While covering a mid-April series between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox , I asked Terry Francona, then just a few games into his tenure as manager of the lakefront franchise, if the series itself carried any additional weight given expectations and the fact that it represented the first time in 2013 that either team would take the field against an opponent from the AL Central.
Without skipping a beat, Francona rattled off a day-to-day, somewhat cliché mantra about every game being important; a ball-and-twine version of “no time like the present,” where his team can only plan for the impending nine innings.
“Like I always tell my guys, it’s about now,” said Francona, elbows firmly planted into the table in front of him, his hands folded. “Not yesterday, not tomorrow. We can only look at it one game at a time.”
Looking back, Tito, while potentially treading on robotic, was not inaccurate with his statement. After all, the game of baseball is a marathon and one kick of the ankle isn’t going to ruin a race, provided one doesn’t result in a cement-bound faceplant. Sure, the series would find the Indians in the midst of one of their early-season skids—they lost two-straight to the Yankees, one game against the White Sox and then were promptly swept by the Boston Red Sox. Four months later, encompassing several streaks of fun and frustration, Francona’s squad finds themselves within spitting distance of the AL Central title with just six weeks of play left on the regular season docket and the division-leading Detroit Tigers in town for a four-game slate. Prior to tonight’s 7p.m. start, Francona will undoubtedly be asked about pressure and the magnitude of this early-August series. He will likely say something similar to what told me four months earlier. When he does, and if he truly believes those words to be true, he is undoubtedly alone in those sentiments. It’s the manager’s job to ensure that his players remain focused, but given this team’s history, and the recent play of both teams, all eyes will be on Progressive Field, and for good reason.
In this world of 24-hour news cycles and daily, oftentimes superfluous coverage, we tend to look at things in a vacuum all while knowing that there is a considerably larger, macro view that should be in place. Every NFL offseason is the “most important,” every series is “must win.” But as we trade in hyperbole and pressure cookers, timing and recent trends indicate that this week could make or break the last four months of hard work and walk-off wins. Though having won 10 of their last 11 games 1 , the Indians find themselves three games back in the division race, squaring off against the team that has had their number throughout the entire season, having lost nine of 12 contests thus far. An Indians sweep would put them one game ahead of the reigning American League champions; a sweep by the Tigers would effectively 2 end any shot at winning the division; a split would force each team to control their own destinies, largely against weaker opponents.
Francona may not look at the series as a whole, but there is no doubt his bosses are. If this was just another series, set-up man Vinnie Pestano would be provided the opportunity to work out his issues at the big league level. If this was just another series, Danny Salazar—and his 20-mile-per-hour deviation between his fastball and his off-speed pitches—would not be getting called-up mid-week to make just his second Major League start as opposed to Ubaldo Jiménez attempting to lower the 5.38 ERA he has for his career against the Tigers 3 . If this was just another series, the team’s communications area wouldn’t have included “big four-gamer” in the subject line of their latest email blast. Tito recently told reporters that he isn’t paying attention to either race, be it for the AL Central or one of the two Wild Card spots—”If you start doing math early, you might flunk,” he said. Ask the Tribe front office, however, and their actions clearly show that the only failing can come in not closing the gap on their built-to-win rivals.
It was a five-win month of August that led to the eventual dismissal of Manny Acta just a season ago. But if anything has been made apparent since Opening Day, it’s that this current crop of Indians provides a stark contrast to the one that pretended to be a Major League roster back in 2012. There is undoubtedly a best- and worst-case scenario come this time on Thursday. There’s a chance that the Indians and Tigers fight to the last pitch and each come out with two wins, rendering the build-up fairly moot. Given what is at stake, if Francona truly believes that it really is about today, he is to be commended. There are post-game fireworks scheduled, no oversized jerseys to be given away—just high-quality, high-leverage baseball. This all said, these next four nights, without a doubt, will be the biggest of the Tribe’s 2013 slate. Chris Antonetti has ensured that the chess pieces are already in place. It will be up to Terry and his boys to execute. After all…There’s no time like the present.
- Just six wins shy of their entire total from a year earlier [back]
- As opposed to mathematically. [back]
- His last outing against Detroits lasted just three innings where he allowed three walks and five earned runs thanks to a .412 opposing batting average [back]