“You’ve got to walk it, talk it, in your heart”

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

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.

ImageThis 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.”

~AC

“Surprise, surprise, come on open your eyes”

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

celebrationTotally did not see this coming.

I was optimistic, but not this optimistic.

I was a believer, but not this big a believer.

I knew the Indians would be better this year, and not just because things couldn’t have gotten much worse than the 2012 freefall. I knew an injection of veteran presence would help add enough stability to probably finish at or around .500. The break-even point itself would have been a 13-win improvement over a year ago, which in this game is major progress.

But 92 victories? A Wild Card berth? And home-field advantage in the Wild Card round?

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew that Terry Francona knew what he was doing. I knew he had a knack for getting the most out of his players because he supports them, backs them and goes to great measures to understand them. But I also knew that those Boston clubs in 2004 and 2007 – heck, even 2011 – had a lot more established talent than this 2013 Tribe club. I didn’t know Francona would be such an expert tactician with a versatile bench, and I didn’t know his optimism and excitement about being here would prove so unshakable even in the season’s darkest days. I didn’t know he’d put together what is arguably the greatest managerial job of his career, World Series or not.

I knew the Indians, with an outfield of Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs, would be more athletic, more agile, more defensively stout. I knew that Jason Kipnis was capable of taking the next step toward stardom. I knew there was more power in Santana’s bat if his time behind the plate was managed appropriately. I knew there were a lot of reasons to like this team, but I didn’t know there’d be this much to like.

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew that under-the-radar moves have often been the strength of the front office in the Mark Shapiro-Chris Antonetti era, and so the Mike Aviles acquisition was an eye-catcher. I didn’t know what a steal that trade would turn out to be. I didn’t know that when Lou Marson got steamrolled by Desmond Jennings at the plate in early April, it would open the door for Yan Gomes to eventually supplant Santana as the regular catcher, maximizing this Tribe roster to the full extent of its capabilities.

I knew the Indians were high on Mickey Callaway and the work he had done within their Minor League system. I didn’t know he’d be the savant who would finally solve the Ubaldo Jimenez riddle, to say nothing of the strides made by Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, the return to prominence of Justin Masterson and the incredible comeback of Scott Kazmir, all of which happened under his watch.

I knew Ubaldo, like most players, would be inspired in some measure by the pull of possible free agency. I didn’t know he’d be one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half, rescuing the rotation when Masterson went down with an oblique strain. (And no, I did not know Masterson would return and be so effective in the ‘pen).

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew Nick Swisher was excited (he used the word “excited” 16 times in his introductory press conference), but I didn’t know how genuine that excitement would turn out to be. I didn’t know he’d still be excited and hopeful and believing in big things when he was hitting .239 and nursing a throbbing shoulder at the end of June. I didn’t fully appreciate how much his past pennant race experience would come to help this team in the September stretch, when Swish was at this absolute best. I didn’t know how seriously he’d take his leadership role on this club, showing up unannounced at a ticket sales meeting and doling out $15,000 to finance an end-of-season fireworks display. I didn’t know he’d be the rare free-agent addition who, by the end of his first season, would feel like he’s been here all along.

I knew Jason Giambi was appreciative of this opportunity to prolong his playing career. I knew a guy who nearly nabbed the Rockies’ managerial job over the winter (and how thankful are the Indians right now that the Rox went with Walt Weiss?) would provide immeasurable input and influence behind the scenes. I didn’t know Giambi, despite a sub-.200 average, would contribute some of the biggest hits of the season, including arguably the biggest – the walkoff winner against the White Sox last Tuesday.

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew the Shin-Soo Choo trade was one worth making (and this is coming from the biggest Choo fan there is). But I didn’t know the real value in that trade would come not from Trevor Bauer but from Stubbs and from bullpen pieces Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers, who would join Cody Allen and Joe Smith and in-season addition Marc Rzepcynski to pick up the pieces in the ‘pen as Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano regressed.

I knew Ryan Raburn was an underrated pickup. I didn’t know he’d hit 16 homers and drive in 55 runs in a reserve role.

Totally did not see this coming.

From the day I arrived in Spring Training camp in Goodyear and saw the remnants of the “Harlem Shake” video shoot, I knew the Indians would be looser and generally more interesting than they’ve been in years. But I didn’t know the looseness would last even in the face of an eight-game losing streak. I didn’t know the fun would outweigh the frustrations. I didn’t know there would be 11 walkoff wins. I didn’t know there would be seven four-game sweeps. I didn’t know they’d not just take advantage of but absolutely own a favorable September schedule, winning 21 of their final 27 and all of their last 10.

I knew that 4-15 record against the Tigers would come back to bite the Tribe. I didn’t know they’d finish just one game back of a Detroit club that had nearly double their Opening Day payroll. But oh well.

I knew this season would be fun. I didn’t know it would be this fun.

Totally did not see this coming.

And there’s still more to come.

~AC

“One step closer to knowing”

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

Within a whisker of a postseason berth, the Indians are coming to the conclusion that they have no closer.

Chris Perez is not a closer right now. With a 7.85 ERA, .350 average against and 1.116 OPS against in 18 1/3 innings over his last 19 appearances, he’s a hot mess.

ImageBut what happened Thursday night – Perez nearly blowing a cushy 6-1 lead in the ninth on a night when Terry Francona was just trying to get him some pick-me-up work – could turn out to be a very good thing for the Indians. They did win the game, after all, so there’s that bit of bottom line. But from a forward-thinking standpoint, Perez provided confirmation of the growing assumption that he can’t be trusted in the ninth, and now the Indians are freed from the shackles of the closer role at a time of year when they need to just be riding whatever hot hands or positive matchups they have at their disposal.

Perez has been this club’s closer since 2010, and, no matter what you think about him personally, no matter how much undue controversy he’s invited, no matter how much stress he’s induced, he’s handled the job better than most. But the job, unfortunately, is not built to last. Perez is one of just three closers in all of MLB (Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel are the others) who held the job for their club in 2011 and still hold it today.

