CHICAGO – Manager Terry Francona, about a month ago, said the Indians may not put their best team on the field until the last few days of the regular season.
Managers are always optimistic and that’s what Francona sounded like. The optimistic manager of a team that dominated the AL Central from start to finish, clinched early, but never really found fifth gear.
Well, there are only five games left in the regular season. Has somebody finally found how to shift the Indians into overdrive?
General Manager Mike Chernoff is with the Indians in Chicago on this last trip of the regular season. This is his 15th season with the organization and he’s played a role in putting the last three AL Central champion rosters together from 2016 through 2018.
He said it’s hard to compare the three teams. The 2016 team made it to Game 7 of the World Series with two healthy starting pitchers – Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin. Last year’s team set an AL record with 22 straight wins and finished the season with 102 victories. But they didn’t get past the first round.
“This year, what I would say is different is, our record,” said Chernoff. “We might not have as many wins as what we had in those previous years, but it does feel like over the past several weeks, we’ve seen a lot of things come together in ways that we hadn’t seen for the majority of the season. So, we do feel like we’re sort of on an upward trajectory heading to the postseason.”
The Indians went into Tuesday night’s game against the White Sox with 88 wins and seemed destined for their 89th until a 3-run ninth by Chicago led to a 5-4 loss. It’s the fewest wins among the five postseason qualifiers in the AL. Boston, the AL East champion, had 106 wins. Houston, leading the AL West, has 100 entering Wednesday. The two wild card teams, New York and Oakland, entered Tuesday with 96 and 95 wins, respectively.
Victories aside, here are some of the things Chernoff felt good about concerning the Indians’ recent play:
* The positive signs shown by relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
* Trevor Bauer coming off the disabled list on Friday after suffering a stress fracture in his right leg on Aug. 11. He made his second start Tuesday night against the White Sox, allowing two runs on five hits in four innings.
* Newly-acquired Josh Donaldson appearing healthy after spending nearly three months on the disabled list with a left calf injury.
* Corey Kluber overcoming a midseason rough patch to win his 20th game on Monday night.
* A starting rotation featuring four starters with more than 200 strikeouts apiece.
* The solid play of Jason Kipnis in center field. When the Indians acquired Donaldson from Toronto, he took over at third base, moving Jose Ramirez to second and Kipnis to center.
Chernoff is especially intrigued with the idea of having Miller, Allen and Brad Hand, acquired from San Diego in July, at the back end of the bullpen. The bullpen has been an inconsistent part of the Indians for much of the season.
“I do think our bullpen is in a position, especially with the three guys at the back end, where in 2016, we had two of those guys,” he said. “We had (Bryan) Shaw, but he was more in a set-up role. Now you have three guys that have pitched at the back end of a game, so potentially even a stronger bullpen if everything is going well.”
The Indians are in the process of putting together their postseason roster. Francona said most of the players should know by Oct. 2. He said he’d talk to some players on this trip.
Chernoff and the Indians have had plenty of experience picking postseason rosters, but that doesn’t make it easier.
“Each team is unique,” he said. “You’re trying to figure out what’s the best roster. You’re going to spend just as much time and effort figuring out what is the best possible roster, what’s the best strategy for using our guys. So, I think you can maybe plan ahead a little bit better and know some of the decisions you’ll have to make, but the decisions are just as hard to make.”