Indians Primed for September Surge
Bob Toth | On 08, Sep 2013
Don’t look now, but the Cleveland Indians are right in the thick of the American League Wild Card race.
The team has had its fair share of doubters throughout the season. There are still plenty of fans who have refused to jump on the bandwagon, but that is a tired discussion none of us want to hear any more about. Regardless of what you think of the inconsistent offense, a starting rotation without Justin Masterson, and a bullpen that has provided a roller coaster of a season of its own, the numbers do not lie.
The Indians are within ONE game of the playoffs as the second week of September begins.
The progress of this team when compared to last season, after a drastic and costly rebuild to the brain trust in the dugout and to the players on the field, is nothing short of impressive. The improvements surrounding the ball club seem to be consistently overlooked. While many hoped to find an Indians team that played better than the 68-94 product that struggled through the second half of last year, few expected Cleveland to be mentioned in the playoff picture when September rolled around.
It has showed through the turnstiles and empty seats at Progressive Field, but around baseball, the Indians are not a team to ignore. In a season full of ups and downs, they have been able to stay within striking distance. In need of a September surge through a relatively unintimidating schedule, they have done just that, taking two of three from Baltimore and claiming the series through the first two games against the New York Mets with an offensive display that has been an absolute sight for sore eyes.
Better results on the diamond could not have come at a much better time for the Indians.
The average winning percentage of Cleveland’s opponents through the remainder of the schedule is .436, the lowest of all teams still legitimately in contention throughout both the American and National Leagues. Detroit’s .444 and Atlanta’s .445 are just behind the Tribe.
While these numbers would seem to indicate that the Indians should not bank on a collapse by the Tigers, it would seem to show that the Wild Card is still very much in play for the Indians.
A favorable September schedule, however, does not guarantee the Indians are a lock.
They have consistently been their own worst enemy throughout the season, losing the big games against Detroit or being dominated by top notch opponents like Atlanta, Boston, Tampa Bay, and the New York Yankees. But while the AL East has been a tough opponent throughout the year (12-21 record against), they excelled against the AL West, have played decently throughout interleague and against all AL Central teams not named the Detroit Tigers, and have stayed right in the race.
No matter what, the Indians have to take care of business on their own. If they have another downward spiral, what the rest of the league does will be irrelevant.
Luckily for the Tribe, the scheduling gods may have done them a favor.
After Sunday’s game with the Mets, the Indians play 14 more consecutive days before their final day off of the regular season. They will play three at home with the Kansas City Royals, before flying to Chicago for four with the White Sox and then to Kansas City for three more with the Royals. They will return home to end the run with four straight against the Houston Astros.
The Indians have played the Royals well so far this season, winning 8 and losing 5 while outscoring KC by 13. Cleveland has flat out conquered Chicago in their head-to-head meetings, winning eleven of the 13 ball games and averaging 5.7 runs of offense.
The Indians gave the Astros a “Welcome to the AL West” treatment earlier in the season, as they took two of three games in Houston, including putting 19 runs on the board in the first start of the season for Scott Kazmir. Cleveland is 21-8 (.724) on the season against the five western division foes.
After a day off on Monday, September 23rd, the Indians will finish the home schedule with two against the White Sox before moving on to Minneapolis for four at Target Field with the Minnesota Twins. The Tribe has handled the Twins on the season, posting a 9-6 record with 14 more runs scored in the differential department. They are 3-3 against the Twins on the road.
In order to make the necessary surge through the remainder of September, the Indians are going to need Nick Swisher. While he is batting just .217 so far in the month after slumping through the first four games (and most of the season), he has put together back-to-back multi-hit games and driven in six runs. Three of the four hits have been solid extra base knocks, including a pair of home runs. The Indians need him to finally get hot at the top of the lineup.
They could use something from Asdrubal Cabrera as well. Stuck in a season-long slide of disappointment at the plate, he ended an 0-for-19 skid with a three-run laser beam to the Mets bullpen in Saturday’s win. Hopefully, his first hit of the month will spark his streaky bat.
Thankfully, the “Goon Squad” continues to be a force at the plate and has been able to pick up the slack of the slumping bats throughout the campaign. The bench bunch of Mike Aviles, Jason Giambi, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Raburn have combined to bat .262 on the season. They have 53 doubles, 2 Gomes triples, and 41 home runs, all while driving in 148 runs.
With the likelihood that Masterson will miss at least another two starts down the stretch, the Indians will need someone to step up in the rotation. Since Danny Salazar has already effectively done that, and the numerous bullpen options can spell him with his restrictive pitch count, Masterson’s spot may be filled nicely by the return of Corey Kluber from the disabled list.
