Tribe's surge toward playoffs putting fans in the seats
Indians, who have won nine of 11 games, draw largest home Sunday crowd of season
CLEVELAND -- Nick Swisher didn't look like a man who had just watched $15,000 of his own money go up in smoke, but he did look exactly like Nick Swisher, which is to say he looked more wired, lively and animated than any human being ought to be on a Sunday morning.
"People work hard around here," Swisher was saying. "The economy has hit this place super hard. Just to give somebody that five, 10 or 15 minutes of just joy and happiness, that's what it's all about."
Swisher was talking about that final flourish of fireworks he financed following Saturday night's win over the Astros -- an admirable gesture of appreciation toward a fan base that has been notoriously slow to warm to these 2013 Indians.
But that trend is changing, because the Indians simply keep giving their fans more than five, 10 or 15 minutes worth of entertainment. They've won nine of 11, and they've grabbed possession of one of the American League's two Wild Card spots, with a favorable final-week schedule that gives them a darned good shot of nailing it down. The Rangers lost again Sunday, and so the Tribe's lead is now 1 1/2 games.
It's getting real around here.
Even with no postgame theatrics (aside from kids running the bases and Justin Masterson throwing a simulated game) planned for the series finale with the Astros, the Indians drew 26,168 to Progressive Field. It was their largest home Sunday crowd of the season.
"The atmosphere the last couple days was great," manager Terry Francona said. "And it should be. This is a fun team to watch."
They were fun to watch this weekend, once again capitalizing on the quality of their opponent. On Sunday, some superb situational hitting backed Corey Kluber in a 9-2 win that completed a four-game sweep of a Houston club on track for 109 losses.
Certainly, no less than a sweep would have been deemed acceptable against an Astros roster that is a veritable who's who of "Who?" But winning the games it would have been embarrassing to lose has been something of an Indians specialty this season. The Tribe's 50-18 record against sub-.500 squads is the best in baseball this season, which is why those six remaining games -- two at home against the White Sox following Monday's off-day and four in Minnesota to close out the regular season -- are all the more appealing.
"It doesn't matter who we're playing, where we're playing, what time we play," Francona said. "It's just a fun time of year to have every game be so meaningful."
Meaningful September baseball ought to resonate in such a traumatized sports town, but the national narrative earlier this month obviously focused on the four-figure crowds that hardly fit the usual formula for a contending club. This weekend, then, was a return to normalcy amidst a story that still seems a bit surreal. A year ago, before Francona came aboard and ushered in a wave of change, nobody could have reasonably imagined the Indians being in this special spot.
This team's ability to go in some unfavorable funks at various points this season has undoubtedly left some waiting for the trap door to reveal itself, but even the most fair-weather of fans would have to admit the seven-day forecast looks sunny (with a chance of tiebreaker). However it turns out, it's a captivating conclusion to a calendar year that has covered every extreme.
Swisher illustrates how long a baseball season can truly be. He was 0-for-4 on Sunday -- a stat line all too familiar at points earlier this year -- but his .940 September OPS prior to that point has been instrumental in the Indians' surge. So, too, has Ubaldo Jimenez's rise from the ashes. You can almost see the dollar signs floating around the 0.64 ERA he's strung together in three September starts leading up to his first foray into free agency.
"It would be hard [to not think about free agency] if we had a lost season," Jimenez said. "But right now it's not hard at all. I don't have time to think about it. The only thing I have in my mind is coming to the ballpark, expecting us to win and hoping to win. That's pretty much everything."
Swisher knows the feeling.
"I've been very fortunate in my career to go to the playoffs a lot, and we've got a bunch of guys in here who have never been in them even once," he said. "I've been telling them this doesn't come around every year. We've got six games left, and we're at the top. We control our own destiny."
Swisher felt the Indians were destined for better days when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract with them last winter, and his enthusiasm to be a big fish in a smallish pond was easy to appreciate, even if it wasn't all that easy to rationalize. After all, nobody really knew how good this Tribe team would be, because there were so many unanswered questions in the lineup and rotation. But they didn't embarrass themselves in April (11-13), they made a strong statement in May (18-12), they survived the summer months (42-39), and they reserved their best baseball for September (15-6). The Tigers took it to them routinely, but the expanded postseason format is forgiving, and the emergence of Jimenez, the return of Kluber and the pending return of Masterson invite optimism should the Tribe get an October invite.
Now, a select group of die-hards who bought in from the beginning are starting to be joined, finally, in those green seats. Swisher thanked them all with that fireworks show set to Ohio-themed tunes, and he hopes that small but meaningful gesture combines with the obviously improved play to create a different vibe around here.
"It's bigger than just a Wild Card spot," Swisher said. "It's more about the turnaround of this organization. It's not necessarily to make the playoffs in year one and that's it. This organization is making strides to be a contender every year. That's the super exciting part about everything. I think we've established an identity this year."
Right now, we identify the Indians as a team in playoff position. They have six games to confirm that identity, with an increasing number of eyes upon them.
No matter how it shakes out, a team that lost 94 games last year is entering the season's final week with something at stake, something to preserve, something to build upon.
"Things aren't like they used to be," Swisher said, animated as ever.
That statement is truer every day.