October baseball has returned to the home field of
Progressive Jacob's Field in an attempt to rescue its friend the Cleveland Indians from the clutches of the vile gangster . . . Jabba the Hutt.
Ok, not really. The opening crawl text of Return of the Jedi isn't easily translated into what the Tribe has accomplished. While much has been said about what an amazing feat the Tribe pulled off to reach the number one Wild Card Spot, my jaw has been dropped for a while now. I prefer to examine the season in sets of 27 games (Post 1 here) for several reasons, but mostly because it highlights what a small difference there is between a playoff team and team barely above .500 (90 wins - 15-12 each set, 84 wins - 14-13).
Back in the preseason, most predictions had the Indians finishing around 82 games. Some projections were lower in the high 70's, and a few projections were in the 90's+ with division titles. Personally, I had 84 wins as the projection, with a main goal of keeping the roster healthy in order to have another great offseason and be primed for a playoff run in 2014. The Tribe had different plans.
Set 1 - The Phantom Menace
The first 27 games were a painfully slow way to open the season. Due to the timing of the Michael Bourn signing, Indians fever hit me and large group of LGTer's the few days before Spring Training started. But because of the World Baseball Classic, by the time Opening Day rolled around, it had already been 7 grueling weeks of discussing ever facet of this team. Much like the 16 year wait for Episode I, the excitement was almost too much to bear. After a promising series win over the popular preseason favorite Blue Jays, the Indians suffered a rough stretch losing to Tampa Bay, getting shelled by New York and Boston, and finishing 14-13. Mark Reynolds was off to a blazing hot start, and some people were clamoring for a multi-year extension. His success was merely a mirage, however, as a careful analysis would show he was the same streaky hitter he always had been. Equal parts encouraging and grimacing, the Phantom Menance, er, Set 1 had the Indians above .500 and gearing up for what turn out to be a strong run.
Set 2 - Attack of Angel Hernandez
The second set of 27 games had the promise of more action, and the development of some main players. Justin Masterson had set his tone as staff Ace by shutting out the Yankees, Mariners, and beating the Reds; the first series against the Tigers was a win; and saw the Tribe in the midst of a 17-4 run. There were disappointments as well - Lonnie Chisenhall got sent to AAA much like Obi-Wan getting sent to some rainy planet with Boba Fett's dad - everyone was sad and just wanted him to get back to the action. Then we had to endure painful exchanges between Trevor Bauer and pitching motions that made us prefer Anakin wooing Padme. Finally, in what we hoped would be an epic battle never before seen, we got Yoda dancing around a hapless Christopher Lee while the Tribe went 1-7 in a stretch against the Tigers, Red Sox, and Reds. Angel Hernandez also became blinded by the dark side of the Force and is the only person in the world who thinks Perez gave up a double. However, due to an acceptable large scale assault on offense, Set 2 produced a 15-12 record, bringing the mark up to 29-25 for the season.
Set 3 - Revenge of the Tigers
The third set found the Indians getting directive 666'ed all over the place. Zach McAllister was the first to get blindsided by a finger injury. His replacement Carlos Carrasco had no hope of standing up to the onslaught of bats coming from the Tigers. These were the darkest parts of the season to date. The team was back below .500 and there was another long stretch of losses, 8 in a row, that had the Indians holding onto the seat with three tiny claws while some overactor shot lightning from his hands. Scraping together what will they had, the Indians retreated back to their home to win a series each against the Nationals, Twins, and Royals. They ended with their first 4 game sweep of the White Sox, bringing the set record to 14-13, and a season total of 43-38.
