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Through trials, Tribe rides young staff to Oct.

@MandyBell02
September 22, 2020

CLEVELAND -- The Indians arrived in Goodyear, Ariz., in February believing that they were once again being viewed as underdogs in the American League Central after missing the playoffs last season. Shortstop Francisco Lindor noted the last time the Indians flew under the radar was 2016 -- a season that

CLEVELAND -- The Indians arrived in Goodyear, Ariz., in February believing that they were once again being viewed as underdogs in the American League Central after missing the playoffs last season. Shortstop Francisco Lindor noted the last time the Indians flew under the radar was 2016 -- a season that led them to Game 7 of the World Series. Now, they’ll have another chance to make a postseason run.

The Indians clinched a 2020 American League postseason berth on Tuesday with a thrilling 5-3 walk-off victory in the 10th over the White Sox. Although it was a shortened season, the Tribe experienced quite a roller-coaster ride that included a difficult eight-game losing skid in mid-September.

But Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti noted earlier in the month that their 2016 season was also full of ups and downs before reaching the playoffs. So, the club is ready to take that same mindset and will look for a fresh, hot start, beginning on Sept. 29 in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series.

How they were built:

Amateur Draft: RHP Shane Bieber (fourth round, 2016); RHP Aaron Civale (third round, 2016); RHP Cam Hill (17th round, 2014); RHP James Karinchak (ninth round, 2017); RHP Triston McKenzie (Competitive Balance Round A, 2015); RHP Zach Plesac (12th round, 2016); RHP Adam Plutko (11th round, 2013); C Roberto Pérez (33rd round, 2008); SS Francisco Lindor (first round, 2011); OF Tyler Naquin (first round, 2012)

International signings: 3B José Ramírez, INF Yu Chang

Free agents: LHP Oliver Pérez, INF Mike Freeman, 2B Cesar Hernandez

Trades: RHP Carlos Carrasco, LHP Brad Hand, RHP Phil Maton, RHP Cal Quantrill, RHP Nick Wittgren, C Austin Hedges, C Sandy León, 1B Carlos Santana, OF Delino DeShields, OF Jordan Luplow, OF Oscar Mercado, OF Josh Naylor, OF Franmil Reyes

Though the roster has gotten much younger in recent years and very few faces from the 2016 squad remain in the clubhouse, the team is ready to build a new beginning with a strong foundation from the ’16 Draft class. Civale, Bieber and Plesac were all selected just four years ago and will be crucial pieces in the Tribe’s playoff rotation, especially if the team were to advance beyond the three-game Wild Card Series.

Key offseason acquisition: Cesar Hernandez

The Indians had a quiet winter, but one of the few moves they made was signing free-agent second baseman Hernandez to a one-year deal. He began the season in the leadoff spot and was one of the more consistent bats the team had during August, when runs were difficult to come by.

Managerial decision: Trusting a young rotation

This season was expected to bring plenty of new hurdles for managers to overcome, but it would’ve been hard to predict the Indians needing to deal with a situation that involved Plesac and Mike Clevinger being optioned to the team’s alternate training site for breaking team protocols. However, that allowed the Tribe to give the 23-year-old McKenzie -- who hadn’t pitched in a game setting since August 2018 -- a chance at the big league level, and he didn’t disappoint. His debut was so strong that it gave the Indians confidence to keep him in the rotation and to move Clevinger at the Trade Deadline. Aside from the 33-year-old Carrasco, the rest of the Indians’ rotation is 25 years old or younger, and, despite the inexperience, it’s ranked among the best in the Majors.

Defining season stretch: Winning nine of 12 from Aug. 25-Sept. 7

The Indians had not lost eight consecutive games since June 2013, so after winning nine of 12 from Aug. 25-Sept. 7, no one would’ve expected the loss on Sept. 8 to begin an eight-game skid. But even after the tough week and a half when the Indians dropped from the top of the postseason standings to near the bottom, the team still had a comfortable four-game cushion after its eighth straight loss to hold on to a Wild Card spot, thanks to the nine wins in the previous 12 games.

Breakout player: James Karinchak

It’s hard to say that it was unexpected for Karinchak to have such success at the big league level after posting video-game-like numbers in the Minors in 2019, but for a hurler who’s known to often battle command issues, Karinchak far exceeded expectations. The righty posted a 0.54 ERA through his first 15 appearances with six walks and a whopping 31 strikeouts in 16 2/3 frames. At the end of August and into his first September appearance, he experienced his first hiccup, allowing five runs in just 2 1/3 innings over three outings before righting the ship for the Tribe’s crucial mid-September stretch.

Calling card: Starting rotation

It’s been talked about time and time again, but the Indians’ rotation is the sole reason the team was able to be this successful in 2020. The Tribe’s starting staff ranked No. 1 in the AL in ERA, FIP, strikeout percentage, WHIP and fWAR entering Tuesday.

Memorable moment: Bieber’s eight-inning, 14-strikeout shutout

In a season like the one Bieber is having, it’s hard for one of his performances not to take this title. Though he started the year on the strongest possible note, tossing six shutout innings with 14 strikeouts against the Royals on Opening Day, his next outing against the Twins was even more impressive. The 25-year-old proved that he was more than ready to take over as the club’s ace, tossing eight sparkling frames, permitting just three hits and striking out 13.

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.