The word “surprising” has received almost as much use in sentences this postseason when discussing the Indians as the word “Cleveland.”
Just not, as you might have guessed, within the club itself.
“No, not at all,” catcher Roberto Perez said of being as shocked as everyone else about the Indians’ World Series berth. “We have a good group of guys, we’re enjoying the moment. We’re just having fun.”
Cleveland, behind some surprising — there’s that word again — starting pitching from a patchwork rotation and lockdown bullpen work, plowed through the American League playoffs in eight games.
The Indians swept the favored AL East champion Red Sox in three games in the Division Series, then toppled the favored Blue Jays, coming off a dominant three-game sweep of the AL West-champion Rangers, in five games in the best-of-seven ALCS.
“It’s a surprise to a lot of people outside the clubhouse, not really surprising here,” Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “We won, what, 94 games? We knew we were a good team.”
A good team, yes, one that went 94-67 in winning the AL Central by eight games over the Tigers.
But also a banged-up one as the postseason began.
The club that began the playoffs was missing some significant pieces that helped it get to that point.
That was mainly in the rotation where Danny Salazar (11-6 with a 3.87 ERA in 25 starts) and Carlos Carrasco (11-8, 3.32 in 25 starts) were both lost to injuries in September. Starting catcher Yan Gomes was lost for the season, as well, in September.
Indians manager Terry Francona told local reporters Friday that Salazar, out with a strained right flexor muscle since Sept. 9, is a possibility to pitch in some capacity in the World Series — which begins Tuesday in Cleveland against the Cubs — after experiencing no setbacks during a side session Thursday at Progressive Field.
“He threw the ball really well,” Francona said, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on Friday. “He let it go, which is good. He really let it go. He threw his changeup with some arm speed. We’ll see how the next one goes.”
So far in the playoffs, it has been a rotation held together by bailing wire and duct tape. Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber — the presumed Game 1 World Series starter — and Josh Tomlin started the three games against Boston.
Then it got really interesting.
Bauer, slated to start Game 2 against the Blue Jays, suffered an ugly gash on his right pinkie — incurred while playing with his drone — that required 10 stiches. He was pushed to Game 3 in Toronto but the wound opened up two-thirds of an inning into the game, which Cleveland won, 4-2, using six relievers.
That forced Francona to use Kluber on three days’ rest for the first time in the pitcher’s career in Game 4 and rookie Ryan Merritt, who had all of one career start under his belt, in Game 5. Merritt, with a mid-80s fastball and an at-times 12-6 curveball, turned in 4 1⁄3 scoreless innings in a series-clinching victory.
“When the game starts, it real ly doesn’t matter what happens, nobody is going to feel sorry for you,” Francona said after that 3-0 victory in Game 5. “They’re not going to give us an extra run or an extra out.”
Cleveland will find itself in a familiar place this postseason when the World Series begins.
“We like being the underdogs,” Kipnis said. “We like guys not believing in us because we love going out and proving people wrong. That’s been our MO for a long time, and we don’t plan on stopping now.”