Set 4 - A New Hope
The fourth set of games planted the seeds of promise for this season. Two of the teams young stars, Jason Kipnis and Justin Masterson, were named All-Stars. They suffered early losses to the Tigers and Royals, but like the "consular" ship, this was merely a ruse - Corey Kluber going to the DL was the real story. This was a simple setup, however, as we were about to be introduced to one of the protagonists of the season. On July 11, 2013, Danny Salazar made his Major League debut. He blasted out of the holding cell with an uncanny movement to his pitches, rescuing the Princess and providing the spark of hope that would serve as part of the narrative for this season. There were some surprises and let downs, but the Tribe returned to its staple of feasting on 4-game series(es?) with the White Sox. This strong run through the trench at the end posed the first serious threat to the Tigers, as the Indians won 7 in a row to post an impressive 17-10 record and a season mark of 60-48.
Set 5 - The Tigers Strike Back
The fifth set would prove to be the darkest of the season, with a crippling 4 game sweep at the hands of the Tigers. While Salazar had been sent to minor league affiliate Degobah, the rest of the Tribe was caught unawares on the ice planet Hoth. Salazar would return from his training, but would be overmatched by Miguel Cabrera. More losses to the Angels and getting swept by the Braves almost killed any chance of a Rebel victory. Among all that, the team lost it's right handed power when Ryan Raburn and Justin Masterson hit the DL and Mark Reynolds got DFA'ed. Mike Aviles hit a game winning grand slam to beat the Tigers to barely escape Detroit with their lives. The Tribe returned home once again to Tatoonie Field to breathe life into its carbonite offense and launch an assault on the Wild Card. They limped back with an 11-16 record for the set, and a 71-54 record on the season.
Set 6 - The Return of the Playoffs
Back home, the Tribe set out for the sixth set with a clear plan of attack. Ubaldo Jimenez came out of his 2 year carbonite shell and became the leader everyone always hoped. His September is one to remember: 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA, in 41.1 IP, 51 K's, 7 BBs, and a .230 avg against. The offense found it's Force again by drawing walks and hitting home runs. Ryan Raburn returned the Tribe settled into a grove by beating the Orioles, Mets, and keeping pace, winning one against the Royals, then taking another four game series against the White Sox. It was then that the scheduling gods made a critical error. They set up three final series against the Astros, White Sox, and Twins. The Tribe called in all of its ships: The Carson-wings, the Giambi walk-offs, the Bro-Bombers. Avoiding the trap of the media and the bias of the AL East, the Tribe set up for its attack run on the Death Star. Only a perfect 10-0 would prove to be enough, with the smallest loss of a radar dish would be too close. The Tribe sent a small recon mission of Chris Perez to beat the White Sox and keep the overall run above intact. Perez got trapped by two Home Runs and there appeared to be no chance for the heroes. Then the forgotten presence of Jason Giambi entered the picture. He didn't beat the White Sox with sticks and stones, but with a no-doubt shot to right field. Escaping the 2-game series, the Tribe had its sights set on the final four against the Twins. All of the characters on the pitching staff came together in stifling the Twins, and the bats provided the firepower of a fully operational lineup. The Tribe went a ridiculous 21-6 and as everyone knows, brought their season record to 92-70.
Now all that remains is for Salazar's showdown with the Emperor. Cleveland fans know well that October baseball can be the heart of darkness. Each postseason loss has its special place in the halls of suffering of Cleveland fandom. Yet though it all, the fans have bound together. While attendance has been down, the tv and radio ratings prove that fans are following the Tribe. When Luke faced the Emperor, he had the guidance of Yoda, the trust of Obi-Wan, and the belief of his friends. He was by himself on the Death Star, but he was not alone.
This year's Indians team could be described as ragtag group of rebels. Admiral Ackbar Antonetti is pulling on players from all different parts of the game. Currently, at the center is a young pitcher, who is strong with the stuff, who has a surgically repaired right arm, and has shown a wisdom beyond his years. He will stand against one of two teams with an impressive lineup of bats. Yes, the postseason has been a place of darkness for the Tribe. And into this heart, we send our hope for the future. Jacob's field is sold out. Danny Salazar will be by himself on the mound on Wednesday, but he will not be alone.
* For reference sake, this is what I predicted the Tribe had to do over the last 27 games to hit 90 wins (which would not have been enough for the playoffs) vs. what they actually did: