After about three or four replays of this, it’s time to get serious about a pivotal series that begins tonight at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario between the Tribe and the Tiggers. This four-game set with Detroit is undoubtedly the most important series remaining in the season for the Tribe for a single reason: it’s at home.
While it is the most important, it’s also going to be the most overblown, particularly if things don’t go well for the good guys. If the Indians sweep, they will lead the division by a game. If the Tigers sweep, the Indians will be down seven games in the division and a vast majority of fans will proceed to the I-480 bridge assured that this whole thing is over. Notice how ridiculous the latter of those two sounds as things stand right now. Also notice that either way, the best the Indians could be is just one game clear of one of the most powerful offensive teams in the game that also happens to have one of the best pitching staffs.
If it seems like the season is nearing its end, that’s because the Indians season has been effectively over by now in recent years. The reality is that there’s still the better part of two months of baseball left to be played with a schedule that heavily favors the Indians. Detroit has a similarly weak month of September on tap, but a variable that will almost certainly be lost in these next four days is the Wild Card race. More on that in a bit.
So far, this probably sounds like a classic rendition of a hopeful Clevelander preparing for the latest episode of a Cleveland team falling flat on their faces in a big moment of a promising season. That’s exactly what it is, because this series simply is not a win or go home scenario. It’s not even close.
The Tigers are a better team than the Indians in basically every statistical category. They hit for the best average in baseball, get on base more than any team in baseball, and are top three in slugging and OPS. On the mound, they’re top ten in basically every category. By the numbers, Justin Verlander may be the worst pitcher the Indians will face all week. All of that adds up to the nine-game winning streak that Detroit’s currently riding.
Here’s where the good news starts. The Indians are 9-1 in their last ten games, the same as the Tigers. They win at home at a pace just two games shy of the best in Major League Baseball, and at the same pace as the Tigers. As usual, Cleveland is the underdog in this situation. It all comes complete with the nightly “I don’t know how, but they will win this game” feeling.
For those with foggy memories, try to remember the last time the Indians did this. It was in 2007, and the statistical picture was strikingly similar. They didn’t lead any categories, but they found ways to win. If it still isn’t coming back, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: It was glorious. It was the kind of stuff that defines a sports fans childhood. It was going to a packed Buffalo Wild Wings with tons of people you didn’t know but feeling like you knew every single person in the room. It was hanging on and reacting to every single pitch. It was being part of something huge, but feeling like the team couldn’t afford to not have you there in some form living and dying with them. It was “magic”. No matter what the picture looks like after Thursday night’s game, 2007 is still the kind of thing Cleveland has to look forward to.
There’s a massively important duality about this series that is both terrifying and comforting. It’s terrifying because it’s the last time the Indians see the Tigers in Cleveland. It’s comforting because the Tribe currently holds a (slim) lead in the Wild Card race. More comforting is that the worst the Indians could be after Thursday is 2.5 games out of that Wild Card spot, with both the Rangers and Orioles facing a substantially harder September.
Winning the American League Central is an uphill battle. Winning a Wild Card spot is less of one. Either option gets the Tribe to the postseason, which is important to keep in mind throughout these last couple of months. The Indians can start to put themselves in a nice position tonight at Progressive Field when Corey Kluber gets the ball against Anibal Sanchez.
Enjoy this series. Embrace being in the thick of a race to the postseason again. If you’re thinking of heading downtown, get your tickets fast. Ticketmaster has disabled the interactive seat viewer due to the volume they’re receiving, which is awesome. Here’s to a packed house for four straight nights.
At the end of the day, this is exciting stuff.