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The Indians Revolutionized Baseball and Still Came Up Short

Chicago made history, but we’ll be seeing the influence of this Cleveland team for years to come

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Getty Images

After four hours and 28 minutes of ulcer-inducing anxiety, after moments as improbable as Jon Lester — pitching in relief for the first time in nine years — doinking a two-run wild pitch off his catcher’s head, or Rajai Davis, who homers once every 72.7 plate appearances over his career, tying the game with a two-run shot off Aroldis Chapman of all people, the Cubs are world champions.

The Indians, once up 3–1 in the series with two home games to play, failed to close it out despite lining up their pitching staff perfectly for Game 7. For most of the regular season, this team was built upon one of the best and deepest starting rotations in baseball, but a pair of September injuries forced the Indians to turn Danny Salazar — perhaps the midseason Cy Young front-runner — into a mop-up guy, and leave Carlos Carrasco — nearly Corey Kluber’s equal this year — off the roster altogether. In the lead-up to the postseason, Terry Francona had to improvise a playoff rotation in which only Kluber was really considered trustworthy.

From that scarcity came Cleveland’s salvation. In the playoffs, Francona shortened his bench to a degree unseen in recent baseball history, trusting more than half of his team’s postseason innings to Kluber and his two-headed relief monster of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

It was a strategy born of desperation, but from that desperation sprung a solution that was, through 10 of the 11 wins Cleveland needed to take home a title, practically unbeatable. Back when the 1996 Yankees rode Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland to a title, they said Yankees games were over in six innings. Well, thanks to Miller and Allen, Indians playoff games were frequently over in four or five, and when Kluber started, their opponents might as well have left their bats home.

Meanwhile, Francona was similarly creative on offense, as he used platoons to cobble together two very good outfielders out of pieces of five or six flawed ones. Cleveland got up 3–1 in the first place because Francona turned Coco Crisp and Brandon Guyer into two halves of Kris Bryant: a combined .295/.415/.500 line in the postseason, including 4-for-6 with three runs scored in Game 7. And by wielding Miller like a scythe across various high-leverage situations in the middle innings, he was managing circles around his opposite number, Joe Maddon.

And then it dried up. All of it, all at once.

Getty Images
Getty Images

After allowing only three runs in 30.1 innings in his first five playoff starts, Kluber lasted only four innings and 57 pitches in Game 7, allowing four runs and failing to strike anyone out. Miller, who had allowed only one run in his playoff career — in garbage time of Game 4 — let the Cubs hold serve as the Indians started to come back against Lester in the fifth. Even Allen, who pitched two no-hit innings, had trouble locating his fastball by the end of his stint. And as Bryan Shaw came back for a second inning after a 17-minute rain delay, he tired, allowing the fatal blows off the bats of Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero in the 10th.

Francisco Lindor and Mike Napoli went 0-for-10, and Napoli’s errant throw in the fourth enabled the Cubs to tack on two runs after what could have been a rally-killing double play. And even though Lindor stopped soaking up outs on the bases as he had in previous games, José Ramírez filled that gap when Kyle Hendricks picked him off in the second, snuffing out a potential rally.

But even at what looked to be the end of the road, the Indians got by on magic alone, extending the game through Davis’s home run, then closing the 10th-inning deficit to one thanks to some great two-out hitting by Guyer, then Davis again.

Then, at that critical moment, down 8–7 in the 10th with two out and the tying run on base, up came Michael Martínez, who had entered as a defensive replacement for Crisp the inning before. According to Baseball-Reference, there are 459 active position players with at least 500 career plate appearances; Martínez ranks dead last among them in OPS+. In fact, he’s the fourth-worst hitter ever with that many plate appearances.

And though Martínez put a ball in play for the first time in his postseason career, it made it only about 40 feet and Kris Bryant was crying tears of joy at the Cubs’ first title in 108 years before he even threw the ball to first.

It was only when Maddon started peeking at Francona’s paper — using Chapman to soak up innings, bringing back Lester on short rest out of the bullpen — that the Cubs were able to complete their comeback. And if that weren’t enough, the juxtaposition of Miller stomping out rally after rally with the Orioles going home on night one without using Zach Britton should ensure these Indians’ place as the team that revolutionized postseason managing. Although the Cubs made history, and while Theo Epstein’s team-building will be inspirational in its own right, Francona’s blueprint might have changed the way postseason baseball is played for the near future.

Maybe, with a healthy Carrasco, Salazar, and Michael Brantley, along with Miller, Kluber, Lindor, Ramírez, and Allen all under team control for years to come, the Indians will come back next year to finish the job. But that’s not a guarantee. For as influential as this team could end up being, and what it left on the field (literally, in Trevor Bauer’s case) along the way, it’d be unsatisfying to say the least if the final chapter is a heartbreaking defeat to a more powerful foe.

But revolutions often end that way.