Heading into the long Labor Day weekend, the Cleveland Indians looked like world-beaters. They'd won 10 in a row, beating the Angels, then sweeping the Royals, Rangers and Tigers. With several contenders on their schedule in September, the Tribe looked set to be major spoilers in the American League pennant races.
Then they got swept by the worst team in the league.
That Seattle stinker notwithstanding, no team in baseball appears better positioned to play spoiler than the Indians. They're in the midst of a three-game series against the AL Central-leading White Sox. They will play a three-game set against the Twins (Sept. 15-17) and four against the wild-card leading Red Sox (Sept. 22-25). Cleveland could do the most damage on the final weekend of the season, when they will play three more against the White Sox, in Chicago.
The Indians' spoiler potential goes well beyond scheduling coincidence. Even after dropping three games to the Mariners, the Indians are 25-17 since the All-Star break. In the AL, only the Rays have a better record in the second half (29-12).
That we're even talking about the Indians as spoilers with less than a month left in the season speaks volumes about the roller coaster year that Cleveland has endured. Of the 19 ESPN pundits surveyed at the start of the season, nine picked the Indians to win the AL Central, including yours truly (the other 10 all picked the Tigers, reminding us yet again of the perils of prognosticating).
Down years for several key players and injuries to several more derailed Cleveland's chances early.
CC Sabathia, last year's Cy Young winner, got off to a miserable start, leaving some to wonder if his arm may have been slagged by the 256 innings he tossed in the regular season and playoffs combined. No. 2 starter Fausto Carmona lost the strike zone, then went on the disabled list for a long stretch. A bum shoulder turned Travis Hafner's sharp 2007 drop into a full-on free fall, sapping his power and eventually washing out his season. Another one-time star, Victor Martinez, didn't hit a single homer in 54 games before an elbow injury forced him to the sidelines for half the season. Throw in disappointing seasons from expected up-and-comers Ryan Garko (.256 batting average/.331 on-base percentage/.369 slugging percentage), Asdrubal Cabrera (.216/.316/.313 and a long demotion to the minors) and Franklin Gutierrez (.235/.287/.382) and an implosion by the Indians' bullpen and it's little wonder that the Indians' playoff chances went up in smoke.
With so many of their top guns holstered, it looked like the Indians would fade away entirely, leaving the big boys to decide the pennant races. But Cleveland has gotten big contributions from unlikely sources in the past few weeks, raising their spoiler possibilities while also offering hope for next season and beyond.
The biggest catalyst, and best pitcher in baseball, has been Cliff Lee. The 29-year-old lefty was a tough read before this season, going from an 18-game winner with solid peripherals to an injury-plagued, 6.29 ERA-toting washout last year. This season, Lee leads the AL with a 20-2 record and a 2.32 ERA. He's been a bedrock of consistency all year long, starting fast out of the gate, carrying his success deep into the summer months and displaying pinpoint command with a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 5-to-1.
Other former also-rans have stepped up as well. Outfielder Ben Francisco entered this season as a 26-year-old minor league veteran without a clear path to a big league job, in danger of becoming the proverbial prospect who never panned out. Instead, he pushed his way into the lineup in the spring, then became a steady contributor in the Indians' lineup (.280/.337/.458 with 14 homers and a number of big hits). Shin-Soo Choo, like Cabrera a castoff from the Mariners that cost the Indians next to nothing, has put up an impressive line of .284/.379/.517 while sharing time in the other corner outfield slot. In Martinez's absence, career backup catcher Kelly Shoppach has taken the starting job and run with it, amassing a .515 slugging average and 17 homers in just 295 at-bats. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta has tapped into the form that made him look like a budding star three years ago, clubbing 21 homers.
And of course there's Grady Sizemore, the just-turned-26 superstar who has a shot at a 40-40 season (home runs-stolen bases), plus an armful of MVP trophies, if his teammates can just play better around him.
The Indians will face a number of questions this offseason. Cleveland needs to find another reliable starter to slot in behind Lee. How they handle the injuries, diminished production and big salaries of Hafner and Martinez is an open question. So too are the futures of Garko and Cabrera, who are either experiencing a normal down year or showing that they're not cut out to be starters on a championship team. Meanwhile, the bullpen needs a reliable closer, plus two or three more pitchers who can reliably induce outs.
Still, there's a lot to like heading into 2009 and beyond. Top hitting prospect Matt LaPorta, acquired from Milwaukee for Sabathia, could develop into a franchise player. Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey and Anthony Reyes have shown flashes of ability at the back end of the rotation and could become cheap, viable big league starters for the next half-decade. Top pitching prospect Adam Miller has battled injuries, but he's still a threat to boost the Indians' staff by next year. Throw in this year's breakout brigade, cash freed up from prior salary commitments and one of the sharpest front offices in the business, and the Indians could take a page out of the Twins and White Sox's book: division winner to disappointment and back to playoff contender in three years or less.
Or maybe not.
If the Indians have their way, the Twins or White Sox will have another season end in disappointment -- and they'll have the spoilers from Cleveland to thank.