By Mike Lopresti
In the beginning, there was a shutout loss to the Columbus Clippers on opening night. Then another the next day. It took the Indians 22 innings in April to score their first run this season.
In the end, five months later, there was another blanking by the Clippers. This one decisive and final, settling the International League Governors’ Cup championship series, and subduing at last an Indianapolis team (83-61) that in September’s shadows had become as persistent as flies at a picnic, and as unkillable as James Bond.
In between was a division co-title, an attendance record, the best staff earned average run in 26 seasons, the first home playoff victory in 15 years, comebacks by the dozen, and a managerial first.
In other words, what a summer it was at the corner of Maryland and West Streets.
You could see it with 662,536 customers, more than any season in the 113-year history of the franchise, even as it rained nearly every day in June and July. Or threatened to, anyway.
“Second-wettest summer of all time,” general manager Randy Lewandowski said. “There was a time we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to have a hard time.’ It started creeping into our minds we might not be able to reach our goals.”
But they did. The people came.
You could see it with the steady stream of bodies headed up the line to Pittsburgh to reinforce the Pirates in the National League pennant race. That meant the Indians had to reload with young faces from Double-A, and hope for the best. The best is what they got. Many of the important faces of the stretch run – from Josh Bell to Keon Broxton to Willy Garcia – were in Altoona when the season began.
“I think it was great to have the opportunity to see another wave of outstanding talent in the Pirate organization coming through Indianapolis,” Vice President of Baseball and Administrative Affairs Cal Burleson said. “It was a group of players that got here a little before we thought they would, and when they got here, they adjusted well.”
You could see it by the Indians’ utter refusal to give in. Take those two opening shutout losses back in April. They responded with two shutout victories of their own in the next three games. Indianapolis won 10 times during the regular season when trailing after seven innings.
They added three more in the playoffs; wiping out a 2-0 deficit with four runs in the ninth inning of game 3 to sweep Scranton-Wilkes Barre, erasing an early 4-0 gap in Game 3 against Columbus to stay alive, and roaring back from 4-1 in the last two innings to win Game 4 against the Clippers with a Bell walk-off single.
That last one pushed the final series to the limit and set up a Game 5 they were sure they would win. Hadn’t destiny showed its hand?
“When they believe in each other like that, I know it’s going to be a cliche, but anything is possible,” Manager Dean Treanor said after Game 4. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
The final act was not so pleasant, as Columbus’ Mike Clevenger shut down the Indians, 3-0. For once, there was no rally. But still, it was a small cloud on what had been a thrilling, exhilarating landscape.
“I know I said it a lot, almost to where I was boring myself saying it. But these guys don’t quit,” Treanor mentioned. “I think that actually makes that last loss even tougher, because of how good the year was, and these guys trying to do something special.”
You want special? The 2015 list was long.
Blake Wood leading the International League in saves with 29.
Wilfredo Boscan dropping a game on June 23, and not losing another until September 16, for a 12-start, 84-day unbeaten streak. He was one reason the Indians’ 3.09 ERA was the finest since 1989.
Alen Hanson coming off the disabled list on July 1, and promptly helping beat Columbus with an inside-the-park home run.
The Aug. 1 Triple-A debuts of hot prospects Bell and Tyler Glasnow. Glasnow pitched into the sixth that night. Bell went hitless his first five at-bats, but won the game with a single in the 13th inning.
Clayton Richard, once Indiana’s Mr. Baseball from up in the road at McCutcheon High, reviving his injury-interrupted career by never losing a home game. He was eventually off to the Cubs. In his last game as an Indian, he retired 19 of 20 Syracuse batters.
Treanor becoming the first manager in the history of the franchise with five consecutive winning seasons.
The mid-season turnover, as one parade went on to Pittsburgh, and another marched in from Altoona.
Thirty one-run victories during the regular season.
The first postseason series win in 10 years and first sweep in 21 years, blowing away Scranton/Wilkes-Barre by a combined score of 17-6 in three victories.
In Game 1, the Indians turned five double plays, and Broxton made a grab in left field from the seat of his pants after slipping, which made No. 4 on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays of the day.
In Game 2, Gorkys Hernandez had eight putouts in center, with a couple of scintillating catches. Game 3 was rescued with the rally. The Indianapolis starting pitchers gave up one earned run in three games.
