If you told me back in May when the Cleveland Indians lost the heart and soul of their team in Michael Brantley for the season would be in the position they are, I would have laughed in your face. There was no way the team could lean on rookie Tyler Naquin to fill the void. No one expected Lonnie Chisenhall to hit .286 with an OPS of .767 after an underwhelming 5 year start to his career. Jose Ramirez came out of the clouds to play left field for much of the early part of the season then transitioned to full time third basemen after Juan Uribe (#RIPCokeCan) was DFA’d for Andrew Miller. Jose surprised the world and finished tied with Mookie Betts for average with runners in scoring postion at .355. Dude was an RBI machine. Abraham Almonte joined the team in late 2015 and missed the first 80 games of 2016 due to PED suspension. He stepped up and contributed well in his limited time on the roster. Star catcher Yan Gomes hit well below the mendoza line and played in 74 games due to a separated shoulder. Not to mention he suffered a non-displaced fracture to his wrist while on rehab assignment just days before his expected activation in the middle of September. Roberto Perez was forced to end his rehab assignment early from his own wrist injury suffered against the Phillies in April. Add in the losses of two phenomenal starting pitchers in Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco in the middle of September. The deck has been stacked against these guys all season, yet they still have found ways to win games.
Mike Napoli has been one of the best free agent adds in Cleveland sports history. At the ripe age of 34 years old, he had career highs in games played, hits, runs score, home runs and RBI. He is the anchor this relatively inexperienced team needed. Francisco Lindor emerged as a premier shortstop in this league and is finally earning the respect he deserves throughout baseball while the spotlight is on him during the postseason. Jason Kipnis was able to stay healthy. The two time All Star regained his power stroke and shook his demons against left handed pitching. He mashed southpaws to a .282 clip after hitting just .248 against them in his career. While flip flopping between leadoff and the 5-hole, Carlos Santana had career highs in games played, hits, runs scored, home runs and RBI. That right there is what I like to call the Mike Napoli effect. The running joke through Indians twitter was centered around their need for a right handed power bat. Mikey Naps and #Slamtana filled the void to combine for 64 long balls and 169 RBI from the right side of the plate. Rajai Davis played a giant role both defensively and on the base paths. For the first time in his career, he lead the American League in stolen bases as an old man. Everybody came together, fought til the end and have a few more rounds left in them.
The pitching staff is the reason these guys are where they are right now. Corey Kluber did not quite look like himself in the first half of the season. He limped into the All-Star break with an ERA of 3.61. In his first All-Star appearance he earned the win and went on a terror the rest of the season en route to a 2.52 ERA with an 8-1 record in 14 starts. Like any ace would, he put the team on his back and carried much of the load. Josh Tomlin did his part and won 13 games. Only knock on Tomlin is his love for throwing meat balls, giving up the third most home runs in baseball (and I kind of have to knock him having Aubry as a middle name, but I’m willing to forgive due to his habit for packing hammers before taking the mound every 5 days). Salazar #battled through some arm issues all season. The long list of problems over the season are still plaguing him today. Arm fatigue and soreness kept him off the ALDS and ALCS rosters. Carrasco did his fair share with 11 wins in 25 starts. Trevor Bauer started the season in the bullpen to send a message to him. He heard loud and clear and went on to post a 4.26 ERA and 12 wins in 190 innings logged. The bullpen was among the top 5 in the regular season in many statistical categories. More importantly, they showed manager Tito Francona the ability to go out and piece things together and win ballgames. This takes so much pressure off of the starters and offense. When the offense gets the early lead, the starter can confidently go 6 innings and hand the keys to a dynamite bullpen. That has to be a great feeling. And when your starter and bullpen can hold teams scoreless, it makes the offense feel like they can score any time and win the game which has to be an equally wonderful feeling. These boys showed how dominant they can be and it only became more evident in October.
The most important factors on the team were added late in the season. The Indians sent four prospects, two of them in the top four of MLB.com’s prospect rankings, in order to bring in baseball’s most dominant reliever, Andrew Miller. The names involved were Clint Frazier, minor league left-hander Justus Sheffield and minor league right-handers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. I had my second worse take of all time back in July saying Andrew Miller was the worst bullpen option (my worst take was saying the Cavaliers should have taken Derrick Williams over Kyrie Irving, I deserve shame forever for that). We have seen how great of a move that was. Don’t forget he’s under contract through 2018 making just $9 million per year so yeah, that was an underrated move. An even better move was pulled just hours prior to the deadline. The Tribe sent two low level, 22 years to Tampa Bay for OF Brandon Guyer. He is the best left handed platoon stick with a .336 average and 1.021 OPS against southpaws. Perfect example of no risk, high reward. The two guys swapped for Guyer had little to no buzz surrounding them. Arguably the most important factor in the playoff run was added to the team September 1st. Yes, you heard that correctly, Coco Crisp has been among the biggest pieces during the playoffs for the Cleveland Indians in his triumphant return to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. His 2-run homer in game 3 of the ALDS ended up being the difference in the game. Additionally, his defense has been superb. Need to see how Coco is getting under the skin of the Jays? Rewatch his diving catch in the 7th of game 3 paired with Donaldson’s reaction to it.
