The Midwest has been hit with a typical contrarian March cold blast, and the east coast has been hammered by a snowstorm. Perversely, the crummy, winter-is-still-with-us weather has made me think that the real spring cannot be far away, and that it’s okay to start thinking about something good that will be coming with the warmer spring weather in just a few days: baseball.
Although they fell just short of that elusive World Series win, last year was a magical one for the Cleveland Indians. The team overcame injuries to crucial members of the pitching staff and key position players and, with deft manager Terry Francona holding things together with spit, scotch tape, and baling wire, the Tribe improbably made it to the doorstep of a championship. With the players hopefully healed, and Edwin Encarnacion set to fill a big hole in the middle of the lineup, Tribe fans are dreaming that this might be the year. Hey, lightning finally struck the long-suffering Chicago Cubs last year — why can’t it strike the Indians this year?
Spring is the time of dreaming for all baseball fans. Tribe fans aren’t the only ones who are hoping that the team’s off-season moves have put the right pieces in place, that the player who had the unexpected great year last year wasn’t a fluke, and that the minor league phenom will step up and produce in the big leagues. It’s all part of the time-honored baseball process that has been part of America’s National Pastime for more than 100 years. The baseball fans who are dreaming and hoping about their teams today are just new links in a very long chain.
Let’s play ball!
Sports Illustrated reports that major league baseball is considering a rule change that would apply only to extra-inning games. Under the proposed rule, starting in the 10th inning, every team coming up to bat would begin their inning with a runner already on second base.
If the source were anything other than SI — which is presumptively authoritative on all things involving sports and women’s swimwear — I’d think this proposal was a prank, but apparently it’s legitimate. This year, starting with the World Baseball Classic and then in two of the minor leagues, baseball is going to test the proposed rule. Why? Because it’s another way to “speed up the game” and avoid long extra-inning games where pitching staffs get blown out and a utility infielder ends up pitching the 19th inning.
How often does that happen, really? Isn’t the rule change addressing a pretty rare situation — and in a way that radically alters the game?
Leave aside exactly how this would work. (So, the next guy up doesn’t get to bat, and just trots out to second? Too bad for your team if that’s your power hitter and he’s on a hot streak! And how would this be accounted for in, say, calculating the ERA of the unlucky pitcher who didn’t give up a hit but now has to deal with a guy hugging second?) In baseball, getting a player to second base — in what is called “scoring position” — is a huge part of the strategy of the game. How do you move that guy who worked the pitcher for a walk or hit that sharp single to right field from first to second? Do you have him try to steal, or bunt him over? It’s a key part of the building tension that makes baseball so much fun to watch, and it gives fans endless opportunities to second-guess the manager. But under this proposal, all of that strategery gets thrown out the window, and there’s just a guy at second for no apparent reason. John McGraw must be turning over in his grave.
Can’t they just let baseball be baseball? It’s not as fast-moving as the NFL or the NBA — okay, we get that. But a big part of the joy of baseball is watching the same game that our grandfathers watched (let’s not talk about the designated hitter, okay?), played on the same fields, with the same distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate and the same horsehide and the same kinds of wooden bats. When you start to mess with the basics and not even require a team to do anything to get a guy to second base, you’re striking at the very core of the game.
This isn’t Nintendo, it’s baseball. Let baseball be baseball, I say.
It was a struggle — particularly in the ninth inning, which seemed like it would never end — but the Cleveland Indians have moved on to the American League Championship Series. The Tribe improbably swept the Boston Red Sox and now advance to play the Toronto Blue Jays.
Kudos to the Sox and David Ortiz for a great season and great career . . . but the Tribe is moving on. Let’s see if our secret weapon, by the name of Terry Francona, can carry the Tribe on to the World Series.
Go Tribe! Keep us from thinking about the presidential election a while longer!
There are no jinxes.
Repeat after me: There are no jinxes!
