Fans at Progressive Field began to file out before the end of last night's winner-takes-all Game 5 of the American League Division Series. In a game of such magnitude, when the stakes are at their highest, it is inconceivable to contemplate leaving before the final out of the ninth inning. But as Game 5 neared it's conclusion Indians fans knew deep down that the well of magic had been exhausted. 2017 was not to be their season after all, thanks to a determined Yankees side that came from behind to take the series.
It's going to take some time for Cleveland to digest what happened and plan for the future. There's going to be a great deal of analysis between now and the Winter Meetings about what went wrong. I'm certainly not the man with all the answers but nevertheless, I'm going to look at a couple of talking points from this disappointing ALDS defeat and the Indians' premature end to their season.
Talking About Terry
History has proven that it's often unwise to question Terry Francona's man-management abilities as he has repeatedly made fools of those who second-guessed his decisions. But we wouldn't be sports fans if we didn't debate and discuss those decisions, always pondering the "what-ifs." For instance, why did Francona commit to Jason Kipnis in center field when Austin Jackson, a veteran of the outfield, was available? Kipnis is a fine player, a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, but a center fielder he is not, despite the epic catch he made in Game 1. This proved to be true when he made a catch in the field last night but didn't have the arm to nail a runner from 180 feet away. Not only did he lack the arm strength, but also the know-how and awareness to restrain himself from such an attempt. Kipnis is a second baseman and, if deemed ready for action, probably should have started at second. That way Jose Ramirez could have gone back to third base and Giovanny Urshela, basically a rookie, wouldn't have been risked in such high-leverage games. Kipnis started all 5 ALDS games in center and after his performances there, most would agree that he doesn't belong, despite his best efforts.
Another interesting case was Francona's decision to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1, which was rewarded with a comprehensive win. However this meant we saw Bauer feature in two games, and Carlos Carrasco in just one. Most casual fans and observers would have argued that it should have been Carrasco given that nod, and not Bauer, but then again you can't argue with the results in Game 1. Carrasco had a superb 2017 and personally I would have preferred to see him given two starts over Bauer, but that is easy to say in hindsight. Perhaps even a combination effort from Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin would have been better suited over a tired Bauer in Game 4, when he couldn't get out of the second inning after the Yankees ran up his pitch count before striking for 4 unearned runs. Perhaps Bauer returning on short rest was the cause for his Game 4 performance and ultimately the Indian's defeat (although those errors didn't help!), so you have to question if that could have been avoided. I am not an MLB manager so forgive my shortsightedness as I expect Francona had ALCS and World Series rotation planning in mind when he made his choices, but I would have opted for Carrasco.
The Walking Wounded
Injuries ravaged this Indians team all season long and they were particularly cruel to the team as October neared. Michael Brantley was never really healthy all season, despite recovering in time to make it onto the postseason roster. Lonnie Chisenhall was a similar case, in and out of the lineup all season long with a myriad of afflictions and received just 7 ALDS plate appearances.
The cruelest blow came to Bradley Zimmer, the rookie who had taken complete control of center field in 2017 and the Indians were really hurt by his absence, hence the Kipnis experiment. And of course Kipnis was injured for large portions of the year also, so perhaps his postseason struggles can be attributed to his late return. Finally, Edwin Encarnacion was felled in Game 2 and had to be helped from the field with a sprained right ankle. He wouldn't return until the decisive Game 5 and even as a DH you could tell he was struggling. The Tribe really could have used their slugger in the elimination games he missed; Encarnacion batted .258 with 38 home runs and 107 RBIs in his first season with the Indians.
The strange thing is the Indians were afflicted by injuries to the rotation in 2016 but this year the pitching staff were left largely unscathed. The biggest issue the group faced was an early back injury that bothered Corey Kluber in the season's first couple of months. In his two ALDS starts, something was clearly off with Kluber and memories of that back injury started to resurface for me. He was still out there on the mound working away, but something wasn't quite right, just like in April and May when he was forced onto the DL.
Did Kluber just under-perform or was it the injury that affected his poor postseason performances? "I don't think I need to get into details about it... I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch." When he says try to pitch, it makes me think something definitely wasn't right. Should he have been more honest and stepped aside to recover? Athletes at such high levels of competition rarely ever want to show weakness and remove themselves from further harm, and historically baseball has been one of the worst examples of this. We won't know for sure until time has allowed the postseason autopsy to be completed but I'd like think that the Indians wouldn't allow their ace to risk causing himself further damage, to himself and the team.
And so history closes it's book on the Cleveland Indians' 2017 season and it's over far too early for Tribe fans. The historic unbeaten streak is undoubtedly the highlight of the season and hopefully Kluber will be awarded another AL Cy Young award. Jose Ramirez's breakthrough campaign captured our hearts and even though this team couldn't ultimately deliver, they're still a lovable bunch and their window to win is far from closed.
Congratulations must go to the Yankees, considered the underdogs before the series began. They fought tooth and nail to stave off elimination and ended up advancing to the ALCS against Houston. The only silver lining to their victory is that I saw them in the flesh this year. It won't make me very popular but I would like to see them go on and win it all now - just to say I saw the team that won the World Series!
There will be much discussion now about where this Indians team is headed and some key decisions to make about their futures; do they retain Carlos Santana? What about Michael Brantley and Bryan Shaw? Could Kipnis be traded? We'll spend the rest of the fall and all of winter debating this. Until then, try and enjoy the rest of the playoffs, even if the Indians are no longer there.
Thanks for reading.