There’s a reason for that stat. Staying power is not a strength of the modern reliever. The reason a reliever is in the bullpen in the first place is because his arsenal isn’t deep enough to work elsewhere. And the reason closers not named Rivera tend not to hold the job long is that, sooner rather than later, the league adjusts to your strengths or your arm starts to wear down from the abuse or your mind starts to wear down from the demands.

You know how many guys have saved 30 games in a season over just the last 10 seasons? I’ll tell you how many: 86! In 10 seasons! That’s a staggering statistic. There are no repeats in there. That’s 86 individuals who saved 30 games in a single season, certainly refuting the notion that the ninth inning is some sacred ground upon which only a select few are suited to tread.

Why have so many guys have been such successful closers, even if their time on the job is merely temporary? Because it’s harder to come back in the ninth than it is to protect the ninth, and I’ll refer you to something Joe Posnanski wrote about that earlier this year about that. But the bottom line is that teams leading going into the ninth win roughly 95 percent of the time. And that has less to do with “proven” closers than it has to do with the difficulty of mounting a rally at this level.

So, this day was going to come eventually for the Indians. And maybe, to some, the timing doesn’t seem ideal. But better to have some clarity regarding the closing situation than to enter these final three games – and, possibly, October – utilizing the “Perez and pray” model.

The Indians used and abused that model for as long as they could, and this disastrous two-month stretch makes it all the more clear why the organizational inclination to cut ties with Perez this winter, before his final round of arbitration-eligibility, is so wise. It’s nothing personal against Perez; it’s just that no team ought to be paying upwards of a $10 million premium on a “proven closer,” and certainly not a team in the Tribe’s financial situation.

All right, so, now what? That’s the question everybody in Cleveland has been asking today, and the prevailing thought, it seems, is that the Tribe ought to anoint somebody new – Justin Masterson, perhaps, or maybe Joe Smith – in the ninth.

Awful idea.

To be honest, it was an awful idea back in late May, when Perez got hurt and Francona named Vinnie Pestano his closer. Pestano was already enduring his own struggles at that point – carrying a 5.54 ERA – and had shown notable and alarming declines in velocity. But Francona, like just about every manager in the Majors, preferred conventional closer wisdom over cold, hard common sense.

Thankfully for the Indians, that didn’t come back to bite them. Well, frankly, the closer situation was a non-factor the first half of June, because there were hardly any leads to protect. In the second half of the month, Pestano blew one tie against the Nationals, but then he converted six straight save opportunities despite allowing eight hits and five walks in an eight-inning span. It was a successful stretch, certainly, but not one that made the Indians feel all that comfortable as a group.

Francona would be wise not to press his luck this time around. He knows the potential pitfalls of the “closer by committee” that erupted in Boston the year before he arrived there, and I’m sure that knowledge plays heavy in his mind right now. But it’s a different thing to open a season with a relief platoon than it is to – ahem – close one, because now Francona has a full season of data – involving both his own team and the Twins and whatever other opponents might await – at his disposal to make educated guesses. In Smith, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski and, yes, even Masterson or Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco, he has an array of arms with which he can play percentages or exploit weaknesses.

Maybe, at the start of or in the middle of a season, this setup would be a tough sell to guys who supposedly thrive on knowing their roles. So, whatever, if you want to anoint the Chosen One in the ninth next March, by all means.

But there are no rules in September and October. These are must-win games, and it’s all hands on-deck and no-holds-barred and … I’m running out of buzzwords and catch phrases… but you get the idea. I think my friend Paul Cousineau, the retired DiaTriber, expressed it best in an e-mail exchange we had earlier today:

“Perhaps on the night when Mariano rode off into the sunset, Tito has been put into the position to minimize the over-usage of the ‘closer’ role that has developed in the last decade or so – largely because of the unmatched dominance of Rivera.”

Exactly. What happened Thursday, believe it or not, was a good thing. Because now Francona doesn’t have to massage any egos or anoint any saviors or remain betrothed to the confusingly conventional bullpen groupthink that has brought so much silliness to this sport.

He can just use the best guy in the best situation and hope it works. It’s still an imperfect arrangement (95 percent, sadly, is not 100), but, if the last two months are any indication, it’s better than “Perez and pray.”

~AC

Manager of the Year?

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

giambifranconaA Boston beat reporter got in touch with me the other day, because he has an AL Manager of the Year vote and he wanted to make sure he did his due diligence all the candidates, rather than just circling John Farrell’s name and being done with it. He’s quite familiar with Terry Francona’s managerial stylings, obviously, but he wanted to know the in-depth details of how that’s translated to Cleveland.

Knowing too well the tunnel vision the baseball beat can create when you’re surrounded by one team and one team only for the better part of eight months, I respected that this BBWAA member was putting homework ahead of homerism. That’s not always the case, of course. And anyway, he got me thinking more seriously about the Manager of the Year topic.

You’d have to imagine, right off the bat, that Farrell is the favorite. Not only did he guide a team from worst to first in his first season at the helm, but he did so in the AL East and, yes, in a major media market.

The Manager of the Year award sometimes seems to follow the same criteria as the Comeback Player of the Year award, acknowledging those who made the most successful strides from oblivion to relevance. That’s why the A’s Bob Melvin was such a great candidate last year and why, I imagine, he won’t get nearly as many first-place votes this year. It’s nothing against Melvin or the two-time division champion A’s, it’s just that the A’s are established now. Like George Costanza carrying around a picture of a beautiful ex-wife to attract other beautiful women, Melvin’s hand has been stamped, he comes and goes as he pleases.

