Had the Cleveland Indians continued their record-breaking winning streak through the weekend, they would have gone for win number 25 in a row on Sunday, which just so happened to be the 25th birthday of one of the big reasons the club was able to be so victorious for so long. Unfortunately, that numerical coincidence was not meant to be.
Jose Ramirez was absent from the Indians starting lineup again on Sunday, getting a well deserved rest after appearing in 141 of the team’s 150 games so far this season. Minor aches and pains are common this time of year, and Ramirez rested while tending to a minor hamstring injury. With an off day on Monday, it was the perfect time to give the little extra base hit machine a bit of a breather from his every day hustle and bustle.
Several hours after the completion of the Indians’ game against the Royals on Saturday, one that got them right back into the win column after their 22-game winning streak came to a close in a tough 4-3 loss on Friday night from Progressive Field, Cleveland claimed the American League Central crown with Minnesota’s 7-2 loss in Toronto. It marked the second straight season that the Tribe had won the division and the third time in the last five years that Ramirez will be present in the dugout for meaningful October baseball.
It is almost hard to believe that Ramirez has already logged time in the Majors over five separate seasons, because for many of those years, he spent a significant amount of time back in the minors.
He made his Major League debut more than four years ago as a surprise call-up from Double-A Akron when rosters expanded in 2013. Having logged just 231 professional games in his three minor league seasons, he got the call after hitting .272 with 131 hits, a .325 on-base percentage, and 38 stolen bases for the Aeros in his first season in the Eastern League and their last season before their name change. He was far from a finished product, but manager Terry Francona was able to find plenty of use for the 5’9” ball player just 20 years of age at the time, the third youngest player to debut in the AL during the 2013 season (Texas’ Jurickson Profar and Boston’s Xander Bogaerts were younger). The team was in need of some speed off of the bench and had some defensive holes in the infield it needed to address, and Ramirez became the man for the job.
He made his debut in the ninth inning of a September 1 contest against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. He pinch-ran for Carlos Santana in a scoreless game after his leadoff walk, advanced to second on another walk, moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, and scored the first of four runs on a grand slam by Mike Aviles off of Joaquin Benoit in the Tribe’s 4-0 win.
Ramirez appeared in 15 games over the course of the year and made a pair of starts (one at second, one at third). He came into seven different games as a pinch-runner and also logged some time at shortstop. He went 4-for-12 at the plate with a pair of walks and the Indians raced to a wild card berth with a ten-game winning streak to close out the regular season schedule. The Indians would be eliminated in the first ever Wild Card Game in a loss to Tampa Bay.
Ramirez started 2014 back in the minors, making his first appearance at the Triple-A level for the Columbus Clippers. He was hitting .319 through the first month when he got the call to Cleveland, but seeing regular work at second base, he recorded just two hits in 25 at bats (.080) and he was sent back to the minors until the final week of July. When he returned, he came back to an Indians club in a slightly better spot in the standings than his time in town earlier in the year, but the Indians were just 51-49 and five and a half games in back in the division. A rough stretch sent the club backwards in the standings, falling to two games below even at the end of the month as the club purged expiring contracts Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera in trade deadline moves.
Ramirez would hit .302 with a .360 OBP for the Clippers and fared much better in his second stint of the year in Cleveland, hitting .283 over the rest of the season with a .325 OBP. Despite missing significant time from the Indians roster, he still managed to lead the league in sacrifice bunts with 13.
With top prospect Francisco Lindor deemed not quite ready for Major League action, Ramirez started the 2015 season as the Indians every day shortstop. Having played significantly more innings in the minors at second base, the move to short kept him away from his more natural and comfortable position on the diamond on the right side of the infield. Whether it was that move, the pressure of knowing that he had Lindor nipping at his heels from Columbus for his job at shortstop, or other factors, Ramirez once again struggled at the plate. Through 44 games, he hit .180 and was optioned back to Columbus for more work.
Back at Triple-A, he worked out of his more familiar second base spot primarily and again showed himself capable of handling pitching at that level, hitting .293 with a .354 OBP and a .408 slugging mark. He returned to Cleveland briefly in July and for good in August as the Indians were once again active on the trade market. He appeared in 48 games in the final two months, hitting .259 with a surprising increase in pop (eight doubles, three triples, five homers).
