CLEVELAND — For anyone who may have questioned whether a team could be any better at any given moment — or a single stretch of baseball any more sublime and intoxicating — than the Cleveland Indians and the Winning Streak That Will Not Die had been over the course of three straight weeks without a loss, the answer came in moments small and large Thursday night at Progressive Field. And it amounted to: yes, absolutely.
It came crashing in with epic hits and thunderous roars at the end, all of them leading up to the Indians' 22nd consecutive victory, a record. Flexing the rally muscles that some might have suspected had atrophied from acute nonuse during these days of easy blowouts and never-a-doubt wins, the Indians came from a run down in the ninth to catch the Kansas City Royals, then walked off a 3-2 victory in the 10th.
Trailing by a run and down to their last strike — the former a situation they had faced seldom during a run that began Aug. 24, the latter unprecedented during the streak — the Indians watched Francisco Lindor launch a ball off the left field wall, an RBI double that tied the score at 2.
An inning later, with nobody out, second baseman Jose Ramirez stretched a single to center field into a hustle double, narrowly avoiding the tag at second. Two batters later, right fielder Jay Bruce laced a double down the right field line to win it, sending the Indians streaming out of their dugout to celebrate the most improbable of these history-making 22 wins.
As an October-tinged crowd of 30,874 stomped and hollered, Bruce was set upon by his Cleveland teammates somewhere near shortstop; they doused him with baby powder and bottled water, then started ripping the jersey clear off his back.
"It's safe to say we're in uncharted territory," Bruce said. "You can't draw this stuff, man. You really can't."
The Indians' streak will stand as one of the great achievements in modern baseball, one perhaps best illustrated not by simple wins but by the fact that they have outscored opponents by a combined 142-37 during its length — a run differential of plus-105, better than many good-to-great teams, including the 2016 AL pennant-winning Indians, amass in an entire regular season.
But the Indians hadn't treated any single win during the streak as anything more than another small milestone in baseball's daily marathon over the hills and turns of a six-month regular season.
And if Thursday night's was felt with an extra dose of emotion, it was only partly due to the fact the Indians now own sole possession of the longest winning streak in major league history, passing the 1935 Chicago Cubs, who won 21 straight (and notwithstanding the 26 straight, interrupted by a tie, won by the 1916 New York Giants).
It was also because, before Thursday night, the Indians not only had required neither extra innings nor a walk-off to win during the streak — but they hadn't so much as trailed after the sixth inning.
"It's not more satisfying; a win is a win," Lindor said, toeing the company line even in the wake of Thursday's late-inning heroics. The most he would acknowledge: "Emotions were pretty high. The entire crowd — it's fun. And to see your teammates screaming on the top step of the dugout is pretty special."
But if the question was what could make a team on a 21-game winning streak fundamentally even better, the answer came in the seventh inning Thursday night, when the bullpen door opened, "MILLER TIME" flashed on the ribbon boards and a 6-foot-7 figure of shaggy hair and sharp angles came jogging across the outfield grass on his way to the mound.
The crowd stood and roared. It already knew that answer: Andrew Miller. The version of the Indians that won 21 straight did not have him; the one that won its 22nd straight did — even if it was only 11 pitches and one decent inning.
"He's going to need some outings," Manager Terry Francona said, "but that was a really good first effort."
In the context of what truly matters to these Indians, this was the larger development on this night because Miller, the left-handed slayer of late-inning rallies, was back from the disabled list — just in time to get himself ready for the Indians' real mission, which begins in earnest the first week of October.
Miller, quite possibly the best left-handed reliever in baseball and the MVP of the 2016 American League Championship Series, had missed the entirety of the Indians' winning streak to this point while recovering from a knee injury, and his return, quite obviously, made them immediately better — assuming he's at full health.
In mid-August, when he tried to come back from the same injury too soon, he wound up back on the disabled list after two appearances.
"I don't want to miss any time. It's not fun to sit on the sidelines," he said. "But . . . at least [the injury] happened early enough that we were able to deal with it. I'd like to go on a nice little run here before the end of season and build up some positive stuff before the playoffs."
With their division title all but secured, the Indians have the luxury of mapping out a progressive buildup for Miller that will involve six to seven appearances of gradually higher pitch counts, in hopes of getting him back to full power by Oct. 5, when the Indians expect to host Game 1 of the AL Division Series.
"The goal is for him to be the huge weapon that he can be," Francona said.
In the 2016 postseason, Francona famously unleashed Miller to devastating effect, turning the big lefty into a multi-inning, high-leverage fireman who saw action in every inning from the fifth through the ninth over the course of 10 dazzling appearances — all of which lasted four outs or more and half of which exceeded 30 pitches.
He was, at that moment, the ultimate October weapon.
But interestingly, Francona indicated Thursday that he doesn't plan to use Miller the same way in the 2017 postseason; while he might still call upon him in the fifth inning, if that's where the game looks like it could be decided, he may not leave him in for the sixth and seventh — at least not if he can avoid it.
"He threw lot of pitches last [October]. That bothered me at times," Francona said. "The intent was never to have him throw that many pitches. He was able to do it.
"We'd love for him to be a huge weapon. I don't think it entails him throwing that many pitches."
Perhaps because the streak had recently passed 21 and thus was now of legal drinking age, even Francona, an unwavering taskmaster of the one-game-at-a-time school, loosened his tongue Thursday and for the first time allowed himself a moment of big-picture pride in what his team has done through these past three weeks.
"It's kind of cool: You're hearing 'Cleveland' a lot," he said. "If people are walking around with their chests out a little bit, I'm glad — because I like it here and I like the people here. So I think that's maybe a byproduct of this [streak]. It's not going to help you in the standings, but it's good for Cleveland. Anything like that I think is terrific."
The streak has been terrific, and thanks to the late-inning heroics of Lindor, Ramirez, Bruce and the others, it is both the longest in history and still alive. But what lasts longest is a legacy built on a World Series title, and with Miller back in the fold, the Indians came out of Thursday night only somewhat elevated as a regular season juggernaut but significantly elevated as a title-worthy one.