By Brad Thompson–

CHICAGO (WSCR) On Thursday night, the Cleveland Indians won for the seventh time this season in their final at-bat, defeating Oakland 4-3 in twelve innings. The Indians are tied with Philadelphia for baseball’s best record (21-9) and are the most surprising team in baseball.

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Since it’s only the beginning of May, it’s hard to know if Cleveland is a legitimate playoff contender or just a team that’s off to a great start and will fade by season’s end. Their bats say yes, but their pitching may say otherwise.

The Tribe leads the league in scoring differential at plus 49, which is eight runs higher than the Phillies who are second. Cleveland is second in the league in on-base percentage (.341) and fourth in runs scored (155) and batting average (.271).

The resurgence of Travis Hafner, Asdrubal Cabrera and superstar Grady Sizemore have ignited the hot start. Hafner looks more like his 2006 self when he banged 42 home runs and had 117 RBI. He’s not going to reach those numbers again, but right now he’s second in the AL in batting average (.353), tenth in slugging percentage (.553) and fourth in OPS (.957).

Both Cabrera and Sizemore have returned from injuries and been surprisingly effective. Cabrera is showing more power that he ever has before. He’s already slugged five homers and has never had more than six in a season. Sizemore, who was still recovering from micro-fracture surgery at the beginning of the season, has had an immediate impact since joining the club. In just 14 games, he’s hammered four home runs and nine doubles, while batting .305 and driving in nine.

In addition, Cleveland has had some timely hitting from unexpected places such as third baseman Jack Hannahan, a career .229 hitter. Young players, such as 23-year-old Michael Brantley, have been productive as well. The Indians are brimming with confidence at the plate and manager Manny Acta has them believing that no matter what the deficit is they can rally to win.

What’s scary about Cleveland’s lineup is that star Shin-Sho Choo and catcher Carlos Santana are off to slow starts. Choo, a career .293 hitter, is only batting .226 and slugging .357. Santana is hitting a meager .196. If either of these guys can get on track, the Indians lineup will be even more potent.

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Just like their hitting, Indians pitching has been spectacular so far. Their staff is second in the majors in quality starts (22), sixth in ERA (3.31) and fifth in batting average against (.234).

Cleveland has seven pitchers on staff with a winning record and only one with a losing record. Justin Masterson (5-0) has been sensational this season, especially considering his past. Masterson was 6-13 with a 4.70 ERA in 2010. Josh Tomlin pitched well in his 12 starts in 2010 (6-4), but no one predicted his impressive 4-1 start this year. And closer Chris Perez has been solid, saving nine of his 10 opportunities.

The concern for Cleveland is whether their young staff, and particularly their starters, can continue pitching this well for the rest of the season. Their staff’s average age is 26.3, which makes it the youngest in baseball. And Fausto Carmona is the only starter who has logged substantial innings in his career.

It’s fair to say that the young arms of Cleveland have exceeded expectations thus far, but it’s hard to believe that their production and effectiveness will continue all season.

Last year Cleveland lost 93 games. During spring training no one thought much of the Indians, but with the resurrection of Hafner, Sizemore and Cabrera it’s not surprising that their lineup is producing runs. What has been shocking is how well their pitching staff has performed. Whether the Indians remain atop the AL Central or fade into mediocrity depends largely on the arms of the youngest pitching staff in the majors.

Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.

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Brad Thompson

Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.