Ready For Some Baseball

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.

hi-res-f1085a23cef5182ba9e8ebe79f8a2f31_crop_northAlthough 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!

 

Clash Of The Lovable Losers

Tonight the Chicago Cubs face the Cleveland Indians in the first game of the 2016 World Series.  For most of recent baseball history — say, for the last 60 years or so — if you’d predicted that even one of those teams would make it to the Series, people would have laughed at your brashness.  Predicting that they both would make it would have been viewed as compelling clinical evidence of insanity.

chicago_cubs5That’s because the Cubs and Indians have an unmatched record of futility in major league baseball.  The Cubs haven’t been to a World Series since 1945, and they haven’t won a Series since 1908.  The Tribe, on the other hand, last won a World Series in 1948.  When you’re looking back to the Truman Administration, or the Roosevelt Administration — as in Theodore Roosevelt, not Franklin — for your last Series triumph, that’s pretty frigging sad.  For decades, generations of fans of both teams have experienced unrelieved heartache and losses, have believed in jinxes, and have been convinced that the fates are against them and they and their teams are cursed.

But this year, one of those teams, by definition, is going to win the World Series.  One of those beleaguered fan bases is finally (finally!) going to see their favorite ball club hoist the championship trophy, setting off a celebration that will never be forgotten.  I’m guessing that this year the TV ratings for the Series will be through the roof, not because there are enormous numbers of Chicago and Cleveland fans in America, but because the prospect that one of these lovable losers is going to bring an end to decades of outright failure is just too intriguing to miss.

cz7jxepAnd by the way, it should be a pretty good Series if you’re a baseball fan.  The Cubs are the heavy favorite to win the Series and the overwhelming choice of ESPN’s panel of experts.  That’s not dissing the Indians, but rather recognizing that, this year, the Cubs were easily the best team in baseball, from start to finish.  They won more than 100 games, had a bunch of their players make the All-Star game, have a powerhouse lineup of hitters and pitchers, and have a guy in the bullpen who throws 103 m.p.h.  And, unlike the Tribe, they haven’t seen their roster of starting pitchers decimated by injuries and drone accidents.  If you watched the way the Cubs mauled the Dodgers in the last three games of the National League Championship Series, you’d pick the Cubbies to win, too.

As for the Tribe, they’ve been the scrappy underdogs all year, and the World Series will be no different.  The Indians have made it this far because Terry Francona has managed his tattered pitching staff with historical deftness, and the starters and relievers have performed brilliantly when called upon.  The Indians batters collectively hit just .168 in the American League Championship Series, which is well below the Mendoza line — but the few hits they got were timely hits, knocking in just enough runs to hand the game to the bullpen after the fifth inning.  And, unlike the Dodgers, for example, the Tribe played stellar defense and helped the bullpen make sure that those one- and two-run leads held up.  It was the kind of baseball John McGraw and Tris Speaker would have appreciated.

I’m convinced that tonight’s game is a crucial one for the Tribe.  They’re facing Jon Lester, who was 19-5 in the regular season and has already won three games in the playoffs, and are going with their best remaining pitcher in Corey Kluber.  Given the anemic performance of the Indians’ offense this postseason, the Tribe simply can’t afford to fall behind and count on big innings to catch up late.  Kluber will need to somehow quiet the Cubs’ powerhouse offense, the Indians will need to scratch and claw for a few runs, and the bullpen will have to come through once again.

It should be a great Series.  Go Tribe!

On To The LCS!

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!

Cleveland And Cribbage

The Tribe won Game 1 of their five-game series with the Boston Red Sox tonight.  It was a fabulous, tight game, brilliantly managed by Indians skipper Terry Francona.

SONY DSCThe key point in the game was Francona’s decision to go to his bullpen in the fifth inning.  It was a ballsy move that could have blown up in Francona’s face — but it didn’t.  Yes, lefty Andrew Miller had to pitch more than normal, but the bullpen held the lead, Cody Allen closed the door for the save, and the Tribe has a leg up.

I had more even confidence about Francona’s managerial skills when I read this article about Francona’s relationship with his players.  Sure, he’s a deft manager — but it also turns out that he plays cribbage.

Cribbage?  Hell, no wonder he’s a good manager.  Anybody who plays the greatest card game of all, with its intricate strategies and maneuvering, is bound to have a good eye for figuring out how to win a ball game.

So the Tribe has a 1-0 lead in the series.  I’ll take it.  With the Cribbage King to set the strategy, I think more good things are to come.

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.

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.

Closing Time

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.