October’s immense pressure can breed stars or break them. Last year, it cracked Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
Dynamic from April until September, Cleveland’s All-Star duo was dreadful in the postseason.
“It was surprising to me,” Indians center fielder Jason Kipnis said as the club prepared to face Houston in the AL Division Series. “Only because of how consistently good they are.”
After posting offensive statistics not recorded by teammates in decades, Lindor and Ramirez both fell into prolonged postseason slumps at the same time — the worst time for Cleveland. The pair batted a combined .105 (4-for-38) with 13 strikeouts, and their ineptitude was one of the main reasons why the Indians coughed up a 2-0 series lead and were eliminated in five games by the New York Yankees.
The end was stunning. So was watching Lindor and Ramirez flail at pitches.
It can’t happen again, not if the Indians have any plans of unseating the defending World Series champion Astros or ending their own 70-year Series title drought.
Make no mistake, Lindor and Ramirez make the Indians go. They’re the pistons to an offensive engine that has sputtered at times this season. Both possess surprising power and speed and are as capable of working a walk as driving a ball into the gap for a double.
Ramirez led the Indians with 39 homers, Lindor connected for 38 and the infielders became the first switch-hitting teammates in history to reach 30 homers in the same season. Tack on their other numbers from last season, and Ramirez and Lindor are the first teammates to get at least 80 extra-base hits in consecutive years since 1936-37.
The first? Only Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. And Lindor, 24, and Ramirez, 26, may just be getting started.
But while they’ve put together remarkable regular seasons, the postseason is when greats are judged, and Lindor and Ramirez didn’t measure up last October.
Lindor’s grand slam in Game 2 helped the Indians rally for a 9-8 win in 13 innings, but he got just one more hit in the series and finished 2-of-18 (.111) with six strikeouts. Ramirez was as bad, going 2-of-20 (.100) and fanning seven times.
They shrunk, and the Indians withered with them.
“We started to uncharacteristically chase (pitches) down and up,” manager Terry Francona said. “The hope is you don’t chase anywhere, but if you’re going to chase, maybe just have it be one, not both. Then when both of them kind of struggled together it was such a big part of our offense, it hurt us.”
Cleveland’s lineup is deeper this time around. Starting with Lindor leading off to Kipnis in the No. 9 hole, the Indians have power from top to bottom. Also, the recent addition of former MVP Josh Donaldson gives Francona another player capable to changing the game with one swing.
Lindor and Ramirez aren’t alone.
“I don’t think these guys are feeling any more pressure to do more than they’re capable of doing,” said Donaldson, who came over in August from Toronto. “At the same time, it takes a total team effort. You watched the wild-card game (Tuesday night). It took a guy that comes in in the 13th inning, gets a base hit up the middle. The guy hit .170 all year. The playoffs I’ve been in, a lot of the times the guys that are having the success aren’t probably the guys you’re looking at to have it.
“So it’s important for everybody to be sharp, be ready.”
It all starts with Lindor and Ramirez, and Francona is confident they can handle that burden.
“They’ve been through so much already at a young point in their careers that these games aren’t going to be too big for ’em,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball, you don’t know how anybody’s going to do. But I don’t think it’s going to be because of the magnitude of the game.”
There is some concern, though. Ramirez struggled over the final six weeks, batting just .185 and his slump probably cost him any chance of winning league MVP honors. But he showed signs of putting things together during the final series in Kansas City, where he admitted that chasing some personal milestones may have affected his swing.
Ramirez ended September looking much more like himself.
However, now is when appearances matter, and Kipnis said it’s vital all the Indians step up.
“In October, you just need stuff to go your way and Jose is starting to get some better swings here of late and Frankie has been locked in for, oh, about 24 months, it seems like,” Kipnis said. “So we’re excited. I think the best thing we can do is have good at-bats around those guys and make it easier on them.
“If we get a guy on third with less than two outs for Frankie and he rolls over, instead of thinking ‘I’m 0-for-1.’ He’s got an RBI and that’s how you make it easier, by changing his mindset. And that’s how we can make it easier on everyone — if we can share the weight of the load and just pass the baton down the lineup.”
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