This One Stings

The 2017 Cleveland Indians were the most complete team of my lifetime. I was born in 1976. A child of the 80’s, I grew up trekking down to old Municipal Stadium countless times with my father, brother, and about 2200 of our closest friends. The teams were so bad and the stadium was so depressing, yet we continued to come back for more. My now late father used to joke that he would call the Indians ticket office to find out when the game started and they would respond “what time can you get here?” Our heroes then were guys like Corey Snyder, Brook Jacoby, Miguel Dilone, and Manny Trillo. Not exactly Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth, and Gehrig.

When Jacobs Field opened in 1994, I was a Senior in High School. Our shiny new park and a team of young budding stars was ready to rock. Unlike the teams and the ballpark of my youth, the Cleveland Indians and Jacobs Field were, as Frank Costanza once said about his billiards room, “the place to be.” Gone were the days of small crowds in a cavernous dreary hell hole, they were replaced for 40,000 screaming fans in full throat. Jacoby’s solo home runs down 10-2 in the eighth were replaced by walk-off blasts by Albert Belle. No longer did we have to watched a rec spec’d Alex Cole running around centerfield coming up empty. We had Kenny Lofton scaling walls to rob opposing players of jacks.  “Jacobs Field Magic” was a real thing. Come the 1995 season, the Tribe was ready to make their mark and end their 41-year playoff drought.

The ’95 Wahoos owned baseball, going a ridiculous 100-44 and won their first division crown in a forever.. Everyone thought a World Series title was a foregone conclusion. They swept the Boston Red Sox in three and took down the Seattle Mariners in six to advance to their first World Series since 1954. They would lose to the Atlanta Braves (and a wide Game 6 strike zone) in six games. It was OK, we all thought. This team is so loaded and built for the long haul. A title will come in the next few years. This was just their first taste of October, right? Ah the best laid plans….

The Indians continued to own the AL Central, but in October, they continued to fall short. The ’96 Tribe couldn’t get out of the first round and were upset by the Baltimore Orioles in four games. ’97 was probably the least talented of all of the Tribe teams of the “Era of Champions” yet they fought all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. I don’t need to remind anyone what happened there. In ’98, they lost in the ALCS to a superior New York Yankees team who were in the middle of a four titles in five years stretch. ’99 was an epic choke against the Red Sox where the Indians led the series 2-0 before losing three straight in the ALDS.

That one I put on myself. I was living in Chicago and after the Tribe dominated those first two games, I booked a flight home for the ALCS rematch with the Yankees. That was a series that never happened. A solid jinx on my part. The 2000 Indians missed the playoffs by 1 game, but returned in ’01, once again losing a series lead and the final two games in the ALDS, this time to Seattle Mariners. That era of Indians baseball ended without what we all figured was a certainty. The Indians were so talented, there was no possible way they wouldn’t get at least one World Series ring. Nevertheless, they fell short each and every one of those years.

After a five-season rebuild, the 2007 Indians were led by the grinder, Eric Wedge. They won 96 games and returned to the playoffs. This was a plucky group that wasn’t like the teams of the previous decade. Nobody anticipated this team winning it all, but there they were, led by two 19-game winners in CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. They were up three games to one in the ALCS, needing only one win to get back to the World Series. Ryan Garko infamously discussed drinking champagne on the road. Sabathia and Carmona imploded in Games 5 and 6, respectively, and the Tribe would be forced into a dreaded Game 7 in Fenway Park. Uncle Mo was on the side of the Red Sox. Joel Skinner stopped Kenny Lofton, Casey Blake grounded into a double play, and the implosion was complete.

It would take nine years to recover from that disaster.

AP Photo/Mark Duncan

Last year’s group was special in many ways. That’s been dissected time and time again. They made October look so easy. Ace Corey Kluber was dominant against both the Red Sox and Blue Jays. Josh Tomlin, a guy booted from the rotation in August, transformed himself into a right-handed Andy Pettitte. Andrew Miller was so untouchable that he changed the way bullpen weapons would be used going forward across the entire league. Every single string future Hall of Fame skipper Terry Francona pulled would work. This was a team that lost one of its three remaining healthy starting pitchers to a drone accident and won a bullpen game 1-0, on the road, in the ALCS.  If that wasn’t Team of Destiny stuff, I don’t know what is. Heck, Ryan Merritt became part of an October folklore. Everything for the the ’16 Tribe worked in October, all the way to the 3-1 World Series lead against the darlings of baseball, the Chicago Cubs. But as we all know, despite the best efforts of Rajai Davis in Game 7, it was the Cubs time.

