'It's Damned Near Impossible': Inside the Indians' Unforgettable Win Streak

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 15, 2017

Sep 14, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Fans celebrate after a Cleveland Indians extra-inning win over the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When they pummeled Boston ace Chris Sale for seven runs to snap a two-game losing streak Aug. 24, the Cleveland Indians felt pretty good about themselves.

When they immediately followed that by shutting out Kansas City over three consecutive games, cumulatively outscoring the Royals 20-0, the Indians were rolling.

Then came two doubleheader sweeps in three days, over the New York Yankees on Aug. 30 and the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 1, road kill that stoked an 11-0 trip.

And two weeks after that the Indians still haven't lost, their American League-record 22-game winning streak now second all-time. Only the 1916 New York Giants, at 26 games, outrank them, and the Indians could break that record Wednesday in Anaheim, California.

"The only word I can come up with is 'surreal,'" Tom Hamilton, now in his 28th season as the team's radio play-by-play voice, told Bleacher Report after Cleveland had finished off a sweep of the Tigers on Wednesday. "A 10-game winning streak is amazing enough in this day and age when there are so many good teams. But for them to win [22] in a row, to do it when they had to play back-to-back doubleheaders, to do it without Andrew Miller, who is as big a game-changer as there is in any bullpen in baseball, without Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, speaks volumes to the depth of the organization.

"You're sitting here going, 'These are the best players in the world. There's a reason why this hasn't happened in 82 years.'

"It's damned near impossible."

Bob DiBiasio, a 38-year Cleveland front office veteran who is the team's vice president for public affairs, was equally nonplussed.

"It is absolutely awe-inspiring, the spirit that these guys show, the style with which they go about their business, the talent that's on display," DiBiasio said.

During these 22 games, the invincible Indians have slugged more home runs (41) than they have allowed total runs (37). Their run differential is plus-105 (142-37). Their starting pitchers are 19-0 with a 1.77 ERA. They have trailed in a grand total of eight innings out of 199.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Almost all of this while one of the game's greatest relievers (Miller, knee), the club's de facto captain (Kipnis, hamstring) and one of the lineup's most lethal bats (Brantley, ankle) have been marooned on the disabled list.

You bet there have been a few nervous smiles and black-humored jokes traded in the trainer's room during this run.

"We don't want to come back and mess it up," Miller told Bleacher Report, chuckling, Thursday before being activated and throwing one scoreless inning for that night's 3-2, 10-inning win over Kansas City. "Hopefully, we can all come back and contribute.

"This team has done such a good job of incorporating everybody, but we hate to miss out."

As the Indians roared through New York, Detroit and Chicago from Aug. 28 through Sept. 7, Miller, the Most Valuable Player of last October's American League Championship Series, had much in common with fans in Cleveland who were glued to the unfolding drama.

"I've been rehabbing and watching on TV like regular fans," he said. "It's been a lot of fun. And the crowds this homestand have been phenomenal. The guys are having fun with it.

"Some guys are pretending this doesn't exist. Other guys are embracing it."

Safe to say that ace Corey Kluber, likely on his way to a second Cy Young Award, is a prime example of the former.

"We keep saying it, but I think it's more of a mindset than anything else: Just keep coming to the field and try to win that day's game," Kluber said on the Indians' television postgame show following his complete-game shutout of Detroit on Tuesday, the team's 20th win in a row.

On the other hand, there's enigmatic young shortstop Francisco Lindor, a slick-fielding, budding superstar whose dramatic two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning RBI double extended Thursday night's thriller into extra innings.

Sep 10, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) looks back to the dugout after hitting a solo home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the sixth inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TO
Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

"I think it would be pretty hard to say he doesn't know what's going on and isn't fully invested," Miller deadpanned.

"He hits a home run and what's the first thing he does? He looks into our dugout and smiles," DiBiasio said. "That's just him. ... He wants to share the moment with his teammates."

