The 2020 Cleveland Indians have dealt with their fair share of obstacles. Manager Terry Francona has missed the majority of the season due to health issues. Bench coach Brad Mills and hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo opted out of the season. Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac violated team COVID-19 protocols in Chicago, and Clevinger was traded. The team’s offense has scored 231 runs (25th) with a .687 OPS (26th).
It could have been easy for the Tribe to lie down, or even limp into the more forgiving postseason.
Instead, Cleveland has responded in resounding fashion, winning six of its last seven games and applying pressure to the White Sox and Twins in the AL Central with back-to-back walk-off victories. Jordan Luplow’s ninth inning solo blast on Wednesday is the latest of the heroics, the game-winning home run in Cleveland’s 3-2 win, a third straight over the White Sox.
“It’s nice, just with all of the stuff that we’ve been through, with Tito (Francona) being gone, and just this weird year,” Luplow said on a zoom call following Wednesday’s win. “It’s special to us. We always have each other’s backs this whole year, behind our pitching staff and our offense is starting to pick up. It’s fun.”
In filling in for a Hall of Fame manager, Francona, Sandy Alomar Jr. has gone 24-18 and deserves credit for leading the remarkable turnaround over the last week. For Alomar, who has given so much to the organization, this opportunity has been special.
“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to do this,” Alomar said. “I wasn’t expecting to do this this year. I was just doing my job (as first base coach) and then this (Francona’s absence) happened. It’s a big responsibility because you’re replacing a Hall of Fame manager. I’m just glad that I have many people that I can lean on, and that can help me, and the entire organization that the players are behind. So, kudos to them for helping me and kudos to the organization for trusting me.”
“Man, Sandy taking this team the way he took over the team, he’s done an outstanding job,” Francisco Lindor said. “People might criticize him at times, but they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know how hard it is to be in that position. That shows how good Tito is, and how good Sandy could be in the manager position.”
To that point, have there been decisions that could be questioned? Sure. But that’s part of the game. The fact that this team has stuck with it and is peaking towards the playoffs is something that warrants credit.
What’s the key to the resilience? Cal Quantrill, who has only been a part of the Indians organization for 24 days since being acquired in the Mike Clevinger trade, said it best.
“This is a winning culture here,” Quantrill said. “Not many teams can boast the kind of record these guys have over the last three to five years. I think that it’s their approach on a daily basis. People come here to work. (There are) no days off, especially in a short season like this. I’m so incredibly fortunate to be taken in so quickly by these guys and really shown the ropes of what’s expected of an Indian. What they’re doing here, it should work. It should work consistently now and for a long time and they’ve got good leadership. They’ve got, obviously fantastic players and like I said, I think it’s a winning culture.”
The term “culture” in sports can come off as a cliché term, but the Indians do in fact possess it. They know who they are, and they do that very well. It’s why Cleveland is heading to a fourth postseason in the last five years.
That said, it still takes a level of talent. The Indians have been fortunate to be powered by the AL Cy Young lock, Shane Bieber, and the emergence of top AL MVP candidate Jose Ramirez.
Their number speak for themselves. In 77.2 innings, Bieber has a 1.63 ERA with a Major League best 122 strikeouts to just 21 walks. He is the first pitcher to strike out at least eight hitters in each of his first 12 starts of a season – yes, one could say “last” as well with the 60-game season format – since Randy Johnson did so with 15 consecutive starts of that kind in 2000.
For Ramirez, he’s 14-for-28 over the last week with six home runs and 16 RBI, plus a 1.783 OPS. It’s unimaginable what Cleveland’s lineup would be without the 28-year-old, who has essentially guaranteed a third top-three finish in the AL MVP voting in the last four years.
Going back to Bieber, his rise is nothing short of remarkable. The 25-year-old is not just a star, but he’s a leader, a key ingredient in the formula of Cleveland’s culture this season.
“It has been an absolute blast,” Bieber said when asked about charging the rotation. “Everybody is self-driven to an unbelievable extent. I feel like we’re young. We’re talented. We’re excited and we have a ton of energy. The best part about it is, you know, I know we’ve had a little bit of turnover with the starting rotation but that health competitiveness still exists and we’re always trying to help each other, always trying to compete in our own little ways from outing to outing, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of. And, I know each one of us, myself included, just take a lot of pride in being here, continuing to get better and continuing to learn with each other.”
Currently, the Indians hold the seventh seed in the postseason picture, but at only two games behind the White Sox in the standings, a win on Thursday over Chicago could really thicken the plot of the final weekend for Cleveland’s positioning. An after-thought at the start of the year by many national pundits who picked the White Sox or Twins to win the division, Cleveland is viewed as an underdog entering the postseason. And that’s okay with the Indians.
“We normally get labeled as the underdogs. It’s not the first time we’ve been labeled as the underdog,” Ramirez said. “As we say in the Dominican, ‘We like to grind.’ This is a team that’s really united and despite the White Sox and Twins having good teams, we want to grind. We want to compete, and I’m really happy that we have the team to grind and compete.”
The Indians do not have the best roster on paper out of their teams of the last five years, but as Francona said in the preseason, the team that could do the best job handling their business despite unique protocols and circumstances would be the last one standing at the end of October. Francona’s presence still carries weight even in his absence.
“The number one person in our organization, Terry Francona, has not managed us really this season, but you still feel Tito every single time we’re playing a game,” Adam Plutko said. “Sandy’s only done a terrific job in a role that he didn’t really ask for but kind of found. So, this team has faced more challenges than probably any other team, I would say, in the big leagues thus far. And, we’re only going to face more of them, and it’s only gotten harder from the experiences that we’ve already faced.”
The Tribe has been bruised and has endured through some days to forget along this pathway. But they’ve endured. It’s that toughness that comes from that culture, and it’s why Cleveland is an American League dark horse entering the postseason, and has been one of the most successful franchises in the sport in the last half-decade.
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