Tribe Unable to Write Another Underdog Story
Bob Toth | On 09, Oct 2018
Seventy seasons of Indians baseball are in the books since that October 1948 parade, and still the Commissioner’s Trophy eludes the city of Cleveland. But hey, at least the city gets to host its sixth All-Star Game next July.
There were some along the way who felt that the Cleveland Indians just did not belong in the elite class of the American League bracket of the Major League Baseball playoffs this season. After sleepwalking through a pathetic schedule against the worst division in the game and failing to show up for 27 innings of baseball in an embarrassing three-game sweep at the hands of the reigning champs and juggernaut Houston Astros, maybe there’s something to that logic.
But there were also those who had higher expectations for the AL Central champions of the last three years. Some eyed an Indians-Dodgers 1920 rematch or, Fox’s worst nightmare, an Indians-Brewers pairing as potential outcomes of October baseball this year. Some felt that the winner of the Cleveland-Houston matchup would be the team to beat, the surefire American League champion primed to steamroll the senior circuit. On paper, the Indians had All-Stars littered across the field, and maybe the team was saving more inspired play that was lacking across the regular season slate for a deep postseason run, because the zombie stroll through the regular season against a barrage a sub-.500 teams sure made the team look ill-prepared when the American League Division Series started last weekend.
The Indians were underdogs once again, and for Cleveland fans, that felt like it could be a very, very good thing. But that’s why the game is still played out on the diamond and is not relegated to the opinions and projections on the screens of your most convenient reading and viewing devices.
The Houston Astros’ methodical dismantling of 162 games of Cleveland’s stat grinding but mediocre play against some of the worst teams in baseball came via a swift, brutal, and dominating sweep in the ALDS, ending the city’s playoff hopes just four days into its postseason and sending the Tribe’s postseason slide to six straight defeats over the last two years.
There was no denying it – the American League Central was a joke. Every club was in a state of rebuild, with exception of the Minnesota Twins, who did little in the offseason (before injuries hit) to pull closer to the Indians atop the division. As for Cleveland, despite having the second-worst record among any division winner this season, the Indians had the largest lead of the six, emphasizing just how poorly the AL Central stacked up. They managed, with MVP-caliber seasons from Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor and a Cy-worthy performance from Trevor Bauer (until his leg was fractured), to win only 91 games with a schedule softer than the Charmin teddy bears. They didn’t face an actual threat for most of the season, playing the fewest games in baseball against teams with winning records, posting a 23-31 record in 54 games against successful opponents. They played few games that mattered from the first games at the end of March to the regular season finale six months later, and that felt evident with what transpired on the field over the course of the last week.
The bullpen was a mess and it started in the offseason. Sure, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller had shown themselves capable of pitching consistently at elite levels on big stages, but both crumbled in the final season of their respective contracts. The failure to replace the production of Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith was a glowing concern in the early months of the campaign as starters pitched deep into contests in April and May during games that had little bearing on reaching October. The team found gold in Oliver Perez, but still had to ship out its top prospect Francisco Mejia to bring in two potential bullpen arms for the years to come in All-Star Brad Hand and rookie Adam Cimber. Even then, those acquisitions could not make up for the fact that Allen and Miller never looked in 2018 like the arms that they had been in 2016.
Jay Bruce’s bat was not replaced. He didn’t have a great season in his return to the Mets (as was the case for both Shaw and Smith in Colorado and Houston, respectively), which may have softened the blow, but the lack of attention given the outfield in the offseason was concerning, especially given the revolving door of players in the grass next to Michael Brantley. Melky Cabrera helped, at least the second time that he signed with the club during the season, but he was not of the same ilk as missed offseason opportunities like Marcell Ozuna or, more painfully, National League MVP-in-waiting Christian Yelich, who has since helped carry Milwaukee to the National League Championship Series. Yes, the Indians acquired the Tigers’ Leonys Martin in a trade hardly considered sexy at the trade deadline, and there was no way to predict his brush with death just over a week after his arrival to the Indians roster, but none of the rest of the players in the mix on the roster over the course of the year – Cabrera, Greg Allen, Rajai Davis, and Brandon Guyer, nor the injured Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin, and Bradley Zimmer – brought the game-changing ability that good teams like to have in at least a couple of their three outfield slots in the lineup.
