CLEVELAND -- With the odds stacked against them, the Indians surprised the baseball world with a sweep of the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. The next challenge comes in the form of a Blue Jays team that features an aggressive offense and a strong pitching staff that goes under the radar.
Game 1 of the AL Championship Series is set for Friday at Progressive Field, where ace Corey Kluber will go up against Toronto righty Marco Estrada at 8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S. and Sportsnet (English) and RDS (French) in Canada. The Indians expect to be considered the underdogs again, and they know they have a formidable opponent in the Blue Jays.
"They're a great ballclub," Indians first baseman Mike Napoli said. "Obviously, their lineup's pretty solid and they can score a lot of runs, and they've got some great starters. It's going to be a great series. We're looking forward to it. We've got all the confidence in the world that we're good enough to go to the next step, but you've got to take one game at a time. It should be a fun series."
Here are three ways the Indians can punch their ticket to the World Series:
1. Keep running aggressively
The Indians were the AL's best baserunning team this season both in terms of stealing bases and taking extra bases. The Blue Jays were one of the Majors' worst teams when it came to stopping clubs from running. That creates an intriguing aspect to monitor throughout this ALCS. If Toronto's pitchers do not post good times to the plate, making it harder on catcher Russell Martin, Cleveland will look to take advantage.
During the regular season, Martin threw out 11 of 72 would-be basestealers for a 15 percent caught-stealing rate. As a group, Toronto's catchers caught runners at a 19 percent clip, which was 10 percent lower than league average. While Martin is not the same defender he was in the past, some of the onus falls on the pitching staff.
2. Survive the fourth-starter slot
Indians manager Terry Francona announced on Wednesday that rookie Mike Clevinger will take the ball as the starter for Game 4 on Tuesday in Toronto. Here's the catch: Clevinger has been working as a reliever for Cleveland and has not started since Sept. 27. The righty was not stretched out behind the scenes during the Tribe's ALDS sweep of the Red Sox, either.
Going in, it was no secret that this was a potential weakness for the Tribe. The Indians have three clear-cut starters in Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, but there is no obvious option behind them in the wake of injuries to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. The Indians made it through four bullpen days in September, and they hope -- with the percentages saying Kluber can work deep into Game 5 next Wednesday -- it can be done again.
3. Take care of business at home
The Indians secured home-field advantage for the ALDS on the final day of the regular season, and they then earned the same right for the ALCS after Toronto knocked top-seeded Texas off the October stage. Being able to play at Progressive Field is a big deal for the Tribe. Beyond just being more comfortable and better able to maintain a solid routine, the players have flat-out performed better in front of the home audience.
During the regular season, the Indians scored 452 runs, collected 287 extra-base hits, posted an .827 OPS and recorded a 120 weighted Runs Created Plus at home. On the road, Cleveland plated 325 runs, knocked 235 extra-base hits, compiled a .691 OPS and produced an 85 wRC+. The Indians also led the league with 11 walk-off wins. Home-field advantage certainly helped in the ALDS, in which Cleveland swept Boston.
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.