Sometimes it comes down to who did more with less. That’s where Joe Girardi comes into play. The Yankees were officially eliminated from postseason consideration Wednesday night, but the fact that they were in it at all is a minor miracle. Based on playing time, this is what will be remembered of the Yanks’ 2013 lineup:

C: Chris Stewart 1B: Lyle Overbay 2B: Robinson Cano 3B: Jayson Nix SS: Eduardo Nunez LF: Vernon Wells CF: Brett Gardner RF: Ichiro Suzuki DH: Travis Hafner

All this, combined with the A-Rod media madness and staff ace CC Sabathia enduring a 39-percent regression in performance, and I wouldn’t wish that particular club on anybody. Not even Bobby Valentine.

So, yeah, Girardi did a great job. But he’s not the Manager of the Year, either. To me, it really does come down to Farrell and Francona, two guys who are the best of friends and who have intimate knowledge of each other’s organizations.

I’ve got a ton of respect for Farrell, no matter what anybody in Toronto says or thinks about him. He was an incredibly insightful resource back when he was farm director for the Indians, and I was convinced he was on the path toward a GM job. But I underestimated his desire to get back into uniform, and he was certainly a big part of the Red Sox’s run (through Cleveland, of course) to the 2007 title. His time in Toronto was largely unfulfilling and uncomfortable, and now people there feel he was too distracted by the thought of returning to Boston to do an adequate job. In reality, I’m sure Farrell was like a lot of people in that his heart might have been elsewhere but his mind was on the task at hand. And as the Jays’ 2013 season has demonstrated, the task of building a winner can often be a long one devoid of shortcuts.

It all worked out for Farrell in the end. He got the job he wanted, and while the Blue Jays have been one of the biggest busts in baseball, the Red Sox have surged to first place with 96 wins, entering the season’s final weekend. If Farrell wins the Manager of the Year honor, he’ll be lauded for “changing the culture” in that clubhouse in the wake of the Valentine era. And while there’s certainly truth to that – just as there’s truth to Francona “changing the culture” in Cleveland – what I see in Boston is an ultra-talented team that got the most out of its ability thanks in no small part to the direction and preparation provided by Farrell and his coaching staff. It wasn’t just about a group of guys getting along with each other and their manager; it was about guys like Jon Lester and John Lackey and Clay Buchholz making the necessary adjustments to return to the strengths that had once made them so successful. And I have very little doubt that Farrell played an integral role in that transformation.

So the Red Sox made the major stride in the standings, which is why Farrell is such a good candidate. I wouldn’t, however, say he did more with less. The Red Sox have nine qualifying position players with an OPS above the league average. Nine of them! That’s a staggering amount of depth, and, with all due respect to Farrell, I think that’s more attributable to Ben Cherington’s excellent offseason – piecing together Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes – than to anything actually tactical.

Still, worst to first in the East, 96 wins and counting, a great back story and a pitching staff that shaved nearly a full point off its ERA from year to year (despite some notable injuries in the back end of the bullpen). You can do no wrong in voting Farrell for Manager of the Year.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland IndiansThat said, you can do no wrong voting for Tito, too.

The story of Francona arriving and completely altering the outlook of this organization has been repeated and repeated and repeated again, to the point that even Francona is probably tired of it.

“I think I’ve probably gotten too much credit at times,” he said Wednesday. “I think organizationally there are so many outstanding people already in place here. Just because you haven’t won or haven’t won recently doesn’t mean they’re not good people, or know what they’re doing. I think that whatever has happened good, like for me, I think these people in this organization have helped bring it out.”

Indeed, I think the $56 million waved in front of Nick Swisher and the $48 million offered to Michael Bourn (as camps were opening and he remained in free-agent limbo) and the mere opportunity that was granted to Jason Giambi and Scott Kazmir — those are all things that likely would have lured those guys to Cleveland, independent of the manager.

But the manager didn’t hurt. And Francona, having been in Boston when the Red Sox targeted and eventually acquired Mike Aviles, had big input into what was the Indians’ most successful offseason transaction — the trade of Esmil Rogers for Aviles and Yan Gomes. So he gets major points for that, in my book.

Francona also gets credit for the steadiness he’s provided in what has been a strange and at times rocky season. He’s always the same guy in front of the cameras, assertive in his assessments and ultra-protective of his players. And funny. Funny always helps.

More to the point, the Indians aren’t riding the wave of any outlandish seasons, unless you count what Ubaldo Jimenez has done in the second half as outlandish (and you just might). They’ve got just two guys – Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis – with an OPS above .800, they’ve experienced regression from setup man Vinnie Pestano and, lately, closer Chris Perez, and the rotation has required quite a bit of patchwork and problem-solving (if there’s a Pitching Coach of the Year award, give it to Mickey Callaway). The Indians’ greatest asset has undoubtedly been the bench, and it’s a bench that Francona has expertly employed, getting the most out of Ryan Raburn and Aviles and Giambi without over-stepping his bounds.

And while this might not mean anything to anybody, it is nonetheless worth noting that Francona’s Indians are two games ahead of their Pythagorean win expectation (based on run differential), while the Red Sox are two games behind theirs.

The only strike against Francona is the division-heavy schedule that has allowed the Indians to creep into contention. Would they be here had they not played 19 games against the White Sox? Hard to say. (Then again, would the Rangers be in this contention conversation without their 19 games against the Astros?)

I think Francona’s right. He probably gets too much credit. But I think that’s true of any successful manager, and I think the reverse is true of many of the unsuccessful ones. In the final analysis, though, I find it really hard to imagine this club being where it is – potentially on the brink of a postseason appearance – had it not hired a manager with Francona’s poise and presence. My only issue with the guy is that he let Danny Salazar face Miguel Cabrera a fourth time on Aug. 7, but I’ll get over it.

Manager of the Year? Everybody in baseball knows and respects Terry Francona, so I’m quite certain he’ll fare well in the voting, and he’ll be deserving of every vote he gets.

I don’t know if he’ll win it, but I already know he’s won more in 2013 than anybody could have reasonably imagined.

~AC

“Been waiting for tonight”

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

Well, this figures, right?

