A Central Reason to Tribe’s Success
Craig Gifford | On 18, Sep 2016
The Cleveland Indians are in a spot that they have not been in in quite some time. They enter the final two weeks of baseball’s regular season with a good shot at winning the American League Central Division crown and earning a trip to the playoffs. It is a title that they have not held since the 2007 season. It is a playoff that they have not partaken in, aside from 2013’s one-game Wild Card cameo, since that campaign of nine years ago.
This season has been full of ups and downs, to be sure, for the Tribe. The team was riding high on a franchise-record 14-game winning streak to end June and open July. The Indians have been down, as was the case on a recent 2-5 road trip through Oakland and Arlington to play the A’s and Texas Rangers.
However, one constant has remained the same for Cleveland this year. It is something that has alluded the club in recent years and caused the demise of solid Indians teams the last few seasons. That is success within the Central Division. Winning games, in bulk, against their Central Division foes is the main reason the Indians sit at 86-62, with an eight-game lead on second place Detroit with 14 games to play.
The Tribe, which owned the teams within its division during its 1990s heyday, has found a lot more difficult footing against its divisional foes in the more recent past. The 2013 Tribe nearly had the concept of beating the teams you play half the season down to a science. That club went 44-32 versus the AL Central. Where that group faltered was its inability to beat the Detroit Tigers. That Tribe club had winning records against the Royals, Twins, and White Sox.
However, the Motor City Kitties had the Indians number that year as the Tribe mustered just a 4-15 record against its then-nemesis. Cleveland won 93 games that year, but had to settle for playing, and eventually losing, in the one-game Wild Card. That squad finished one game behind the Tigers for the division title, a direct result of its inability to fully handle divisional play. That may have cost manager Terry Francona‘s first Indians team a shot at a long October run.
The last two seasons, the Tribe came up just shy of getting pack to the postseason via the Wild Card. Each year, the Indians were undone by their work against the Central Division clubs that they play for nearly 80 of the schedule’s 162 games.
Two years ago, Cleveland finished a respectable 85-77, missing the Wild Card by three games. Oh, what might have been, with something better than a blah 39-37 showing within the Central.
Last year, the Indians charged hard in August and September to be in postseason contention in the final couple of weeks. Something better than the slightly-above-average 81-80 showing might have awaiting the 2015 Tribe if that team could have even gotten to an even plateau against its division rivals. Cleveland was a miserable 32-43 against the Central a season ago.
This year, however, the trend is reversed. Like the Indians of the ’90s and the division-winning squad from 2007 (that went 48-24 in the division), the 2016 Tribe has rolled over the other teams in the Central. The Indians are 41-21 against their intra-divisional opponents this year. It is the direct, or Central, reason Cleveland enters its Sunday afternoon tilt with the Tigers with an eight-game division lead and a magic number of seven to claim its first AL Central championship in nine years.
It would take a major collapse for Cleveland to finish anything but first in the division and that is thanks to the work the team has done against its most regular competition.The Indians have winning records against every team within the division.
The biggest surprise of the divisional success that the Indians have enjoyed this year has come at the expense of the Tigers. Cleveland is 13-1 against Detroit, a team that has dominated and decimated the Tribe in recent years. That newfound success against Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and the rest of the Tigers is exactly why the Indians have such a cushy lead at this point in the year.
It has not just been Detroit that has felt the wrath of the Indians. After a slow start with the Twins, Cleveland came back to win ten of its 19 games with Minnesota. The Tribe is 10-6 against the White Sox with just three more to play against them next weekend. The lone Central Division team that the Indians could lose a season series to is the defending World Series champion and two-time defending American League champion Royals. Cleveland does have an 8-5 edge this season against Kansas City this year with six more to play. The Royals, after strong August, are fading and appear as though they will just be playing out the string when the two teams meet this Tuesday-Thursday at Progressive Field and then for the final weekend of the regular season in Kaufman Stadium.
It is not just the team that has found success against its Central foes, but some of the club’s key players as well. Mike Napoli entered Saturday evening’s game against the Tigers hitting .333 against Detroit. He hit .286 against the Twins. He has hit 20 of his team-leading 34 home runs against division opponents. Carlos Santana, second on the club with 31 bombs, has teed off 13 times against the division. He has batted .292 against the Tigers and .295 against the Twins.
Jason Kipnis has hit an eye-popping .354 against Detroit and a very good .306 against the Royals. He has hit over .250 against both Chicago and Minnesota. Francisco Lindor is hitting that same gaudy .354 against the Tigers. However, it is the Royals he has done the most damage to, pummeling them to the tune of a .408 average. He has also hit a solid .286 against the White Sox and decent .269 versus Minnesota, so no division team has really been able to completely keep the Tribe’s All-Star shortstop at bay. Jose Ramirez has made the White Sox and Twins his personal numbers enhancers, hitting .311 and .352 against them. Like the rest of the team, he has found success against the Tigers, hitting .282 against Detroit, including Saturday’s game-winning hit. Tyler Naquin has built up his Rookie of the Year credentials hitting over .300 against every club in the AL Central.
With the final two weeks of the season coming all against divisional opponents in the Royals, White Sox, and Tigers, the hope is that Cleveland can continue to feast on its fellow Central Division adversaries and put a bow on the division title some time during this nine-game homestand that ends next Sunday against Chicago. With the success that the Indians have had in the division and at home (as they stand 48-25 in the comfy confines of Progressive Field), it seems possible that Tribe fans could get the chance to celebrate a division crown in person, possibly next weekend.
After years of struggling against Central Division opponents, the Indians have finally taken it to the clubs they see oh so often. Now Cleveland is oh so close to clinching an October that could finally be one to remember for multiple playoff games, rather than just the one of three years ago. The Indians and their fans do truly have one Central reason to thank for that.
Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press