Two weeks ago, when the Great Game’s postseason was getting underway, experts from both old school and new were in agreement that while Cleveland may have persevered to win the AL Central Division title, the club had little chance of advancing far in the playoffs. The common opinion did not reflect any bias against the metropolis on the southern shore of Lake Erie, nor a silly belief in the sports curse that supposedly kept championship parades away from Cleveland’s downtown streets from 1964 until the Cavaliers outmuscled the Warriors in last spring’s NBA Finals. Rather the consensus stemmed from the hard reality that the franchise lost forty percent of its starting rotation shortly before the regular season ended. Carlos Carrasco suffered a fractured hand from an ill-placed line drive off the bat of Detroit’s Ian Kinsler in mid-September, less than a week after Danny Salazar was sidelined with an elbow strain.
As the season ended the daily run of 50,000 computer simulations at FiveThirtyEight.com produced a Cleveland triumph in the World Series just six percent of the time, lowest of any division winner. Those less attuned to advanced metrics and the wonders of modern technology reached the same conclusion on the basis of the old wisdom that pitching is key in the postseason. How could a team without two of its starters hope to play on deep into October?
So much for expert insight. The 112th edition of Major League Baseball’s championship series begins next Tuesday night, and the one thing we now know is that it will do so at Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland. While they watch the Dodgers and Cubs fight each other for the right to occupy the visitors’ dugout that evening, the members of the home team for Game One of the World Series can reflect on their unlikely dominance so far in this postseason. The team that was supposed to be headed for an early exit has played eight playoff games and won all but one.
The Boston Red Sox, with a fearsome offense and two ace starters in Rick Porcello and David Price, were the American League favorites. The Sox had surged to the front of the AL East on the strength of an eleven game winning streak against division rivals in the middle weeks of September. But the pundits focused on that run and the daily tributes to the retiring David Ortiz, ignoring the fact that the Red Sox closed by dropping five of their last six regular season games. The wobbly finish cost Boston home field for the first two games of the Division Series against Cleveland.
That warning sign should have been heeded, because when the series began Boston did not spring back to its earlier form. Porcello and Price, who together cashed just over $50 million of owner John Henry’s paychecks this year, were postseason busts. In Game One the former allowed three homers and five earned runs in four and a third innings, while the latter surrendered an equal number of earned runs while recording just ten outs in Game Two.
Meanwhile Cleveland manager Terry Francona, handed a depleted starting rotation, got creative with his bullpen. In the first game he went to Andrew Miller, normally the setup man or closer, in just the 5th inning. Miller, who came over from the Yankees at the trade deadline, shut down the vaunted Boston lineup for two crucial innings. By the time the series got to Fenway Park the favored Red Sox were in a two-game hole. When Cleveland broke a scoreless Game Three tie with a pair of runs in the top of the 4th, and Miller came trotting in from the bullpen in the 6th, it was time for one last sing-along of “Sweet Caroline” on Yawkey Way.
If Boston was a disappointment then surely Toronto, with its homer-happy lineup of sluggers, would put an end to Cleveland’s postseason hopes in the ALCS. At least that was the thinking until the Blue Jays bats went dead. Toronto managed seven hits against three Cleveland pitchers in the first contest, but only Edward Encarnacion’s double went for extra bases. Against that power outage Francisco Lindor’s two-run homer in the 6th was enough to give Cleveland the victory. One night later the margin was just 2-1 when Miller came on to protect the home team’s lead in the 7th. He struck out five of the six batters he faced with a devastating slider before handing off to closer Cody Allen as Cleveland moved two games in front.
The fates appeared to align in Toronto’s favor at the start of Game Three. Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer, already pushed back a day after slicing open the pinkie of his throwing hand, recorded just two outs in the 1st inning before the wound reopened and a steady trickle of blood began dripping onto the pitcher’s mound. This time Francona went deep into his bullpen, using six different relievers. Collectively they allowed two runs on seven hits over eight and a third, while walking just one and striking out eight, as Cleveland won 4-2, stealing a game that appeared set up to allow the Blue Jays back in the series. It was the first time in postseason play that a team won with five different pitchers recording at least four outs.
Toronto’s offense finally got untracked against Corey Kluber, who was pitching on short rest in Game Four. But fans of the Great Game know the history of teams that fall behind three games to none in a seven game series. The Blue Jays win was just a tease. One night later rookie Ryan Merritt, making just his second big league start, shut down Toronto’s lineup for four and a third. That was all Francona needed before turning to his trusty bullpen.
So Cleveland returns to the World Series for the first time since 1997, and in the Forest City hopes are high that for the first time since 1948 a championship awaits. The computer simulations at are kinder now. As this is written Cleveland is given a forty-one percent chance of winning, better than either Chicago or Los Angeles. That will probably change once the NLCS has been decided, and Cleveland will likely start the World Series as the underdog.
But on the same night that Game One is scheduled, just across the street in Quicken Loans Arena the Cavaliers will raise their championship banner as the new NBA season begins. Everyone remembers the Cavaliers, the team that had no chance against the Golden State Warriors. A city that for decades stood as the symbol of sports frustration is suddenly finding itself in a new and very different role. It’s a good time to be a sports fan in Cleveland. Although there is still that pesky matter of the 0-6 Browns. Oh well, there’s no sense in getting greedy.