Sleeping on Cleveland?
The Indians don’t have the wins to match the AL’s other elite teams, but health and depth look to be on their side.
CLEVELAND – Terry Francona is one of the best managers in baseball. but many years ago he was a pretty good basketball player.
Francona averaged nearly 20 points per game as a senior at New Brighton High School in the Pittsburgh area. He was an outstanding outside shooter in an era before the 3-point field goal was instituted at the scholastic level.
All these years later, he still has a great love for basketball and has season tickets at his alma mater, the University of Arizona. He is also an ardent fan of the Cavaliers.
So it is probably fitting to use a basketball term to describe the task ahead for Francona’s Indians in the postseason. They face a tough bracket in the American League.
The four best records in the major leagues all were in the AL — the Red Sox (108-54), Astros (103-59), Yankees (100-62) and Athletics (97-65) — and 2018 marked the first time there were three 100-win teams in the same season. The Indians will play a best-of-5 division series against the Astros, the defending World Series champions.
Although the Indians became the first team in the majors to clinch a division title, wrapping up their third consecutive AL Central championship on Sept. 16, they were 91-71.
Thus, it would seem the Indians are decided underdogs as they attempt to reach the World Series for the second time in three years and win it for the first time since 1948. The Indians’ 70-year World Series title drought is the longest current one in the big leagues.
However, star shortstop Francisco Lindor scoffs at the suggestion the Indians are long shots to win the AL.
“Remember two years ago?” Lindor asks. “I don’t think too many people outside of Cleveland gave us a chance to get to the World Series. We had to beat two great teams to get there and we did it.”
Indeed, the Indians knocked off the Red Sox in the AL Division Series and the Blue Jays in the AL Championship Series before falling to the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series.
The Indians are convinced they can do it again.
“We’ve had some ups and downs and we’ve had our share of injuries,” Lindor says. “But things are starting to come together now. We finally have our full team together and we are ready to play our best baseball.”
The bullpen, a strength for the Indians for so many years, struggled through much of the season as closer Cody Allen was inconsistent and star left-hander Andrew Miller dealt with a variety of injuries that forced him to the disabled list three times.
However, the relief corps has stabilized since the Indians acquired left-hander Brad Hand and right-hander Adam Cimber from the Padres in a July 19 trade for top catching prospect Francisco Mejia.
Hand has taken some of the closer’s load off Allen, converting eight of his first 10 save opportunities with the Indians with a 2.28 ERA in 28 games. Meanwhile, Miller is finally healthy and well-rested as he had been limited to just 34 innings over 37 appearances.
“I feel really good about the bullpen and the way it sets up,” Francona says. “We’ve got it back on track.”
The Indians also have the starting pitching depth to potentially make a long postseason run with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger. All have more than 200 strikeouts, the first time in major league history four pitchers on the same team have reached the milestone in the same season.
“We can put a quality pitcher on the mound every day and that gives us confidence that we can win any game,” Indians veteran outfielder Rajai Davis says.
Bauer would have likely been a Cy Young candidate until his season was interrupted by a broken fibula in his lower right leg. The injury occurred Aug. 11 when he was struck by a line drive off the bat of White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu.
Noted for his intense workouts, Bauer found ways to continue to throw and maintain arm strength while in a walking boot. He returned to action Sept. 21 and pitched 11⁄3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox. Bauer then yielded two runs in four innings Sept. 25 against the White Sox, throwing 60 pitches, followed by another four-inning outing Sept. 30 against the Royals in which he threw 51 pitches
The Indians are counting on 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson making their lineup more dangerous in the playoffs after acquiring him from the Blue Jays in a trade Aug. 31.