When it comes to the postseason, if you’ve got stars, they better play like stars, or you’ll be gone from the playoffs faster than you can say, “Did you hear about our 22-game winning streak?”
This is crunch time, money time, go-time, when your big-ticket, big-money, big-time performers better live up to their bigness.
Sorry, but those are the terms of engagement in October.
Reality? You bet.
If the Indians, who begin a journey today in Houston that they hope will culminate with a trip to the World Series for the second time in three years — perhaps even, dare we think it, their first World Series title on the 70th anniversary of their last World Series title — it won’t be because Greg Allen took them there.
Nothing against Allen, who has turned into a nice complementary player and highlight-producing defender in center field, but it’s the Indians’ marquee players who will be most responsible for whatever transpires — good or bad — this month.
This is not opinion. This is fact. There are reasons why stars are stars, and October baseball is one of them.
Selected World Series MVPs since 1999: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Josh Beckett, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Madison Bumgarner.
Selected ALCS MVPs: Andrew Miller, Ortiz, Rivera, Beckett, Josh Hamilton and CC Sabathia.
Selected NLCS MVPs: Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols and Ivan Rodriguez.
On the big stage it’s the big boys who better deliver, or your big dreams will die hard.
Oh, sure, you’ll still get the occasional October thunderclap from the accessory shelf in your roster closet. Who will ever forget Rajai Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman, circa eighth inning, Game 7, 2016?
But for planning purposes, it’s the high-rent region of the roster that has to do the heavy lifting this time of year, and nobody better exemplifies that premise in recent years than the Indians — to name a team totally (nudge-nudge) at random.
In their glorious, electrifying, heartbreaking march to the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, it was the stars of their otherwise pitching-staff-in-shambles that led the way.
In the Division Series vs. Boston, the ALCS vs. Toronto and the World Series vs. the Cubs, Miller, Corey Kluber and Cody Allen made a combined 26 appearances in those 15 games. Their combined ERA: 0.48. That is NOT a typo.
They also had some help. In the Division Series, Jose Ramirez hit .500 (5-for-10). Francisco Lindor was 3-for-12 with a home run. In the ALCS, Lindor hit .368 with a homer and three RBIs. In the World Series, Lindor hit .296 and Ramirez .310.
Now fast forward to last year’s sudden stop to the postseason. The Indians led the Division Series 2-0 before the Yankees loaded them into the T-shirt bazooka and shot them out of the tournament before they’d even broken a sweat.
Kluber, pitching hurt, started two games and had a 12.79 ERA. Lindor hit .111 (2-for-18). Ramirez hit .100 (2-for-20). Edwin Encarnacion, who only played in three of the five games because of injury, was 0-for-7. Michael Brantley, coming off an injury, hit .091 (1-for-11).
Those are the top four hitters in the Indians’ lineup. In the five games against the Yankees they hit a combined .089 (5-for-56).
End of story. End of season.
“We didn’t put our best foot forward in the last couple of games,” Manager Terry Francona said. “Kluber had his struggles. We set it up for him to pitch twice, and he pitched 6 ⅓ innings. In Game 2 our defense got sloppy.”
The defense got sloppy and Lindor and Ramirez never got going.
“Hitting is rhythm and timing, and we uncharacteristically chased (bad pitches), down and up,” Francona said. “But they struggled together, and they are such a big part of our offense, it hurt us.”
This year Francona hopes his two infield batsmiths come out swinging, not chasing.
“They’ve been through so much,” said Francona, “these games aren’t going to be too big for them.”
Francona also reminded everyone that the Indians “were unsettled going into the postseason last year.”
That’s a valid point. Brantley was hurt, which led to Jason Kipnis playing out of position (center field), and Ramirez moving to second. Kluber was clearly hampered by an undisclosed ailment.
“If you have too many question marks, sometimes the answer is no,” said Francona.
Can the answer this year be “Yes”?
Only with the stars playing like stars. But in September Ramirez hit just .174, and Lindor .233, though with nine homers and 14 RBI.
“Regardless of how you did in September, you have to throw it out. It doesn’t matter,” Francona said. “Once the first pitch (vs. Houston) is thrown, it’s the first team to win three.”
It’s not the first team to win two.
The Indians learned that last year.
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