The Indians have been too close too many times. That changes this October.
“Maybe next year.” Cleveland Indians fans have uttered that defeatist claim for 69 straight years now. For sports fans, the saying, “maybe next year,” offers an optimistic tone in the midst of a troubling time. It applies in all scenarios from an abysmal season to an oh-so-close season. Just lost 100 games? Maybe next year. Just lost Game 7 of the World Series? Maybe next year. It is probably worth mentioning as a fan of the Indians, I never bought “maybe next year” which works out because this year, the fans on the shores of Lake Eerie will not say “maybe next year” this year.
Just like any story worth telling, this one will travel through a strenuous stretch of adversity. I did not experience the 1950s-1980s or the letdowns of the 1990s, but from my experience, I can guess what it was like. I am now 23. My first taste of Cleveland baseball came at the age of six in 2001 when the Indians blew a 2-1 division series lead to the 116-win Seattle Mariners. Oh well. Maybe next year. The next season, Cleveland finished 74-88 and missed the playoffs.
Four years later, age 10, I watched the Indians cough up a Wild Card lead in the final week of the season as a record of 93-69 did not qualify for the playoffs. Maybe next year. Very next season, 78-84. No playoffs.
Now 2007, age 12, was truly a special season. Cleveland won 96 games, tied for the best record in baseball and won the AL Central. I still remember their first series against the New York Yankees. An easy Game 1 victory followed by a nail-bitting, white knuckle Game 2. Grady Sizemore ties the game on a wild pitch and Travis Hafner walks it off in extras for a 2-0 series lead. Cleveland went on to win the series in four games and played a hand in Joe Torre’s end in the Bronx.
In the championship series, the Indians lost an ugly Game 1 to the Boston Red Sox in Fenway. I went to bed once Game 2 went into extras expecting a loss. When I woke up, I discovered Cleveland scored seven runs in the 11th inning to tie the series.
The series relocates to Cleveland and two games later, the Indians held a 3-1 series lead with one more home game to play. Is this finally the year it happens? One more win, and the Indians get to face the rusty Rockies who have been sitting since sweeping the NLCS.
That one win never came and Boston came back to win in seven games and the World Series in four. I blame Joel Skinner. Look it up.
Maybe next year. Except the 81-81 record in 2008 hardly lived up to the hype.
Fast-forward to 2013 where this then college freshman, age 18, eagerly awaits the AL Wild Card game. Surely the red-hot Indians, fresh off a 10-game winning streak to close the regular season, can win the play-in against Tampa Bay. I still had not come down from cloud nine caused by Jason Giambi’s walk-off homer days earlier.
Cleveland failed to score against Tampa Bay which made it awfully difficult to win. But what a way to come back from a 68-94 record a year before. Maybe next year. To be honest, 85-77 in 2014 was not horrible. But it did not mean October baseball for Tribetown.
I began to wonder when I would experience another 2007. In 2016, my final year of college at the age of 21 (and a few days of 22), I did and more. Cleveland is atop the AL Central for the first time since 2007. But there is no Carlos Carrasco and no Danny Salazar for the playoffs. The starting rotation consisted of Corey Kluber, an ace, Trevor Bauer, inconsistent and injury-prone when it came to working on drones, and Josh Tomlin, who is lucky to top 90 miles per hour on his fastball.
The Indians swept Boston in three games. Still trying to wrap my head around that one. Next up: the homer-happy Toronto Blue Jays. Cleveland downed them in five to advance to their first World Series since 1997. Thank you, Ryan Merritt.
It is now late October and the Indians own a 3-1 lead over the cursed Chicago Cubs. Stop me if you have seen this movie before because this movie looks like Titanic and The Green Mile had a baby. Skip Game 5 and 6 and now we are at what I believe to be the greatest Game 7 of my lifetime.
Down 6-4, Rajai Davis hits a game-tying two-run home run off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning. This is how it is meant to happen. The ultimate momentum swing. The Cubs cannot possibly come back from that blow. Except they did and ended their 100-plus year championship drought. Figures.
“Maybe next year” begins to sound like that one fan who cheers during a 59-0 football game as if it were tied. Cleveland won 22 straight games in 2017, led the Yankees 2-0 in the ALDS and lost three in a row for the second straight postseason. No other team can claim that feat. Look it up. Boston, Houston and both Chicago teams ended their massive droughts in the 21st century, but Indians fans should try their hand at freezing themselves if they want to be alive to see a ring. It cannot and will not happen in this millennium.
