As of this writing, the Cleveland Indians sit 5.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central and perhaps more tantalizing, two games behind the Oakland Athletics in the chase for the second American League Wild Card. Going into the season the Wild Card was considered a pretty outside shot to win for the Indians with the power sitting atop the AL West and East. But with the sputtering of the Angels, the Yankees crumbling under their own gravitas, the Orioles lack of pitching despite all their best efforts and the A’s and Texas Rangers slap-fighting each other into mediocrity, it’s become a possibility. Add to all this, the Indians have the easiest record in the AL going forward with an opponents’ winning percentage, somewhere around .475. Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately with this team, there’s always the potential for a sudden cold streak as much as a hot streak, a sudden stumble that takes a little bit to get right. That could cost the them the season. It’s been their standard operating procedure all year and even with the dropping of uber-streaker Mark Reynolds (oh yeah, you read that right) it’s going to keep happening. Where then, should we worry? Maybe….
Braves (78-52, .732 team OPS – 3rd in the NL, 3.22 ERA – 2nd in the NL - Atlanta is a great team, as evidenced by their massive lead in what was supposed to be a tough division. Even with the loss of Jason Heyward, who had been recently re-imagined as a leadoff hitter, they can hit with the best of them and pitch better than most. The Indians play the Tigers right after this, so they need to not get caught up in the future. That, plus the fact it’s in Atlanta, could be a very important and tough series just to start things off right. Of their three young guns (Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen) Cleveland avoids all but Medlen, perhaps the least best of the three. Alex Wood is a talented young lefty though, 2.50 ERA (2.25 FIP) in seven career starts and he’s only 22. If Justin Upton is in a cold spell and Chris Johnson’s turf toe keeps acting up things will be easier. At least until Freddie Freeman gets to the plate – that guy has become quite good, and nobody noticed because he plays in Atlanta. He’s cool though. And Brian McCann is still one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, even if, again, nobody notices. No, they’re a tremendous team despite the 1008 strikeouts this year. I hope Corey Kluber is healthy for this.
Tigers, end of August (77-54, .787 team OPS – 1st in AL, 3.49 team ERA, 1st in AL) - The last head-to-head with the division leaders and probably the last real shot the Indians have at grabbing the division. Unfortunately it’s Detroit, a team Cleveland is 3-13 against overall and has only beaten once this season at Comerica. Could the Tigers get into a lull with a comfortable lead and the eye on October? Miguel Cabrera isn’t likely to let that happen. He’s got a shot for a second Triple Crown and is on another mad bombing spree. Expect more of the same from Detroit (they’ve outscored Cleveland 103 to 59) so the pitching of Cleveland is the key to it all. You’re right, it’s not that insightful, but they’ve just been bad against the Kitties. Besides being their last shot at the division, this is the biggest chance for getting swept. Detroit loves to sweep the Indians. It’s getting a little annoying really. Jose Iglesias replacing Jhonny Peralta has been a huge addition defensively, he’s tremendous. Cabrera doesn’t have to cover as much space anymore so everyone is better off. He’s dreadful at the plate but Jhonny didn’t exactly cover a lot of field, so the effect won’t be too bad. Peralta was worth 3.5 bWAR before his suspension to Iglesias’ 3.0. Everyone is getting healthy and if Prince Fielder gets out of his funk suddenly then look out. We’ve seen this tale before, the Indians just need to avoid repeating the past. Okay, Justin Masterson?
Royals, Sept 9-11, at KC Sept. 16-18 (66-64, .690 team OPS – 12th in AL, 3.58 team ERA – 2nd in AL) - Now that they’re 11.5 out of the division and seven out of the wild Card, KC is about finished by the looks of it. Even if they put on a good run somehow for the Wild Card, there’s just too much competition there and they’re too far out. That doesn’t mean they won’t cause trouble. The Royals have been in the role of spoiler for years now, as befits their position in the bottom half of the division standings. Six games is a lot of baseball and though they’re a game over .500, they play just as well on the road as at home. You can tell watching them they just want to be respected, and a good way to do that is to ruin the dreams of a rival. They aren’t just James Shields in the rotation – Ervin Santana actually has a better ERA at 3.21 to Shields’ 3.22, and a comparable FIP, 3.88 to 3.76. The Indians have outscored them 64-51, but it’s been a closer season series even than that or an 8-5 record can tell. Plus the young hitters have woken up. Don’t sleep on the Royals.
Twins to end the season(57-72, .697 team OPS – 11th in AL, 4.29 team ERA – 11th in AL) - The damn Twinkies are always in the way and even in the depths of their anemia they cause trouble for the Indians. The Tribe made Andrew Albers (yes, THAT Andrew Albers) look like a god when they faced the Twins last week, and they’re entirely capable of doing it again. The Indians making the Twins look stunning, I mean. Add to that the spectre of Joe Mauer, the man who seemingly murders the Indians, and it’s not an easy set to end the year on, especially when potential play-ins for the playoffs are on the line. The biggest saving grace is that Minnesota will have called up a host of young guns to see what 2014 might look like. Thing is, they’ve got a good young arm in Alex Mayer that could make an impact and who knows what else is lying around that farm system, eager to make an impression on the big club. Any time an unknown faces the Indians the pitcher dominates. It could be a stunning end to the season if Cleveland isn’t careful. The finish with the Twins could well be a boon if the Tribe’s on its toes, a nice cruise while the A’s face the Mariners. Or the Tigers face the Marlins? Damn. Stupid always-interleague.
Noted omissions from this list are pretty much just the Orioles. The White Sox are getting increasingly dreadful so they should be easy, the Mets are going to be without the magic arm of Matt Harvey, and if Cleveland can’t beat the Astros in September, they have no business even being major leaguers. So the O’s are the only real competition and the only ones also in the WC race. But even with their thunder at the plate, their pitching is far worse than Cleveland’s. The trade for Scott Feldman has yet to pay any real dividends and Bud Norris has a 5.53 ERA with Baltimore. The incumbents are decent, good enough to keep them hanging around the fringes of the AL East for a while, but they’re decent at best. They have a tough road ahead with the likes of the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and others on the docket and they’ve already faded enough in the standings where a strong showing by the Indians against them could be the Birds’ last gasp. Plus it’s at home, so hopefully the fans will sense the race and show up in droves. Get some of that 455 energy back.
Right now, the A’s are the target, and they’re on pace to win 90.4 games this year with a .558 winning percentage. I’ll be generous and give them 91. That means the Tribe needs to win 92, or a .567 winning percentage, and are on pace for 88.4. Just looking at that number, 92 wins, who could have even fathomed there would be an outside shot this season.
They’ve got to go 21-11 to finish out the season, and if they just win the series against each of the teams not listed that gives them 16 wins right there. That’s including a sweep of the White Sox in the two game set at the end of September. That leaves five wins against the four teams above, which suddenly looks manageable, IF they can handle the teams they “should beat”. No let downs allowed.