By then, the Indians’ MO was long clear. There was an all-hands-chip-in mentality that featured pitching and defense and finding a way with the bat.
The Indians bludgeoned nobody. They tied for the best record in the International League while finishing 10th in home runs.
“There were a lot of guys that brought different things this year to the Indians team,” Burleson said. “We played good defense in the infield and our infielders had the ability to run the bases and be aggressive. Our outfield formed as good a defensive outfield as I’ve seen in Triple-A.”
The pitching, Burleson said, was “the mainstay of the ballclub throughout the season. We played a lot of low-scoring games, and because the pitching would hold us in the game, it would give us the opportunity to come back, which we did a number of times.”
That mixture gave a confidence in survival that pushed the team all summer. “It didn’t matter what the score was, we felt like we always had a chance,” Treanor said. “You need pitching and you need offense to be able to do that.”
Most of all, there was Game 4 against the Clippers. “As good a game as you’re going to see,” Treanor said. That’s when a season’s mission and resolve were capsulized in nine innings. Or actually the last two, when the Indians stormed back from a 4-1 deficit, with winter staring them in the face, and won it in the ninth with Bell’s single.
“Whatever they do,” Treanor said that night, “doesn’t surprise me.”
How to describe the scene afterward, as the Indians mobbed Bell and jumped into each other’s arms with the joy of a reprieve? It seemed almost a re-enactment of what happened on his 13th inning walkoff back in August.
“The way that the team celebrated after those wins just expressed a joy that is going to stay with me for a long time,” Burleson said. “It was sheer exuberance.”
And as Treanor said, “There are a lot of guys who are going to be talking about that playoff and about Game 4 for a long time.”
One lesson from the Indians’ season is how much depth there is at the moment in the Pirates’ system. How else can a Triple-A team reload with youth as the Indians had to do in mid-season, and still keep rolling?
“We were as young as I can remember,” Lewandowski said, “and that enthusiasm I think helped carry us through those dog days of summer.
“There was a difference with this team. They wanted it for Dean, they wanted it for themselves. With that youth, they just wanted to win. They wanted to prove their mettle in a high-pressure situation, and you could see it on the field.”
Treanor certainly could see it, especially with Bell, Broxton and Garcia.
“They brought a lot of energy to the game and a lot of energy to the clubhouse,” he said. “All three of them struggled when they got here, so you’re trying to protect them in the lineup. It’s not easy making the jump to Triple-A. But I think the really encouraging thing when you look back on it is at the end, all three of those guys were in the middle of our lineup, right where you expected them to be.”
So when Treanor headed for the Pirates clubhouse in September after the Indians were done, he knew just what message to take with him.
“It was one of the first things I said when I got up here — what’s coming,” he said. “It’s a testament to the organization. The future is bright for the Pirates, because we’ve got the talent down there and they’re all eager to get here.
“Whenever you change as much as we did this year, and have that club the way it was at the end, it puts an exclamation point on it.”
It was all nearly perfect. Except for that last game against Columbus.
“I’m still not over it,” Treanor said. “Before I even said a word (in the clubhouse afterward), just looking around the room and looking at everybody, it was very tough. I told them I was not prepared to talk to them after a Game 5 loss. It was the last thing I thought was going to happen.”
Treanor remembered the day of that game, and all the best wishes he had received from so many in the Pirates world. “Everybody was pulling for you. It was almost like you let them down. You get a hollow feeling. But what I really reflect on this year is how special those guys were.”
“Victory Field has proven to be a major player in the success of downtown Indianapolis, and I believe is sincerely appreciated by all of central Indiana,” Burleson said. “Our season didn’t end that long ago, but we are already looking forward to next April.”
The Indians will also be trying to break an attendance record for the third consecutive year. They’d love a threepeat.
“How do we reinvigorate our staff to do it for a third time?” Lewandowski said. “You don’t ever want to take for granted breaking records, especially at a facility that is going into its 20th anniversary. How we maintain that is our challenge.”
They’ll have the memories of 2015 to warm the effort. The last words of the season came from Treanor to his players, after the loss in the fifth game when he spoke of their will and resilience.
“I told them in that respect,’’ he said, “they were the best group I’d ever been with. Ever.”
It was a very good year.
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.