CHICAGO — The Cleveland Indians‘ win streak is amazing: 21 games and counting. But it means nothing. It’s championship or bust for these Indians.
Division titles are great — Cleveland is on the verge of clinching its second straight AL Central crown and ninth of the wild-card era — but another one means nothing.
Pennants are great, too. After all, Cleveland won one last year, and that was only its fourth since the franchise’s last World Series crown in 1948. You know what another one this year would mean? Nothing.
This is not really a controversial observation. It’s the simple reality for a franchise that inherited the mantle of baseball’s longest World Series title drought just 10 months ago, when the team lost to the Chicago Cubs in seven unforgettable games. Maybe that’s why, despite their amazing on-field feats of the past few weeks, the Indians still walk around like protagonists of an Albert Camus novel. As with Camus, it’s not an act. It’s a philosophy.
“I don’t know if we look at it as that much of a big picture,” Indians ace Corey Kluber said last week during the team’s stop in Chicago. “We’re just showing up each day and trying to win that game. Guys are having fun and just showing up to win that day’s game. If we do, great. If we don’t, then try to move on.”
When Tom Thibodeau, whom I greatly admire, was coaching the Chicago Bulls, I used to refer to him as “belligerently dull.” He gave the media nothing, he knew he gave the media nothing, and he delighted in giving the media nothing. Hence the belligerent quality of his dullness. The Indians’ dullness isn’t belligerent. It’s more congenial. They are polite and cooperative. They really seem to enjoy their jobs. They just don’t say anything.
“The winning streak is enjoyable, and I think it’s gotten people’s attention,” Francona said. “And I think that’s given me a chance to brag on our guys a little bit, which I love. Other than that, we’ll go play tomorrow.”
The Indians have never been better positioned to win a title since the 1948 champs broke through. Well, that’s not precisely true. The Indians were pretty well positioned to win last year, when they held a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs in the Fall Classic. They were also right there when the 1997 World Series matchup with Florida went to a seventh game. And they made it to the World Series — and lost — in 1954 and 1995. That near-miss history, more than anything, is why it’s championship or bust in Cleveland this time around.
Here is why you can argue that this year’s Indians are better situated than last year’s: They are better. The streak, as a literal stepping stone to a title, means little because even without it, Cleveland would almost certainly be closing in on a division crown. What the streak has established is a new consensus, one that marks the Indians as baseball’s most complete team and perhaps the best edition in franchise history.
That claim couldn’t have been made back on July 20, just 11 days before the non-waiver trade deadline, when Cleveland stood at 48-45. They led the Twins by a half-game in the division, and the hard-charging Royals were just two back. Since then, the Indians have gone 41-11, a stretch capped by the in-progress 21-game win streak that is the longest an American League team has ever had.
While the streak by itself would certainly have re-established the Indians as prime title contenders, the sheer dominance of it has completely rewritten how we will view the 2017 regular season. Cleveland has outscored opponents 139-35 during this streak — an average margin of more than five runs per game. The Indians have trailed after just four innings during the streak. Four innings!
“I don’t look at many stats,” Kluber said. “Whether you win a game by 10 runs or win a game by one run, the goal is to win. Maybe you could say that over the course of the season that run differential has some value in analyzing a team, but I think that every team in baseball doesn’t care.”
According to my power rankings, when the Tribe’s streak started on Aug. 24, the Dodgers occupied the place where the Indians now reside. L.A.’s rating (expressed as a “true talent” wins-per-162-games metric) was 108.1, nearly nine games better than that of every other team in baseball. Now Cleveland sits on that perch at 106.2 — 9.1 wins more than second-place Houston.
Has the prime narrative of a season ever changed so much so quickly?
In a streak this epic, everything is working. The Cleveland offense has been dominant, and the defense has piled up as many defensive runs saved as it had the rest of the season. The bullpen has continued to lock down games, even with Andrew Miller on the disabled list.
Nevertheless, the dominant trait of the streak has been the consistent excellence of the Cleveland rotation. Fifteen quality starts. Seven shutouts. An overall team average of 1.7 runs allowed per game. Kluber has been the ace, moving into a tier that we thought belonged only to Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.
“The goal is to string not just good outings [from the starters] but games as a team together and try to build some momentum,” Kluber said. “There’s still a while before we can say where we are right now is where we’re going to be, but hopefully that is the case and we can ride this out until we get [to the postseason] and keep going.”
It has been more than Kluber. Carlos Carrasco has been an elite No. 2, Trevor Bauer has embraced his curveball to career-making positive effect, and Mike Clevinger has perhaps become the best candidate to take the fourth spot in the postseason rotation.
“Pitching staff,” Lindor said, when asked which group has propelled the streak. “They continue to do what they’ve been doing since Day 1. And the hitters are just clicking at the right time. We’re having fun and enjoying the game, but we still have [a lot] left to play.”
It’s an obvious point to make, but think about what last year’s Indians might have done with a healthy rotation. Without Carrasco and Danny Salazar, Francona was forced to improvise by maxing out Kluber and his high-leverage bullpen studs. It came so close to working, but in the end, Kluber had to make one short-rest outing too many. With the rotation on full blast this time around, Kluber can lead the charge and be at near-max strength when he’s needed most.
“His routines are impeccable,” Francona said. “And his tank doesn’t look like it’s on half-empty. You see a lot of pitchers this time of year where maybe you start getting them extra rest.
“The only time I thought he looked a little tired was the last game of [last] year. And he pitched on short rest a couple of times, so he wouldn’t have been human if he wasn’t. The way he prepares, he never looks tired. He may be tired, but he doesn’t look it.”
The Indians have candidates for all the major awards. Jose Ramirez, Kluber and Francisco Lindor can all stake claims in the MVP chase, with Ramirez getting the most recent buzz. Kluber is dueling Sale for the AL Cy Young Award, which would be Kluber’s second if he were to win. Lindor has been viewed as the likely face of the Indians for a while now, and it’s no surprise that either player would be in the running for elite recognition. As for Kluber — big surprise — he isn’t too keen on comparing himself to Sale.
“I guess every pitcher has his own style,” Kluber said. “That’s part of identifying what works for you is finding what your arsenal is and what the best way to go out and use it to try and get the job done.”
Ramirez is the star-is-born member of the trio, a player who has come out of nowhere the past couple of seasons. Before 2017, the question was whether he could repeat his breakout of 2016. He has done exactly that while adding more power than anyone ever thought he’d have, all while playing excellent defense at more than one position and serving as a constant source of upbeat energy in the clubhouse. Not even Francona foresaw Ramirez reaching this level.
“I don’t think we could have said that,” Francona said. “If somebody goes down, somebody gets an opportunity. He took it and ran with it. It’s not surprising this year what he’s doing because when you do it for 600 at-bats, you can tell it wasn’t smoke and mirrors.
“He’s just a really good player. He can move around [positions], which makes his numbers even better because he can move around and allow us to play other guys, like when [Jason] Kipnis gets hurt. He is one of the best players in the game.”
Even if all the players in the running for postseason honors come up short in their respective votes, they can at least stake a claim to an unofficial award: baseball’s MVT (most valuable trio). Entering game play Wednesday, Kluber (No. 7), Ramirez (No. 13) and Lindor (No. 15) all were on pace to finish in the top 15 in Fangraph’s version of WAR. Only Colorado (Charlie Blackman and Nolan Arenado) also has two players in the top 15.
Of all the emergent star power on the Indians, no one typifies the team more in performance or personality than Kluber, who has long toiled under the nickname of “Klubot.” It’s an unfortunate moniker because Kluber is less an automaton than he is a Hemingway hero. Stoic. Professional. And while I don’t know if Kluber writes like Hemingway, he certainly gives him a run when it comes to conciseness and understatement.
“I think the constant is solid pitching and timely hitting,” Kluber said. “All that cliché stuff they say wins ballgames, it’s true. We’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks now.”
The Indians’ top awards candidate might well be Francona, who has navigated the Indians around major injuries for two years and has somehow or another gotten an entire team to adopt his say-nothing, stay-in-the-moment demeanor. This is a team that has won 21 straight games, and the quotes coming out of the clubhouse still can be paraphrased as “We just play them one game at a time.”
Francona knows how this goes. There is no point in putting things into context for the rest of us. There is no point in offering explanations for that which has already happened. All that matters is the next game. The next pitch. The next grinding at-bat. One unit at a time, until the job is finally complete. We can slather over the streak all we want, but that is not what the Indians are striving toward.
“Believe it or not,” Francona said. “We get so caught up in what we’re doing today, it adds up, and people start asking you questions about road wins, home wins. What matters is your record and the game at hand. So we’ll show up tomorrow and try to win that game.”
In an alternate universe, the Indians’ history of almost but not quite is a dead scroll. In that realm, the Cleveland Indians’ World Series-winning game story has already been published. It went out to the sports-reading world in the early morning of Nov. 3, 2016, when the Tribe ended a 68-year championship drought with an epic, come-from-behind victory over the Cubs in Game 7.
I know such a story exists because I wrote it. Only I’m the only person to have read it.
Explanation: One of my duties during postseason coverage last season was to write the “live” story, the quick reaction piece that we’d publish to give us a chance to hustle down to the clubhouses for interviews and such. The more fully realized stories would come out shortly thereafter.
Game 7 presented a unique challenge. No matter who won, a historic drought would be broken, and from my perspective, that meant two fan bases that deserved my best effort to capture the euphoria. Without knowing who would win, that meant writing two stories at once, updating as events unfolded. As we all remember, in the latter stages of that unforgettable game, events unfolded at the pace of an avalanche. I almost became the first sportswriter to get seasick on dry land.
I’m telling you, Cleveland fans. I put it all in there. The last version of the story that will never be read invokes the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller, Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller. It has Micheal Martinez driving in the title-winning run off Chicago’s Mike Montgomery. Only he didn’t. He grounded out, and the Cubs’ version of the “drought is over” story is the one that went out into the world. That last sentence, that last punctuation mark, coming six weeks from now — that’s what the Indians are after.
The Cleveland streak might end on Thursday. Or it could go on for a while — ESPN Stats & Info estimated that the average of the starting pitchers the Indians are slated to face the rest of the way yields an ERA of more than 4.80. But even if it keeps going and going and going, it will mean nothing. It’s unique, it’s rare, but for the Indians, it’s still championship or bust. One day at a time.
“Day at a time, game at a time,” Kluber said. “If we start looking towards who we’re going to be playing in the playoffs, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we have to make the playoffs.”