When the Cleveland Indians brought Terry Francona on as manager last October, it seemed to signal a new approach by the organization. The bold hiring indicated that the team believed it could win right now despite what others might think.
That notion came full circle on Sunday after the Indians defeated the Minnesota Twins 5-1 to win the American League’s top Wild Card spot.
Overall, the Indians finished 92-70, and all attention now shifts to Wednesday’s Wild Card contest where the Indians will face the winner of tonight’s play-in game between Tampa Bay and Texas.
It’s astonishing to think of how far this team has come. We all know that the schedule did look favorable down the stretch, but the bottom line is that teams still have to play the games. Also, the Indians closed the season on a 10-week win streak, and that was crucial as the team ultimately needed all of those 10 wins.
The Indians are now in the postseason for the first time since 2007 when they came within just a game of reaching the World Series. It’s just incredible to think of the turnaround from last season when the team finished 68-94.
So, what lies ahead?
Well, that question will be answered Wednesday when Danny Salazar takes the mound for the Tribe.
Until then though, let’s revisit the week that ultimately proved to be the most important of the season for the Indians…
September 24 vs. Chicago White Sox, W 5-4 (WP: Shaw, LP: Reed)
September 25 vs. Chicago White Sox, W 7-2 (WP: Salazar, LP: Axelrod)
September 26 at Minnesota, W 6-5 (WP: Shaw, LP: Albers)
September 27 at Minnesota, W 12-6 (WP: Kluber, LP: Hernandez)
September 28 at Minnesota, W 5-1 (WP: Kazmir, LP: De Vries)
September 29 at Minnesota, W 5-1 (WP: Jimenez, LP: Diamond)
Player of the Week
Ubaldo Jimenez — Starting Pitcher
2 GS, 1-0, 13 IP, 3 R/ER, 4 BB, 20 K
The progression of Ubaldo Jimenez has just been astonishing. Ask yourself this: Would the Cleveland Indians be in the playoffs without Jimenez? Even the most prideful individuals would probably have no choice but to concede that Jimenez has been one of the most important players to the Indians this year. His turnaround is nothing short of amazing as the big right-hander finished the season with a 13-9 record and a 3.30 ERA while striking out 194 batters and walking 80. His strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9 is the highest of his career while the walk rate of 3.9 BB/9 is the lowest he’s posted since 2011. On Sunday, Jimenez had one of the best starts of his Indians career as he struck out 13 batters across 6 2/3 innings of work to lead the Indians to a win and clinch a home playoff game. On last night’s episode of Cleveland Sports Insiders, the IBI’s Jim Pete said it best when he said, “Today’s game is why they traded for Ubaldo Jimenez.” There’s a lot of accuracy to Pete’s words. While the trade has been scrutinized over the years, the bottom line is that Jimenez pitched like an ace when the Indians needed him most. He was outstanding down the stretch, and he was brilliant in a game that the Indians desperately needed if they were going to be able to clinch a playoff spot. Many will still point to the Indians’ trade for Jimenez in July of 2011 and label it a failure, but the reality is that that trade begins to look better and better each day. Now, let’s just say Jimenez goes out and pitches another gem or two in the postseason? Then how good does this trade start to look? Perspective is everything, and it’s nice how Indians fans have been able to receive some of that more than two years after the initial trade.
A Rough Week
How could any Indians player possibly be singled out for having a bad performance this past week? Let’s consider some of the facts. The Indians went 6-0 this past week. Those six wins followed four straight from the previous week, so the team has now won 10 straight games. Overall, the Indians went 21-6 in the month of September. Knowing that, it’s hard to say that really any individual had a bad month, let alone week. The greatest thing about the Indians this season is that the team played its best baseball when they needed to. There may have been some players that went through their ups-and-downs, but there was always another player that was there to pick the other player up. A great example of this is the resurgence that we saw from Jimenez. When Justin Masterson went out with an injury at the beginning of September, there seemed to be a lot of Indians fans worried about how the season may progress, especially if the team would be without its most consistent starter in the final month. However, Jimenez answered the call and put together one of the most impressive September performances (4-0, 1.09 ERA in six starts) that any of us have seen for quite some time. That’s kind of been the theme for the Indians during the entire season. Someone was always willing and able to step up when needed. That also plays into the idea that this team is the ultimate “team,” and that should help the Indians as they seek to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
With their 5-1 win over the Minnesota Twins Sunday, the Indians completed their seventh four-game sweep of the season.