How could I forget about Tito? Tito! He hasn’t made a mistake all postseason. He found perfect platoons during the 161 games season and has stuck with what won them the division. It’s like he has a magic 8 ball in his office. He gets to the park hours before the game, brings in Millsy to his office, locks the door and those two plan out the game.
“Magic 8 Ball, will the offense ball out today?”
“Magic 8 Ball, will Frankie continue to be the league’s most entertaining player?”
“Magic 8 Ball, will Andrew Miller be unhittable?”
This streak of perfection from Tito is unprecedented, it’s like he’s able to predict the future. The trust in his bullpen is a great thing to see. Add in his ability to always put guys in the correct spot to succeed. It makes for big, delicious bowl of baseball soup. He gets overlooked as best manager in baseball but that should quickly change given what he’s been able to do in 2016. The boys are always ready to run through a wall for him. He has their back and they have his. Amazing chemistry.
Now let’s get into the fun stuff. These playoff games have been unbelievable. Each game is breath taking from start to finish, I haven’t felt nerves like this in a long time. The key to their success is their trust in one another. After Trevor Bauer mangled his hand, his teammates rallied behind him and made light of a bad situation. They told him “we’re going to win this game.” Not a person on the planet outside of that locker room expected them to perform like this. Coming together as one unit and having fun has lead them to an undefeated postseason record. Amazing. They have fought adversity every day in 2016 yet overcame every bit up to this point. Michael Brantley’s shoulder didn’t want to heal properly? No problem. Only 8 spots in the order want to consistently produce? Never cost them a game. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco end up breaking down late in the year? Next man up. No one thought they had a chance? #0Haters. Indians just won only 8 games versus American League playoff teams during the regular season so no way they win a playoff game? Nah fam, they’ll just go out and not lose a game and only allow 10 runs in 6 games against offenses that experts across the board said would mash this pitching staff. Trevor Bauer shreds his hand while playing with his favorite toys? The bullpen will just give up two runs while Napoli and Kipnis hit balls to the moon, Lindor stands on his head on defense, Roberto Perez calls a perfect game. The problem doesn’t matter to these guys. They just step up and keep fighting. It’s a special thing to watch.
A big mistake outsiders are making is giving the Indians bulletin board material. It all started with someone on the inside doubting them. After Carrasco broke his hand against Detroit, Paul Hoynes wrote their postseason dreams were over weeks before the season ended. In his defense, given the seemingly endless list of injuries to vital players in the organization he made a valid argument. Hoynsie ended up looking like a hero by being the first to publicly doubt them on such a large stage, he was the first to light a fire. Yahoo sports baseball department made their predictions prior to the ALDS annnnnnndddd……..
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) October 6, 2016
Now in the ALCS we have the #Circumstances saga. Jose Bautista accused but didn’t accuse the umpiring crew of giving favorable calls to Indians pitching because they have been pitching well and not throwing cock shots to a team that scores more than half their runs via the long ball. I have to be honest, I love everything about the Blue Jays. From their new holier than thou approach to the Cleveland Indians “offensive” name while filing a lawsuit to ban the use of the name and mascot in Canada (gotta do what ya gotta do, get the team banned so they have to forfeit three games in your country. Savvy move). To their radio commentator refusing to say the word “Indians”. I guess Canadians forget to teach their kids not to throw stones at glass houses. Their fans only care about the team come October, rain beers from the 300 level while attempting to take out outfielder’s eyeballs, but the Indians are in the wrong for their name. I hope to wake up to seeing a Joey Bats headline backhandedly accusing the Indians of steroid use after smashing dingers and scoring more runs. It will never end.
News flash: Andrew Miller is really good. Like scary good.
Andrew Miller has faced 17 batters this series. He has struck out 13.
Andrew Miller has faced 33 batters this postseason. He has K’d 20.
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) October 18, 2016
Andrew Miller career in postseason
16 1/3 IP
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 18, 2016
Indians out here breaking record and shocking the world. 2016 is the year of the Cleveland.
The Indians just became the first team in MLB history to win a postseason game without having any pitcher record more than five outs.
— Jason Lukehart (@JasonLukehart) October 18, 2016
#StayWoke NL Champion
Mickey Callaway also says that Danny Salazar will definitely be ready for the World Series if the Indians make it there. #RallyTogether
— WaitingForNextYear (@WFNYCLE) October 18, 2016