“We got one last chance to make it real”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

kipbournNone of the individual narratives seem to do justice to how fun and frustrating and ecstatic and exasperating and inherently weird this Cleveland Indians season has been.

The Indians return home Thursday for the final homestand of 2013. They’ve got a remaining schedule – four against Houston, two against the White Sox and four in Minnesota – that couldn’t have been much better if it was hand-picked, as those three clubs rank 15th, 14th and 13th, respectively, in the American League in winning percentage.

A half-game back of a Wild Card spot, the Tribe has an honest-to-goodness shot at bringing some positive vibes, no matter how fleeting, to a town in which the local NFL’s club’s third-string quarterback is the Week 3 starter (UPDATE: and last year’s No. 1 pick is swapped for next year’s No. 1 pick).

And realistically, this was as good as it was going to get for an Indians club that lost 94 games and required an immense offseason overhaul last year. The Central Division title pursuit was earnest but ill-fated. Too much talent, too much experience on that Tigers team, and it showed in the games that, unsurprisingly, mattered most.

Well, whatever. There is no shame in the Wild Card for a small-market club that looked absolutely doomed and disoriented just 12 months ago. We thought the Indians would trade every loose piece and even a few that were nailed down, enter a rebuild on a top of a reload that had never resulted in anything other than regression.

And then, everything changed, starting with the Terry Francona hiring. And there’s your first and most obvious national narrative that will suffocate every scrawl about this Tribe team, should it advance to October.

Hey, nothing wrong with that. The narrative is enduringly accurate. Because whatever your feelings on a manager’s overall in-game impact, if the player holdovers buy into a belief that a culture shift has transpired and the new guys fall in line with the sometimes-shifting roles laid out for them and everybody is on board with a team-first concept without even the slightest sign of internal indigestion, then we don’t need to look at Pythagorean winning expectancies or anything of the sort. Something good is going down in the manager’s office.

But come on, there’s much more to this club — a club with the AL’s fifth-best run differential — than a mere managerial shift, right?

Certainly.

The starting pitching is better-than-advertised. There’s your next narrative. With a 4.01 ERA, this is the best starting staff the Indians have had since their 2007 AL Central championship squad.

Yet “better than advertised” doesn’t do enough to convey just how bizarre the road has been. The staff ace, Justin Masterson, has been on the shelf with an oblique strain since early September, and who knows if he’ll throw another healthy pitch this season? Weren’t the Indians supposed to be done when he went down?

The ace-in-training, Danny Salazar, essentially isn’t allowed to throw upwards of 90 pitches, and yet he’s playing a pivotal part in this playoff push, thanks to the wonders of the 15-man September ‘pen.

The replacement ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, had a 5.57 ERA at the end of May. The question at the time was not whether the Indians would exercise their end of his $8 million option for 2014 but whether they’d even stick with him for the length of the season.

Now, Jimenez has the AL’s best second-half ERA. His average fastball velocity has picked up two or three ticks. He is either the latest manifestation of contract-year motivation, the most prominent product of pitching coach Mickey Callaway’s handiwork or some combination of the two. Whatever the case, he starts Thursday night, and his starts have become the must-see entities they were with the Rockies in 2010 and not the emotionally exhausting endeavors they were for much of his Tribe tenure.

Masterson and Jimenez both have adjusted ERAs better than the league average.

Pop quiz: How many Tribe starters fit that description in 2012?

The answer: None. As in, zero. In fact, Zach McAllister was the only one who came within 21 percent of the league average.

Now you’ve got four: Masterson, Jimenez, Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir.

Maybe the nerds among you thought Kluber was in line to make some strides this season, if given the opportunity (the opportunity only arose when Carlos Carrasco earned that early April ejection and suspension for plunking Robinson Cano), by virtue of his 2012 xFIP of 3.99, much better than his season ERA of 5.14. I somehow doubt it, though.

Maybe the Sugarland Skeeter season-ticket holders among you thought Kazmir was a serious comeback candidate by virtue of his… no, sorry, I’m not buying it.

The Indians used eight different starting pitchers (counting Brett Myers, who, for the record, still ranks sixth on the club in homers allowed) in April. On no planet did they resemble a club with the makings of a stable rotation, and rare finger injuries to Kluber and McAllister later in the year certainly threatened the instability.

So, “better than advertised” doesn’t seem to cut it as an applicable narrative. It seems “better than any ordinary human being could have realistically envisioned” is more apt, if a bit wordy.

And it’s needed to be better than any ordinary human being could have realistically envisioned, because the offense has been, uh, complicated.

It’s not often, after all, that a contending team’s April MVP is now in the daily lineup of another contending team, but so goes the strange 2013 tale of Mark Reynolds.

It’s not often that the guy you can argue is the season MVP spent much of the year labeled a backup catcher, but so it goes with Yan Gomes (and the story of how Chris Antonetti stole him and Mike Aviles from Toronto is worthy of its own narrative).

It’s not often that a guy with the fourth-most homers and sixth-most RBI on a particular club is not even a regular in the lineup, but so go the bench heroics of Ryan Raburn.

It’s not often that a guy with a .181 average is viewed as a key contributor, but so it is with Jason Giambi.

tito8We could say the continued developmental gains of Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana went a long way, but Kipnis has a .677 OPS in the second half and Santana is now essentially relegated to DH because of his catching regression, so it’s not all gravy. We could say Michael Brantley aka “Dr. Smooth” has been the club’s most consistent hitter, but the .704 OPS is still below league standard.

So none of the positives completely overwhelm you, but, then again, neither do the negatives. Maybe Nick Swisher has been a bit of a bust, but he’s a bust with a .902 OPS in September and a team-high 20 homers. Maybe Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera have mired their way through miserable offensive seasons, but you wouldn’t know it from their late-inning exploits in a huge comeback win over the Royals on Tuesday night.

Indeed, the offensive narrative is complicated. It’s been a strange season for the bats, and for the bullpen, too. Many a paisan has shared the frustration over the WBC-aided regression of Vinnie Pestano, which could have been a killer if not for the understated excellence of Joe Smith or the chicken alfredo-aided weaponry of Cody Allen. In Chris Perez’s life, this was the year of the Boston meltdown, the Detroit disaster and, of course, Brody Baum. Yet he’s still afloat, and so is the bullpen and so is the Tribe.

Ah, Perez, famous fault-finder with the fan base. He’d be the perfect partaker in the attendance narrative, were he not currently shunning the scribes. No worries, though, because plenty of others do the talking for him these days, as a contending club drawing four-figure crowds for meaningful games tends to attract its share of attention.

With any luck, that particular narrative will be spoiled by the efforts of a civic booster group. Or by sheer common sense. Because while it’s hard to swiftly explain how, exactly, the Indians got to this point or why the locals haven’t completely bought into the idea, the only thing that really matters right now is that the Indians have a genuine shot at advancing to October.

And when you think about where they were a year ago, that’s a pretty impressive plot point, no matter how you arrive at it.

~AC

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