Indians

Always Positive! An Exercise in Tribe Optimism

Jason Kipnis attitude

If your crystal ball had told you that the Indians would take two of three from the Tigers and the Browns would battle the Ravens right down to the wire, you’d probably say that sounds like a pretty positive sports weekend; all things considered. Of course, the problem is that it’s impossible to actually consider “all things” when they wind up including a fluke, season-ending injury to your No. 2 starter and a game-ending taunting penalty on a polite ball flip to the ref.

Yup, the doom-and-gloom machine is rolling back into town for the first time since the 73-win Golden State Warriors still had a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. That’s why, today, I am determined to stand in that machine’s path with all the blind courage of the tank man in Tiananmen Square—a ridiculously overblown comparison I immediately regret.

There’s no use pretending like the loss of Carlos Carrasco isn’t terribly deflating, heartbreaking, demoralizing, et cetera. Not to mention it is downright unjust in the wake of Danny Salazar and Yan Gomes’ recent bad news. BUT, despite my own deeply rooted instincts as a Cleveland fan, I stopped crying over Cookie after an hour or two and decided to retrain my brain against the grain. As a legitimate test of will power, I am now focusing purely on the positive as it concerns the Cleveland Indians going forward. Some of this thinking requires poking your head into the clouds a bit, but some of it is rational and supported by simple observations.

Exhibit A: This Actually WAS a Really Successful Weekend

The Indians just took a huge step in finally, at long last, slaying the beast that has terrorized them for most of what could be deemed the Miguel Cabrera Era, or the “Cabr-Era.” You can be bummed about Sunday’s 9-5 loss if you want, but the fact that Tito Francona felt comfortable going with Joe Colon in the ninth inning of a 1-run game (no matter how dumb you thought it was) proves just how much of a NOT Must-Win situation it was. With just 13 games left, Cleveland (86-63) holds a seven-game lead on Detroit (79-70), and they’ve beaten their greatest foe 13 out of 15 times this season. On Sunday, Tiger closer Francisco Rodriguez finally made his FIRST appearance against the Tribe in 2016—showing just how remarkably non-competitive the season series has been.

Am I just painting the Indians’ ownership of the Tigers as a moral victory for feel-good points? Not at all. Beating the Tigers, alone, doesn’t make this season a success, but if beating the Tigers also wins the Indians a division title—which it effectively would when the math is done—it holds concrete value with lasting implications. Every great team has to get over a challenging hump, and the Indians once again took care of business. Finally and firmly, the tables are turned on what had become a Browns-Ravens type of dynamic in their own division.

Exhibit B: The Rotation Is . . . But Hey, Check out the Bullpen!

Other WFNY writers will be rolling out this point with far greater statistical analysis, but I think we can treat this more like the Emmy Awards. If you’re not aware, Emmys aren’t handed out to shows based on the quality of their overall seasons, but on the merits of just one representative episode of the show, which the producers send out to academy members. With this in mind, I humbly submit Saturday’s 10-inning, 1-0 win as our finest episode of the hit show Bullpen—not to be confused with CBS’s stupid-looking new procedural drama, Bull.

Immediately in the wake of Carrasco’s injury,1 the expanded Tribe pen went out and set an MLB record for the most pitchers used (9) in a shutout. There was even some dialogue worthy of a shitty CBS procedural, as Francona called down to the pen and reportedly informed the small army of arms that “they’re all gonna pitch, and we’re gonna win.” Yup, that actually happened.

One can’t help but wonder if the same philosophy might rear its head in the postseason, where the bold idea of lining up a “bullpen game,” rather than a traditional Mike Clevinger or Cody Anderson start, has become increasingly appealing. The problem is that Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin give you little reason to think Games 2 and 3 won’t amount to similar situations—ugh, dammit, keep it positive, Clayman! Trevor hit three batters on Sunday but he apologized for it on Twitter. It’s all good!

The point is, the Big 4 in the Cleveland bullpen give you a fighting chance to ride out a lackluster rotation, much as the oft-cited Kansas City Royals did the past two years. This should not be downplayed. Thinking about the playoffs merely in terms of dominant starting pitching is a slightly old-fashioned perspective that isn’t always supported by recent history. It’s the age of the bullpen, and the Tribe has the best one in the AL.

Exhibit C: Embrace the Underdog!

