Indians prove they’re team to beat in AL
Francona, Kluber again have Cleveland poised for pennant
New York Yankees fans have historically been obsessed with the Boston Red Sox, and for good reason — this is a gripping blood feud that has lasted for almost a century. But the ticket buyers in the Bronx got a wake-up call during this week’s showdown with the Cleveland Indians, specifically when Corey Kluber outpitched Luis Severino. The message couldn’t have been clearer.
For all the mental energy devoted to the Red Sox, it’s the Indians who pose the biggest threat to American League opponents. And, yes, that sentiment also applies to the Houston Astros, who were crowned in early summer as the AL team most likely to end up in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But thanks to their pitching, the Indians have been the better club since Aug. 1 and show no signs of regression.
That’s specifically bad news for the Yankees, who saw their best pitcher, Severino, get outpitched by Kluber on Monday. Wednesday, the Indians swept a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, as Trevor Bauer and rookie Ryan Merritt each held the Yankees to one run. And it’s also bad news for the Red Sox, whose own Terminator, Chris Sale, has given up 13 earned runs in his last eight innings against Cleveland.
There are plenty of reasons the Indians are on a roll, picking up where they left off from last season. But outsiders focus on two key assets: Kluber, who’s in the running for the Cy Young Award, and Terry Francona, who just might win manager of the year.
As one major league executive puts it, Francona’s low-key manner of getting the most out of players without pushing too hard makes him everything a club would want in a manager.
Francona hardly needs an introduction in New York, as his Red Sox in 2004 became the only team to engineer a postseason comeback from 3-0 playoff defi- cit, defeating the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Francona’s .618 winning percentage is by far the best in the wild-card era.
And last season he almost became the only the fifth manager in the game’s history to win a World Series with multiple teams, falling just short of joining Bucky Harris (1924 Washington Senators, 1947 Yankees), Bill McKechnie (1925 Pittsburgh Pirates, 1940 Cincinnati Reds), Sparky Anderson (1975-76 Reds,
1984 Detroit Tigers) and Tony La Russa (1989 Oakland Athletics, 2006 and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals).
Francona and the Indians made it all the way to Game 7 of the Fall Classic against the Chicago Cubs, and even then a champion wasn’t decided until the 10th inning. The Tribe fell short, but president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti nevertheless praised Francona for doing “a masterful job” in turning the Indians into a powerhouse.
This season, he has kept them at that level, despite missing two weeks — including his All- Star Game managerial gig — to have a cardiac ablation.
“He was always focused on, ‘How do we take what we have and figure out a way to make the team and individual players successful?’ ” Antonetti said. “He never worries about who’s not here and what adversity we face, but finding a way to overcome it. I think we’ve seen it over the course of the season and certainly throughout the postseason.”
What does that mean for 2017? The truth is, the Indians could be even better, now that the industry is more clearly defined than ever between the haves (the Dodgers, Washington Nationals, Cubs, Astros, Red Sox, Yankees and Indians) and have-nots (everyone else). The Indians will spend September doing calisthenics for the playoffs, with only six games against teams over. 500.
Not that they have struggled against elite teams. They are 28
14 against the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, Angels and Seattle Mariners — all of whom are either October-bound or have realistic chances of getting there.
More than ever, what separates the good from the very good clubs, and what distills into a world champion after that, is the Game 1, 4 and 7 ace. Right now, that would have to be Kluber, who again validated his larger- than-life status this week.
Kluber allowed the Yankees three hits and two runs in a 6-2 victory, taking down Severino in the process. It was a psychological setback for the Yankees, who consider Severino their best hope in a wild-card playoff and in any Game 7 showdown against an opposing team’s ace.
No doubt Severino, 23, is a future star if he isn’t already. No one in baseball maintains his 98mph fastball deeper into a game. But Kluber is a rung higher on the pyramid, leading the AL with a 2.63 ERA and 0.89 WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning pitched).
No wonder Kluber is nicknamed Klubot: He’s a machine when it comes to disassembling opponents, even more so this season. His 215 strikeouts to 33 walks works out to a career-best
“It’s starting to get a little bit ( boring), because you’re getting no action out there,” Cleveland center fielder Bradley Zimmer told MLB.com this week. “It’s like you’re standing and watching him throw sliders and guys swinging over them. I’ve said this, I feel like, every time he pitches: ‘ The guy is unbelievable. I’m just happy he’s on our side.’ ”
Perhaps even more remarkable is that Kluber is leading the charge for a pitching staff that’s missing Andrew Miller (knee), Danny Salazar (elbow) and Josh Tomlin (hamstring). Throw in infielder Jason Kipnis (hamstring) and outfielder Michael Brantley (ankle), and you have a roster sufficiently banged up that posting a
19-9 August record into should have been a long shot.
But the Indians are gaining momentum again, even if it’s under the radar. This is how they prefer it, deferring the headlines to the Yankees and Red Sox. But that doesn’t make the Tribe any less dangerous. It would be a mistake to underestimate them.
Klapisch writes for The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Francisco Lindor, left, and Jay Bruce enjoy the Indians’ victory Wednesday vs. the Yankees in the opener of a doubleheader.