Marathon is Now a Sprint in Pennant Race

Well, Sunday was a bit of a bummer in Cleveland.

Not just did the mighty Cleveland Browns lose the opener, but the Cleveland Indians dropped a 2-1 loss to the New York Mets and not-so-mighty Daisuke Matsuzaka. Nevermind that Matsuzaka couldn’t crack a Cleveland rotation in spring training that was riddled with question marks. Nevermind he was never given a serious chance for the Indians rotation when Scott Kazmir, Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber was shelved due to injury.

He’s just pitcher who has given up no less than four runs in a start and lasted at best five innings in his first three starts. To put it nicely, he’s been kicked around like a pop can at a campground on a Sunday morning. He’s headed for the trash heap.

Yet somehow, Matsuzaka staved off the recycling center for another day and allowed just three hits and a run over five and two-third innings. He walked just three and struck out six on 103 pitches. Not bad for a guy who struggled to break 90 miles per hour on the radar gun most of this season.

But the bummer of the day isn’t really that the Indians got beat by a pitcher that couldn’t get on the major league roster in their own organization. The bummer is that it was obviously a winnable game that slid through their fingers. The lack of a big hit against a subpar starter is a theme we’ve seen before this season.

In a 162-game season, dropping a game that should have been chalked up in the win column is something that happens. It’s often explained as easily as, “that’s baseball.” However, the Indians now find themselves in a 20-game season. At 76-66 in the standings it will likely take 91 wins to make the playoffs. That’s a 15-5 record in those final 20 games. The average win total of the fifth best team in the American League over the last decade has been 90 wins, so it seems 91 to be a fair target number.

Sunday, the Detroit Tigers lost. The Indians could have climbed to just four and a half games back of the division lead. The Baltimore Orioles lost. The Indians could have had no one in front of them, except a playoff spot. Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Rays did win and the Indians—along with Baltimore—fell a game back and now trail the Rays by two games.

Making up ground in a pennant race isn’t easy.

All of a sudden, dropping that game to Matsuzaka and the lowly Mets and settling for just two of three games in the series doesn’t seem like a victory. Winning series for the final three weeks probably doesn’t get the Indians in the playoffs. A winning streak probably will.

The Indians do have an easy schedule in the final three weeks. That 15-5 record is possible, yet difficult against any level of big league opponent. Cleveland now opens a three game series against the Kansas City Royals, a team looking for their own September streak to push themselves into the postseason. One team could set the other back in their playoff push over the next three days.

While the occasional hiccup in a big league season is part of the game, the Indians can no longer ill-afford to lose games they should win as they stare down the need for 15 more victories. The marathon is over, it’s now a dash to the finish and the Indians are already two steps behind.

That’s baseball.

Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images

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