Progressive Field was at its best on Wednesday night, a delicious pseudo-autumn evening descended as the Indians took the field to defend the Wigwam against the encroaching Rays. Wildcard games have become a strange kind of monster, the single elimination format is so anti-baseball, but so fun, so tense. And with how the Indians have been playing this year with their heart attack style of ball, it seemed conducive to their collective skill set.
Too bad they lost.
The Rays just out-did the Tribe from the get-go. Danny Salazar was great but Alex Cobb was better, Delmon Young ran into one, and the most amazing, most Rays-y move of the night was lefty reliever Jake McGee facing Ryan Raburn with two on. Raburn packed a 1.080 OPS against lefties, but hidden in that was his sub-.600 OPS on fastballs over 95. Which is what McGee threw. Damn you, Joe Maddon, your guile and wisdom can unseat even the most charmed of teams.
It was a tragic end, and I worry many Indians fans will be scared off because they didn’t go any further. It was an awesome sellout crowd and it’s been a while since we got to see that energy at the Prog, hopefully the takeaway was that this is a team on the rise, not a flash in the pan. This was a beginning, not an end.
Baseball is that sport all on its own, a seemingly limitless slog packed with elation and defeat. All summer it’s there to lighten daily life, and with the intense randomness of the playoffs nowadays there’s a satisfaction with a season well played you don’t get from other sports, like the afterward is just a nice little something extra. The Indians had that type of season. Remember when they were swept by the Tigers in early August? The season was over. Or when they dropped eight straight to start June – the whole first two months were a fluke. They got thumped by the Tigers over and over and over. But try as the universe and some pretty beastly foes did, nothing daunted the Indians. They fought, they won and they became something Cleveland has been missing for a while. I don’t know what he did, but thanks, Terry.
The 2013 season was the most fun I’ve had as a baseball fan in some time. This team is wonderful. Brantley, so slick. Bourn, such lazy grace. Nick Swisher, ever ebullient. Santana, unassuming but mighty. The departed Mark Reynolds, the explosion that was Ryan Rayburn, pairing up to hand out 31 homers and many a howl of joy. Nevermind that Jason Kipnis made a leap this year. For all the time and energy put into projections, sometimes the game surprises you and spits out a new star. Sure, Kipnis had a really good first half last year, but the fade was such that it tempered my hopes a bit, I’m sure others had the same feeling. But even without that absolutely stupid June, when he posted a .419/.517/.699, he was great, a new cornerstone for the team.
The pitching though, it blew us all away. Coming into the season, who the hell was Corey Kluber? And remember when we all wanted to run Ubaldo Jimenez out on a rail? Or when Trevor Bauer, not some unknown named Danny Salazar, was the future of the rotation? Nevermind the revelation that was Scott Kazmir. That guy was supposed to be dead. Every now and then a team gets lucky with a player, you just don’t expect it to happen over and over in the space of one summer.
Sure, next year we’re gonna see some new faces. Jason Giambi is going to return to the dust from whence he came, Kazmir is unlikely to re-sign and there’s going to be some machinations over holding onto Ubaldo, plus there might be some movement at shortstop. But the fun stays, the guys that really make it happen are here for a while. Francona is brilliant, thought he was great down the stretch and this was just the first year. Kipnis, Santana and Swisher form a nice little offensive core, and I fully expect Lonnie Chisenhall to really improve next year. Think something like .275/.325/.425, and I feel like that’s a lowball. Plus another season of Yan Gomes, who could forget the great pan flutist turned backstop! Even if he’s 80% as good as he was this season, that’s a top flight-ish catcher, or else delicious trade bait. Plus Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, and the possibility of Ubaldo is a brilliant rotation all of a sudden, not to mention the idea of Trevor Bauer breaking out. So many signs point to a non-fluke status.
And anyway, who knew an 85 OPS+ could mean so much? Jason Giambi never pays for a drink in Cleveland again.
What did this baseball season give us, besides a soundtrack to a great summer? I don’t know, the best thing that comes to mind is hope. The last four or so years have been dreadful – first the shock of the collapse in 2008 and all the heroes disappearing, the wandering in the wilderness then the wilting in August in consecutive years. Then it just started happening in April, and didn’t quit. Few teams were as streaky as the Indians this year, but I’d rather have a roller coaster ride than a paddle boat any day. Wednesday night was a total bummer, but the next few years on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario are going to be special.