Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland Indians have not won the World Series since 1948.

This isn't exactly a secret, but it's also not discussed all that often. It doesn't get the press of the Cubs or (now defunct) Red Sox droughts. When it is mentioned, it's most commonly in the context of the tortured city of Cleveland as a whole, with Dusty Rhodes and Edgar Renteria being mixed together with John Elway and Brian Sipe and Jordan-over-Ehlo and the Decision.

But the Indians' drought on its own is pretty noteworthy - it's the second-longest active one in baseball (at least depending on how you feel about expansion teams who've never won the World Series), and it's been going since the Berlin Airlift and Dewey Defeats Truman. It started before MASH, and before the war that MASH was set in. My grandmother's seventh birthday came a little over a month after the Indians won their last title. Heck, it was so long ago that the team they beat in the World Series was the Boston Braves, who had not yet seen the debuts of Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron.

As with the more famous active drought, the Indians have been pretty bad for most of their fallow period, but they've had some good teams as well. We talked about their 112-win team in 1954 in the New York Giants' entry. The other notable great drought-period Indians team came in the mid-'90s, and their best season was the strike-shortened 1995 year, in which they went 100-44 and won the newly-formed AL Central by 30 games.

And then came the team's best postseason win. 1995 ALDS Game 1: Indians 5, Red Sox 4 (13). Cleveland started Dennis Martinez, a very good pitcher who had just completed a fine age-41 season. Boston's starter, on the other hand, was coming off of a down year - which would have been more reassuring to the opposition if he wasn't Roger Clemens.

Both pitchers had a pretty easy time of it for the first two innings, with the only baserunner on either side coming courtesy of a Mike Greenwell single in the top of the second. Boston then opened the scoring in the third when Luis Alicea singled and John Valentin homered to take a 2-0 lead.

Clemens was perfect through three, but the Indians threatened in the fourth on singles by Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga. The Sox ace recovered to retire Albert Belle and Eddie Murray, stranding both runners. The Red So wasted an Alicea single-and-steal in the top of the fifth, and both teams went runnerless in their next turns at bat.

Cleveland mounted a two-out rally in the sixth on an Omar Vizquel walk and a Baerga single. Belle then doubled both runners home to tie the game, and Murray singled Belle around to put the Indians in front. Julian Tavarez relieved Martinez in the seventh, and he and Clemens exchanged 1-2-3 innings. In the top of the eighth, however, Alicea led off with a homer to tie the game at 3. Valentin's one-out single chased Tavarez, and Paul Assenmacher and Eric Plunk combined to work around Valentin taking third on a steal-and-error to preserve the tie.

Clemens was pulled to start the eighth, and the Indians threatened against Rheal Cormier, who walked Vizquel and hit Baerga with a pitch. Stan Belinda and Mike Stanton retired a batter apiece to leave both runners on. In the ninth, Plunk allowed a leadoff single to Greenwell, who then moved to second on a bunt before being left there. Stanton set the Indians down in order to send the game to extras.

Both teams put a runner in scoring position in the tenth. Dwayne Hosey and Valentin opened the innings with walks from Jose Mesa, who recovered on lineouts from Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco, the latter of which was converted into a double play. Sandy Alomar led off the bottom of the inning with a bunt hit and was pulled for a pinch runner; Vizquel hit into a one-out force, but stole second before Baerga struck out to leave him there. Jim Poole relieved Mesa in the top of the eleventh and yielded a go-ahead homer to Tim Naehring, but Belle greeted Rick Aguilera with a game-tying solo shot in the bottom of the inning. Singles by Jim Thome and Paul Sorrento would put the winning run in scoring position before Mike Maddux relieved and retired Tony Pena, who had replaced Alomar behind the plate, to end the rally.

Each team mounted a serious threat in the twelfth. Alicea led off the top of the inning with a double; Poole struck out two of the next three Red Sox, sandwiched around an intentional walk to Valentin, before Ken Hill relieved and fanned Canseco to end the inning. Lofton was hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the inning, and Vizquel reached on an error to put runners at the corners with nobody out. Baerga popped up, and Maddux intentionally walked Belle to load the bases. Zane Smith relieved and coaxed Murray to hit into a force at home, then drew a groundout from Thome to leave the bases loaded.

Boston tried again in the thirteenth when Greenwell led off with a single, but they advanced him only to second before the inning ended. And in the bottom of the inning, with two outs, 38-year-old backup catcher Tony Pena homered to give the Indians the victory.

There's quite a bit going on in this one - each team blew a lead in regulation, and Boston blew one in extras as well before the Indians finally finished them off. The Sox went 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position, with eight of those at bats coming in the eighth inning or later; Cleveland was a slightly-better 2 for 11, and 0 for 7 from the eighth inning on. Boston had an unlikely hero in ninth hitter Luis Alicea, who had four hits, including a double and a game-tying homer; the Indians countered with a walkoff homer from a slap-hitting 38-year-old who wasn't even in the lineup to start the game.

All in all, WPL sees this as a top-10 postseason game all time. Quite a way for baseball to usher in a new playoff format, as this was one of the first two ALDS games ever played.

The Indians of the mid-'90s never did win a World Series (obviously, given the intro of this post), but they did put together quite a collection of outstanding victories in individual games. The 1997 ALCS against the Orioles is particularly notable in this regard, as all four of Cleveland's victories (Game 2, in which Marquis Grissom hit a go-ahead eighth-inning homer off of Armando Benitez, Game 3, a Hershiser-Mussina duel that ended up a 2-1 12-inning victory, Game 4, which had alternating leads of 1-0, 2-1, 5-2, and 7-5, then saw Baltimore rally to tie it at 7 in the ninth before the Indians walked off in the bottom of the inning, and Game 6, in which Mussina once again shut down the Indians only to see his team go 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position, after which Benitez gave up a solo homer in the eleventh to lose 1-0) rank among the top 200 postseason games ever played. (Yeah, that's a really good series, and if his team had scored a few runs for him, it might have put Mussina in the Hall of Fame by now.)

Even outside of the '97 ALCS, the Indians had some fine wins, including 1995 World Series Game 3, a see-saw 7-6 11-inning duel with the Braves, and 1998 ALCS Game 2, in which the Indians waited out David Cone and Mariano Rivera, then broke through in the twelfth for a 4-1 win. Slightly more recently, the 2007 Indians also had a pair of exemplary playoff victories - ALDS Game 2, in which Joba Chamberlain's understandable aversion to swarms of bugs enabled a late rally and an extra-inning victory, and ALCS Game 2, which lasted 13 innings before Cleveland broke it open to win 13-6.

If you prefer an old-school game, the best option is the clinching sixth contest of the 1948 World Series, which saw Cleveland break a tie in the sixth on a Joe Gordon homer, then tack on a couple of insurance runs that they ended up needing when the Braves not only scored twice in the eighth, but put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position before Gene Bearden stranded them. Whatever luck they used to escape that jam, they still haven't rediscovered it.

Our next entry will also feature a team with a title drought, albeit one less than half as long as Cleveland's. We'll be sticking around the AL Central and seeing what WPL thinks of the Tigers' best playoff work. But with New Year's coming up, that will have to wait until 2016.

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