October 25, 2014

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Dan Coughlin: Indians have evolved into postseason contender

The Indians vs. the Yankees is one of the best story lines ever. It could be a book or a movie. The good guys usually prevail only in the movies.
In “Major League” the good guys prevail over an evil owner.
In “The Natural” the good guys prevail over an evil owner.
In “The Indians vs. the Yankees” the good guys prevail over an evil empire.
At least, that’s how the idealists write the script. Let’s hope the idealists prevail.
The Indians headed for New York leading a best-of-five series 2-0 after beating the Yankees 12-3 with four home runs in the first game and by outpitching them in the second game, 2-1.
If there’s any other way to win a game besides outhitting them and outpitching them, I haven’t seen it.
Oh, wait. Friday night the Indians bugged them. The Lake Erie midges definitely played a role in Friday night’s 11-inning marathon.
After that game the Yankees’ entourage of planes sat on the tarmac at Burke Lakefront Airport like so many airborne limousines for the return flight to New York. There was the big jetliner for the team and its equipment and seven private jets, all in the 12-passenger range. The pilots waited outside their planes like limo drivers. Their passengers were running late.
The Indians are more frugal. They save up their frequent flier miles.
That’s how the Indians are perceived — a team with no money, no stars and no reputation. Perception is not reality, however, when a scoreboard is involved.
One of the best parts of this story is that an unknown Clevelander, Larry Dolan, and his family, who bought the Indians in 2000, had a plan and they stayed with it despite years of criticism.
They were fans. They were not baseball insiders. But they believed in certain principles and they had the patience to, as someone said, “stay the course.” They promised they would build a contender with pitching, a farm system and selective spending.
Eureka! You have the 2007 Indians. They fulfilled their pledge.
Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter knew it. The day before this series started Jeter acknowledged that the Indians tied for the best record in all of baseball.
At least he noticed. The Indians and Boston were the two best teams in baseball and the Indians finished stronger because of better pitching. Not everyone was paying attention. Many people compared the Indians to a wild-card entry that slipped through by accident or dumb luck.
First of all, many of the Indians are unknowns. The starting lineup includes 21-year-old rookie Asdrubal Cabrera at second base and two others with less than one-third of a major league season before this year.
First baseman Ryan Garko played in 51 games previously and right fielder Franklin Gutierrez played in 50.
Two of the key setup guys in the bullpen opened the season in the minors. One, Jensen Lewis, wasn’t called up until September. Left-handed setup man Rafael Perez had pitched 12 innings with the Indians before this year.
Fausto Carmona had a disastrous rookie season last year, going 1-10 as a starter and closer. If he had suffered a nervous breakdown, no one would have been surprised. He earned it.
Friday night he limited the Yankees to three hits in nine innings.
The Indians’ starting lineup underwent dramatic changes between Opening Day and the Fourth of July. Throw away those April scouting reports. Two starting pitchers, Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers, aren’t even on the postseason roster.
Then there’s the daily lineup. Andy Marte opened at third base. Casey Blake platooned in right field with Trot Nixon and at first base with Garko. In left field Jason Michaels platooned with Dave Dellucci. Josh Barfield was at second base.
Those are five positions that had to be fixed. Marte went to the minors, Nixon and Barfield went to the bench and Dellucci went to surgery.
In the meantime, the Indians acquired Kenny Lofton for left field and installed Gutierrez in right. Immediately the worst defensive outfield in the American League became one of the best. Cabrera was called up to replace Barfield at second base, Garko became permanent at first base and Casey Blake returned to third base to stay.
You probably have been following the metamorphosis of the Indians. It’s as though the Dolans, Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge took a mound of clay and sculpted a pretty good-looking statue.
The Yankees, on the other hand, are placing all of their hopes today on a 45-year-old pitcher, Roger Clemens, who came out of retirement this summer to save them. And to collect $20 million.
Dan Coughlin is a columnist for The Chronicle-Telegram and a sportscaster for Channel 8. Contact him at ctsports@chroniclet.com.