ABOUT THE REGULAR SEASON
The Indians are coming to the end of one of their strangest seasons — ever.
It feels as if they haven’t played a big game since the 2017 ALDS series with the Yankees.
Tribe fans painfully remember how their team was up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series, then lost the last three games to New York.
The 2018 season began with the goal of getting back to the playoffs…and reaching the World Series.
Because the Central Division was so pathetic, by July 4 there was no doubt the Tribe was headed back to the playoffs. No one else in Central Division could even manage a winning record.
Unlike the NBA, baseball rewards its six division winners. They don’t have the 1-game playoff facing the four wild card teams.
I still remember the Tribe ending the 2013 season with a 10-game winning streak. They finished the regular season with a 92-70 record.
That gave them home field for a one-game Wild Card playoff game — and they lost, 4-0, to Tampa Bay.
Season over. One and done.
That’s why the Indians winning the Central Division is meaningful for the playoffs, setting them up to face Houston in the best-of-5 ALDS.
It’s been a fun year to watch different players.
3. Jose Ramirez played liked an MVP for four months.
4. Francisco Lindor is building a Hall of Fame career.
5. Trevor Bauer looked like a Cy Young award contender until he was hit with a line drive.
6. Michael Brantley made a remarkable comeback from major ankle surgery.
My guess is you also have your favorite players and moments for this team that went into the weekend with 90 victories.
But the last six weeks of the season have felt like six months. Or maybe another spring training. The games have meant almost nothing in terms of the standings.
“I hate it,” Francona told the media. “I’m tired of this.”
“I can’t wait until we start playing games where we can do what we’re supposed to do,” he said.
He meant playing to win rather than having guys pitch a few innings after an injury. Or acting as if this was spring training, part two.
How will this impact the Indians for the playoffs?
That’s a huge question because the regular season gives no clues.
It’s been a long time since this team has been challenged. You have to go back to 2017. There are several reasons they lost to the Yankees:
1. Encarnacion suffered a sprained ankle in Game 2 and missed the rest of the playoffs.
2. Ramirez and Lindor were 4-of-38 (.105) with one HR and four RBI.
3. Brantley was playing hurt and was 1-for-11.
4. Gio Urshela was playing third base and made two costly errors in Game 5.
5. As a team, the Indians batted .171 and scored only five total runs in the last three games (all losses).
But I wonder if the series would have been different with a healthy Kluber.
The Indians and Kluber insisted nothing was wrong with their Cy Young Award winner, even though they pushed his start back to Game 2. That led to Bauer starting on three days rest, and a rather messy rotation.
Kluber had a back problem. He had a 12.79 ERA in two post-season starts.
Kluber finished this season with a 20-7 record and a 2.83 ERA. He was 8-2 with a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break.
He looks healthy. That could be the difference in the Houston series.
And this year, there is no discussion about someone else starting the playoff opener for the Tribe.
ABOUT JOSH DONALDSON
1. Donaldson doesn’t appear to have any problems from those cranky calf muscles that kept him out of action from the end of May until September. The Indians traded for Donaldson hoping he’d be healthy for the playoffs. He is a career .292 hitter (.836 OPS) in 31 postseason games.
2. Donaldson has looked good at third base. That is another indication he’s healthy.
3. Donaldson has batted .295 (13-for-44) with three HR and seven RBI. He’s played only 13 games, and this really has been spring training for him. He’s had one game where he drew three walks. He has had two infield hits. He has hit the ball pretty hard. It’s encouraging.
4. Ramirez moved from third to second. He’s not played as well at second as he has in the past, although the Indians don’t think that will be a major issue.
5. You can argue that Ramirez is hitting .163 (7-for-43) since moving to second base. But he was in a slump long before the switch. He’s hitting only .224 since the All-Star break. It was .302 before the break.
6. The Indians don’t think fatigue will be a problem for Ramirez. The team has four days off before the playoffs open Friday in Houston. His swing appears long and a little slow. Overall, Ramirez is having a tremendous season: .274 (.949 OPS) with 38 HR and 104 RBI. He’s also stolen 33 bases. But the Indians need a hot Jose Ramirez in the postseason.
7. Jason Kipnis has been OK in center. If the Indians have a lead, they will replace him for defense with Greg Allen. It’s been a difficult year for Kipnis (.228, 17 HR, 74 RBI). Since Aug. 1, he’s been better at the plate: .245 (.785 OPS) with eight HR and 32 RBI in 47 games.
8. The Indians have known for weeks they were likely to face Houston. And they know the defending World Series champions are loaded with talent. That’s why they made the deal for Donaldson, understanding the veteran also could end up injured again. They wanted to add power to the lineup to avoid the type of offensive meltdown they had a year ago.
REASONS FOR HOPE
1. Andrew Miller looks very close to being in top form. Before the All-Star break, the reliever had a 4.40 ERA in 14 innings. He was dealing with knee and shoulder problems. Since the All-Star break, the ERA is 2.37 with 21 strikeouts in 19 innings.
2. Having the Central Division under control also allowed the Indians to give Brad Hand some rest. And time for Cody Allen to find his missing curveball. The idea is to have three closer-caliber relievers to dominate games in the final 3-4 innings. Allen has not allowed a run in 10 1/3 innings before a rough performance Friday night.
3. Hand is 0-1 with a 2.36 ERA and has converted 8-of-10 saves for the Indians since joining them at the end of July. Francona doesn’t seem set on any one pitcher as his closer. My guess is he’ll alternate between Hand and Allen. He’ll save Miller for key parts of the game in the middle innings.
4. Bauer has been making a strong comeback from his broken foot. He is set to make his third relief appearance Sunday in Kansas City, the last regular season game. The Indians haven’t made their plans known for Bauer. I do expect him to start either Game 3 or 4 vs. Houston, unless he has a physical setback.
5. The Astros have the best pitching staff in the American League (3.13 ERA). The Indians are No. 4 (3.74 ERA). The starters are Houston (3.20 ERA) and the Tribe (3.40 ERA) ranking as the top two rotations. That’s why it’s imperative for the Indians to have their bullpen in order. It has been shaky for much of the year.