Stephen's Blog

LOTL Sports Take: The Final Stretch for the Tribe

It has been a highly interesting season for the Cleveland Indians.  Despite injuries, illnesses, and the rise of a fierce divisional rival, the Indians have persevered and at times thrived.  It wasn’t always easy. The Indians were just 29-30 on June 3rd and were sitting 11 games out of first place in the AL Central as Minnesota had a white hot first two months.  But the Indians were arguably the best team in baseball over the next two months, and were 63-44 at the end of July.  There were some bumps in the road in August and the early half of September, but the overall trajectory has remained upward.  Following a 3-game sweep in Anaheim earlier this week, the Indians are 87-63, which is a season-high 24 games over .500.

September 13th  in baseball is, for all intents and purposes, the 23-mile mark of a marathon.  The pressure and the drama starts to rise, and it comes at a time where the athlete is tired and hurting physically.  Getting out of bed in the morning or getting off the plane late at night seems more and more difficult with each passing series.  Yet the finish line beckons.   

Despite all the Indians’ success in 2019, there is still a disquieting fact that has to be addressed: if the postseason started today, the Indians would not be in the tournament.  That’s honestly stunning when you consider that the Indians finished just 91-71 a year ago and easily won the AL Central with that win total. The main difference between this season and last is the rise of the Minnesota Twins, who were just 78-84 a year ago and are 89-57 today.  The high quality of the American League means that the Indians do not hold a wild card either, as the Tampa Bay Rays (87-61) and Oakland Athletics (87-60) are the teams currently holding those spots. It’s bizarre that 86-61 is only worth 6th place in the AL, but that is where the Indians stand.  In case if you were wondering, had the Indians been in the NL instead, they’d hold the third best record, with only the Los Angeles Dodgers (95-53) and Atlanta Braves (91-57) ahead of the Tribe.

There are two burning questions: will the Indians win their 4th straight AL Central title?  And if they fail that, will the Tribe manage to nab one of the wild card spots?  Let’s look at the division first.

This weekend is a hugely important three game series at Progressive Field.  The Twins are in town. This is the division on the line. A series loss would almost surely doom the Indians, as losing two of three would put the Twins 4.5 games ahead with just 12 games remaining for both teams.  The Tribe winning two of three would cut the Minnesota lead to 2.5 games, which would be more manageable in theory. However, a look at the remaining schedule shows that making up even 2.5 games in the last two weeks would be tough:

Minnesota: 3 @Cleveland, 3 vs. Chicago, 4 vs. Kansas City, 3@Detroit, 3 @Kansas City

Cleveland: 3 vs. Minnesota, 3 vs. Detroit, 3 vs. Philadelphia, 3 @Chicago, 3 @Washington

The Twins have more road games down the stretch, but outside of the series against the Indians, they don’t play any good teams, and their last 10 games are against the woeful Royals and Tigers.  The Indians do have 6 games left against Detroit and Chicago, but they also have a tricky home series against the Phillies and then a potentially huge and difficult final series against the Nationals.  The Phillies come into Friday’s action at 76-70, 2.5 games out of the wild card in the NL, while the Nationals are 81-64 and holding one of the NL wild cards. Navigating these games while the Twins are loading up on the Royals and Tigers won’t be easy.  Maybe the Indians will catch a break. Maybe the Phillies will go on a losing streak and take them out of contention before they get to Cleveland. Or perhaps the Nationals will have the wild card locked up by the time the Indians go to Washington. But I wouldn’t count on either scenarios taking place.  

Realistically, the Indians will probably need to sweep this weekend’s series in order to have a realistic shot at the division title given the remaining schedules of the teams. 

So what if the Indians cannot win the division.  What are their chances of running down either the Athletics or Rays for the wild card?  Let’s take a closer look at what Oakland and Tampa face.

Cleveland: 3 vs. Minnesota, 3 vs. Detroit, 3 vs. Philadelphia, 3 @Chicago, 3 @Washington

Oakland: 3 @Texas, 3 vs. Kansas City, 3 vs. Texas, 2 @Anaheim, 4 @Seattle

Tampa Bay: 3 @Anaheim, 2 @Los Angeles, 4 vs. Boston, 2 vs. New York, 3 @Toronto

Texas is a rare AL team in that they aren’t playing great and aren’t tanking either. In fact, they are right at .500 at 74-74.  They could be a tricky opponent for Oakland. Outside of that possibility though, the A’s have all easy series on paper, finishing with Anaheim, Seattle, and (sigh) Kansas City.  Seeing as Oakland just took 3 games of 4 in Houston of all places, it’s hard to imagine the A’s taking on too much water in the final weeks. Tampa on the other hand, has it much tougher.  They play 8 of their final 14 games on the road, all of them long road trips either in California or Canada. Two of those games are against the Dodgers, who have the best record in the National League and are the NL Champs two years in a row. Their remaining home games are against the defending champion Red Sox and the AL leading Yankees.  The Rays will definitely have to fight hard to qualify. If they botch this weekend’s series against Anaheim they’ll really be up against the wall with that difficult 8 game stretch just beyond it.

At the outset of the season I thought the Indians would win the division.  Honestly, if you would have told me they’d be 86-61 with 15 games left, I would’ve been thrilled with that…realistically that would’ve meant a sizeable division lead and a postseason berth.  The Twins’ amazing season has thrown a hurdle the Indians’ way. Unfortunately given Minnesota’s cupcake schedule down the stretch, I don’t see the Indians having the firepower to win the AL Central.  However, they should do enough to run down the Rays, who will fade in the final two weeks under a murderous 8-game stretch against Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, and earn a wild card spot. This means a first of October date against the Athletics, with a trip to either New York or Houston for the ALDS on the line.  It’s about as hard a road to the World Series as a team is ever likely to see, but after everything the Indians have been through in 2019, count them out at your own risk.

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