For weeks, when implosion after implosion happened……When the bats couldn’t be colder if they were naked in Alaska….When the bullpen went into their slide….when Corey Kluber got hurt….when Detroit treated them like their personal pinata….when Justin Masterson got hurt….I tried to tell you all, wait until September. Just wait. Big things will happen. Nick Swisher, one of the veteran leaders of this now 92-win bunch, told the media this weekend that his team shouldn’t have to apologize for anything. And he was right.
“As a direct quote to everybody else, no one was complaining about the schedule when we lost 94 games last year,” said Swisher. “That’s enough of that schedule stuff for real. No one was talking about the scheduling when we were playing the Yankees, Boston and Detroit. If everybody feels that way, make it an even schedule. Let everybody play everybody the same amount of times so no one can complain about it.”
You can only play who is in front of you. Not only did the Indians play those teams, but they finished the season winning 10 games in a row – needing every single one of them to get to their first playoff appearance since 2007. The 10-gamer capped off a 21-5 month. Think about that for a second. The Indians needed to win 21 of their last 26 games to get to October. It was a true team effort in every sense of the word.
Whether it was Matt Carson delivering a walkoff single or Jason Giambi saving Chris Perez’s bacon or Nick Swisher coming up big in the most important month of the season or Michael Brantley knocking one two-out RBI after another or Cody Allen, Joe Smith, Bryan Shaw, and Marc Rzepcynski stabilizing the back end of the bullpen, or Ubaldo Jimenez pitching like the second coming of Cy Young, September was one of the great months in Tribe history.
So many heroes. So many wins. Each and every one of them counted the same and were needed. And here we are folks, hosting the Wild Card game Wednesday night at Progressive Field. This is something that nobody thought was possible.
Think back to a year ago at this time. The organization was at a low point of the Jacobs/Progressive Field era. Fans were angry and well on the road to apathetic. Manny Acta was fired as manager before the end of the season. The roster was littered with 4A specials like Brett Lillibridge, Shelley Duncan, Russ Canzler, and our main man Jack Hannahan. When the topic of Terry Francona came across the bow as a replacement for Acta, like many, I completely scoffed at the notice. I called it a “complete pipedream.” I mean seriously, what would a guy with this kind of pedigree in the game possibly want with our little team with no top tier prospects and ownership that seemed averse to spending big on free agency? I thought a clean sweep of the front office was the prudent thing to do, especially with such an bitter fan base.
But the Dolan’s have every right to smile right now. GM Chris Antonetti and Team President Mark Shapiro were the reasons that Francona came to Cleveland. He trusted them. He wanted to work with them. The Tribe’s braintrust knew they needed a coup to start the long road back to respectability. It has turned out to be a match made in heaven and arrived quicker than expected.
Francona brought instant credibility to a franchise that desperately needed it. His juice in the game spawned free agents to look this way for the first time in ages. Swisher showed up with his infectious smile and personality. Michael Bourn followed just before Spring Training, a move completely out of the blue. Sure, there were some misses with Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds, but the additions of Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir for peanuts and the absolute heist of Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers trump those two whiffs.
It didn’t take long for this bunch to take to each other. It is as close of a group as we have seen in this town in years. Veterans Jason Giambi, a favorite of Francona, Aviles, and Swisher kept this group loose yet on the message all year long – lets win and have fun along the way, but do things the right way. Younger core players like Jason Kipnis, Brantley, and Carlos Santana climbed on board and were solid all year long.
The starting pitching came together better than anyone could have expected and carried this team when the offense was so streaky. Credit pitching coach Mickey Calloway for the awakening of Jimenez, the emergence of Kluber, and the rebirth of Kazmir. When this team needed them the most, the rotation delivered. The Tribe brass was prudent enough to see they had to bring up their crown jewel, Danny Salazar. He has been solid and will be your Wild Card starter. Think Jaret Wright 1997. Its extremely similar. The bullpen also went through a mid-season makeover. Perez and Vinnie Pestano were expected to anchor a deep and talented back end. Instead, Pestano had a season to completely forget and Perez went through a season of turmoil both on and off the field. But there were Smith, Allen, Shaw, and the underrated acquisition Rzepcynski to take things to the end in September. This “true team” even had their ace, Masterson, come in over the last weekend of the season and come up big with some key late inning outs, including the Wild Card clinching final three today.
All of this added up to the most unlikely of seasons. From 94 losses to 92 wins. From ActaBall to Tito. From Duncan to Giambi. From Hannahan to Swisher. Everything turned out for the better here in Cleveland for our baseball team. The culture completely changed. The only thing that stayed the same was the front office. Credit the Dolan family for sticking true to their core principals. They don’t make hasty change for the sake of making change. Shapiro and Antonetti landed Francona and it has been all up hill from that point forward.
We won’t know who the Indians will meet up with Wednesday night at Progressive Field yet – the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers will meet in a play-in game tomorrow for the right to play the Indians. It doesn’t matter to me right now. Nor should it matter to you. Lets just enjoy the moment. The season was an incredible ride and it doesn’t have to end here. We have more baseball to play my friends.
October baseball in Cleveland. Say it loud. Say it proud. The Indians are playoff bound.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)