We’re down to the last three games of the regular season, the Tribe is fighting for a spot in the wildcard playoff game — and suddenly the team finds that it is without a closer.
A closer is a crucial component of any successful modern professional baseball team. Every team craves an unflappable Mariano Rivera-type who comes in to the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the game on the line and coolly slams the door on any possible comeback. Of course, there is only one Mariano Rivera. All other closers wax and wane. They may look unhittable for a while, but then they will blow up, fritter away leads, and cause fans to tear their hair out.
The Indians’ closer, Chris Perez, has been like that this season, but even more so. He’s had a number of bad outings recently, and last night he came in when the Tribe was up by 5 runs in the ninth and got bombed, leaving it for another reliever to get the last out in what became a nail-biting 6-5 win. After the game, Perez apparently talked to Indians manager Terry Francona and said he didn’t want to cost the team games while he struggled with his pitching.
So now Francona — who has done a fantastic job managing the Tribe this year — has to make an impossible decision with the playoffs on the line. What does he do with a closer who can’t close any more, and apparently has lost the confidence that every successful closer must have? And who do you replace him with? Justin Masterson, a fine starter who is recovering from an injury? Joe Smith, the reliable eighth-inning set-up man? Closing major league ballgames requires a special type of person, and trying to find a new closer through trial and error when every game is crucial is asking the impossible. If Terry Francona can figure this out, he’s more than just a great manager — he’s a genius.
I’m trying not to get my hopes up about the Tribe, but they’re making that difficult.
The Tribe played well at the beginning of the year, then hit the skids big time. They lost a bunch of games and plummeted in the standings, and I thought the season was probably over. But somehow, some way, they pulled it together and scraped out some stunning, last-minute wins. Today Justin Masterson pitched a beautiful game, shutting out the White Sox 4-0. With the win the Indians completed a four-game sweep of the Sox, in Chicago, and moved into a tie with Detroit for first place.
I don’t know how the Tribe is doing it — I really don’t. They don’t have a star-studded lineup filled with potent hitters, and lately their bullpen has really struggled. They’ve gotten pounded by the stud teams in the American League. But these guys find a way to beat the bad teams, and so far that’s been good enough. The fact that Detroit has fallen on hard times hasn’t hurt, either.
I’m still not expecting a lot from the Tribe this year — I’m really not. But now we’re moving into July, the Indians have shown some admirable fortitude, and baseball remains worth watching for Cleveland fans. Not bad!
The All-Star Game marks the unofficial midpoint of the baseball season. It is a good time to take stock of your favorite team.
Fans of the Cleveland Indians can look back at the first half of the 2011 season with pleasure. No one expected the Tribe to be in contention, yet the team has held first place in the American League for most of the season. Although a late stumble leaves the Tribe a half game behind Detroit at the All-Star break, every Indians fan has to admit that the team has exceeded expectations.
The success hasn’t come without a struggle. Asdrubal Cabrera, who leads the Indians in virtually every offensive category, has had a great season, but the team often has had to scratch and claw for runs and count on pitching and defense to pull them through — and the pitching and defense, for the most part, has done so. Starters Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin have pitched extremely well, and Carlos Carrasco had a stretch where he was close to unhittable. The bullpen has been reliable and closer Chris Perez already has notched 21 saves. The defense has been stout. And manager Manny Acta and his staff have done a good job of molding and motivating the team.
There is still a lot of baseball to be played, of course, and we could well see the 2011 edition of the Tribe fade into oblivion — or we could see the bats in the Wigwam heat up and keep the team in contention until the season’s end. It will make the second half of the season a lot more interesting than Cleveland fans had any right to expect.