The Cleveland Indians are making a push for the playoffs in the final week of the season. As of Wednesday, they are a half-game back of the Tampa Bay Rays for the second American League Wild Card. They trail the Minnesota Twins by four games in the AL Central. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto said the team turned its season around in the face of adversity.
Better this year than last?
At 93-64, the Indians have already surpassed last year's regular season win total (91-71). Last season, the team had all but wrapped up the American League Central title by the All-Star break. "They just sort of seemed bored, no matter what Terry Francona tried to do," Pluto said. "And they got into the playoffs and were swept out by Houston and they looked like a dead team."
Then, changes came in the offseason. "They wanted to get rid of some of their veteran guys. And they did cut payroll, that was part of it. But they wanted to rebuild with some youth and enthusiasm and not fall apart in the process," Pluto said.
Meanwhile, this year saw the rise of the Minnesota Twins. They led the Indians by as many as 11 1/2 games earlier in the season. On June 4, Cleveland's record was 29-30. Then came a turning point. "Francona said that since June, 'We've been playing big games. We've been trying to catch up.'"
Injuries on top of injuries
While the team climbed back, the injuries began to mount. Star pitcher Corey Kluber was hit by a line drive in May and broke his arm. He was just about ready to return in August when he strained a side muscle, ending his season for good. Another starting pitcher, Carlos Carrasco, was diagnosed with leukimia. He's since returned as a relief pitcher.
Then, in the last few weeks, infielders Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez each broke a bone in their hand, requiring surgery. While Ramirez returned this week, Kipnis' season is over, and likely his career in Cleveland. The Indians aren't expectd to pick up his option for next year.
What saved the season?
Pluto said what's kept the Indians in contention is a combination of a family-like team culture, a solid manager in Terry Francona and their minor league system. "It keeps spitting out these pitchers. Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, Zach Pleasac, Adam Plutko. They've all [come up] in the last two years and are now part of the starting rotation. The only holdover is Mike Clevinger."
The Indians are among three teams competing for two American League Wild Cards. The top two teams will play one game for a playoff berth and will likely face the Houston Astros in the division series. Oakland currently is first, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays a half-game back and Cleveland a half-game behind Tampa.
Pluto said the Rays are another surprising team. "They've got injuries and are the lowest-paid team by far in baseball. The Indians' payroll, which is ranked about 18th in the big leagues, is twice as much as Tampa Bay's."
The last time the Indians got a Wild Card was 2013, when they lost to Tampa Bay.
"Even if they get blown out in one game, that still was a pretty good party. And that's what I want to see. The one year that I thought they absolutely had zero chance of doing anything in the playoffs was 2016, and they end up in the World Series."