CLEVELAND — Still surprised by the franchise-record turnaround and searching for reasons why the Indians are playoff-bound for the first time since 2007? Manager Terry Francona might be a good place to start.
“You knew with Tito it was going to be an exciting year, just by the experience he brings and the character that he has,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “When you have guys like that in front of you leading the way, you knew a season like this was possible.”
From Day 1, with Francona and his World Series pedigree in the fold, this year had a different feel. But few could have predicted it would change the culture of losing that had lingered for years and leave Cleveland atop the American League wild-card race, awaiting Tampa Bay, a 5-2 winner over Texas on Monday night, for a winner-take-all, one-game playoff Wednesday at Progressive Field.
“The manager can absolutely have an effect,” Kipnis said. “He allows his players to go out and play the game. Guys can play with a little less pressure on themselves.
“We showed up. We didn’t even act like we were in a race. We had fun, we stayed loose and that’s what helped us go all the way.”
But Francona would tell you — as he does whenever he gets the opportunity — he certainly hasn’t gone it alone during his debut season with the Indians.
Ownership was willing to spend and general manager Chris Antonetti orchestrated a number of beneficial trades and signings that helped assemble a group largely void of stars — a team in the truest sense of the word.
“Organizationally, it’s really fulfilling because so many people contributed to get us to this point,” said Antonetti, who has gotten little positive publicity for the majority of his three-year tenure as GM. “Obviously, the group of guys we have embodies what a team’s about because everybody contributed. It may not be the superstars that are recognized around baseball, but it’s been a team that came together and we won a lot of games. It’s really been a collective effort.”
Indians owner Paul Dolan was part of the postgame celebration at Target Field on Sunday.
“It’s an extraordinary moment for this franchise,” Dolan said. “The way we turned it around this year. To win 92 games and to do it the way they did it with the people who did it. That was great for the franchise and the community. We’re thrilled we can bring a playoff game back to Cleveland again.
“In reality the core of the team was here. Those guys went from suffering through last year to pouring champagne all over each other. It’s a great moment for all of us.”
It’s the players who ultimately have to get it done on the field and the Indians did — despite justifiably being counted out on multiple occasions — with contributions from nearly everyone on a roster bolstered by a number of offseason additions, including team leader Nick Swisher.
“Just to be able to be one of the forefront guys to help turn this organization around, it’s such an honor for me to be here,” Swisher said. “To have the front office guys just to have faith in bringing over guys like myself … Man, to go out and give them this. This is awesome.”
“Really from Day 1 in spring training, we believed in the group of guys,” Antonetti said. “They’ve continued to demonstrate that resiliency. Every time we hit a tough stretch, we came back and found a way to run off some wins. There was really never a time we doubted the group.”
Cleveland’s march to a long-awaited postseason berth truly was a collective effort guided by a manager who undisputedly made a difference in the results department. And Francona wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I just don’t think that we could have done this without everybody,” he said. “You can point in every direction. That’s just the way our team is constructed. From the front office to the training staff to the clubhouse guys to our coaching staff — it’s been a we thing all year. And that’s the only way we could do it.”
Ubaldo Jimenez was named AL Pitcher of the Month on Monday. Jimenez (13-9, 3.30 ERA) went 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in six September starts, limiting opposing hitters to a .230 average, while striking out 51 over 41⅓ innings.
* The Indians will work out at Progressive Field today in preparation for the wild-card game against Tampa Bay. Right-hander Danny Salazar will start for Cleveland.