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Don’t call it a comeback

I can sum up the 2011 Cleveland Indians' season by grading it on the scale of the Ordinary Wizarding Level examination: "Exceeds Expectations."

I can sum up the 2011 Cleveland Indians' season by grading it on the scale of the Ordinary Wizarding Level examination: "Exceeds Expectations."

Nobody expected the Cleveland Indians to do much in 2011. Before the beginning of the season, I think most Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the offense, assuming the offense stayed healthy, Travis Hafner produced more, Grady Sizemore came back at 100% from his microfracture, and a hitting fairy paid a visit to Matt LaPorta (or really, any right-handed batter in the Indians organization). I think Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the bullpen, assuming everyone stayed healthy, Chris Perez continued his strong showing as Indians closer, and a couple of veterans like Joe Smith were able to guide the young Indians ‘pen. But I think Indians fans were decidedly lukewarm about the Indians starting pitching, even if everyone stayed healthy, Fausto Carmona kept his mind, and Justin Masterson grew some hair.

In short, there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong. As Indians fans, we’re accustomed to everything that can go wrong going wrong, so no one predicted the Indians riding a 9-game winning streak and a 14-game home winning streak to a 30-15 start. No one predicted them hanging on to first place for much of the summer, and then staying competitive until early September. The Indians fell short of the postseason this year, but there’s no doubt there was tremendous improvement. My year-end grades for the Indians, plus playoff predictions, after the break.

Sizing up an unforgettable 2010 season

Jim Thome was a big part of why the Twins repeated in the AL Central.

Jim Thome was a big part of why the Twins repeated in the AL Central.

The summers always seem to fly by faster now that I’m working through them rather than relaxing, and while it seems like just yesterday that the 2010 Major League Baseball season was getting underway, Sunday marked the last day of the regular season. Crazy. It must be the odd-numbered years: in 2007 and 2009, I picked the World Series champions before the season started; in 2006, 2008, and 2010, I picked teams that didn’t even make the playoffs, with my pick this year, the Cardinals, starting strong but unable to hang on down the stretch.

I shouldn’t really be surprised though: the 2010 season was unforgettable in many ways. 2010 saw an unprecedented 5 no-hitters in the same season, including 2 perfect games within the span of a month. The only reason there wasn’t 6 no-hitters and 3 perfect games was the famous botched 27th out call on June 2nd, where Jim Joyce called Indians shortstop Jason Donald safe on what would have been the 27th and final out of the perfect game, admitting later that he blew the call. 2010 saw the rise of Jose Bautista, the return of Jim Thome, and a legitimate Triple Crown race in the National League between Albert Pujols, Carlos Gonzalez, and Joey Votto.

2010 also saw a return to the postseason of two teams who have each had long droughts: the Texas Rangers, whose last appearance was in 1999, and the Cincinatti Reds, whose last appearance was in 1995. The Rays, Braves and the Giants also return to the playoffs after shorter droughts, while the Yankees, Twins, Phillies return. My review of the 2010 season, as well as my preview of October 2010, otherwise known as the Major League Baseball playoffs, after the jump.

A brave new world

Since free agency began in 1976, much has been made of small-market teams’ inability to compete with teams from large markets. In 1977, for example, perhaps the earliest case of a high profile free agent came along in Reggie Jackson. The Yankees were far from the only team able to afford him, but nonetheless Jackson signed what was at the time one of the largest contracts in the game: almost $3 million over five years. Backed by the new owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ payroll exploded to over $60 million by 1997, and to $209 million by 2005.

LeBron’s egg, potential parting shots and departure

It might have been his last game; he played like it was his first game.

LeBron: "Really wish I was at home watching Gilmore Girls right now instead of having to phone in this game..."

LeBron: "Really wish I was at home watching Gilmore Girls right now instead of having to phone in this game..."

LeBron James was, as Bill Simmons put it, perplexingly and indefensibly awful last night. 15 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds betray how poorly he actually played, which was like it was his first playoff game ever and he was afraid of the moment. Perhaps the most telling sign of how bad he was: with time left in the fourth quarter, fans were walking out of what, let’s be honest, was most likely his last game in Cleveland this season and potentially (more so than ever) his last game as a Cleveland Cavalier.

