It's an unseasonably warm November night in Cleveland, Ohio. Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs, is into its second calendar day. The Indians and Cubs are the two most cursed franchises in baseball: the winner of this game sheds their curse forever; the loser adds another painful chapter.
This game earned its place in history before the first pitch was even thrown, not only because of the teams involved and their baggage but because the way the Series had unfolded so far. But even as far as Game 7s go, this one's been unforgettable. The Indians fell behind early (on the first pitch of the game, no less) and trailed by as many as four runs. But in the fifth inning, thanks to some aggressive baserunning on a wild pitch, the Indians scored twice. Then in the eighth, with the Tribe down by three, Brandon Guyer delivered with a clutch two-out double off of the venerable Aroldis Chapman to cut the deficit to two. With a runner on second, Rajai Davis stepped to the plate.
We were tied at 6. After the Indians had held off a Cubs rally in the ninth, then failed to score in the bottom half, Game 7 was headed for extra innings. Then out of nowhere it started raining, and while the delay only lasted seventeen minutes, it seemed to drag on forever as we were all forced to reflect on the game so far and wonder what else could possibly be in store.
After the delay, the Cubs managed to score two in the top of the tenth. But after retiring the first two batters in the bottom half, Cubs reliever Carl Edwards surrendered a walk and a single, and now it's back to a one-run game.
So here's the situation: it's the bottom of the tenth, Game 7 of the World Series, Tribe down by a run. One run is in, but there are two outs and a runner on first. Up to bat for the Indians… is Michael Martinez.
Why was it Michael Martinez stepping to the plate as the Indians’ left fielder in Game 7? Why wasn't it Michael Brantley, José Ramírez, Abraham Almonte or even Coco Crisp?
All of this started because Michael Brantley hurt his shoulder near the end of 2015. Brantley was the Indians’ most consistent performer in 2015, and most Tribe fans would have agreed at the outset of 2016 that losing Brantley for an extended amount of time would be a problem, if not a disaster. Brantley was originally projected to be ready for Opening Day 2016, but his shoulder injury lingered and delayed his return until April 25. Then, after he had appeared in only 11 games, the injury resurfaced. For most of the summer, Brantley rehabbed his shoulder and tried to get back, but it always seemed like he would take two steps forward then three steps back. Finally, the Indians conceded that Brantley wouldn't be back in 2016; if the Indians, who were neck deep in a pennant race by that point, were to win a World Series, they'd have to do it without him.
In the top of the ninth inning of Game 7, Cubs’ right fielder Jason Heyward had reached base with one out on a fielder's choice. He stole second, moving to third on an errant throw by Indians catcher Yan Gomes. With the go-ahead run at third and less than two outs, Indians manager Terry Francona wanted a stronger arm in left field, so he moved Brandon Guyer over to left field and put Michael Martinez in right. This took Coco Crisp – who is known for his throwing arm, but not in a good way – out of the lineup.
The Indians had acquired Coco Crisp after the trade deadline because Abraham Almonte's PED suspension made him ineligible for the postseason. The Indians liked his bat and his availability, and were prepared to overlook his defensive shortcomings, figuring that they could use Crisp situationally. Crisp was one of the league's best hitters in the clutch last season (.392/.462/.582 with RISP).
But the player Crisp replaced, Abraham Almonte, wasn't the Indians’ first choice in left field either. After coming over from San Diego in 2015, he played a solid center field in the second half, earning the nickname of “Babe-raham”, even if it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But while the offseason acquisitions of Rajai Davis and Marlon Byrd probably would have made Almonte the Indians’ fourth or fifth outfielder at best, Brantley's injury had given him an opportunity for more playing time.
But Almonte was suspended for the first half of 2016 for PED use, which allowed Tyler Naquin to step in instead. Naquin had an excellent rookie season, punctuated by a walk-off inside-the-park home run and a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. He had started Game 7 but had already been lifted for a pinch hitter before the tenth. Lonnie Chisenhall had also started, but was also lifted for a pinch hitter (Guyer). Michael Martinez was the last man on the bench for the Indians.
So little went according to plan in the Indians’ outfield last season that it's nearly a miracle that Michael Martinez found himself at the plate in Game 7 with a chance to win it. It happened because despite all that went wrong for the Indians last year, so much went right.
José Ramírez made his major league debut in late 2013, but came up for an extended look in 2014 and played well enough to earn a spot on the opening day roster in 2015. He struggled early that season, was sent down to AAA, but was recalled after the Indians retooled around the trade deadline. Most fans had stopped paying attention by that point and didn't realize that José Ramírez's second half of 2015 was actually pretty solid: .259/.337/.438.