Ubaldo Jimenez arrives here as a would-be ace with so much wanted and expected from him. And for the better part of two calendar years, he stinks, quite frankly.

ubaldoIn the 2011 playoff chase, when the Indians are desperately trying to keep pace with the Tigers, Ubaldo posts a 6.35 ERA against the Tigers. In 2012, he loses 17 games just two years after winning 19 (in another uniform, naturally). Nine starts into 2013, he has an ERA over 6.00. By the All-Star break, that number is whittled down to 4.56, but the improved effectiveness comes with such alarming inefficiency that Ubaldo is routinely done after five innings and Terry Francona puts him in the back-end of the rotation.

And then, something truly magical happens. Ubaldo gets right. Under the guidance of pitching coach Mickey Callaway, he rediscovers that tomahawk chop delivery that once made him a wunderkind. He begins breezing through opposing lineups, posting a 1.77 ERA after the break and a ridiculous 0.64 ERA in his first four September starts and going deeper into games.

Just in time to propel the Indians into Wild Card positioning.

And just in time to price himself out of Cleveland.

You can’t help but sense that’s where this story is going, no? When Ubaldo was traded, the Rockies’ $8 option on him for 2014 became a mutual option, one Jimenez will most assuredly reject come November. In a free-agent market highlighted by Ervin Santana and Matt Garza, Ubaldo is going to be such a high-priced commodity that it’s hard to envision the Indians, having already taken advantage of a broadcast boost and having had trouble luring fans to the seats in 2013, being able to afford him. And after all the emotional swings and sways provided by the Jimenez era, it’s hard to say to what extent they’d even want to commit to him for the long, long haul.

So Ubaldo’s brief but memorable Tribe tenure, to date, has been something of a tease. But the good news is that there is finally value to it.

The value, of course, lies in the here and now, in a playoff chase that has continued sans Justin Masterson, thanks to Jimenez, who gets the start at home Tuesday night against the White Sox, stepping into the ace assignment.

“I love the challenge,” Jimenez said. “There is so much expectation that you have to do good for the team.”

Such expectation accompanied Jimenez to Cleveland in July 2011, but either mentally, mechanically or some combination of the two, he wasn’t fit to handle it.

Actually, Ubaldo will tell you he wasn’t physically fit to handle it. We know about the thumb injury that hampered him with the Rockies at the start of ’11. What we don’t know nearly as much about are the injuries that emanated out of that initial issue.

“When I hurt my finger, that affected everything,” Jimenez said. “I hurt my finger, and then I tried to change my grip of the ball, and then I hurt my lower body, my shoulder, everything. I had to change my mechanics. That’s why everything got messed up, and it was hard to get back.”

It was hard to watch, too. Ubaldo’s delivery is so unique and so complex that when he’s not right and it’s not right, the command trouble that ensues can be exhausting, even on the comforts of the couch. His injuries, he’ll tell you, were minor enough for him to avoid the DL but major enough to mess with the mechanics.

“Coming to a new team where people are expecting you to help them out, you have to go out there and compete with whatever you have,” he said. “And I did. I had a tough year last year, but I never said no. I took the ball and I pitched with whatever I had.”

Maybe that makes for an easier narrative, but nothing is all that easy when evaluating Ubaldo. Not even the trade itself. What looked like a wash suddenly feels like a win, especially given that Drew Pomeranz has had nothing but trouble in Colorado (5.24 ERA in 33 appearances since 2011) and Alex White wound up a minor piece in a minor trade with the Astros before blowing out his elbow.

The Indians always felt White would wind up in a bullpen role. Pomeranz was the guy they thought would be a stud, and so did the Rox. He’s been a bust, though, and he’s been relegated to relief after spending much of this season rehabbing a biceps injury. We’ll never know if Pomeranz’s breaking ball-heavy repertoire would have fared better in Cleveland than it has at Coors (his career ERA is more than a full point lower outside of Coors), but Ubaldo’s sudden surge has completely silenced any remaining critics of the trade (and I was definitely among them) and eliminated the concerns of whatever small percentage of the Tribe fan base that was still fixated on the former first-rounder.

Right now, it’s all about living in this moment, a moment in which Jimenez, stunningly, is one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half.

“It feels great,” he said, “to finally be able to help the team out. It’s been a couple years since I felt good physically. If you don’t feel good physically, mentally you’re going to wear down. Finally, I feel good.”

Good enough, we can only assume, to take full advantage of the market opportunities that await.

Ubaldo called Cleveland “heaven” upon his 2011 arrival, and even he admitted it became “a nightmare” in 2012. These are happier days all around, and Jimenez said he is too consumed with the playoff push to worry about the paycheck push. But the increase in velocity and vibrancy has been a timely one. It’s come just in time to raise the Indians’ playoff percentage odds and Jimenez’s own price tag.

Enjoy these days, Cleveland. You and “U” have been waiting for them. The Ubaldo era had a strange start and it may well be short-lived. But at least it could have a happy ending.

~AC

“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

“Try and catch the wind”

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

Yan Gomes walked by, and an Indians official said, “There goes our starting catcher.”

Indeed, the transition is complete. Gomes has started at catcher in 22 of the Indians’ last 36 games. Publicly, Terry Francona says what you’d expect him to say, but the proof is in the pudding – or, more accurately, the lineup card – and it says Gomes has graduated from the “Goon Squad” and essentially supplanted Carlos Santana behind the plate.

gomesAs far as compelling storylines within the Indians’ 2013 season are concerned, this strikes me as the most meaningful in both the short- and long-term view. As far back as May, members of the club were privately acknowledging that the Indians were simply a better team with Gomes behind the plate. At the time, though, it was hard to know how Gomes’ production would hold up to the weight of a larger sample.

Well, 251 plate appearances is a pretty sizable sample. Within that sample, Gomes has hit .303/.355/.518. Francona’s trust is such that when the Indians opened a pivotal three-game set against the Royals on Monday night with a tough right-hander – Ervin Santana – on the mound, Gomes got the green light. Sure enough, he made the most of it, throwing out two would-be base stealers and launching a solo homer (his 10th of the season) in the fifth. And Santana, in the DH spot, made the most of it, too, with his seventh-inning pole poke.

