CLEVELAND — Lengthy streaks are among the amazing phenomena of sports, whether it’s Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56-consecutive games or the Celtics winning eight-straight NBA titles or Cal Ripken appearing in the Baltimore lineup 2,632 times without missing a game.
We’ve surely experienced our share of unexpected occurrences during this baseball season in New York, both exhilarating and maddening, but none of them — not Aaron Judge’s out-of-nowhere emergence into stardom nor the litany of injuries and other problems that befell the Mets — were as remarkably unforeseen as the Cleveland Indians rattling off 22 wins in a row on their way to the AL Division Series that begins Thursday night at Progressive Field.
The Tribe obviously was a sound enough club to make it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series one year ago before losing to the drought-busting Chicago Cubs, while extending their own time without capturing a title since 1954.
But what is it about this year’s squad that has catapulted them into a 33-4 final kick to reach an AL-best 102 wins entering the postseason?
“They do everything right; their starters do a really good job, their bullpen does a really good job, their defense plays really well, they swing the bats, hit the ball out of the ballpark, they run the bases,” Joe Girardi assessed following Tuesday’s wild-card win over Minnesota. “They’re not going to beat themselves. But we feel really good about our team. We know how good they are, so we have to go play our best.”
Indeed, the Yankees aren’t about to, not should they be, deferential in any way to the Indians’ deep and talented team. With wunderkind Aaron Judge and others mashing home runs and a bullpen as deep and talented as anyone’s, they sport a legitimate chance over the next five games to take their already-accelerated rebuild to the next level if they can upset Cleveland and advance to the ALCS against either Boston or Houston.
Still, Cleveland was a .550 team at 69-56 before embarking on its astounding 22-game run from Aug. 24 through Sept. 14.
How’d they do it?
Not even the writers of the 1989 baseball classic “Major League” would have dreamed up “Wild Thing” Vaughn and the fictional Indians winning that many in a row.
“I think there’s a bunch of ways we can look at it, but this team is mostly returning from last year, almost everybody, which means that almost everybody went through what happened last year,” said former All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis, who has been manning center field since returning from the disabled list. “As we got into the second half and closer to the important games that we want to play in, you kind of saw everybody turn that switch back on, and that’s where that win streak came from.
“Once these games started meaning more, it was like, ‘That’s what we were missing, that’s what we were waiting for.’ After that playoff run, World Series, Game 7, the first-half games just didn’t do it for you, it almost felt like. Now that we’re getting closer to the action, in the lights, guys started turning it back on and are getting excited about it.”
It’s impossible not to be excited about any starting rotation fronted by rolling ace Corey Kluber, who built a strong case for adding a second Cy Young award to the one he copped in 2014.
In fact, both the Indians’ starting five and their bullpen — the latter led by versatile former Yanks lefty Andrew Miller — finished atop the majors in ERA for an excellent staff-wide mark of 3.30. Their 19 shutouts also were the most in baseball this year.
Add a proven slugger like Edwin Encarnacion as a free agent and ex-Met Jay Bruce via trade to a double-play combination featuring rising stars Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor maturing into legitimate MVP contenders, and it’s not difficult at all to envision Hall of Fame-caliber manager Terry Francona ending Cleveland’s decades-long World Series drought, just as he did in 2004 (and again in 2007) with Boston.
“We know they’re really good,” Yanks infielder Chase Headley said after Tuesday’s win. “They were a couple of outs away from winning the World Series last year, and they’re more or less just as good — if not better — this year. But we feel like we can play against anybody.”
Any team should feel that way entering any postseason series.
Problem is, if there’s one thing the Indians have shown this year, especially lately, it’s that they’re not just anybody.