When the Cleveland Cavaliers came roaring back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship this year, and finally brought a championship to Cleveland sports fans after a 52-year drought, they buried the Cleveland sports jinxes once and for all. Even UJ has declared it. So today I’ll write what I really think about the Cleveland Indians’ chances in the MLB playoffs, without tying myself in knots about whether by writing, speaking, or even thinking about the Tribe I’m somehow upsetting the lurking karma. It’s wonderfully liberating, after years of being shackled by deep-seated jinxing fears.
The Tribe won the AL Central this year thanks to very good starting pitching, a superb bullpen, and a surprisingly robust offense. For a while, the Indians easily had the best starting pitching in baseball, but then injuries took their toll and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer had their struggles. Now the team advances to the playoffs without Carlos Carrasco, with their most consistent starter, Corey Kluber, dealing with a nagging quadriceps strain, and with Danny Salazar available only in the bullpen. The Tribe will need to start Bauer in game one against the Boston Red Sox and hope that Kluber recuperates in time to start game two. Tomlin, who was removed from the starting rotation after getting repeatedly battered but who has pitched better since being reinstated as a starter after the injury to Carrasco, will start game three. If the Tribe hopes to prevail, it will need all three of those starters to pitch well.
Some experts think that the Indians’ first-round opponents, the Boston Red Sox, are the team most likely to win the World Series this year. They believe the Sox are the most balanced team in the playoffs, with good pitching and a very potent offense. And, the Sox have the sentimental favorite storyline going for them, with the chance to win another World Series ring for retiring slugger David Ortiz, who had a fantastic year in 2016. The Sox also won the season series against the Indians this year. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that none of the pundits and baseball GMs seem to be picking the Tribe to win.
I think the key question in this series is whether the Tribe’s hitters bring their bats. This year, the team at times has had to scratch and claw for runs, but they’ve also been good at getting timely hits. In 2016 we’ve seen the emergence of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Tyler Naquin, and Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana have supplied the power. Lindor and Napoli were slumping at the end of the season. Tribe fans hope that they are revived by a few days off before the series starts on Thursday.
The Red Sox offense is going to score some runs; I’m not expecting a bunch of 1-0 games. The issue is whether the Indians can also put some runs on the scoreboard. If they can, I like their chances for one reason: Terry Francona. I think he’s one of the very best managers in the game, and he has used his bullpen spectacularly this year — including the game that Russell, UJ and I saw live, where Carrasco was injured on his second pitch and Francona threw a different pitcher out there every inning to improbably shut out the Tigers and win, 1-0, in 10 innings. It was a magical, never to be forgotten performance.
Any manager and bullpen that can do that against a good offensive club like Detroit is something special. If the Cleveland batters bring their lumber, and if the Tribe’s starters can keep the Sox from getting runaway leads, Francona and the bullpen could turn 2016 into something special for the Tribe and their long-suffering fans.
We’re into August, and the Cleveland Indians are out of it.
Not just out of the race for a playoff spot, but out of sight, out of mind, and out of the national consciousness. If you go on ESPN, you have to click “show all” to find out whether the sorry Tribesmen have won or, more likely, lost — probably in a shutout.
This is the season that wasn’t. A team that some predicted to win the World Series has never really been in contention, or even generated much excitement. There have been no thrilling winning streaks, or key series. The poor Indians have to scratch and claw just to score one run. It would suck to be a pitcher on this team — you feel that you need to throw a shutout to even have a chance of winning. The pressure on the pitchers must be immense, every game.
I’m not blaming Terry Francona. He can’t get up there and swing the bat, and he’s doing the best he can with a team comprised of batters who may someday aspire to reach the level of “banjo hitters.” I’m not sure what can be done with them — and right now I don’t much care.
I was thinking the other day of the glory years of the mid-90s, when the Tribe fielded a murderers’ row lineup that included the likes of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel, and Sandy Alomar, among others. I looked forward to watching their games after work, because it was fun baseball and you never felt that they were ever really out of a game no matter how big the other team’s lead. Now . . . not so much. It’s time to move on to college football.