After the game, LeBron had every right to be frustrated. Angry. Disappointed. Instead, after being asked about his game, he said, “Nah, I’m not disappointed. I’m never disappointed in my play. I feel like I could do more, but I’m not disappointed at all.”

No big deal. Easily the biggest game of the Cavs season in probably the most important season in the Cavs’ franchise, but hey, no big deal. He also added this gem:

I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have a bad game here or there, you’ve had three bad games in a seven-year career, then it’s easy to point that out. So you got to be better.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to be out there and be the best player on the court, and when I’m not I feel bad for myself because I’m not going out there and doing the things I can do. But I don’t hang my head low or make any excuses about anything that may be going on, because that’s not the type of player or person I am.

A lot to digest here. First, it’s certainly been more than three bad games, but never on this stage and never because it seemed like he wasn’t even trying. Second, having a bad game is forgivable: everyone has bad nights. Putting in poor effort is never acceptable, and that’s what happened last night. (Back in 2007, the Indians had some bad nights in the playoffs, but I was never concerned with their effort like I am the Cavs’ or LeBron’s.)

(Sidenote: I’m currently watching a Rachel Nichols SportsCenter report about Cleveland’s “fragile state of mind” following that loss and anticipating a do-or-die game six. And game five was “no big deal.” Really?)

But the major implication here was that Cleveland fans are “spoiled”. Sure, I can see that. Here’s a franchise who’s never won a championship, whose intra-city sister franchises (the Indians and Browns) haven’t won since 1948 and 1964, respectively. But hey, LeBron’s been MVP twice in the last two years, right? The Cavs have put up 60-win seasons twice in the last two years, right? Isn’t that enough?

If you’re LeBron, all you have to say is “hey, I had a bad game”, or “hey, my elbow hurt”, or “someone switched my Nikes with REEBOKS!” Don’t blame the fans for expecting too much; don’t dismiss your poor play as no big deal.

Last year, the thing that got under my skin about this team is that there was this “One Goal” mantra where it always seemed like the players were thinking “which finger should I put my ring on? I know tradition is the ring finger, but I think it’d look sweet on my pinky” rather than “hey, Orlando’s making a lot of threes, maybe we should do something about — POINTER FINGER.” This year, the mantra is “All for One”, which I guess is supposed to mean that everyone on the team and in the city is working towards one goal. But what’s that goal really been: a championship or keeping LeBron happy?

If it ends up that the Cavs lose game 6, and LeBron leaves, it won’t just be another athlete in a long string of athletes to grow up in Cleveland, say how much they love it, become a superstar, and then promptly say “so long, Cleveland, it’s been real” before exiting. It’s kind of like how Packers fans must have felt last year when Favre signed with a division rival, only instead of leaving at the (what was supposed to be) the twilight of his career and completing his legacy, here’s a guy leaving in his prime after perhaps his worst game as a professional. It’s like if Obama was elected, then said “hahaha, I’m leaving for France, see you all on the flip.”

The best case scenario here is that LeBron and the Cavs win game 6 and 7, prolonging their existence in the playoffs, and making last night’s game just a minor blip on LeBron’s record. But let’s face it: after their showing last night, it’s an unlikely scenario.

Wake me up when September ends

Albert Pujols

Today is August 27th, which means football season is nearly upon us. More importantly, though, we’re just over a month away from the baseball postseason. It’s been a pretty odd season (actually, it’s been a pretty odd month of that season), so I figured I could look back at my predictions from before spring training and see how they’re stacking up. In fact, I’ll be classy about this and get started…wait for it…after the jump! (I’ve always wanted to say that.)

Yankees vs. Red Sox

Coming into the 2007 season, I was rooting for the Red Sox in the battle of the two Eastern empires. And now, I’m definitely rooting for the Yankees.

Let’s examine what happened this season. The Yankees started poorly; the Red Sox started outstanding. The Yankees, after being swept in Yankee Stadium by the Sox, looked like they were gone. The Red Sox kept on rolling. The Yankees made a huge charge in the second half, which the Red Sox barely managed to hold off, but nonetheless both made the playoffs. The Indians defeated the Yankees (pretty handily too), but lost in seven games to the Sox.

