As Terry Francona shuffled toward the pitching mound during the first inning of Game 3 of the ALCS on Monday night in Toronto, he encountered a sight that would cause most managers to become deeply concerned. “First thing I saw was blood on the rubber,” Francona would say, but in the same aw shucks half chuckle for which he is generally known. “I figured that wasn’t a real good sign that things were going well.”
In fact, great, gory globules dripped from the pitching pinky of Trevor Bauer, who sliced it open on a drone a few evenings earlier, had it stitched up and then, against one of the first few Blue Jays he faced, tore it open again. This was only the latest development in what, in many ways, had become a season of loss for Francona’s Indians. Their best hitter, Michael Brantley, played only 11 games, thanks to a complicated and ultimately unsuccessful recovery from shoulder surgery. In September, even as they were surging to the postseason, they sustained injuries to two of their three best starting pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Now their fourth best starter was hemorrhaging on the mound, in an unusually literal way, thanks to a hobby-related mishap.
At that point, the Indians, without four of its best players and in the midst a 67-year championship drought, might have really believed themselves to have nothing left to lose. In a way, they didn’t. But the club hired a manager who views such a state not with despair, but as synonymous with something else: freedom.
When the Indians hired the former Red Sox manager in October of 2012, after he’d spent a season broadcasting, they did so because he understood and appreciated the progressive approach to baseball that had long ago become ingrained in Cleveland, as he’d shown in leading the Red Sox to their own drought-ending title in 2004 and another in ‘07. That, however, was only half of it. “As an organization, we were very analytically driven at times,” general manager Mike Chernoff explained this summer. “We embraced a lot of different perspectives, but we didn’t have that person who had won two World Series, who had credibility with the players and an understanding of clubhouse dynamics.”
Tito, they believed, was what they were missing, and he has again showed why this month, four years after he was hired. The Indians’ cruel injuries seemed to have pushed their backs against the wall with just one route of escape. Under Francona’s leadership, that only made them more dangerous.
From an analytical perspective, he did the only thing he could do, even though most managers might not have pushed it so far: with no tomorrows promised, he placed the burden that would have been carried by his hurt stars almost entirely on those who remained. In the Indians’ eight playoff games so far, seven of them wins, they’ve received 53% of their innings—37 2/3 of 81—from just three pitchers: starter Corey Kluber and relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. Miller worked at least 1 1/3 innings, and as many as 2 2/3, in each of his six appearances, and entered games in the fifth inning, the sixth, the seventh and the eighth. He also struck out 21 batters and allowed four hits and no runs.
Equally important, though, was the way Francona connected with his players and built credibility with them, as the front office had once envisioned he would—not by pretending that they weren’t shorthanded, and certainly not by panicking about it, but by providing a clear-eyed perspective of what they had left and how they might move forward with it. “When you lose two pitchers like that late, I’m not sure you can move on conventionally and cover that,” he said. “So we’ve tried to not feel sorry for ourselves and figure out, okay… how do we win four games before they do?”
Francona would certainly tell you, however, that by now we’ve heard more than enough about the manager. He did the best he could, but his players were the one who ran away from the heavily favored Red Sox and Blue Jays in quick succession, and it wasn’t only Kluber, Miller and Allen. The pitching staff held two of the league’s most potent offenses to just 15 runs over eight games, and shut them out three times. The soft-tossing Josh Tomlin, remarkably, won two games, allowing three earned runs over 10 2/3 innings. Even more remarkable was what Ryan Merritt did in Wednesday’s ALCS-clinching Game 5. The 24-year-old owner of 11 regular season innings, pressed into duty, worked 4 1/3 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays, allowing two hits. Perhaps Francona provided strategic guidance by which they might succeed, but the players were the ones who did it.
So, too, did Francisco Lindor. Few Indians have hit much so far this postseason—Cleveland scored just 27 runs itself—but the 22-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop playing his first postseason, is one who has. He is batting .323 during the playoffs, and leads the club in virtually every offensive category, including game-winning RBIs: he had them in Game 1 and Game 2 of ALCS.
Lindor seems as if he might become his adopted city’s Derek Jeter, but just four months ago, the average Cleveland police officer still didn’t recognize him. “I work there!” he pleaded with a couple of cops who on June 22 stopped him at a barricade off of Interstate 90, as he pointed at Progressive Field. After further explanation and a few autographs and photos, they let him through. Besides, they had good reason for caution. That was the day of the Cavaliers victory parade in downtown Cleveland and even as that night’s baseball game approached, more than a million celebrants still flooded the streets.
That experience, for a humbled and often tortured city, might have bought the Indians a year or more of cover for their own ringless streak. That wasn’t how the front office viewed it. “There’s some hope and optimism in our market we haven’t had before,” Chernoff said this summer. “We want to capitalize on that.” A few days later, the club sacrificed several top prospects to acquire Miller from the Yankees.
Lindor will never go unrecognized in Cleveland again. Neither will many of the other members—even Merritt—of what has already shaped up to be a special team. “Everybody chips in wherever they’re asked, and they do the best they can,” said Francona after his club had clinched a berth in the World Series, which will start on Tuesday in Cleveland against either the Cubs or Dodgers, both of whom appear far deeper than the Indians. “To this point it’s been good enough.” After 67 seasons without one, they are now just four wins from a parade of their own.