MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Francona savors AL Central title, but thirsts for more

Skipper has sights set on ending Indians' World Series championship drought

Francona savors AL Central title, but thirsts for more

DETROIT -- Terry Francona knows all about the struggles of the Cleveland Indians' franchise. He was born into it, making his debut in the real world on April 22, 1959 -- just five days after his father, Tito, made his Indians debut.

And Terry added to the anxiety of Tribe fans when he managed the Boston Red Sox to a World Series championship in 2004, ending that franchise's 86-year drought, which had been the longest among American League franchises.

The Indians inherited that distinction. Their 67-year championship void is now the longest among AL teams, second only in the Major Leagues to the Cubs, who last celebrated a World Series championship in 1908.

Now Francona gets his chance to remove that burden from the Tribe. With a 7-4 victory against the Tigers at Comerica Park on Monday night, the Indians clinched the AL Central title, earning them a trip to the postseason for the 10th time since their most recent World Series championship in 1948, their ninth playoff appearance in the past 22 seasons.

Shop for postseason gear

"It is not my fault my dad didn't win," said Francona.

But Francona could be part of the solution to ending that drought. Cleveland's skipper got the Tribe into the postseason in 2013 -- his first season at the helm -- but that was as a Wild Card. The Indians went home after one game that year, losing the AL Wild Card Game at home to the Rays, 4-0.

This time, the Indians will get more than one shot to advance. They are headed to a best-of-five AL Division Series, hoping to make amends for past playoff disappointments.

"Just to have a chance to keep playing, we are looking forward to that," said Francona. "There's a lot of work ahead of us, but at least we have a chance."

So do the fans in Cleveland.

"2016 has been a special year for the city, changing the way the city looks at itself," said Indians chairman and CEO Paul Dolan. "The Cavs won the NBA [championship]. [Cleveland] hosted the Republican National Convention. And now we have won a division title."

Indians clinch 2016 AL Central

What is apparent is that the Tribe had a plan. And when reinforcements were needed, Dolan was willing to make the expenditure.

Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, bargain shopped on the free-agent market in the offseason to come up with first baseman Mike Napoli, who leads the team with 101 RBIs and shares the home run lead at 34 with Carlos Santana, and left fielder Rajai Davis, whose 42 stolen bases are 20 more than any other player on the roster.

Then, Antonetti made the bold move prior to the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline. He gave up a package of prospects to strengthen the bullpen with the acquisition of lefty Andrew Miller, who is in the second season of a four-year, $36 million deal he signed with the Yankees.

It was fitting that it was Miller who earned the win in the clinching victory against the Tigers, lowering his ERA in 23 appearances with the Indians to 1.69.

It's not like panic had set in for the Indians, who have been in first place in the AL Central since June 4. The Miller deal was a move that showed that the front office and ownership believed enough in this team that it would make a long-range investment that the Tribe hopes will also have a postseason impact.

How They Got There: Indians

"It was a big statement to the players," said Francona. "It gave everybody a shot in the arm."

And don't overlook the Trade Deadline acquisition of outfielder Brandon Guyer (who is under control through 2018) from the Rays, and the addition of veteran Coco Crisp from the A's on Aug. 31 -- the deadline for acquiring a player who can be on your postseason roster.

All the work paid off in allowing the Indians to take that first step Monday night, touching off a celebration that Francona was not going to temper.

"I want them to blow it out," he said. "It is so hard to get to do one of these things that they deserve every minute of it. They should be so proud of what they did. It's hard. There is a lot that goes into even just winning a division."

Francona paused.

Then he smiled and added, "Certainly the season is not over."

No, there are six games remaining in the regular season, and Francona will try to get his pitching staff in order and make sure his position players get enough at-bats to stay sharp and healthy. And there are nine days before Game 1 of the ALDS, which Francona can only hope will provide ample time to heal for AL Cy Young Award hopeful Corey Kluber, who came out of Monday's game after four innings due to tightness in his right groin.

Kluber leaves with an injury

"I told him [Kluber] we need to find a way to win a game, and we're not going to go far without you," said Francona. "We need to let him get healthy and do what he does."

The importance of Kluber, who is 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA that ranks fourth among AL starters, is underscored by the rotation loss of Carlos Carrasco with a broken right hand, and the uncertainty of Danny Salazar, who has been sidelined since a Sept. 9 start at Minnesota because of right elbow inflammation.

For a day or two, however, concerns about what lies ahead can be put on hold.

A division title has been won.

A step has been taken in hopes of ending the franchise's long championship drought.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.