With Lindor’s arrival in Cleveland and Jason Kipnis firmly planted at second base, Ramirez was a man without a position heading into 2016. Third base appeared to be open in the offseason, with Giovanny Urshela on the roster as an adequate glove and arm, but a disappointing bat. Juan Uribe was signed to plug that gap in the lineup and provide veteran leadership, putting Ramirez into position to replace Aviles as the super-utility guy on the roster as he signed with rival Detroit in free agency after three years in Cleveland.
Ramirez, however, would put his versatility on display by filling the void in left field created by the extended absence of Michael Brantley after complications from a shoulder injury the previous September. He worked in 48 games there until Uribe’s struggling stick and the arrival of alternative options for the outfield allowed Ramirez to supplant Uribe at the hot corner, as his bat was one that Francona needed in the every day lineup. His glove and arm were not bad for the position either, as he would finish the year with the second-best fielding percentage of players at third.
Ramirez put up a .295/.352/.417 slash in 80 games in the first half of the season with 21 doubles, a triple, four homers, and 38 RBI. He would hit .350 in August and .327 down the stretch in September to post a .329/.374/.509 line in the second half in 72 games with 25 doubles, two more triples, seven homers, and another 38 RBI. He was a monster at Progressive Field, hitting .347 with a .408 OBP and a .544 slugging. He repeatedly came through in the clutch for the club, hitting .346 with runners on base and .355 with runners in scoring position.
His breakout season earned him a 17th place finish in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting. His .312 batting average for the season was good for seventh in the league and he finished second to Boston’s David Ortiz in doubles with 46. Showing that he was still a man of many talents, he was ninth in the AL with 22 stolen bases.
There has been little slowing him down this season. An even stronger first half to his fifth MLB season (.332/.388/.601) and some love from the fans earned him the starting nod at third base in the 2017 All-Star Game. He sandwiched a rough May (.258 average) in between two months of hitting .330 and .367. He “cooled down” to a .317 average in July and really struggled for the first time this season with a .235 average in August, but has responded with a .435/.481/1.087 (!) slash through his first dozen games in September. His power numbers, steady all season long, have actually kicked it up another notch, despite bouncing back and forth defensively between second and third for Francona in the second half to help fill the second base position left open by an injured Kipnis.
The Indians’ winning streak began on Thursday, August 24, in Cleveland in the final game of a four-game set with the Boston Red Sox. The Indians roughed up Chris Sale and Ramirez was an active participant in the fun, reaching base twice with a single and a double, scoring one run, and stealing a base.
Three weeks later, the team secured its 22nd straight win, surpassing the modern day record set by the Chicago Cubs in 1935. That club won 21 straight, one more than the 2002 Oakland A’s, who had previously held the longest mark in AL lore until the Indians etched their names above them in the history books.
Ramirez appeared in 18 of the 22 wins while accumulating some video game type numbers. In a span of 78 plate appearances, he put up a .423/.462/.944 triple slash, good for a 1.405 OPS. Of his 30 hits throughout the winning streak, two-thirds of them fell for extra bases as he extended his league lead in doubles with eleven in the 18 games while adding in a triple, eight homers, and 14 RBI.
While Ramirez had been doing ridiculous things with the bat and on the bases this season, it may have taken the Indians’ incredible late season run to truly get him the attention of fans around baseball and, in particular, in consideration for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. He is not built like a prolific power hitter or even a prototypical third baseman, but he has been producing extra base hits at a consistent and high level for the Cleveland offense. His 50 doubles remain the top mark in all of baseball, his six triples have showcased the speed that made him a September call-up in 2013 (and are tied for third in the league), and his 27 home runs and 75 RBI highlight his growth at the plate. His 83 extra base hits for the year were tied with notorious sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Nolan Arenado for the MLB lead heading into action on Sunday.
While baseball fans around the world may have only been familiar with Ramirez’s name for the last 12 months or so, especially with Cleveland’s deep postseason run a year ago, Indians fans have been able to enjoy the all-out frantic style of play that Ramirez brings out of the dugout almost every night. He still may not be a household name around the country yet, but people have caught on to the exploits of one of the more dynamic players in the game of baseball today, even with his helmet flying off of his head far fewer times this season than last.
And what is the best part for Tribe fans in regards to their freshly 25-year-old budding star? That team friendly contract that he inked prior to the season will keep him at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for four more seasons at least, with option years potentially keeping him a resident of northeast Ohio through the 2023 campaign.
Some things get better with age, and Ramirez has certainly proved to be one of them.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images