Orfao: Indians on memorable run, but October still looms

  • Cleveland fans celebrate a 5-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday. AP

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Cleveland Indians are in the history books, and the story will forever start with a thumping of Red Sox ace Chris Sale.

Back on Aug. 24, the Tribe bashed Boston’s best pitcher on the way to a 13-6 laugher at Fenway Park. Cleveland hasn’t stopped cackling since, as the resounding rout was the first of an AL-record 21 consecutive wins – and counting.

The achievement is one worth admiring. Only two other teams since 1900 have rolled off such a string of success. The 1916 New York Giants hold the MLB record at 26 games without a loss, including a 1-1 tie against Pittsburgh along the way – draws existed back then, but didn’t count towards the win-loss record. In the century since, the only other team to claim 21 straight victories was the 1935 Chicago Cubs.

The 2002 Oakland Athletics once stood alone in American League lore with 20 consecutive wins, and Cleveland’s recent run has inspired a jog down memory lane. It may seem odd, but the 2002 edition of the A’s has occupied a sacred place in this scribe’s memory bank since an excruciating but unforgettable August night.

I grew up in Chester and was fortunate enough to make it to a ballgame once or twice a year. Back in 2002, my stepbrother and I stumbled upon tickets during summer vacation – about a month following the death of Boston’s beloved Ted Williams – and as 17- and 18-year-old super fans, we were always pumped to visit the ballpark.

Rather than wearing jerseys of our favorite players, we painted Williams uniforms onto our bodies in an admittedly strange tribute to Teddy Ballgame. If memory serves, we looked great – or at least we thought so – during the ride into the city and subsequent trek to Fenway. Strangers greeted us with high-fives and we arrived at the ballpark early enough to watch batting practice and beg for autographs.

One might think I fared well coming away with a John Hancock from four-time AL Manager of the Year runner-up Art Howe. But my stepbrother’s signature from Miguel Tejada, the 2002 AL MVP, turned my scribble into a punch line for years to come.

With all due respect to Howe and Tejada, neither made this trip to Fenway stand out – it was Oakland center fielder Terrence Long.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Manny Ramirez belted a would-be walk-off homer to right-center field, but Long turned on the jets and improbably chased it down with a back-handed snag as he slammed into the bullpen wall.

The catch was a brutal end to an otherwise picture-perfect night. I was too young to endure Bill Buckner, and the heartbreak of Aaron Bleeping Boone was still a year away. Even with playoff losses in between, this was the most agonizing Red Sox defeat these eyes had witnessed firsthand.

A week later, those “Moneyball” A’s started their run to the record books and reeled off 20 straight. Still in shock from Long’s larceny of walk-off memories, it seemed that Oakland squad was destined for greatness.

As a glutton for punishment, I recently looked up the clip on YouTube to relive Long’s heroics and the commentary provided a good laugh.

“Look at the A’s out there,” NESN analyst Jerry Remy said. “They look like they just won the World Series, celebrating in the outfield.”

Despite carving out a piece of baseball history, Oakland never celebrated when it mattered.

After 103 wins in the regular season, Oakland couldn’t even make it past Minnesota in the ALDS.

The 1916 New York Giants? Fourth in the National League.

The 1935 Chicago Cubs? Lost the World Series.

A similar fate doesn’t necessarily await the 2017 Cleveland Indians. This team has a rare blend of talent, experience and desire for redemption.

The Tribe’s pitching rotation has been downright dirty and the dominance has been so thorough that Cleveland has led 185 of 189 innings during the surge. To think the Indians have done this without the services of injured bullpen ace Andrew Miller should horrify AL contenders like the Red Sox.

Baseball can get weird, though. The most recent example of the game’s volatility resides in the National League, as the Los Angeles Dodgers suffered an 11-game slide shortly after going 43-7 in a 50-game stretch which earned a Sports Illustrated cover that read: “Best. Team. Ever?”

It’s a fickle game, and oftentimes, a ballclub’s unsustainable results will regress to the mean. After a 162-game marathon, it’s a sprint to the title and catching fire in October is the only objective in the end.

After Cleveland etched its epic streak into the record books, fans at Progressive Field stood proudly Wednesday afternoon and showered Manager Terry Francona and his team with well-deserved love following the historic win No. 21.

Amid the adulation, let the 2002 A’s serve as a reminder: The Indians are already memorable – and have certainly spoiled a day at the park for many opposing fans – but there’s a long way to go to reach baseball immortality.

This ridiculous run began with a pounding of the Red Sox in August, but it’s the ending in October that counts.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at 369-3338, jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JasonOrfao)