The Cleveland Indians had become one of baseball’s top teams in the latter half of the 1990s. They won five straight AL Central titles to close the decade and grabbed two American League pennants. But they didn’t win the whole thing and after an early playoff exit in 1999, the organization made a change. The Indians moved on from manager Mike Hargrove and brought in Charlie Manuel. While the 2000 Cleveland Indians were still a contender, the move didn’t have the desired impact as they narrowly missed the postseason.
Pitching was the problem for these otherwise excellent Indian teams and they sought to address the rotation in free agency. Chuck Finley was signed and even at age 37, he could still pitch. Finley made 34 starts, won 16 games and his 4.17 ERA was respectable, especially in this era of booming offenses. Finley was joined by Dave Burba and 27-year-old Bartolo Colon, each of whom went to the post 30-plus times and combined to win 31 more games.
But the depth was a problem. Check that—the depth was atrocious. No one beyond these three pitchers made more than eleven starts and none were any good. The 4-5 spots in the Cleveland rotation were a disaster. And while Steve Karsay, Justin Speier and Paul Shuey were respectable out of the bullpen, none were what anyone would consider a “shutdown reliever.”
Cleveland was going to have to hit if they were to win games and fortunately there was a load of players who could do that. Jim Thome hit 37 homers and cleared the century mark in both RBI and runs scored. Manny Ramirez, only 28-years-old, led the league with a .697 slugging percentage and his on-base percentage was a dazzling .457. Manny also batted .351, hit 38 homers and drove in 122 runs.
Roberto Alomar was at second base and he hit .310 and scored 111 runs. Travis Fryman played third and batted .321 while driving in 106 runs. Kenny Lofton’s OBP was .369 and he stole 30 bases. Richie Sexson only played 91 games, but slugged .460. David Segui was a part-time player who delivered a stat line of .384 OBP/.498 slugging.
David Justice hit 21 home runs in the first 68 games before the Indians traded the 34-year-old to the Yankees. Cleveland got three players back, the best of whom was starting pitcher Jake Westbrook. The deal did not pan out, at least not for this year, but it reflected the glut of bats the Tribe had and used to try and strengthen their pitching. When all was said and done, the Indians were second in the American League in runs scored while ranking seventh in staff ERA.
Cleveland opened the season on the road and played well, taking seven of nine on the trip. It was the return home that brought them back to earth. A 15-game stretch that included 12 at Jacobs Field resulted in just six wins and ended with a three-game sweep at the hands of the two-time defending champion (soon to be three-time) Yankees.
On Memorial Day weekend, the Indians were a half-game back of the surprising Chicago White Sox and paid a visit to the South Side for a three-game set. The Tribe dropped Friday night’s opener 5-3. Jaret Wright was rocked in a 14-3 loss on Saturday. The Indians bounced back on Sunday, with three hits from backup catcher Einar Diaz at the bottom of the order and four from Lofton at the top. That kind of table-setting paved the way for an easy 12-3 win behind Colon.
Cleveland concluded the series with a record of 25-21, 1 ½ games back of Chicago and one of ten American League teams at .500 or better.
The Indians won nine of twelve coming out of the holiday weekend, but the White Sox were playing even better. Cleveland was three back in the AL Central when Chicago came to town for the return trip on June 12.
Monday’s opener saw the Tribe fall behind 8-3 in the seventh. They closed to within 8-7 in the ninth and had the bases loaded with one out. Sandy Alomar, the 34-year-old catcher whose best days were behind him, ground into a double play, ending the comeback bid.
More of the same followed on Tuesday night. The Indians trailed 3-1 and were on the verge of wasting a good outing from Colon. They tied the game 3-3 and forced extra innings. The White Sox scraped over a run in the tenth. Cleveland put runners on first and second with one out in their last chance. This time it was Russell Branyan who grounded into the game-ending double play.
Cleveland didn’t put their fans through the same kind of torture in Wednesday evening’s finale—they were simply routed from the get-go, trailing 10-4 after two innings and losing 11-4. Then they lost 14 of the next 24 games.
By the All-Star break, the Indians were staring at a deep 10 ½ game hole in the AL Central. Their record was only 44-42. But they were still squarely in the mix of the wild-card race, four games out in a race where six teams had a viable shot.
The start of August saw the Tribe catch fire. They went 20-11 from August 1 up to Labor Day. Going into the stretch drive, Cleveland’s record was 72-61. While catching Chicago was off the table, the Indians now led the wild-card race. They were up two games on both the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s, and plus-2 ½ on the Toronto Blue Jays for what was then just a single wild-card berth per league.
Over the next week and a half, the Indians and Red Sox played eight games and split them 4-4. While holding serve kept Boston at bay and allowed Toronto to fall by the wayside, Oakland took advantage. The A’s moved into a tie with the Indians for the playoff spot.
The next eight games were against mediocre division rivals from Minnesota and Kansas City, with a makeup game against Chicago mixed in. While the Indians beat the White Sox, they didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity that playing the Twins and Royals presented, losing four times.
When the final weekend arrived, Cleveland was alive, but in trouble. They had an 87-72 record. Oakland and Seattle were fighting atop the AL West and each had 70 losses. The Indians needed to win out and get lots of help.
Cleveland hosted Toronto in the final series and the Tribe kept themselves alive with an 8-4 win behind home runs from Thome and Ramirez. And they got some help out west. While the A’s won, the Mariners lost to the Angels. Cleveland was within a game.
Roberto Alomar came out on Saturday afternoon with a three-hit game that included a home run. Manny homered again. The Indians won a tough 6-5 game and then watched events out west. Both AL West teams unloaded. Oakland scored 23 runs and Seattle scored 21. Suffice it to say, both won. The A’s were in the playoffs. The Mariners still led the Indians by a game going into Sunday’s finale.
Cleveland continued to take care of business in their 1 PM start, getting home runs from Thome, Manny, Lofton and Sandy Alomar in an easy 11-4 win. Now it was time to watch what happened in Anaheim.
The Mariners and Angels went to the seventh inning tied 2-2, but Seattle broke out for three runs, won 5-2 and grabbed the last playoff spot. By the standards of today, Cleveland would have had the second wild-card and simply flown west for the one-game playoff. By the standards of 2000, they packed up for the year.
It was still a good season. Cleveland hit the 90-win threshold, something they hadn’t always done while winning division titles. But this season was the first crack on their control of the AL Central. They got back on top in 2001 and returned to the playoffs, but moved into rebuild mode two years later.