Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Smoke and mirrors

There’s a team in Major League Baseball with no .300 hitters; a home run leader with just 22; an RBI leader with a mere 83; a pitching staff comprised, for the most of part, of no names; a catcher who is probably the worst defensively in baseball; and a questionable bullpen.

So how in the world did this team make the American League playoffs?

Yep, that’s the Cleveland Indians we’re talking about. Arguably the most improbable qualifier for the postseason this season.

And yet, here they are. Baseball’s annual punching bag for the last several seasons on the verge of playing a game in October that has significant meaning. When they host the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday night for the right to be the American League wild card and face the Boston Red Sox in the next round, it will be the culmination of a remarkable season.

No one, absolutely no one, believed the Indians under new manager Terry Francona would win 92 games this season following a 94-loss campaign. When this team broke from spring training in Goodyear, Ariz., even the most optimistic fan would have been satisfied – even thrilled – with 85 victories.

What we got was a 24-game turnaround with a cast that wouldn’t scare anyone and yet astounded the baseball world. A combination of regulars who took turns at being the hero and a whole bunch of clutch role players did the trick.

“I’m so crazy about this group of guys,” Francona said Sunday after his team won its 10th game in a row and 15th in 17 games to finish the season. “From ownership to baseball ops to the clubhouse guys, to be able to stand here and say the Indians are going to the playoffs, I’m so proud of everybody.”

There are no imposing players on this team. No one who could say, “Climb on my back,” and make it work. No pitcher who would be considered a streak breaker.

This team lived and died this season on streaks. It was probably the streakiest team in baseball. The highs were very high and the lows were maddeningly low. There was almost no middle ground.

The Indians had winning streaks of 3, 6, 4, 3, 5, 3, 4, 5, 4, 8, 3, 4, 4 and the 10-gamer that ended the season and propelled them into the postseason. They were countered by losing streaks of 3, 5, 3, 5, 8, 4, 6 and 5.

When they won a game, odds they would win at least the next one were in their favor. And when they lost a game, they most likely would have lost at least the next one. Rarely did they win a game, lose a game, win two, lose one, win one, lose two. It was one streak followed by another.

At no time in the season were the Indians more than five games under .500. During their worst stretch (4-16), they went from 26-17 to 30-33. They never fell below .500 after pulling even at 35-35 on June 18.

So how did they do it? How did this ragtag, faceless, no-star-quality baseball team become so good so fast?

Let Indians center Michael Bourn explain. “I knew we were talented,” he said. “It’s all about coming together. We’ve got a lot of talented people here, but you know we have to play on one heartbeat. That’s what we’ve been able to do and have had success doing it.”

Disappointing seasons from high-priced free agent Nick Swisher, who batted just .246 with 22 home runs and 63 RBI, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who batted .242 with 14 HR and 64 RBI, did not have a deleterious effect on the team.

The most consistent performers were Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana. They were the glue in Francona’s lineup, the guys he could count on day in and day out to produce.

The galvanizing force, of course, was Francona, a strong candidate for AL Manager of the Year. He knew he had a good team. Not a great team, but one that would play hard for him every game. He had enough bench talent that enabled him to use his role players wisely.

The self-proclaimed Goon Squad of Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes and Jason Giambi played as much of an important role in the club’s success as the regulars.

Raburn, discarded by the Detroit Tigers, produced 16 home runs and 55 RBI in just 243 at-bats. Mike Aviles proved extremely valuable as a utility infielder with nine homers and 46 runs batted in.

Gomes was a pleasant surprise with 11 home runs and 38 RBI and was a solid enough glove to supplant Santana behind the plate. However, it took Francona about two-thirds of the season to realize Gomes was the better receiver.

And who could forget Giambi? People wondered why Giambi, at the age of 42, was even on the team. Francona wanted him because of his positive influence in the clubhouse and his ability to hit the long ball on occasion. It paid off with two dramatic pinch-hit walk-off home runs.

Bourn and Drew Stubbs provided necessary outfield defense and the occasional clutch hit or stolen base.

Even though he’s no longer with the team, early-season contributions from Mark Reynolds cannot be overlooked. Most of his 15 homers were hit in the first two months of the season, several contributing to victories.

Francona managed a pitching staff that produced four double-digit winners, none with more than 14 victories. He shepherded that staff down the stretch without its injured ace, Justin Masterson, then watched as Ubaldo Jimenez, a big disappointment the last couple of seasons, pitch like the staff ace the club thought it acquired from Colorado.

At the beginning of the season, no one would have believed the patchwork pitching staff of Masterson, Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir would hold up and produce. Especially Kazmir, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of all.

The hard-throwing left-hander hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2011 due to multiple injuries and control problems. He was nothing more than a roll of the dice for General Manager Chris Antonetti, who had nothing to lose. And Kazmir rewarded him with a 10-9 season, 13 quality starts, 162 strikeouts in 158 innings and much-needed balance to the starting rotation.

Outside of Masterson and Jimenez, whose struggles disappeared about two-thirds of the way through the season, this was a pitching staff full of question marks and who are these guys? And then Danny Salazar joined the club for good in August after a spectacular debut against Toronto in mid-July, adding sizzle to the staff.

Salazar, who has 65 strikeouts in just 52 innings, is Francona’s surprising choice to start the most important game of the season against the Rays. He will face Alex Cobb, who shut out the Tribe, 6-0, in April in St. Petersburg.

Who knows how many more games the Indians would have won had the bullpen not blown 22 saves. And because Chris Perez lost his closer job by melting down in the second half of the season, Francona has gone with closer by committee with Joe Smith and possibly Masterson in the lead roles.

Nevertheless, Francona leaned heavily on relievers like Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers, Rich Hill, and Cody Allen during the season when the starters faltered. Shaw was 6-1 with a 1.99 earned-run average after the All-Star Game, 5-0 in 13 September appearances.

Another plus this season was the ability to take advantage of home cooking. The Indians didn’t let relatively poor attendance (only 1.573 million) at Progressive Field affect their play. They proved the adage that beating up opponents at home and splitting on the road pays off; they were 51-30 at home (with 11 walk-off victories) and 41-40 on the road.

Sure the Detroit Tigers owned the Indians, winning 15 of the 19 games. But they counterbalanced that with a 17-2 record against the Chicago White Sox.

And now it’s the Tampa Bay Rays, who won four of six games against the Tribe this season, standing between them and a showdown with Boston.

Whatever the outcome, Francona and his men have made this summer one of the most surprising and pleasurable for Cleveland baseball fans in far too long. That cannot be disputed.

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