News & Notes
— Danny Salazar has been picked to start Wednesday’s Wild Card playoff game against the winner of tonight’s play-in game between the Rangers and the Rays. Salazar seems to be an excellent choice as the right-hander has been very impressive this season as he owns a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts. His strikeout stuff has also been electric as he’s recorded 65 strikeouts in just 52 innings of work. Outside of Jimenez, it certainly does appear as if Salazar is the best candidate to start this game, and everyone should expect nothing less than a stellar performance. One of the other things to note is that Salazar has not pitched against either Tampa Bay or Texas this season. That could bode well for the Indians as Salazar is definitely a pitcher that teams probably would benefit from seeing in a previous outing. Salazar’s free, clean delivery is just so devastating that he seems to always have the ability to eat hitters alive. Also, there should be no concern about him making this start as a rookie. Salazar has proven time and time again that he’s not overwhelmed by his surroundings, and that will likely be true on Wednesday as well. Just take a moment to think about all the positives that surround Salazar as he makes this start. For one, both teams have never seen him before, so they’ll have no inside knowledge on how they should approach him. Secondly, Salazar has the highest strikeout rate among the team’s starters. Remember, a team cannot win unless they put the ball in play, and Salazar does an excellent job at limiting balls in play. From his debut, we have all said that Salazar is an ace in the making. However, if he goes out and dominates on Wednesday, we may have to think about removing “in the making” from his description.
— Michael Brantley continued his surge during this past week as he recorded three hits in both games against the White Sox and the first game against Minnesota. For the season, Brantley finished the year with a line of .284/.332/.396 with 26 doubles, three triples, 10 home runs, 17 stolen bases and 73 RBI. All in all, it was a fine year for Dr. Smooth as this was arguably the best season of his still young career. In the month of September, Brantley was at his absolute best as he hit .345. There is no way to accurately explain just how important Brantley is to this team as his numbers cannot depict his value. However, Brantley seems to be somewhat of a poor man’s Grady Sizemore. He does not possess Sizemore’s natural power, speed or fielding ability, but Brantley is still solid in all of those areas. Also, perhaps best of all, Brantley seems to just have this clutch gene where he can come up with clutch base hit after base hit. If the Indians are to legitimately make noise this postseason, they will need Brantley to come up big, and I believe that he will. Remember, the Indians needed all of their past 10 wins to outright qualify for the playoffs, and this was when Brantley was at his best. In other words, the left-handed hitting outfielder has already come up big for the Tribe.
— Former closer Chris Perez finally broke his silence on Sunday. The right-hander had not spoken to reporters since late June following his misdemeanor drug charge. However, he clearly was overcome by a variety of emotions after the Indians clinched their playoff spot as he seemed to have a change of heart. Perez candidly spoke about his struggles and linked his recent poor play to mechanics. Regardless of what you think of Perez, this was a good sign for him to finally open up and let the media in. The reality is that many of his teammates have had to cover for Perez this season when he struggles as they’ll be asked to speak to the media after Perez declines. While no one has said it publicly, it’s hard to believe that teammates do not at least get a tad annoyed with this. With the playoffs ahead, it’s best for all players to be on the same page, and this is a move that seems to help push the team in that direction. While Perez may no longer be the closer, he could still very well be added to the playoff roster where he’ll be expected to perform well again. Now if he goes out and struggles in the playoffs, would you really want to have to have his teammates answer for him? Say what you will do about Perez, but it was nice to see him act in an unselfish manner and finally let this barrier down on Sunday.
— So, here we are. The Indians finished 92-70 and are the hottest team in baseball. How did we get here? Well, aside from the signing of Francona as manager, we knew things were different once the Indians signed Nick Swisher in December, and then we knew things were REALLY different after the Tribe inked Michael Bourn back in February. People can say what they want about the acquisitions and how they have or have not panned out at this point, but the Indians are definitely a much better team with these two players in the fold. One of the things that the IBI’s Jim Pete pointed out on last night’s radio show is the fact that the first two runs in yesterday’s game were scored by Bourn and Swisher. It seems kind of fitting, right? The excitement of this Indians season started with Swisher and Bourn, and the regular season also fittingly ended with them. The playoffs are now ahead, and I think we can all agree that this type of accomplishment could have never been possible had the team not gone out and lured free agents here like Swisher and Bourn. The two obviously came here because they believed that this team could have a chance to win. Now it’s time for Swisher, Bourn and everyone else to do what they can to prove that notion right.
— While attendance may be down, the Indians’ ticket revenue increased by 20 percent this past season. Perhaps that does signal that the team could be open to using some of the extra cash to lure some more free agents here this offseason.
— Since September 4 when Justin Masterson smuggled a live chicken onto Progressive Field, the Indians have a 19-5 record. Superstitious anyone?