The Indians are returning to the play-offs in 2013 for the first time since 2007 and it almost didn't happen. The Indians guaranteed themselves a spot by finishing a game ahead of the Rays and Rangers, but with just two less wins in any game this year and they wouldn't have made it. Considering the Indians finished the year with eleven walk-off wins, 30 one run wins and a 10-2 record in extra inning games, the Indians were in a very precarious situation indeed. We'll take a look back now to remember just how it all started.
Starting in Spring Training, things were a little weird. Many of the regular players (like Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Vinnie Pestano) played in the World Baseball Classic, so they were absent for a decent amount of the month. With the stars absent, a few players made huge impressions in camp that ended up effecting the season on a very high level. Yan Gomes should have won the back-up catcher spot right out of Spring, but this error was rectified quickly when Lou Marson was run over by a truck. Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn also excelled and surprisingly won spots on the 25 man roster.
The Indians opened up against Toronto, who were heavily favored to win the East after an expensive offseason and a poor turnout by the Red Sox and Rays in 2012. When the Indians started the season off 2-0 against the Blue Jays behind stellar performances by Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, things looked incredible for the Tribe. The biggest mistake of the Indians 2012 offseason then brought things crashing back to reality when Brett Myers gave up seven runs on four home runs in game three. In the end, Myers 2.5 home runs allowed per game were the worst in Indians history by any pitcher who threw in more than one game. Luckily, he also injured his way out of the season early on.
Three of the Indians next four series also came against AL East foes and the Indians went 1-8 in those games, plummeting to last place in the Central. Another loss behind Myers the next day saw the Tribe drop to five games under .500, their low point on the year. This came just before their first big winning stretch of the year when they won 21 out of their next 27 games. This included their first two four game sweeps of the year (out of seven overall) against the Athletics and Mariners. These weren't without their dramatics however, as a bad call taking a home run away from Oakland gave the Indians a win against the A's. The Mariners series was also close, with three of the four games being ended on walk-off hits (two of which were three run home runs).
On May 13th, the Indians surpassed the Tigers and took first for the first time of the year, going from worst to first in just 13 games. Most of the games during this 27 game run took place against late season play-off hopefuls including the Royals, Yankees, Tigers and A's, so it wasn't just the Indians taking advantage of an easy schedule. The Indians also had the fate to face nine former Cy Young award winners in their first 42 games and beat every single one of them. No other team in baseball had ever faced that many Cy Young winners so early in the season and the Indians beat all of them. Their streak was ended on May 22nd, when Justin Verlander beat the Indians, but he had already been included in the nine almost two weeks earlier.
The Tigers series in late May turned things around again, as the Indians went 4-16 in their next 20 games. The Tigers were an issue all year, beating the Tribe in 15 of their 19 match-ups and single handedly costing Cleveland the Central Division title. During this difficult stretch, every team the Indians played was at least a play-off contender and the only series win was a two game sweep of Cincinnati (or a four game split depending on how you look at it). One major issue during this time was that the Tribe bullpen (a huge bonus in the previous two seasons) had was having trouble finding any consistency. For two months they deal with injuries, starting at the end of April with Vinnie Pestano going through the end of June when Chris Perez returned from the DL. Even after his return, once the eighth inning ended it was impossible to know what would happen.
The roller coaster started to go back up when the Indians played another tough team in the Texas Rangers. The Indians won that series and four of the next five as well to get back into first on July 2nd. The Rangers could say the same about the Indians as the Indians can about Detroit. If the Texas had not lost five of their six games with Cleveland they would have won the top Wild Card spot without having to play-in for it.
July held some extremes for the Tribe with them sweeping series against the Royals, Rangers and White Sox, but losing series to the Twins, Mariners and most importantly, the Tigers again. They were quickly pushed out of first place (never to reach that plateau again), but did manage to take over the second Wild Card spot by the end of the month. July ended with an eight game winning streak, but it wasn't meant to last, mostly because the Tigers were coming back to town.
It seemed like all the Indians losing streaks in the past season began with the Tigers and this time, the Indians turned a four game sweep into a six game losing streak, adding a couple losses to the lowly Angels as well. Now, the focus pushed towards the Indians offense that had only scored more than six runs once between July 27th and August 13th. In an effort to mix things up, Mark Reynolds was released during this time and the upstart Ryan Raburn was made a starter. In the end, Raburn had more home runs and RBI than Reynolds, in less games.
The Indians then had time to get a quick winning streak in before they had to play the Tigers again. They won eight of eleven between August 13th and 25th and looked primed to take back the Central Division crown. They were still in second, but a series win against NL leading Atlanta and AL leading Detroit would have set them back on top of the division. The Indians lost the first five of the six games, relegating them to the Wild Card race for the rest of the year. This had jaded and pessimistic Clevelanders talking of collapse and a repeat of 2012, but those were most likely people who only see ten games a year.
With a new goal in mind, the Indians won the next two series, setting them up with the easiest schedule in the league from then on out. The Indians played their last seven series against three last place teams, two second to last place teams and had two series against Kansas City, who was also vying for a Wild Card spot. While the schedule made things look easy, an injury to Masterson would have made the play-offs impossible if it weren't for a young rookie (Danny Salazar) and Ubaldo Jimenez stepping up their game.
During September, Jimenez looked like he did back in 2010 when he almost won the Cy Young for the Rockies. He held a 1.09 ERA for the month, extending a great second half where he had a 1.82 ERA. The Indians won each of his final six starts, but that wasn't enough in itself. The Indians ended up needing to win their final ten games, which they did to get the coveted top Wild Card spot that comes with home field advantage.
Nothing went perfectly for the Indians this year. They dealt with injuries, slumps, bad attitudes and the triple crown Tigers throughout the whole season and still pulled through. When Zach McAllister got hurt Corey Kluber stepped up his game and when Kluber fell to the same injury, the emergence of Salazar saved the team and gave Indians fans something to look forward to for years to come. Cody Allen showed himself as the Indians most dependable reliever, much in the vein of Vinnie Pestano over the past two seasons and in fact, took over for Pestano as the set-up man.
All this struggle and perseverance has prepared the Indians for anything. They know how to play in front and they certainly have shown they will never give up if they fall behind. Eric Wedge used to have a saying, "one through nine, one game at a time," but this team is more like one through twelve. No matter who is on the mound or in the field, you know there will be great pitching and solid defense. All this sets the Indians up well. Not just for a one game play-off this year, but for deep runs in the play-offs for many years to come.