Last year's run to Game 7 of the World Series, combined with this record streak, has stirred a passion for the game in Cleveland reminiscent of the latter 1990s, when the Indians won five consecutive AL Central titles and played in front of 455 consecutive sellouts at what was then called Jacobs Field.

The biggest difference then was that in Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton, the Indians employed some of the biggest superstars in the game. Their current team is young and just beginning to emerge. Behind Kluber on the mound, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger are still, to varying degrees, still looking to gain consistent success in the game. On the field, players such as Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Roberto Perez and Bradley Zimmer (who suffered a season-ending broken hand last weekend) aren't exactly household names.

"Absolutely there are similarities," DiBiasio said. "It's funny, because you look at Frankie Lindor and that smile of his, and it reminds you so much of Omar Vizquel. The style and grace and smile of Omar right in the middle of the diamond at the most demanding position; it brings you back.

"Then you look at the rosters, and while we don't have a guy like Belle in '95 with 50 homers, we do have a lot of guys who come to the park every day and try to out-do each other and win for the team. People always ask about winning cultures, and one thing I've noticed is that these guys don't want to be away from each other for very long. In the '90s, those guys would be at the park at 1 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game; they couldn't wait.

"It's back to that with this club. They get to the park early because they want to hang out with one another."

The "we" mentality over the "me" mentality is a specialty of Francona's, and after leading the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles, his reputation as one of the all-time managing greats is only strengthening.

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 12: Infielders Carlos Santana #41; Giovanny Urshela #39 Francisco Lindor #12 and Jose Ramirez #11 of the Cleveland Indians celebrate after the Indians defeated the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field on September 12, 2017 in Clev
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Indians opened the season's second half by losing five of six games to lowly Oakland and San Francisco, a forgettable West Coast trip that sliced their AL Central lead to a half-game and put their record at a middling 48-45.

A highly disgusted Francona called a rare team meeting before the opener of the next homestand with Toronto on July 21 and lit into his team.

"I think there have been a couple of times this year where we weren't taking care of business and doing the things he expected," Miller said.

It wasn't, Miller explained, simply in the wins and losses. It was the little things. Individual players taking care of their work before the game. Making sure that by first pitch, all preparation was complete. The kind of stuff that players can slack on at times during the grind of a 162-game schedule. Francona challenged his team: Who do you want to be? What is your identity?

"He was pretty fired up," Miller said. "He was not happy.

"Usually, he's pretty loose. He has fun and loves to go along with everything. But it was time to buckle up."

The Indians walloped Toronto 13-3 that night and have gone a best-in-the-majors 43-11 since, adding 13 games to their division lead.

Now, the sports world stands at full attention. As the Indians roared into the territory of Oakland's unforgettable 20-game winning streak in 2002, players from that team were watching and rooting for them. Tim Hudson, along with Barry Zito and Mark Mulder one of the Big Three starters on those A's teams, now is retired and home in Auburn, Alabama, and was with a buddy checking scores earlier this week when the Indians tied the Oakland mark.

"Honestly, I didn't think that would be something that could come close to being broken anytime soon," Hudson told Bleacher Report. "I just thought the game of baseball has gotten so balanced, top to bottom, that putting that many wins together would be impossible. But they're so good."

Hudson remembers his A's beginning to capture national attention about the time they won their 13th or 14th in a row. Eric Byrnes, an outfielder on that club, says the team began to feel its swag when its winning streak reached 10, and in those pre-social media days, when the triumphant A's returned to their clubhouse around that time and saw they were the primary focus of ESPN's SportsCenter.

"Once we got to 10, I remember being the lead on SportsCenter, and it was like, 'Holy s--t; we're the Oakland A's and we're leading SportsCenter?! That never happens," said Byrnes, now an analyst for the MLB Network.

"It became an inside joke in the dugout: Hey, let's not give up our lead, let's make sure we watch our highlights first tonight."

