“You’ve got to walk it, talk it, in your heart”
The last club Terry Francona managed went 7-20 in September to complete one of the great collapses in baseball history and end his otherwise successful tenure in Boston.
This Tribe club managed by Francona went 21-6 in September to complete a stunning surge that, while undoubtedly schedule-aided, rejuvenated local interest in the Indians and propelled them to the postseason.
What was behind this surge?
“We stayed away from chicken and beer,” Francona said, earning a laugh and more than a few retweets in the Twitterverse.
But beyond the schedule and the off-the-field shenanigans (or lack thereof), there is definitely something to be said for the manner in which the Indians had to win games this season and the way that experience applied down the stretch.
As you know, this is not a team with a devastatingly deep lineup or overwhelmingly accomplished roster, in general. It’s a team that has had to maximize its talent level by getting contributions off the bench, by playing a clean game, by throwing strikes, etc. When the Indians have strayed from those principles, they’ve lost. Sometimes in bunches. When they put together a cohesive effort, they’ve won. Sometimes in bunches.
And so this club, despite its lack of stars or status, would seem fairly well-conditioned for what lies ahead in the win-or-go-home environment of the Wild Card game. This is the kind of club Francona wanted to manage after his experience in Boston went so awry. He wanted to be part of the baseball business, not the entertainment business. He wanted a cohesive unit that makes the most of what it has.
“That’s the way we have to play,” Francona said. “And I’m ok with that, because it’s baseball. It just goes to show you that when you play the game right, the sum of all of our parts can be a pretty good team.”
They’ve been a pretty good team, and especially lately. And the Indians’ return to the postseason brings about a triumphant return of the…
EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE OF THE DAY (Terry Francona press conference edition)…
- If the Indians are a better club than the sum of their individual statistics, then perhaps it’s only fitting that Francona believes their MVP is a guy who has a WAR mark of minus-0.6. I’m talking, of course, about Jason Giambi, who had just 34 hits all season and yet had a Win Probably Added of 0.25 or more six times this season (including five team victories). He had the biggest hit of the season with the walkoff winner against the White Sox last week, and his clubhouse influence has been touted all year. But MVP? Really? Is Francona taking his admitted “man crush” (he copped to kissing Giambi on the cheek during the post-clinch celebration in Minnesota) too far? Perhaps not. “When you’re a manager or coach or whatever, there are a lot of headaches that come with the job,” Francona said. “When you get a guy like that, sometimes it can be once in a lifetime. I would be crazy not to enjoy and use his ability throughout the club. That’s why I keep saying… Kipnis has turned into one of the best players in the league, [but] I think Giambi is our MVP. I think he’s made everybody he touches better. That’s a very special person.”
- Totally understand what Tito’s saying. But I still think Kipnis is the MVP. His offensive surge saved the season when it was getting off-track in June.
- Speaking of Giambi, Francona said his forearm, which he tweaked over the weekend, should be fine. Same goes for Michael Bourn, who pulled up lame on a stolen-base attempt Sunday. They were both getting treatment, but Francona seemed to think they’d both be available.
- Giambi has started five of the Indians’ last six games (all must-wins, obviously) in which a right-hander was on the mound for the opposition. Will be interesting to see if Francona continues that trend Wednesday (as of this writing, it seems most likely the Rays would go with Alex Cobb and the Rangers would go with Matt Garza for that game, but stay tuned) or if he goes with Carlos Santana at DH, Nick Swisher at 1B and either Ryan Raburn or Drew Stubbs in right field.
- Francona didn’t address the Wild Card roster much yet. But the roster is the biggest differentiation between this game and a Game 5 in the Division Series or Game 7 of the LCS and World Series in that teams can tailor their rosters specifically to this single game’s demands. So, obviously, the Indians won’t carry a full starting staff, though I would not be surprised to see Zach McAllister and/or Corey Kluber included to potentially piggyback Danny Salazar if a need arises. Francona indicated he’d have a nine-man bullpen at his disposal.
- One man in that bullpen will of course be Justin Masterson, and Francona is downright giddy about the length Masterson can provide in the late innings. “That guy’s a weapon,” he said. “We plan to use it.” Francona did not confirm whether the “closer by committee” approach put in place in Minnesota (where no save situations arose the last three games of the regular season) will remain in use for this game. Maybe they’re hoping they get a lead and they’ll give it to Masterson in the seventh and let him run with it?
- Francona said the toughest decision in a game like this is when to yank your starter. He said the temptation is there to have a quick hook because of the depth of the bullpen, but you don’t want to go to it too soon.
- One thing that is confirmed about the postseason roster: Jason Kubel, Blake Wood and Preston Guilmet will not be on it. They were all informed the Indians won’t be needing them going forward and have gone home.
- The real Tito Francona might be the only man Francona loves more than Giambi right about now. And Terry and his dad had a nice phone conversation while Terry was boarding the team bus after the clubhouse clinch party. “My dad, after games, he’ll leave messages after fun wins,” Francona said. “A lot of times I’ll just see him leaving a message on my cell when I come into my office. I’ve kind of gotten used to it. It’s kind of a nice reassuring thing. Yesterday, walking to the bus, I gave him a call. It was one of the funner moments for me.”
- Tito has been following this season closely via the magic of the MLB Extra Innings package from his home in New Brighton, Pa. He was in town for Opening Day, but he generally likes to watch from the comfort of his couch. I remember him telling me on Opening Day that he didn’t attend a single game at Fenway during Terry’s tenure there. As of Monday afternoon, Terry was unsure if his dad would be in attendance for the Wild Card game. But if Tito’s been watching this win streak from home, superstition might ultimately guide his decision.
- We’re in a bit of a speech- or meeting-obsessed sporting culture, but that doesn’t always apply to baseball. Francona said he does not plan to address this team before the game. “Sometimes you can overdo it,” he said. “The game is the game, and I think the best way to do things is pretty much the routine that you’ve done all year. So we’ll kind of stick to the routine.”
- Danny Salazar began the season in Double-A. Now he’s entrusted with the season, essentially. Pretty amazing ride for the kid. And while Francona didn’t exactly see this coming, he did see something special in Salazar way back in December. “You go all the way back to when I went down [to the Dominican Republic] with Mickey [Callaway] to see Ubaldo, and he was playing catch with Danny,” Francona said. “I said to Mickey, ‘Who is that guy?’ he said, ‘You’re going to love him. He’s going to fly through the system.’” He sure has.
- The Wild Card game didn’t sell out until we had actual confirmation that there will, indeed, be a Wild Card game in Cleveland. But it sold out all the same, and fans are finally buying into this team. “I don’t doubt this place will be electric,” Francona said. “I think fans have been dying for that. I think it’ll be fun. And fun means winning in front of your home fans, so hopefully that’s what happens.”