In hindsight, it’s weird to look at a team which just made the World Series and feel the least bit surprised. That said, as the Cleveland Indians recover from a night filled with equal parts winning and champagne, you can’t help but be amazed they made it this far.
You’ve seen all the reasoning why the Tribe’s World Series berth is unexpected. The injuries to the rotation. The loss of Michael Brantley, easily one of the most talented hitters on the roster. Facing juggernaut offenses in the form of the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.
Each of these factors could’ve individually ended Cleveland’s season earlier than the team would’ve hoped. Instead, the Indians were able to overcome these and every other hurdle in their way in order to put themselves four wins away from a championship.
There are many reasons for this success, but it’s tough to argue against the biggest being the man running the show. Manager Terry Francona has not only kept this team afloat through each bit of adversity, but also just perfectly managed his way to an AL pennant.
Just look at how he’s navigated the Indians through every bit of rough seas they came across to this point.
In Game 1 of the ALDS, starter Trevor Bauer looked decent, but shaky. As a result, Francona pulled him in the fifth inning as Cleveland clung to a 4-3 lead, handing the reigns to super-reliever Andrew Miller. Both he and closer Cody Allen helped finish the game, each throwing 40 pitches in their respective appearances.
In Game 3 of the ALCS, Bauer again threw a curve ball Francona’s way, as his bleeding pinkie forced him to be pulled after logging just two outs. Cleveland was forced to ride its bullpen from that point on, with no reliever logging more than five outs en route to a victory.
In yesterday’s close-out Game 5, Francona sent rookie Ryan Merritt to the mound for his second career start. While Toronto felt Merritt would be “shaking in his boots,” he instead shut down almost every batter he faced.
Each move was met with initial scrutiny, and for good reason. These were the kind of decisions Francona would be skewered for had they backfired on him. In a postseason where Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter took it in the teeth for not putting his best reliever on the mound in a tied wild card game and saving him for a lead which never came, Francona sending Miller out in the fifth inning in Game 1 and having both he and Allen throw 40 pitches each just seemed ripe for criticism. As did trusting an untested rookie to help punch a ticket to the World Series.
As we know, Francona isn’t being criticized today. Instead, he’s receiving rightful praise, for the simple reason that all these brash calls worked perfectly.
It’s his astounding ability to make all the right moves that has Cleveland in a position to win the franchise’s first World Series since 1948. The pitching has excelled, the offense has done just enough, but Francona pushing all the right buttons deserves a sizable amount of credit.
Theoretically, we should’ve seen it coming, as he’s been doing this all year. He leaned on the bullpen in a crucial September bout with the Detroit Tigers after Carlos Carrasco took a line drive to his hand two pitches into the game. He hasn’t used Miller in what anyone would call a “conventional” way since the team acquired him this summer. He kept the clubhouse loose and motivated while the world around Cleveland cast its doubts on the team’s postseason chances.
Make no mistake, Francona’s management is a crucial piece to the puzzle, and it’s why the Indians wake up today as American League champions.
Somehow, a team which lost two of its best pitchers just days before the postseason, which was forced to empty its bullpen in Game 3 of the ALCS due to losing another starter seconds into the night, which has endured injuries and relied on rookies, is four wins away from hosting the second Cleveland championship parade of 2016.
The Indians weren’t even supposed to get out of the first round, and that they’ve instead gone this far is a credit to Francona’s flawless management.