For the last few weeks, the underestimation of a Cleveland Indians team that won 94 games in the regular season has been riding at an all-time high for doubters of Terry Francona’s ball club.
After losing Carlos Carrasco for the season, long-time Indians Beat Reporter Paul Hoynes declared in one fanbase igniting headline, “Sept. 17: The day Cleveland Indians’ postseason dreams ended before they began.” Hoynes continued in the article, “Write it down. On Sept. 17, the Indians were eliminated from serious postseason advancement before they even got there.”
Then there was former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
In an interview on Kirk & Callahan in the morning on September 29th Schilling stated, “I think right now that it is a potentially enormous mismatch. Given the amount of injuries Cleveland has suffered. You’re looking at McAllister then Tomlin. If you don’t have a pitcher on the mounds who can make a hitter swing and miss, the Red Sox I think are going to bury you. I don’t think this is an offense – you cannot be a contact guy. This is very much like ’04 from the standpoint of offensively. That is why Cleveland initially was going to be a tough matchup because of the amount of power arms at the top of the rotation with Salazar and some of the other guys. Tomlin has had a good year, but look at the numbers. If you’re going to put a guy on the mound that relies on contact to beat you, I think the Red Sox are going to destroy any staff that does that.”
Schilling continued, “If you look at the numbers, it’s a no-brainer: it’s the Cubs and the Red Sox. Both of them can mash like on one else in the playoffs.”
Starting with Schilling, you may want to look up the opposing team’s starting rotation before you go and speak on the radio about them. He left out Corey Kluber—you know, a guy who is in the running for the Cy Young award—Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer and one of the league’s most dominant bullpens. Kluber only posted an 18-9 recod with a WHIP of 1.06, ERA of 3.14 and 227 strikeouts, why should he be able to contribute to stopping the Red Sox in the playoffs, right Curt?
As for Hoynes, for someone who has covered the team all season long and witnessed the absolute resilience displayed by the roster and organization, you would think making such a public declaration may have been a little more thought out. But hey, clicks are important to serve those advertising dollars, right?
You all know the story, but it is still fun to revisit. Injuries to Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco the first time around (six weeks), Danny Salazar and starting catcher Yan Gomes put the roster in a tough spot. Marlon Byrd was suspended, while Juan Uribe went down the Mark Reynolds and Brandon Moss route of hitting purgatory. And who could forget the fact that Collin Cowgill started in right field on opening day for this team.
The majority of time in Major League Baseball, the aforementioned injuries and ineffectiveness would bury a team early, instead, Francona’s team would not only rebound, they would find hidden gems from players many expected very little of (unless you are a proud, card-carrying member of hashtag Indians Twitter).
At the ripe age of 25-years old, Tyler Naquin would come in and play 116 games for the Indians this season. Notably remembered for his walk-off, in the park homerun, Naquin would finish the year batting .296/.372/.514/.886 with 14 HR and 43 RBI.
Naquin wasn’t the only “spring chicken” to come in and provide a spark for this Indians ball club. Jose Ramirez (yes, the same guy many wrote off as “just a utility guy” last year) came out of nowhere to fuel argumentative debates on Twitter about whether he should be in the running for MVP consideration.
After posting a .219/.291/.340/.631 line in 97 games in 2015, Ramirez would rebound out of nowhere when the team needed him most to help fill in for Brantley and Uribe. He finished the year with an amazing turnaround from a year ago, batting .312/.363/.462/.825, increasing his WAR from 1.4 to 3.9 in the process. He hit 11 HR and 76 RBI in the regular season, but what was even more impressive were the 46 doubles and his ability to hit with runners in scoring position—where he was among the league leaders and arguably one of the most clutch players on this team all season.
On top of all of this talk of the emergence of unknowns, it would be nearly criminal not to mention the impact of long-time Tribe members, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. Someone provided Kipnis with some Jobu magic this season, as he increased his HR total from nine a season ago to 23 in 2016 (driving in 82 runs in the process).
And what would Santana do to top him? Just go out and hit 34 HRs a year after hitting just 19, while increasing his batting average from .231 the last two seasons to .259 in the process. For a player constantly ripped apart by the fan base for his patience at the plate and willingness to get on via the walk, Santana emerged as one of the top pieces of this entire team—no matter where you wanted him to bat this season.
Napoli’s veteran leadership and ability to ignite the fans with one swing of the bat (or one Party at Naopli’s t-shirt) rewarded the Indians front office for rolling the dice on him this offseason. He hit 34 HR and drove in 101 runs, even though he set his personal record for strikeouts with 194 in the process. Meanwhile, Davis would swipe 43 bases and give the Indians another veteran voice in the clubhouse.
That brings us to the postseason, where the Indians entered as the No. 2 seed in the American League, Central Division Champions—and apparently massive underdogs (according to the media) to one of the most complete offensive teams I have seen in a long time.
If the Indians were supposed to roll over and die like Hoynes’ article from a few weeks ago said they would because they were down a couple starting pitchers and starting Trevor Bauer (started the season in the bullpen) in Game 1, someone forgot to deliver that memo to the team.
Instead, they would come out and send the pitcher with the most wins in MLB this season packing after 4.1 innings. The trio of Roberto Perez, Kipnis and Francisco Lindor would incite a Tom Hamilton lyrical assault on radio waves all across Northeastern Ohio after hitting three home runs in the third inning. The “Jake” was rocking in a way that has seemingly been absent since the team’s World Series dreams were dashed in the 2007 ALCS, and as a child of the 80s who grew up on the mid-90s Indians teams, it was a sight for sore eyes.
Less than 24 hours removed from a thrilling game one victory at home which saw the managerial skills of Francona on full display by bringing in Andrew Miller much earlier than anyone expected, I beg each and every one of you to do one thing—enjoy the ride.
Ignore the pundits who claim the Indians have no shot (or are stealing signs to get victories). Let them keep forgetting about guys like Kluber and Bauer being part of the rotation. Or in the case of Tony Kornheiser from this week, keep doubting this team because you cannot name one member of the roster.
The 2016 Cleveland Indians have not written themselves off because of one injury all season. They never needed one of their players to be known on the national stage to win 94 games. And they certainly are not ending their season early just because someone in the media said it ended back on September 17th.
Like the Cleveland Cavaliers before them this summer. There is just something special about the run the Cleveland Indians are on. So here’s to what hopefully turns out to be a long and exciting October, ending with another championship parade with 1.3 million of my new closest friends.
**Featured Image Credit: John Kuntz