There are several points in every baseball season where it's time to take stock of the races—find out who's who and what's what in both the divisional and wild-card battles.
Even with seven weeks to go until the playoffs, it's not too early to ask if the Indians' recent surge truly means they're World Series threats. There's no better measuring stick than the current four-game series with the powerhouse Yankees.
Bludgeoning New York to the tune of a 19-5 victory Thursday night was quite a good start to making that statement.
Even after losing two of three to the Red Sox earlier this week, the Tribe are the hottest team in baseball, going 44-19 since June 2. They are also the biggest risk-takers, having traded away Trevor Bauer, arguably their best pitcher, to the Reds in a three-way deal that netted them Yasiel Puig.
All Puig has done is hit .357 with a .984 OPS in his first 11 games, bolstering a lineup that needed more power from the right side. Although Puig missed the series against Boston, serving a three-game suspension for his part in a brawl between the Reds and Pirates on July 30, he returned Thursday night in the Bronx and figures to be a critical part of the Indians attack all weekend.
Puig is no small addition to the Indians: Adrenalized by the race in the Central Division and under the guidance of a legendary manager in Terry Francona, the Cuban-born star could be the difference-maker the Indians needed all along.
He got on board in time for a statement-making series against the Twins last weekend. The Indians took three of four and sat alone atop the Central Division on Monday night for the first time since April 17. They're looking for their fourth consecutive division title and then some.
The question is whether the Indians have enough firepower to interfere with the October collision everyone is expecting in the American League—Yankees vs. Astros, one behemoth against another, both franchises using the remainder of the regular season as calisthenics for the playoffs.
One major league executive offered a cautious "maybe" when asked if the Indians were capable of the kind of upsets that would land them in the World Series.
"I would never underestimate any team managed by Terry Francona," is how the executive began. "But the real answer is with [Cleveland's] pitching staff. Are they going to have all their arms?"
That question hangs over the Indians like a guillotine. Corey Kluber has been out since May 1 with a fractured forearm. Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia. Bauer, of course, is gone, and the starting rotation has been filled with a number of younger pitchers, including Jefry Rodriguez, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale.
The good news is that Kluber's recovery is moving swiftly. He has already made two minor league rehab starts and could return to the rotation by the end of the month.
Carrasco has been cleared by his doctors to face minor leaguers and could return to the majors by season's end. If nothing else, the Indians have the majors' best bullpen.
That's why a miniature war against the Yankees carries so much significance, even with the postseason still so far down the road. The reality is, Cleveland has thrived against the lesser teams in the AL in the second half (16-4 against the Royals, Rangers, Tigers, Angels and Blue Jays) and reside in inarguably the worst division in baseball.
The fact that the Indians fell flat against Boston takes some of the luster off their Twins takedown—and makes it imperative for a series win in the Bronx against the AL's best. After a 19-run explosion in the first game of the series, Cleveland is two wins away from accomplishing just that in a big way.
But that's not an easy ask, as the Yankees just finished obliterating the Orioles, scoring 33 runs in a four-game sweep. Yes, of course it's easy—if not a requirement—to say the O's don't belong on the same field with the Bombers. They lost their last 16 games against the Yankees this year, and even in the lowest ebb of a rebuilding cycle, no major league team should be that helpless.
The outcomes against the Yankees were so one-sided and seemingly so preordained, the Bombers, struggling to be polite, were left praising the Orioles for not allowing the games to devolve into bean-ball wars.
Said one veteran: "Lot of teams getting beat like that, they start throwing at you, somehow think it's what you're supposed to do. But not (the Orioles). They're still playing hard. We do respect that."
After fattening up on Baltimore, the Bombers are a remarkable 39 games over .500, a whopping 9.5 games ahead of the second-place Rays. Their run differential is plus-152. The Astros are sitting almost as pretty: 34 games over .500, 8.5 games ahead of the A's with a plus-181 run differential.
You want to talk about King Kong versus Godzilla? There you go, the two clubs that look downright unstoppable. The Indians have scored 95 fewer runs than Houston, 154 fewer than the Yankees. The question remains: Can the Indians contain either one of these lineups?
We'll find out soon enough. But the Tribe do have a compelling argument in their favor. Even without Kluber and Carrasco, they have the AL's second-lowest ERA (3.68). Both might be around in October. Which is another way of saying: Don't sleep on us just yet.