Fenway Park grew louder, willing Travis Shaw to deliver the hit to score Jackie Bradley from second and Dustin Pedroia from first. Boston had one strike left to play with, down 4-3 in the ninth.
Cody Allen looked in for the sign, a guy selected in the 23rd round of baseball’s amateur draft suddenly at the centre of every hardball dream. With a deep breath, he unleashed a high fastball. Shaw lofted it to right field, where it landed in the dark glove of Lonnie Chisenhall, a failed prospect turned serviceable outfielder.
The $113 million Cleveland Indians had swept the $215 million Boston Red Sox.
A mob scene engulfed the sainted diamond on Yawkey Way. Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, two homegrown heroes, were first to reach Allen. They were soon joined by Mike Napoli, the veteran first baseman who slugged 34 home runs this year amid a renaissance, and Coco Crisp, the journeyman whose two-run homer was the major blow in this deciding game.
The symbolism was sharp, as the Indians’ blend of gritty farm products and scrapheap discoveries danced a victory jig en route to the American League Championship Series. It was further proof, as if it were needed, that culture can mean more than skill in October. It was further proof that baseball can never be predicted, no matter how many times we try.
The man who made it all happen, Terry Francona, soon emerged from the dugout, onto the field he once surveyed as Red Sox manager. After almost nine decades of futility, Tito delivered two world championships to a city that could scarcely imagine one. He was then fired, some say hastily, when Boston collapsed amid tales of chicken and beer down the stretch in 2011. Needing to resurrect his image somewhat, Francona ventured to the quieter enclave of Ohio, where he slowly transformed a patchwork Indians team into the contender we see today.
For Terry, this was a series of sweet redemption. Without doubt, he still holds enormous affection for the Red Sox, and several of his cornerstone players still feature for Boston. But celebrating in the house of those who fired him, after leading a less talented team to a comprehensive victory, must have felt great. Yet more than that one moment of retribution, this was a series-long tribute to his phenomenal skills as a baseball manager, both tactically and motivationally. In almost every way, it was a masterclass.
By using Andrew Miller as a roving fire blanket, Francona illustrated his appreciation of Sabermetric dogma. Since the earliest scribblings of Bill James, statisticians have decried bullpen usage as a fatal weakness of traditional managers. By eschewing conventional labels such as closer and setup man to deploy Miller in moments of optimal concern, Francona played a key role in stifling a Red Sox lineup that was unmatched during the regular season. David Ortiz was never comfortable in the series, and Boston’s middle order rarely saw the same pitcher more than twice in any game, disrupting its rhythm.
This was also an effective way of counteracting serious injuries within the Indians starting rotation. The potent duo of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar wasn’t available, causing many to write off Cleveland before the series even began. But Terry Francona seems to thrive on such adversity. Rather like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, Tito embraces hardship as an opportunity to shock the world. That’s what the Indians managed to achieve in this series, as the Red Sox were sent home for winter and David Ortiz rode off into the cold light of retirement.
In a series where Boston left 41 runners on base, Cleveland was far more clinical. The aggregate score was 15-7 in favour of the Indians, who always seemed to come up with the big hit when it really mattered, in keeping with Francona’s ability to motivate overlooked players. In Game 1, it was three home runs off Rick Porcello in one inning. In Game 2, it was a three-run bomb by Chisenhall off David Price. Then, last night, it was Crisp, the former Red Sox spark plug, who skied a sixth-inning homer into the Monster seats, extending a lead the Indians never surrendered.
Once Allen induced the final out to spark delirium, the party eventually moved inside. There was Rajai Davis, the 35-year old with his sixth different team. There was Danny Otero, the nomadic bullpen hand accustomed to riding the waiver wire. And there, too, was Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez, Roberto Perez and Trevor Bauer. Some of these players were considered washed up, over the hill, irrelevant in this age of numerical truth. Others among the group struggled mightily along the minor league road, flaming out before rediscovering the tools that once made them special. All eventually found a home with the Cleveland Indians, this rough assemblage of bodies and spirits that magically coalesced into a winner.
In this regard, a word of praise for the Indians’ front office is also in order. Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have done a wonderful job with minimal resources since Mark Shapiro left for Toronto last winter. Now, those two executive think-tanks will go to war for the American League pennant, as the Indians face the Blue Jays beginning Friday. And having witnessed the suspense of logic throughout this postseason, all bets are off when trying to foresee a winner.
As the playoffs heat up, baseball is presently obsessed with billy goats and the end of its longest, most infamous championship drought. The Chicago Cubs are rightfully the talk of sports right now, and their quest for that elusive title deserves our full attention. But only a fool would sleep on Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians, who haven’t won it all since 1948. We may hear a lot about Rocky Colavito in the coming days, but that story will pale in comparison to what this brilliant manager and his unheralded team are threatening to achieve.