The Cleveland Indians clinched their first American League Central division title since 2007 with a 7-4 win over the Detroit Tigers on Monday. Although it seems like they cruised to what now feels like a predictable result, the season started off just like the previous two: with a slow start that put the club in a hole.
On May 1, 22 games into the season, the Indians were 10-12 -- not terrible, but bad enough to put them six games behind the red-hot Chicago White Sox in the division. They were behind the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals and had just been swept by the Philadelphia Phillies. It felt a lot like 2014 and 2015. After winning 92 games and a wild card in 2013, the Indians started off 11-17 in 2014, a start that doomed them in the end; they finished 85-77, five games behind the Tigers. In 2015, they started 7-14 and were 14-23, already 9.5 games out of first, in mid-May. Again, it was too big of a hole; they finished 81-80.
This season, the White Sox quickly faded, and the Indians clawed back over .500 by the end of May. But Michael Brantley’s shoulder was still balking, Corey Kluber was 4-6 with an ERA over 4.00, Marlon Byrd and Juan Uribe were regulars in the lineup, and Carlos Carrasco was on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Did the Indians look like a playoff team at that point?
On June 1, Cody Allen blew a save against the Texas Rangers, but the Indians won the game in 11 innings on Yan Gomes' walk-off single. Carrasco came off the DL on June 2 after missing all of May, and on the same day, Tyler Naquin was recalled from the minors and inserted into the starting lineup. The Indians swept the Royals in a four-game series while holding them to six runs. Naquin homered in the final three games. The Indians were off and running.
They went 22-6 in June and outscored their opponents 143-75. They went to Detroit at the end of month and swept the Tigers, scoring 22 runs as they beat up on Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander. That came in the midst of a 14-game win streak that culminated with a 2-1, 19-inning victory over the Blue Jays on July 1. Trevor Bauer pitched the final five innings in relief to get the win. At that point, the division was Cleveland's to lose.
Everyone talks about the Indians' rotation, which is now without Carrasco (broken hand) and Danny Salazar (though Salazar threw a bullpen session Monday, and there's a chance he could pitch in relief in the postseason). Also, watch the reports on Kluber, who left Monday's game after four innings because of groin tightness. Regardless, we should be talking more about the offense; Cleveland is second in the AL in runs scored. Mike Napoli, signed on the cheap for $7 million, and Carlos Santana have combined for 68 home runs and 183 RBIs. Jason Kipnis got going, and Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are hitting .300. Naquin has put up the best OPS on the team. There isn’t one big offensive star, but besides the catchers, this is a solid lineup with depth.
The bullpen, which added Andrew Miller at the trade deadline, has been terrific and leads the AL in ERA. Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Jeff Manship and Zach McAllister provide depth behind Allen and Miller, with Otero -– purchased in December from the Phillies, who had claimed him on waivers from the A’s -– having a lights-out season with a sub-2.00 ERA.
That bullpen is a reason to take the Indians seriously in October. They still have the potential Cy Young winner in Kluber fronting the rotation, but Terry Francona will have to find a way to ride the bullpen. In that regard, Francona has a huge weapon in Miller. Although Allen has remained the primary closer, Miller has been used as early as the sixth inning and most often in the seventh and eighth. He has pitched more than one inning in seven of his 22 appearances with Cleveland, including pitching two innings three times. He’ll need to carry that kind of workload in the postseason.
For all the attention paid to the Cubs this season, the Indians have their own Curse of Rocky Colavito to overcome. They haven’t won a World Series since 1948. Although the Chicago Cubs have mostly been irrelevant in that time, the Indians have had stretches of excellence -– they won 90-plus games throughout most of the 1950s, only to typically lose to the New York Yankees. They had those great teams in the late '90s that lost the World Series in 1995 and 1997. The 2007 team was up 3-1 in the ALCS, only to lose to the Boston Red Sox.
Maybe this is their year.