The Cleveland Indians bring a tortured history in closeout games into another closeout game
NEW YORK — The Cleveland Indians entered October in possession of a clear mission and everything required to complete it. The pushed the World Series to the 10th inning of Game 7 without winning it, and they intend to cover the final inches this autumn. They morphed this summer into a powerhouse, a 102-win colossus, a team worthy of claiming the franchise’s first championship since 1948.
They employ, by the estimation of statistical bellwether FanGraphs, “maybe the best pitching staff of all time.” Second baseman Jose Ramirez is their strongest MVP candidate, but one could reasonably argue, over pints of Dortmunder Gold, he is their fourth or fifth best position player. The engraver can safely commence work on their manager’s Hall of Fame plaque.
Their goal, so simple and so attainable Sunday afternoon, grew complex as two days in the Bronx pushed the American League Division Series to Game 5. The Indians must not only beat the New York Yankees, a youthful team of vast talent growing up before our eyes. They must also confront whatever demons may be rattling around their skulls, invited by their inability to finish the Yankees when they had the chance.
Since taking a 3-1 lead in the World Series last year, the Indians have lost five consecutive potential series-clinching games. Monday night in a half-empty clubhouse, players scrolled through phones. The only noise was clubbies knocking mud off spikes. They had to digest not only a loss, but how to reverse a streak suddenly threatening to crush their charmed season.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “We were in it last year, and we couldn’t finish it the way we wanted. But we have lost games in a row this season, and we have won a lot of games this season. We know we can win one game.”
Those games mean the Indians have been tested. They know what emotions await Wednesday night at Progressive Field. “Experience helps,” right-hander Trevor Bauer said. But what about when the experience reminds you of bitter failures? Can that weigh heavily, and maybe even help decide a series?
“I hope so,” Yankees designated hitter Chase Headley said. “This game sometimes, circumstances like that can happen. Whether experience is playing into that, I don’t know. But I certainly hope it does.”
“I think it might a little bit,” New York third baseman Todd Frazier said. “They’re playing at home, so they have the advantage from the get-go. If we’re talking about advantages, they got the home park and their fans.”
When the crowd pours through the Progressive Field gates, history both recent and ancient may produce anxiety. Last year’s World Series only added to Cleveland’s playoff heartbreak. In 2007, the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the ALCS. In the 2001 ALDS, they took a 2-1 lead with a 17-2 victory over Seattle, then lost the next two. They led the 1999 NLDS, 2-0, before the Red Sox stunned them.
Add it up, and a startling figure emerges: In the past 18 years, the Indians are 3-16 in games that could have closed out a playoff round.
These Indians could poke holes in the meaning of that record. Two of those 16 wins came from a similar group last fall. “Well,” Bauer said, “we were pretty good in closeout games leading up to the World Series.” And it would be frivolous to be believe Paul Shuey or Troy O’Leary or J.D. Drew or David Ross or any other ghost from clinchers past would have an impact Wednesday night. The Indians pride themselves on staying present and refusing to see meaningful patterns in past results.
“They’re just baseball games,” Bauer said. “It’s a process. You prepare to play it. You prepare to go out and try to execute it, give the best that you can, and the results are going to be what they’re going to be. We can control our competitiveness, our preparation our attitude, stuff like that. Stuff that happens in the game, you can’t control. And that goes double for the history. We’ll work on what we can to get ready for Game 5 to go win a baseball game.”
Maybe the Indians didn’t feel pressure in Game 4. But they sure made miscues commonly attributed to it. They finished the squandering of a 2-0 lead over the Yankees in uncharacteristic fashion Monday night, committing four errors and walking six batters, after spending the season committed fewer errors and issuing fewer walks than any team in the American League.