By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – Standing in a corner of the Guaranteed Rate Field visitors’ clubhouse, Brandon Guyer bit down on his bottom lip and paused for a moment of reflection before glancing back up.
Before becoming the hottest club in baseball, the Indians had to first move past their World Series collapse last fall, when they led the Cubs 3-1 and failed to close out with that one more victory. It left the Indians dwelling – some more so than others – on what could have been different.
What if there was one more big hit in Game 5 or fewer mistake in Game 6? What if we one pitch was different in Game 7? What if it hadn’t rained?
How often have they returned to that stage?
“In the offseason,” Guyer said, “a lot.”
After losing that thrilling seven-game World Series, the Indians struggled with those what-ifs. Losing on any championship stage is gut-wrenching, but losing that one surely was excruciating.
Perhaps the carryover was part of the Indians’ early season scuffles. Like the Cubs, they flirted with the .500 mark into mid-June, sitting at 31-31 on June 14. Also like the Cubs, they’re now a first-place team with high hopes for the fall.
The Indians have now reeled off 12 straight victories entering a tilt with the White Sox in Chicago on Tuesday. They’ve surged forward from their 2016 shortcomings.
“You just worry about what’s happening and what’s in front of you in the present time,” Guyer said. “You can learn stuff from the past, but you don’t really think about it too much. Just keep grinding, keep moving forward.
“Things are kind of clicking right now. Getting big hits where it matters, pitching getting big outs. The whole rotation is getting good starts all the time. It’s just a weird game, man, and right now, we’re on a stretch where everyone is feeling really good and things are going our way.”
The Indians are back to form as an American League power. Led by the stifling arms of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and two of baseball’s brightest young stars in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, this team is indeed clicking as the postseason nears.
Cleveland enters Tuesday with the American League’s second-best record at 81-56, trailing only the Astros. FanGraphs projects Cleveland with a 26.8 percent shot at defending their AL crown and a 15.1 percent chance at ending the new longest championship drought in sports.
This time around, Cleveland is better suited for a run at the World Series. Carrasco and Salazar are healthy after injuries cost them a place in the 2016 postseason rotation. Outfielder Michael Brantley hopes to be ready for playoff contributions after missing out last October. The Indians upgraded with Edwin Encarnacion as their slugging first baseman in the middle of the order. Jay Bruce was brought to the fold as another productive bat for the lineup.
Cleveland’s championship chances will rely on good health, and regaining Brantley (ankle), Jason Kipnis (hamstring) and Andrew Miller (knee) will be important. But the Indians have done just fine without them.
“We have great guys, we have great players,” Ramirez said through a translator. “The changes that we have made have been really great changes for our team.”
Cleveland’s rotation will ultimately be its greatest hope for its first World Series title since 1948. Kluber, Carrasco and Salazar create a tough test in a seven-game series, with Trevor Bauer rounding to form at the right time. Manager Terry Francona has the same loaded bullpen at his disposal, with Miller looming at any key moment and Cody Allen waiting for the ninth inning.
Ramirez is certainly right about the changes making a great difference, but his own transformation has been just as important. This season, Ramirez has emerged as one of the best young players in baseball. His 5.0 WAR is tied for 10th in the gamewith the likes of Bryce Harper.
The 24-year-old Ramirez boasts a slash line of .310/.363/.558, displaying the ability to drive the ball to all fields. With 23 home runs, he has already doubled his career-best mark of 11 from a year ago. With Kipnis sidelined, Ramirez has stepped away from his primary place at third base and worked in at second. He has also played shortstop and left field during his young career.
“You got a premier hitter in the league and he’s playing multiple positions,” Francona said. “The other day, I brought up Ben Zobrist’s name. You always take the guy’s numbers, but when you can take a guy that can move around and be really good defensively, it’s been a blessing for us.”
Added Ramirez of his rise: “You get more experience and you grow more.”
Getting back to the World Series will be a daunting task for the Indians. The Astros have been the AL’s best team all season, and added Justin Verlander last week. The Red Sox are similar to the 2016 Indians, with a young lineup and tough rotation. The wild-card team could pose just about any challenge.
But these Indians are a better bunch from last October. They boast a relentless rotation and a stronger lineup. Their young stars are shining even brighter. It’s a team tested by this postseason stage once before.
The Indians have moved past the disappointment of last fall and proved to be a World Series favorite once again. They hope for a chance at redemption.
“That’s what we all want,” Ramirez said. “We’re staying positive that that’s where we’re going to end up.
“That’s where we expect to be.”