If, at the beginning of the season, someone would have told me Ubaldo Jimenez would be on the mound for the Cleveland Indians at the end of September with an American League Wild Card spot on the line, I would have cringed at the thought.
It is amazing how six months can completely change your mind.
Jimenez will be in the center of the diamond in game 162 on Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis with an opportunity to secure home field advantage for the Indians in Wednesday’s AL Wild Card game.
A loss does not necessarily guarantee that the Indians will not claim the top Wild Card spot, but it makes the path to hosting the game at Progressive Field slightly more difficult.
No matter the outcome of Sunday’s game, the Indians have secured the opportunity to play beyond the 162 game schedule. Whether that chance happens on Wednesday in the AL Wild Card game, or in potential play-in games on Monday or Tuesday, remains to be determined.
If Cleveland were to lose on Sunday afternoon, they could still claim the AL Wild Card home field spot with losses by both Tampa Bay and Texas, thanks to their one game lead entering Sunday. The Rays wrap up their series in Toronto against the Blue Jays, while the Rangers host the Los Angeles Angels. The Blue Jays had won each of the first two games of their series, while the Rangers had held off the Angels twice so far.
If the Indians lose and just one of the Rangers and Rays win, the top spot would go to the team with the best head-to-head record between Cleveland and the winning ball club. In that scenario, a Rangers win would bring the Wild Card to Cleveland, while a Rays victory would send the Indians to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
In the chance that Cleveland drops its final game against Minnesota and both Tampa and Texas win, the three teams will be tied and the tiebreaker scenario would unfold, beginning with the Indians and Rays at Progressive Field at 4:07 PM on Monday afternoon. The winner of the game would claim the home field for the Wednesday Wild Card game.The loser of that game would head to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to face Texas.
That leaves the Indians with the potential of three different games to secure a Wild Card spot – Sunday’s 162nd game, Monday’s potential tiebreaker game for the top spot if needed, and, if both games result in losses, one final tiebreaker game on Tuesday for the second spot.
The casual baseball observer only needs to know that Cleveland is very much in a prime spot to be playing at least one meaningful baseball game in the month of October. With one win, they are in.
All the pieces have fallen into place for the Indians this month, including a schedule primarily against sub-.500 opponents and several key players hitting their strides throughout the month. The pitching rotation aligned perfectly for Cleveland’s best starter in the second half, if not quietly for most of the season, to toe the rubber in this pivotal final game as well.
Jimenez has looked this season like the player once traded for four minor leaguers, including a pair of top pitching prospects with unknown potential, both of whom had first round pick pedigrees.
Alex White, the 15th pick of the 2009 draft, missed the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery while a member of the Houston Astros organization. Drew Pomeranz, the fifth pick of the 2010 draft, was 0-4 in four starts for Colorado with an 8.10 ERA, but allowed just one hit and one walk in five innings of relief in September. He was 8-2 with a 4.65 ERA between Tulsa and Colorado Springs for the Rockies organization this season.
Joe Gardner, a third round pick and pitcher, was 6-4 with a 5.53 ERA for Colorado’s Tulsa ball club, his third straight season in Double-A. Utility player Matt McBride played 31 games last season for the Rockies and played just 48 games at Colorado Springs (AAA) this year.
While none of those players have panned out to be much for the Rockies since the trade, the Indians have reaped the benefits of Jimenez and his rediscovered success on the mound this season.
The Indians, behind his efforts and the production of an underrated starting pitching rotation, have won 20 of 26 games in the month of September. It marked the first time that Cleveland has won 20 games in one month since August of the 1995 season, quite a magical year for the Indians as they ended a 41-year playoff drought and ran all the way to the World Series. That season, they went 20-8 in June and 21-9 in August.
If that coincidence is not enough, the last time the Indians won 20 games or more in the month of September was at the end of the 1948 season.
For those who may not have been lucky enough to have seen that team firsthand, they had a rather impressive end to their season, capped off by a tiebreaking game of their own at the top of the American League standings on the way to a World Series title. For more on that season, check out didthetribewinlastnight.com/1948 throughout the rest of the 2013 regular season and postseason as well as the offseason.
Such a strong end to a season is not common in Cleveland history. Sixty-five years passed since a 20-win month of September.The baseball played by the Indians this month has not just been spectacular and timely for the needs of this year’s team. It is one of just eight 20-win Septembers in the 113-year history of the organization.
Prior to that 1948 season, Cleveland had accomplished the feat just six other times in September – 1939 (20-10), 1937 (23-13), 1934 (21-10), 1920 (20-6), 1908 (21-9), and 1906 (23-9).
They ride their season-high nine game winning streak into the season finale, hoping to reach ten wins in a row in order to host at least one more home game. At home, the Indians finished the season 51-30. Eleven of those 51 wins have been of the walkoff variety.
During their current streak, all elements of the team have been clicking. They have scored an average of 5.8 runs per game. The team is batting .296 during that stretch. Michael Brantley has hit in eight of the nine games.
The pitching staff has been just as effective, with the starting rotation posting a 2.61 ERA and the bullpen staff contributing a 2.15 ERA. Scott Kazmir has a 13.8 strikeout per nine innings mark in the month.
Jimenez, meanwhile, has been locked in since the All-Star break. His 5-5 second half record, compared to his 7-4 first half numbers, does not tell the story.
The improvement of his ERA, at 4.56 through his first 19 starts and now at 3.38 on the season thanks to a 1.86 mark in those last 12 games, does indicate quite a substantial rate of success on the mound. And speaking of rates, his first half strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.77) is nearly half of his second half performance (3.35). He had four starts in his first 19 in which he struck out eight batters or more; he has six such starts in the second half in just 12 appearances.
He has cut back on his overall number of baserunners as well. He allowed a batting average of .252 with a 1.49 WHIP in the first half, while he has allowed a much improved .225 average with a 1.16 WHIP in the second half.
Just five times this season Jimenez has allowed four earned runs or more in a contest. The last time was July 14th in Cleveland against Kansas City. The other four outings all occurred in his first nine starts of the season.
In the crunch time of September, Jimenez has been at his finest. He has completed six innings or more in all five starts and is averaging just under seven per start. He has allowed a total of four earned runs and five runs total, good for a monthly ERA of 1.04. He is averaging six hits per start, has walked a total of six batters, and has a 1.04 WHIP for the month. He has struck out 38 batters and has held the opposition to a .236 batting average and .267 on-base percentage.
Jimenez won each of the first three decisions of the month. While he did not claim victories in the last two, the Indians did.
Good teams find a way to win. The Indians have been that this season, all the more shocking for a team rapidly rebuilt in the offseason after a 68-94 disaster in 2012.
While many expected Cleveland to be at least a year away from contention due to the complications surrounding a team with a new managerial staff and several key veteran ball players added to the starting lineup to compete with what was thought to be a suspect starting rotation, the Indians have silenced their doubters and are within one game of reaching the promised land of the baseball postseason and meaningful October baseball for the first time since 2007.
It has been an interesting roller coaster ride this season, one with plenty of ups and downs and bumps and surprises along the way.
But no one said the ride was over yet. It might just be getting started.
Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak