The Cleveland Indians’ abbreviated postseason leaves more questions than answers
by: Kevin Berger
For as long as I can remember there hasn’t been another postseason where Cleveland Indians fans felt such a high-level of confidence in their team as they did in 2017. Can you blame us? We won an American League record 22-straight games. Move over Brad Pitt and the “Moneyball” A’s, this Indians team had a Hollywood ending worth telling too. Cleveland had the superteam, the attitude and narrative with all the right pieces for a championship run. The matchups didn’t matter, the Indians were supposed to win because, well, they should’ve won last year. The 2016 postseason and the way it ended in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series only emboldened us,and probably the team, even more. The playoffs were just a formality until the inevitable World Series rematch against the Chicago Cubs or the 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers. Andrew Miller even wrote about it in a piece for the Players Tribune that you can now file under the “this hasn’t aged well” category. Corey Kluber would continue his Cy Young season into the playoffs. Francisco Lindor would cement his superstar status. Terry Francona would push all the right buttons. Everybody make way for your 2017 World Series Champions. This was a coronation for the Cleveland Indians.
Then the playoffs actually began.
Game 1 started off without a hitch. Francona decided to go with 17-game winner Trevor Bauer instead of his ace Corey Kluber, and it paid off as Bauer pitched the Indians to 4-0 shutout. Pshhh, that was too easy. Who are we playing next? Red Sox. Yeah, right? Indians destroy Chris Sale. Astros? We went 5-1 against them in the regular season. We got Kluber going in Game 2. Let’s get this over with.
Game 2 was an all-time, tell your grandkids type of game for Tribe fans, and also just a horrible tease of what doom was awaiting them. Kluber was a shell of his dominant self, giving up two home runs leading to an early 6-3 deficit. Edwin Encarnacion’s ankle bent ways it wasn’t supposed to, killing any momentum the crowd was able to muster after Kluber’s uncharacteristic start. In relief, Michael Clevinger didn’t’ help any by giving up a two-run homer to some guy named Bird, putting the Indians in a 8-3 hole by the fifth inning. “What was wrong with Kluber?” “Is he hurt?” “Is that why he didn’t start in Game 1?” “Why did Edwin’s foot flail around like a fish caught on a hook fighting for its life?” Still, Tribe fans had good reason to believe in their team that won 102 games, which included that historic stretch of 22 straight wins.
Then, right on cue, the Indians lineup started to chip away at the feared Yankees bullpen. A controversial call where the home plate umpire ruled the ball hit Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall when replay clearly showed it hit his bat before being caught by Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. New York manager Joe Girardi decided against a challenge that would’ve ended the inning and any chance the Indians had of rallying back, instead it loaded the bases for the Indians’ All-Star shortstop. The grand slam home run Lindor sent careening off the right field foul pole caused a seismic event in Cleveland while putting fantasies of a parade down E.9th Street in my head. We clearly got a gift call to prolong the inning and our superstar player took advantage of it, only championship teams do that. Print the shirts, give me the victory hat, 2017 American League champions. Jay Bruce tied the game at 8-8 with a solo home run to give the Indians a chance for a walk-off win that didn’t come until the 13th inning when Yan Gomes sent every one home with a 2-0 series lead and a head full of ALCS dreams.
Not the way we expected to win, but this is baseball and this team can win any way it needs to, right? However, something more foreboding was skirting underneath the surface. The Indians’ staff ace, Corey Kluber, didn’t look like himself and the gift-wrapped grand slam let the Indians’ sluggish offense off the hook for now.
Games 3 and 4 in New York were just about as bad as you can get if you’re an Indians fan. Carlos Carrasco pitched lights out but Masahiro Tanaka pitched just a tad better while the Indians lineup continued their under-the-radar slump. Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor were a combined 4-38 at the plate in the ALDS, averaging .100 and .111 respectively. Nobody expected the heart and soul of Cleveland’s lineup to bat miles south of the Mendoza line. Late in game 3 the unthinkable happened. If you ask any Indians fan who the most dominant relief pitcher is in their lifetime, they’ll say Andrew Miller. He’s earned it by striking fear in opposing batters with a slider that mere mortals can only pray to hit. However, Miller is frustratingly human too, giving up a late homer to a bottom of the order guy leaving Indians fans in an existential crisis. One run was all the Yankees needed.
Game 4 is when the wheels really came off
Puzzlinging, Francona went back to Bauer after just three days rest despite having Josh Tomlin and Danny Salazar ready to start a few innings. The Indians defense didn’t help Bauer as they amassed four errors while it seemed the pressure pulsating from Yankees Stadium began to ruffle up the young Tribe infield. The offense was shut down by Luis Severino and the Yankees’ flamethrowing bullpen. We still weren’t ready to admit the Indians were falling apart at the worst possible time.
Series tied 2-2. Oh…ok.
Well, we still got Kluber on normal rest and we’re at home for game 5. This is how it was drawn up. Everything will be fine.
Everything was not fine.
Game 5 started just as bad as Game 2 with Kluber giving up two home runs to Didi Gregorius. The offense didn’t look much better as their slump was starting to reveal itself to even the most stubbornly optimistic. The top of the Indians order with Lindor, Ramirez and Jason Kipnis (.182 avg) still struggled to put up quality at-bats against the zombie-corpse of CC Sabathia, who decided to come back to life against his former team. Thanks CC, you couldn’t do this in 2007? The Indians’ 2017 postseason run ended after just five games and a blown 2-0 series lead.
Did the Indians peak too soon with their 22-game winning streak? After all, it was the streak that propelled them to the best record in the AL rewarding them with the Wild Card matchup, a much tougher Yankees team than most would’ve liked to admit before the playoffs. By the way, how did the Yankees not win the East over a Red Sox team that backed its way into the postseason?
Had the fans’ presumptuous attitude spilled over on the team in thinking it was just a foregone conclusion they would play for the World Series for a second consecutive year? Why did the offense go into a team-wide slump at the same time? Dare I ask, did the Indians (gulp) choke? They now hold a dubious record of 2-6 in series clinching games since 2016.
As maddening as it is, there are no guarantees in playoff baseball. The only guarantee is debilitating anxiety that makes you wonder why you put yourself through it. Every season is filled with a multitude of mindsets and unique circumstances. Repeating in baseball might be the hardest in all of sports because of the flukey nature of the sport. The Indians’ championship window remains open for another two maybe three years as Miller returns to the bullpen for one more season and they control Lindor until 2022. But who knows, everyone thought they would win this year.
Big thanks to Kevin Berger for this his contribution with this article. If you want to contribute too, comment below or email us to join the Obtuse Panda team. firstname.lastname@example.org