Tribe clinches playoff berth on walk-off HR

September 23rd, 2020

CLEVELAND -- Just a week ago, José Ramírez’s name may have been on a few people’s radar as a potential American League Most Valuable Player Award candidate. But in just the past seven days, he’s made sure his name is going to be heavily considered, as he launched a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th inning to help the Tribe clinch a 2020 postseason berth.

The second the ball exploded off Ramírez’s bat, Francisco Lindor rounded third base with his fist high above his head, jumping as he made his way toward home. Ramírez waved his hands in the air and the Tribe’s dugout took just seconds to empty and meet him at home plate. The three-run blast lifted the Indians to a 5-3 victory over the White Sox at Progressive Field.

“That was unbelievable,” acting Indians manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ramírez became just the ninth player in MLB history to hit a walk-off homer on the same day his team clinched a playoff spot. It was the ultimate exclamation point to cap a remarkable 11-game stretch in which he’s hit .444 (20-for-45) with eight homers and 18 RBIs. While he’s quietly been putting up good numbers all year long, he’s made sure that his season will not be overlooked.

“He’s definitely going to get some [AL MVP] votes this year,” Lindor said. “Hopefully get some more numbers and get the MVP. So you voters, co-MVP: [Shane] Bieber and Ramírez.”

“He’s probably, I don’t know if you can be underrated as a top-five guy in the league, but if there’s such a thing, he’s underrated,” said Cal Quantrill, who tossed four scoreless frames as the opener to the Tribe’s bullpen day. “His ability to work a count, to hit pitches that are borderline good pitches, being a switch-hitter -- the whole package.”

Now the Tribe can briefly exhale after finally securing its spot in the playoffs. The Indians entered the year expecting to be viewed as the underdogs after the Twins ran away with the AL Central last year, which caused Cleveland to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2015. But little did the Indians know how many more hurdles they would have to overcome.

“It’s not the first time we’re labeled as the underdogs,” Ramírez said through an interpreter. “But as we say in the Dominican, we like to grind. And we need to grind and this is a team that’s really united, and despite the White Sox having a good team, so [do] the Twins, we want to grind and compete.”

First, the team lost bench coach Brad Mills when he returned home to be with his family at the beginning of Summer Camp. Hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo opted out of the season at the start of August, and Cleveland skipper Terry Francona was only able to manage nine games before running into serious health issues that have kept him out of the dugout for all but 15 games this year. So the Tribe has had to patch the holes by shifting around the coaching staff, leaving Alomar to lead the pack.

“It's an honor to have the opportunity to do this,” Alomar said. “I wasn't expecting to do it this year. I was just doing my job and this happened. It's a big responsibility, because you're replacing a Hall of Fame manager. I'm just glad that I have many people that I can lean on and they can help me.”

The pitching staff has been the heartbeat of the club from the second Bieber fanned 14 batters in six scoreless frames on Opening Day. The team was tested in August when starters Zach Plesac and former Tribe player Mike Clevinger broke team protocols in Chicago. The club responded by sending the pair -- two of the best starters in the game -- to the alternate training site in Lake County, causing them to miss three weeks of the season. But in that, the clubhouse came together.

The Indians were able to see what they had in a young Triston McKenzie, which allowed them to feel confident in trading Clevinger to the Padres to acquire Josh Naylor, Quantrill, Austin Hedges and three prospects. Even without Clevinger, the Tribe’s pitching staff has remained a constant throughout a season of peaks and valleys, and now Ramírez is hoping to provide the offensive spark that’s been missing just days before Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series.

Ramírez struggled in the 2017 and ‘18 postseasons. But in a year in which the offense has looked lifeless, he’s kept the pulse going. And he’s ready to prove that he’ll be able to be the guy the team can lean on in high-leverage situations like Tuesday night.

“That wasn't the guy we've seen the last two years,” Alomar said. “That's the guy -- clutch guy -- that we had seen the last couple of years, [who] is coming back to life right now. You just hope that a few other guys start clicking at the right time, because then with the pitching and a few guys getting hot, it becomes a very dangerous team.”