OAKLAND -- The Indians' bullpen was billed as the team's strength coming into this season, but a rough start to the year had some questioning the group's ability to maintain its previous pace. The cast known as the Bullpen Mafia have since shown signs of life.

"It was a matter of time," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "Everybody here in this clubhouse and in every clubhouse is going to have some rough times when you play 162 games. They struggled the first few games, but these guys have been good for over a year here. They're healthy and they're going to be OK.

"We trust that those guys are going to continue to be the strength of our ballclub. There's no reason why they wouldn't be. They have good arms. They have different arm angles, different ways to attack guys. I trust those guys."

Entering Sunday's game against the A's, Cleveland's bullpen had combined to allow just one run over its last 16 2/3 innings (0.54 ERA), covering the team's last five games. Prior to that strong stretch, the Indians' relief corps had posted a 6.51 ERA through eight games, allowing 27 earned runs across 37 1/3 innings.

In the first three games of the season, Indians relievers combined to allow 12 runs over 15 innings.

The early eight-game span included three extra-inning games, including one on April 14 in which starter Jeanmar Gomez only logged two innings. Acta was not about to blame those unique circumstances for the bullpen's struggles at the start of this season.

"Life is the way it is -- not the way you want it to be," Acta said. "You need to get in, grab the ball and it's 60 feet, 6 inches. None of us can handpick how the game is going to play out. They were good last year in extra-inning games, too.

"The bottom line is they struggled in the first three or four games. Not every game is going to be nine innings, or up by three in the sixth."

Tribe living up to 'two-out rally' motto

OAKLAND -- It started off as a kind of team motto last season, showing up in the form of black shirts for the Indians players to wear with a short message displayed in red lettering.

Two-out Rally.

This season, Cleveland has put the slogan into practice in the form of on-field results. Heading into Sunday's game against the A's, the Tribe was the best team in the big leagues at creating runs with two outs, helping the club win seven of its past eight road games.

"It's quality at-bats. That's it," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "That's what we concentrate on regardless of how many outs there are. Hey, when you have traffic, good things will happen."

Entering Sunday, the Tribe has scored a Major League-best 37 runs in two-out scenarios. Through the first 13 games this season, the Indians have scored 51 percent of their runs with two outs. That includes 27 of the 53 runs scored through eight games of the current nine-game road trip.

Last season, Cleveland ranked seventh in the American League and 12th in baseball with 265 runs with two outs. The Indians scored 37.6 percent of their 704 runs on the year with two outs in 2011.

Acta believes the improvement is simply due to having more seasoned players.

"I think a team can get better at that with experience," Acta said. "You have to understand that we are in our third year of the so-called rebuilding and winning process here. Obviously, these guys have gotten better. They were very young two years ago. Last year it helped them believe that, hey, if there are two outs it doesn't matter. You put up a quality at-bat and things can happen."

Santana's work at catcher in spring paying off

OAKLAND -- The Indians love what Carlos Santana brings as a cleanup hitter, but the club is doing all it can to make the catcher a versatile weapon. Santana worked diligently with bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. this spring on improving his throwing and defense.

The ballclub has been pleased with the early results.

"It started in Spring Training," said Alomar, who spent 20 seasons in the big leagues as a catcher. "You can even see it on his throws between innings. He's throwing the ball much better back there."

Santana headed into Sunday's game against Oakland having cut down three of seven stolen-base attempts for a caught-stealing rate of 43 percent. The 26-year-old catcher -- in his second full season as the Tribe's starter behind the plate -- had a caught-stealing rate of 24 percent (18-of-74) in 2011.

Indians manager Manny Acta said a big difference this year was Santana's preparation during Spring Training. Last season, Santana was returning from surgery on his left knee, which forced the team to limit his workload during the preseason.

"He's been really good behind the plate," Acta said. "Everything has to do with him coming to Spring Training healthy and being able to get all the reps that he needed with Sandy. Last year, coming back from that knee surgery, he was limited. We had to work him at first base, give him a lot of time off, and we weren't able to do the extra work with him like we did in Spring Training.

"This year it was totally different. We didn't have to worry about first base or anything like that. It was about getting drilled by Sandy. He's done a tremendous job receiving and throwing the ball."

Quote to note

"You can see how a few guys have gotten better. It's not like three years ago, when guys were still looking around and second-guessing themselves about whether they belong here or not. It's a different story now."
--Indians manager Manny Acta, on the team's production with two outs

Smoke signals

• First baseman Casey Kotchman received a day off on Sunday in the midst of an 0-for-16 slump at the plate. Kotchman entered Sunday hitting .157 (8-for-51) on the year with an 0-for-12 showing with runners in scoring position. He essentially will get two days off given that Cleveland has a scheduled off-day on Monday.

• The Indians activated left-hander David Huff from the 15-day disabled list on Friday following his bout with a right hamstring injury. Upon being activated, Huff was optioned to Triple-A Columbus, where he will enter the Minor League affiliate's rotation.

• Triple-A Columbus right-hander Kevin Slowey -- acquired by the Indians in an offseason trade with the Rockies -- missed his scheduled start on Sunday for the Clippers for precautionary reasons. Slowey was struck in the head with a line drive during pregame batting practice Friday.

• The Indians entered Sunday hitting .299 (20-for-67) as a team with two outs and runners in scoring position and .276 (34-for-134) with runners in scoring position overall. Cleveland was hitting .293 (61-for-208) with runners on compared to just .213 (57-for-268) with the bases empty.