But by the end of 2015, Ramírez was a career .239 hitter; a nice defender with a little energy, yes, but certainly not an offensive star. So it's safe to say that no one expected this from Ramírez in 2016 (look at how close these numbers are to Brantley's 2015):
Ramírez 2016: .312/.363/.462, 11 HR, 76 RBI Brantley 2015: .310/.379/.480, 15 HR, 84 RBI
Ramírez even seemed to pick up Brantley's flair for the clutch, slashing .355/.406/.475 with runners in scoring position, and .366/.423/.521 with runners in scoring position and two out, among the best in the league. He basically won an August series against the Blue Jays by himself: he hit the game-tying home run in the ninth on Friday night, and hit the go-ahead home run in the eighth on Sunday afternoon. Ramírez is still a work in progress at third base, but there were times last season when he was brilliant.
The Indians wouldn't have found themselves in the World Series last season without José Ramírez basically stepping in for Michael Brantley. Ramírez was due to hit fifth for the Indians in the bottom of the ninth; if they had managed to get to him with runners on, there's no doubt in my mind he'd have won the game right there.
Due up for the Indians in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 was Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. As a fan watching at home, I liked those odds. Carlos Santana – who has a flair for the dramatic – had joined Mike Napoli in 2016 as the first Indians to hit 30 home runs in a season since Grady Sizemore in 2008. Francisco Lindor had completed a spectacular sophomore season and was enjoying a similarly excellent postseason. But if I had to put my money on any of them, I'd have picked Jason Kipnis.
Kipnis is one of the Indians’ most unsung heroes. He struggled a bit down the stretch last season, but he finished the season a respectable .275/.343/.469 with 23 HR (a career high) and 82 RBI. Kipnis is always at his best when he's looking to drive the ball to the gaps and he managed to keep that approach all season last year. Defensively, Kipnis had his best season yet, posting a UZR/150 of 6.3 and ranking fifth among all second basemen in total defense. In the clubhouse, Kipnis has taken the teachings of Jason Giambi and Mike Napoli to heart and become an excellent leader in his own right. To use the cliché, he's the heart and soul of the team.
So there weren't many Indians, current or past, that I'd have rather had at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win the World Series. And when he pulled that 1-1 pitch down the line, I yelped at my TV because I thought he had just won the World Series. But the ball went screaming into the seats down the first baseline, and after working the count full, Kipnis struck out.
Going into the 2016 season, the general consensus among baseball experts was that for the Indians to make the playoffs, much less the World Series, they'd have to pitch well. Their rotation has been a strength for several years, and Francona has a knack for putting bullpens together. In the past few seasons the Indians pitching staff has been dominant at times but oddly ineffective against their division rival, the Detroit Tigers.
But 2016 was the year they finally figured out how to pitch to the Tigers (hint: pitch them inside), and this led them to a 14-4 record against their rival and essentially wrapped up the division title. The entire pitching staff, for the most part, lived up to the expectations and delivered excellent seasons. But I'm going to highlight the efforts of three, who each pitched phenomenally in the postseason, and each appeared in Game 7.
If there was anyone on the Indians who had the right to feel shortchanged, it was Corey Kluber. Kluber started Games 1, 4 and 7 for the Indians, in addition to two starts against the Blue Jays and one against the Red Sox earlier in the postseason. The Indians rotation, a strength of the team all year, had suddenly become a weakness when Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar had been injured before the playoffs even began. Kluber had risen to the challenge magnificently for his first five starts, and he gave it his all in Game 7, but it was obvious early on that he was out of gas. Before Game 7, Kluber had pitched 30.1 innings in the postseason, allowing 3 ER; in Game 7, Kluber battled through 4 innings and gave up 4 runs.
He was replaced in the fifth by Andrew Miller, for whom the Indians had paid a king's ransom at the trade deadline. Miller had become a national sensation not only because of how effectively he pitched but also because of how effectively he was used by manager Terry Francona. Francona showed early on, in the first game of the ALDS, that he wasn't afraid to get Miller involved early and often. It's worth noting that, not including Game 7, the Indians were 9-0 in games that Miller pitched in the postseason. Not including Game 7, Miller had thrown 17 innings of one run baseball (that's an ERA of 0.53). But like Kluber, Miller was exhausted, and his normally filthy stuff was slow, flat and hittable in Game 7. He still battled, yielding only two runs through 2.1 tough innings.
One benefactor of Andrew Miller's sudden prominence in the Indians bullpen was closer Cody Allen. Maybe because teams scouted Miller heavily but didn't spend as much time on him, or maybe because he was more rested, Allen pitched 14 innings in the 2016 postseason and allowed 0 runs on only 9 hits. Allen entered with one out in the seventh and retired all but the last batter he faced. Cody Allen doesn't get a ton of recognition (or at least hasn't so far), but he's really good.
For the most part, managers in baseball aren't incredibly important to the outcome of games. Teams might have good managers and still be mediocre (like the Los Angeles Angels), or they might have bad managers and still be pretty good (like the 2015 Kansas City Royals).
But Terry Francona is an exceptional manager: it's not a coincidence that since he's taken over as manager, the Indians have won more games than any team in the American League. Francona knows how to use his team's strengths, play around its weaknesses, and he uses a perfect blend of analytical and traditional strategy to guide his decision making. He's also the ultimate player's manager and excels at keeping his players loose.