Last night the Sox won the World Series, and I’ve decided that’s about the worst thing that can possibly happen. Because as obnoxious as Red Sox Nation was before this, imagine how they’ll be in 2008 and beyond. And for good reason: many of their players are talented and locked in the Red Sox organization for years to come.

Here’s the thing about the Yankees. Even before this year, there were players on that team that I definitely pulled for. Derek Jeter seems like he’s one of the classiest people in baseball and he always seems to come up huge. Mariano Rivera is quietly the best closer ever to play the game, but doesn’t show it. Joe Torre is the same way: quietly one of the best managers ever in baseball.

Let’s look at this championship team. Anyone else find David Ortiz insufferable with his celebrations of every minute positive thing? What about Manny Ramirez, the record-holder of the longest single in MLB history? JD Drew, the most overpaid right fielder in baseball? What about Dustin Pedroia, an overhyped rookie who’s 5’9″ but has a mouth of someone twice his size? And let’s not forget about Jonathan Papelbon, who looks like he’s having an anyeurism everytime he records an out.

The only class act I’ve seen on the Red Sox is Mike Lowell, who I would not be surprised to see gone next year if A-Rod goes to Boston.

Another thing I’ve noticed: success in the postseason revolves around your closer. Papelbon, idiot though he is, didn’t allow a run this post season (although he did allow some loud outs, particularly to the Indians). During the Yankee dynasty, Mariano Rivera was the greatest closer in the game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Joe Borowski fan, but it seems that championships follow dominant closers.

So next season, when it comes time for the Yankees to play the Red Sox, I’ll be rooting for the Yankees. Because even with a 200 million dollar payroll, the Yankees have become the lovable underdogs, while the Red Sox have become the machine that the Yankees used to be.

On that note, who didn’t see a sweep coming? It’s clear (at least to me) that the American League is far superior than the National League, and any of the four AL playoff teams would have beaten any of the four NL playoff teams in a short series. The ALCS provided the most drama of all of the playoff series.

Anyway, this entry has gotten far off topic. The point is, I am no longer a closet member of Red Sox Nation. Next season, if it has to be the Yankees or the Red Sox, I choose the Yankees.

Aaron Laffey

If the Indians win this series, it may be because of Aaron Laffey’s performance last night. He came in for his first work in the postseason and dominated for 4 2/3 innings. To be fair, he didn’t have much to lose, but Laffey pitched like the Indians were only down by one.

As for Paul Byrd, I’m not sure what to think. I really like the guy, and so I’m inclined to trust that he was using it for medical reasons. And also, he hasn’t used since 2005. We’ll see I suppose.

Game 4 Notes

Game 4 notes, by Jimmy Sawczuk.

7:57 PM 10/16/2007
Tonight it’s Paul Byrd for the Tribe against Tim Wakefield for the Red Sox.

8:01 PM 10/16/2007
Oh good, its the pregame show. These people at FOX are so knowledgeable about baseball, I’m so glad that they share their knowledge before every game.

8:11 PM 10/16/2007
Why’s the guy that plays Todd Packer promoing his new movie before the game starts?

8:20 PM 10/16/2007
Kevin Youkilis, great choice to do the lineups…not.

8:22 PM 10/16/2007
What is Dustin Pedroia thinking swinging at the first pitch? Nice play by Blake though.

8:24 PM 10/16/2007
Just occurred to me that Kelly Shoppach is catching tonight which means Martinez is at first. I wonder if that’ll change how this game ends up in the later innings at all. And Big Papi just struck out swinging. Great start by Paul Byrd.

8:29 PM 10/16/2007
Sizemore’s first at-bat was a nice one, drawing a seven pitch walk. And Tim McCarver actually just made a smart comment, noticing that Cabrera is batting right-handed against Wakefield!

8:40 PM 10/16/2007
Paul Byrd’s biggest problem throughout the year was that he threw too many strikes. Now that he’s got Ramirez down 1-2. WASTE A PITCH (or two!).

8:46 PM 10/16/2007
A leadoff single by Ramirez (who, to Paul Byrd’s credit, hit a good pitch) does no damage. After one and a half, still scoreless.

