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Photo Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

With the Major League Baseball postseason set to begin next week, there’s one team that seems to be the favorite to win the World Series, which isn’t surprising. 

Over the last six months, the Boston Red Sox have put together a historic season, breaking the club record for most wins in a season (105), earning the best record in baseball and securing home-field advantage throughout October.  Historically, the Red Sox have had baseball’s best record six times in the past, winning the World Series in five of those six years (1903, 1912, 1915, 2007 and 2013), losing just once in 1946, in an epic Fall Classic against the St. Louis Cardinals that went seven games.  But with all the hype around Boston – and the New York Yankees, a team that also clinched a playoff berth this week – right now, the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians are lying in the weeds.

Just two years removed from the heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Chicago Cubs at home in the 2016 World Series, few teams have been better than Cleveland since.  Last season ended in excruciating disappointment, however. With the Indians up 2-0 in the American League Divisional Series against the Yankees, it looked like the team was about to advance to its second Championship Series in two years – well, until a Greg Bird solo home run changed everything and helped New York mount a comeback to win the series.  This season, the Indians have been cast aside, not taken seriously because of recent playoff history, but it’s just a memory for Cleveland.  And while the team’s 88-68 record this season doesn’t look sexy, don’t underestimate the Indians.  Sure, the team might have been in one of the worst divisions in baseball – currently sitting 15.5 games above the second place Minnesota Twins – but beating division teams is still imperative.

Projected to face the Houston Astros in the Divisional Series, Cleveland must depend heavily on strong pitching to beat the reigning World Series Champions.

On the mound, this Indians team is a juggernaut.  The starting rotation might be the best in the American League, if not all of Major League Baseball.  The team is currently third overall in ERA and second in strikeouts.  Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger each have over 200 strikeouts – the first time in history four starters have done it – and none of the four have an ERA above 3.35.  These guys are innings eaters.

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Kluber, a likely Cy Young finalist, is the guy Indians manager Terry Francona wants on the mound for a series-deciding game, with good reason.  In 210 innings pitched, Kluber has gone 20-7 with a 2.83 ERA, allowing just 66 runs, all while opponents have hit just .221 against the right-hander.  He hasn’t looked great the last month, however, but that shouldn’t be cause for concern judging by his postseason history.  And rookie right-hander Shane Bieber shouldn’t get overlooked either, going 10-5 this season with a serviceable 4.80 ERA in 108.2 innings.  Opponents might be hitting .294 against Bieber but he could prove a valuable addition to the bullpen, if Francona needs an arm to go several innings. But, for as good as the bullpen was last year, it’s been the team’s Achilles heel in 2018.

With Andrew Miller spending significant time on the disabled list, Cleveland has missed his arm, relying more on other relievers like Cody Allen, Dan Otero and Josh Tomlin to carry the load.  While Allen has been inconsistent, both Otero and Tomlin have ERAs above 5.20 – however, thanks to some mid-summer trades, Oliver Perez and Brad Hand have picked up the slack.  As a whole, the bullpen has been streaky and sits among the bottom of MLB in both ERA (4.50) and strikeouts (451).  It’s a trend that must change if the team hopes to be successful this postseason, because Cleveland can’t rely solely on hitting.

While a bulk of the Indians’ lineup might not be household names, it’s one of baseball’s most potent.  At the meat of that lineup is first baseman and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion.  The 35-year-old Encarnacion still has a ton of pop in his bat, belting 31 home runs and 101 RBIs this season – his seventh straight season hitting over 30 homers and fourth straight with over 100 RBIs.  But it’s been shortstop Francisco Lindor, at the top of the lineup, that’s perhaps been the key, leading the Indians in hits and batting .281 with 36 home runs, 89 RBIs and 124 runs scored.  Add in the typical year from Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis, along with contributions from players like Melky Cabrera and Yan Gomes, and there’s not to many easy outs on this Indians team.

Experience is going to prove vital to this team.  Most of their potential opponents, except perhaps the Oakland Athletics, have been in the postseason the last two or three years, but few have battled and experienced what Cleveland has – and that is important.  Drawing from that experience is something that could build success and, let’s not forget, the Indians have the best manager in the American League, who just so happens to have won two World Series.  The Indians aren’t the favorite to win, but not giving this team it’s due is silly because when its playing well, Cleveland can beat any team in the league.