The Indians won, 4-3, and it’s worth wondering if the result would have been the same had the lineup been otherwise.

The numbers speak for themselves: With Santana behind the dish, Tribe pitchers have a 4.13 ERA, opposing baserunners are thrown out just 15.5 percent of the time (9 of 58) and the Tribe is 41-38. With Gomes, it’s a 3.68 ERA, a 46.9 percent (15 of 32) caught stealing rate and a 36-26 record.

Gomes, you could argue, has been the most valuable Indians player not named Kipnis.

For the last couple years, I’ve been among those advocating for the Indians to permanently move Santana, for good of his body and his bat, with the obvious caveat that you had to have a suitable replacement option for him behind the plate. That caveat loomed large, because Lou Marson never asserted himself enough offensively to stake a real claim to the job, and catching talent that can acquit itself offensively is one of the game’s more difficult finds.

Nobody was necessarily sure the Indians had found it when they acquired Gomes and Mike Aviles in the Esmil Rogers trade last November. He had a terrific offensive season at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2012, but evaluators tend to take Pacific Coast League numbers with a grain of salt, particularly in the hitters’ dream that is Vegas’ Cashman Field. Besides, Gomes was only a part-time catcher in Vegas, and he played primarily at first-base in his 43-game rookie break-in (over four stints) with the Blue Jays, posting an uninspiring .631 OPS. With the Blue Jays, he was a man without a specific position or a clear future. With the Tribe, he is the future. Behind the plate.

Santana is the future, too. He’s signed through at least 2016. I’m sure the Indians could net a hefty haul for him if they took the bold step of making him available this winter, but I doubt they’d go in that direction. What they’ll need is for Santana to buy into the idea that a permanent position switch is best for him in the long run.

That’s a tough sell, because that Nick Swisher contract isn’t going anywhere, and the 32-year-old Swisher seems best-suited to first base at this stage in his career, particularly if you read into what the advanced metrics say about his regression in right (and, yes, the Indians are a better defensive club with Drew Stubbs in right, unquestionably). So short of moving Santana back to his original position at third (not bloody likely) or giving him the bulk of time at first over Swisher (a superior defender), you’re asking a 27-year-old to spend his prime years relegated to DH duties.

It’s a tricky one, especially if Santana is one of those players who simply struggles with the mental waiting game that comes when you’re a bat-only ballplayer. In his career, he has an .802 OPS as a catcher and .868 mark as a first baseman, but, as a DH, it’s .729. That trend extends to this season: .823 as C, .890 as 1B, .751 as DH.

The DH splits, to date, refute this, but the working theory is that if you take Santana away from the physical grind of catching and getting pinged by foul balls off the facemask or unblocked pitches in the dirt (we’ve seen that a time or two this season), you’ll get more out of his bat. With Victor Martinez, the Indians could make the argument that V-Mart’s bat was made all the more valuable by his position placement. With Santana, that argument still applies, but there’s more raw power in play, and you wonder if the Indians can tap into that power more frequently if Santana changes positions. For the longest time, the discussion was more conceptual, but Santana’s continued regression as a catcher and Gomes’ surprising emergence this season have forced the issue.

These are the kind of conversations typical of September: What have we learned from the season at hand, and how does it apply to the seasons ahead? For the Indians, this kind of discourse has been the only excitement in September in recent seasons.

But not in 2013. In 2013, the conversation takes place in the midst of a potential playoff push. And for that, the Indians have their new starting catcher to thank.

~AC

“I found that just surviving was a noble fight”

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

Your first impulse is to just let a good, cute story remain a good, cute story and not try to incorporate it with some higher meaning. But in the land of particularly pathetic and/or heartbreaking professional sporting happenstance  — and no land serves that distinction quite like the Land of Cleves — it couldn’t hurt to hold out hope that good karma now graces the Cleveland Indians’ playoff pursuit.

ImageOver the weekend, an 8-year-old Tribe fan by the name of Niko Lanzarotta got to take in batting practice from the field, and the young boy, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at eight months old, asked two members of the team — Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis — to hit a home run for him.

Well, what could they say? Santana said sure, Kipnis said he’d try, and then both players hit the field that night and – amazingly — did just as Niko had asked.

“To see your kid that happy,” said Niko’s father, Mike, in a statement released by the team, “is a great thing.”

Amen to that. And if that’s where the feel-good story involving the Indians begins and ends, we could do worse than to end it with the bright and beaming smile of a little boy.

Then again, the way things are looking right now, the Indians have a pretty good chance at pulling off a feat almost as improbable as fulfilling Niko’s whimsical wish.

Whatever you wish to read into this sort of thing, it’s worth noting that the Indians’ percentage shot at a postseason berth, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, has risen 12 points just in the past week alone (from 21.3 to 33.7, at last check). No, the jump is not attributable to the news that the Indians maybe possibly put in a waiver claim on Kendrys Morales (and more on that in a moment). Rather, it’s climbed because the Tribe has maintained a season trend of beating up on the kind of clubs you’re supposed to beat up on. They swept the Angels in Anaheim, then took two of three from the Twins.

This is how the #RollTribe caravan rolls, when it rolls: through the streets of sleeping cities. The Indians have built their 71-59 record (two wins better than their Pythagorean expectation based on run differential) by going 40-17 against losing teams to offset their 31-42 mark against those currently sitting at .500 or better.

You don’t get docked for this sort of thing. Some might call the Indians a soft contender as a result of that record disparity, but they’re certainly no softer than the A’s team they trail in the Wild Card hunt by two games. The A’s, after all, have 43 wins against losing teams, including 12 inter-division wins against the lowly Astros.

Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright.

