Wednesday, 8 November 2017
Roy Halladay was the first pitcher that ever caused me to make a funny sound whilst watching baseball. This strange noise escaped my mouth, like a whistle through my teeth, and it was a noise I had never made before and haven't made since.
It was June 2008 and I was enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon at home. I was channel hopping to find something decent to watch and came across the Orioles on the road in Toronto. I was relatively new to the game still, having only taken a serious interest in baseball in late 2007.
I had never watched either team before and was only vaguely aware of the ace pitcher known as ‘Doc’ Halladay. I had read about him in a couple of books but I quickly found those pages would not do justice to the man, nor his ability on the mound.
Roy Halladay was the first pitcher who changed my perception on pitching. Before I saw Roy, I was basically a baseball neanderthal. I thought the game was all about the hitters, all about those home runs. Everything else was secondary.
The Indians in 2008 were not very good. It was weird, because they should have been. Their rotation was pretty bad but they still had Cliff Lee, who won the AL Cy Young that season, but I hadn't really discovered him yet either.
And so it was Roy who got to me first.
Straight away in the first inning I could tell that he was on a different level to most major league pitchers. Brian Roberts, the Orioles' second baseman, stepped into the box to kick things off and Halladay went to work immediately. Roberts quickly found himself over-matched and with the count at 1-2, Halladay cocked back and fired a strike past Roberts to catch him looking. One out, please take a seat Brian.
The game was only five pitches old and I was already captivated. This right-handed pitcher wearing number 32 was in complete control, a master of his craft. Even a rookie like me in 2008 could see that. At this stage of my baseball education I was well aware of fastballs and curveballs. But I had never seen a cutter like Halladay’s, never seen a ball thrown so violently with such precision. Watching Halladay helped me appreciate the finer art of pitching, and from that point onward I wanted to learn as much as I could about the subtleties and skills of pitchers.
The rest of the game was actually pretty standard, unremarkable even. Halladay picked up the win, despite giving up 2 home runs, and lasted 7.2 innings whilst striking out 7 Orioles. It doesn’t rank as one of his finest performances and probably doesn’t even register in most fan’s memories. It shared few similarities to his epic 2010 perfect game in Florida and was nothing close to his unbelievable post-season no-hitter against the Reds that same year. Do yourself a favour and YouTube those games.
But that Sunday afternoon performance against Baltimore definitely registered with me. In the back of my head I knew I had seen someone special, one of the greatest players of his generation. Halladay really stood out to me and I never forgot that moment. I won’t lie to you - I didn’t suddenly spend every day following Halladay’s performances. In fact I probably only watched a handful of his starts over the following years up until his retirement, so I was hardly his biggest fan. Toronto and Philadelphia fans will have much stronger feelings and memories than I do.
However with the news of his passing, this memory came back to me and I wanted to share it. Because without Roy and without that game in June 2008, I’m not sure if I would have remained a baseball fan.
So thank you Roy. You’ve left us far too soon and will be sorely missed.
Thursday, 12 October 2017
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.
Thursday, 5 October 2017
First of all they must get past the vaunted Bronx Bombers, a team I saw in person this season during my time in New York. I said previously that the Indians are considered favorites but in truth the gap between the two sides is very close. The Yankees are arguably ahead of schedule; no one really expected them to be here in 2017, not yet anyway. Thanks to Aaron Judge's monstrous rookie season, and some fine pitching and hitting from his teammates, the New York side have somewhat crashed the party and won't hesitate to throw everything they have at an Indians team with loftier ambitions than this time last year.
When Cleveland took on Boston in the 2016 ALDS, I just wanted them to give a good account of themselves, to push the Red Sox to a game 5 and see if they could ride their luck into the ALCS. The fact that the Tribe went on to sweep Boston out of the series was something I never even dreamed of. In 2017 the expectations are much higher and progress past Aaron Judge and his merry men is expected, perhaps even demanded.
Game 1 starts tonight and Terry Francona has made the surprising choice to start Trevor Bauer on the mound and not Corey Kluber. Bauer did beat the Yankees twice in August though, holding them to just a single run in each match-up: 7 innings at Progressive Field on August 4th, then 6 innings at Yankee Stadium on August 30th. But despite his recent success the majority of fans would have expected Kluber to get the nod for the opener. However Francona clearly trusts Bauer, and his bullpen, to get the job done and save Kluber for game 2. It gives the ace a full 5 days of rest ahead of his start and ensures he could feature in a pivotal game 5 if necessary. And with a bullpen that includes the likes of Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger and Andrew Miller, why wouldn't you be confident? Francona made excellent use of Miller last October and earned many plaudits for it. Now he has even more talent at his disposal and knows full well that to be successful in the playoffs, the guy who starts the game doesn't necessarily have to finish it.
Game 3 would likely see Carlos Carrasco make his first ever postseason appearance, after cruelly being left on the sidelines in 2016 thanks to injury. Every Tribe fan is excited to see Carlos on the big stage and combined with Kluber, that's a two-headed fire-breathing pitching dragon that opposition teams will not want to face. Josh Tomlin is available to pitch game 4 if called upon.
The Yankees send Sonny Gray to the mound tonight, a pitcher I've always admired. Backed by that powerful lineup which led the league in total home runs, with 241 of them, Gray will feel confident facing the Tribe. He pitched against Cleveland three times this season, throwing 16.2 innings with a 4.86 ERA, and Tribe hitters batted just .224 against him. A stern test awaits the Indians for sure but nothing they haven't seen, and conquered, before.
