Cleveland is buzzing like it’s 1995. No tickets remain for the three-game set against Chicago. In downtown, you can’t walk a block without hearing “Go Tribe!” If you’re a visiting White Sox fan, you can’t walk half a block without being chastised. It’s something of a time warp, borrowing from the deadpan urgency of 1997, the wide-eyed honeymoon aura of 1995, and the guarded optimism–for a young team with its best days ahead–of 1993.
Back in 1993, the Chicago White Sox were in town for the season’s final weekend, just a little tune-up before their postseason rush. No tickets remained for that one, either: It was the final series at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and I was in town to watch the whole shebang with my family.
Now, a dozen years later, I’m in town with my father to absorb the action. It’s actually been three years since my last game here, and I quickly notice some aesthetic changes to the ballpark. Television broadcasts only show so much of the venue. First, I was surprised by how closed-in the Jake felt, probably since I’ve recently visited the new more open parks in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Also, the main, hulking scoreboard was considerably widened and enhanced to show slicker graphics and provide more relevant game information, while at least seeming less cluttered by advertisements. What was once a basic scoreboard on the tall leftfield wall is now a video screen that stretches almost the entire way from behind Coco Crisp to Grady Sizemore. It’s a bit distracting at times, but the screen is put to good use as a prominent, detailed scoreboard for the Yankees-Red Sox game. The AL East showdown is literally hanging over the shoulder of the Indians players, whether they’re watching or not.
A fair number of White Sox fans are in attendance, most clustered behind the visitors’ dugout during batting practice, offering plenty of high praise for their players. Those that I spoke with said they don’t really care who they face in the playoffs, now that it’s in the bag. “Cleveland!” shouted one goateed man, acknowledging that it couldn’t happen until the ALCS.
Chicago clinching the AL Central ahead of time radically changes this series. Where just days ago this weekend was being esteemed as the setting for baseball’s greatest choke job ever, all pressure is on the Indians now. Dreamy as this idea may have been to Tribe players, of disgracing the rival Pale Hose, it was never a probability except for two days last week. Now, they can zone in on their simple mission: win the wild card.
No, it’s not totally in their hands. A whole matrix of scenarios is being untangled as the Other Sox and Yankees do battle. But if Cleveland sweeps, they’re in the playoffs. Win two, they’re automatically in as long as Boston doesn’t also win exactly two–this would prompt a 163rd game for Boston and New York, the loser facing Cleveland the next day in a sudden-death bout for the wild card. Win just one, and as long as Boston doesn’t take exactly two out of three, the worst Cleveland fares is a one-game playoff. Fail to win a game against Chicago, and it’s wait ’til next year.
After Thursday’s clincher against Detroit, Ozzie Guillen told ESPN cameras that he “will respect” Boston and New York by still trying to win these three games against Cleveland, rather than giving all his regulars a three-day vacation. I have my suspicions that he may try and give each regular a day off in the series–it’s just what teams do when they’ve clinched–but you never know with Ozzie. These games don’t mean squat to Chicago, not unless they strongly prefer one playoff opponent to another. Even then, the AL playoff template is still so muddy and unpredictable that the teams who have clinched are much better off resting up and aligning their rotations.
With Caribou coffee in vein, all-beef hot dog in stomach and scorecard in hand, I settle into my upper deck seat along the third base infield side. It’s 65 degrees, the sky’s clear, with a little breeze out to right-center. They finally announce the lineups at 6:52, and the scrubbiness of the Chicago lineup is truly breathtaking. I expected some subs, but not all at once. Scott Podsednik and Joe Crede are the only regular players starting, and their merit as everyday players is debatable in the first place. Cleveland’s lineup and batting order is exactly what it’s been for several weeks now, if not months. Hernandez starts against lefties, relegating Ben Broussard to the bench. These hitters shouldn’t need to score a whole lot of runs–Millwood enters the night with a 2.92 ERA, thousandths of a point ahead of Johan Santana for the AL’s lowest, and he should make quick work of Chicago. Buehrle is not the first guy you’d want to face, but he’s not pitching as well as Jose Contreras or Brandon McCarthy right now. Guillen is essentially ceding the game, and Cleveland really needs to make good on this opportunity. This lineup might mean that the regulars will play Saturday and Sunday.
The pre-game music makes voice recordings almost impossible. Color me a purist, but the “show” surrounding games rubs me the wrong way almost every time. Please, just let me watch my baseball.
Podsednik leads off the game with a single. Last night he stole two bases against Vance Wilson, not exactly playoff-caliber catching, but I’m expecting him to be running in this series to determine if his legs are fresh enough to steal bases in the playoffs. Prior to last night, he was six for his last 20 attempts on the bases. He swipes second without much trouble. Brian Anderson‘s single doesn’t score Podsednik, and the Sox fail to capitalize on the first-and-third, no outs situation.
The Indians mimic Chicago, Sizemore reaches third and Peralta’s on first with one out for Hafner. Cleveland fails to score, stranding both.
Millwood retires 12 straight after the singles leading off the first, striking out six and walking none. Against this lineup, he’s merely meeting expectations. In the fifth, Chris Widger grounds a ball up the middle at medium speed, out of Ronnie Belliard‘s reach by about two inches and into center field for a single. For a man so short and stout, Belliard plays very fluid defense. He’s at 45 runs above replacement-level defense (FRAR); 13 runs above average (FRAA). Against Tampa earlier this week he ranged behind second base, sprawling out to stop a grounder and flipping it behind his back from the ground without looking to Jhonny Peralta for the force out. Belliard frequently draws raves for his work turning double plays, as well.