Here’s where it gets really interesting for the Indians, though. In the here and now. In a six-game road swing, beginning Tuesday night, against the two teams with perhaps the most realistic shot at home-field advantage throughout October: the Braves and Tigers. The Tribe will follow that up with a three-game set against the fellow Wild Card-contending O’s, beginning on Labor Day.

A trade for Morales – and, to be clear, we don’t yet know which club put in the reported claim on the 30-year-old slugger or if a trade will even be worked out – would be considered a timely one given the laborious stretch the Indians are entering and the need for an injection of offense.

Then again, it would be difficult to call Morales an outright game-changer, given the regression he’s shown after a strong start in Seattle. His 264 AVG and .730 OPS since June 7 are only slightly better than the numbers of the much-maligned Nick Swisher (.241/.718) in that same span. And Morales’ presence would only limit the Indians’ ability to put their best lineup on the field – i.e., a lineup with Yan Gomes behind home plate and Santana at first base or DH – while also creating roster concern for Jason Giambi, who has been an instrumental member of this club.

Color  me doubtful.

Anyway, the focus here is not nearly as much on Morales as it is on the need for the Indians to simply survive a stretch that, once endured, gives birth to greener pastures. The rest of the Indians’ schedule comes against the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins, against whom they’re a combined 30-14 (they’ve yet to face the Mets, who, we now know, won’t be bringing Matt Harvey to Progressive Field).

Of course, to read much into schedule strength is to ignore the very essence of a sport in which a team like the Indians can climb into contention.

The Tribe, after all, is a contender for reasons that, almost across the board, defy all projection or prediction, which is why the fact that we’re having this discussion in late August is such a surprise.

Look at the biggest free-agent expenditures: Swisher is the primary reason the Indians have an OPS output from the No. 4 spot (.754) that is below the league average (.783); Michael Bourn has an on-base percentage (.322) just below the league average from the leadoff spot (.324) and is having the least effective stolen-base success rate of his career (19 steals in 29 attempts); Mark Reynolds disappeared after a hot April in a way few before him have disappeared.

Furthermore, Trevor Bauer, the highly touted trade acquisition, has been a non-factor, relegated to Triple-A, where he continues to endure control issues. And only three qualifying AL shortstops have a lower OPS than so-called cornerstone Asdrubal Cabrera.

Had you known all this in March, you really wouldn’t be feeling Terry Francona’s club.

No wonder some scouts feel this might be Francona’s finest managerial moment, for this club never turned in on itself in the midst of, say, losing eight straight in early June or getting swept in a pivotal four-game set at home against the Tigers earlier this month and following that up with two straight losses to the Angels.

Francona’s temperament has been at least as pivotal as – though perhaps not moreso Imagethan – that of the resurrected Giambi, who has had almost literally nothing but big hits on the field (his is the most impactful .186 average in all of baseball) and provided nothing but positive presence off it, and Mickey Callaway, whom Francona hired at the behest of an Indians front office that viewed him as a rising star in the coaching field.

Callaway has helped eke effective-if-not-flashy results out of an unproven rotation – one that could have come undone when either Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber succumbed to rare finger sprains (this kind of thing tends to happen in the realm of Cleveland sports). Shockingly, it is the rotation that is picking up the slack for a disappointing offense, which has scored less than four runs per game in the second half.

If the Indians can get their bats going in the here and now, they are absolutely a legit postseason contender. Maybe to many, that’s hard to believe.

But I know of at least one little boy who believes in the improbable.

~AC

PS: Those of you who read Indians.com regularly are of course familiar with the work of young Zack Meisel, who has been a big asset to us at MLB.com the last few years. Zack is moving on to Cleveland.com’s Ohio State beat, where I know he’ll continue to do great things while surviving on a daily diet of Chick-fil-A and chocolate chip cookies.

Go get ‘em, Zack.

PPS: I mentioned Bourn’s unexpectedly low stolen-base total, but there is one area where the Tribe’s improved team speed has been beneficial: the double-play tally. The Tribe has only been doubled up in 9.1 percent of GDP situations, the third lowest rate in baseball and the second-lowest team rate in the Wild Card era, trailing only the 9.0 mark set by the 2007 AL Central championship club.

“We were walking on the wild side”

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

With 41 games remaining in their 2013 regular season slate, the Indians are nine games over .500, 6 ½ games back of first place and 3 ½ games back of a Wild Card slot.

Everything above is, as of this writing, an absolute fact.

But absolute facts are open to varying degrees of interpretation.

Maybe you’re content with the above, knowing full well that this team lost 91 games last season and that, in Major League Baseball, the climb from 94 losses to even 82 wins – ensuring a winning season – is a steep one that ought to be applauded. Nobody knew quite what to expect from this Tribe team in the first year of the Terry Francona era, but I think a majority of you would have signed up for a winning season, no questions asked. Some small percentage of you would probably still be content with that outcome.

Then again, the Indians kept things interesting enough long enough in the Central against a supremely talented Tigers team that some people can’t give up the ghost of the division chase. Hey, nothing wrong with dreaming big, and even though the Indians’ record against the Tigers is 2-46 (or thereabouts), they do still have three head-to-head matchups and we can’t rule out a late-season surge. Some small percentage of you is still firmly invested in that potential outcome.

Meanwhile, the majority of you, I’d venture to guess, are somewhere in the middle. And the middle, of course, is the Wild Card chase, in which the Indians, according to Baseball Prospectus’ latest postseason odds report, still have a 21.5 percent chance of suiting up in October.

MLB, as you know, expanded the Wild Card format to include two teams last year, so now you’ve got no shortage of standings and scheduling scenarios to pore over on a daily basis.

As I type this, the Wild Card picture looks like this:

wildcard

Whoa. That’s a lot to take in. Tampa Bay, Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, New York. And the East and West races are close enough that you’ve got to keep track of Boston and Texas, too.

Rooting for the Wild Card, as you can see, is an onerous ordeal. But I am nothing if not a man of the people. It is my job to distill this mess down to its essence and make your lives a little bit brighter, a little bit more manageable.