The Indians will ultimately be hoping to make quick work of New York, just like they did against Boston in 2016. I feel this series will be closer than last year's ALCS but overall I still expect Cleveland to emerge victorious. Ideally with plenty of rest ahead of the next opponent.
Friday, 15 September 2017
It feels like only yesterday that I was watching the AL Central standings with some sense of anxiety. The Indians have been top of the division for the vast majority of 2017 but I was cautious of the chasing pack nonetheless. When the Tribe were scuffling before the All Star break I, like most fans, was watching for the results of the Twins and Royals every night, just to see if Cleveland could extend their lead just a little bit more. At the end of July they had a slim two-game lead over Kansas City and things were looking good, but nothing was certain.
Then August happened. Then "The Streak" happened.
If you're reading this then you're surely aware that this Indians team just made history. On Tuesday night Corey Kluber pitched a complete game shutout in a 2-0 win against the Tigers, securing the Tribe's 20th straight victory, matching the AL record previously set by the A's in 2002. The following night they beat the Tigers again, 5-3 this time, to set a new AL record of 21 consecutive wins. Then on Thursday they went and sealed the deal, walking off against the Royals 3-2 thanks to a Jay Bruce 10th inning double. That was win number 22, giving the Tribe sole possession of the longest winning streak in Major League history, surpassing the Cubs's tally of 21 set in 1935. It clinched the Indians' trip to the playoffs as well, so there'll be no more looking over our shoulder at the Twins and Royals anymore.
Let's take a quick look at some of the key factors during this epic run:
Francisco Lindor's Emerging Leadership
The All Star with the best grin in baseball has been nothing short of spectacular in recent weeks. He has truly developed as a leader both on and off the field in 2017, stepping up in big moments and always quick to remind people that he's not alone out there.
This was no more evident than Thursday night's nail biter against the Royals. With the streak at 21 games and Kansas City leading 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, up stepped Lindor. With two strikes and two outs and the Tribe's historic run perilously close to ending, Lindor hit a line drive to the left field wall that just missed the outstretched glove of Alex Gordon. Erik Gonzalez had the presence of mind to take off once Lindor connected and he scored from first base to tie the game 2-2 and keep the streak alive. Cue absolute scenes in Cleveland.
In the last three weeks Lindor has slashed .360/.427/.767 with 9 homers and 20 RBIs. His overall numbers for the season have seen a healthy boost as a result: his 30 home runs lead the majors for all shortstops and his.842 OPS is good enough for third among shortstops as well. He is only behind the Rangers' Elvis Andrus in RBIs (79), doubles (38), hits (164) and runs (87).
Overall he's put in another incredible season and the Indians rely on his consistency. Thankfully for Indians fans he's hit his stride at just the right time.
Jose Ramirez Is A Legitimate MVP Contender
As far as the national media are concerned, Jose Ramirez has had a breakout season. I'm not inclined to argue with that but I would like to point out that Indians fans have known for some time now what a special player he is. It's only this year that everyone else is paying attention.
Ramirez has been the catalyst behind everything good in Cleveland this season, especially during the streak. He has slashed .423/.474/944 with 8 home runs and 11 doubles over the course of the Indians' consecutive winning run. His overall numbers are ridiculous: a .314/.368/.573 batting line for a .941 OPS, with 26 home runs, 73 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. Ramirez's 50 doubles lead the majors and he has just 64 strikeouts in 541 at-bats! There isn't another third baseman like him in the American League and he rivals the very best in the NL, guys like Nolan Arenado, Justin Turner and Kris Bryant.
He's put himself in a prime position to be considered for the AL MVP and it is definitely justified. His name is being floated around with the likes of Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. Altuve recently admitted, “Ramirez is a complete player... He’s an MVP-caliber player.’’ His all-around abilities have catapulted him into the limelight and it hasn't fazed Ramirez one bit. Jonah Keri just called him one of the most exciting players in baseball and now every baseball fan knows it.
Cleveland's rotation have been considered the strongest element of their team in recent years and that was largely down to the excellence of Corey Kluber. Nowadays he has support and the entire rotation have been unstoppable, as have the excellent bullpen. You could certainly argue that the entire pitching staff have been the most important factor towards the Tribe's success in 2017.
Kluber (16-4, 2.44 ERA), Carlos Carrasco (15-6, 3.41 ERA), Trevor Bauer (16-8, 4.33 ERA), Mike Clevinger (10-5, 3.21 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (9-9, 5.04 ERA) have all combined to form the most dominant rotation in the majors, and certainly the most effective. Kluber in particular has put together another award-worthy campaign: 243 strikeouts in 184.2 innings of work, restricting opposition hitters to a measly .191 batting average. Boston's Chris Sale is probably still considered by many to be the front-runner for the AL Cy Young but Kluber will undoubtedly push him all the way.
Over the course of this streak Kluber and Carrasco have combined for a miniscule 1.03 ERA and recorded 69 strikeouts between them. They have also granted just 3 walks. That is absolutely insane.
Together with the bullpen, who now have a healthy Andrew Miller back in their ranks, no team will want to face Kluber, Carrasco and co. Altogether they make a seriously scary proposition.