With the playoffs behind us and qualifying offers being made, we have some time to reflect on what just happened. Dave McCullough explains why the Cleveland Indians World Series championship dream was destined to fail by events that occurred before the team made the playoffs.
When you have one starting pitcher – and he is limited to six innings and/or less than 90 pitches – there is no shame in losing a seven-game series. The Indians, and their fans, will endure an offseason of sleepless nights after “blowing” a 3-1 lead and losing the World Series to the Chicago Cubs. Collapse fits much better: defined as “fall down”, what happened to the Indians was the house of cards they had built to achieve postseason success came crashing down due to fatigue.
Cleveland’s problems began during the second week of September. First, Danny Salazar – who was 11-6 with a 3.87 ERA in 137 1/3 innings – went down on the 9th with “forearm tightness.” Salazar had solidified his status as one of the toughest right-handers in the AL, posting a spectacular June in which he won five games and recorded an ERA of 1.91. The good news for the Tribe is that Salazar made it back to pitch in the World Series. But he was limited to relief appearances and only tossed three innings over two stints.
Next, Carlos Carrasco was hit in the pitching hand by a line drive on September 17 and did not pitch in the postseason for Cleveland. Carrasco was en route to his best season as a professional, notching 146 ⅓ innings, 11 wins, a 3.32 ERA, a 3.72 FIP, and 150 strikeouts. The 29-year-old was a reliable #3 behind Corey Kluber and Salazar.
Kluber, meanwhile, strained his quad on September 26th and missed the last week of the season. The 2014 Cy Young winner was in the outside fringe of candidates, having logged 215 innings and 18 wins to go with a 227 strikeouts, as well as an AL leading 3.26 FIP and a 149 ERA+. The quad injury didn’t prevent him from putting together a dominant playoff performance for the Tribe in all three series – but it surely limited his innings and made manager Terry Francona nervous. The 30-year-old is signed through 2019, preventing the team from treating him as the Cubs treated pending free agent Aroldis Chapman.
So, before the playoffs even started, the Indians were behind the 8-ball; Francona did not have the services of two of his three best starters, and the one he did have was wearing a “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE” sign around his neck. Luckily, the playoff savvy skipper did have relief ace Andrew Miller – as well as two other reliable relievers in Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. And that was nearly enough. Miller logged 19 ⅓ innings in the 2016 playoffs – almost all of them in high leverage situations – and struck out 30 of the 73 batters he faced. Shaw chipped in 10 ⅓ inning with 12 Ks, and Allen went 13 ⅔ innings, logging 24 strikeouts.
Francona quickly established that if he had a lead after four innings, he was going to summon Miller, Shaw, and Allen – and that they were going to limit base runners and strikeout the opposition with aplomb. Given one somewhat injured starter, Francona instead managed backward and leaned on his bullpen to shut down games early. When his team gained a lead, the strategy worked: Cleveland didn’t cough up a lead in any game during the playoffs.
But taking the lead was the key to the strategy, and while the Indians offense had its moments, in the end they couldn’t seize the initiative in either Game Five, Game Six, or Game Seven to close out the World Series. Though the Tribe had the second-most prolific offense in the AL during the regular season, (they scored 777 runs), they boasted no offensive superstars, but rather a deep lineup and bench along with some excellent baserunning. Their approach was also supplemented by Francona’s platooning of outfielders, as well as some timely hitting.
Aside from emerging superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor (.310/.355/.466), no Indians regular had a superlative postseason at the plate. While Jose Ramirez (.268/.305/.357), Coco Crisp (.269/.345/.577 in 32 plate appearances), and Jason Kipnis (.230/.266/.475) certainly had their moments (as did Game Seven almost-hero Rajai Davis) – the team as a whole hit .222/.288/.375 and saw regulars like Carlos Santana (.192/.311/.385) and Mike Napoli (.173/.232/.288) struggle to produce as they had in the regular season. The Indians certainly were not awful at the plate – but nor were they good, or good enough. Chicago’s trio of aces Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks (with an assist from Lester) shut down Cleveland in the final three games of the series.
Despite Joe Maddon’s erratic and curious managerial moves, the Cubs pitchers performed when it mattered. The three Cy Young candidates from Chicago are a luxury few teams possess. The Indians might have been able to match their starting pitching had Carrasco pitched, had Salazar been able to start, and had Kluber been unfettered. But the Indians instead had to counter the Cubs triumvirate of aces with the likes of Josh Tomlin and Trevor “Drone Fight Loser” Bauer. While that pair pitched better than could have been predicted, they were still less talented than the missing pieces and the opponent’s starters. Bauer’s hand injury was also certainly a factor. Bauer and Tomlin should have been competing for the Game Four starting slot (which would have been ideal as all three starters wouldn’t have been going on short rest in Games Five – Seven) or as the long man out of the pen – not starting World Series games.
Taken altogether, Cleveland’s collapse – now – seems inevitable. The injuries to Carrasco and Salazar crippled their rotation; Kluber’s and Bauer’s minor injuries made a bad situation worse. Even though their bullpen performed at a historically good level, the fill-in starters were middling and could not provide enough support to an offense hampered by the opposition’s excellent starters. That no Indian hitter other than Lindor “got hot” at the right time also made a difference. And despite Francona’s masterful use of the bullpen and pinch hitters, the Tribe could not deliver enough big game performances to win four out of seven.
There is no shame in fighting as hard as you can, for as long as you can – and coming up on the losing end. Sports feature a winner and a loser, and the Indians represented themselves and Cleveland with as much pride and panache as possible. The Chicago Cubs are a well-built machine; they featured three Cy Young candidates, one of the most feared closers in the game, a slew of MVP candidates – including the likely winner – and young stars at almost every position. Fighting into extra innings of Game Seven, with one starter, one star, a brilliant manager, and a plethora of role players scrapping and clawing for every inch is no reason for Tribe fans to be ashamed. You may not have won the Series, but you won the admiration of baseball fans everywhere – and you gave it all you had.