Through the course of a baseball season, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the ebbs and flows and rants and raves of each marginal win and losses. In one corner, we have The 162-Game Season; it hails from The Early 1960s and is the long-standing pastime through which hardcore baseball fans consume the triumphs and tribulations of their favorite teams. In the other corner, the three-man team of Social Media, its more gregarious brother Sports Talk Radio, and their cousin Instant Reaction. Their origin is unknown, but it’s widely assumed they were all conceived in the back seat of a Pinto after a hot date between Click-happy Editor and Rating-hungry Program Director. Even the cousin.
With all 162 games in the Pinto’s rear view mirror, and two days off before the first pitch of the American League Wild Card game in Cleveland, it’s time to exhale and take a look back at how we got here—how we got to a place of leverage, doing so by the margin of one single game. A win is a win, but find me a fan who reacted to the Jason Giambi walk-off home run from a week ago in the same fashion they did when the Tribe beat the Phillies by six runs in the very middle of May. Sure, the Giambi walk-off is still very fresh in our minds, but one could pinpoint any one of the 11 walk-off wins as crucial—the Jason Kipnis infield single scoring Drew Stubbs, leading to a 2-1 win over the Washington Nationals still sticks out. Or the botched-but-fortunate home run call against the Oakland Athletics. Or Mike Aviles’ ninth-inning grand slam in Detroit. Or the 1-0 hard-fought win over Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers wherein the only run was scored in the first inning thanks to a lead-off home run from Michael Bourn. Or…
“It’s like the culmination of everything that you’ve gone through, all the ups and downs,” said Terry Francona, the man largely credited with the epic turnaround. “You see guys from different countries, different upbringings, and they’re jumping on the pile and it’s just pure joy.”
For a team to have to win their last 10 games, to win 20 games in the month of September to barely secure a Wild Card birth with 92 wins (one season after losing 94 games) is mind blowing. For a team to actually do it? Forget it. Making things that much more interesting is the fact that both the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers have also been forced to play this entire month as if it already were already the playoffs. The Rays put future AL Cy Young candidate Matt Moore on the mound on Sunday; reigning Cy Young winner David Price will take to the bump in what will be their 163rd contest. The Rangers used Yu Darvish—a player who would be in this season’s Cy Young discussion if not for Detroit’s Max Scherzer—on Sunday; the 22-year-old Martin Perez will lock horns with Price.
So for all of the Asti Spumante and Bud Light and 400 decibels of Macklemore, just like a handful of their 91 other victories, the Indians won a lot more than a game on Sunday afternoon. Young Danny Salazar will do his best impression of Jaret Wright on Wednesday night in front of a packed Progressive Field. Whomever lasts through the play-in game will be throwing their third option. Alex Cobb and Matt Garza are far from pushovers—it’s tough to imagine that their respective teams would be in the position they are if not for a solid-to-considerably-above-average starting rotation; the Rangers made the largest pre-deadline deal in acquiring Garza for a handful of prospects. But in a win-or-die situation, there is little time to be strategic when multiple games are involved. For the Indians, despite their penchant for streaks of the negative variety, to hold all of the cards at this stage is a point that cannot be overstated.
“This is just a little bit of what’s going to happen,” said Salazar amidst a champagne shower. “This is the beginning of a new era.”
A new era indeed if not for an entirely new chapter of this very season. Players like Salazar and fellow late-season hero Matt Carson were not with the big league squad through the duration of the season. Bourn and Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi and his fellow Good Squad members were not a part of the team which nearly lost 100 games under Manny Acta. Comparisons to previous teams and their respective late-season collapses never held merit. Baseball is a game of runs and streaks; players go cold at the plate and mechanics can falter with fatigue be it physical or mental. Even Francona, a manager who is undeniably in contention for AL Manger of the Year, made a few mistakes through the course of the season—starters left in one pitch too long, Yan Gomes not being in every lineup imaginable. But the beauty of a 162-game season, even if it paves the way to absurdly low attendance totals and can produce some of the worst types of overreaction imaginable, is that the cream ultimately rises to the top.
And the beauty of the this Cleveland Indians squad—in a world where economics aren’t exactly on their side—is that their cream was undoubtedly hard earned. This two-day break couldn’t be more well-deserved. Even the trolls and talk show hosts can’t argue with that.