Well played, Indians, well played
On Sept. 2, we were ready to call the season on the Cleveland Indians, figuring there was no way they could stay in the playoff race.
But come Wednesday night, rookie Danny Salazar will take the mound at Progressive Field in the Indians first postseason appearance since 2007.
And we couldn’t be happier about it.
It’s not that we doubted the Tribe; it was more a realization of the situation the club was facing. The Indians were in the midst of a stretch that saw them lose six-of-seven to Atlanta, Detroit and Baltimore; No. 1 starter Justin Masterson had just gone down with an injury, and three teams stood between the Tribe and the second Wild Card slot.
It just didn’t seem possible that the Indians could make the playoffs.
But a streak that saw the Tribe win 20-of-25 games, including 10 consecutive to end the season, coupled with timely slumps from Baltimore, the Yankees and a few other teams, propelled the Indians to the top of the Wild Card standings.
And so much of the credit goes to manager Terry Francona.
A year ago we were vexed by the Francona hiring – why would a manager with two World Series rings want to manage the Indians? After all, the Indians had not made the playoffs since 2007 and, over the past three seasons, they had strung together a record of 217-269.
We were told to trust the decision, but trust is a hard thing to come by these days in Cleveland sports.
But Francona turned in a performance this year from the dugout that should earn him the American League Manager of the Year award. We’re not much for personal awards, but if Francona doesn’t win they may as well just abolish the award.
Seemingly every move that Francona made this year, especially in the second half, worked out. From knowing how to use his bench, to dealing with injuries in the starting rotation and juggling an unpredictable bullpen, Francona was money every night.
“He’s a gift to this game,” Jason Giambi told ESPN. “He loves his players. You want to play hard for him. You want to run through a wall for him just because of the type of person he is and the way he believes in you. What you’re seeing is what happens when guys play for him.”
It’s is the work that Francona has done with the bullpen over the last two months of the season that really stand out. Former set-up man Vinnie Pestano has only pitched two innings since the end of July, and closer Chris Perez has been horrible during the same time frame, posting a 7.52 ERA and giving up seven home runs in 20.1 innings of work.
But we’re not even concerned (OK, maybe a little concerned) about the fact that the Indians don’t know who their closer is going to be during the playoffs, because Francona is on such a roll that we’re behind any decision he makes from here until the end of the season.
This year’s edition of the Indians has been such a fun team to watch, in large part because they are a team without a dominant player – 11 walk-off wins from nine different players underscores how much this team relied on everyone to contribute at some point.
“I’ve been asked so many times `Who’s your MVP?’ I don’t know that we have one,” Francona said. “I could name probably 15, 16, 17 guys who if they weren’t on our team, we wouldn’t be here. I don’t know if a lot of teams can do that. We don’t have the 100-RBI guy. We don’t have the 20-game winner, but you start going through the list, we would not be where we are.”
The only downside to this is that at some point this month the season is guaranteed to come to an end. Which means we are on borrowed time to enjoy this Indians team as it stands right here, right now. The off-season will bring changes, not everyone will be back, nor will everyone perform at the same level next year.
But that is a discussion for another day.
Welcome back to October baseball, Tribe. We’ve missed you.
And we promise to never doubt you again.
(Photo courtesy of The Plain Dealer)