It has been said that before someone can walk, they first need to learn how to crawl. The Cleveland Indians had been doing that crawling part for the past few years. This year, they started to walk and quickly moved on to an all-out sprint.
The 2013 Tribe, the one that first made an impression on the city of Cleveland, managed to surprise the baseball world and earn a trip to the postseason as an American League Wild Card entrant. That was the beginning of the crawling state. A team that had started coming together in 2010 and took its lumps with several losing seasons under former manager Manny Acta had begun to inch back toward respectability under new manager Terry Francona.
What happened to the Tribe in that one-game postseason showing was a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. For most of the players on that team, it was their first exposure to being on the national stage in an important, must-win game. Still, getting to that level was the beginning of what would happen with this year’s group that got all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
Cleveland’s core group spent 2014 and 2015 continuing to simply fight for Wild Card rights. The team was unsuccessful in both campaigns. Late-season pushes were not enough to get back to postseason baseball in either year. The Tribe was still crawling.
Walking came in this past regular season. No longer satisfied with simply being in postseason contention at the end of the year and failing, the Indians hit the accelerator on winning games this past summer, including beating up on former big brother and nemesis, the Detroit Tigers.
A core group of Indians, one that has been together for the tough times under Acta and the learning times for the previous three years with Francona, was going to put those lessons to good use in 2016.
Guys like Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Cody Allen and Yan Gomes, who’d been a part of the heartbreaking end to 2013 and not-quite-good-enough pair of seasons after, were ready to take flight toward bigger and better things. Joined by playoff-tested veterans Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis in the offseason and then the likes of Andrew Miller and Coco Crisp in late-summer deals, the once-youthful and inexperienced Indians were going to flip the switch.
In going through some tough times in prior seasons, Cleveland was considered a young, inexperienced, growing team. The group had to take its lumps in order to learn how to win meaningful games and to find itself playing deeper into October.
When the Indians lost to the Rays in the one-game affair three years ago, Kipnis was in just his second full season and third overall, Santana was in his fourth year, and Kluber in his first as a meaningful member of the starting rotation. Allen was not yet the closer and guys like Gomes, Bryan Shaw, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer were really just getting acquainted with Tribe fans. It was no shock, really, that that club lost to a Rays team that had just been to a World Series five seasons prior and in a run of success.
As Cleveland lost out on earning Wild Card berths in the two seasons after that, it was largely because the squad would stumble in meaningful division games against the likes of the Tigers and Royals, the two AL Central clubs the Indians were trying to catch up to.
This year, the Indians learned from their past failings and took the fight to their division foes. Cleveland’s record this year in AL Central contests was an impressive 48-26. The Tribe defeated those Tigers and Royals 14 times each, losing four to Detroit and five to Kansas City. The impressive showing against division rivals went a long way toward the Indians winning 94 games overall, winning a division championship, and earning a trip to the American League Division Series for the first time since 2007.
Indeed, the once infant Indians were now walking heading into October baseball.
Cleveland enjoyed walking so much that it began running once October hit. The Indians swept the Red Sox out of the ALDS and then vanquished the Blue Jays in the ALCS in five games. The Tribe had a three games to one lead in the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, the team with baseball’s best record, before starting pitching injuries and playing a superior team simply caught up to the Indians.
However, with the last crazy month behind it, the Tribe has now learned how to do much more than win important regular season games. These Indians now know how to win big contests when the eyes of the entire baseball world are upon them.
These days, Cleveland can no longer be called that young, inexperienced team. As 2017 comes along and a new baseball season arrives, the Indians will now be called the experienced, tested bunch. Now, the majority of the team has seen the bright lights that a pennant race and playoff baseball bring. This is no longer a wide-eyed group of kids. Other than second-year shortstop Francisco Lindor, the Indians are now a team full of veterans who know what it takes to get to that next level.
Cleveland is no longer crawling. This year, the Indians stood up, took some steps and began moving rather quickly toward the next level. The only thing this team did not do was take full flight toward the grandest title a Major League Baseball team can win. The American League champions now go into 2017 with a wealth of playoff exposure and the hopes of finally getting their hands on a World Series trophy the city has not seen since 1948. Getting there will require one step beyond the sprint that this club is currently at. Getting there will require spreading wings and flying to the top. These Indians, and whoever joins them this offseason, have the penchant to get there now that they have knocked down the other hurdles that they did throughout this 2016 season and playoffs.
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