Every young player can use an experienced tour guide in navigating his first stretch run. For Cleveland outfielder Greg Allen, that knowing voice emerged during a late-August game in Boston. As the Indians took the field in the bottom of the eighth inning, a veteran teammate sidled up and told him to enjoy the big-game atmosphere and pay close attention as the sellout crowd at Fenway Park broke into its nightly rendition of "Sweet Caroline.''
The veteran player, Francisco Lindor, is eight months younger than Allen. But the gesture came as no surprise to Lindor's Cleveland teammates, who have seen him carry himself with a professionalism beyond his years since his debut as Indians shortstop in 2015.
"He's been a natural-born leader since he set foot in this clubhouse,'' Indians closer Cody Allen said. "You would never think, 'This kid is 24.' He shows up every single day willing to grind and put in the work. He's never too high or too low. He plays the game the right way, and he has his teammates' backs every day. And Jose is the same way. Those two guys are awesome for creating a clubhouse atmosphere that leads to winning. They're the cream of the crop.''
Jose Ramirez, Cleveland's second baseman and No. 3 hitter, makes for good comic fodder when he walks into the clubhouse with an ice cream cone, banters with his teammates in Spanish at warp speed and ambulates from place to place with a chest-puffing, arm-swinging gait that his teammates call the "George Jefferson swagger.'' But he's all business with a bat or a glove in his hand. And his synergy with Lindor is like nothing baseball has seen in years.
The Indians are gaining momentum as a postseason dark horse pick for multiple reasons. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger recently became the first starting foursome in MLB history to each record more than 200 strikeouts in a season. The bullpen is rounding into shape, and a previously top-heavy lineup looks deeper with the arrival of Josh Donaldson and more consistent production from veterans Melky Cabrera and Jason Kipnis.
October brings an opportunity for redemption for Cleveland's two young stars, who hit a combined .105 (4-for-38) in a five-game loss to the New York Yankees in the 2017 AL Division Series. Lindor, always accountable, was quick to share his disappointment after that abrupt and stunning conclusion. The Indians were coming off a 22-game late-season win streak and had been considered a strong bet to reach their second straight World Series before they forgot how to hit against the Yankees.
"I was thinking I was going to be playing all the way to Nov. 1, with champagne,'' Lindor said at the time. "I wasn't thinking about doing this here, early in October. It's tough. It hurts. But you learn from it.''
Lindor and Ramirez have since learned -- and shown -- that devastating setbacks can be overcome with a commitment to routine, belief in one's abilities and the resilience of youth. They're the first pair of teammates since Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury of the 2011 Red Sox to amass 7.5 wins above replacement, and the first infield teammates to reach that threshold since Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen of the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals, according to ESPN Stats & Information's Sarah Langs.
The last American League infield teammates to achieve the feat were George Brett and catcher Darrell Porter of the 1979 Royals. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg of the 1935 Detroit Tigers.
The Cleveland infielders are taking the concept of "dual threat'' to new heights. Of the 17 switch-hitters in the modern era to record 20-homer, 20-steal seasons, Lindor and Ramirez are the first pair of teammates to do so. Ramirez leapfrogged the 20/20 designation this year with 38 home runs and 33 stolen bases, while Lindor isn't far behind with 37 homers and 23 steals.
They took the historical comparisons to another level in a 10-2 win over the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday. When Ramirez doubled off Aaron Bummer, he and Lindor became the first teammates to reach 80 extra-base hits in consecutive seasons since Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig did it for the 1936-37 Yankees.
Lindor stands 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, while Ramirez, who just turned 26, is listed at 5-9, 165, so they're products of the Khris Davis stealth bomber school of power hitting rather than the Aaron Judge-Giancarlo Stanton aircraft carrier fraternity. Ty Van Burkleo, Cleveland's hitting coach, attributes their power numbers to a solid base and the ability to keep each element of the swing in proper working order.
"They really sequence the swing well so the bat stays in the zone a long time,'' Van Burkleo said. "They use their lower half well and get into good leverage positions. They aren't necessarily going to hit the Joey Gallo-type home runs on the roof. But they both have such good bat-to-ball skills, they can hit the barrel more often. And if they get the ball in the air, it ends up being a home run.''
The little guys can leave a vapor trail when they catch a ball just right. Lindor cranked a 107.5 mph-exit-velocity, 456-foot blast off Houston's Chris Devenski on April 27. Ramirez's longest homer of the season was a 434-foot shot off Milwaukee's Brent Suter on May 8.
The stolen bases are a product of an aggressive team mindset that took root early this season. The Indians lead the majors with 129 stolen bases, and their 78.66 percent success rate is fourth best in the game. Like the Boston Red Sox, they're capable of generating offense with speed as well as power.
"I'm little, so I've got to run,'' Lindor said. "That's my game and Jose's game. I grew up with it. I don't play to try to save myself for later in the season. I go all out, and then later in the season, somehow, someway you find ways to win in October.''
If Lindor's body takes a beating stealing second or diving in the hole, that's the price of competition. He played in 317 of a possible 324 games over the past two seasons, and this year he's at 155 games and an AL-leading 725 plate appearances. Ramirez, similarly, has surpassed 150 games in each of the past three seasons.
Embracing the grind means tending to the little things. While fans are cheering the home run trots and stolen bases, coaches and teammates take note of how routinely Lindor and Ramirez advance 90 feet on balls that skip to the catcher, or churn up dirt going from first to third on singles.
"They're both so in tune with the game,'' Indians infield coach Mike Sarbaugh said. "They have great baseball instincts. They love to play, and it shows. But there's so much work and studying behind the scenes that you don't see. Maybe they're talking about tonight's pitcher, or talking about the hitters and where they're going to position themselves defensively. They're very in tune and they want knowledge. What you see is what they are, which is kind of cool.''
The waning days of the regular season will be particularly important to Ramirez. In mid-August, he was in the middle of the AL MVP conversation with Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Mike Trout, but he fell into a pronounced funk at the plate. He's hitting .169 (22-for-130) over his past 36 games, and some ancillary numbers provide insight into his decline:
• Ramirez has a 22 percent chase rate since Aug. 17, compared to 19 percent before that.
• He's hitting .161 with a .321 slugging percentage in at-bats ending in fastballs during his slump, compared to .335 and .752 in the months preceding it.
• He's been particularly challenged from the left side of the plate. Since the start of his slump, Ramirez has hit .130 left-handed, compared to .309 before that.
Potential explanations abound. Ramirez's batting average on balls in play was .277 through Aug. 16, and it has dipped to .182 since, so he's been the victim of some bad luck. His bat speed could be down a tick because of fatigue, and the push to 40 homers might have prompted him to get outside his game and lose his grasp of the strike zone. He was so hot for so long, some statistical regression was almost inevitable.
Among Indians officials and the coaching staff, Ramirez's recent position switch appears to be a nonfactor. He had to move from third base to second after Cleveland traded for Donaldson in late August. But he's actually more comfortable at second, and nothing in his body language or demeanor suggests he's unhappy with the move.
"The effort and the attitude still look positive to me,'' said an American League scout. "He's still playing hard every day. I just don't think he was going to continue at the offensive pace he was on. An OPS of .900 or so is still a monster. I'd take him any day of the week.''
The Indians have cruised for much of this season in a pathetically weak AL Central, but the days will be filled with tense and meaningful baseball soon enough. Lindor and Ramirez, Cleveland's resident catalysts, have spent almost a year waiting for another turn on the big stage. The Tribe will go as they go in October.