CLEVELAND (AP) — For any other team, a historic 22-game winning streak, 102 victories, second straight division title and playoff appearance would be worth celebrating.
Not the Cleveland Indians, who remain unsatisfied, yet undeterred after consecutive postseason collapses.
“We’re going after it, man,” said dazzling All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor. “We want to win. We’re not backing down from anything.”
The Indians have spent the past two postseasons in lamenting what might have been.
One year after blowing a 3-1 lead and losing the World Series in seven games, they squandered a 2-0 advantage last October to the New York Yankees and again fell short of delivering a championship to Cleveland for the first time since 1948.
Maybe this is the year they end the majors’ longest title drought.
With Cy Young winner Corey Kluber at the top of perhaps baseball’s deepest starting rotation, and in Lindor, one of the game’s transcendent talents, the Indians are certain to be in the mix to finally win it all in 2018.
There are questions about left fielder Michael Brantley’s health, whether the bullpen can withstand two significant losses and replacing Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce’s offensive output, but Cleveland appears unequaled in the AL Central and ready to challenge the Astros and Yankees for league supremacy.
The Indians’ window of opportunity isn’t closing, but they know it won’t stay open forever.
BEST CASE: Brantley, who has played in only 101 games since 2015, and second baseman Jason Kipnis (he battled injuries throughout 2017) stay healthy and return to All-Star form. The Indians lock up the Central midway through September, allowing manager Terry Francona to rest his starters and set up his pitching plans for October. The club, which has twice lost World Series Game 7s in the past 21 years, ends seven decades of frustration and Cleveland celebrates only the city’s second major professional sports title since 1964.
WORST CASE: Injuries mount, the departures of rubber-armed reliever Bryan Shaw, Santana and Bruce hurt more than expected and the Twins, White Sox, Royals or Tigers come out of nowhere and dethrone the Indians.
OVER YONDER: Cleveland had a relatively quiet offseason, electing to ride with its talented core players rather than overspending on free agents and trying to keep up with the Yankees and others.
The biggest addition was first baseman Yonder Alonso, who reached career-highs in homers (28) and RBIs (67) and made his first All-Star team after modifying his swing. Before last season, Alonso had not hit more than nine homers in a season. When Santana signed with Philadelphia, the Indians targeted Alonso, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract and made quite an impression by homering in his first at-bat this spring.
“This team has a winning attitude,” he said. “That’s why I signed here. It’s a bunch of good guys, a group that’s been together for a long time. It is a group that knows where they’re headed every single day. They have inspired me.”
CENTRAL CASTING: Cleveland dominated its division last season with a 50-26 record — the club’s most intra-division wins best since 1994. During the Indians’ AL record 22-game winning streak, they reeled off 15 straight victories inside the Central.
This season, the Indians will play 13 of their final 16 games against division opponents.
UP IN ARMS: Kluber might be the staff’s ace, but he’s hardly the only pitching star.
Carlos Carrasco went 18-6 last season and established himself as one of the AL’s most feared right-handers. Trevor Bauer finally matched his potential with performance and won 17 games, going 10-1 over his final 13 starts. Danny Salazar recovered from a slow start and struck out 145 in 103 innings. And 27-year-old right-hander Mike Clevinger emerged as a possible future All-Star, going 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA.
Shaw was a workhorse for Francona, pitching in at least 74 games in each of the past four seasons. He’ll be missed, but with closer Cody Allen and elite, late-inning lefty Andrew Miller, the Indians still have the pieces to shorten any game.
GOODBYE CHIEF: This will be the final season the Indians will have the contentious Chief Wahoo logo on their caps and uniforms. The polarizing symbol first appeared on the team’s uniforms in 1948 — the last time Cleveland won the World Series — but the club has decided it’s no longer appropriate. However, the Indians will continue to sell merchandise featuring the cartoonish caricature in Northeast Ohio.
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