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Indians' secret weapon? It's their manager

@MikeLupica
August 13, 2019

The Indians went into first place in the American League Central by themselves on Monday night, beating the Red Sox when Carlos Santana hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. The Indians were 26-26 in the last week of May. They were 11 1/2 games behind

The Indians went into first place in the American League Central by themselves on Monday night, beating the Red Sox when Carlos Santana hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. The Indians were 26-26 in the last week of May. They were 11 1/2 games behind the Twins the first week of June. Since June 4, their record is 43-17, the best in baseball. It means here come the Fighting Franconas again. You can never talk about the Indians doing something great without talking about one of the great baseball managers of all time.

Oh, yeah. Terry Francona is absolutely one of the best of all time. It started in 2004 in Boston, when his Red Sox were down 0-3 to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and never lost another game that season, winning four in a row against the Yankees and then four in a row against the Cardinals in the World Series, making history and changing history in Boston and New York at the same time.

Here are the managers Francona was up against that October: Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa. All three of them had already won the World Series. Torre and La Russa are in the Hall of Fame already. Sciosia might be there someday. Francona probably will be. In 2007, his Red Sox won another World Series. They were down 1-3 to the team he now manages, the Indians, in the ALCS. The Red Sox won their last seven games.

When Francona’s Indians were ahead 3-1 on the Cubs in the 2016, his lifetime record as a manager in the World Series was 11-1, before the Cubs came back on him the way the Red Sox had come back on the Yankees and the Indians in ’04 and ’07. Even then, it took the Cubs 10 innings in Game 7 to finally put the Indians away. Bruce Bochy, who is retiring this year, has managed more World Series than Francona, and won one more. Bochy is one of the all-time greats as well. But nobody is better at this kind of work than Francona, doing it this year with the 19th biggest payroll in the sport, the Indians spending $100 million less on baseball players this season than the Red Sox team they beat on Monday night at Progressive Field.

After the Indians had taken over first place in the AL Central alone for the first time since April, I asked Buck Showalter, another master of the game who went up against Francona for nearly two decades, why Francona is so great at what he does.

Interestingly, Showalter began by talking about the 2011 season, the one that got Francona dismissed in Boston after the Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in the AL East in September. It was Buck’s Orioles that eliminated Boston on the last day of that regular season.

“This will be a long answer,” Showalter said. “Obviously [Francona] may go down as the greatest manager in Red Sox history. But I believe that us eliminating them on the last day in 2011 actually changed his life for the better. Because after that it let everybody see how purely great he really is.

“He loves the game, runs a great clubhouse, constantly has great coaches. He has no ego, and doesn’t have to be the focal point of every discussion about the game. Never caught with his pants down. He’s always ready for what I call, ‘What if this happens?’ when some of today’s scripted managers aren’t. God, I miss managing against guys like him.”

Showalter wasn’t done.

“He sees the game developing,” said Showalter. “It means he always sees what he’s supposed to see: A jelly leg on a pick-off attempt. A hesitation by the third-base coach on a hot sign given. A catcher cheating on a pitch. A hitter returning a sign to the third-base coach on a squeeze. Things like that.

“He always surrounds himself with support players that fit his needs. He always has the pieces that fit for the long haul. Always has the right mix of left- and right-handed hitters and pitchers. And maybe best of all? He knows who his players are and who they’re not.”

Francona has a terrific front office, of course, with Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff. He has Santana and a baseball wonder named Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. The Indians surprised pretty much everybody at the July 31 Trade Deadline, giving away pitching and getting hitting back with the Trevor Bauer-for-Yasiel Puig deal. Puig wasn’t in the lineup Monday as he began serving a three-game suspension for his part in a brawl between the Reds and Pirates right before the Deadline. But he has hit .357 since coming to Cleveland.

“Our guys do a good job of staying in the moment,” Francona said the other day. “We talk about it so much that I think it’s kind of ingrained.”

Now he tries to end 71 years of waiting for a World Series championship the way he ended 86 years of waiting in Boston once. For most of the season, it looked as if the Dodgers and Astros and Yankees had separated themselves from the rest of the field, even when the Twins were leading the Central by a lot. That’s changed, the way the top of the AL Central has changed.

Bill Russell once said this about his Oakland friend Joe Morgan: “Isn’t it interesting how good teams seem to follow him around?” Same with Francona. His Indians have been the best team for the last two months. They’ve got stars in Cleveland, starting with Lindor. The manager is one, too.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.