CLEVELAND — Cleveland Indians reliever Andrew Miller has a flair for novel takes on conventional wisdom. Along with his 21 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings this postseason, he has helped debunk the notion that dominant bullpen arms absolutely have to be saved for the eighth or ninth inning.
So it’s worth paying heed when Miller wonders if the Indians really should be classified as underdogs against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. After playing a pivotal role in helping Cleveland stifle the Boston and Toronto lineups in the American League playoffs, he knows the difference between perception and reality.
“Can we still be underdogs?” Miller asked during the American League Championship Series celebration. “I don’t know.”
Right or wrong, this is the narrative that has accompanied the Indians all the way to their first pennant since 1997. They survived a slew of injuries to outlast Detroit and Kansas City in the AL Central, and they’re at ease with the “gritty, scrappy” moniker even though they won 94 games during the regular season and held the Red Sox and Blue Jays to a .206 batting average and 15 runs in eight games in the AL playoffs.
Feistiness and resilience aren’t the only characteristics that bind the Cleveland players. The Indians had lots of things go wrong this season, but with each new setback or plot twist, they emerged a stronger, better, more unified team. Their most admirable trait is their gift for taking something bad and turning it into something good.
“Even when something goes wrong, it turns into something right,” Indians owner Paul Dolan recently told reporters. “I’ve heard ‘team of destiny’ mentioned a few times. It sure feels like something like that.”
Here are 10 occasions this season when the Indians bonded through adversity, rose to the occasion or found a way to flip the script and put a happy face on a negative storyline. It’s no wonder they feel invincible.
1. Surviving the loss of “Dr. Smooth”
Shortstop Francisco Lindor is the Indians’ future, but outfielder Michael Brantley entered this season, by acclamation, as the best all-around player on the Cleveland roster. Amid concerns that Brantley’s right shoulder was touch-and-go, the Indians took heart when he went 4-for-5 with a double and three RBIs in a 9-4 victory over Detroit on May 5.
Although nobody knew it at the time, the end was near. Brantley went on the disabled list three days later and was done for 2016. But his absence ultimately led to increased playing time for the versatile Jose Ramirez, who hit .312 with an .825 OPS and showed enough panache to inspire a “Yes Way, Jose” T-shirt.
“He has saved our ass,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Ramirez. “There’s no way around it.”
2. Bye-bye, Byrdie
It appeared that the front-office tandem of Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff pulled off a bargain basement coup when they signed veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd to a $1 million contract in March. Byrd slugged .452 with five homers in his first 34 games and looked like an ideal fit for a team in need of a right-handed bat.
And then, suddenly, he was gone. On June 1, Byrd failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs, and the Indians were out one veteran slugger.
The suspension ended Byrd’s career, but it was a reprieve for Tyler Naquin, who returned from Triple-A Columbus after being optioned to the minors in mid-May. Naquin went on to hit .296 with an .886 OPS, second only to New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez among American League rookies. Naquin also provided the Indians with one of their most memorable moments of the season when he hit an inside-the-park walk-off homer to beat Toronto on Aug. 19.
“Marlon taught me many things,” Naquin said. “He’s been around the game and he was a great player. But obviously, when any little door opens up more, you’re able to walk through it easier. You never know. You just have to always be ready, for sure.”
3. Exorcising some demons
Indians catcher Yan Gomes was in the midst of a major funk in July when his teammates held an “exorcism” to help improve his .163 batting average. In a ceremony straight out of the movie “Major League,” the Cleveland players implored the pagan god Jobu to forgive Gomes for any wrongdoings and sacrificed a rotisserie chicken from Target to make it official. According to reports, Jason Kipnis, Mike Napoli, Chris Gimenez and Lonnie Chisenhall pitched in about $500 to buy a piñata, costumes and musical instruments for the ceremony.
Francona called it an example of “clubhouse humor to the nth degree.”
Gomes broke an 0-for-27 streak the next day, only to suffer a separated shoulder when he tripped and fell at first base. But the goofy ritual bonding exercise made it clear the Indians were all in this together. And when Gomes was unable to come back full-bore for the postseason, it paved the way for his backup, Roberto Perez, to play a big role in October.
4. The marathon in Toronto
During the ALCS, Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway were asked if they could pinpoint a specific game or moment that might have been a watershed event in the season.
They both cited a 2-1, 19-inning victory over Toronto on July 1 at Rogers Centre as the game that best fit the description. Carlos Santana hit the winning home run and the Indians used nine pitchers in a game that took six hours, 13 minutes to complete.
It was a seminal game for Trevor Bauer, a deep thinker who can seem like an island unto himself at times. When Bauer sucked it up and threw 83 impromptu shutout pitches out of the bullpen, it showed that he, too, had bought into the concept of team unity over all.
“Trevor came out of the pen and threw five great innings, and you could just feel it,” Callaway said. “It was the game of the year for us. I think everybody did everything they could to win that game.”
