Hiring of Francona, great pitching and deep bench have Tribe in October
CLEVELAND -- The Indians underwent the kind of organizational overhaul last offseason that made it seem like better days were probably ahead. No one could have predicted that those days would be here, right now, given where the franchise stood just one year ago.
Sunday's clinching of the American League's top Wild Card spot brought a celebratory end to the regular season for a Cleveland club that lost 94 games last summer. These Indians lack superstars, but they have also lacked egos, leading to a collective effort that led to 92 victories and the right to host Wednesday's Wild Card Game at Progressive Field.
"The guys we have embody what a team is about," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "Everyone contributed."
The Indians needed all 162 games on the schedule -- and the 21 wins they rattled off in September -- to seal their spot on the October stage on the final day of the season. Powered by a rejuvenated rotation and led by a group of newcomers long in postseason experience, the Tribe pulled off one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in the franchise's storied 113-year history.
Here are 10 reasons for Cleveland's incredible comeback:
Tito Time The hiring of manager Terry Francona last October was the first step in turning the page on last season's second-half tailspin. With Francona in the fold, Cleveland was better able to lure some top free-agent talent (Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn ), and the man affectionately referred to as "Tito" by his players and friends immediately altered the atmosphere in the clubhouse. The Indians instituted a perfect blend of fun off the field and business on it while forming a close bond with their manager in the process.
Righting the rotation Cleveland made sweeping changes to its offense over the winter, but it headed into this season with a plethora of questions surrounding the rotation. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez went from a dynamic bust in 2012 to the envisioned dynamic duo this year, powering the Tribe to a franchise-record for strikeouts as a staff. Masterson made his first All-Star team, Jimenez was one of the league's top pitchers in the second half and the foursome of Scott Kazmir, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and prospect Danny Salazar made the rotation the Tribe's strength.
Walking it off The Indians turned in 51 victories in front of their home fans this season and pulled off 11 walk-off wins along the way. Nine different players delivered the decisive blow, with six such wins coming in extra innings. Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn, Carlos Santana and Jason Giambi each launched walk-off home runs. It was the kind of home-field magic Cleveland fans remember from the great '90s teams of Indians' past.
Witness Kipnis Kipnis enjoyed a breakout season, ending the year as the first Indians second baseman to lead his team outright in RBIs since Joe Gordon did so in 1948, which was the last time the Tribe won the World Series. Kipnis showed off a mix of power (17 home runs) and speed (30 stolen bases) in his first All-Star season, in which he mainly served as his team's No. 3 hitter. In June, the second baseman hoisted an inconsistent offense on his shoulders by hitting .419 and winning the AL's Player of the Month Award.
Rockin' Raburn The Indians signed slugger Mark Reynolds to provide right-handed power, which he did in April, but the infielder's struggles led to his release in August. Fortunately for the Tribe, Raburn came out of nowhere to provide a reliable power bat off the bench. One season after being the butt of jokes for his struggles in Detroit, the utility man launched 16 homers in just 87 games and impressed the Indians enough to earn a two-year contract extension.
The Goon Squad Raburn became a key component within Cleveland's "Goon Squad," which is the nickname Mike Aviles gave the team's versatile bench. The quartet of Raburn, Aviles, Gomes and Giambi provided Cleveland with players capable of filling in and doing damage. Francona's daily lineup usually includes at least one of those four, either due to a favorable matchup or to spell a tired starter. The blessing for Cleveland was that using its bench players did not hinder the offense.
The Yanimal Gomes was acquired in an offseason trade with Toronto that also brought Aviles into the fold, but the young catcher opened the season in Triple-A. An injury to backup catcher Lou Marson paved the way for Gomes to join the Tribe, and the first Brazilian-born player to reach the Majors seized the opportunity. With a powerful bat and a strong arm, Gomes was installed as Cleveland's starting catcher by the second half. Santana has remained in the daily lineup, though more often as a designated hitter or first baseman.
Kazmir's comeback Swisher jokes that Kazmir was playing catch in his backyard a year ago. The lefty was actually pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in Independent ball, hoping for a chance to revive his once-promising career. Cleveland came calling with a Minor League contract, and Kazmir took the job and ran with it, earning a spot in the starting staff with a stellar spring. The southpaw ended the season with 10 wins and 162 strikeouts, giving baseball one of its best comeback tales.
Giambi's leadership Francona has said that the 42-year-old Giambi has "carte blanche" when it comes to calling team meetings. Giambi did so multiple times throughout the year, making sure his teammates kept their focus on the right things during tough stretches. Giambi's leadership behind the scenes was apparent, but the former AL Most Valuable Player Award winner also made an impact in the batter's box. Twice, he became the oldest player in baseball history to launch a walk-off home run, and his miracle shot into the right-field seats on Sept. 24 will forever have a place in Indians lore.
The September surge For only the fourth time since 1960, the Indians turned in at least 21 wins in a single month, and the club needed every last one of them to clinch a Wild Card berth. Jimenez went 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA, Swisher heated up to the tune of seven home runs and 17 RBIs, Masterson overcame an oblique injury to become an unexpected weapon out of the bullpen and Cleveland rattled off 15 wins in its final 17 games. The Tribe also became just the sixth team since 1900 to end a season with at least 10 straight victories. In Game No. 162, Jimenez struck out 13, Swisher belted a homer, Masterson recorded the final out and the Indians enjoyed a wild champagne celebration in Francona's first season at the helm.