For almost the entire postseason Francona pushed all the right buttons. His bullpen usage, starting with Andrew Miller in Game 1 of the Division Series, was spot on. He used his platoon of outfielders effectively, enabling Brandon Guyer to hit .333 in the postseason. He even used Coco Crisp perfectly, starting him in the clinching ALDS and ALCS games, and Crisp rewarded him by homering in both.
Francona's only mistake was replacing Crisp with Michael Martinez with one out in the ninth inning of Game 7. I say this with the full benefit of 20/20 hindsight, knowing that with one out and a runner at third, Javier Báez would strike out and Dexter Fowler would ground out to short, meaning that Francona could have put me in right field for all it mattered. I also say this while conceding that at the time, I didn't think Francona made the wrong call, because it probably made more sense to have a decent arm in left field than preserve the batting order for a hitter who wouldn't come up for seven more spots in the order.
But rather than replace Crisp in the lineup with Michael Martinez, I'd have simply swapped Brandon Guyer and Coco Crisp for the rest of the inning. This way, the batting order remains intact and the stronger arm is in left (where a fly ball is more likely to be hit).
Of course this had the potential to backfire: Crisp, who has never played professionally in right field, could have easily misplayed a ball hit to him. But I'm still (irrationally) convinced that if it were Coco Crisp coming up in the tenth inning, down one with two out and a runner on, he'd have found a way to get on base and extend the inning.
Even if this was a mistake on Francona's part (and it's debatable at best that it was), it shouldn't take away from the magnificent job he did in 2016 and the magnificent job he's done since taking over in 2013. He's the Indians’ MVP, and the most important free agent a Cleveland team has signed…ever.
Every Indians team in the Terry Francona era has had a Clubhouse Leader: an experienced player either trying to make a comeback or at the tail end of his career. Clubhouse Leaders – to this point, they've all been position players – are not usually the most productive members of the team, but what they lack in on-field output they make up for in off-the-field intangibles. Jason Giambi was the Clubhouse Leader in 2013 and 2014, while Brandon Moss somewhat filled that role during the first part of 2015.
Mike Napoli was arguably the Indians’ biggest free agent signing before the 2016 season, and it was only possible because Napoli was coming off an uncharacteristically tough 2015 season. As the Indians often do, they took a gamble that Napoli would rebound, that his best days weren't entirely behind him yet, and it paid off big time.
Napoli, who won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, brought championship experience to the Indians’ clubhouse. He always seemed to have good at-bats and see lots of pitches; he played excellent defense at first base; and he was always aggressive on the basepaths, always looking to take the extra base, setting that aggressive tone for the whole team.
He wasn't only the Indians’ Clubhouse Leader in 2016; he was basically the Clubhouse Leader for the entire city. #PartyAtNapolis, which started as a joke on Twitter, became a rallying cry when things were going well. And things went well a lot: Napoli not only bounced back from his tough 2015 season, he had a career year, establishing new personal bests in runs, hits, home runs and RBIs.
As the regular season drew to a close, Napoli's production tailed off a bit, and he hit only .140 in September and October. He didn't have a great postseason either. But Napoli had been the definition of a streaky hitter in 2016, and you never really knew when he was going to come out of a slump. So when Napoli came up in the bottom of the tenth with a chance to cut a two-run deficit in half, I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking there might just be one more Party at Napoli's. There wasn't; Napoli struck out swinging.
By now you know how Michael Martinez's at bat ended. As Kris Bryant's throw from the third base side of the mound found a home in Anthony Rizzo's outstretched glove, I turned off the TV and just stared at the black screen for a while.
I was almost overwhelmed with the feeling of loss: not only had the Indians lost the game, but because it was Game 7 of the World Series, it was the last time I'd see the 2016 Indians play. I'd spent a lot of time with the Indians over the summer, and the realization that the season was over was like the feeling of a close friend departing. I went to bed that night with a lump in my throat that I wasn't sure would go away anytime soon.
But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that 29-year-old Jimmy recovers from World Series losses better than 10-year-old Jimmy. Living in South Carolina helps: the morning after the World Series dawned without a cloud in the sky and without that feeling of gloom that always seems to surround Cleveland after a big loss. Most people down here knew better than to ask me about the game, but those who did were sympathetic and didn't press.
But even more than that, I was just proud of how the Tribe just kept fighting until the very end. If you had told me at the beginning of Spring Training last season that the Indians would lose Michael Brantley for the year, get virtually zero offensive output from their catchers, and lose their number two and three starters for the playoffs, but still make the playoffs, storm past Boston and Toronto, force a Game 7 against a historically great Cubs team, force extra innings, and send four batters to the plate with a chance to win the World Series with one swing… I'd take those odds every time.
The 2016 Cleveland Indians overcame all but the final hurdle. Despite the fact that they lost the final game, it's a mistake to consider 2016 a failure. It was just finally the Cubs’ year. Maybe the Indians will have a year of their own in 2017.
Thanks to Sara Rowe for reading a draft of this post.