5. Taking no for an answer
But they also had to deal with rejection when Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy invoked his no-trade clause to block a trade to Cleveland in late July. While lots of Indians fans seethed, the players just shrugged and moved on.
“Hopefully, we can win the World Series and we’ll be laughing at him,” Gimenez said.
Which brings us back to Roberto Perez. After hitting .183 in the regular season, he has contributed some important hits and been a pivotal factor in Cleveland’s October pitching dominance. The catcher wouldn’t even be playing now if Lucroy were an Indian.
“He’s incredible with his ability to receive the ball and call pitches, and he’s a better hitter than he gets credit for,” Miller said of Perez. “What a special guy back there.”
In light of Miller’s ERA and strikeout ratio this month, that’s about as impressive as a compliment can get.
6. Hello, Coco
After coming off a PED suspension, outfielder Abraham Almonte played a nice, unsung role for Cleveland this year, hitting .264 with a .401 slugging percentage in 67 games. But the Indians knew Almonte was on borrowed time because MLB’s drug testing rules prohibit PED violators from appearing in the postseason.
With that in mind, the Indians dipped into their past and acquired veteran outfielder Coco Crisp from Oakland by trade in September. All Crisp did was hit a home run in the AL Central clincher in September, go deep in the AL Division Series clincher against Boston and homer yet again in the ALCS Game 5 clincher against Toronto. Even Crisp seems amused by his newfound role as Cleveland’s resident lucky charm.
“It’s truly a blessing,” Crisp said.
7. Making a stand in Detroit
On Sept. 16, the Indians held a six-game lead over Detroit and looked like a sure bet to win the AL Central. But what-if scenarios still lurked among the most pessimistic Cleveland die-hards. The Indians had six games left against Detroit, and there was always a possibility that they could blow it, right?
So much for worst-case scenarios. Napoli drove in four runs and the Indians beat up on Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Fulmer to crush the Tigers 11-4. They proceeded to split six games with Detroit and take six in a row from Kansas City to win the division by six games.
8. The Paul Hoynes game
On Sept. 17, Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler lined a 95 mph fastball up the middle and broke Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco‘s finger. Remarkably, a procession of eight relievers came on and threw 10 straight shutout innings to give the Indians a 1-0 victory over the Tigers.
The Indians barely had time to savor the victory when their focus went from euphoria to anger. In response to the injuries to Carrasco and fellow starter Danny Salazar, Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Paul Hoynes turned his game account into an obituary.
“Write it down. On Sept. 17, the Indians were eliminated from serious postseason advancement before they even got there,” Hoynes wrote.
Hoynes, who has been covering the Indians since 1982, is one of the most beloved baseball writers in America. When he’s not forgetting his car keys or frantically searching for his cellphone, he’s the last man to leave the press box because he’s writing his fourth story of the evening. “Everybody loves Hoynesie,” said longtime Indians broadcaster Tom Hamilton. “How can you not?”
Indians players certainly didn’t — at least on Sept. 18. Bauer called Hoynes a “coward” on Twitter, and Corey Kluber was none too pleased, either. Several Indians players gave Hoynes the cold shoulder for a period of time.
But the relationship appears to have thawed. Hoynes wrote an “I was wrong” mea culpa after Cleveland eliminated Boston in the division series. And after the Indians dispatched with Toronto, Kipnis sought Hoynes out and Bauer was seen pouring an ice-cold beer down his back.
“Maybe he’ll get a championship ring,” Hamilton said, laughing.
9. The Bauer drone game
One of the most bizarre games of this or any other postseason came during the ALCS in Toronto, when Bauer’s drone-damaged finger bled all over his pants — and the mound — and he headed for the dugout after throwing only 21 pitches.
No problem. Dan Otero, Jeff Manship, Zach McAllister and Bryan Shaw carried the Indians into the late innings, and Miller and Cody Allen did the rest to seal a 4-2 victory and give the Tribe a 3-0 series lead.
“We’ve been through every situation or circumstance in baseball, and not just this year,” Otero said later. “We’ve all been released, or traded, or gone through major or minor league free agency. Granted, it was the playoffs and Game 3 in Toronto, but we were able to draw on those experiences and deliver. Not one person down there doubted each other or themselves. We were expected to lose that game once Bauer came out, so what did we have to lose?”
10. Hello, Ryan Merritt
Francona’s scarcity of starting pitching options forced him to dig deep in Game 5 of the ALCS. But everything worked out in the end. Soft-tossing lefty Ryan Merritt, who had a total of 11 MLB innings on his résumé, pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings to help the Indians beat the Jays 3-0 and clinch the pennant.
The performance was especially surprising after Toronto’s Jose Bautista predicted that Merritt would be “shaking in his boots” before a hostile sellout crowd at Rogers Centre. And it prompted Bauer to head for his Twitter account and do a little celebratory trolling.
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) October 20, 2016
As Bautista and the rest of baseball should know by now, the 2016 Indians don’t shake in their boots. Or their spikes. They come to play every night. And if you tell them they don’t have a chance, they will go to extraordinary lengths to prove you wrong.