2. Cleveland Indians champions. It’s tempting. It’s alluring. They are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Corey Kluber is a true ace and Carlos Carrasco a delightful No. 2 and have you seen how good Trevor Bauer has been? (You probably haven’t: 53 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings and a 2.38 ERA since Aug. 1.)
Jose Ramirez is a legitimate MVP candidate, and Carlos Santana has been practically his equal in the second half. Francisco Lindor is still the goods, and the Edwin Encarnacion signing has been a rousing success. The Indians’ depth is silly. Jay Bruce and Lonnie Chisenhall and Austin Jackson in the outfield can make up for injuries to Michael Brantley (without whom they’ve ripped off this entire streak, and who is looking less and less likely to be a factor come playoff time) and rookie Brad Zimmer (who hurt himself Sunday). Maybe the weirdest fact of the streak: The only player to participate in all 18 games is Giovanny Urshela, a slick-gloved, .227-hitting utilityman.
Another cool fact: In their first innings since Aug. 24, the Indians are hitting
.393/.457/.726 and holding opposing hitters to a .179/.281/.339 line. It’s intimidating enough to face Cleveland’s pitching staff, its lineup, its bullpen – which, oh yeah, is doing this without Andrew Miller, either, meaning 40 percent of their All-Stars have been shelved for it.
Ramirez is up there alongside Jose Altuve and Mike Trout for MVP consideration, and Lindor already has hit more home runs this season (29) than he did over 994 at-bats in his first two (27). Considering how he carried them last October, though, the emergence of …
3. Corey Kluber as every bit of a dominant a pitcher as he was last year has been comforting – and the toughest matchup for any Indian in September thus far has been the final stages of his rodeo with Chris Sale for the AL Cy Young. Consider the season-long numbers.
Pitcher A: 16-7, 2.76 ERA, 195 2/3 IP, 12.8 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, .202/.249/.328, 6.75 IP/start
Pitcher B: 15-4, 2.56 ERA, 175 2/3 IP, 12.0 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, .191/.237/.328, 7.03 IP/start
Pitcher A is Sale because he has an A in his name. Pitcher B is Kluber because he has a B in his name. The duel for the award is far better than the genius who dreamt up the rationale behind who was Pitcher A and Pitcher B.
Kluber’s ERA is marginally better. Sale’s peripherals are marginally better. Kluber gives his team about an out more a game. Sale has thrown 20 more innings. Between that and the likelihood he reaches 300 strikeouts, Sale remains the favorite. This is the rare race legitimately close enough to hinge on one start, though, because Sale and Kluber are that good and that similar. In the race for the AL Cy Young, they’re Nos. 1 and 2, and there really isn’t a No. 3.
Were this the mid-’90s and …
4. Jimmy Nelson was part of the AL as a Milwaukee Brewer, he might find himself at least in the discussion. Nelson’s breakout as a 28-year-old, along with the continued success of rotation mate Zach Davies and the ascendance of Chase Anderson, has buoyed the Brewers to where they are today: two games behind the defending champion Cubs, whom they swept over the weekend.
It was gutting, then, to get the news that Nelson had torn his right rotator cuff on, of all things, a dive back to the first-base bag. A shoulder injury sustained while pitching? Awful but greeted with a hardened nod of understanding. A shoulder injury from a pitcher “running”? The words “designated” and “hitter” sound mighty good to the Brewers these days.
Nelson is out for the year. Surgery could sideline him for 2018, too. And it’s a shame, because as he nearly halved his walk rate and bumped his strikeout rate to 10.2 per nine innings, Nelson evolved into something more than the perfectly acceptable, slightly-below-league-average pitcher he spent his first three seasons playing. Apologies to Davies and Anderson, he was the Brewers’ best pitcher, the one likeliest to dominate a game, and in his first two starts in September, he illustrated that with 18 strikeouts over 12 shutout innings.
Now we don’t get to see him in the playoffs, which is particularly a bummer, and yields the breakout floor to …
5. Robbie Ray and the surging Diamondbacks. Zack Greinke is back to his ace self and looking well worth $30 million-plus a year. Taijuan Walker is finally a dude. Zack Godley has been his surname minus the E. And Patrick Corbin looks close to his pre-Tommy John form as we’ve seen.
