Regardless of what happens the rest of this improbable Indians season, when Nick Goody struck out Max Kepler for the final out of a 6-2 win over the Twins on Friday night, it was in many ways the finest hour of the Terry Francona Era in Cleveland.
That out, that game, that victory crystalized everything that is right about this manager, this team, and what the two of them are capable of achieving within this singular, remarkable partnership.
Who knows where this season might go from here? Whether it gets better, worse, or stays the same doesn’t matter.
Because this season — it, and those responsible for it — was forever defined when a defeated Kepler, out No. 27, wandered away from home plate, a dazed and confused symbol of a Twins team dizzied by the realization that they had been stalked and caught by a crippled bunch of gamers, and their leader, with startling rapidity.
This stunning achievement, which in its own way is more impressive even than the Indians’ 22-game winning streak two years ago, went largely ignored in the baseball universe.
Elsewhere, the Houston Astros, after trading for Zack Greinke, were hailed as the perfect baseball team. The Dodgers were running roughshod over the National League. The Yankees were running away with the AL East, and the Mets — if it happens in New York, nothing else matters — got up off the mat after nearly firing their manager.
All of the above were big stories, worthy of applause.
But no team, no manager, no one has done what this team has done in this improbable and underappreciated Indians season.
Here’s what the Indians did: in the span of two months, with their starting rotation nearly wiped out by injury and illness, with their MVP candidate shortstop missing the first month of the season, with their two-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher missing three months (and counting), with a broken arm, with another key starting pitcher diagnosed with leukemia, with another key starting pitcher missing two and a half months with a strained back, with their MVP candidate third baseman locked in a seemingly endless, suffocating slump, with the remainder of their lineup virtually gutted by an ownership-ordered offseason payroll purge.
With all of that — that which seemed like too much — going on around them, hampering them, limiting them, and giving them countless excuses to pop it into cruise control and write it off, to mail it in as “one of those seasons” — the Indians didn’t.
Boy, didn’t they.
Instead, they channeled their inner Tito. They kept their heads down and they grinded. They showed up and played, played hard, every day. They made no excuses. The minor league system delivered young starting pitcher after young starting pitcher to fill the void in the injury-ravaged rotation, and all the kid twirlers twirled their hearts out.
The front office made one very big and very astute trade. The future Hall of Fame manager showed why he’s a future Hall of Fame manager by keeping everyone on the roster focused, involved, engaged, and believing. Day in, day out. And, well, when Max Kepler, out No. 27, slowly walked back to the Twins’ dugout on Aug. 9, 2019, the Indians’ 6-2 victory complete — doesn’t it seem like every Francona team has at least one burst of greatness every year? — the Indians had done it.
Crippled, limping, running uphill and against the wind the whole way, they wiped out an 11 ½-game deficit in two months to catch one of the greatest home run-hitting teams in major league history.
From 29-30, and 11 ½ games behind Minnesota on June 2, to 70-46, and tied for first place on Aug. 9.
Kids: don’t try this at home.
First and foremost, this is leadership at the highest level. Getting a team that, on paper, is overmatched, and knows it’s overmatched, to continue to believe in itself, even when everything is going wrong, that’s one of the reasons why the Cooperstown bust-sculptor might as well start studying portraits of Terry Francona right now.
But it’s more than the manager. It’s also his veteran leaders, like Jason Kipnis, who knows he’s in the twilight of his career in Cleveland, who knows his skills have eroded, but his will to win has not.
It’s Jose Ramirez, who refused to give in to a seemingly unsolvable slump, and is now — attention American League! — back to his MVP-caliber self. It’s Roberto Perez, having a career year when many doubted he’d even have a career. It’s newcomer, and instant Tito convert, Yasiel Puig busting it down to first on ground balls, and it’s the cast of veteran journeymen in the bullpen, who care more about wins than headlines.
It’s all of that, and more, that has contributed to this being the finest hour of the Terry Francona Era in Cleveland.
Contact Jim Ingraham at 329-7135 or at email@example.com.