Almost a year ago, I came back to this place where I spent countless hours writing countless thoughts about the team I love so much. One thing stuck with me the most in the despair of losing Game 7 of the 2016 World Series to the now hated Cubs: When you get that far, you have to finish the job because getting through the playoffs is not easy. You cannot take getting to the World Series for granted because no matter how talented your team is, success in October is never promised. The ‘97 Indians won just 86 games and were not the best team in the American League that year. Yet, they were two Jose Mesa outs away from winning it all. After that failure, it took the Indians 19 years to get back to baseball’s biggest stage.

Nineteen. Years.

This brings me to present day. I am a proud Indians season-ticket holder. I rarely miss road or home games. “Heavily invested” is a phrase I would use to describe my Tribe fandom. “Tribe first” is another. No Indians team seemed more destined to win a title than this one did. They’ve been built the right way. They have actual full-fledged stars on this team. Francisco Lindor is arguably the best shortstop in the game. Jose Ramirez will finish in the top four in the AL MVP race. Kluber will more than likely win his second Cy Young award. The rotation from one to six is the envy of General Managers around the league. The bullpen boasts Miller and Cody Allen, arguably two of the top 10 relievers in the game, along with a group so deep, three pitchers with sub three ERA’s couldn’t sniff the playoff roster. The front office and ownership went out and kept their promise to spend when the time was right, signing the biggest power bat on the market, Edwin Encarnacion, to a three-year contract. They acquired Jay Bruce in a trade, picking up the remainder of his salary from the Mets, something the Yankees reportedly wouldn’t even do. The one-year signing of Austin Jackson was just icing on the cake as A-Jax had a phenomenal year, saving the Tribe in the outfield when Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, and rookie Bradley Zimmer all went down with injuries. Again: This was a team built to win it all.

Chris Antonetti Cleveland Indians

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While they sputtered out of the gates with a post-World Series hangover, they hit their stride after the all-star break and went on a tear. Not once did I imagine a 22-game win streak was possible, but during the run, you just expected them to win every single one of those games. The team played this way. Loose and free, everything came up roses. They had hit their stride at the right time.  The only thing was, that streak means nothing come October. Playoff baseball is a completely different animal.

Francona is the greatest manager in Tribe history. The man came here five years ago and completely turned the organization around. It starts with him. We as fans owe him everything. He legitimized this franchise and made it a place players wanted to be again. There is no denying that. I will admit when he chose to start Trevor Bauer in Game One, holding Kluber back for Game Two, I was taken aback. I also didn’t understand moving Mike Clevinger, who had been fantastic since mid-June, to the bullpen and keeping Josh Tomlin in the rotation as the fourth starter. Yandy Diaz off the playoff roster for Erik Gonzalez and leaving Gio Urshela as the third baseman? I guess I could live with that. But as I have always come to do, I leaned back on one thing: Trust in Tito.

Bauer’s incredible Game 1 start against a very tough Yankees lineup made him look like a genius in the 4-0 win. There were signs of trouble when Kluber looked anything like a Cy Young winner in Game Two, getting roughed up badly for six runs on seven hits in two and two-thirds. But the Tribe would pull out one of the great comebacks in their playoff history, and steal Game 2, 9-8, thanks to some questionable managing by Tito’s counterpart Joe Girardi. After the way the Yankees blew Game 2, nobody in their right mind would think that anyone could come back from being destroyed like that to win three games in a row against the hottest team in baseball, right? But this is October. Anything can happen.

Quick side story: I took my wife and two kids (ages 10 and 7) to Game Two. The highs and lows of the game were astounding. What an emotional roller coaster. This was my daughter’s first playoff game. Both of my kids go to 25+ games a year with me, but as we know, October baseball is a different animal. Watching them get so intently into the action was a fun step back for me as a dad, especially when I needed to stay sane when the Yankees had a 8-3 lead.

When the Tribe trailed by five, my wife was actually discussing where to take the kids for ice cream after the game considering this felt like a blowout. That all changed in the sixth. Our beloved Wahoos loaded the bases for Lindor and the crowd all stood as one. We were in the last row of our section in the lower bowl. My daughter was having a hard time seeing so I held up up for the at-bat. My son was standing on my seat, peering over my shoulder. My wife was next to me as well. The ball was absolutely crushed by Frankie and I yelled “OH MY GOD” about five times (the same reaction, only about five times less than the Rajai HR) and the four of us embraced while jumping up and down. The smiles on their faces could have lit up Las Vegas.

