How the Indians Clawed Their Way Into A Meaningful September
Laurel Wilder | On 04, Sep 2014
It’s the with which the Indians opened the season after coming off 92 wins in 2013 and appearing in a one-game playoff contest in the Wild Card spot during last year’s playoff series. As fans know, they lost that game, and entered into an offseason dedicated to coming back even better in 2014.
The Indians tried as this season began, they really did. They won their first two games, and the home opener, but quickly appeared to be a mediocre team after losing key pieces of their playoff roster during the offseason.
Pitchers Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Joe Smith bid the team farewell, among a few others. The Tribe picked up a plethora of major and minor league additions, such as Scott Atchison, John Axford, Nyjer Morgan, and David Murphy. But would they be enough to complete the unfinished business they were recruited to deliver?
Somehow, things have started to work out. The Indians, despite their struggles, often nonexistent offense, and sloppy defense, have scraped and clawed their way into a playoff chase.
How has this happened?
Between the struggles of other teams in the division and the Indians ability to eke out wins in the most stressful ways possible, the Indians have managed to pull themselves to 5.5 games back in the American League Central Division following their loss to Detroit on Tuesday, and are five games out of the AL Wild Card race. They are 70-66 on the season following that loss, and are five games behind Detroit. The Royals lead the division with a record of 76-61, with the Tigers close behind at 76-62. The next-closest team behind the Indians, the White Sox, trail the Tribe at 63-75 and are 13.5 games behind the Royals. Despite their two losses to Detroit on Monday and Tuesday, the Indians are still very much in the thick of the playoff chase and have, somehow, gotten to the point where meaningful September baseball has again come to Cleveland.
But how did they get here? Simply trading Asdrubal Cabrera and making Yan Gomes the regular catcher isn’t nearly enough to warrant a playoff push this late in the year. It’s been a myriad of factors that have led the team to this point, factors that could not have been predicted at the start of the season.
For starters, the Indians have dealt with a shaky starting rotation throughout the season, bouncing players between Triple-A and Cleveland, between the starting role and the bullpen, until they finally settled on what has become a – dare I say it – promising rotation. Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco have asserted themselves as a rotation to be reckoned with. Each have had Major League firsts and career-highs this season, and have managed to prevent the damage done by opposing teams.
Despite Kluber’s outing on Monday, his roughest of the season, he is still one of the strongest assets for the Tribe and his breakout season is a major reason why the team has managed to get to this point. Kluber ranks eighth in all of Major League Baseball with a 2.58 ERA and is third in MLB with 215 strikeouts.
None of the Indians current starters have yet spent an entire season in the Majors. The fact that they have been able to propel the team to wins is no small feat.
The Indians lineup has been subject to as much jostling as their starting rotation, dealing both with players going on the DL, players under-performing, or simple experimentation of players in other roles. While the team hasn’t produced much in the form of runs as of late, a number of players have proven that they can at least wield a bat, and their scoring has boosted the Indians to wins of small margins. Lonnie Chisenhall has had a breakout year at the plate and has delivered hits in clutch moments for the team. Michael Brantley, the team’s only All Star, has continued to demonstrate why he is such an asset for the team and played a key role, both on the field and at the plate, in helping the Indians advance to their current spot in the division.
Carlos Santana, especially in these later months of the season, has taken a startling turn for the better in boosting the Indians’ record and chances at reaching the playoffs. He hit .151 and .169 in the first two months of the season, but picked up the pace and hit .308 and .313 in June and July with six and eight homers, respectively. He hit .208 with two home runs in August and is hitting .286 in September with one home run thus far in September. He is hitting .284 with men on base and .253 in late and close games. Just as this season is late and the race is close, Santana is proving that he is a hitter who can help get the team through tricky situations.
The young players such as Jose Ramirez, Zach Walters, Roberto Perez, and Tyler Holt have also been instrumental in propelling the team into a playoff chase. Walters, who the Tribe acquired when they traded Asdrubal Cabrera to the Washington Nationals, has proven to have a strong bat and has already homered six times for the Tribe and driven in 10 runs. Despite a .179 batting average, he still has delivered the excitement and the runs necessary for the Indians to come out of close or tie games as the victors. Plus, the removal of Cabrera from the team has certainly not adversely affected their record. Ramirez has replaced Cabrera at shortstop, and has three errors on the season and has already turned 20 double plays. Sure, his fielding isn’t flawless and he hasn’t made the smartest fielding decisions, but his speed on the bases has been invaluable in advancing the Tribe to a meaningful September.
Nick Swisher‘s recent removal from the lineup – and the field – certainly hasn’t hindered the Tribe any, either. He paltry performance this season gave fans much about which to gripe, and the promise of knee surgery ended his season early, giving Santana more time on the field, at the plate, and opening up the spot of DH to other players with power and pop in their bats.
It’s not secret that Terry Francona loves having a deep bullpen, and they have been one part of the Indians that have been more or less solid all season long and have helped the team reach this point in September more so than probably anything else. The bullpen was reshaped following the loss of Chris Perez in the offseason, as well as the parting of Axford more recently, and has become a force to be reckoned with. Indians bullpen pitchers have some of the highest numbers of appearances in the game, and Cody Allen’s struggles as of late can easily be traced to his 66 appearances, which is tied for second-most in the AL. Bryan Shaw leads the game with 69 appearances, while Marc Rzepczynski and Atchison have 62 and 61 appearances on the year. The fact that these pitchers have been used so frequently only goes to show that they are invaluable to the team, and clearly a major reason the Indians have been able to have success this late in the year. They helped the team survive in the struggling early months of the season, and have continued to prove their worth as the playoff chase remains a foreseeable achievement.
Finally, the other teams competing in the AL Central have undergone struggles of their own that have helped the Indians clamor back in the chase. The Tigers’ starting rotation has diminished in power, and the Royals struggled to hit for power against the Indians this past weekend. Detroit’s lineup has seemed to rely on the same hitters to get them through rough spots, and their bullpen has been anything but lights out.
After 136 games last year, the Indians were 72-64 and 7.5 games back in the division, still managing to obtain that coveted Wild Card spot come October. Does a similar record mean similar happenings? A few weeks ago, chasing the playoffs again seemed like a dream. But the Indians have held on, giving us a season as jaw-clenching as each individual game. This September, games again mean something. Like the rest of the season, they likely won’t be easy to watch, and the final score will not always be obvious until the final out is recorded, but, somehow, these players will hold on until the final moment and give fans a September that won’t be easy to ignore.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images