It was one year ago Saturday — June 17, 2016 — that Carlos Santana hit a walk-off homer in the ninth inning to beat the White Sox 3-2.
The Indians wouldn’t lose another game until July 2.
They won 14 games in a row, the longest winning streak in franchise history, breaking the previous record of 13, which had stood for 74 years.
The Indians’ 14-game winning streak was the trampoline to a 69-42 finishing kick that included a 10-5 postseason record.
In winning 14 in a row, the Indians outscored their opponents by the astounding margin of 82-27. They averaged 5.9 runs per game and they held their opponents to 1.9 runs. Repeat: 1.9.
How’s that for pitching?
Holding the opposition to an average of less than two runs per game for 14 consecutive games.
That’s how you get yourself into the postseason, boys and girls.
A year ago Saturday, it all started.
Less than a week ago, Terry Francona, when the Indians were getting Dodgered, losing two of three games to a team that on consecutive nights made Andrew Miller look like Aaron Laffey, checked the baseball landscape, the Central Division standings and his wristwatch, and declared, “We need to get going.”
For the steady-as-she-goes Indians skipper, it was an uncharacteristic public call to combat that was striking.
After basically calling out his team, Francona then showed that he was going to manage accordingly, going all out to win every game. In losing back-to-back games to the Dodgers, Francona threw a saddle on Miller, his prized bullpen show pony, and rode him hard: bringing him into a game against the Dodgers and allowing him to throw 24 pitches, just 24 hours after Miller had labored through a 25-pitch oil spill.
Sometimes, because waiting for the homestretch might be too late, the jockey has to go to his whip in the backstretch.
Francona, who has ridden more than his share of winners, is doing that. He has begun to sacrifice bunt and pinch-hit earlier in games. In the first game with the Dodgers, Corey Kluber threw 106 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since April 21. Friday night against the Twins, Francona used Bryan Shaw for two innings in an 8-1 game, even though there was a doubleheader the next day.
So Francona is managing like it could get late early this year. His team, the supposed prohibitive favorite to win the Central Division, needs to start playing like it — and now, maybe, it has.
The Indians won the last game of the Dodgers series and the first two games in Minnesota. Entering Saturday’s doubleheader, since May 21 the Indians had only been in first place for four days.
For most of June they had been unable to catch the implausibly first-place Twins, who lost 103 games last year, have the worst home record in the majors this year, have been outscored by their opponents by 41 runs overall, and in June have a team ERA over 6.00.
Still, the Indians couldn’t catch them, until the Indians’ win in the first game Saturday gave both teams identical 34-31 records.
The only saving grace for the slow-starting Indians: For most of the first 2½ months of the season the whole Central Division resembled a giant baseball sinkhole.
It’s the chasing-their-tail division. The nothing-to-see-here, folks, division. Lots of thrashing around, but nobody really going anywhere.
Yet as bad as the Indians had seemingly played up until the last few days, they’ve actually been no worse than they were at the same time last year.
Through 65 games this year, the Indians were 34-31, and tied for first in the division.
Through 65 games last year, they were 35-30, and also tied for first place.
Last year’s jumper cables were that 14-game winning streak.
This year, one of the starting outfielders is Daniel Robertson, who’s actually been one of their better players over the last week.
Baseball, what a funny game.
Francona, who was briefly hospitalized last week due to dehydration — he was short on liquids AND victories — has gone to the whip. The Indians have responded, and are positioned to make a move.
Starting with their weekend in Minnesota, seven of their next 11 games are with the Twins. The other four are with the dead-in-the-water Orioles, who went into play Saturday having lost 24 of their last 33 games.
The Indians’ starting rotation is still an unpredictable box of chocolates. It took them 2½ months to run down the Minnesota Freaking Twins. Kluber missed a month’s worth of starts, they have a losing record at Progressive Field, but they still went into the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader tied for first place.
And the Golden State Warriors are nowhere in sight.