Byrnes and Hudson identify with these Indians.

"As a starting pitcher, it seemed like there was a lot of pressure because you can't win a game in the first inning, but a lot of times you can lose a game in the first if you're not on your game," Hudson said. "You almost had playoff pressure on you to put up zeroes early in games."

Game after game over these incredible past three weeks, Indians starting pitchers have been up to the challenge. And so has everybody else.

Moments from this streak will stand out forever to the Indians and their fans. Admitting to being biased in favor of his fellow relievers, one of Miller's favorite days was watching Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway piece together a "bullpen game" in Chicago, a 9-4 win over the White Sox on Sept. 5 near the end of the 11-0 trip. Following the doubleheaders in New York and Detroit, the Indians' rotation was close to being overly taxed, and eight pitchers produced that night: Salazar, Nick Goody, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Joe Smith, Tyler Olson, Bryan Shaw and Shawn Armstrong.

"What's kind of cool about our game is that when you do things, and do things right, like hitting streaks," Francona said, "I think it means more when you're not going out of your way [to keep a hitting streak going] and someone hits on a 3 and 0 count when you're down five runs.

"Our guys are playing to win in the right way. That part's really meaningful. They should enjoy it. What they're doing is pretty special."

What the Indians are doing since hiring Francona before the 2013 season is extremely special.

"Turning point in franchise history," Hamilton said. "We had gone through three dreadful years of 90-plus losses. You didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. We were, like, 'We're getting Terry Francona, the guy who won World Series in Boston? How are we getting him?!'

"If he wins one World Series, he'll have a statue in front of the ballpark like Bob Feller, Jim Thome, Larry Doby and Frank Robinson."

Steve Nesius/Associated Press

Now there he is after each game, an old-school baseball guy who lives for those nine innings each night, stuck trying to explain all of the magic and history his team is packing into them.

Asked the other day about the controversy surrounding the game's all-time longest winning streak—the tie included in the Giants' 26-game streak—Francona did one of the things he does best: laugh.

"I wasn't there," he explained of that 101-year-old streak. "I have given that zero thought. I promise you, I've given it no thought."

Said Miller: "His postgame interviews are must-see TV. He's having fun with it."

Best part is, aside from opponents who are getting drubbed on a nightly basis, everybody else is, too. Friday night's game with the Royals sold out within minutes of the Indians extending their winning streak to 22, and in the middle of the work week, with school in session, the Indians pulled in a walk-up crowd of nearly 10,000 for Wednesday's noon start against Detroit. Among the total 29,346 who attended was a man hoisting a sign that read: "I Turned 44 Today But I Feel 21."

"That's an example of how people so embrace this," DiBiasio said. "Sports has almost turned into an event mentality. If it isn't a huge, huge event, then people aren't as into it.

"A 20-game winning streak, that's a daily event that has people like a 40-year-old man making a sign like an eight-year-old coming to the ballpark. That's what it does."

              

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Related

    Yankees' Voit Passes Concussion Testing After Taking 91 MPH Pitch to Face

    MLB logo
    MLB

    Yankees' Voit Passes Concussion Testing After Taking 91 MPH Pitch to Face

    Adam Wells
    via Bleacher Report

    Mike Leake Misses Perfection in the 9th

    MLB logo
    MLB

    Mike Leake Misses Perfection in the 9th

    Megan Armstrong
    via Bleacher Report

    Indians Top Royals 10-5 for 6th Win in Row

    Cleveland Indians logo
    Cleveland Indians

    Indians Top Royals 10-5 for 6th Win in Row

    WKYC
    via WKYC

    Andruw Jones: 'We Got a Problem' If Jeter Isn't Unanimous HOF Selection

    MLB logo
    MLB

    Andruw Jones: 'We Got a Problem' If Jeter Isn't Unanimous HOF Selection

    Megan Armstrong
    via Bleacher Report