The Indians started the second half of the 2014 season with three straight wins against the Detroit Tigers and even though they were unable to complete the four game sweep, they still won the four game series. This series win moved the Indians from third in the AL Central into second for the first time since June 12th and to just 5.5 games behind the Tigers, the closest they have been since June 24th.
Not that long ago, we talked about how close the Central Division was as the 3.5 games that separated first and last on June 13th was the closest that late in the season in Central Division history, but the situation has vastly changed. On July 19th, the Tigers ended a 9-20 stretch that started with being swept by the Indians and ended with a series loss against the Royals. After that, the Tigers posted a 17-4 record, including a sweep of Cleveland and a series win against Kansas City. In fact, three of the four losses over that span came in one series with Tampa Bay as Detroit used the hot streak to gain 7.5 games on the Twins, essentially removing both them and the White Sox from the race that they never should have been considered contenders in.
Now that the chaff has been removed from the race, it is time to focus on the three true contenders for both the Division crown and one or both Wild Cards. After the Indians series win against the Tigers, the Central Division looks like this:
While the Tigers have played fewer games than the Indians or Royals, both teams are easily within catching distance within the next two months. The Indians did all they could directly, by taking three out of four to start the second half, but they will be able to continue strengthening their position, playing against Central Division teams for their next seven games as well, including four against Kansas City. At the same time, the Tigers will be moving into some inter-league play, going against the recently hot Diamondbacks (who have won three in a row and seven of their last ten).
There is one other part of the play-off picture that shouldn’t be depended on, but deserves some recognition at this point. While the Angels have a 7.5 game lead on the first Wild Card spot, the second is still completely up for grabs and the Indians are even closer to that than they are the Central lead. Of course, in the Wild Card, there is a lot more competition than just two other teams:
In addition to competing against Kansas City, now Seattle, New York, Toronto, Chicago and maybe even Tampa Bay have to be added to the mix. Conveniently enough, the Indians will be playing the M’s as soon as the current Central Division run ends. Cleveland also has series against the Yankees, Orioles (who, barring a slim lead on the AL East would also be in the Wild Card hunt), White Sox and Royals before the end of August. The Indians future is in their own hands as they could take over the Wild Card lead within the next two weeks, just by winning their next three series.
Getting back to the Central, which should be the Indians preferred method of reaching the play-offs, the same is true. In addition to those games against Wild Card contenders listed above, the Tribe will take on the Royals ten more times this season and the Tigers seven more, all in September. While it will take a continued winning percent of at least .520 until then, these September match-ups already look incredibly important. Unlike 2013, when the Indians won just four of 19 matches, Cleveland has been much better matched with the Tigers this year. To this point, the Indians have went 7-5 against Detroit, splitting the first two game series before trading sweeps.
In 2013, the Indians season was on the line when the faced Detroit from August 5th through the 8th. If they split the series, they could have still made up the ground later on while a sweep would have completely made up their four game deficit and tied the division. What couldn’t happen did as the Indians were swept for four games, doubling their deficit in four days and making it impossible to win the Division, despite a ten game winning streak to end the season.
It looks now that the Indians will be getting a chance at redemption. As long as they can keep winning series through the next month, the seven game September showdown will likely decide the division. What the Indians have to do this time, is make sure they don’t need to win the series by that point in order to survive. If they can finish July strong, the Indians could be in first in the Wild Card by August 1st and have a safety net available in case they can’t catch Detroit. If they can play to their full potential in August, they could even catch the Tigers before their end of the season show down. There have been signs of greatness from the Indians this season and now is the time for them to prove that the greatness is not the fluke, but instead just a preview of things to come.