If you’ve watched any of the 2017 MLB Division Series Playoffs, you can identify in some form or fashion what is about to follow on this page. As a Cleveland Indians fan, I was let down, like so many others, when my beloved Tribe failed to capitalize on a 2-0 series lead and were sent home early at the hands of the New York Yankees.
What I saw was an amazingly common happening in the playoffs, not so much the blown lead, but what caused it. If you were paying attention, you would have noticed how feeble the Tribe offense, a juggernaut just mere weeks earlier, had become over the last week of the season and into October.
Realize this: In baseball a good hitter still makes an out 7 out of 10 at-bats. Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in the entirety of sports, and when you have guys chucking it at you at speeds of 95-100 MPH, it makes that feat even more difficult. To add to a batter’s misery, the teams that qualify for the playoffs feature stronger arms and better bats. It’s no AL Central cake walk here.
The playoffs are hard.
Considering the competition level, October baseball also adds a layer of pressure, one that causes managers to make different decisions than they normally would in games where every pitch and at-bat are magnified.
Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ 2016 playoff hero, managed only a .111 batting average this post-season. Even with his dramatic grand slam in Game 2 that helped the Tribe to a 2-0 lead, Lindor’s feeble 2 for 18 effort at the plate fell far short of expectations. His fellow all-star Jose Ramirez sputtered to a 2 for 20 line with no home runs or RBI.
Here are the 2017 season stat lines of some of the Tribe’s offensive mainstays:
Francisco Lindor – .273 BA / 33 HR / 89 RBI
Jose Ramirez – .318 / 29 / 83
Edwin Encarnacion – .258 / 42 / 107
Jay Bruce – .254 / 36 / 101
So how can a team that features so many tremendous players go so wrong?
First, when a team goes on a 22-game win streak, there’s a lot going right. The Indians outscored their opponents 142-37 (average score 7-2) and hit more home runs (41) than their opponents SCORED runs! They trailed only 9 innings out of 199. Their pitching staff owned a ridiculous 1.58 ERA.
Simply said, to pull off a run like this you must be firing on all cylinders. Averaging seven runs per game, the entire lineup was producing. If you recall, hitting .300 is good, and the law of averages catches up to even the best of hitters.
Welcome to October.
If everyone is hitting at the same time, wouldn’t it make sense that most would cool off in similar fashion? Now add the pressure of the playoffs and quality of pitching to the mix and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.
The Indians batted a paltry .171 as a team in the ALDS versus the Yankees. Everyone was feeling good about the Tribe after their 4-0 victory behind Trevor Bauer’s gem in Game 1, but the Indians had only five hits of their own. Then came the miracle comeback in Game 2, a game in which they had only mustered three hits off of CC Sabathia into the fifth.
The warning signs were there, and the offensive struggles were about to come to a head. Strikeouts were up, and hits were down. As Carlos Carrasco twirled a gem in New York with a chance to close out the series, Cleveland hitters were flailing at Masahiro Tanaka sinkers in the dirt. The Tribe also lost a 1-0 pitcher’s duel on a Greg Bird homer off of Andrew Miller.
With only five hits in Game 3, four in Game 4 and five in Game 5, the Indians were sent packing. So in four of the five ALDS contests, the Indians had five hits or less. Not exactly a recipe for success.
But why were they such a miserable failure? When one looks at the makeup of this team, it makes complete sense.
Earlier in the season Bradley Zimmer became a dynamic defender in center field and brought speed to the base paths for the Indians. During the win streak Zimmer dove into first, breaking his hand, but the Tribe kept on rolling. They continued to win without former all-star Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis as well as without Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer, who both had lingering injuries. The Tribe Train rolled on behind the strength of dominant pitching and timely hitting.
But as playoff time rolled around, Brantley struggled even to simply run, Kipnis and Chisenhall were just getting back, and Guyer was out of service. So in an unwarranted push to get Kipnis back into the lineup, he was pressed into service as the new center fielder.
When Edwin Encarnacion went down early in Game 2, the Indians’ offense was neutered even more with a clearly-not-ready Brantley now pressed into service as the everyday DH. This added more pressure on Lindor and Ramirez as well as Bruce and Carlos Santana to produce. Opposing pitchers feasted on the anxious Cleveland hitters, who had been so relaxed the previous month, as the season slipped away.
Bauer carried them in Game 1, and the Tribe wasted a great outing by Carrasco in Game 3, but a creaky Corey Kluber could not paint the corners the way he had so often throughout a masterful Cy Young-type season as the pitching could no longer carry the day.
The season was gone, the players stunned and the fans irate. But why? This team had done the remarkable, winning 22 games in a row on its way to a lofty 102-win season. They brought excitement to the region and notoriety in the national media. It was cool to be a Tribe fan again. And coming off a season that saw them take the Chicago Cubs into extra innings of Game 7 in the 2016 World Series, the Indians are one of the premier teams in baseball.
So for all fans who want to rip the Indians for a choke-job, please don’t. It’s not like blowing a 2-0 lead in the Division Series is unprecedented. The Texas Rangers did it just last year, dropping three in a row to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Since Terry Francona became their manager in 2012, the Cleveland Indians have owned a winning record every year, capturing a Wild Card berth in 2012, losing in the World Series in 2016 and winning the American League Central Division in 2016 and 2017. The two years they didn’t make the playoffs, their divisional rival Kansas City Royals were the American League representative in the World Series, capturing a championship in 2015.
I’m sorry if I won’t wallow in self-pity as a cursed Cleveland fan after this year’s collapse. It’s October baseball. It happens. But I will take this version of my Cleveland Indians any day over the many years of sub-.500 seasons of the ’70s and ’80s. This team is fun. It’s talented, and they’ll be back in 2018 with a core that’s ready to go at it again.
Buckle up Tribe fans; 2018 should be a season to remember, just like this one has been!