CLEVELAND -- Something about Progressive Field brings out the best in the Cleveland Indians, even if the place is empty enough to hear the hecklers on a lot of weekday summer nights. The Tribe finished tied with Texas for best home record in the American League this year at 53-28, even while ranking 28th in the majors in attendance. Only the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, teams in a perpetual state of bad-ballpark limbo, fared worse at the gate.
But the playoffs are a completely different thing, and 37,762 Cleveland fans embraced the opportunity to emote on the big stage Thursday night. They got all dressed up in red, waved red towels and willed their team to a 5-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
Several Cleveland players have attributed the team's regular-season success at home to a roster-wide comfort level at Progressive Field. In the series opener against Boston, the Indians looked more inspired than comfortable.
"It was awesome," Indians closer Cody Allen said. "The only thing a lot of guys in this clubhouse are able to compare it to is the 2013 playoff game [against Tampa Bay], and then Opening Day every year. There are some nights in between when it gets packed and it gets crazy. But this was definitely a special atmosphere."
Home-field advantage isn't always regarded as a huge deal in baseball, and it can quickly shift depending on the quality of the pitching. Consider the Rangers, who posted an AL best 95-67 record during the regular season and got flogged 10-1 thanks to a forgettable outing by starter Cole Hamels against the Blue Jays on Thursday.
But for the Indians, the opportunity to play Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland was validation for grinding it out through all the injuries, slumps and other potholes they encountered during the regular season. They posted a 94-67 record and benefited from a late fade by Boston to avoid having to play a Monday makeup game against Detroit. The Red Sox, meanwhile, finished 93-69 and missed out on the opportunity to begin the series at Fenway Park, where their offense is especially daunting.
Boston appeared to have a clear pitching edge with Cy Young candidate Rick Porcello taking on Trevor Bauer, who rated as Cleveland's No. 4 starter before the rotation was crushed by injuries. Bauer has terrific stuff, but he's a deep thinker who is admittedly high-maintenance because of his outside-the-box preparation. Thursday's TV broadcast showed him long-tossing while listening to music on headphones, chucking a ball at hyper-speed from behind the mound between innings, and engaging in the type of behavior that has earned him a reputation as "quirky" in baseball circles.
Bauer was clearly stoked by the crowd support in Game 1. "That was the coolest experience of my life, for sure," he said. But there were moments during the game when he had to take a deep breath and a personal inventory to keep his emotions in check. He gave up solo home runs to Andrew Benintendi and Sandy Leon before departing with a 4-3 lead two outs into the fifth inning.
"Adrenaline is a crazy thing," Bauer said. "You don't want it to take over, because that's bad. And you don't want to try to suppress it either, because that's bad. The first couple of innings I just tried to locate -- that was my focus -- and kind of let the adrenaline take care of the velocity. After the second, it felt like a normal game again."
The Indians caught a break facing Porcello away from Fenway Park, where he went 13-1 with a 2.97 ERA during the regular season, and they went long-ball crazy on a night when the ball was carrying. When Roberto Perez, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor hit solo home runs in a nine-pitch span in the third inning, it marked the first time the Indians achieved the feat in a postseason game since Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Mark Whiten went deep against Andy Pettitte in the 1998 American League Championship Series.
If you were sitting in the stands Thursday night and closed your eyes, you might have flashed back to the glory days when manager Mike Hargrove was leaning over the dugout railing.
"After the first one, it was exciting," Kipnis said. "After mine, it was kind of getting nuts in there. And after the third one, our dugout was kind of losing it. We played with a lot of energy and emotion. That's the way our team goes. Up and down the lineup, we've got 25 guys who are baseball players and love to compete, and we ride the waves. And that was a pretty high one, starting with Roberto."
Nothing is ever easy against Boston's lineup, and Cleveland manager Terry Francona had to lean heavily on his big bullpen arms. Andrew Miller came on in the fifth inning and threw 40 pitches to record six outs. And after a brief segue to Bryan Shaw, Allen threw an exhausting 40 pitches to record the final five outs.
The good news for Miller and Allen is that Corey Kluber, Cleveland's resident ace, is returning from a mild quadriceps strain to start Game 2 against David Price. Kluber pitched into the seventh inning in 22 of his 32 regular-season games, and he has a touch of Jack Morris in him. The only way he'll leave in the fifth inning Friday is if his right arm somehow becomes detached from his body.
"I was joking with him and I told him he's on a tight 165-to-170 [pitch count] tomorrow," Francona said.
The Indians are a better team than their lack of star power suggests, but they're also a team that needs to play with emotion. They were discounted as a serious postseason threat by most observers when Danny Salazar went down because of a forearm strain and Carlos Carrasco suffered a season-ending fractured hand. It seemed inconceivable that a team so reliant on starting pitching could overcome so many injuries.
But don't try telling the Indians or their fans what they can't or shouldn't achieve. Just in case the Cleveland players didn't have enough motivation, LeBron James and some of his fellow Cavaliers are expected to be at the ballpark for Game 2 on Friday.
"Cleveland is definitely a diehard sports town," Allen said. "They love their Browns, they love the Cavs and they love us. And we love them."