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Imperfect Indians follow Francona's direction

Tribe returns to postseason after incredible September run

We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.

So far, we've covered the AL East champion Boston Red Sox, the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers, the NL East champion Atlanta Braves, the AL West champion Oakland A's, the AL Central champion Detroit Tigers, the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals, and the NL Wild Card winners -- the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.

We continue now with the Cleveland Indians, who nabbed the AL's top Wild Card spot Sunday.

For the Indians, the road to October began in, well, October.

October of last year, that is.

It was the night of Oct. 6, 2012, when word -- and surprise -- began to spread through the industry that the Indians were on the verge of bringing Terry Francona back to Cleveland.

On personal levels, the move made a ton of sense for the man affectionately known as "Tito." After all, his father, the real Tito, had spent some of the best seasons of his 15-year career in Cleveland, with a young Terry in tow. And Terry, in addition to spending some time in an Indians uniform himself, had established fast friendships with Tribe president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti over the years, even serving in an advisory role before his first managerial gig in Philadelphia.

But on a professional level, Francona, a two-time World Series winner with the Red Sox, definitely inherited a challenge. The Indians lost 94 games a season ago, and every concern about the direction of the rotation, the state of the farm system and the frustrations of the fan base was justified.

So for the Indians to get from there to here -- the top Wild Card spot in the American League, on the heels of a 92-win season that saw them finish just one game behind the vaunted Tigers in the AL Central -- is amazing. And much of it is due to the leadership and the fun-loving vibe Francona helped instill.

Of course, the Indians had to do it on the field, too. And they did it despite less-than-stellar seasons from their two biggest offseason acquisitions, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. They did it despite seeing their April MVP, Mark Reynolds, go into the slump to end all slumps, eventually earning his release. They did it despite several notable injuries -- Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister all missed some time -- to a rotation that didn't seem sturdy enough to avoid such blows. They did it despite regression from their two biggest bullpen strengths, Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano. They did it despite not having any superstars or absurd statistical seasons, unless you count Ubaldo Jimenez's remarkable second half.

They did it as a team. That's probably the best that can be said of this strange but satisfying Cleveland club. The Indians' biggest strength might have been their bench, one that Francona employed masterfully, getting the most out of "The Goon Squad" -- Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi and Mike Aviles -- by properly managing their playing time. Gomes delivered so much behind the plate and at the plate that he eventually supplanted Carlos Santana as the everyday catcher, allowing Santana's bat to shine while improving the defense. And improved athleticism in the outfield helped maximize the efforts of the pitching staff.

The Indians were indeed imperfect, especially in the games against the Tigers (they had a 4-15 record against Detroit) that wound up costing them a real shot at a division crown. The 92 wins were due in no small part to the game's best record against sub-.500 teams, and the Tribe took full advantage of a soft September schedule by winning 21 games in the month, including each of the last 10.

Give credit where it's due, though: The Indians came together as a team and enter October on a ridiculous run. They are capable, confident and collected, and they've eked the most out of their ability all year, bringing Cleveland its first October experience since 2007.

That '07 run ended at the hands of Francona's Boston club. This time around, the Indians have Francona on their side. It's made a huge difference this season, and we'll see what kind of a difference it makes in October.

The bats: The Indians had just four regulars -- Santana, Swisher, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley -- post an adjusted OPS above the league average. But they managed to score the fourth-most runs per game in all of baseball. It was a 5.19 average in September, so the Tribe bats enter October on a roll. They'll just need that roll to continue against much more prominent pitching.

The arms: The Tribe's rotation is not spectacular (its 3.94 ERA ranks in the middle of the pack) but is steady, and that's been the biggest difference between 2012 and today. There is upside in the way Jimenez has pitched down the stretch and the pitch-count shackles being removed from promising rookie Danny Salazar and Kluber returning to full strength after a finger injury sidelined him for six weeks. The bullpen is the bigger question, as Perez's struggles have opened the door to a closer-by-committee approach in which Masterson, limited to relief work as a result of the oblique strain, might loom large.

The MVP: Again, no superstars here, so the MVP discussion is fairly wide open. But Kipnis provided a 5.7 WAR that led the team, and he was a one-man show in a scorching June (.419/.517/.699) that carried this club at a time when the season seemed as though it might drift off track. If you want to get truly technical, then give an MVP nod to pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who did a terrific job with the rotation.

The ace: All season, it was Masterson, who was 14-10 with a 3.52 ERA at the time he got hurt on Sept. 2. But Jimenez has been sensational in the second half and especially in September. He posted a 1.09 ERA with a 1.02 WHIP, 51 strikeouts and seven walks over 41 1/3 innings in his last six starts. If the Indians advance, they know who their Game 1 starter in the AL Division Series should be.

The unsung hero: Ryan Raburn's Major League career looked all but over after he posted a .171/.226/.254 slash line in 66 games in his age-31 season with Detroit last year. But the Indians always liked him and took a chance on him in a reserve role. He contributed a .272/.359/.548 line with 16 homers, 55 RBIs and a 2.1 WAR off the bench, earning a contract extension. On the team that resurrected the likes of Scott Kazmir and Giambi, Raburn might have actually mounted the most convincing comeback.

The pressing question: The Indians are the hottest team in baseball. They are also a team that went 36-52 against teams that wound up with winning records, including a 1-6 record against the Boston team they'd face if they advance out of the Wild Card. So, which of those realities is most relevant?

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Jason Giambi, Chris Perez, Michael Bourn, Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Jason Kipnis, Ubaldo Jimenez