With less than a week left in the regular season, the Cleveland Indians occupy the second American League Wild Card position. They have gone 8-2 in their last ten games, most recently overcoming a blown save by closer Chris Perez to maintain a one-game lead.
The Cleveland Indians have proven their doubters wrong all season, winning in exciting fashion despite having minimal star power. While other teams can point to superstars like Robinson Cano or young standouts like Manny Machado, or aces like Max Scherzer, the Indians’ star players are under-hyped guys like Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera.
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This begs the question, how are they pulling this off? By exceeding their apparent sum, with balance and a manager who gets the best out of his players.
- Unheralded Star: Jason Kipnis — Despite not putting up eye-popping numbers, second baseman Jason Kipnis has been one of the Cleveland Indians’ most important players. He’s a solid defensive player with decent power and speed. And he is unafraid of the big moment. Though he’s struggled a bit in the second half, his presence still takes pressure off the Indians’ other hitters. His improved performance will be important if the Indians are going to hang on to their playoff position.
- Unheralded Star: Asdrubal Cabrera — Despite only batting a disappointing .240, Asdrubal Cabrera has still driven in 61 runs this season. But more importantly, his defense has been a great assistance to the Cleveland Indians’ pitching staff. Cabrera is good at turning the double play, has outstanding range and has a great arm. Not to mention, he makes stupefying plays like this and this surprisingly often. Cabrera is a .272 career hitter and is capable of producing at the plate, which makes him a dual threat if he heats up to close out September.
- Gutsy Pitching — The Cleveland Indians are 15th in baseball in ERA. They’re 27th in quality starrts, 23rd in WHIP and 10th in batting average against. Nonetheless, they have managed to collect pitching gems from Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar and the once-written-off Scott Kazmir. This isn’t a staff that scares anyone, but they’re sneaky-good and any one of them is liable to shut a team down when it counts. The Cleveland Indians’ continued success will largely depend on the pitching staff keeping them in games, despite lacking a dominant ‘ace’ or marquee name.
- Leadership — Love him or hate him, Nick Swisher has been a catalyst on multiple teams. He can play multiple positions, has a knack for hitting in the clutch and hyped-up enthusiasm that can be contagious. Meanwhile, 42-year-old slugger Jason Giambi can still provide the big moment–like his walkoff two-run blast this week, saving the day after Chris Perez’ aforementioned blown save–and has big-fly power off the bench. Giambi has also been praised by manager Terry Francona as a leader and motivator, saying “I didn’t bring him here to hit .300” and expressing a belief in Giambi as managerial material. Giambi and Swisher both have experience in pennant races and helped the Cleveland Indians stay tough through a jam-packed postseason race.
- Terry Francona: Manager of the Year? Terry Francona knows how to manage players, both young and old, and knows how to navigate adversity and pressure. Contrary to Red Sox management’s attempts at character assassination, Francona balances the virtues of being a ‘player’s manager’ with an ability to get his guys to produce. He respects his team, has earned their respect and knows how to push the right buttons. He has turned a team of new arrivals, castoffs, grizzled veterans and under-hyped All Stars into a team on the verge of 90 wins.
- How Far Can They Go? With teams like the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics waiting in the wings, the Cleveland Indians have their work cut out for them. If they continue to play at the top of their game, they could steal a round from a team that takes them too lightly.