After the game, I told my kids in the car ride home that this is something they will remember the rest of their lives and will tell their kids about. It took me back to January of 1987, I was two months shy of being 10 years old – the same age my son is now – when Bernie Kosar hit Brian Brennan for a fourth quarter touchdown which gave the Browns a 20-13 lead late in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship game. I was at the game with my brother and my parents. I can see it in my head now, my brother and I jumping for joy and hugging yelling to each other “we’re going to the Super Bowl! We’re going to the Super Bowl!”

I can now look back at the Game 3 1-0 loss in the Bronx the same way I look at Game 5’s 3-2 Loss to the Cubs in the World Series. When it happened, I said to myself, “Oh well, all we have to do is win one more at home and we will be fine. Tip your cap to the other team.”  Instead I should be kicking myself for being so nonchalant as I was after Game 5 last year. I won’t lie: I was thinking a year ago “well this is great, now I get to be in the stadium when we win it all!” I should have been lamenting the fact that the Tribe 1-10 with runners in scoring position and lost by a run. The same applies here. While I credit Masahiro Tanaka, I now can’t stop thinking about José and Jay Bruce stranding Jason Kipnis at third with one out in the fourth.

Going into Wednesday night, I still felt the Indians would be OK. Having your ace ready for Game 5 at home is the position you want to be in should it come to this. Maybe Tito was prescient after all. Or maybe he was hiding the fact that Kluber was clearly not 100 percent and that was why he held him back to Game 2.1 The crowd was hyped, but the city was clearly nervous after two days of sitting around waiting. I just kept saying to everyone who asked me that it was of the utmost importance to get a lead early, keep the crowd in the game, and keep the Yankees bullpen away from pitching with a lead. It sure didn’t take long for the nightmare scenario to occur.

Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber

AP Photo/Jim Mone

Once again, you could tell Kluber was not himself. The wipeout stuff just wasn’t there. But more importantly, the offense which had been so good for so long, completely went silent for the third consecutive game. Lindor, Kipnis, Ramirez, and Santana were a combined 1-for-19 with a walk in a win or go home game. For the series, the team’s two MVP candidates went 4-for-38. This isn’t all on them—no one hit the ball well in the series—but when your team’s three biggest stars all lay a collective egg (sans the Frankie Grand Slam in Game 2), it’s going to be tough to win.

Tito can’t escape blame for this debacle either. Carlos Carrasco, the team’s clear second best starter, made only one start in this series while Bauer made two, including one on short rest. With the depth of this rotation, nobody was needed to make a short rest start. This was totally different from a year ago when Francona had no other choice but to do so.  If Kluber is indeed hurt – Francona and Kluber were both very cryptic about it after the game – then why was he the one slated to go twice including Game 5? Wouldn’t they have been better served with Carrasco lined up for games 2 and 5? The decision to keep Kipnis in center field also backfired. You can’t argue the fact that this team was so banged up in the outfield that Kipnis was forced out there to keep his bat in the lineup despite said bat struggling throughout the entire season. Hitting him second also continued to defy logic when Jackson was a much more productive player and a left-handed Sabathia was on the mound.2 What about keeping a clearly rusty Michael Brantley on the playoff roster instead of an extra right-handed bat in Yandy Diaz who would have most likely started twice against Sabathia and served as a right-handed pinch hitting option against left-handed closer Aroldis Chapman?  It’s easy to second guess now that the Indians gagged away this series, but maybe none of what I just said matters if the Indians play the way they have been playing since the break. None of it matters if Lindor, Ramirez and Kluber do what they normally do. But again, this is October where stars are made out of nobodies (see Chad Ogea, Tomlin, etc) and current stars play like also-rans (see David Price and Clayton Kershaw’s October numbers). Heck, the great Aaron Judge was 1-20 with 16 strikeouts in this series. He may be the AL MVP.

What makes this even tougher is the fact that this Tribe team clearly has more talent than they did a year ago when they reached Game 7 of the World Series. When healthy, this team had legitimately eight outfielders it could use and not miss a beat.  They had six solid starters in the rotation and the best bullpen in the game. Maybe the injuries finally caught up to them. Maybe the stage of October got them tight at the plate (that for sure seemed to be the case). I am assuming one day I will be able to pull back and appreciate this team for how good it truly was and for how special the regular season is. But I can’t do that today. This one stings. These opportunities don’t just come around every year. When you get to October you have to capitalize, because getting back to the World Series is really, really hard. This team was built for this and just couldn’t finish. The good news is that nothing can ever be worse than losing Game 7 of the World Series at home in extra innings. That’s about the only thing that is keeping me going today.

  1. This team deserves zero benefit of the doubt when it comes to handling injuries. []
  2. Kipnis had a .631 OPS versus lefties in 2017 while Jackson was nearly double at 1.014. []