In 2015, SI boldly picked the Cleveland Indians to win the AL Central. Instead, not only did the Indians miss the postseason, but their AL Central rival Kansas City Royals went on to win the World Series.
2016 however, has been the year of Cleveland sports (except for the Browns).
The Indians were put in a tough spot after the Cavaliers ended the 52-year championship drought in a city that desperately needed a championship. The Indians in the midst of a pennant race, were able to provide an encore.
Last Monday, the Indians clinched their first AL Central title since 2007 in a 7-4 victory over their division rival Detroit Tigers who fell short of the last wild card spot.
This division title though was unexpected with the likes of having the reigning World Series Champions back, the Tigers adding Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman and the White Sox acquired Todd Frazier made it seem a long shot for the Indians to win such a competitive division.
But what makes this title so impressive is not the players the Indians have gained, but what they have been through to get to this point. They have been without All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley for all but a mere 11 games this season.
The Indians have been able to adjust to the absence of their catalyst in the middle of the order. SS Francisco Lindor built off his superb rookie year as he was named to his first all-star game this year and has been instrumental in replacing Brantley’s production in the middle of the order.
Free agent pick up Mike Napoli has proven to pay dividends as he tied with Carlos Santana for the team lead in home runs with 34 and lead the club in RBI’s (101).
Napoli, who has only been with the team for one year and just started experiencing the Cleveland culture and fans, still wanted to win the title crown in the 316.
“It was awesome, especially that last inning when they’re all chanting, going crazy. Obviously, we wanted to do it at home, but to be able to come here, play Detroit, a team that we can get it done against. It’s nice.”
However, it’s not Napoli who is earning the highest recognition for the Tribe’s success this year. Cleveland.com’s Terry Pluto considers the Tribe’s MVP of the year to be 3B/OF Jose Ramirez. Pluto praised Ramirez in his article about the Indians clinching the AL Central.
“When the Indians needed a left fielder early in the season to replace Brantley, Ramirez played left field. When the Indians needed a third baseman to take over when Juan Uribe failed, Ramirez moved to that position in July. When the Indians needed someone to bat fifth and drive in runs, Ramirez did that,” Pluto said of the 24-year-old budding superstar.
Ramirez’s .313 BA and 75 RBI’s out of the 5-hole helped him earn the nickname Mr.Clutch, because time after time, Ramirez delivered for an offense that lacks extreme firepower from 1 through 9.
The Tribe have also had to deal with losing his top three starting pitchers at different stints over the course of this past month. Danny Salazar went down with an elbow injury early in the month, Carlos Carassco was hit in the hand by a line drive by Ian Kinsler at home against the Tigers and ace Corey Kluber left Monday’s title clinching win after 4 innings with a groin injury.
Francona has already ruled out Carassco for the remainder of the season, including the postseason. For Salazar however there is more optimism, as MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian reported Thursday that Salazar threw a 30-plus pitches off a mound last Wednesday, and appears on track to be available out of the bullpen in the ALDS.
Francona was asked about Kluber’s status after Monday’s game and Francona and the Indians have now confirmed that Kluber will be the starter for Game 2 of the ALDS against the Red Sox.
“He’s good, but he has a groin thing that he’s fighting. It started getting him in the third and again in the fourth, so I grabbed him. I told him we need to find a way to win a game, but we aren’t going far without him, so we need to get him healthy and let him do what he does.”
The Indians, Francona in particular, understands how difficult is it achieve success over a 162-game regular season and that it’s important to remember the season doesn’t end here.
“It’s hard, man. It is so hard to explain how hard winning is. We’ve had some challenges thrown our way, but so has everyone else. We managed to get this far, and now we get to play more baseball.”
More baseball indeed is coming the Tribes way. With the Blue Jays defeating the Red Sox to clinch their own playoff birth Sunday in Fenway, the Indians will have home-field advantage for their ALDS clash with the Red Sox.
Trevor Bauer will take the hill first for the Tribe on Thursday with ace Corey Kluber to follow on Friday. First pitch for Thursday’s Game 1 at Progressive Field will be at 8:08 PM ET with Friday’s Game 2 being at 4:38 PM ET