MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Indians owner Dolan hungry for WS title

Tribe took 'World Series or bust' approach to return to Fall Classic

Indians owner Dolan hungry for WS title

CLEVELAND -- When the rain came, Indians chairman/CEO Paul Dolan retreated from his seat behind the Indians' dugout to the owners' suite at Progressive Field. It was just a brief delay that preceded play in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series last November. But 17 minutes proved plenty of time for some of the air to seep from the balloon, for the buzz from Rajai Davis' epic game-tying home run to subside.

"It was sort of like the season was over," Dolan recalled in advance of the Tribe's matchup with the Yankees in the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, "and we had tied."

Game Date Results Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 5 CLE 4, NYY 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 6 CLE 9, NYY 8 (13) Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 8 NYY 1, CLE 0 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 9 NYY 7, CLE 3 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 11 NYY 5, CLE 2 Watch

If only.

Play resumed, and, for the sake of Indians fans, we won't get into the gory details here. The Cubs had their metaphorical and meteorological cleansing of the pain of 108 years' worth of empty outcomes, and the Indians' enrapturing ascent over adversity met an unfulfilling end.

To Dolan, though, that loss felt different than others, most notably the 2007 American League Championship Series outcome against the Red Sox. As in '07, the Indians had relinquished a 3-1 lead. But this time, they had earned that ill-fated advantage with a roster ravaged by injury.

"We got as close as you can get without getting it," Dolan said. "It was hard to find fault and get too upset with a team that goes to the ultimate and beyond."

When fault is hard to find, it can be tempting to assume improvement is equally hard to find. The Indians could have stuck with the status quo with regard to their roster, basically betting on experience and better health.

But what had transpired in the summer and fall of '16 carried with it a fair amount of magic. And if we know absolutely anything about baseball, magic can be difficult to repeat.

So Dolan, minority owner John Sherman, team president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff went down a different road. Their bold strike for Edwin Encarnacion signaled their seriousness. And when the 2017 season presented more challenges, the Tribe doubled-down on an already all-in endeavor with a key August trade acquisition in Jay Bruce. There was no resting on laurels here. Rather, they were doling out dollars -- what can only be described as lavish spending for an organization that had previously been so consistently cautious.

"When you go so far, it's almost silly not to go a little further," Dolan said. "You become so invested in winning."

Encarnacion's two-homer game

The Indians bet on math, not magic. And it's gotten them back to October with an elite team and a "World Series or bust" label worn proudly.

It all began when Encarnacion turned down a four-year, $80 million offer from his "hometown" Blue Jays, unaware of offers he might get at his age and under a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, in which the luxury tax threshold remained relatively static. Teams already pushing up or past that threshold couldn't squeeze Encarnacion onto their roster without paying a luxury tax on top of his salary.

"My guess is in the 2007-08 environment, Encarnacion goes to the Yankees or someone like that," Dolan said. "The world has changed a little, and really to the betterment of clubs like ours."

By baseball standards, the three-year, $60 million deal the Indians struck with Encarnacion looked like a bargain. By Indians standards, it was, as Antonetti put it, a major "leap of faith." Even amid the success of '16, the Tribe had ranked 28th among MLB's 30 teams in attendance, and the market dynamics made it clear the club would not escape the league's lower third even after the World Series run. Signing Encarnacion meant less financial wiggle room down the road.

"Those are really difficult decisions to make," Antonetti said. "They are finite resources. We can't pretend that they're not."

Bruce's two-homer night

Encarnacion started slowly in '17, and Dolan admitted he began to get a little anxious. But Encarnacion's slow start was consistent with his Toronto track record and, by year's end, Encarnacion's .504 slugging percentage was in line with his career norm, and his .377 on-base percentage was an improvement. Perhaps the Indians would have gotten another strong season out of 2016 free-agent find Mike Napoli -- it didn't work out well for him in Texas -- but Encarnacion was always the safer, albeit more expensive, bet.

"He's exceeded our expectations," Dolan said.

Beyond the Encarnacion signing, the Indians went a step further, bringing in lefty reliever Boone Logan on a $6.5 million deal. That one didn't go so well. Logan sustained a season-ending injury in July, and the Indians were forced to prop up the bullpen at the non-waiver Trade Deadline with their old pal Joe Smith.

More surprising was what happened a few weeks later, in the midst of the August waiver-trade period. One day, Michael Brantley, whose All-Star season was one of the game's great comeback stories, lay in the outfield grass grabbing his ankle. The next, the Indians endured a brutal extra-innings loss to the Rockies.

Francona on making history

As Francona walked into his office after that game, Antonetti and Chernoff were waiting for him.

"Did we get Bruce yet?" Francona said, half-joking.

"Give us time," they said.

That night, the deal was completed. The Indians didn't give a key prospect to the Mets to obtain Bruce, but they did swallow the roughly $3.7 million remaining on his contract, which is no small thing for a rental player in your control for only the final six weeks of the regular season.

With Bruce aboard, the Indians went an MLB-best 42-9 down the stretch, including the AL-record 22-game winning streak. You can't predict that kind of run, but what you can do is put your team in the best possible position to succeed. The Indians did that by paying the costs to improve their odds of getting back to that stage.

"I would rather get it done in four and not be there [for another Game 7]," Dolan joked. "But the goal is to get back to the World Series and win it this time. That's why we're doing it."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.