Indians relish opportunity they have in final four games
CLEVELAND -- There are numbers aplenty to illustrate how the Indians are playing as the season winds down, but the season comes down to one number: Four.
Four games remain, in Minnesota. Play well and there will be more games, perhaps another one in Progressive Field. Don’t play well, and, well … Cleveland fans know how that story ends.
Does manager Terry Francona have a special speech in store before Thursday’s first game of a season-ending series against the Twins?
“Noooo,” he said. “I’ll stay out of the way, man. I don’t want to mess it up. They’re doing just fine.”
Typical self-deprecating statement from the Indians manager, a guy who has played as big a role as anyone in the Indians winning 88 games, 20 more than a year ago.
But also correct, because the Indians are doing just fine right now.
Wednesday’s win over Chicago was their 14th in a row over the White Sox (Hawk Harrelson may truly be speechless), their ninth in 10 games, 11th in 13 and sixth in a row. The Indians concluded the home schedule with a 51-30 record, and a happy sendoff from a raucous and energetic crowd of 30,942.
“It was really kind of electric, and that’s pretty cool,” Francona said. “Hopefully we’ll play more games here because the fans really showed their appreciation. And they seemed very excited. It’s a lot of fun when it’s like that here.”
Jason Giambi provided the electrifying win Tuesday night, then received a standing ovation when he came to the plate Wednesday. The fans roared at every one of the Indians pitchers 16 strikeouts, then gave Justin Masterson a standing ovation when he made his first appearance since Sept. 2 for a scoreless ninth.
As fun as the win was for the fans and team, the Indians only kept pace. Because Tampa Bay remained a game ahead of Cleveland by beating (and eliminating) the Yankees, and the Rangers remained a game behind by beating Houston.
Many games at different points can decide how a season goes, but when four games are left and three teams fighting for two spots are within two games of each other, those four games take on larger proportions.
“It’s very exciting to go play games that are this meaningful,” Francona said. “This is as good as it gets.”
How do the players look on it?
“Must win games,” said Mike Aviles.
“They’re must wins until they’re proven otherwise,” said Jason Kipnis.
The players did their best Bull Durham and trotted out the cliches, but with this team it’s not totally cliche because it’s been their approach all season. Forged by their manager, the Indians simply try to be one run better every game.
“The truth of the matter is our destiny is in our own hands,” said Drew Stubbs. “We just can’t take anything for granted.”
“We have to play one game at a time,” Giambi said. “Everything is so close.”
To many of the Indians, this is a new experience. The last two seasons this team was simply playing out the string at this point.
“Not only are we finishing on a high note,” Kipnis said, “we’re playing in front of loud crowds, we’re playing meaningful games, we’re coming to the field with a purpose, with nerves and with excitement for the game instead of just showing up and going through the motions. It’s what every player would rather have every single day.”
The Indians know Minnesota will play well, especially at home, but they see an opportunity and not a challenge. Players nearly scoffed when asked if the four games represented excitement or pressure.
“The minute you turn it into pressure is when you start to go south,” Stubbs said.
“Excitement for sure,” Aviles said. “We have confidence in our abilities and we know if we go out there and play the game the way like we know how, we should be OK.”
“You got to be excited,” said Giambi, the team’s spiritual leader. “Any time that you have control of your own destiny that’s what it’s all about. We just have to go out and play baseball. We don’t have to scoreboard watch or anything. We just have to go out and play baseball.”
Francona quipped that he has a place in Minnesota where he likes to buy shirts, but the prices aren’t all that good. Then he added the team would jump on the plane and get ready to play.
“We just got to play baseball,” Giambi said. “That’s all we got to do. Go play. … We don’t have to worry about anybody else beating anybody else, we just got to go out and play baseball, and that’s the fun part of the game.”