BOSTON—The champagne was still corked. The plastic sheeting in the Fenway Park visitors’ clubhouse was dry. The celebration wasn’t even five minutes old when the first “Thank you Hoynsie” chants broke out.
The Cleveland Indians were ALDS champions, having swept the imposing Red Sox to clinch a three-game series in which they tied or led at the end of 26 of the 27 innings, and the first person they toasted was not a player or a coach or even a staffer but the Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer, Paul Hoynes.
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Every team buys in on some level to the “nobody believes in us” mentality, but perhaps none as strongly as this Indians squad. The night Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco took a line drive off his right hand to break his pinky and end his season, Hoynes wrote an article that began, “The Indians won a ballgame Saturday afternoon, but their postseason dreams ended. Write it down. On Sept. 17, the Indians were eliminated from serious postseason advancement before they even got there.”
Of course, the team jumped on it. Within 11 hours of the story’s posting, All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis was feuding on Twitter with Hoynes. Righthander Trevor Bauer joined in later that day. Ten days later, on the night the Indians clinched the AL Central, 2014 Cy Young Award–winner Corey Kluber tweeted a Photoshopped image of the Cavaliers’ return to Cleveland after their ’16 NBA Finals title depicting Kipnis as Kyrie Irving, Bauer as J.R. Smith and Hoynes as LeBron James. (That clinch celebration also featured some chanting aimed at Hoynes.) The team had clearly not moved on.
Emotionally, at least. On the field Cleveland went 8–5, including a sweep of its final series, against the Royals, to roll into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the American League. After a layoff of four days, the Indians knocked Red Sox ace and Cy Young Award candidate Rick Porcello out of the game with five runs in 4 1/3 innings and manager Terry Francona got six outs—in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings—from fireman Andrew Miller en route to a 5–4, series-opening win. In Game 2 they scored five on $217 million man David Price in 3 1/3 as Kluber went seven shutout innings. A rainout on Sunday threatened to offer a reset to the team that won the most games in the American League in the second half, that scored the most runs in baseball this season, that fielded a possible Cy Young Award winner and a possible MVP (rightfielder Mookie Betts); but even nature could not derail these Indians.
They burst to a 2–0 lead in the fourth inning of Game 3 on a single by rookie centerfielder Tyler Naquin, who led the majors with a .366 average and a .715 slugging percentage on off-speed pitches. With one out and men on second and third, he laced a curveball down the rightfield line. Righthander Josh Tomlin, whose 4.40 ERA actually outperformed his 4.88 FIP this year, held Boston scoreless until the fifth, when shortstop Xander Bogaerts scored from first on a double—the AL-leading 14th time he did so this season—by rookie leftfielder Andrew Benintendi.
Cleveland got that run and another one right back when leftfielder and former Red Sox Coco Crisp, acquired from the A’s in August, drilled a Drew Pomeranz knuckle curve over the left-centerfield wall with a man on in the sixth.
Francona summoned Miller in the bottom of the inning for another six outs, which included the final RBI of DH David Ortiz’s 20-year career, on a line-drive sacrifice fly that scored second baseman Dustin Pedroia in the sixth. Closer Cody Allen, who threw only 19 of his 40 pitches for strikes and went to 3–1 counts on his final three hitters, let the Red Sox make it interesting with another run in the eighth, but the Indians held on for the win and the dogpile. And the chant.
“We definitely took notice of it,” Bauer said of the article in the clubhouse afterward, taking a break from pouring beers down the back of the shirt of anyone who walked by. “The problem is when one person gets hurt or two people get hurt and they say we’re done, it discounts the effort and the talent of everybody else. It’s a team game, it’s not an individual game, and that’s the part that’s really upsetting, is when someone discounts the efforts of everyone else on the roster. We’re a good team.”
They are. But things will not be so easy for them as the series grow from five games to seven. They will be forced to use their fourth starter, likely righty Mike Clevinger, he of the 5.26 ERA in 53 innings this year. If stud righthander Danny Salazar, out since Sept. 9 with a strain of his right flexor musculature, does return, it will be as a reliever, and there’s no telling how he’ll respond to that role or to the rehab process. (There is no hope of a return for Carrasco; he was strolling around the clubhouse after the game with his hot-pink cast—the color chosen by his five-year-old daughter, Camila—in the plastic bag he covers it in to shower. “I did it the first [celebration] and now the second one,” he said of the contraption. “Two more to go.”) And Francona’s liberal use of his relief aces could catch up with them at any time; Allen has beaten his career high in innings, and Miller has thrown more this season than in any since 2009, when he was still a starter. Their opponents, the Blue Jays, also swept their first-round matchup, and Toronto is at almost full health.
On the Indians’ side is their scratch-it-out offense—eight of the 12 position players who appeared in the series drove in runs, and three of the other four had hits—and their tactical genius of a manager. Francona is famous for deploying his pitching staff masterfully in the postseason, and so far this October has been no aberration.
“We essentially have two closers,” said first baseman Mike Napoli, minutes before removing his shirt and parading through the clubhouse. “Everyone wants to think it’s always the ninth inning, but there are certain times in the game that it’s a closing situation, and Tito knows that, and to be able to put a stop to a rally, or the big part of the lineup’s coming up, that’s a closing situation. He’s always ready and he plans ahead. It’s cool that we’ve got guys [for whom] it’s not about the ninth inning, it’s about winning.”
Miller and Allen both insisted that they are ready to go for the ALCS and beyond—“If you’re gonna blow it out at any point in the season, it might as well be now,” said Allen—and the starters and hitters feel the same way. The layoff before the series starts on Friday can’t hurt, either. And they’re not concerned about being underdogs in the next round.
“I’m sure a lot of people still have us losing,” Kipnis said of the ALCS as he shook champagne from his beard. “I’m looking forward to that.”