Advancing in October is an extremely difficult task. Moving on against a restocked reigning World Series champion like the Houston Astros?
You get the picture.
That’s what confronts the Indians as they return to the postseason for the fourth time in six years under manager Terry Francona, who with around two weeks remaining in the regular season and the Central Division title wrapped, began sneaking a peek at the West Division champs.
“Certainly can’t hurt,” said Francona then of his advance scouting work. “I shouldn’t say can’t hurt, you try to be up-to-date as much as you can but then you watch (the Astros) play and it kind of makes you nervous because they’re good.
“They’re really good. We knew that. Shoot, this will be quite the test, but that’s what you play for. It’s so good to be a part of. It’s an honor.”
In many ways, the pair of American League heavyweights are similar. They each employ elite rotations and lineups full of All-Stars, including former MVPs in Josh Donaldson (2015) and Jose Altuve (2017).
Houston’s star-studded starting staff, which is headlined by but far from carried by former MVP and Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, posted the lowest ERA in the American League.
Cleveland’s top-shelf starters — two-time Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger — headlined but far from carried by Kluber, posted the second-lowest ERA and became the first foursome in MLB history to each record 200 strikeouts.
Now that the Indians have acquired Donaldson — in an August waiver-wire deal that drew the ire of potential playoff opponents Boston and New York — they can employ a former
All-Star at every spot in the lineup after Jason Kipnis shifted to center field for the second straight postseason and Jose Ramirez moved from third to second.
The Astros, who employ a younger roster, still have multiple all-stars throughout the batting order in Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer.
“It’s gonna be a great series,” said Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, who is an MVP candidate this year. “They got great hitting and pitching and we do, too. I can’t wait.”
“They’re one of the best teams in baseball, they’ve shown that over the last two years,” Andrew Miller said of the Astros. “Our hands are going to be full, it’s not going to be easy, but we’ve got some pretty good arms. We’ll be prepared, we’ll be ready.”
The Astros, who cooled off after a torrid first half, know they are facing a challenge, too.
“They’re a really good team,” Altuve said of the Indians after Houston clinched the division title for the second straight season, winning a franchise-best 103 games. “They’ve got really good hitters like we do. They’ve got good pitching. We’ve got good pitching, too. It’s going to be interesting. I pick my team, obviously, but I think it’s going to be good competition.”
The Indians enter October in a different mode than 2017, when they ripped off an AL-record 22-game streak from Aug. 24-Sept. 14 and appeared to enter the postseason hot as the favorite to advance to the World Series for the second time in three years. But after taking the first two games of their ALDS matchup against the Yankees, they stopped hitting and pitching and lost the next three, including Game 5 with Kluber on the mound against former Cleveland ace CC Sabathia.
This time around, there was no outrageous final month to finish, and it certainly wasn’t required, with the Central Division at one of its weakest points ever and the Indians clinching with over two weeks remaining.
How you finish the regular season, whether you’re fighting until the end to secure a spot or coasting to the finish line with a playoff berth in tow, isn’t much of a factor, according to Francona. After all, there’s a layoff before the first postseason game, anyway.
“People talk about momentum — I think you build momentum on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday on the off days (prior to the postseason),” Francona said. “Because regardless of how you finish, you have those four off days. If you just sit around, go at half speed, all of a sudden the playoffs start and you’re going 100 miles per hour, and it’s too fast. So the teams that handle those off days the best, I think that’s where you build your momentum.”
But the manager does like the fact that there aren’t as many uncertainties confronting his club as there were when the postseason began last year — Kipnis in center for the first time, Kluber’s apparent back injury that kept him out of Game 1 and an unproven player at third in Giovanny Urshela, who isn’t even on the team anymore.
“We were so unsettled last year in the playoffs,” Francona said. “We went through a lot of that the last two weeks (this year). It’s not a lot of fun, because it’s unsettling. But I think — in fact, I know — it was for a good reason. Now, we’re going to see if it pays off.
“We think we have Donaldson in a good place. We think Andrew’s come so far. Kip’s had three weeks to play center field. Jose’s had three weeks at second. If you have too many question marks, sometimes the answer is no. And we really don’t want that to happen.”
It’s a comfortable feeling for the Indians, who are confident they are putting a World Series-contending team on the field against Houston.
“Roster-wise, this might be the best roster we’ve had going into the playoffs the last couple years,” Kipnis said. “Just look at health. If you look at depth, now we have a healthy Bauer and Carrasco and we have Clev and Beiber. Now we have Edwin, Donaldson, we just have a bunch of extra stuff that we didn’t have in ’16 and ’17.
“Does it mean we’re going to win? No, but that’s just October baseball. That’s what happens, so I think it can only help us with how healthy we are now and everyone is kind of feeling rested and good and now it’s time to crank it up, but yeah overall, I think top to bottom pitching and everything, this might be the best roster we’ve had.”
Whether the Indians are a better team or not this time around might not matter anyway. They enter October as the clear underdog after playing what some would call mediocre baseball for much of the year — with a struggling closer, Cody Allen, and without the services of Miller for a large part of the season, and Bauer, a Cy Young contender, missing nearly all of the final two months.
Cleveland finished with a modest 91-71 record, which ranked fifth in the AL — six games behind Oakland, the league’s second wild-card entrant.
Still, the underdog role served the Indians quite well in 2016. Remember Ryan Merritt? Josh Tomlin? Rajai Davis?
If anything, it gives them even more motivation to end the franchise’s 69-year world title drought after coming so close in 2016 and bowing out so early last season.
“I certainly think that the way the last couple of years have gone have hopefully driven us to work towards even where it’s a little bit harder, crave it a little bit more in getting there and being that last team to win a game,” Miller said. “It’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of good teams that you got to go through and you got to have a lot of things probably go your way. You got to have luck on your side on top of it all so, I think this team is as capable as anybody. It’s just a matter of us getting those breaks and playing up to our ability.”
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