after only 1 1/3 frames.
"Santana made mistakes, we took advantage of them," Acta said, "and whoever came in, if they couldn't throw the ball over the plate, we made 'em work.
"You just can't stop. You gotta keep preaching and teaching the whole time. It's a long season, and if you take a step back, the guys might take a step back. It's what we try to stress. It's not, 'Get a hit,' because we know it's not that easy. It's having the quality at-bats."
Marson's hot hitting an added bonus for Indians
CLEVELAND -- Carlos Santana is struggling at the plate. Lou Marson continues to be productive. So Marson should get more playing time at catcher, right?
It's not that easy, manager Manny Acta said.
"We can't forget that Santana's our everyday guy," Acta said. "When Lou's doing that well, it improves his chances of being out there. But it's not something that's going to change what we're doing here on an everyday basis."
The Indians signed Santana to a five-year, $21 million contract extension in April, but he hasn't provided the kind of middle-of-the-order production Cleveland hoped it would get from him. Santana entered Thursday's game against the Rays hitting just .218 with five home runs and 29 RBIs. He hit .239 with 27 homers and 79 RBIs in 2011.
Marson, meanwhile, continues to take advantage of the playing time he's gotten due to some injuries. He entered Thursday hitting .393 (24-for-61) with three doubles, two triples and six RBIs in 19 starts since May 24, including a four-hit game June 30 at Baltimore. Marson is hitting .295 with seven RBIs on the season.
But Santana is the franchise catcher, and Acta will continue to play him as he works through his hitting struggles. Having a hot backup catcher, though, is something Acta will gladly take.
"It's good that he's doing well," Acta said. "It helps give me more peace of mind whenever I want to rest Santana. This is what we envisioned a long time ago out of Lou. It will at least make things easier for me going forward. I can put Santana at first, I can DH Santana against lefties sometimes to rest [Travis] Hafner."
Acta pleased with offensive output at midway point
CLEVELAND -- The Indians reached the midpoint of the season after their 12-3 win over the Angels on Wednesday afternoon. Cleveland's statistical numbers are similar to what they were at this time last year.
Through 81 games in 2011, the Indians were hitting .250 as a team with 74 home runs and 351 runs. Their offensive production has improved slightly this season, as they entered Thursday's opener against the Rays hitting .257 with 72 homers and 366 runs. The Indians had scored 53 of those runs in their last seven games.
Indians manager Manny Acta likes the way his offense has progressed throughout the season, and he expects it to get better in the second half.
"The offensive situation, it's on its way," Acta said. "I think just having [Travis] Hafner back, and we all know [Carlos] Santana, he's going to get better. That doesn't mean that we've got it made with that. We could probably use a little help."
The Indians' pitching staff, though, has taken a step back, posting a collective 4.51 ERA this season, compared to a 3.77 ERA through the midpoint last year. The most glaring statistic is that Cleveland pitchers have surrendered 50 more walks than this time last season (275 to 225).
Acta feels better about the pitching staff than he did earlier in the year, because front-end starters Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez have started to find their groove. Both Masterson and Jimenez struggled out of the gate, but they have settled in over the last month.
While the Indians sat 2 1/2 games behind the White Sox for first place in the American League Central entering Thursday, Acta was happy with his team's performance over the first 81 games.
"I'm pleased, not satisfied," he said. "That's all you want to do at the halfway point of the season, be in it the way we are right now. That's all you can ask for, get to the halfway point and not be buried."
Quote to note
"Travis' at-bat set the tone and let us know that, 'Hey, he's back.'"
--Acta on Hafner's 11-pitch at-bat in the first inning Wednesday afternoon against the Angels. It was Hafner's first game back from the disabled list after missing more than a month.
Indians outfielder Shelley Duncan and his wife, Elyse, welcomed twin boys, William and Walker, into the world on Thursday. Duncan is currently on the paternity list, and he must be activated by Saturday.
Third baseman Jack Hannahan is hitting just .205 (8-for-39) with one RBI in 13 games since coming off the disabled list. His only two extra-base hits during that stretch came Tuesday against the Angels, when Hannahan went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles.
Center fielder Michael Brantley's three-run homer in the first inning on Wednesday was just his second long ball of the season. Acta said he's never looked at Brantley as a power hitter.
"It's gonna come with time," Acta said. "I think he showed some last year, and it's there. I'm just glad that he doesn't try to overdo things and try to hit for power. He's got a good amount of doubles, which is OK by me, and a good amount of RBIs. Eventually, it's gonna come once he matures as a hitter."
Left fielder Johnny Damon had a season-high three hits in Wednesday's win, and he is hitting .284 (21-for-74) with four doubles, three homers and 12 RBIs in 25 games dating back to May 30.
Justin Albers is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.