Sweet 16

The last few weeks have been glorious times for the Cleveland Indians and their fans.  With last night’s victory over Baltimore, the Tribe has now won 16 games in a row.

img_5177With every triumph, the streak seems to set a new record.  It’s the longest winning streak in the history of the Indians ball club, and the longest streak in the major league since 2002.  It’s only the third time since 1961 that a major league baseball team has won at least 16 games in a row.  It’s nice to know, too, that Russell, UJ and I got to see part of the history.  We witnessed two of the wins on the streak, when the Tribe shut out the Royals back to back for wins 3 and 4 two weeks ago.

The Tribe still has a ways to go, however, if it really wants to put its name in the record books:  the all-time longest winning streak for a big league baseball team is 21 games, achieved by the 1935 Chicago Cubs.  (The longest losing streak, in case you’re interested, is 23 games by the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies.)

The games we saw against Kansas City were a microcosm of the streak, because the Tribe has been doing it with the basics:  excellent starting pitching, solid bullpen work, good defense, and timely hitting, often with power.  The streak has been particularly impressive because the team has won many of the games on the road while overcoming lots of injuries to key players, like Andrew Miller and Jason Kipnis.  And the players themselves don’t seem to be fazed by the team’s success and are just going out and playing one game at a time.

Every streak ends, of course, but this one has been lots of fun to relish.

There Are No Jinxes

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.

img_2445The 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.

Wheeling And Dealing

As Russell, Kish, UJ, and I enjoyed watching the Indians take two games from the Oakland Athletics on Saturday and Sunday — and look pretty darned good in the process — the Tribe’s front office was busy, too.  With the major league trade deadline nearing, management was hoping to make some deals to fill a few holes on the roster.

IMG_2477The Indians pulled off a key trade with the Yankees, sending some of their stable of minor league prospects to New York in exchange for prized reliever Andrew Miller.  Miller, a lefty, is a strikeout specialist who will give Tribe manager Terry Francona better options in the bullpen.  (And, of particular importance in the modern world of baseball economics, Miller has a favorable contract, too.)  The Tribe also tried to acquire catcher Jonathan Lucroy from Milwaukee, in exchange for still more prospects, but Lucroy vetoed the deal, invoking no-trade rights he’s got in his contract.

As we drove back from yesterday’s 8-0 shellacking of the As, UJ and I listened to Cleveland sports talk radio.  Some callers bemoaned the Indians’ decision to deal some of their top prospects, but others recognized reality:  in professional baseball, if the stars align and you find yourself in a position to make a legitimate run for a pennant, you’ve got to make the moves that maximize your chances for success, now.  You can’t make long-term plans because injuries and contracts and free agency just make that impossible.  Instead, it’s all about striking while the iron is hot and hoping that you put the pieces together that allow you to bring home a championship.  (And, while nobody wants to give away prospects, experienced fans know that guys who look like lock-cinch phenoms at the A and AA levels often don’t pan out, anyway.)

This year the Indians have fine starting pitching, their defense is greatly improved, and their offense is far more productive than most people expected.  And while they’ve got some holes, at catcher and third base, they’ve got a legitimate shot at the playoffs — and one you make the playoffs, who knows?  I’m glad to see that the Tribe’s front office is wheeling and dealing to try to maximize the Indian’s chances to make a successful run this year.  The final trade deadline comes today, at 4 p.m.  Don’t be surprised if the Indians make another swap before then.

Sigh

A fine season for the Tribe has come to a disappointing ending with a shutout loss in the winner-take-all wildcard game.  I worked out some angst by screaming at the TV at some of the strike calls by the home plate umpire and some of the missed opportunities.  At least I succeeded in scaring the dogs.

I’m sorry this season is over, but I’ll try not to forget what a pleasant surprise this team was.  It’s hard to get past this loss right now, though.

Fun With Dog Butt

IMG_1477The baseball playoffs start tonight, with the Reds taking on the Pirates.  Dog Butt hoped to catch some of the game at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, but didn’t realize that the Reds’ late-season collapse means that the game will be played in Pittsburgh instead.

A Fan Of Francona

On Wednesday, the Cleveland Indians play in the wild card playoff game. Before that happens, I want to throw a few kudos at Tribe manager Terry Francona.

I’ve been tremendously impressed by Francona this year, and not just because he managed the team to the post-season.  When you hear him interviewed he gives thoughtful answers, rather than the mindless twaddle that tends to come from the mouths of every other coach in professional sports.  He’s amazingly humble and quick to give credit to others, both players and team management.  He never seems to rip his players, or get too excited or too depressed about the team’s last game or series.  He’s got just about the perfect temperament for a high-profile job that requires a unique basket of skills.

I can’t speak to Francona’s managing abilities from a technical standpoint.  I don’t know whether he pinch-hits at the optimum times, or calls for the hit-and-run when it’s warranted, or positions his fielders properly — although the Indians’ unexpected success this season suggests to me that Francona has a pretty good head for inside baseball.  What impresses me more is his interpersonal skills.  He seems to be an uncommonly shrewd judge of people, and particularly how to motivate them and raise their spirits.  He has taken a bunch of players that no one else wanted and welded them into a unit that improbably won 92 games, including its last 10 games of the year.  He stuck with players like Jason Giambi when fans were calling for their heads — and they ultimately delivered.  He and his coaching staff have made a pitching staff of cast-offs and retreads into an extremely strong unit that really carried the team to the playoffs.

Too often in professional sports, coaches and managers are judged on their last game, and if their team loses the season is viewed as a failure.  That’s not fair, and I hope that doesn’t happen to Francona.  He has done a fantastic job in the manager’s seat this year, and I hope every Tribe fans recognizes that — no matter what happens in the playoffs — Cleveland is lucky to have him.

In The Grip Of Shutdown Sameness

It’s been about six months since our last government crisis, so I guess we’re due.

This latest crisis arises — surprise! — from the inability of the Republicans and the Democrats, of the House of Representatives on one hand and the Senate and the President on the other, to agree on a short-term funding bill to keep the government operating.  If the parties do not come up with a way forward by midnight tonight, there will be a partial governmental shutdown.

Of course, the inability to agree on a continuing resolution is only the immediate cause of this latest “crisis.”  The issues cut much deeper.  From spending, to taxes, to the Affordable Care Act, to a host of other issues, our two political parties have fundamental differences of opinion about what government should do and its role in our everyday lives.

I’m not going to write today, however, about those policy differences.  It’s all been written before, by countless people, and there really isn’t anything fresh or compelling to be said.  I would simply point out to our political leaders that, when you constantly lurch from one “crisis” to another, the state of “crisis” eventually becomes the norm.  We’ve gone through the brinksmanship and the dire warnings again and again, and we’re still here.  Sequestration took effect . . . and the sun rose the next day.  After a while, the constant cries of wolf fall on deaf ears.

If this latest “crisis” provokes a partial government shutdown, how many Americans will even care?  They’ll find refuge in the final episodes of Breaking Bad, or the baseball playoffs, or something else of more immediate interest and impact on their lives.  Sadly, our political leaders may actually have let the country drift to the point where most people don’t even give a crap that our government is totally dysfunctional.