The Indians were thought to be contenders at the outset of this season based on the strength of their starting pitching. The rotation was indeed strong, but that was hardly the only reason behind Cleveland's climb to the top of the American League Central this year.
The Tribe featured a versatile offense, dynamic defense and a pitching staff that had its depth tested by a wave of injuries late in the season. When the smoke cleared, Cleveland unseated the Royals as the AL Central champions, winning the division for the first time in nine years. Now, the Indians will take on the Red Sox in the AL Division Series, which begins Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS.
The injuries to starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar could have been devastating for Cleveland, but a huge move at the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline altered the structure of the team's staff. When the Indians acquired relief ace Andrew Miller from the Yankees, it not only changed the makeup of the bullpen, but took some pressure off the rotation. Now, a five-inning outing is often all Cleveland needs.
Teams have proven in the past -- the Royals, for example -- that a strong bullpen can lead to great things in October. With Miller, Indians manager Terry Francona has been able to better pick opportune times to use all his relievers. The back-end foursome of Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and Miller has been dominant, transforming the Indians' relief corps into one of baseball's best over the final two months.
The offense is better than you think
The spotlight has been on the Red Sox's lineup this season -- and with good reason -- but the object in Boston's mirror is better than it appears. The Indians entered this season hoping to manufacture runs with good baserunning and timely hitting. What Cleveland wound up with was an offense that ranked first in the AL in stolen bases (134), second in runs scored (777) and within the top five for walk rate (8.6%), on-base percentage (.329), average (.262), wRC+ (102) and OPS (.759).
Cleveland has two members of the 30 home run club in Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, and has been sparked in a variety of ways by Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and others. Rajai Davis leads the league in steals, too. The Indians present a multi-faceted offensive attack and a lineup that includes seven players with 10-plus homers, five with 25-plus doubles, five with 80-plus runs and four with 15-plus steals.
Francona knows how to win in October
It seems fitting that Francona will have to beat the Red Sox to fulfill Cleveland's championship aspirations, as he was the manager who guided Boston to World Series titles in '04 and '07. When Francona helped the Red Sox win 12 years ago, that ended an 86-year drought for the franchise. Cleveland now has the longest cold streak in the AL, having not won a World Series since 1948.
Francona won the AL Manager of the Year in 2013, when the Indians won a Wild Card spot in his first year at the helm, but this season may have been his best yet in Cleveland. The Indians played most of the year without star outfielder Michael Brantley, dealt with a wave of injuries and employed platoons at multiple positions. Francona has pulled all the right levers to reach this point, and he's done the same in postseasons past to win it all.
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.