Indians relish underdog role
CLEVELAND — For months, they’ve been ignored, overlooked and mostly dismissed.
The Cleveland Indians weren’t supposed to be playing in October, but here they are: AL Central champions with a chance to end a World Series drought approaching 68 years.
While many fans are fixated on the Chicago Cubs’ attempt to rewrite baseball history, the Indians have quietly overcome injuries to put themselves in position to bring another championship to Cleveland, still giddy after LeBron James and the Cavaliers won the NBA title.
“We don’t mind if we have to play the underdog,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “We don’t mind if we have to take people by surprise. We know what kind of team and organization we have — and we’re pretty happy with what’s going on.”
The Indians have defined resilience this season. They played all but 11 games without star outfielder Michael Brantley and didn’t have starting catcher Yan Gomes for most of the year. They lost starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar down the stretch to injuries and won’t have them in the postseason.
But guided by manager Terry Francona, the Indians cleared the obstacles thrown at them. With unexpected contributions from Jose Ramirez, Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis, the continued rise of shortstop Francisco Lindor and a lights-out bullpen, they grabbed the division lead in June, won 14 straight games and never looked back, dominating the Detroit Tigers and dethroning the defending champion Kansas City Royals.
As they prepare to take on the Red Sox in the best-of-five ALDS starting tonight, the Indians are again being given little chance to advance. Kipnis and his teammates have grown accustomed to a lack of respect nationally.
“It’s Cleveland,” he said. “It’s a smaller market and people tend to forget that. It’s OK if we’re not the favorite. We’ve been proving people wrong all year.” Walk-off: The Red Sox are hoping another long playoff run will be a proper sendoff for DH David Ortiz, already one of the great postseason performers in baseball history. Big Papi hit .688 in the 2013 World Series to earn MVP honors. Francona factor: With two World Series rings with the Red Sox, Indians manager Terry Francona knows his way around October better than anyone else. He has a knack for making the right moves with his bullpen, lineup and pinch hitters, and his steady hand might be the biggest reason the Tribe overcame so many obstacles in 2016. Magnificent Miller: Indians reliever Andrew Miller’s slider might be baseball’s most devastating pitch. More than once, the former Oriole twisted hitters into knots as they tried to handle a diving pitch that would be hard to hit with a surfboard. The 6-foot-6 lefty has taken the Indians bullpen to another level, and his ability to both set up and close gives Francona interesting options. Home cooking: Homefield advantage could mean more in this series than others. The Indians are a different team at Progressive Field, where they scored 452 runs (5.6 per game), and 3B Jose Ramirez (. 347) and SS Francisco Lindor (. 344) had the top two home batting averages in the AL.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor and the Indians surprised many by winning the AL Central by eight games. Game 1: 8:08 tonight Red Sox (Porcello 22-4) at Indians (Bauer 12-8) Game 2: 4:38 p.m. Friday Red Sox (Price 17-9) at Indians (Kluber 18-9) Game 3: 4:08 p.m. Sunday Indians (Tomlin 13-9) at Red Sox (undecided) Game 4: TBA Monday* Indians at Red Sox Game 5: TBA Wednesday* Red Sox at Indians