Tribe's playoff chase not just wishful thinking
After Braves and Tigers series, schedule favorable down the stretch
Your first impulse is to just let a good, cute story remain a good, cute story and not try to give it some higher meaning. But in the land of heartbreaking professional sporting happenstance -- and no land serves that distinction quite like the Land of Cleves -- it couldn't hurt to hold out hope that good karma now graces the Cleveland Indians' playoff pursuit.
Over the weekend, an 8-year-old Tribe fan by the name of Niko Lanzarotta got to take in batting practice from the field, and the young boy, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at eight months old, asked two members of the team -- Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis -- to hit a home run for him.
Well, what could they say? Santana said sure, Kipnis said he'd try, and then both players hit the field that night and -- amazingly -- did just as Niko had asked.
"To see your kid that happy," said Niko's father, Mike, in a statement released by the team, "is a great thing."
Amen to that. And if that's where the feel-good story involving the Indians begins and ends, we could do worse than to end it with the bright and beaming smile of a little boy.
Then again, the way things are looking right now, the Indians have a pretty good chance at pulling off a feat almost as improbable as fulfilling Niko's whimsical wish.
Whatever you wish to read into this sort of thing, it's worth noting that Cleveland's percentage shot at a postseason berth, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, has risen 12 points just in the past week alone (from 21.3 to 33.7, as of Tuesday morning). The jump is not attributable to the news that the Indians possibly put in a waiver claim on the Mariners' Kendrys Morales (more on that in a moment). Rather, it's climbed because the Tribe has maintained a season trend of beating up on the kind of clubs you're supposed to beat up on. The Indians swept the Angels in Anaheim, then took two of three from the Twins.
This is how the #RollTribe caravan rolls, when it rolls: through the streets of sleeping cities. The Indians have built their 71-59 record (two wins better than their Pythagorean expectation based on run differential) by going 40-17 against losing teams to offset their 31-42 mark against those currently sitting at .500 or better.
You don't get docked for this sort of thing. Some might call Cleveland a soft contender as a result of that record disparity, but the Indians are certainly no softer than the A's team they trail in the American League Wild Card hunt by two games. The A's, after all, have 43 wins against losing teams, including 12 intradivision wins against the lowly Astros.
Here's where it gets really interesting for the Indians, though. In a six-game road swing, beginning Tuesday night, against the two teams with perhaps the most realistic shot at home-field advantage throughout October: the Braves and Tigers. The Tribe will follow that up with a three-game set against the fellow Wild Card-contending O's, beginning on Labor Day.
A trade for Morales -- and, to be clear, we don't yet know which club put in the reported claim on the 30-year-old slugger or if a trade will even be worked out -- would be considered a timely one given the laborious stretch the Indians are entering and the need for an injection of offense.
Then again, it would be difficult to call Morales an outright game-changer, given the regression he's shown after a strong start in Seattle. His .264 average and .730 OPS since June 7 are only slightly better than the numbers of the much-maligned Nick Swisher (.241/.718) in that same span. And Morales' presence would only limit the Indians' ability to put their best lineup on the field -- i.e., a lineup with Yan Gomes behind home plate and Santana at first base or DH -- while also creating roster concern for Jason Giambi, who has been an instrumental member of this club.
Color me doubtful.
Anyway, the focus here is not nearly as much on Morales as it is on the need for Cleveland to simply survive a stretch that, once endured, gives birth to greener pastures. The rest of the Indians' schedule comes against the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins, against whom they're a combined 30-14 (they've yet to face the Mets, who, we now know, won't be bringing Matt Harvey to Progressive Field).
Of course, to read much into schedule strength is to ignore the very essence of a sport in which a team like the Indians can climb into contention.
The Tribe, after all, is a contender for reasons that, almost across the board, defy all projection or prediction, which is why the fact that we're having this discussion in late August is such a surprise.
Look at the biggest free-agent expenditures: Swisher is the primary reason Cleveland has an OPS output from the No. 4 spot (.754) that is below the league average (.783); Michael Bourn has an on-base percentage (.322) just below the league average from the leadoff spot (.324) and is having the least effective stolen-base success rate of his career (19 steals in 29 attempts); Mark Reynolds disappeared after a hot April in a way few before him have disappeared.
Furthermore, Trevor Bauer, the highly touted trade acquisition, has been a non-factor, relegated to Triple-A, where he continues to endure control issues. And only three qualifying AL shortstops have a lower OPS than so-called cornerstone Asdrubal Cabrera.
Had you known all this in March, you really wouldn't be feeling Terry Francona's club.
No wonder some scouts feel this might be Francona's finest managerial moment, for this club never turned in on itself in the midst of, say, losing eight straight in early June or getting swept in a pivotal four-game set at home against the Tigers earlier this month and following that up with two straight losses to the Angels.
Francona's temperament has been at least as pivotal as -- though perhaps not moreso than -- that of the resurrected Giambi, who has had almost literally nothing but big hits on the field (his is the most impactful .186 average in all of baseball) and provided nothing but positive presence off it, and Mickey Callaway, whom Francona hired at the behest of an Indians front office that viewed him as a rising star in the coaching field.
Callaway has helped eke effective-if-not-flashy results out of an unproven rotation -- one that could have come undone when either Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber succumbed to rare finger sprains (this kind of thing tends to happen in the realm of Cleveland sports). Shockingly, it is the rotation that is picking up the slack for a disappointing offense, which has scored less than four runs per game in the second half.
If the Indians can get their bats going in the here and now, they are absolutely a legit postseason contender. Maybe to many, that's hard to believe.
But I know of at least one little boy who believes in the improbable.