ARLINGTON -- It seemed like avoiding their first losing season since 2012 was a longshot for the Indians as they departed for their last road trip of the year on Tuesday. But the team did its best to make it come down to the wire.
Ultimately, the Indians learned their fate for the 2021 season on Saturday night at Globe Life Field, falling to the Rangers, 7-2. The club needed to win both Saturday and Sunday’s games to finish the year with a .500 record. Instead, the best Cleveland can do is go 80-82, marking the team’s first losing season of the Terry Francona era in Northeast Ohio.
“Everybody’s goal out there is to go out and win the game,” Indians starter Triston McKenzie said. “I feel like we all put a little extra pressure on ourselves to go out there and try to keep streaks alive and set records and stuff like that. But it is what it is, and I feel like the guys went out there and did their job behind me, so I was very happy with it.”
Francona took over as the Indians manager in 2013 and picked up 673 wins through the end of the 2020 season -- the most of any Major League manager in that span. He led his team to the top of the American League Central from 2016-18, while securing the organization’s first AL pennant in 19 years in '16. And of all 30 Major League clubs, just four had winning seasons in each year from 2013 through 2020, including the Indians, Yankees, Dodgers and Cardinals.
When Francona had to step away from the team to address some health concerns on July 29, the Indians were just one game above .500. And from there, the rest of the season was in bench coach DeMarlo Hale’s hands.
“It is what it is,” acting manager Hale said. “And I don’t want to be so bland about it, but I think when we look back at this year, there were some big strides with some players and some consistency with some others. The record is something to kind of push for, but at the end of the day, for me, you’re not in the playoffs, you’re not pushing for a championship. How did [Bill Parcells] say it? You are who you are with your record. That’s how it is.”
Cleveland knew 2021 was going to be a challenge. The club was optimistic that it could toe the line between rebuilding and remaining a playoff contender, especially with Shane Bieber, Sunday's starter Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac in its rotation. And it worked through June 21 -- the day Civale was the last of the three to get placed on the IL -- as the Indians sat 10 games over .500. But after the team lost all three righties for extended periods of time, it became increasingly difficult to stay afloat.
“We lost Civale, we lost Bieber, Plesac for a little bit and that hurt the team a little bit,” Indians designated hitter Franmil Reyes said prior to the game. “Like you guys can see, when they were here how good we were, and we were very close with the other teams. But when they left, that hurt for a little bit.”
Now, the Indians have a brief chance to see their team nearly at full strength, as Bieber, Civale and Plesac all were back in the rotation in the final week of the season. And with a young roster -- one that was the youngest of all 30 clubs on Opening Day -- using this season to gain experience, the organization is confident that this won’t be an extended losing period.
Cleveland believes that with its young core of talent (especially pitching talent), its solid farm system and its expectation to increase the payroll, the 2022 Guardians will be back as a contender in the AL Central, despite how this year comes to a close.
“I mean, it would’ve been nice going into tomorrow saying, 'Let’s get .500,' but that’s not gonna happen,” Hale said. “So, we’re gonna go into tomorrow and say, ‘Let’s win the last game.’"