And so I encourage you to use this painless, handy guide to navigate your way through the home stretch of the season. Please, please, thank me not with flowers or money but rather with your ever-abiding affection. It’s all I ask.

HOW TO ROOT FOR THE WILD CARD

All right, let’s begin in the here and now, Aug. 16-18. This is easy: You’re rooting for the Tigers, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mariners.

I know, I know… the Tigers? Woe be the postseason scenario that encourages you to cheer on the very team you’re trying to catch in your division. But to be entirely realistic is to embrace the fact that disposing of the Royals in this AL Central troika is in the Indians’ best interests, and the Tigers, who took the first game of a four-game weekend set, are the best bet to do the dirty work.

It would be helpful if the Red Sox would make like Chris Nelson and crush the confidence of the desperate Yankees, who have left no stone (or Mark Reynolds) unturned in their quest for coherence.

It would be really helpful if the Rockies would jump all over the Orioles, who have lost three straight and have been burned by Jim Johnson’s severe ninth-inning regression. A couple more blown saves from Johnson wouldn’t hurt. Closer controversies can bring a ballclub down.

It would be helpful, too, if the Blue Jays would keep the once-reeling Rays from enjoying an upswing. The Rays just took two straight from the Mariners and were encouraged by the strong return of Alex Cobb. It is in the Indians’ best interest if the Blue Jays put them down a peg.

And while you’re at it, you might as well root for the Mariners against the Rangers. Anything to encourage a brutal battle in the AL West to drag down the respective records of the Rangers and A’s.

All right, so there you go. Seems pretty simple, right?

But wait a sec.

What if… and I’m just throwing this out there… what if the Royals salvage a split with the Tigers, and Detroit’s Central lead remains about where it was… and then the Orioles take the series with the Rox and A-Rod, somehow buoyed by all this attention from “60 Minutes,” propels the Yanks to a thrilling sweep in Boston and the Rays get back on a roll?

Hmm.

OK, well, first things first, you’d have to watch that Rays-Orioles series closely next week and make sure you root for a split and a rainout. Then you’d want to pay close attention to how the Royals fare against the White Sox. Need a big week from the Sox there. And you’ll want to stay up late to root for the Mariners against the A’s (you’ll be accustomed to rooting against the A’s at this point) and the Giants against the Red Sox. Those West Coast games are a pain. You might be groggy and cranky in the morning, particularly if the A’s and Red Sox sweep.

And if they sweep, you’ll want to hold out hope that they run away with their respective divisions so that you can put all your energy into rooting against the Orioles, Yankees, Rays and Rangers. Then again, the Rangers will be at home against the lowly Astros, so maybe they’ll sweep and the A’s won’t and now you’ll want to make sure you’re rooting firmly against the A’s instead. Oh, but… darn… I forgot the A’s then head to Baltimore next weekend, Aug. 23-25. And you can’t root for the Orioles. So maybe instead of focusing on the O’s and A’s, you should devote your time and attention to the Rays. They’re pretty dangerous. But wait, by that point they’ll be playing the Yankees, and we can’t let those Yanks get hot. Man, this is stressful. All right, let’s simplify things and just root against the Royals. We can all get behind that, right?

Oh, shoot, the Royals play the Rays in a makeup game Aug. 26. So scratch that. I told you to be careful with those Rays. Really need the Royals to take that game, unless of course the Royals took care of business at home against the Nationals the previous weekend, in which case you’ve really got to worry the Royals will overtake the Indians. So root against the Royals. But don’t root for the Rays. And then, the next day, root for the Twins against the Royals and the Angels against the Rays and the Blue Jays against the Yankees, but be careful about that Tigers-A’s series, because you never know if that might be the start of the Tigers’ stunning collapse, although it might be the beginning of the A’s surge over the Rangers, in which case you’ll really want the Mariners to beat the Rangers at Safeco. Crap. West Coast game again. You’ll want to have plenty of caffeine handy.

Fortunately, you’ll have the Labor Day weekend to relax. Then again, that could be a stressful holiday weekend, what with the Rays facing the A’s and O’s facing the Yanks and you, sitting there with your special bonus Saturday edition of the Plain Dealer, staring at the standings and trying to tabulate what, exactly, it is you’re supposed to be rooting for. Oh, but don’t forget: The Indians play the Tigers that weekend. You’ll want to root for the Indians, for sure.

Come to think of it, just root for the Indians the rest of the way. My head hurts.

~AC

Foul Balls

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

ImageWe were sitting in the right-field stands at PNC Park, my buddy Mike and I, taking in the rare August sight that is a near-sell-out in a ballpark much too beautiful for the bad baseball it has housed for the majority of its existence.

Mike is a Pirates fan. A real one. He didn’t just board the bandwagon… not that there’s anything wrong with the forming bandwagon supporting a team that has posted losing season after losing season for two decades and now, stunningly, holds the best record in baseball.

Mike used to sit in the stands at Three Rivers, rooting on Denny Neagle and Andy Van Slyke and Don Slaught and Al Martin (though I’m not certain if he was an actual member of “Al’s Army”). He has spent his fair share of hours making the best of a bad situation at PNC, back when the lackluster play on the field was offset, in some small measure, by the occasional Jason Bay bobblehead or commemorative Jack Wilson “Jack in the Box” giveaway.

And the one constant, aside from the results, was this: Mike had never caught a foul ball.

He lamented this fact to me recently, taking note of the national story that a Tribe fan had caught not one, not two, not three but four foul balls on a single Sunday at Progressive Field.

“Man,” Mike said when he heard this, “I’m 0-for-life.”

Imagine, then, the flash of hope, the flicker of anticipation that fluttered in Mike’s Irish heart in that moment when right fielder Jose Tabata turned to the crowd after a between-innings game of catch, surveyed the scene and cocked his arm back for the toss above the 21-foot-wall in right. This is one of the things you have to love about the experience of attendance. Because Tabata, bless his heart, has a .695 OPS and is one of the primary culprits responsible for the Buccos’ right-field plight. Yet in a moment such as this, he can still make a fond memory for some fortunate fan.

