Divisional Games Could Help Tribe Gain Momentum
Craig Gifford | On 03, Jun 2018
It is a tried and true fact that the best way to win a division, in any sport, is to take care of business against your own divisional foes. It is a double-whammy. You strengthen your own record while weakening that of a club you are trying to beat out for a division crown. Nowhere is this more true than in Major League Baseball.
In the MLB, there is a vastly higher rate and more chances to get ahead of divisional foes, really not seen in any of the other sports. In the 162-game schedule, teams see their division opponents 76 times, or nearly half of the season. Unlike any other year, the Cleveland Indians are certainly thankful for that fact this campaign. The Tribe may be playing this year in arguably the worst division the game has seen since going to the six-division format in 1994.
The Indians are the only team in the American League Central Division with a record over .500. The rest of the clubs in the five-team group currently range from slightly below average, at best, to simply God Awful, at worst. Cleveland has just begun a portion of its schedule in which it will play a vast majority of its games against its sluggish division rivals. So far, the return have been quite promising.
After slogging through the first 49 games of the season with an underwhelming and underachieving 24-25 record, the Indians finally started picking up steam and gaining ground in the Central last week. The Tribe took a six-game winning streak into Friday night’s game with the Twins. Four of those victories were against the woeful White Sox and the underachieving Twins. The first two of those wins came against the A.L. West-leading Astros. Beating Houston twice in a row was pretty significant, considering the Indians have struggled so far this season when playing teams outside the Central and versus the league’s top-tier teams.
Not to worry – the schedule has opened up and is now completely in the Tribe’s favor, almost entirely, through the end of the season. Before last Monday’s game against the White Sox, the Tribe had only played 15 intra-divisional contests. Comparatively, they had played 20 times against the loaded A.L. West. Through the first 50 games of this year, the Indians had already wrapped up season series against the Astros and A.L. West-contending Seattle Mariners. They had also faced playoff contenders in the Angels and Yankees in road series. They have only home series against those two squads this regular season. The year has not yet reached its halfway point and the only top-tier A.L. team the Indians have yet to face on the road is the Boston Red Sox.
More importantly, over the next 100-plus games, more than half will be against the dredges of baseball, also known as the rest of the A.L. Central. The White Sox and Royals are in the midst of potential 100-loss seasons. The Twins have not been the contender many thought that they would be after last season’s surprising Wild Card run. The rebuilding and aging Tigers have been better than expected, but still not a .500 club and really should not be.
Through their first 19 division games, the Indians were 14-5. Because it is baseball and, despite last year’s 22-game winning streak, it is impossible to win every game, there will be stumbles along the way against any foe. Cleveland is well on its way, however, to having a gaudy divisional record, as it has the last two seasons when the squad won back-to-back A.L. Central crowns.
A year ago, the Indians were 50-26 against divisional opponents on their way to a 102-win season. In 2016, the Tribe won the Central on the strength of a 49-26 mark against its division. To say how important winning against the teams you see the most, one only need look back to 2015. That was the last time the Tribe did not win the division and missed the playoffs at 81-80. Despite finishing above .500, the Indians were a mere 32-43 against their Central rivals, crushing any playoff hopes.
The Indians should take care of business in a bad division pretty handily, setting themselves up nicely for a possible third straight A.L. Central title this season. As a bonus, the Indians will also see a lot of the lesser lights from other divisions. They have yet to play the middling Rays and A’s and still have one more series against the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rangers, with the latter two being at home. In playing the N.L. Central in interleague play this year, the Tribe still gets the horrible Reds and coming-back-to-Earth Pirates. Indeed, the Indians will have plenty of opportunities for wins the rest of the way. Most importantly, those opportunities will come against the rest of their division as they look to turn a decent lead into a sizable one in the coming weeks and months.
Nothing is a given in baseball, but playing the likes of the White Sox, Royals, Twins, and Tigers is good for turning an okay record into something much more fitting of a division leader. Even a bullpen that has threatened to harpoon the Tribe’s 2018 campaign can look good and get outs against some of the worst teams the game has to offer, as it did with the Sox this past week.
The Indians are not a perfect team, but playing and possibly taking care of business against those greatly inferior clubs should help get Cleveland to the trade deadline in good shape for when they can perhaps bring reinforcements into the relief corps and shore up the one glaring hole on the roster.
Winning against division opponents is certainly the best route to the postseason. This year, for the Indians, that has never rung more true.
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images