Ahead of the 2017 season, big things were expected of the Tribe. They had fought until extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, only to suffer a heartbreaking home defeat against the Chicago Cubs. The Indians were picked to be top contenders for the playoffs again, but they spent much of the first half of the 2017 season out of first place. They eventually claimed the spot mid-year and did not let go, rattling off an AL-record 22 straight wins on the way to a 26-4 mark in September/October, an AL-best 102-60 record, and the second-best record in all of baseball. They had just one losing streak of four games over the course of the entire year.
The Indians lost a first round matchup with the Wild Card New York Yankees, coughing up a 2-0 lead in the series in an unexpected collapse. Corey Kluber was not himself. Edwin Encarnacion jammed his ankle into second base and missed time. Brantley was still recovering from an ankle injury and was essentially rehabbing in playoff games. Danny Salazar was missing in action since midseason and in many ways since the previous year’s All-Star break. Ramirez’s breakout bat went ice cold.
This season, it was supposed to be a different story. That missed opportunity of a season ago was supposed to provide fire underneath a club heavily favored for glory that it never achieved in 2017.
Instead, the 2018 team won no more than seven games in a row, rolling much of the division to the tune of a 49-27 record while going 42-44 against the rest of the game. They played in 46 different one-run games and had little luck in extra innings, going 4-9. After putting up their best single month record of the year in August (19-9), they slipped back to earth with their worst month of the season in September (14-14), when the club should have been getting primed for the postseason. Seven games that month were decided in walk-off fashion, with the club winning three but losing four in the span of three weeks.
The Indians were underdogs in 2016. Things turned out pretty nicely that year, even in heartbreaking defeat. They were favorites in 2017, and choked it away. This season? Just another missed opportunity as Cleveland has lost six straight ALDS games and nine of its last eleven meaningful October baseball games since taking a 3-1 lead over the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.
The Indians organization is still attempting to ride the wave of that improbable run of three postseasons ago, when the banged up and literally bloodied ball club somehow found itself playing in (and blowing) the World Series. After last season’s unfathomable collapse up 2-0 to the Yankees, the front office should have looked at the cast of characters on paper and recognized that what was present was not enough. Blaming late season or postseason injuries to Encarnacion, Brantley, Zimmer, or Salazar, as well as the injury-blamed explanation for the woes of Kluber during the 2017 ALDS, on that season’s premature end was one thing, but seeing highly utilized pieces of the club leave in the offseason (including the yet-to-be-mentioned Carlos Santana, whose exit was justified by the Philadelphia Phillies’ efforts to outbid themselves for his services) without significant winter addition was puzzling. Other teams around baseball, especially those entrenched in the playoff picture in recent years, had the sense to add new weapons, but the “financially strapped”, overextended check book at Progressive Field cut only a sizable (but reasonable) check to Yonder Alonso…before buying a pile of lottery tickets to fix the beleaguered bullpen. Even the last minute addition of Josh Donaldson was another lightning-in-a-bottle effort, as the front office hoped that the former MVP would recover in time from a nearly season-long battle with injuries to provide the lineup with a little extra thump in October.
The Tribe’s 13th trip to the postseason proved as unlucky as the number. There was no underdog tale written with a happy ending for Cleveland. There will be no memorable playoff stories to tell. There is just more of the old “what if”, but for completely different reasons than a half dozen years ago. There is head scratching and disappointment and embarrassment as, for the third straight season, the visitor’s clubhouse reeks with the stench of champagne and beer while the comforts of home stink of the agonies of defeat and squandered hope. Another season with a talented, but flawed, roster was wasted as the “window of opportunity” inches closer and closer to closing while prime seasons of several players’ careers are thrown away for nothing.
Finger pointing for the woes of the club will linger on throughout the month and maybe further into the postseason. Some (especially on social media) question Terry Francona‘s decision making and hold of the clubhouse. Others question moves regarding the coaching staff, especially the changing of the guard with the exits of Mickey Callaway and Jason Bere from the pitching side or the retention of Ty Van Burkleo on the hitting end. The front office’s inability to bolster the roster in the fall and winter months also falls deservingly under a microscope.
In Cleveland, we have learned that having good things doesn’t last long. The Curse of Colavito may still be in effect. Hell, maybe it’s the curse of Chief Wahoo now. But something needs to change for the organization if they are going to find a way to consistently compete with the likes of the Astros, Red Sox, or Yankees when October arrives each year. Until then, the old mantra of “there’s always next year” remains permanently affixed to the city and the organization, one with just two world’s titles to its credit in 117 years of Cleveland baseball.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images