8:50 PM 10/16/2007
Kinda’ surprised that Lofton didn’t try to drop one down there. A knuckler’s a slow pitch so its easy to bunt, and Lofton’s a good bunter when the Indians are looking to make something happen.

9:05 PM 10/16/2007
Byrdie got into a 2-on, 2-out jam but got David Ortiz to hit into the shift. Good pitching again, he’s doing exactly what he needs to do thus far.

9:09 PM 10/16/2007
Good job by Gutierrez to not swing at the balls. Wakefield definitely got a call on the 3-0 pitch, it was worse than the 3-1 pitch which was called a ball.

9:40 PM 10/16/2007
Byrd continues to throw well, now we need some offense. Middle of 5, still scoreless in Cleveland.

9:43 PM 10/16/2007
Casey Blake, the man Cara loves to hate, just homered! Indians lead, 1-0.

9:45 PM 10/16/2007
Gutierrez just followed the leadoff homerun with a single to left, good piece of hitting.

9:47 PM 10/16/2007
Shoppach was just grazed by a pitch. It’s crucial to get some more runs this inning and open up the lead a little bit.

9:51 PM 10/16/2007
Runners at the corners now, why do pitchers even try that “dupe a throw to third, look to first” trick? That never works anymore.

9:53 PM 10/16/2007
Cabrera with an infield hit off of Wakefield’s glove, Indians lead 2-0.

9:57 PM 10/16/2007
Wakefield has made Hafner look bad tonight, he’s now 0-10 lifetime with 4 K’s.

9:58 PM 10/16/2007
Victor Martinez just singled through the left side, Indians lead 3-0. Wakefield is out, he went 4 2/3, at least 3 ER.

10:03 PM 10/16/2007
Jhonny Peralta! I’m not sure what he’s doing, but he has been outstanding this postseason. He just hit a 3 run homer to put the Indians ahead by 6. Close the book on Wakefield, 5 ER over 4 2/3.

10:18 PM 10/16/2007
And finally, the inning is over. 5 in the books, Indians up seven.

10:21 PM 10/16/2007
There goes the shutout. Youkilis did something good for a change, hitting a leadoff solo homerun.

10:23 PM 10/16/2007
Back to back, Ortiz goes deep and it’s 7-2.

10:25 PM 10/16/2007
Wedgie just pulled Byrd, he goes 5 innings, 2 ER. Jensen Lewis in to pitch to Ramirez.

10:32 PM 10/16/2007
Home run Manny Ramirez, back to back to back. 7-3. At least they’re solo shots.

10:34 PM 10/16/2007
Exhale. Lowell grounds out to third.

10:35 PM 10/16/2007
What a jackass Ramirez is. He stood at the plate forever as if he hit a World Series-winning homerun that also put him atop the all-time homeruns list as well as went 700 feet. The reality was that according to Protrade Live, the Indians chances of winning were reduced from 96% to 92% as a result of that homer. Idiot.

10:37 PM 10/16/2007
Middle of 6, Indians 7, Red Sox 3.

10:57 PM 10/16/2007
Nice leaping catch by Cabrera to end the top of the 7th!

11:01 PM 10/16/2007
It’s the bottom of the 7th now, I wonder what will happen for the top of the eighth. Youkilis will lead things off for the Sox, followed by Ortiz and Ramirez. I’d leave Lewis in there to pitch to Youkilis, put in Perez to pitch to Ortiz, and Betancourt to pitch to Ramirez. If Betancourt is ready now though, my guess is that Wedge sends him in to pitch the whole inning.

11:10 PM 10/16/2007
Oh, I’m good. Betancourt in to pitch the 8th.

11:12 PM 10/16/2007
A Betancourt-Youkilis battle that lasted only two pitches? Wow. I’m speechless.

11:26 PM 10/16/2007
We go to the 9th. My guess is that it’s Betancourt again.

11:29 PM 10/16/2007
It is Betancourt. Mike Lowell made his job extremely easy, swinging at the first pitch. One pitch, one out. Actually it looks like the Red Sox as a whole are trying to adopt a completely different approach to Betancourt, swinging earlier in the count. Might be a good idea, Betancourt is a strike-throwing machine. 0-2 on J.D. Drew.

