TORONTO -- As the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers strive for closure in their prime-time National League showdown, one thing is certain: Whichever team emerges from the matchup will immediately be favored against the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
The NL pennant winner will have more starting pitching depth, a bigger payroll, a hipper fan base, a larger TV market, a sexier lineup and considerably more front-office star power. That’s all competitive fuel for the Indians, who cling to their underdog status with pine tar-like tenacity.
As the Cleveland players and coaches doused each other with cold beverages and filled the clubhouse air with stale cigar smoke Wednesday evening, talk inevitably turned to what comes next in the aftermath of their American League Championship Series victory against Toronto. When it was suggested to second baseman Jason Kipnis that the Indians have more talent than their reputation suggests and all the "gritty gamer" talk is mere sandbagging, he took it as a personal affront. Kipnis turned to pitcher Josh Tomlin and disputed the notion that some Cleveland players might actually be good.
"I’m hitting [.167] in the postseason, and he can’t touch 90 miles an hour," Kipnis said of Tomlin. "I don’t know what talent you’re talking about. We’re grinders. If you want guys who run fast and throw hard and can’t play the game, go find them. We’ve got baseball players on this team. We’ve got 25 guys who compete in between the lines and are having a blast doing it next to each other."
Kipnis paused and laughed at the casual profanities that were slipping into his scouting report.
"We’re dogs---," he said. "But we’re awesome."
After 6½ months of baseball and too many inexplicable scenarios to count, the Indians have reason to believe their season highlight film will have an ending only Bob Uecker is fit to narrate. Through all the plot twists, obstacles and team bonds that have formed since the start of spring training, nothing has happened yet to dent their belief that they’re built to go the distance.
The Indians were picked by most observers to finish behind Kansas City in the American League Central, but they put a vise grip on first place with a 14-game winning streak in late June and never relinquished it.
They were generally perceived as props for the grand finale to the David Ortiz farewell tour in the Division Series, only to outscore Boston 15-7 while holding the Red Sox to a .214 team batting average in a three-game sweep.
The Indians had "roadkill" written all over them against a Toronto team with an intimidating lineup and a sense of urgency stemming from the pending free agency of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They held the Blue Jays to a .201 batting average and eight runs -- five of them in Game 4, Toronto’s only win in the series.
The Tribe won one ALCS game when starter Trevor Bauer's drone-damaged finger began spewing blood like something out of a slasher movie, and another behind an inspirational performance from rookie left-hander Ryan Merritt, who was such an unknown quantity the Blue Jays had to scramble to find videotape of him in action. The always opinionated Bautista caused a stir when he said Merritt would be "shaking in his boots" before a sellout crowd at Rogers Centre, only to discover that Merritt lacked a key ingredient for that to happen: a pulse.
"He’s unflappable," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "He’s the unflappable Ryan Merritt. He probably didn’t even know their names."
Before the Indians look ahead to their next opponent, it’s instructive to reflect upon the obstacles that steeled them for the rigors of the postseason. The first came in May, when outfielder Michael Brantley, Cleveland’s best all-around player, went down with a shoulder injury that would limit him to a total of 11 games and 39 at-bats all season.
Callaway and manager Terry Francona both point to Cleveland’s 2-1, 19-inning victory against Toronto at Rogers Centre on July 1 as a watershed moment in the season, because it was such a classic case of a team effort. Others cite a 1-0 victory against Detroit on Sept. 17, when Carlos Carrasco suffered a fractured finger on his pitching hand on an Ian Kinsler comebacker leading off the game and eight relievers combined to throw shutout ball over 10 innings.
"When we won that game, it was like, 'We can win any game,'" closer Cody Allen said.
The Indians lost catcher Yan Gomes to shoulder and hand injuries, and watched Carrasco and Danny Salazar both land on the disabled list in September, when it was too late for the front office to go out and find a replacement. When Francona started Corey Kluber on short rest in Game 4 of the ALCS, he admitted the call was easy: The Indians were going to need Kluber to come back again in Game 7 on short rest, because he was the only warm body available.
"I think a healthy dose of adversity is good for anyone, whether you’re a baseball player or not," Allen said. "We have some high-character guys on this team who said, 'Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. It’s bad luck, but we still have a chance to do something special.' Guys like Mike Napoli and Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller just grabbed everybody and said, 'We’re going in this direction. Everybody’s coming.' And this is the finished product of it."
"We're dogs---. But we're awesome." Jason Kipnis
Though Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall have first-round-draft-pick pedigrees and Kipnis was a second-rounder, most players on the Cleveland roster took more arduous routes to this moment. Tomlin was a 19th-round pick, Allen was drafted in Round 23, and Miller is pitching for his fifth team at age 31. Napoli and Rajai Davis signed modest one-year deals last winter because the Indians rarely spend big on free agents. And by acclamation, the unsung hero of Cleveland’s postseason is catcher Roberto Perez, who has done a flawless job handling the staff and provided numerous big hits. Perez closed with a rush to hit .183 during the regular season.
The postseason game that best symbolized Cleveland’s collective grinder mindset was ALCS Game 3, when Bauer tried to pitch through a drone-damaged right pinkie finger that made Curt Schilling's bloody sock look like a paper cut. After Bauer left the mound against his will in the first inning, Dan Otero, Jeff Manship, Zach McAllister and Bryan Shaw methodically came on and did their jobs to pave the way for Allen and Miller at the back end.
If Cleveland’s bullpen shock troops seemed oblivious to the pressure and the stakes, it’s because they’ve grown accustomed to life as baseball foot soldiers. Once you’ve been traded, released or sweated through a spring training cutdown to win a job, what’s the worst that can happen to you?
"This is a lot easier than some of the stuff a lot of them have gone through," Callaway said. "They’re kind of built to handle this situation. They went through it and didn’t even wince at a bad call or a miscue. They were amazing. They didn’t panic when they got behind. They just continued to make pitches."
Now that the Blue Jays are history, the Indians are ready to treat Cleveland to its first World Series since 1997. Progressive Field was known as Jacobs Field in those days. Jim Thome, David Justice, Matt Williams and Manny Ramirez combined for 131 home runs in the middle of the order, and the Indians drew 3.4 million fans on their way to a division title. Cleveland was the crown jewel of the American League.
The current incarnation of the Indians ranked 23rd in the majors in payroll and the 28th attendance with 1.5 million fans. But there’s something to be said for peaking at the right time.
"I don’t want people to be on our side," Kipnis said. "I like the underdog role. We’re good at playing that role, because we can just go out and play the game.
"No one picked us in the last two series, and I’ve got news for you: No one is picking up in the next series, either. If it means we’re going to win again, none of us care."
At this point in their journey, the Indians wouldn’t have it any other way.