HAZELWOOD: Indians set up for rare late season race

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Jul 11, 2019 at 11:09 PM

CLEVELAND — How long can the Major League Baseball season really feel?

On April 14, after a perplexing and crushing sweep at the hands of the woeful Royals in Kansas City, journeyman Brad Miller was designated for assignment.

Miller had nine hits in his 18 days with the Indians (.250 batting average), and stood at his locker after being released and said, “Obviously, they don’t want the best guys up here.”

That moment doesn’t even feel like it was this season. It was so long ago, and so much has changed. On April 4, manager Terry Francona filled out a lineup card that included Leonys Martin, Haney Ramirez, Miller and Eric Stamets.

There was also Max Moroff in the lineup. Soon after, Carlos Gonzalez would also come and go.

Consider just over a month ago, when the Indians came back from a miserable weekend performance in Chicago against the White Sox. On June 3, they were 29-30 and 12 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the loss column in the American League Central Division standings.

Things look much different today, yes? Baseball truly is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Indians will host the Twins for a weekend series beginning Friday night in Cleveland. The Tribe is 50-38, having gone an MLB-best 21-8 since June 4. And with the Twins somewhat cooling off, the Indians managed to trim seven games off the deficit in the loss column, now just 5.5 games behind Minnesota.

While personally too early for me, it’s worth noting the Tribe also sits in the second of the two AL wild cards — just a half-game behind Tampa Bay for the first position.

From the very start, I’ve always been of the belief the Indians could and would turn it around. For two-plus months, there was a growing cry of trading off as many pieces as possible and cutting the cord on 2019.

But even I must admit this was unforeseen. All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor missed the first three-plus weeks, and second baseman Jason Kipnis the first two-plus weeks.

Starting pitcher Mike Clevinger missed two months of action. Two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber has been out since May 1. Carlos Carrasco? He’s been out since June 4 with a form of leukemia, and also hasn’t returned.

Even just a few weeks ago, Cleveland went to Baltimore and was outscored 26-0 in back-to-back shutouts to the worst team in baseball.

And yet here is the Tribe, sitting at 50 wins and at least within shouting distance of the Twins, who at one time seemed destined to win 105-plus games.

Is it just me, or does this type of rallying the troops seem like a trademark of Terry Francona teams? The day it was announced Carrasco was a late scratch and the Tribe rallied from five runs down to beat the Twins with a ‘bullpen game’ on June 5, things have felt different.

But with one final thought on the first half, one has to give a lot of credit to the front office of team president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff.

Yes, Michael Brantley’s contract with Houston seemed pedestrian and he should have at least been given a contract offer. Yes, it was tone deaf of owner Paul Dolan to make the “enjoy him” comment about Lindor, even though he technically wasn’t wrong.

They were ridiculed for the bullpen, cutting payroll and having a ‘Four-A’ collection of outfield talent.

The bullpen has been the strongpoint so far. The Yan Gomes trade for Jefry Rodriquez and Daniel Johnson is looking brilliant, also thanks in large part to the play of Roberto Perez as the starting catcher.

They got the White Sox to take Yonder Alonso, who they already released, for a mid-level minor league player. The current collection of Jake Bauers, Oscar Mercado, Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin is fairly close to replacement level.

The sterling play of All-Star starter Carlos Santana and the recent hot streak by Bauers has made the trade of Edwin Encarnacion and Yandy Diaz more favorable.

So what happens next? With a six-game winning streak, and how well things went over the five days of hosting the All-Star Game — the Indians have momentum at every turn.

It would be overstepping to say this weekend will decide the division. But I do think it sets up that way. If Cleveland goes 7-3 or better on this upcoming 10-game homestand, they will not be trading Trevor Bauer or Brad Hand.

Even if they just went .500, which seems disastrous considering they have seven games with the Tigers and Royals, I’m not sure it makes sense to trade Bauer, though they will certainly entertain the idea all the way until the July 31 trade deadline.

Still, pitfalls and questions remain. There is just so much volatility still.

After an easy schedule up to the July 31 trade deadline, the Indians will have a stretch of hosting Texas — then visit Minnesota and New York sandwiched around a home series with Boston in the first half of August. Cleveland closes out 2019 against the Phillies (47-43), White Sox (42-44) and Nationals (47-42), while the Twins get those same hapless Tigers and Royals.

One almost has to expect Mercado and pitcher Zach Plesac to continue to cool off some. I’ll even throw in Santana for that matter, as his current pace is MVP-worthy.

The offense in general has come to life, but I still have my reservations. Though consider, these stats when it comes to the Tribe offense: If they score first in a game, they are 34-9. If they outhit the other team? They are 37-4. And when they score four-plus runs, the Tribe is 39-9.

But the series like the one in Baltimore a few weeks ago highlights the inconsistency this team has displayed all season. That will still make it really difficult to erase the five-plus games in the standings.

All of this has a great chance to be enjoyable, however. Last year’s team, despite winning 91 games, wasn’t that fun if we’re being honest. They were never once threatened, and we were told by sleepwalking players for six months they would turn on the switch in October.

Instead, they were outscored 21-6 in a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series against Houston. There was nothing to take away from 2018, and they moved on from several big-name veterans as a result.

For just the third time in 20 years, Cleveland seemingly should be in position for a true pennant race in late September. Other than the wild card chase in 2013, one has to go back to 2005 and 2000 to find Cleveland teams that had to win games in the final week of the regular season to reach the postseason.

This is all new territory for the Indians as the hunter — and the Twins as the hunted.

But past postseason disappointments aside, if they come back from 11.5 games in the division and make the postseason — this will be extremely impressive. It means more moving forward than looking to the past three seasons. It would not be another ‘choke’ if this team reaches the postseason and fails to end the 71-year World Series drought.

There are already plenty of things to take from 2019 moving forward. Experience from a riveting pennant race will be one of them.

Prediction: 92-70, AL Wild Card Game.

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