Tribe has eyes on prize as stretch run arrives

Tribe has eyes on prize as stretch run arrives

CLEVELAND -- The Indians wanted to play meaningful games -- not only in September, but also in October -- this season. Their play over the past five months has taken care of that first goal. Cleveland's performance across the next month will determine the rest.

The 2016 Tribe could be in for a memorable finish.

"It's going to be a fun month of September," second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "That's what we wanted it to be. We wanted to have some important games, and we're definitely going to get that."

As the calendar flips to September, the American League Central-leading Indians hold a 4 1/2-game lead over the Tigers and a 7 1/2-game lead over the Royals. Should Cleveland hold on, it would mark the team's first division title since 2007 and its first trip to the playoffs since the Tribe's one-and-done AL Wild Card experience to end the '13 season.

Beginning on Sept. 9, Cleveland will play its final 23 games against division opponents, whom the Indians are 36-17 against this season. That final run includes a seven-game road trip to close out the regular season, with stops in Detroit (Sept. 26-29) and Kansas City (Sept. 30-Oct. 2). If the Indians keep their grip, they could arrive to Kauffman Stadium having already removed the division crown from the Royals.

The Indians are trying not to look that far ahead.

"One thing that everybody does know in this clubhouse," catcher Chris Gimenez said, "is just because you're in first place at the All-Star break or at the start of September doesn't mean you're going to be there at the end of the year. We know that we have to control our own destiny, which is a great feeling. You want to be able to do that."

Over the final month, the Indians will have 16 games at Progressive Field, where the team has compiled a 42-23 record this season. Cleveland will have 14 games on the road, where it has gone 34-33. The Indians will play teams with a winning record in 20 of their final 30 games.

That will not make things easy for the Tribe, but things have hardly been a cakewalk to this point.

The Indians have played most of the season without star left fielder Michael Brantley, who is done for the year due to right biceps surgery. Outfielders Abraham Almonte (81 games) and Marlon Byrd (162 games) were each hit with a suspension this year. Juan Uribe made an impact in the first half, but his struggles led to his release at the start of August. A handful of players have had stints on the disabled list.

For every issue, though, there has seemingly been a positive.

Jose Ramirez has emerged as one of the game's top hitters with runners in scoring position. Center fielder Tyler Naquin has turned into a surprise AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate. Ace Corey Kluber has been pitching at a Cy Young Award-worthy level to lead the rotation. The bullpen quartet of Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero has helped lock things down at the end.

Mike Napoli has provided the kind of right-handed power that had been missing in recent years, and he has joined Rajai Davis in helping add to the leadership structure in the clubhouse. Napoli has also become a cult hero among Indians fans, who have been increasingly donning "Party at Napoli's" shirts. That has become a fun rallying cry for the players and fans alike throughout this memorable summer.

"You've got to give compliments to the guys that have stepped in," Napoli said. "Naquin coming up. Francisco Lindor not having that sophomore slump, being the player that he showed his first year. Kip having a solid year throughout. You've got Rammer stepping in. He's been a huge part of our success with clutch hitting. It's been nice how people have stepped in."

They will look to do the same over the next four weeks, too.

In the final month, the Indians will also have veteran outfielder Coco Crisp, who was acquired from the A's on Wednesday. Catcher Yan Gomes, who is working his way back from a separated right shoulder, has not been ruled out as an option for the second half of September -- or potentially for the postseason, either. Cleveland will surely take a look at some younger players down the stretch, too.

The Indians have one month to try to finish what they have started.

"Everyone has their predictions at the beginning of the year," Napoli said, "Who's going to be good and who's going to win the World Series and all that. Then you get your team and you come together as a group. You combine your talents. We've done that to get to this point. When I had the opportunity to sign here, this is exactly what I envisioned."

The road ahead

Home games: 16

Road games: 14

Games vs. teams over .500: 20

Two key series: Sept. 26-29, at Detroit; Sept. 30-Oct. 2, at Kansas City

Help on way? Gomes (separated shoulder) could come off the DL in the final month. Acquiring Crisp from the A's could help Cleveland's outfield depth. The Indians might also take a look at outfield prospect Yandy Diaz down the stretch.

Cause for concern: Behind ace Corey Kluber, the rotation was riddled with inconsistency in August. The offense also lagged some in the weeks leading up to the final month.

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.