If Saturday’s five innings against the Mets are an indication, Kluber should do just fine. A rotation of Kluber, Salazar, Kazmir, Zach McAllister, and Ubaldo Jimenez may be able to bide the time until Masterson can rejoin the fray.
While the Indians’ future is in their own hands to some degree, there are several other outlying factors that could contribute to October baseball for Cleveland.
A much overlooked component of the AL Wild Card race is the involvement of three different AL East teams who have many games against one another left on their respective schedules. As these teams beat up on one another, the Indians could be a beneficiary.
Starting in reverse order of the AL Wild Card picture, the New York Yankees enter play on Sunday two and a half games in back of Tampa Bay for the second wild card spot. Having already dropped three straight to the Red Sox, they have one more with Boston on Sunday before heading on the road for four games with Baltimore, three more in Boston, and three in Toronto.
The Yankees trail the Orioles by a game and a half in the Wild Card and are 7-8 against them on the season. New York has dropped ten of its 15 games against Boston this season, but has controlled the series with Toronto, winning 13 of 16.
The Yankees then return home for three interleague games with the San Francisco Giants and three against Tampa Bay before concluding the season with three in Houston. The Rays have a 9-7 advantage in the series and have outscored the Yankees by 16 in their matchups. The Giants have yet to play the Yankees, while the Astros have dropped two of three. Thirteen of the Yankees’ final 19 games are against AL East rivals.
Baltimore, deadlocked with the Indians one game in back of the Rays and four games behind the Texas Rangers, will not play another game outside of the AL East after finishing their series Sunday with the White Sox.
They will host the Yankees for four games before beginning a ten-game road trip. They will play three in Toronto, three in Boston, and wrap up with four in Tampa Bay, before returning home for three with Toronto and three more with Boston.
The O’s have the toughest average winning percentage (.516) of any of the top teams in the Wild Card chase. Against their remaining four opponents, they have winning records against Boston (7-6) and New York (8-7), but are 6-9 versus Tampa and 6-7 against Toronto.
The road ahead for the Rays is not much easier after they finish their series in Seattle on Sunday afternoon. Their season has already begun a drastic nosedive, as they have dropped eleven of their last 14 games.
Tampa is burdened with a horrible travel schedule and the second-highest average winning percentage (.514) of opponents amongst teams in Wild Card consideration. The Rays have to fly cross-country from Washington to Florida for three games with Boston (6-10), only to turn back around and fly halfway across the country again to Minnesota (4-0) for three. They will return home for eight games in eight days against Texas (1-2) and Baltimore (9-6) before hopping up the coast for three in New York with the Yankees (9-7) and then three across the border in Toronto against the Blue Jays (10-6).
Texas trails Oakland by a game and a half in the AL West. After completing their series with the Angels, who have won the first two of three, they begin a tough stretch against quality opponents, playing ten games in eleven days at home against Pittsburgh and Oakland before flying to Tampa Bay for four. They will finish their final road trip of the season with three games in Kansas City before returning home for three with Houston and four more with Los Angeles.
The Rangers have a winning record on the season against every one of their remaining opponents except the Pirates, who they have yet to play. They are 9-7 against Oakland, 2-1 against both Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and a combined 24-5 against Houston and Los Angeles. Thirteen of their final 20 games will take place at home in Arlington.
Oakland, the current leader in the AL West, will wrap its series with Houston on Sunday before flying to Minnesota to play the Twins for the first time this season. They will play three there and three in Texas before returning home for seven straight – three with Los Angeles and four more with Minnesota. They will wrap up their season on the road with three more with the Angels and three with the Seattle Mariners.
The A’s are a combined 22-8 against the Astros and Angels, but are just 7-9 against the Rangers and 6-10 against the Mariners. Twelve of their final 19 games will be on the road, where they are 36-33 on the season.
While the Indians may have the easier of the schedules remaining, they cannot take their opponents for granted. Sometimes the teams that have nothing to lose have everything to gain. Teams with bad records can at times be composed of young players looking to make a name for themselves and hoping to play spoiler to other teams around the league who have so much on the line. A look back at the 2005 Indians and their end of the season struggles against the Rays and Royals should serve as a significant and painful reminder of that fact.
As it stands, the Indians are a vastly improved team compared to its 2012 version. Already eight games better than last year with 21 more to go entering Sunday’s game, the season has been successful, even if a postseason birth does not happen to be in the cards.
But a postseason appearance again sure would be nice. After all, the city of Cleveland needs a winner.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images