A season ago, the Cleveland Indians made a habit of winning games late and in their last at bat. They had 11 walk-off victories. Wins of that variety can be both very stressful and very exciting for the fans. They can be galvanizing for a baseball team.
Winning in a late fashion can pump life into a ball club that a blowout win just can not. You do not see postgame Gatorade baths or pies in the face – though those are now banned – for players who hit a home run in the middle frames of a 9-2 victory, for example. However, hit an eighth- or ninth-inning bomb or get a big RBI in the final couple stanzas and the postgame celebration has some sizzle and entertainment.
In 2016, the Indians got to within one win of the World Series. They were known for being a tight-knit group that had each other’s backs. When the going got tough late, the Tribe really got going and was at its best. Late inning comeback wins seemed to forge a bond and a resiliency with the unit that nothing could break the squad.
If a great starting pitcher like a Justin Verlander or Rick Porcello was on the mound, the idea was to keep the game close and manageable and pick up the needed runs when he gets tired or the opposition goes to the weaker bullpen. Pulling out games like that, in crunch time, made for one heck of an exciting summer of baseball, as well as some high pulse rates.
It appears the Cardiac Indians are going to be back for another go-round this year. In the first series of the 2017 season alone in Texas, Cleveland had two come-from-behind affairs in the three-game set. During the road sweep of the Rangers, the Indians did not lead for good until the ninth inning on two occasions. In fact, the Tribe began this year the way it left things off a season ago.
In this year’s lid-lifter on Monday, Cleveland scored seven unanswered runs in erasing a 5-1 deficit. It was all hands on deck to fight back and take the season’s initial contest. While some teams may have just decided to accept defeat with the idea that there are 161 games left to be played, that simply is not the Indians way.
The Tribe is not a team that just accepts or is okay with losing. That attitude starts with Terry Francona and trickles all they way down the roster. After ace Corey Kluber battled a blister to keep the Tribe in the game through six innings, the bullpen picked him up. Cleveland’s No. 1 starter departed having allowed five earned runs. Four relievers held a tough Texas lineup scoreless over the final three frames. Dan Otero, Boone Logan, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen gave the offense a chance to work a comeback.
The offense did just that. Jose Ramirez hit a three-run jack to make it 5-3. Edwin Encarnacion hit his first long ball as an Indians player to tie it at 5-5. That helped lead to a big ninth inning that saw Abraham Almonte, Carlos Santana, and Michael Brantley deliver run-scoring hits en route to finishing off the Tribe’s first comeback of the season.
Cleveland took a break from the late-game heroics, but only for a day. On Wednesday, the Indians were back to being their heart-stopping best. They faced deficits of 2-0, 5-3, and 6-4, yet they never quit or wilted in the Texas heat. They kept clawing and scraping to stay in a game that saw Danny Salazar surrender five runs, four earned, in the first 5.2 innings.
They still trailed 6-4 in the ninth, facing Rangers closer Sam Dyson. Dyson struggled with control, walking Santana to force in a run and draw the Tribe to within a single tally. Francisco Lindor then delivered a grand slam to send the Tribe and its fans into a frenzy and give the Indians two last at-bat wins in their first three games.
Much like the mid-to-late 90s Indians who had the art of the comeback down to a science, this Indians group makes coming back a team effort. From the starter stopping the bleeding early enough, to the bullpen turning in multiple magnificent performances to a different collection of hitters getting the job done night in and night out, everyone gets involved. And no opposing relief pitcher is safe.
All eight ninth inning runs in Arlington were scored off Dyson during the two comebacks. To put that into further perspective, Dyson, in 2016, had 38 saves and a 2.43 ERA. He allowed 19 earned runs all year. Cleveland roughed him up for nearly half his entire season total in two exhilarating innings.
Surely, the Indians are not able to come back every night. They can always run into a buzzsaw of a bullpen or simply not have their late-inning “A” game. They are going to lose because they could not erase a deficit or hit the opposing setup man and/or closer. In fact, they will lose at least 55-70 such affairs, in all likelihood.
That is why games like Tuesday are nice and are actually the norm. When the Indians can get an early lead, have the starter keep it and the bullpen close it, that is the more traditional way to do things. It is the less stressful way.
Still, the late-game comeback has its place and is a necessity. With so many of last year’s players back this season, the Tribe does not necessarily need to be further galvanized, but it does not hurt. Having exciting finishes to ball games makes it a little more exciting for the players and the fans to get through a long season.
It can be gut-wrenching to watch your team trailing in the ninth inning. However, it can be so much fun to let out that triumphant yell when your ball club pulls out the victory. Fun was exactly what the Indians proved to be last year and what the team is showing it may very well be again this summer.
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