A Quest Called Tribe: Indians have high hopes for ending World Series drought
- It's now 68 years and counting since Cleveland's last title after the team blew a 3–1 series lead to the Cubs in the 2016 Fall Classic, but the Indians are ready to put last year's loss behind them.
A version of this story appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.
Game 7 of last year's World Series extinguished baseball's longest active championship drought and—cruelly, given the Indians' 3–1 series lead and all—added another year to its successor's. Cleveland now stands at 68 straight titleless seasons, the fifth-longest stretch since the World Series began in 1903.
What were those first few days like after Game 7? "I stayed up late some nights replaying what happened," says reliever Andrew Miller. "You can't avoid seeing the Cubs' championship gear everywhere. It makes you a little sick." Says star shortstop Francisco Lindor, "I wasn't sleeping very well. I didn't watch TV for like a week and a half." Manager Terry Francona: "I had my hip replaced a few days after, so there were probably four or five days where I was on the pain meds and thought we won. I was waiting for the parade."
Yet as wrenching as that series was, as much as it churned through the Indians' pitching staff, as close as Cleveland had come to the champagne bath without tasting it—the team has by all appearances emerged from its defeat eager, upbeat and stronger.
Much of that flows from the manager. In 2013, when his team lost the wild-card game after closing the regular season with 10 straight wins, Francona was devastated. He couldn't believe how quickly it had ended. But in '16? "I didn't have huge disappointment," he says. "I think pride won out for me." He told his team as much after the final out.
Francona couldn't help but be proud of all the Indians had overcome in winning the pennant. Outfielder Michael Brantley, one of the team's best hitters, went down in May; catcher Yan Gomes in July. More important, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, two of the team's three best starters, were lost to injury in September, too late for the organization to find veteran replacements. As the team moved through the playoffs, Francona was essentially working with a three-man rotation. He tasked his bullpen with ever-increasing responsibilities, and it thrived: Over 64 2/3 innings, Cleveland relievers allowed just 18 runs and a .212 batting average against.
For Miller, who threw 19 1/3 of those innings, it was easier than pitching in the dog days of August. "The adrenaline in those games, it was a blast," he says. "I wanted to pitch in every single one, and, fortunately, it pretty much worked out that way." The lefty does not think he'll have a similar workload this regular season: "I get a paycheck twice a month from the Indians, and it's pretty darn good—they could ask me to work in the I.T. department, and I would. But I don't think that type of bullpen usage is realistic over a long season."
Cleveland went into the off-season with first baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder-would-be-folk-hero Rajai Davis on expiring contracts. With Gomes, Brantley, Carrasco and Salazar returning—and given the 2016 breakouts of outfielder Tyler Naquin and infielder José Ramírez—the team would have been excused for standing pat in free agency.
Instead general manager Mike Chernoff signed designated hitter Edwin Encarnación, the former Blue Jay who has hit the second-most home runs (193) since 2012. "We don't usually play on top-of-the-market guys," says Chernoff. "But with Edwin, we saw there was a possibility of a match if we stepped up. He felt it was right." His three-year, $60 million contract is the largest the Indians have ever given out.
Even if his play declines a little at age 34, Encarnación's acquisition gives Francona a lineup without a hole, which is one way to support what might be the league's best starting rotation. Miller and closer Cody Allen anchor a top-five bullpen. Lindor, who only turned 23 in November, looks like a perennial MVP candidate.
"We were saying, 'This is awesome. This is unbelievable,'" Allen says of the Encarnación signing. "I know it sounds weird to say that the off-season after you lost Game 7 of the World Series was a really exciting off-season, but it was."
That's more or less the theme this spring in Cleveland. Most everyone on this largely homegrown club lived through 2015, when the Indians were a fashionable preseason World Series pick (ahem) and missed the playoffs. They're wary of repeating it. But they're quietly confident and deservedly peppy.
"Every part of my body is telling me I want to go back," Lindor says. "I'm ready to go battle."
With the Cubs (108 years) off the hook, here are the five teams that have now gone the longest without winning the World Series:
1. Indians, 68 seasons
In 2016 the Cavaliers broke the citywide drought that dated to 1964 by coming from 3–1 down and beating the Warriors in the NBA Finals; the drained Indians, on the other hand, wound up on the opposite side of a 3–1 series comeback. But the Indians have an excellent chance this year at joining their No. 1 fan with a title of their own.
2. Rangers, 56 seasons
With five playoff appearances in the last seven seasons (kicked off by two straight pennants in 2010 and '11), you’d think the club could have snagged a title. But with Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish in the rotation and a strong core of veterans in the lineup, like Adrian Beltre, there is enough talent in Texas to win a title in the next couple years.
3. Astros, 55 seasons
I was told they were going to win the championship in 2017.
(tie) 4. Brewers/Nationals/Padres, 48 seasons
“Those were the best days of my life / Oh yeah / Back in the summer of '69,” Canadian pop-rocker Bryan Adams once sang. Well, back then these three teams were in their first season of existence and had zero-year title droughts. Unlike the Royals, who also debuted that year and have two World Series trophies, those three still haven't won a championship.