When it was finally over last year, when the rain delay was over and the bottom of the 10th was over and one of the best and most dramatic World Series ever played was over in the first moment of Nov. 3, it was difficult to process in Cleveland that it actually was over, that the Cubs had won, that they had ended their own long wait to win a championship. And that the long wait in Cleveland, one that reaches back to 1948, continued.
"We knew how exhausting and grueling the whole postseason had been for us," the young Indians general manager, Mike Chernoff, was saying Friday morning. "It was as if our starters were going on three days rest every game, and Cody [Allen] and Andrew [Miller] were pitching three innings every night. So when it was over, we felt as if our club had left everything out there. The loss was still painful, of course. But that at least made dealing with it a little bit easier.
"Still, there was the feeling when we woke up the next day that was like, 'Wait, we don't get another crack at them tonight?' That's when you start to realize that the next crack is the next 162."
Chernoff was born in 1980, which means 32 years after the Indians last won it all. He works for the team's president, Chris Antonetti, who is five years older than he is. Terry Francona, one of the truly great baseball managers, works for them. Right now in baseball, you would put the three of them up against anybody, even though the Indians didn't win it all last year despite being up three games to one on the Cubs in the Series.
They entered the weekend 71 games into the 162 about which Chernoff spoke, having just made some big noise on a recent road trip through Minneapolis and Baltimore, starting to create some separation in the American League Central as they began a weekend series against the Twins at home on Friday (though they dropped the first game, 5-0). For the first time, the Indians start to look like the team to beat in the AL, even as the Astros have been the first to 50 wins in the whole sport. What we really see in Cleveland is this:
The Indians try to come back from a World Series that ended the way it did for them in the bottom of the 10th the way the Royals came back two years ago after they lost the '14 Series in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 against the Giants, with the tying run, in the person of Alex Gordon, standing on third base.
"We did watch it with the Royals," Chernoff said. "Saw a team that had gone as deep as you could into a World Series and then come right back the next year, feeling as if it knew how to win. Obviously a team has to build a new identity with each new season. But there is a confidence that comes with knowing what it takes.
"You could see it with Tito [Francona] from the first day of Spring Training, with the conversations we were having with our players, constantly talking about the little things. What it takes to get back there. What he was basically saying was that as exciting as things were last October, they weren't going to be as exciting in April and May, when you begin overcoming challenges all over again, and dealing with setbacks. But this time, he was doing it with so many players who had been through something together."
Can you look down the road four months and see the Indians and Astros playing what you know would be a wildly entertaining AL Championship Series? You can. Even with the issues that the Astros continue to encounter with their starting pitching, you see the talent they have all over the field. But it is interesting, as they began play this weekend having won 11 more games than the Indians have won so far, that the Astros may have bigger needs at the Trade Deadline than the Indians do.
One of the reasons is that the Indians addressed a huge need back in December, when Edwin Encarnacion was still on the market, and they were able to sign him for $60 million and three years and put real danger into the middle of Terry Francona's batting order. After a slow start, Encarnacion started the weekend with 17 home runs and 40 RBIs and a .262 batting average, all of which seems like nothing more than an overture to what we see from him if he stays hot as the weather gets way hotter.
"It was an interesting free agent market," Mike Chernoff said. "There was a huge amount of supply at first base and DH. We were all aware of what a huge presence Mike Napoli had been for us last season, on the field and in the clubhouse. And what we basically decided to do was wait out the market. And by late December, we realized that there was a chance for us to get Edwin and for him to come play for the Indians."
The Red Sox were bumping up against the luxury tax, and went for Mitch Moreland instead of Encarnacion. The Blue Jays went with Kendrys Morales. The Yankees signed Matt Holliday to a one-year deal. It wasn't as if Encarnacion fell into the laps of Antonetti and Chernoff and Francona. Just into the middle of Mr. Francona's batting order. And if the Indians end up with a postseason rematch against the Red Sox, the difference between the two teams might be Encarnacion, making the kinds of swings for Francona that David Ortiz once made for him when he was winning two World Series in Boston.
The Indians did scuffle in April and May. They scuffled in April and May a year ago until everything began to change for them with a 14-game winning streak. They haven't had that kind of streak this year. But you get the sense that a big wheel has begun to turn in Cleveland as baseball makes the turn into summer. They just swept the Twins in Minnesota. They took three of four from the Orioles. They were a game over .500 when they started the trip. Now they are six over. Corey Kluber is healthy again. They expect Danny Salazar to be healthy sooner rather than later.
"Never seen a manager like Tito," Mike Chernoff said. "When the team is at .500 in June, there is no panic at all. Just an ability to continue to tap into the grit and determination it takes to get through the season. It has everything to do with the culture that's been built here."
Certainly it is not just Encarnacion in the middle of it all now in Cleveland, and a player like Jose Ramirez whom Chernoff calls one of the "most undervalued players in baseball." The bullpen has been brilliant. And always there is the kid at short, Francisco Lindor, a charter member of this extraordinary generation of kids like him.
"A special player," Chernoff said. "We've all gotten to see him come up through the Minors. And from Day One, from the time he was a teenager, all he's talked about is winning a championship."
Lindor came close last year. They all did. Bottom of the 10th of Game 7 against the Cubs. Now the Indians try to finish the job the way the Royals did two years ago. They aren't thinking about a wait of nearly 70 years in Cleveland. Just one year.