As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” rolls on as we start to count down the top 10 stories of the year.
After attending a dinner in Columbus on Friday, September 15, we ventured into Gordon Biersch Brewery. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals were playing a game that was virtually meaningless in the playoff hunt but resembled a postseason game on the intensity spectrum. It was not odd that a baseball game was on television in a Columbus bar. It was, however, odd that it occupied every television and held the attention of each customer, as Columbus tends to be indifferent towards professional baseball. Sure, there was a virtual split of Indians and Cincinnati Reds fanatics scattered across the town but these markets paled in comparison to the hoards of Ohio State football fans, with a healthy dose of soccer and hockey fans, as well.
The unusual interest in this particular baseball game spread beyond casual baseball fanhood. A few stools over sat two Reds fans, one of them sporting an all-black cap, save for a white C, honoring the team that plays its home games 90 minutes south on the banks of the Ohio River. Their discussion ranged from Reds bullpen issues to the likelihood that the Indians would score in the bottom of the ninth to keep their historic 22-game winning streak alive. The other side of the bar was occupied by a pair of gentlemen that might have been glued to their seats, slurring every other word. Eavesdropping on the conversation offered evidence that they were not exceedingly familiar with baseball, yet the Indians quest for their 23rd consecutive win was their only discussion topic. The winning streak had generated enough buzz to filter its way into the minds of fans of other teams and non-baseball fans alike. When Mike Minor struck out Francisco Lindor to halt the historic streak, there was a simultaneous groan across the bar.
It was born on Thursday, August 24. The Indians lead in the American League Central had dwindled down to 4.5 games over the pesky Minnesota Twins. Trevor Bauer toed the rubber against the American League East leaders, the Boston Red Sox. After dropping two of the previous three against the Red Sox, odds looked bleak as the Indians took on Chris Sale, the universal favorite for the AL Cy Young award at the time.
Then it happened. An offensive explosion occurred and for the second time in as many weeks, the Indians torched Sale. Offensive explosions would become a common theme of the prestigious streak.
On the first night, it was Yandy Diaz. The heralded rookie was able to elevate appropriately, leading to the first of what could be many four-hit campaigns of his career. A triple and two doubles from Diaz sparked the Indians 13-run barrage, and served as a placeholder for what was to come over the following three weeks.
The list of hitting accomplishments is gaudy. While ripping off 22 straight victories, the Indians were second to none with the lumber. They produced more runs, doubles, home runs, and free passes than any other team in baseball over the stretch. Extra base hits galore led to a league-leading 145 wRC+ over the streak. For the non-sabermetrically inclined, their .306 batting average dwarfed the rest of the league.
On an individual level, contributions were plentiful. Five players across the league accumulated at least thirty hits over the life of the streak, two of them being Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. The 20 extra-base hits registered by Ramirez topped the leaderboards, with Lindor’s sixteen extra-base hits falling fourth. Extra-inning heroics from Jay Bruce pushed the streak to 22 in a come-from-behind game that simply seemed impossible.
The collective bats gelled at once, providing a sustained hitting barrage that left opponents hapless. That was only one component of the streak, though.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about,” Corey Kluber said, “just because you play so many games in so many days over such long stretches. To go almost three weeks without losing a game is not something that you ever really expect.”
In the previous excerpt provided to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, Kluber spoke about the improbable nature of the streak. It takes luck, success at the plate, and sustained dominance on the pitcher’s mound to accomplish a streak of any sort, let alone the second longest in Major League Baseball’s lengthy historical archives. Dominate is just what Tribe pitchers did, following Kluber’s lead.
The comprehensive Tribe pitching staff blanked hitters at an alarming rate. Over the 199 innings pitched, they limited opposing teams to a measly 35 runs, equating to an astonishing 1.58 earned run average. Striking out 200 hitters while only walking 37 results in a strikeout to walk ratio you could only hope to achieve on your preferred video game console. Approximately one-quarter of opponents that appeared at the plate reached base, meaning the entire Tribe pitching staff turned every opposing hitter into a less efficient hitter than Michael Martinez.
Early-inning dominance highlighted the general tone of the streak. Innings one through three offered the Indians a launching point for moving into shut down mode the rest of the game. They outscored opponents by 55 runs in this stretch, a 69 to 14 advantage. This offered little in terms of late-inning heroics, save for the final win of the stretch.
The only extra-inning affair sprouted from a Jake Junis versus Josh Tomlin pitcher’s duel. After 8 1/2 innings, the Indians trailed 2-1. A 21-game winning streak was on the line, with only three outs to make up the deficit.
The atmosphere at Progressive Field was electric. With every offering from Royals closer Kelvim Herrera, fans held their collective breath. A quick out from Yandy Diaz preceded a Tyler Naquin single. Naquin was forced out at second on a Francisco Mejia ground ball. Terry Francona opted to utilize Erik Gonzalez’s base running with Lindor coming to the plate. Down to his final strike, Lindor fought off a 96-mile per hour fastball just beyond the outstretched glove of Alex Gordon. Gonzalez wheeled around third and scored easily, tying the game at two. The atmosphere at the stadium encapsulated the moment nicely, as a playoff-like roar erupted following the ball caroming off the nineteen-foot wall in left. In extra innings, Jay Bruce provided the double into the right-field corner to end things and cap the winning streak off in fitting fashion.
Following the Francisco Lindor strikeout to end the winning streak, Progressive Field stood and provided the team with the appropriate ovation. Players popped out of the dugout and soaked it in. Fans were more appreciative than somber, recognizing that the streak had to end sometime.
In a season that ultimately ended in despair, the winning streak provided something more unique than could be expected. It drew the attention of the masses — including the casual fans of other teams and nonbaseball fans in Columbus.