CLEVELAND -- Casey Kotchman was frustrated, but he never panicked.
The Indians first baseman struggled mightily at the plate during the first month of the season, hitting .149 with only two home runs and four RBIs. He didn't look much like the guy who hit .306 and helped the Rays to the playoffs last year.
Through the rough times, though, Kotchman remained consistent. He knew eventually the hits would come.
"You gotta try to remember it is a long season," Kotchman said, "but obviously there is a sense of urgency as well. You can't just sit back and take it, but you can't get it all back at once."
Kotchman has returned to form during May. Entering Wednesday, the 29-year-old was batting .306 with five doubles and 11 RBIs this month. He knocked in the eventual game-winning run Tuesday night against the division-rival Tigers, and went 3-for-4 in the game.
So what changed?
"I couldn't really tell you," Kotchman said. "Stuff is falling in, finding some grass that wasn't that first month."
Indians manager Manny Acta sees a more concrete reason for the improvement.
"He was very jumpy earlier in the year," Acta said, "over-striding a lot, which causes you to chase pitches out of the strike zone. It happens to everybody. They start getting jumpy when they're not producing. But he stuck to his routine, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel because he wasn't hitting."
Kotchman has always been a superb fielder for the Indians, but now he's starting to add another consistent left-handed bat to the Cleveland lineup. With few other options at first base, it's important for the Indians that Kotchman continues to be the hitter he's been throughout his eight-year career.
"We know he's a dependable guy at the plate," Acta said. "We never told anybody that he was going to be Albert [Pujols] or Prince [Fielder]. But, man, he's really good at first base. We knew [the hitting] was going to come."
Acta: Indians' best baseball yet to come
CLEVELAND -- History often has a way of repeating itself, but the Indians do not believe that will be the case this season. As was the case around this time last year, Cleveland is currently in a similar position above the Tigers in the American League Central.
"And we know what happened at the end," Indians closer Chris Perez said.
The Tribe faded down the stretch last summer due to injuries and other factors, while the Tigers made their push and ran away with the 2011 division title. While there is no way of knowing what will transpire in the coming months, the Indians do believe they are in a better position this season compared to a year ago at the same point.
Entering Wednesday's game against Detroit, Cleveland was 24-18 with a 3 1/2-game lead over the second-place White Sox. The Tigers (20-22) resided in third place, four games back of the Indians. Through May 22 last season, the Tribe was 29-15, with a seven-game lead over the second-place Tigers (23-23).
The difference this year is the Indians do not feel they have hit their stride yet.
"I felt last year at this point we had played our best baseball," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "You couldn't play any better than the way we played the first 45 games. Unfortunately, we had some guys go down. But I still don't think we have played our best baseball [this year].
"Last year, it was just a different story. We couldn't do anything wrong, especially at home for the first 45 games."
The players inside Cleveland's clubhouse feel the same.
"We're for real. It's not a fluke," Perez said. "The team over there wants to win just as bad as we do, and we're coming out on top more times than not. It's been said a couple times, but we're not playing our best ball yet. ... We feel like our best ball is still ahead of us, which is what you want."
Pestano fires way into Tribe's record book
CLEVELAND -- Vinnie Pestano could not help but laugh a little at the feat he has accomplished for the Indians. For the reliever, the historic mark was a bit of a mouthful, and it mattered little in the grand scheme of things.
Dating back to last season, Pestano has registered at least one strikeout in 22 consecutive games, establishing a record for a Cleveland reliever (since 1918).
"I could try for the best toothpick beard next," Pestano joked. "Maybe I could try the most powdered doughnuts eaten in a minute. Or I could try to chug a gallon of milk without throwing up. What else is there?"
All joking aside, what Pestano has accomplished is rare.
Since 1918, only five relievers have had strikeout streaks of at least 20 games to begin a season, which is where Pestano's run stood heading into Wednesday. The others include Billy McCool of the Reds (25 in 1965), Tom Gordon of the Royals (21 in 1991), Ted Davidson of the Reds (20 in 1965) and Byung-Hyun Kim of the D-backs (20 in 2002).
When Pestano struck out Detroit's Alex Avila to end the eighth inning in Tuesday's 5-3 win, he passed Paul Shuey's club relief record of 21 straight games with a strikeout. Dating back to 1918, there have been 40 such streaks of at least 22 games by a reliever. Bruce Sutter (Cubs, 1977) owns the big league record of 39 games, and Jeff Montgomery (Royals, 1989) boasts the American League mark of 32 games.
"It doesn't mean a thing," Pestano said. "I knew about it. There had been speculation and talk about it. I knew I had tied it last time out, but I try and strike everybody out, so it's not like I was going out there doing something different than I normally do."
What the club record does reveal is Pestano's consistency as a late-inning reliever for the Indians. Entering Wednesday, the righty had a 2.55 ERA with 24 strikeouts against six walks in 20 appearances (17 2/3 innings) this season. A year ago, Pestano had a 2.32 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 24 walks in 67 outings (62 innings).
"It's been impressive," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "He just took off last year from the get-go, starting in Spring Training. He's been pretty impressive and pretty consistent, and he has been able to make adjustments."
Nearing return, Hannahan available off bench
CLEVELAND -- Jack Hannahan wasn't back in the Indians lineup Wednesday, but manager Manny Acta was confident the third baseman was close to a return.
Hannahan, who missed his ninth straight start Wednesday with back tightness, said he's feeling as good as he has since the injury. Acta said Hannahan was available off the bench Wednesday night against the Tigers, and he expects him to return to the lineup "in a couple days."
"Today is the best it's felt," Hannahan said. "It's gradually gotten better to the point where, mentally and physically, I feel like I could play."
Hannahan said his back bothers him more when he's running and playing defense than when he's at the plate. He took ground balls at third, threw across to first base, took batting practice and did running drills Wednesday afternoon.
"A lot of the discomfort is gone," Hannahan said. "It took longer than I wanted it to, but once you get out there, you have to make sure you can stay out there."
Quote to note
"Our season-ticket holders are really [great]. I mean, John Adams is the best fan in baseball. He comes out here every single game and pounds that drum. So I know our fans are faithful and diehards."
--Indians closer Chris Perez
Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a right wrist injury, is scheduled to throw a 50-pitch simulated game on Thursday morning. Following the workout, Cleveland will likely make a determination as to whether Tomlin is recovered enough to be activated from the DL.
Entering Wednesday, Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo was hitting .394 (13-for-33) with four doubles, one home run, three RBIs, five walks and six runs scored in eight games since being moved into the leadoff spot. During that stretch, Choo reached base in 19 of 39 plate appearances to raise his on-base percentage to .391 (eighth in the American League).
Indians infielder Jose Lopez, who has been filling in for injured third baseman Jack Hannahan (back), had hit safely in eight of his last nine games, entering Wednesday. Lopez posted a .345 average (10-for-29) with six RBIs during that stretch, which dated back to his promotion from Triple-A Columbus.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. Justin Albers is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.