“It’s cool that we’re winning a lot of games in a row,” said Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor after his team’s 18th straight victory, back on Sept. 10, “but we’re not focusing on that.”
“I think maybe this thing gets more carried away with other people, as opposed to us,” manager Terry Francona added. “We just play the game.”
"We haven't talked about it at all,” said ace Corey Kluber after No. 20.
Don’t believe them for a second. Cleveland’s win steak, which was laid to rest Friday at 22 games (in 24 days) old, mattered to the team. Why else would Francona run nearly all of his playoff lineup out there for a Wednesday afternoon game in September against the woeful Tigers, holding a 13-game division lead? Why else did they all tear the jersey off rightfielder Jay Bruce—a Met 37 days ago—after he hit a walk-off double to beat the Royals, who haven’t been a threat in weeks? They cared.
It’s over now. After Thursday’s improbable comeback to secure No. 22—down a run and down to the Indians' last strike in the bottom of the ninth, Lindor doubled to tie it and then Bruce won it an inning later —the sellout, rollicking crowd at Progressive Field on Friday did not sound too concerned about a 4–3 sixth-inning deficit. There was no question the hitters would come back; they had reached base at a .385 clip and slugged .552 since this insanity began with a 13–6 drubbing of the Red Sox on Aug. 24. And the pitchers would surely hold the Royals in place; the staff had combined for a 1.58 ERA and 200 strikeouts over the 199 innings of the streak. (To be clear, those numbers refer to the entire team, stars and scrubs alike. If the Indians win steak were a hitter, it would be Willie Mays. If it were a pitcher, it would be Clayton Kershaw … but 30% better.)
The pitching did hold, but the bats finally went cold. Cleveland left four men on base over the final four innings and never had a better shot than first and second with one out. In that case, in the seventh, centerfielder Austin Jackson grounded into a double play. Lindor, a hero 24 hours before, struck out swinging to end it.
This majority of this team did not need to practice performing under pressure. “Most of these guys have been through the crucible,” said Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations. “But for the other ones, there’s something to creating that environment.”
He’s referring, of course, to the Indians’ sprint through the postseason last year. The team no one picked to do much of anything—the team whose local columnist wrote a eulogy for its playoff hopes on Sept. 17—swept the favored Red Sox, then beat the favored Blue Jays in five, then took the favored Cubs to the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Progressive Field, a decade removed from its 455-game sellout streak, shook back to life as Cleveland fans began to believe again. That team returns 21 players from its 25-man World Series roster. The Indians have the best record in the American League and are threatening the reeling Dodgers for best in baseball. They fully expect to be back in the World Series this year, and most of them know what that will look like. The streak is fun, but they are telling the truth when they say this: It’s beside the point.
But for the kids like 24-year-old outfielder Greg Allen and 21-year-old catcher Francisco Mejia, the streak was worthwhile. There have been many firsts for the prospects called up as rosters expanded on Sept. 1: first major league flight, first major league game, first major league hit. Friday they added another: first major league loss.
“It’s been incredible,” Allen told ESPN Thursday. "I can only imagine what the atmosphere was like last year during the World Series. And hopefully what it will be like this year."
Allen has gotten to experience October in September, a month that often looks more like March. And he got another taste Friday as Lindor trudged back to the dugout. In a scene reminiscent of the moments after Game 7, Indians fans gave their team a nearly two-minute ovation after the final out; the dugout emptied as the players saluted them back.