All in: Surging Tribe eyes next Cleveland title

June 21st, 2016

CLEVELAND -- Next door was the aftermath, the fans snaked around Quicken Loans Arena waiting for their turn to plop down their hard-earned cash for a hard-earned T-shirt bearing the word "Champions." The bid to be the one who broke the so-called curse was a kind of unspoken and painfully slow-moving foot race taking place between this city's three major professional sports teams lo these many decades, and the Cavaliers won that race by winning the NBA Finals on Sunday night.
So the Indians reported to work at Progressive Field on Monday as witnesses like the rest of us.
Indians hope to follow in Cavs' title footsteps
The schedule lined up in such a way that their Thursday off-day last week allowed several players and staff to personally attend Game 6, and their Sunday sweep of the White Sox was an opening act before the raucous post-Game 7 party that was 52 years in the making.
"It's a shame, as a city, we don't win more often," Tribe shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "Because once we win, it's insane how people get behind the team."
Insanity, as they say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, which means there was certainly some degree of insanity instilled in the Cleveland faithful who annually insisted "this is the year."
But as it turns out, 2016 really was the year, thanks to LeBron and the boys, and, insane though it may very well sound, one wonders if some sort of invisible barrier, some cosmic force, some psychological hurdle has been lifted here.
LeBron once took BP before an Indians game
Furthermore, you wonder if these first-place Indians, who are now nine games over .500 after beating the Rays on Monday night, can maintain this sports scene's sudden championship momentum.
"I think [the Cavs' win] just relaxes the atmosphere for the fans," first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. said. "Hopefully we can put ourselves in the same situation that the Cavaliers did."
Alomar's Indians of 1997 were, famously, in the exact same situation the Cavaliers were on Sunday night. Game 7. On the road. A championship -- and a city's psyche -- hanging in the balance.
For the '97 Tribe, Game 7 turned out to be a nightmare of a night, the details neither worth repeating here nor in front of Alomar and the others who have yet to truly get over it all.

"It's just one of those things," Alomar said, "where it doesn't matter if you have a drought or not. You want to win. And you don't know when your next chance is going to come to be there again. You can have the best team but never see the playoffs or the World Series again. That's what drives me."
This current Indians club is currently driven by a series of converging factors -- a rotation that has begun to claim the kind of traction expected of it (the Tribe's 3.30 ERA from its starters this month is the second-best mark in the AL), a seemingly wide-open division, a streak of nine straight wins at home (the Indians have outscored their opponents 56-20 in those games) and, last but perhaps most important, a 21-10 record against AL Central opponents.
It's an admittedly easy thing to say in mid-to-late-June, but this feels like the most legit of the Terry Francona-led Indians clubs. The 2013 model reached the Wild Card round, but it took a ferocious and some would say ridiculous run of 10 straight wins at season's end just to claim that one-and-done invite (and they were, indeed, one and done). The 2014 and '15 editions went a combined 17-31 in April, meaning they were playing an exhausting an ultimately unwinnable game of Wild Card catch-up from the very beginning.
This year's team is different in part because the division is different.
The Royals are the defending champs, certainly, but they are the Royals featuring far more Cheslor Cuthbert than Mike Moustakas, the Royals with a thinned system that likely won't be able to turn an impact trade a la the Ben Zobrist-Johnny Cueto upgrades of a summer ago, the Royals with some real rotation questions. The White Sox were indomitable in April, and nobody's really heard from them since (please contact your local authorities if you have any information on the whereabouts of the April White Sox). The Tigers are still rolling out a fearsome-yet-fragile roster, as evidenced yet again when J.D. Martinez went down last week. The Twins are already also-rans.
None of which to suggest these Indians are a firm favorite. They've got their flaws like the rest of 'em.
For one, it's almost impossible to explain how they entered the week with the sixth-most runs per game in the AL. The sore-shouldered Michael Brantley's played just 11 games this season, and there is nothing to suggest his next 11 will come anytime soon. Catcher Yan Gomes was supposed to be a now-healthy X-factor for the offense, and he's hitting .177. All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis has had a solid but not spectacular year. Same with Carlos Santana (though he is, at least, on pace for his first 30-homer year).
But the Indians get occasional key contributions from guys like Jose Ramirez, who has blossomed as Juan Uribe's Mini Me and been posting rousing RISP results, and, recently, Michael Martinez. Needless to say, neither was taken in your fantasy draft this year.
We can also say with current conviction that, although fans might have freaked out about the Indians "losing out" on Todd Frazier when he went to the Sox, the Indians have gotten good value out of the two guys they signed the day of that swap -- Mike Napoli (15 homers, 49 RBI) and Rajai Davis (.753 OPS, 20 stolen bases) -- without giving up any prospects.
Oh, yes, prospects. The Indians have a few, most prominently outfielders Brad Zimmer and Clint Frazier. It will be fascinating to see if the Indians part with either guy this summer, because the trade market looks to be flush with outfield bats and bullpen arms -- the very things the Indians clearly need.
Anyway, one thing the Indians know for sure is that if they can get to October and advance within it (their starting pitching insists they can), they won't have to feel the weight of a city-wide drought on their shoulders. People will harp on '48 and the long gap between baseball glory, but that somehow feels significantly less significant when it's not parlayed alongside The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot and the like.
"This is a great opportunity for us," Alomar said. "We're in the hunt."
In the sporting world's newest City of Champions, that's all that can be asked.