11:33 PM 10/16/2007
Drew flies out to Lofton in left. Two outs.

11:33 PM 10/16/2007
“5 fly ball outs by Betancourt…it’s almost as if hitters are getting under everything.” Ya think? And Coco Crisp just lined out to first, Indians are ahead 3-1, they’ve won 7-3.

11:35 PM 10/16/2007
Casey Blake, the player of the game? It has to be Paul Byrd.

Game 3 Notes

Keeping some notes as I watch Game 3 of the ALCS.

7:36 PM 10/16/2007
Coco Crisp just grounded into an inning-ending double play, the Red Sox had loaded up the bases with nobody out. Huge pitch by Westbrook, nice job by Peralta to turn it himself.

7:45 PM 10/16/2007
Kenny Lofton just homered! That’s his first homerun since being back in an Indians uniform, and it really couldn’t have come at a better time. It looked like Dice-K was starting to get into a groove. There’s the curtain call, the crowd is going absolutely insane.

7:48 PM 10/16/2007
Interesting that they started Nixon tonight. I wonder if Wedge is looking for the lefty-righty matchup against Dice-K or maybe just playing the hot bat. He just got robbed of a single up the middle, he’s hitting the ball hard. End of 2: Indians 2, Red Sox 0.

7:56 PM 10/16/2007
A good sign for Westbrook: he only needed six pitches to retire the Red Sox in the third. Middle of the third: Indians 2, Red Sox 0.

8:13 PM 10/16/2007
FOX’s technical aspects of its broadcasts are usually good, but not tonight. There’s a lot of audio feedback and now the video is starting to glitch. GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER.

8:17 PM 10/16/2007
HAHA! A batted ball just hit David Ortiz. A bad baserunning mistake by the Sox, as now a double play ends the inning.

8:22 PM 10/16/2007
Another good inning by Westbrook, he’s giving the Indians exactly what they need thus far.

8:37 PM 10/16/2007
Yet another good inning by Westbrook, he’s getting it DONE tonight. 5 IP, 63 pitches, no runs, only three hits. Middle of 5: Indians 2, Red Sox 0.

8:50 PM 10/16/2007
Dice-K is on the ropes here, with Asdrubal Cabrera at the plate. Kind of important that the Indians get him out of the game now, I think.

8:53 PM 10/16/2007
Asdrubal just singled up the middle. Good at bat, nice job staying with it and not trying to do too much. Dice-K might be done, especially with Hafner coming up.

8:55 PM 10/16/2007
Good hustle by Hafner, he hit a double play ball to second but he beat it out, which drove in Sizemore. 4-0 Indians.

9:02 PM 10/16/2007
Victor Martinez has singled, and here comes the bullpen. Matsuzaka goes 4 2/3. Not what the Red Sox paid all that money for. Garko is now at the plate with runners at first and second and two out.

9:19 PM 10/16/2007
Huge double play ball! Ramirez grounds to Peralta, and Westbrook gets out of it. Worst case, he gets the Indians through six innings of baseball.

9:35 PM 10/16/2007
Well there goes the shutout. Jason Varitek just hit a two run homer to make it 4-2 Indians.

9:42 PM 10/16/2007
Westbrook is out. He went 6 2/3, allowed 2 ER and cannot lose the game. An outstanding job by Westbrook tonight, now on to Jensen Lewis.

9:49 PM 10/16/2007
Jensen Lewis struck out the batter he faced, stretch time at the Jake!

10:06 PM 10/16/2007
Betancourt’s on to pitch the eighth against Youkilis, Ortiz and Ramirez. Obviously a crucial inning for the bullpen.

10:13 PM 10/16/2007
Betancourt sets them down 1-2-3. What a season for Betancourt, what a job here in the eighth. Three outs to go.

10:27 PM 10/16/2007
Indians go 1-2-3 in the eighth. It’s Borowski time.

10:31 PM 10/16/2007
Mike Lowell pops up to first. One out in the ninth.

10:32 PM 10/16/2007
JD Drew flies out to center. Two down. Jason Varitek to the plate.

10:37 PM 10/16/2007
Ballgame! Indians win, 4-2.