93-69, FATE, AND THE CURSE OF GRADY SIZEMORE'S DROPPED BALL
We're cursed. We've got to be.
If I had known in late March the Cleveland Indians would win 93 games, I would have said they were a lock for the playoffs. I probably would have said they were a lock to win the division. If you would have told me that the Juan Gonzalez signing would've been a bust, but it wouldn't matter because Grady Sizemore would have a breakout year, I would asked to confiscate your flask. And if you would have prognosticated Bob Wickman's 40+ saves, I would have checked your pulse.
All of those things came true. The Indians also played .700 baseball in August and September. Victor Martinez went from hitting his IQ to finishing seventh in the league in batting.
Unfortunately, if you would have told me that the Indians would contend for the wildcard, only to come up short on the last day of the season, I would have disagreed with my heart and believed you in my head.
There are a few undeniable truths in baseball. If you make the first or third out of an inning at third base, you're probably not going to score. If you're an outfielder and you don't hit the cutoff man, more often than not, that will result in extra run for your opposition. Finally, if your team is in a playoff race in the last week of September and you lose six of your last seven games, you're not going to make the playoffs.
But how could a team that had been red-hot and won 17 of their last 20 games and appeared posied for the postseason drop six of seven? How could they lose five of six at home--two of which to the Devil Rays? And most strangely, how can five of those six losses be one-run losses, and the other is a two-run loss?
I cannot place blame. Shapiro put this team together, so he deserves more praise than I have the energy to give him right now. Wedge deserves manager of the year. After all, this team overachieved, and he handled the pitching staff and substitutions about as well as anyone could as this week. You can't blame guys like Hafner and Martinez. They're the reason the Indians got as far as they did. You certainly can't blame the pitching; it was terrific all week. You might put the blame on Ben Broussard for striking out so much and going 0-for-the-week with men in scoring position. You might even try to blame Ronnie Belliard for hitting into a double play Tuesday night.
If I had to find a culprit for derailing the Tribe's momentum, I point to the Kansas City sun and cosmic powers greater than pragmatism.
Last Sunday the Indians had 92 wins and were rolling toward a four-game sweep of Kansas City. They had a one-game lead in the wildcard over two teams and they were 1.5-games behind Chicago. They had a 3-0 lead behind Jake Westbrook, blew it and in the bottom of the ninth, Sizemore just couldn't pick up the ball in the sun. It happens to every outfielder at least once, maybe more times, in his career. The sun was, indeed, wicked. The Indians should have still had their lead, and it shouldn't have cost them the game--but it did--and it cost them their postseason, too.
You could try to justify the loss, saying "Well, there was that game in Kansas City earlier in the summer where the Tribe won on a dropped ball, so the law of averages is just evening things out." That was my overt philosophy, but inwardly, I had a bad feeling in my gut. It was one loss. It could have meant nothing. A bounceback win against Tampa Bay, and all would be forgotten.
Two losses later, the Tribe finally won, but that hardly qualifies as a bounceback win. The pressure was mounting, and the hope and confidence that had filled the clubhouse was replaced with doubt.
That's the stuff that chokejobs are made of.
It's really no one person's fault, but I guarantee someone will take the fall for it. Ben Broussard may not be back in a Cleveland uniform, and Casey Blake may not either. They are two good guys who fell victim to a cruel game. They were on the front line of a battle the Wahoos lost with fate.
We, as fans, can take solace in next year and the Tribe's exciting young core of players. There is some pride in being a Cleveland baseball fan again.
A city that hasn't had a championship team since 1964 and a ballclub that hasn't won a World Series since 1948, a ballclub that watched two World Series' slip away and just watched their team go from hottest in baseball to crumbling under the pressure has to wonder if there is something at work here that no one can explain.
Offseason priority #1: Break out the garlic and holy water at Jacobs Field.