Millwood takes a comebacker by Geoff Blum–the second of the game–off his shin. The ball bounds into right field for a single. Willie Harris‘ blooper falls in front of Blake in right field–the third cheap hit in a row–and Widger scampers plateward for the game’s first run. Chicago 1, Cleveland 0.
Boston is winning 2-1.
Slider’s Phantom of the Opera act is new to me. Backed by organ, he ascends from behind the centerfield wall with a cape and mask, engulfed in smoke. He’s twirling an effigy of a White Sox player with a long rope. What was that? “Might be the highlight of the game,” my dad muses. Except for Millwood’s Web Gem, he’s right. I hope that changes.
After Buehrle walks Coco Crisp and strikes out Peralta and Travis Hafner, Guillen removes him after. He’s eligible for the win after just 88 pitches over 5 2/3 innings. Enter Luis Vizcaino, who yields a single before whiffing Victor Martinez to end the inning. Six left on base so far for Cleveland.
Damaso Marte starts the eighth for Chicago, quite possibly with a postseason roster spot on the line. He was very wild last week against the Tribe, and Guillen has hardly used him at all the past couple weeks. Peralta is called out on strikes and jaws at the plate umpire Brian O’Nora, who’s caught a few glares from Indians hitters. My view from the upper deck isn’t straight enough to judge, but I’m getting frustrated at how few instant replays are shown. You’ve got this multi-million dollar whale of a scoreboard–now use it! There are rules in places against showing controversial replays, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating.
Marte stays in to face Hafner to start the ninth (single, Franklin Gutierrez in to pinch run) and Martinez pulls a sharp grounder just inside third base for a double. Gutierrez wisely holds at third. Dustin Hermanson enters and, at 10:00 p.m. sharp, Belliard’s groundout to short scores the run to tie the game. Aaron Boone‘s double-play groundout then sends the game to extra innings…
For only two runs plated, this is a long game.
Bob Wickman throws a perfect tenth with two strikeouts, including the Sox’ first pinch-hitter: Carl Everett (for Widger), who strikes out to distant taunts of “DI-NO-SAUR.” Brilliant. Hermanson also retires Cleveland in order in the bottom of the inning.
Fernando Cabrera, who has the ability to go three or four innings if necessary, jogs to the mound. I raved about Cabrera on BPR this weekend’s Baseball Prospectus Radio, noting that he’s been Cleveland’s best reliever since his call-up, if you look at raw numbers, and that he should make the playoff roster, maybe even in place of Scott Sauerbeck, the pen’s only lefty. I hope he doesn’t make me look stupid.
With one out, Gutierrez, of all people draws a walk on four pitches from Neal Cotts. Next, a single and a walk to load the bases. It seems like time for a pinch hitter; Broussard is .228/.253/.418 versus lefties, two walks and 26 strikeouts in 79 at-bats, and experienced or not, Ryan Garko offers some right-handed pop on the bench. Wedge does nothing. Broussard looks terrible and goes down looking on three pitches. That was a bad decision. Boone grounds out. Ten left on base for Cleveland. This crowd, I’d estimate still 38,000 strong, is silent.
Boston’s win is official, 5-3.
Borchard strikes out for the fourth time opening the 12th, Crede looks ridiculous on two off-speed pitches and also Ks, and a couple batters later the side is retired. Cabrera looks strong enough to go at least one more inning. What a luxury.
Cliff Politte is finally summoned. Guillen seems understandably reluctant to use him and Bobby Jenks after both pitched yesterday; he probably hoped to rest them. Sizemore’s one-out single injects some life into the crowd, and he almost beats a fielder’s choice to second off Peralta’s bat. Almost. Still no replay on the scoreboard. Inning over.
In the 13th, Cabrera strikes out Blum, and Harris lines a triple just a foot away from clearing the fence in right-center. The Sox go for the squeeze–gasp!–and Podsednik bunts too hard to Broussard at first, catching Harris at home plate. This was actually a great situation for a squeeze, with one out, Harris’ wheels on third, and an excellent bunter at the plate who can’t hit well otherwise. It just didn’t work out. Finally wanting to get out of stadium, Guillen caves and sends Paul Konerko in to hit for Anderson. He’s intentionally walked. Gload, 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, lines a screaming double just past Sizemore, who was playing Gload opposite field. Had he been in straightaway center, it probably wouldn’t have been close. The double scores two runs.
Pinch-hitter Jeff Liefer and Martinez strike out against Jenks, and Belliard crushes the game’s first home run to left center, 3-2 White Sox. Broussard flies out to Crede at third to end the game. The bottom third of the lineup finished 0-for-14 with two walks. Pretty clearly, the power positions of right field, third base and first base need some tinkering this winter.
With two day games ahead, if Cleveland wins one they will play a one-game playoff as long as the Red Sox and Yankees don’t split. The key is Boston or New York winning both of their next two games; then Cleveland only has to win one game to assure at least a one-game playoff. If they split at Fenway, Cleveland must win two to even incite the weird two-game playoff to settle things. Otherwise, they’re done. If Cleveland can’t pull out a win Saturday, they’re down to Sunday and left hoping either Boston or New York wins both.
At 11:49, six hours after entering the main gate, it’s back to the hotel.
Dave Haller is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.