None dominates like Ray. He proves the axiom: Follow the strikeouts. Wait. That’s not an axiom. Well, it should be. Because guys who miss bats like the 25-year-old Ray tend to run into success sooner than later, even if other things prevent it, like bad luck. Hitters’ average on balls in play against Ray last season: .352. That is very unlucky. This season, it’s .266, which skews similarly lucky but better reflects the dynamism of his stuff.
All of it is even more amazing considering Ray spent most of August on the disabled list after wearing a 108-mph line drive off his head. He has started four games since returning from the DL and struck out 33 in 19 1/3 innings with a 1.86 ERA. Here’s to saying he’s OK – and to hoping he gets a well-deserved postseason platform in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, presuming Greinke gets a start in the wild-card game, which presumes the Dodgers woes won’t be so bad that the NL West still isn’t some sort of a foregone conclusion. The point, before the Dodgers’ vortex sucks us back in, is that getting to see exciting players in October is exciting. That is also known as the …
6. Mike Trout corollary. Trout homered on Sunday, his first in September. He also struck out, too, which deserves something of a bulletin, because it was only Trout’s second strikeout in September against 10 walks, and if we didn’t think the best player in baseball for the last half-decade was capable of getting any better, well, by now we should know better.
Trout works this way. Pitchers are like hackers trying to find an exploit, and sometimes they succeed. At one point or another, they believed Trout was susceptible to high fastballs, low pitches and off-speed stuff. Trout patched each of these alleged deficiencies within what seemed like days, and he did so by punishing those who dared treat him like every part of the plate isn’t a nitro zone for Trout.
When someone possessing Trout’s skills takes the step to cut his strikeout rate to a career-low while growing his walk rate to a career-high – dammit, he was unfair enough before. Sacrilegious though this may be to say, Trout is approaching an almost Bondsian place, where he is so in control of his body, the strike zone and the place whence they meet, the act of getting him out seems a less-than-likely outcome.
Trout’s on-base percentage this season, after all, hovers at .458. Even though his power had not come around in September before Sunday, the sheer act of striking out just once in his first 38 plate appearances was audacious enough to make up for it. Maybe it’s a small sample that looks incredible. Maybe it’s the portent of something more – something not even the biggest dreamer could imagine. Like, say, the …
7. Los Angeles Angels making the postseason despite a starting rotation that entered Sunday with an ERA of 8.90 since September began. Yes, the same Los Angeles Angels who are one game behind the Twins for the second wild-card slot.
Parker Bridwell’s six-inning, two-run tourniquet gave the Angels at least a little breathing room on Sunday, though the Garrett Richards-Ricky Nolasco-Andrew Heaney-Tyler Skaggs quartet that comprises a turn through the Angels’ rotation feels more asthmatic than fulfilling of the lungs. Behind them, Trout is Trout, Justin Upton is on his way to his finest season ever, Andrelton Simmons not as good as his WAR says but much better than the average fan understands, and Albert Pujols not his Pujolsian self but certainly not the black hole his WAR would suggest, either.
The Angels will score some runs. And with a bullpen of unsungs like Blake Parker and Cam Bedrosian and Yusmeiro Petit and Bud Norris proving it doesn’t take pedigree to fuel a successful relief corps, the Angels are defying odds and expectations and mounting a legitimate push – or at least as legitimate as the AL and its parade of wretchedness will allow. Watching the AL wild card work its way back toward .500 is almost as confusing as seeing the …
8. Chicago Cubs spend their weekend getting swept by the Brewers. In the meantime, the St. Louis Cardinals won again Sunday, too. And here we are, on Sept. 11, with three weeks left in the season, and the Brewers and Cardinals are two games back, taking full advantage of the Cubs’ season-long struggle with recognizing the depth of their own excellence.
The struggle is seeing any still. It’s 143 games into the season, and the Cubs are 77-66, which is perfectly fine. They are a good-enough hitting team, as in good enough to make the playoffs, with an OPS that ranks sixth in the game. They are a perfectly acceptable pitching staff, too, with the game’s 10th-ranked ERA. And they’ve got the ninth-best record in baseball, which about dovetails with combination of their hitting and pitching.
