Following are my thoughts as I watched the Indians fail to seal their first World Series championship since 1948:
Pregame – In order to appreciate where the Indians are, let’s look back at how far they have come. In the 68 seasons they have played since their previous title (this year being the 68th), the Indians finished first nine times and finished last seven times; they endured 36 losing seasons compared to just 30 winning ones; they wound up with a .500 record twice, but lost 100 games in a season four times. Cleveland was spared from a fifth such dubious distinction in 1969, when a postponed game was never made up; the Indians placed dead last in their division that year with 99 defeats.
And how could I forget 1987? Coming off a winning record in ’86, Cleveland hoodwinked some people into thinking it was actually a contending team. Sports Illustrated, whose staff at the time featured the distinguished baseball writer Peter Gammons, put the smiling faces of star sluggers Joe Carter and Cory Snyder on the cover of its season preview issue. “Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League,” the magazine’s cover proclaimed. The Indians lost 101 games that year – ample evidence that the SI cover jinx really does exist.
The Indians went four full decades (1955 to 1994) without making the playoffs. Cleveland likely would have been a division winner or wild-card team in ’94, but – just the Indians’ luck – that was the year the entire postseason was wiped out so that the millionaire owners and millionaire players could waste everyone’s time by arguing over money.
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The late 1990s and early 2000s could have been the golden era of Cleveland Indians baseball, except for two small problems. One, Cleveland never won a World Series despite six division crowns and two American League pennants in a seven-year span. Two, those Indians had too many prickly personalities. There was Albert Belle, with his violent temper and corked bat. There was Eddie Murray, who refused to talk to reporters … just because. There was Manny Ramirez, a great hitter whose entire career is considered clouded by his positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs. The Cleveland teams of that era even had John Rocker for a while. How could I root for John Rocker?
This season, there doesn’t seem to be a bad apple in the bunch. From manager Terry Francona on down, this is an easy group of guys to root for. Unlike baseball champions of the 1970s, when the Oakland A’s and “Bronx Zoo” Yankees proved that teammates who don’t get along can still win, the 2016 Indians show a genuine respect for one another.
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On July 7, 2008, less than a year after losing Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, the Indians traded 2007 Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia for four prospects. On July 29, 2009, the Indians traded 2008 Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee for four more prospects. Of the eight players Cleveland acquired in those trades, the only two who panned out were outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, neither of whom has played this postseason because of injuries. Brantley hardly played at all this year, and the absence of Carrasco and Danny Salazar – its Nos. 2 and 3 starters – makes Cleveland’s pitching dominance in these playoffs all the more remarkable. Trevor Bauer, the losing pitcher in two of his team’s World Series defeats, was the Indians’ fifth starter when all five were available.
Working at a newspaper in the New York area, I edited stories about the 2009 World Series in which Sabathia’s Yankees defeated Lee’s Philadelphia Phillies. This year, Cleveland won the American League pennant for the sixth time in the franchise’s 115-year history – or just once more than the Yankees did in the six-year span from 1996 to 2001.
First inning – What a terrible start! I felt good to see Game 2 hitting hero Kyle Schwarber swing at the first pitch and ground out to the right side for the second out. But then Kris Bryant belted a no-doubt shot to left – his second homer in as many games – and Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist followed with well-struck singles to put runners at the corners. A fly ball to right-center could have ended the inning, but rookie Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall miscommunicated, allowing the ball to drop for a disastrous two-run double. In the Indians’ first 13 postseason games combined, they allowed three first-inning runs. They matched that crooked number tonight. The home fans suddenly have glum looks on their faces, and I have a sick feeling in my gut. Cubs 3, Indians 0.
Second inning – Josh Tomlin retires Chicago in order. In the bottom half, Fox Sports shows 95-year-old Eddie Robinson, who is in attendance. Robinson is the last surviving member of the Indians’ 1948 championship team, and the 11th-oldest former major-leaguer overall. Jake Arrieta is pitching so well for the Cubs, I’m already thinking Cleveland will need a late-inning rally against Chicago’s bullpen to avoid a Game 7.
Third inning – Chisenhall and Naquin again fail to work together on a fly ball, but this time Chisenhall makes the catch. Otherwise, this inning is a replay of the first – only worse. Following a walk to Schwarber, Rizzo and Zobrist again smack singles, which give Chicago bases loaded with one out. That is enough for Tomlin, who is replaced by Dan Otero. Otero’s first batter – kid star shortstop Addison Russell – crushes a grand slam to center, and it is time to start planning for a Game 7 tomorrow night. Cubs 7, Indians 0.
Fourth inning – Just like when Arrieta pitched in Game 2, Kipnis doubles for Cleveland’s first hit and comes around to score the Tribe’s first run. Mike Napoli’s RBI single is followed by a hit batter and a walk, and with the bases loaded and two out, I’m dreaming big about how great it would be to come back from a seven-run deficit to clinch a championship. But Naquin, who is having a miserable night, looks overmatched as he strikes out to end the inning. Cubs 7, Indians 1.
Fifth inning – Salazar pitches his second straight scoreless inning. In the home half, Kipnis continues to swing a hot bat. He homers to left, an opposite-field shot. Cubs 7, Indians 2.
Sixth inning – Arrieta is removed after 5 2/3, as Chicago manager Joe Maddon replaces him with Mike Montgomery. But who else does Maddon trust out of the bullpen?
Seventh inning – Zach McAllister gives up two singles to start the frame but gets two fly balls and a grounder to wriggle out of the jam. In the bottom half, Maddon gives the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman with two on and two out. It is a surprise, given that Chapman just went 2 2/3 innings in Game 5. Here, the first batter he faces, Francisco Lindor, hits a grounder to first base and nearly beats Chapman to the bag. On replay, Lindor is called out to end the threat, but Chapman is slightly hobbled after his foot lands awkwardly on the base.
Eighth inning – Russell has six RBI, as he was the statistical beneficiary of the game-turning misplayed fly in the first that was scored a two-run double. He made the last out in the seventh, on a hard-hit grounder to third. One thing that worries me is that the Cubs’ young hitters – Russell, Bryant (4 for 5) and Rizzo – along with the veteran Zobrist, are all swinging the bat well and making good contact.
Ninth inning – Rizzo belts a two-run homer to cap a huge night for the heart of the Cubs’ order. With the seven-run difference restored, Maddon removes Chapman after his 62nd pitch over a two-game span. An RBI hit by Roberto Perez brings home the final run. Cubs 9, Indians 3.
Posted November 1, 2016
Sources: baseball-reference.com, Cleveland Indians Media Guide (2002), Fox Sports, mlb.com.