They came close in 2016, nearly winning the World Series. A year later, the Indians have put together a winning streak that could set a record.
The way it all happened last fall – storming through the American League playoffs, grabbing a three-games-to-one lead in the World Series – made the aftermath easier for the Cleveland Indians to process. Yes, they lost the last three games of the World Series to the Chicago Cubs. But the Indians have not dwelled on the outcome, because they remember the journey.
“That’s the thing — you never know what’s gonna happen,” their pitching coach, Mickey Callaway, said recently. “You can’t predict how guys are gonna pitch and say, ‘Whoa, what if we’d had them?’ Well, what if Josh Tomlin hadn’t pitched like he did? Maybe we wouldn’t have even made it to the World Series if he hadn’t been pitching. So you never know. We just try to make sure we stay in the moment and get the best out of whoever we’ve got.”
As the Indians charge toward another October, the moments have been worth savoring. They have won 19 games in a row and will send their ace, Corey Kluber, to the mound against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field on Tuesday night. Another victory would match the 2002 Oakland Athletics, of “Moneyball” fame, for the longest streak in the majors since the 1935 Chicago Cubs set the record, with 21.
Never mind, for now, that the only satisfying outcome for the Indians’ season would be a World Series title. After coming so close last fall, the Indians now have their No. 2 starter, Carlos Carrasco, healthy and at his best. He missed the last postseason with a broken hand, but Tomlin filled in and helped the team win three of his four starts.
So it is again, with replacements making the most of their chance. The Indians have done all this without reliever Andrew Miller, left fielder Michael Brantley and second baseman Jason Kipnis. Miller and Brantley were All-Stars in July, and Kipnis hit second throughout the last postseason. Yet the Indians get by.
“It’s two words: Tito Francona,” said Jensen Lewis, an Indians television analyst, referring to Manager Terry Francona by his nickname. “Whatever he says is scripture to them. He’s a master at bullpen matchups, and he’s a master at platoon advantages.”
Without Miller, who has a knee injury, Francona has deployed another left-hander, Tyler Olson, who has allowed no runs in 20 appearances this season. The Indians claimed Olson on waivers in July from the Kansas City Royals, who claimed him from the Yankees last season.
Without Brantley, who has a sprained ankle, the Indians have mixed and matched in left with Brandon Guyer, Austin Jackson and Lonnie Chisenhall, who has mostly ceded his usual right-field spot to Jay Bruce, the slugger acquired in a trade with the Mets last month.
At second base, the Indians have largely relied on the versatile Jose Ramirez, who started the All-Star Game at third. Ramirez, a 5-foot-9 switch-hitter, has a .927 on-base plus slugging percentage and leads the American League in extra-base hits, with 79.
“If you see him strut his way up to the plate and think he’s got little man’s syndrome, hey, keep it up, because this guy believes he can hit anyone at any time,” Lewis said. “He’s the heartbeat of the offense, and everyone rallies around him.”
Lewis pitched for the Indians a decade ago, when they beat the Yankees in the final postseason series ever played at the old Yankee Stadium. In the American League Championship Series that followed, the Indians lost a three-games-to-one lead to Boston and missed the next five postseasons.
In dismantling that group, the Indians found impact players for this one. They used starters Jake Westbrook, C. C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee to get Kluber, Brantley and Carrasco; third baseman Casey Blake to get first baseman Carlos Santana; and high draft picks to get shortstop Francisco Lindor (eighth over all in 2011) and outfielder Clint Frazier (fifth in 2013), who headlined their trade with the Yankees for Miller last summer.
Kluber, Carrasco and Trevor Bauer (acquired from Arizona in a three-team, nine-player deal that sent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati in December 2012) have combined for 46 victories this season, and the rotation has a 1.84 E.R.A. during the winning streak. The Indians have outscored opponents by 100 runs (132-32) in the streak, while hitting .309.
“If everyone gets healthy, with all hands on deck, I don’t know how you fill out that lineup,” Lewis said. “And I don’t know how you pitch to it, either.”
Kipnis, Brantley and Miller are all expected back for the postseason. Brantley, Bruce and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion should indeed make the Indians’ lineup more dangerous this fall than last, and the team has battered Chris Sale, the ace of the Boston Red Sox, for 13 earned runs in eight innings, and a .385 average, this season.
But all this winning has vaulted the Indians over the Houston Astros for the top-seeded spot in the American League playoffs. That could be worrisome because it would set up a first-round matchup with the winner of the wild-card game, not the winner of the American League East, which is now led by the Red Sox. The Yankees hold the first wild card, and Lewis called them the one team that could threaten Cleveland’s path to the World Series.
“They’re the only team that would scare me in a short series,” Lewis said, citing the Indians’ trouble hitting Luis Severino this season (.133) and Sonny Gray in his career (.207). “From there, the Yankees could piece it together, and the end of their bullpen can match up with anybody.”
Yankees Manager Joe Girardi showed that on Monday against Tampa Bay, summoning David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman for the final 14 outs – more than half the game – to beat Tampa Bay. The Rays’ manager, Kevin Cash, who is a former Cleveland coach, called it a brilliant strategy.
“That’s part of the game,” Cash said. “When you have the relievers and a certain style of a rotation, why not do it? It’s an advantage. It’s proven over baseball that different looks challenge opposing lineups. Robertson, Betances and Chapman, they’re gonna challenge you whenever they’re pitching.”
Of course, the Indians are the prototype for that style of bullpen usage, with Francona expertly calling for Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen throughout the last postseason. It nearly led to a championship, and the Indians will soon clinch another chance.
For now, though, they are having too much fun to step out of the moment. If Kluber wins on Tuesday, the Indians could tie the record in Wednesday’s matinee.
“There’s gonna be a lot of kids skipping school tomorrow,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of people coming by our set saying, ‘This is something we can’t miss.’”