What’s tough to see is something great there. Maybe it lurks within, hiding like it’s autoimmune, ready to show up when the scent of October hits. The Cubs won a championship because players showed up in October the way they had during the regular season. The weekend, in which they managed three runs in three games against the Brewers, served as a reminder that if the Cubs show up in October the way they have during the regular season, their October is going to be awfully short.
Teams do evolve in October, where certain strengths reveal themselves and weaknesses are exacerbated, and seeing as the last time the …
9. Arizona Diamondbacks were in the playoffs the only person on their current roster was Paul Goldschmidt, it’s impossible to know which version of them is going to show up. First they need Greinke to outpitch Tyler Chatwood/Jon Gray/Kyle Freeland or Carlos Martinez or Davies/Anderson or Jon Lester in the wild-card game, some of which may be easier than others. And then we get to see this rotation-centric team in a showcase where pitching rotations don’t necessarily need to matter.
Now, this is not to minimize starting pitching in the postseason. It can matter. It’s pretty sweet that the Diamondbacks can go Greinke/Ray/Godley/Walker and feel like they’ve got at least a push and probably an advantage to begin every game. And even though Fernando Rodney pulled his classic hey-I’m-gonna-commit-arson-on-a-win-and-scare-the-bejesus-out-of-the-fan-base-in-the-process maneuvers in an 8-7 loss to San Diego on Saturday, the Diamondbacks do have Archie Bradley, who quietly has turned himself into the best setup man in baseball and is every bit the breakout of Ray. Keep an eye on rookie Jimmie Sherfy, too, as he could easily brute-force his way into some high-leverage innings.
It doesn’t mean a whole lot now, and it will mean even less in October, but it’s worth remembering the Diamondbacks were the ones who started the …
10. Los Angeles Dodgers on this skid that happened to coincide with the
Cleveland Indians ’ historic run. At what felt like the apex of the Dodgers’ powers Aug. 29, the Diamondbacks beat Los Angeles 7-6. The next day it was 6-4. And then 8-1. And a week after the first series began, it was 13-0 and 3-1 and 3-1. And just like that, not only had Arizona gained six games on the Dodgers, the Dodgers had lost six straight to the likeliest team to face them in a best-of-five division series.
The end of the regular season does not necessarily translate to the postseason. We said that earlier. We’ll say it no matter how many straight the Indians win and how many in a row the Dodgers drop. The Indians are a really good team. The Dodgers are, too.
Remember: They’ve still got Kershaw, and he’s still the best pitcher in the world, all due respect to Kluber, Sale and Max Scherzer, with whom Kershaw combines for the current pitching Mount Rushmore. They’ve got Corey Seager back, and even if he’s dinged up, he’s still one of the best players in the world. They’ve got Kenley Jansen, the best closer around. And they’ve got depth, and the most shocking part of the Dodgers’ crash is that depth is supposed to prevent this very sort of thing. That it hasn’t makes this seem even likelier to be a fluke.
Because remember, too, the 2015 Kansas City Royals entered September with an 80-50 record. They won two of their first three. Then a losing streak. Plus more losses. And more. And by the end of the month, they were 10-17. And, no, that’s not 1-15, but the point is that the Royals left themselves some time to remind themselves they weren’t this bad, and they finished the season with five consecutive wins. That they eventually won the World Series isn’t supposed to bring the Dodgers or those panicky fans solace so much as to remind them that as atypical as something like this may be, the Dodgers aren’t so weak of mind, talent or character that they’ll fall apart anymore than they already have. This is the nadir. It must be.
Cleveland, meanwhile, gets to host the woebegone Detroit Tigers for three games with the 1935 Chicago Cubs’ record of 21 straight wins within their sights. Because baseball is weird, the Tigers may win a game, may win all three. They may also be the latest victims from an Indians team that on July 19 was 48-45 and had just lost two in a row to San Francisco.
Since then, the Indians have played .780 baseball, a 39-11 record. The flirts are no longer. The bridesmaids want the dress, the cake and the honeymoon. And as Terry Francona puts the finishing touches on another masterful job and the Cleveland Indians stare at history, it stares right back, wondering if this streak is simply the beginning of something a whole lot more historic.
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