TRIBE TALK: And Down the Stretch They Come

Indians have the West in mind and a whole lot more

Photo by Adam Pintar
Photo by Adam Pintar

By Mike Lopresti

August 19, 2015 — For the Indians, crunch time beckons. There is an International League West to clinch, and a championship to chase. Oh, and also Sept. 1, when major league rosters expand, and the Pirates will be calling reinforcements to Pittsburgh, where the wild card race bubbles.

It’s hard to tell what the Indianapolis lineup will look like Sept. 2. In other words, things are about to get interesting. Which is why manager Dean Treanor plans to deliver this message to the clubhouse one day soon:

“You’ve come so far. Now you want to finish it.”

Photo by Whitney Alderson
Photo by Whitney Alderson

Questions abound at the moment, but then, isn’t that what the stretch run is for? The intrigue of a pennant race is what flavors baseball in the dog days. Could be a lot worse. Could be Pawtucket, where the Red Sox just lost 36 of 42 games. Ouch.

Here are several Indians questions to ponder.

They have led the West all season, but Columbus won’t go away, only 31/2 games back at the close of business Tuesday. So what’s it going to take to clinch?

To start with, playing well in gray uniforms. The Indians are 40-25 in Victory Field, but a more modest 33-27 away from it – and 12 of the last 19 games are on the road. That includes an imminent four-game set at Charlotte, where they were swept in three games in June by a combined score of 22-6. The past doesn’t mean much in Triple-A baseball, with the rosters in such flux. But still.

“If you’re going to have a championship team,” Treanor said, “you have to be able to win on the road.”

Then there is the need to finish strong against division colleagues. The Indians are 8-10 against Louisville, and have seven games left with the troublesome Bats. There are four games left with Columbus. “It’s not going to be an easy road. We’re going to have to find a way to get this done,” Treanor said. “I’ve got confidence in these guys that they’ll find a way to get it done.”

Really, does this sound like a team that could finish with the best record in the International League and challenge for the Governors’ Cup — nobody in the top 10 in the league in hitting, or top 20 in RBI, or top 25 in home runs? So how do they keep pulling this off?

Photo by Adam Pintar
Photo by Adam Pintar

Between reliable pitching and good defense, and lots of people lending a hand, the Indians have carried on. Take the 54-2 record when leading after six innings. That means good bullpen work. They have used 22 different pitchers, while 13 different position players have at least 10 starts. The new wave that came from Double-A Altoona during the summer has stepped in and kept the train moving.

“It’s not about that one name, or that one star,” Treanor said. “Everybody has to contribute. People like to say it’s a different guy every night, but it really is.”

On the one hand, there’s a pennant race. On the other, everyone in the clubhouse knows there’ll be invitations to the Pirates coming soon. How tricky is it to dream, and still keep focus on the business at hand? And what about the disappointed players still here on Sept. 2, with a championship chance remaining on the table?

“You can’t forget the aspect that the guys are thinking about Sept. 1, too,” Treanor said. “All of them in that clubhouse want to be called up. You see some guys and maybe they’re a little tight out there, and you know they’re thinking about that.

“But I believe everybody wants to win so badly. Everybody says when they leave here, ‘Get my ring size,’ for when these guys get it done.’’

Josh Bell, who has thrived since arriving from Altoona, can explain.

Photo by Bill Gentry
Josh Bell photo by Bill Gentry

“I’m sure people want to refine their games so they can compete on the next level. But day in and day out, we’re trying to get wins. So I think the two go together. If you’re getting better and you’re contributing to a winning team at this level, the guys upstairs will see that.”

Yes they will, said Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark, who was in town this week taking a look at the Indians.

“That can be challenging in the minor leagues because everybody wants to be on a different team than the one they’re on. They want to be advancing.

“I think the challenge the staff has is balancing the psyche of the players; you feel what you’ve got to feel if you don’t get the news you want. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to commit to each other again and get back to what we’re trying to do here.”

Job 1 at the Triple-A level is to get players ready for the big club. So how does the experience of a title chase – on-the-pennant-race training, if you will –help with that?

Stark: “At the core, we’re trying to win championships in Pittsburgh. That means as we go through our developmental system, we’re trying to prepare guys not only to play in Pittsburgh but ultimately contribute to a championship in Pittsburgh.

“So playing in this environment and with this experience, going out to compete every night in exciting times and realizing that pressure is a privilege and not a threat, that is hugely important.”

As Bell mentioned, “There’s an importance on every play. Especially now that we’re the hunted in our division.”

How are the Indians handling that, with their reinvented lineup of mid-season additions? Only two of the nine names in the batting order Tuesday started this season in Indianapolis.

“I think the thing that is most exciting is the youthfulness,” Stark said. “Youth late in the season is always fun because they can do something special every night, and there’s a ton of learning opportunities from it.

“I think you can catch a glimpse of what can be in Pittsburgh by looking at this club.”

Stark mentioned watching the Indians the other night, “when you could have looked out there at the position players, and say there were eight legitimate major league caliber players on the field.”

And they’ve meshed together, too, no matter how many new faces showed up.

“It’s a good feeling to watch how they’ve responded to all this,” Treanor said.

Photo by Bill Gentry
Photo by Bill Gentry

“We have a good group of guys, and it definitely helps that we’re winning,” Bell said. “No matter if you’ve played with each other for three or four years or three or four weeks, it’s a lot of fun to play for a winner.”

They’ve played for a winner, all right. Treanor has become the first manager in the 113-year history of the franchise with five consecutive winning seasons. But now there are baseball’s version of bigger fish to fry. The Indians have not won a postseason series since 2005, nor the International League championship since 2000.

Final question, then. What would a shot at the title mean?

“One of the things for me is to finish it for the people upstairs,” Treanor said. “For Max (Schumacher), who has been so great to me and been the face of this franchise forever. For Cal (Burleson). That would mean a lot to me to be able to do that for them.”

So there’s a job to finish, by whomever will be here to finish it.

Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.

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