In­di­ans prove they’re team to beat in AL

Fran­cona, Klu­ber again have Cleve­land poised for pen­nant

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Klapisch ANAL­Y­SIS

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

6.52 ra­tio.

“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.

NOAH K. MUR­RAY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Fran­cisco Lin­dor, left, and Jay Bruce en­joy the In­di­ans’ vic­tory Wed­nes­day vs. the Yan­kees in the opener of a dou­ble­header.

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