CLEVELAND — Consider what it means for a baseball team to outscore its opponents over the course of a season by 100 runs. That’s better than a half-run per game, spread out over 162 games. That’s a darn fine season. World Series have been won by teams, such as the 2015 Kansas City Royals, who didn’t manage a plus-100 run differential in the regular season. Last year’s American League champion Cleveland Indians, the best, most entertaining squad to grace the shores of Lake Erie in a generation, managed a plus-101.
The 2017 Indians, then, have had themselves a darn fine season, as measured by runs scored minus runs allowed, over the nearly three weeks that have passed between Aug. 24, when they won a seemingly unmemorable late-summer game at Progressive Field, and Tuesday night, when they beat the Detroit Tigers, 2-0, behind a shutout performance from ace Corey Kluber, for their 20th win in a row.
Twenty wins in a row. Spell it out: WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. It’s a towering achievement, pulled off by just two other teams since the turn of the previous century. The last to do it, the 2002 “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics, had a movie made about them. Their 20-game run stood alone as the AL record until the Indians equaled it Tuesday night. The all-time record of 21, set by the 1935 Chicago Cubs (although some would count the 1916 New York Giants’ 26-game winning streak that was interrupted by a tie) could be matched on Wednesday, with a 12:10 p.m. start, as Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger faces Detroit’s Buck Farmer.
“It’s pretty crazy to think,” Kluber said. “You play so many games in so many days, to go almost three weeks without losing a game is not something I think you really expect.”
But it is when you examine the winning streak more closely that the Indians’ almost incomprehensible dominance comes into view. They aren’t just winning games. They are smothering and bludgeoning opponents at the same time. Their two-run win Tuesday, the seventh shutout victory during the streak, pushed their aggregate margin of victory in these 20 wins to 102. Of the 180 innings they have played since Aug. 24, they have trailed at the end of just four.
On Tuesday, Kluber struck out Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos to strand a runner on third in the first inning, then allowed only four hits the rest of the night, while walking none and striking out eight, in the latest statement in his surging candidacy for the AL Cy Young Award. Shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jose Ramirez — two MVP-caliber talents — contributed dazzling plays on defense, and the only offense Kluber would need came on a leadoff homer from Lindor, his 30th, in the bottom of the first; the second run scored on a wild pitch in the sixth.
A crowd of 24,654 roared as Kluber, with the potential tying run at the plate, retired Cabrera on a weak grounder to third to end the game.
It’s almost hard to remember now, but for the bulk of this season, the Indians were just another decent team trying to find its way. They were in second place in the AL Central, behind the Minnesota Twins, as recently as June 25. They were just three games over .500 as recently as July 19. They endured a 3-7 stretch as recently as early August.
“You go through stretches where you’re the best team ever, and you go through stretches like the Dodgers, where it seems like you can’t do anything right,” said Lindor, already a two-time all-star at age 23. “We understood early in the season what it would take to make the playoffs again. Did we just lay back and say, ‘Well, it’s a long season — we’ll be okay’? No, but we understood not everyone is going to have their best numbers in the first month and a half. But the numbers will be there at the end.”
And then, without warning, they started winning and still haven’t stopped, their sheer dominance during the streak bordering on absurd, as if they have broken the game of baseball.
During the first 19 games of the streak, the Indians batted .309 with a .950 on-base-plus-slugging percentage as a team — as if every single hitter in their lineup, every single day, were Anthony Rendon.
During those same 19 wins, Indians pitchers held opposing batters to a .207 average and a .545 OPS — as if every opposing hitter, every single day, was Danny Espinosa.
They have scored 10 or more runs six times during the streak, shut out their opponent seven times, squeaked by with one-run wins just three times and never once required extra innings or a walk-off to secure the W. They swept back-to-back doubleheaders, two days apart, in New York and Detroit. They beat playoff favorites, such as the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and wild-card aspirants, such as the Kansas City Royals (a three-game sweep by a combined margin of 20-0) and Baltimore Orioles.
In the process, the Indians blew past the Houston Astros for the best record in the AL and entering Tuesday had drawn to within four games of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the overall top seed in the postseason.
All of this was done, by the way, without the services of second baseman Jason Kipnis and outfielder Michael Brantley, their regular leadoff and No. 3 hitters, respectively, and left-hander Andrew Miller, the ace of their vaunted bullpen — all of whom have been out with injuries for the entirety of the streak.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are also hot, the Dodgers have more wins, the Washington Nationals have the same number of losses, the Chicago Cubs are the defending champs — but how can anyone think any team but the Indians are the World Series favorites when the postseason begins in three weeks?
The last place anyone would want to look for answers to such questions is the Indians’ clubhouse, where any question about streaks, playoff seeding, postseason hopes or anything that doesn’t involve that day’s game is met with a blank stare and a cliche.
“We’re just trying to win on a daily basis,” closer Cody Allen said. “At the end of a 162-game season, regardless of whether you played well in April and terrible in September, or the other way around, you’re going to know where you stand.”
“I haven’t heard anybody talking about how many games in a row we’ve won,” Kluber said.
The half-shrugged, matter-of-fact dismissal of all things streak-related is straight out of the Terry Francona playbook. The Cleveland manager’s disdain for the big-picture perspective such discussions require — at the expense of that day-to-day diligence that is part of baseball’s DNA — is such that he won’t even say the word “streak.”
“I just want to win tonight,” Francona said before Tuesday’s game, the first time a reporter tried to get him to answer a question about the streak.
“It’s more fun for you guys,” he said the second time it was raised. “But it doesn’t garner you anything more than the win. That’s what’s important.”
“Believe me when I say it — try to stay in the moment,” he said the third time. “Win or lose, try to learn from [it], and then move on very quickly to the next game.”
“I’ll say it one more time,” he said the fourth time. “We’re trying to win tonight’s game. [If] you do that, and you do that well enough, you look up at the end, and you’re where you deserve to be.”