More Cavs karma with Tribe?
What . . . you thought the Indians would remain unbeaten the rest of the season? OK, through the All-Star break next week?
The way they have played the game of baseball lately, it’s no wonder you might have thought that way until the Toronto Blue Jays sent them into a two-game skid last weekend.
Is there any question that one of the terrific stories in Major League Baseball this season is what the Indians have accomplished thus far this season? It is arguably the best story. Yes, even better than the one the Chicago Cubs are crafting.
Why? The Cubs were expected to ravage the National League Central Division with solid pitching and firepower from a young team and have not disappointed.
Entering this season, the Indians had only two things going for them: pitching and above-average defense. Those two attributes, some would agree, is good enough to compete. Good enough to maybe hang around for a while.
There is an old saying in football: Offense wins games; defense wins championships. Same in baseball. Offense wins games; pitching and defense wins championships.
So when the Tribe combined those two attributes and reeled off a club-record 14-game winning streak, the baseball world took notice.
The streak began coincidentally two days before the Cavaliers won the National Basketball Association championship, stunning the pro basketball world and making history along the way, by knocking off the Golden State Warriors after falling behind, 3-1, in games.
It seems as though the winning fever has wafted next door from Quicken Loans Arena to Progressive Field and enabled the Indians to make a little history of their own.
Could we be witnessing another Cavaliers karma situation as Cleveland continues its rebound from being the sports world’s punching bag? First the Cavs and now the Indians? What’s next, an AFC North title for the Browns?
What in the world is going on in Cleveland?
Everything seemed to click for the Tribe during the streak. The pitching, from the starting rotation to the bullpen was even better than expected. The offense, not exactly the scariest in the American League, delivered clutch hit after clutch hit.
When you go up and down this lineup, no one is considered a dangerous threat. There is occasional power with Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. And yet, everyone has contributed in some way or another throughout the streak.
As Blue Jays announcer Dan Shulman said on a telecast the other day, “The Indians’ lineup is such a 1-to-9 group. It’s all about keeping the line moving.” There are no real soft spots.
It is such a versatile lineup for Tribe manager Terry Francona, the best skipper in the American League. And he knows precisely how to handle it, maneuver it to his advantage.
With players like Juan Uribe, Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez – it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll be in the lineup or where they’ll be in the field – Francona moves players around nimbly in that lineup and still attains a satisfactory result.
No one in his right mind would have expected the Indians to separate themselves from the rest of the American League Central Division by July 4, a date traditionally linked with post-season appearances.
And the club is doing all this without perhaps their best player in outfielder Michael Brantley, whose season has been virtually aborted by a shoulder injury that refuses to heal.
This team has no most valuable player. It is impossible to point your finger at one man and declare he is the MVP. Too bad there isn’t an MVP award for a team because if there were, this Indians team would more than qualify to win it. It is truly a team in the strictest definition of the word.
But if you put a gun to my head and make me choose one, right now I’d have to say Ramirez is the Tribe’s MVP. Why? Because even though you can’t write an every-day position next to his name in the lineup, he makes valuable contributions no matter where he plays. All you know is he will be in that lineup. You just don’t know where.
His batting average has hovered at or around .300 all season. He hits with occasional power, steals bases and plays nearly flawless defense no matter where he starts.
His ability to play at least six different positions allows Francona to rest some of his regulars on occasion and gives him the flexibility to move other pieces and parts in and out of the daily lineup with no reduction in effectiveness.
The switch-hitting Ramirez, still just 23 years old, can play any of the outfield positions and every infield position except first base and plays them all well.
You never know from game to game who is going to step up. There is really no soft spot in the lineup, no matter whom Francona writes on his lineup card. It is truly unique in that regard.
One day, it could be Napoli or Santana with a power display. Or rookie center fielder Tyler Naquin, whose ability with the glove has been matched by his surprising offense.
Davis has been terrific as the leadoff hitter, showing surprising pop and even more surprising speed – 22 stolen bases at the age of 35. Converted third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has swung a hot bat lately.
Lindor has taken his place as one of baseball’s best young shortstops. Comparisons to Omar Vizquel defensively are beginning to surface, but his solid bat elevates him over the ex-Cleveland shortstop.
About the only position that has not been a major contributor offensively is catcher, but the work of Yan Gomes and Chris Gimenez with this pitching staff more than makes up for that problem.
The starting pitching has been nothing short of sensational with Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin consistently working into the seventh inning and beyond. And it’s a starting staff contractually bound to the club for a few more years.
The versatility luxury on offense allows Francona to operate with a 13-man pitching staff, including an eight-man bullpen. The only weakness there is a paucity of left-handers among the group. Newly recalled left T. J. House is the only portsider on the staff.
After watching this team in spring training, I believed it would be difficult to rise above mediocrity, even with the pitching, and envisioned a record not much above .500, especially with Brantley sidelined. Talk about overachieving.
With a record of 50-32, the American League’s best road record, a 6½-game lead in the AL Central entering the second half of the season and arguably the best pitching staff in the league, no wonder thoughts of a second Cleveland championship this year are understandably dancing around in the fans’ minds.