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?In the spring, the Cleveland Indians were anything but a slam dunk to win the American League Central, according to prognosticators, coming off a 2015 season in which they barely finished above .500.
And that was before questions arose early in the 2016 campaign:
Not only did Cleveland hold off the Tigers, they won 94 games and swept Boston in three games in the AL Division Series, shutting down a potent Red Sox offence largely responsible for a 93-win season and AL East title, to advance to the best-of-seven AL Championship Series against Toronto, starting Friday night.
“I think this team right here that we have is special,” Indians manager Terry Francona told reporters ahead of Monday’s series-clinching 4-3 victory at Boston’s Fenway Park. “Are we going to be good enough [to win a World Series]? I don’t know. It’s going to be fun to find out.”
Sure, the names of Indians ace Corey Kluber, closer Cody Allen, designated hitter Carlos Santana and first baseman Mike Napoli may be familiar to fans in Toronto, but their teammates are known more as a bunch of grinders than household names.
Starting pitchers Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin delivered in Games 1 and 3, respectively, against Boston. A dogged competitor, the 25-year-old Bauer appeared to be reaching his potential in the first half of his third full major league season with a 3.30 earned-run average. That number rose to 5.36 over the final two-and-a-half months and 9.00 in one start versus the Red Sox, but Bauer responded with six strikeouts over 4 2/3 frames (3 ER) in the series opener.
Tomlin allowed two runs (one earned) over five innings on Monday for the win after he logged an 11.48 ERA over six August starts, only to return to form in September with a 1.40 ERA in four appearances.
Francona, who guided Boston to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, deserves credit for aggressive manoeuvring in his bullpen. He has used former Yankees closer Andrew Miller in a non-traditional role, asking the standout left-hander to appear in games as early as the fifth inning. Miller threw four scoreless innings against the Red Sox, striking out seven.
Allen had two saves in the ALDS, each taking 40 pitches, but the lesser-known Dan Otero (team-leading 1.53 ERA in regular season) and Bryan Shaw (75 games, 3.24 ERA) also came up big.
Offensively, seven Cleveland starters drove in at least one run against Boston and four recorded at least two hits in the three-game series.
One of them was Roberto Perez, the forgotten man behind the plate. After hitting three home runs in 153 regular-season at-bats, the third-year catcher went deep in Game 1. He also tagged up, taking second base on a deep fly ball, and scored the winning run in addition to blocking pitches in the dirt.
Third baseman Jose Ramirez, who some believed would serve as a utility player in his third season, was 5-for-10 with four runs scored in the ALDS. In the regular season, the 24-year-old hit .312 with a .363 on-base percentage, 11 home runs and 22 stolen bases.
Rookie centre-fielder Tyler Naquin put Cleveland ahead 2-0 in the fourth inning of Game 3 with a two-run single after striking out in each of his first three playoff at-bats. The 2012 first-round draft pick became a regular upon his early-season demotion to triple-A and finished the season hitting .296 with a .372 OBP and 14 homers in 116 contests (321 at-bats). Note to Blue Jays manager John Gibbons: Naquin hit .366 vs. breaking pitches in the regular season.
One of Indians general manager Chris Antonetti’s better moves came on Aug. 31 when he traded for Oakland outfielder Coco Crisp, who began his career with the Indians 14 years earlier. The veteran’s poise paid off in the sixth inning of Game 3 against Boston with a two-run blast off starter-turned reliever Drew Pomeranz. In the fourth, the 36-year-old’s sacrifice bunt moved two runners into scoring position.