Maybe it’s the full moon, this month’s larger-than-normal blood moon set to rise in spectacular fashion Sunday evening. Maybe it’s the pending lunar eclipse that will accompany it, or maybe the hypothesized apocalypse that is said to be coming with it. Whatever the reason, mystic or inspired, the Cleveland Indians are still playing meaningful baseball.
You might have made some money had you bet that back at the end of April, when baseball games apparently don’t matter.
Want any of those games back? I’m guessing the Tribe does. I know I do.
As it stands, the odds are still heavily stacked against the Indians and a game 163 in 2015. But for some fans, and certainly the players, until the team is mathematically eliminated from playoff baseball, hope still remains. A never-say-die attitude out of a team that fans would have allowed to roll over and play dead after a brutal beginning to the campaign is one of several encouraging signs out of this young and somewhat unproven cast of characters in the Tribe’s troupe.
Regardless of whether or not the Indians reach that next level, or even force the completion of a game 162 against Detroit next Monday if needed, their turnaround this season is both remarkable and frustrating. As it was postulated on Saturday, one can only imagine “what if” the Indians had done some things differently.
Would the team have played with this new fervor and intensity had Francisco Lindor been promoted earlier? There are certainly cases to be made on each side. A slow start, limited Triple-A experience, and an organizational need to keep his progression paced, whether it be for financially-based reasons or otherwise, are some arguments to be made for those who felt his arrival with the Indians was right on time. Others, who have seen the budding star and fan favorite develop at an incredibly fast pace to the Major League game, could easily make the case that he was, is, and will forever be a more valuable overall player to this organization than Jose Ramirez and that if you intend to win, you bring your best 25 men with you when you leave Arizona for Cleveland at the beginning of April.
There is little surprise that the Indians have played some of their best baseball with Lindor slotted into the top of the batting order. Even though the club is just 47-44 with him in the lineup, he bats 100 points higher in victories and has scored three times as many runs in wins than losses.
Frankie is passionate. He is jubilant. His infectious smile and the energy and attitude he brings to the clubhouse is moderately contained compared to one of the men no longer with the organization, but because he has done nothing but back it up and be a team guy, all at the age of 21, he isn’t viewed as just a cheerleader or mascot.
Lindor did not come to Cleveland and perform CPR on the Indians lineup. That would imply he just kept the blood flowing. He shocked life back into what was a corpse of a roster at the time. He was the Indians’ own little portable automated external defibrillator, brought all the way up from Columbus to shock the lineup back to a normal rhythm.
Now, the Indians’ heart is beating rapidly. If only he had been able to contribute something to the team sooner. It would be a conversation that might turn into a loud argument for some who remember Ramirez’s .180 batting average and eight errors at the time of his demotion, 55 games into the season.
Lindor is not the only one who has played at that intensity. It has been visible across the diamond. It has been apparent in the final scores, which have been more closely contested of late. The offense has produced, albeit still erratically, but they have overall stepped it up a notch. Games like Saturday night, when Josh Tomlin just could not contain the Royals, would have spelled doom with a capital L 70-some times this season. Instead, the offense gave him a lead, supported that advantage, and provided insurance, which they needed.
The next eight to nine games are important. Not just in the playoff picture, because that is a bit more evident given their place three games in back of the Houston Astros in the American League Wild Card race and just two behind in the loss column. The Indians need to end the season with the same passion and energy, to go into the offseason with a fire in the pit of their stomachs. For the players who endured another season of failed expectations, Sports Illustrated cover jinxes, and a gradual transition to the position of Cleveland’s third fiddle behind the Browns and LeBron, they need to shut out the noise and end on a high note.
The team has had more positive attention for their play in August and September than they had received all season, and rightfully so. They did very little over the first four months of the season worthy of discussion, other than waste an All-Star worthy portion of a season from Jason Kipnis and the emergence of a potentially frightening pitching staff for those around baseball to deal with over the next few seasons. But this new energy, the effort that they have played with, and all while scratching and clawing and FINALLY busting through the formerly impenetrable glass ceiling that was the .500 mark, could give those fair-weather fans a bit of something positive to hold on to while the game of baseball hibernates through the miserable winter months.
What makes it all the more impressive is that the Indians recent three-game winning streak has come without one of the more consistent producers, not just in their lineup, but in the game of baseball over the last two seasons. When Michael Brantley exited the game with a shoulder injury Tuesday, there may have been some concern from fans that, at that moment, the season was lost. But the beat of the drum has gone on.
When Corey Kluber missed starts with a strained right hamstring, the fans panicked. Good run over. Season over. But the beat went on.
When Carlos Carrasco ended up on the disabled list with inflammation in his throwing shoulder…you get the point.
This team, with an influx of young players, like Cody Anderson, Lindor, and his buddy Giovanny Urshela; and new players, like Abraham Almonte and Chris Johnson; and rejuvenated players, like Ramirez, Tomlin, and Lonnie Chisenhall, did not buckle. They could have mailed it in. The odds were stacked against them. A half dozen teams stood between them and postseason play.
Instead, they have played with an enthusiasm and an excitement that needs to carry on into next season. They have played like their pants were on fire. They have run so hard their helmets fall off, for some of them on every single at bat. They dive. They hustle. They are playing to win jobs in the future, sure, but they have also grown and come together here in the present, while seemingly learning from the errors of the past. To quote the fictional and beloved Harry Doyle, “they are showing signs of life for the first time in weeks”.
They are playing like a team.
As a positive note to that statement, the bulk of those players would be expected back as members of the organization and 25-man roster next season.
Is it going to be perfect? No. No team and no season ever is. But is there reason for hope? A whole lot more than a few pages of the calendar ago.
You can be disappointed in the fact that the Indians are fighting for their baseball lives with every last out. It is an absolutely fair sentiment to have and you are not alone in it. But you can still be optimistic that the team has some of the pieces necessary to be right back in the mix next year.
If they fall short of their postseason goals, the organization only has itself to blame. From bad contracts and a lack of effort last offseason, to suspect coaching decisions in and around the dugout, to a general malaise from overpaid second tier stars past their prime, every level has contributed some sort of error in the primordial ooze that has been the 2015 season.
Yet despite the uncertainty in the front office and upheaval in the clubhouse, this team, still gelling together with its injection of young blood, has burned with an intensity it has not shown since clinching the AL Wild Card spot almost two years ago. They will need that pulse to beat strong if there is any hope of a true Indians’ revival.
Photos: AP Photo/Tony Dejak