On this night, in this seat, that fan was Mike.

I knew it from the moment of release. The ball was coming directly to Mike. It was a no-doubter. He lifted up out of his chair, extended his arms out and, with the God-given athletic skill that once allowed him to serve as a walk-on for the very prestigious, world-renowned baseball team at Ohio University, easily hauled it in.

He sat back in his seat, peaceful, fulfilled.

“I have never caught a foul ball*,” he remarked, studying this inspirational orb, scuff marks and all, perhaps envisioning a spot on his mantle for this treasured piece of memorabilia.

*And yes, technically he still hadn’t, because this wasn’t an actual foul ball. But work with me, people, I’m trying to tell a story here.

But then, just as suddenly as the ball was delivered into Mike’s anticipatory palms, you could feel the eyes upon him. Everybody in the crowd, it seemed, was staring at Mike, waiting, pining, imploring him to give the ball to the little kid sitting two seats to his left.

Mike could feel it, too. I swear to you the six or seven seconds after he came down with that ball felt like an eternity, a full trial and sentencing of a man scrutinized by his own, Pirate-loving peers.

And when the eternity had passed, Mike did the only thing a man in his place could have done without inspiring the ire of every inhabitant of Section 144:

He gave the ball to the kid.

Now, I want to make one thing very clear: I love kids. And I love that baseball, at its core, is a game that caters to kids. Certainly, some people get swept up in the passion of a pennant race at some advanced age and become late-blooming baseball fans. But I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of us who love this game love it because it cosmically connects us to our childhood in some small way. And baseball teams go to great, admirable and always evolving lengths to ensure that experience is passed down to future generations, so that the wheel is always in spin.

The other night, my uncle brought his three grandsons to an Indians game. They wanted to bring their gloves, but my uncle had to tell them their seats would be out-of-range for even the most mammoth of Jason Giambi blasts.

“But just in case,” he told them, “have your hat ready!”

Image

And this is how it should be, true ambition forming in the heart and mind of a young boy and the understanding that, if the fates allow and if he applies himself, perhaps his reverie will be realized. If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme… unless maybe if you’re sitting in Section 749, Row Q.

Anyway, this is what bothered me about what I witnessed at PNC: The hand-off from adult to child felt more expected than appreciated. The kid’s dad thanked my friend, certainly, and the gesture was applauded by the guy sitting behind us. But the whole thing seemed — to me, at least — to have all the emotional magnitude of a $10 bank transaction. It felt like Mike had merely completed his end of some pre-existing agreement written in tiny font on the back of his ticket.

At the risk of sounding insensitive or out-of-touch or just plain grumpy, when did this become a thing? When did giving little kids every foul ball (I would imagine, perhaps naively, that home runs are more commonly acknowledged as the property of the possessor) become part of some binding social contract? Because I know it wasn’t written into the fabric of fanship when I was a kid. When I was young, I could not even conceive of begging some stranger, in word or in enticing or teary eyes, to give me a freebie. The thought never would have even crossed my mind. Or my dad’s mind, for that matter.

I still remember the day Cory Snyder showed up to The Palace, the Euclid High School baseball field, to put on a hitting clinic (yeah, yeah, smart aleck, Snyder struck out in 25 percent of his career plate appearances… he was still a golden-locked legend in my young mind). At some point in the session, my dad stood up and vanished from our seats behind the backstop. I was too engrossed by the glory of Cory Snyder to pay any mind to this disappearance. A few minutes later, my dad, completely out of breath, comes back with a ball in hand. When I was older, he explained that he had outhustled a bunch of little kids half his size (which is really saying something, seeing as how my dad is a tiny Italian-American) to get me that ball — a ball I still have. That’s a father taking care of his son. That’s America. Or baseball. Or a Harry Chapin song. Or something. And if I’m blessed with children of my own one day, I plan to do everything in my power to create those little magic moments for them, too.

But anybody who watched, without the benefit of context, as my dad raced past those kids in pursuit of a ball off the bat of the great Cory Snyder probably figured he was just a jerk.

Point is, we’ve progressed to a point in our culture where such context has ceased to have any value whatsoever. There are people — a good number of people — who are content to give this souvenir away to someone else’s child without even a fleeting moment of contemplation. These are kind and gracious people, and they deserve to be applauded (my friend Mike, it must be noted, has expressed not even a hint of regret or uncertainty about his decision).

Of course, not everybody wants to give it away, and therein lies the difficulty. Catch a foul ball and keep it for yourself, and the moment is captured in high-definition, broadcast on big screens across the region and, next thing you know, you’re Deadspin material. How do you know that guy keeping that ball isn’t out of town on business with a son of his own waiting at home? How do you know he’s not planning to give that ball to his dying mother to fulfill her lifelong quest of owning an object once touched by Greg Dobbs? How do you know he wasn’t recently laid off from his job and ditched by his wife and this precious piece of paraphernalia is the only thing keeping him from jumping off a short bridge?

Or how do you know he’s not just a big baseball fan who always wanted to catch a freaking foul ball?

You don’t know any of this, and, what’s worse, we don’t have any finely stipulated statutes upon which to work off here. What is the age cut-off for both the bearer of the ball and the kid in question? How old is too old to keep a ball? How young is too young to expect a ball? How do you know if the guy giving the kid the ball doesn’t want it more than the kid, who very well might just toss it in his toy box and never think about it again (or, for that matter, toss it back on the field)? If you give a crying kid a baseball, are you encouraging him to waltz through life expecting that all good things will come his way if he whines a little? Are foul balls the new participation trophies?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know if it’s insensitive or unseemly to even be asking them.

I just know the whole thing strikes me as foul.

~AC

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 62 other followers