They will probably win their division in 2018, but so what? Why bother? Fans can only take so many tantalizingly close calls before they give up. Baseball is supposed to be fun and this is far from that. Take up meditation or find new hobbies. Watch 2018, but go in with no expectations.
So why do I suddenly think the Indians will win it all? No idea. Was it HBO’s Hard Knocks hype for the Cleveland Browns transferring over to baseball? An epiphany? No one knows.
While talking heads cannot stop swooning over Boston and the Yankees, the Indians are quietly creeping into the legitimate threat echelon.
Cleveland trekked through the season barely fending off the subpar Minnesota Twins for the division lead and baseball forgot about the Indians. At the All-Star Break, the Indians sat at 52-43. They now boast a 79-60 record.
But Giancarlo Stanton. But J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts. Manny Machado, Jose Altuve, Javi Baez. The list goes on. For the record, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, the Indians’ shortstop and third baseman, possess a WAR of 14.9 and could possibly be the best duo, not just this season, but ever. The two infielders have each hit 30-plus long balls and stolen over 20 bases. Look up the last time two infielders on the same team did that. Save some time. It hasn’t. (Thanks for the stat, Anthony Castrovince.)
Team-wise, Cleveland strikes out the least per game in all of baseball, they steal the most bases per game, hit the fifth-most home runs per game, collect the fifth-most hits, own the third-best OPS percentage, fourth-best slugging and fourth-best run differential.
In ESPN’s list of batting leaders which factor all batting stats, two Indians appear in the top 10: Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion. Only the Colorado Rockies match that stat.
Across the AL, either Ramirez or Lindor lead at bats (Lindor), plate appearances (Lindor), runs scored (Lindor) and power speed (Ramirez). Add the National League to the mix and Ramirez or Lindor still lead three of the aforementioned categories (plate appearances, runs scored and power speed). They duo and Encarnacion also crack the top 10 for home runs in the American League.
In addition to the already-frightening offense, the Indians added Josh Donaldson via a waiver trade on August 31. Donaldson has not played in a Major League game since he hit the DL on May 29. But the three-time All-Star and 2015 AL MVP currently rehabs in the minors where he hit a grand slam in AAA and a two-run bomb in AA. I get chills thinking about Donaldson hitting an October dinger deep into the Cleveland night.
On the pitching side, the Indians rank third in WHIP, fifth in strikeouts per nine innings and throw ball four per nine innings less than any team in baseball. Their 11th-ranked ERA leaves something to be desired, but since the trade for LHP Brad Hand during the All-Star Break, the Indians own the fourth-best team ERA at 3.32.
While the bullpen improved, the starting rotation has been incredible all season. Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber both own ERAs under three and between them, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco, they average an ERA of 2.90.
Kluber leads the MLB in wins and also walks the fewest batters per nine innings pitched. He has also pitched the most innings out of AL pitchers. Only five pitchers tallied two complete games this season so far. Carrasco and Kluber are two of them. Bauer also gives up the least amount of homers in the AL per nine innings.
Bauer landed on the DL in mid-August and may return by the start of the postseason. Kluber is the MLB household name, but Bauer has been out-pitching Kluber this year and his return would play a significant role in Cleveland’s chances of playing in the Fall Classic.
Given the records in the American League, Cleveland will play the division winner out of the AL West. Likely the Houston Astros, but possibly the Oakland A’s. The Astros’ stretch in which they played without George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa ended, but that span did its damage. When Altuve went to the DL, the Astros followed up with a 7-13 record in his absence.
The ERA of the top four in the Indians starting rotation beats Houston’s (3.04) and Cleveland ranks one spot higher in sortable batting than the Astros. Houston owns a better record (87-53) than the Indians by 7.5 games and can earn the home field advantage in the ALDS. Although Houston is 34 games over .500, they only play eight over .500 at home (40-32). Their road record (47-21), however, leads baseball.
Stats can be broken down and compared all day, but the chance always exists that none of it will matter in a best-of-five series. Say Cleveland gets by Houston. The 97-44 Red Sox could be waiting for them. How fitting. A 2007 rematch. Cleveland proved they can compete with Boston when they split a series at Fenway in August. The Indians won the first two and appeared content as they rested starters in the third and fourth game.
All bets are off in the World Series and the Indians’ roster is stacked with players who have been there, done that. The Cubs ended their skid, the Astros won their first championship and now the Indians are about to hand the title of longest World Series Championship drought to the Texas Rangers. Start writing that final out script now, Joe Buck.