Why are we acting like all of our ducks were in a row before this past week? Have we forgotten that the entire 2016 season has been built on the foundation of a classic underdog tale? From the start, this team’s journey was going to be more Major League than “Murderer’s Row.” The Indians have played virtually the entire season without their best player, Michael Brantley, and most of it without their catcher and an important team leader in Yan Gomes (who clearly pissed off a troll or a warlock or something). They have turned what looked like a debilitating team weakness—the outfield—into one of the most effective units in the league. A 23 year-old utilityman became Brantley 2.0, two grizzled free agents became the league steals leader and the right-handed power bat they’ve been seeking for years, and another shot-in-the-dark bullpen pick-up, Dan Otero, proved to be lightning in a bottle. Perhaps even more importantly, all the other core pieces did what so rarely happens on a Cleveland team—they exceeded expectations. We’re talking Santana, Kipnis, and Lindor.

Sure, maybe everything looked like it was coming together perfectly back in June, but that was just a fun detour from the bigger narrative here. The Indians never had a LeBron James. Hell, they don’t even have a Kyrie Irving or a Kevin Love. Well, okay, Corey Kluber might be Kevin Love, at the very least. And Frankie might be a Kyrie in the making. But the point remains! This club was never going to coast to a championship. It was always going to take grit and spirit and all that nonsense. And unlike the past couple years, that fire and magic—and the belief —have legitimately been there time and again this season.

If Jose Ramirez’s helmet flying off represents the Indians’ relentlessness, and “Party at Napoli’s” communicates their fun side, then Jason Kipnis and the never shy Trevor Bauer could get credit for establishing the team’s new eyes-on-the-prize, F-U attitude. Observe their much-discussed responses to the doomsday pundits, specifically Paul Hoynes.

It’s already being hotly debated whether Kip and Bauer (more so Bauer, of course) were out of line and/or misguided in taking aim at a longtime scribe like Hoynes. The answer to that question is Yes*, and the asterisk indicates that I don’t care.

Journalists get their jollies by judging players’ performance and temperament, dropping snide remarks, mentioning certain guy’s weird obsession with drones, and making big, brash statements to “sell papers,” as they said in the old days. In turn, players have the right to hate on journalists, as is a cherished tradition (I am picturing Roy Hobbs smashing that foul ball into the press box as the slimy Robert Duvall character ducks for cover). Unlike a lot of my comrades in the Indians twitterverse, I don’t have any harsh opinions about Hoynes. I grew up reading Sheldon Ocker, who was similarly surly and uninterested in saber gibberish. These old timers do deserve respect. But if you’re a reporter and you choose to poke a bear, I think it’s okay if that bear takes a swing right back at you. In fact, I like that bear’s chances of winning a playoff series a bit more than the bear who just sits there and takes it.

What’s more fun than “Us Against the World” anyway? Sure, Bauer’s a loose cannon, Tomlin gives up bombs, and Clevinger is 16 years old. But it’s not unreasonable that we can make some noise here. We’ve heard this song before! Remember that hobbled, undermanned Cavs team that took Golden State to six games in the 2015 Finals? Or is it just “championship or bust” now for you greedy bastards?

Exhibit D: Good Old Fashioned Rationalizing

Since August 1, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar posted ERAs of 4.77 and 8.59 respectively. So . . . no big loss, right?

OK, that’s obviously a ridiculous argument. But I suppose I could rationally say that if either Carrasco or Salazar had been flat-out dominating down the stretch, their absences would sting that little extra bit more. Concerns about the starting pitching, outside of Kluber, have been hanging around since after the All-Star Break, and there was a growing feeling that the bullpen and clutch hitting might play a greater role in taking the team to the promised land.

No one would have predicted that back in April, or June for that matter, when the entire rotation was on fire. But for roughly half the season, we’ve had to accept that Salazar, Carrasco, and particularly Bauer and Tomlin weren’t going to be leadpipe locks in any playoff game. Cookie, in fairness, was pitching far more effectively than the other three, and arguably would have entered the postseason as the best No. 2 on any staff. But he was scuffling a little of late. . . . If that makes you feel better?

Exhibit K: As In, Kluber

Skipping a few letters and knocking on wood . . . Corey Kluber is still healthy! And with the Klubot pitching twice in a 5-game series and three times in a 7-gamer, you’ve at least got a chance.

Feel free to share more positive thinking below, because yay! The Tribe! Woo! S’all good!

MAGIC NUMBER: 7

  1. he fractured his wrist on the second pitch of the game, in case I’m somehow breaking the news to you []