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.

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.

The Jinx Is Alive And Well

Before this season began, Sports Illustrated apparently picked the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. Every true fan of the Tribe immediately reacted as if they had been stung by every worker in a colony of colossal poisonous wasps.  There was no need to even read the article, because we knew that disaster lurked dead ahead.

We know what happens when Sports Illustrated picks you.  To be blunt, and somewhat vulgar, it means you’re irretrievably cursed and you’re going to suck.  And that has exactly what has happened with the Tribe this year.  They’ve blown chunks, and in particular they’ve been humiliated and beaten like a rug by their big purported rival the Detroit Tigers.  Some rivalry!  The Tigers beat the snot out of the Indians, and the Indians go home with covered with shame and embarrassment.  Hell, the Indians have even been thumped by the Chicago White Sox.  What could be more embarrassing than that?

Sports Illustrated, thanks a lot!  April isn’t even over, and already the Indians have shown beyond dispute that they aren’t a contender and haven’t a chance.  So what are we supposed to watch between now and football season?  Golf?  Soccer, for God’s sake?

The Tribe Hangs In There

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 Tribe, In The Dumper

I’m sorry to declare it, because I hoped I wouldn’t have to — but I think the Tribe has hit the wall and is now officially in the dumper.

It’s too bad, really, because this has been an interesting season for an overachieving team.  After sprinting out to a big lead and then hanging on, winning games by hook or by crook, the Cleveland Indians stood only 1.5 games behind division leader Detroit only two series ago.  Alas, they were swept by the Tigers, then lost three of four to the woeful Mariners.  Now they are below .500 for the first time in months and have fallen into a tie with the White Sox, 6.5 games behind the Tigers.  Their trades haven’t worked out.  Their stout pitching has faltered.  Their defense has given up errors and unearned runs that they can ill afford.  And their hitters, for the most part, look timid and sphincter-clenched at the plate, like they are hoping desperately for walks.

It’s been a good season — but I’m calling it.  The Tribe is done.  There is no way the Tribe can possibly recover to compete for the division championship.  There is no way the mighty Tigers will give up 6.5 games in the few weeks between now and the season’s end.  We Tribe fans are just going to have to live with that harsh reality.  Wait until next year!

The Tribe At The All-Star Break

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.

Pitchers And Catchers

The temperature has crept above freezing, the sun is shining, and the massive snowfall is beginning to melt a bit.  The slightly warmer weather gives us a glimpse of the spring to come.

Another sign that spring is just around the corner is this:  pitchers and catchers report to the Cleveland Indians’ spring training camp tomorrow.  Spring training games then will start in a few weeks.  The Tribe is in the Cactus League, playing from the Goodyear Ballpark in Goodyear, Arizona.

It will be a new roster of catchers and a bunch of new pitchers for the Indians this year, in what will undoubtedly be a “rebuilding” year.  The question for Tribe fans is whether the Indians’ roster actually includes enough talent to really rebuild, or whether we are in for endless and embarrassing years of futility, as was the case in the ’70s and ’80s.  In any case, expectations for 2010 are very low indeed.

When pitchers and catchers report, however, hope springs eternal.

The Ass End Of The Season

The 2009 season started with great promise for the Cleveland Indians.  Some publications picked them to win their division, and the long-suffering hearts of Cleveland sports fans were filled with a desperate, wild-eyed hope that this might be the year.  Alas, the season quickly turned to ashes in the mouths of Cleveland fans.  The Tribe was dismal from the get-go, long ago unloaded its marquee players in the hope of getting some prospects who might pan out in the future, and ended the season with a twisting death spiral that leaves then struggling to stay ahead of the horrible Kansas City Royals and out of the AL Central cellar.

The reaction of Cleveland management was to fire Eric Wedge, the manager, today.  Wedge managed the Tribe for seven years and got them into the playoffs once.  I’m not someone who always blames the manager or head coach when a team underperforms — usually, it is the players’ fault — but I think Indians’ management made the right call in showing Wedge the door.  He was supposed to be the cerebral catcher-coach with great baseball knowledge, but I never saw much sign of that.  As a small market team, the Tribe can’t buy its way into the playoffs every year, like the Yankees or the Red Sox, but it clearly has had quality players during Wedge’s tenure.  I don’t think he ever took a mediocre team and made it a good team through savvy moves, much less take a good team and make it a great one.

As the Tribe enters what will no doubt be a long, painful rebuilding process, there is no point in having some failed retread as the manager.  Better to bring in a new face, with some fire, who might motivate promising youngsters to overachieve.