Cleveland Against the World: Indians Surprise Baseball World & Cruise Into World Series

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

On May 14th, ESPN’s 30-for-30 film series released “Believeland,” a documentary highlighting the struggles of Cleveland professional sports teams over the past several decades. However, only one month later, director Andy Billman’s masterpiece needed to add a storybook ending, as the Cleveland Cavaliers stole the NBA title from the Golden State Warriors after being down three games to one. Billman, a die-hard Cleveland sports fan, likely took no issue with having to improve this ending. But now he may have to add yet another chapter to the Northeast Ohio sports saga.

The Cleveland Indians were victorious Tuesday, sealing the American League Championship Series in five games over the Toronto Blue Jays. With the 3-0 game five shutout at The Rogers Centre, the Tribe gets to wave their first AL pennant since 1997.

The 2016 campaign has been an unlikely one for the Indians. Many wrote off a postseason berth for the Tribe as early as May, when they lost their star offensive threat, Michael Brantley, for the season due to a nagging shoulder injury. But in came rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin, who batted .296 with 14 homers and a .372 on base percentage in 2016, while playing above average defense in center field. The former Texas A&M Aggie is likely to finish top three in the Rookie of the Year Award voting.

Others thought that the Indians’ bullpen would not be productive enough over the full length of the season. While Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and other productive bullpen arms would probably disagree with that statement, they likely did not complain when the front office went out and traded prospects for elite reliever Andrew Miller. So far, Miller has arguably been the team’s most valuable player in the playoffs.

Finally, the latest hiccup for the Indians had been the late season injuries to the rotation, with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco going down. This led to many writing them off against the powerful offense of the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. However, manager Terry Francona pieced his wounded staff together in an unconventional way against his former club, and Cleveland swept the Red Sox in three games.

But even once the Indians reached the ALCS, game two starter Trevor Bauer had to move to game three due to a freak accident with his finger. He then started in game three, but he did not make it past the first inning, and yet the Indians’ bullpen went on to shut down Toronto’s solid offense. In game five, Cleveland’s starting pitcher was rookie Ryan Merritt. Merritt had only pitched eleven major league innings pitched in the regular season, but once again, an unlikely name stepped up big. He tossed 4 1/3 scoreless innings and handed the ball off to the Indians’ reliable relief pitching. Once again, the Indians “filled the holes” on their roster, despite all of the hesitant critics.

So one might ask, how have the Indians dealt with all these issues and still made it this far? There are no short answers to that question, but simply put, many contributions have been made, both from older former All-Stars and talented young players. 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber has stepped up and been the ace that the Indians knew he could be. Kluber has picked up two wins in the postseason thus far, allowing only two earned runs over 18 1/3 innings pitched.

The offense has not been a juggernaut, but it has been producing in key situations, including key home runs by Mike Napoli, Lonnie Chisenhall, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Roberto Perez, and Coco Crisp along the way. Shortstop Francisco Lindor has been leading the way, hitting .323 this postseason with two home runs of his own.

Furthermore, the major story has been Francona’s bullpen manipulation. The use of relievers early in the game and having no labels on each reliever’s role has allowed the Tribe manager to mix and match using lefty and righty matchups and using the reliever with the best career numbers versus big hitters. Shaw and Miller, normally late-inning answers, have been used as early as the fourth and fifth innings, respectively. Cody Allen, who is the Indians’ prototypical closer, has entered to put out fires in the seventh inning, and he still has maintained a scoreless 7 2/3 innings thus far.

This unusual formula for success speaks to the lack of ego on the Indians’ staff, providing Francona with a luxury that a lot of other clubs, including Joe Maddon’s Chicago Cubs, do not have. Cubs’ closer Aroldis Chapman has struggled when entering the game in non-save situations this postseason, citing that he does not feel as comfortable. But Miller has proven that the situation does not matter to him, ahend  just focuses on the matchup at hand.

It is this principle that has contributed to his playoff success, and earned him the ALCS Most Valuable Player Award on Tuesday. Miller is striking out almost two batters per inning during the playoffs, and has yet to allow a run in his postseason career in over 20 innings pitched. The tall left-hander threw just 21 pitches Tuesday to record eight outs in the pennant-clinching game five before handing the ball off to Allen in the ninth inning.

The Indians are now set to host game one of the World Series on Tuesday, October 25th, while the Cavaliers open their season across the street, with the championship ring ceremony to take place prior to the game. For Northeast Ohio sports fans, it will likely be a night to remember. Somewhere nearby, Andy Billman is probably writing his newest additions to “Believeland 2.0.”