The 2007 Cleveland Indians: One Game Short Of The Pennant

The 2007 Cleveland Indians were a team that came into the season leaving fans wondering how far they had come. Two years earlier the Indians won 93 games and contended for a playoff berth to the final weekend of the season, before losing out only to a Chicago White Sox team that thundered to a World Series title, and couldn’t edge out the Red Sox team, with the core of its 2004 World Series team still intact, for the wild-card spot.

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For a city that hadn’t been to the playoffs since the halcyon days of 1995-2001, when Jacobs Field was packed every night to watch a team that won six AL Central titles and two American League pennants, the ’05 team was a sign of hope. Hope that was given away the next season when they slipped to 78-84 and 2005 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee seemed to come completely apart.

Lee would continue to struggle this year, but his rotation mates, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona (who later changed his name to Roberto Hernandez) were set to pick up the slack. Sabathia was primed to emerge from having potential to being one of the game’s best and 2007 saw him make the leap, as he won 19 games and the Cy Young Award. Carmona also won 19.

Offensively, Cleveland was anchored two elite players in leadoff hitter and centerfielder Grady Sizemore. Able to set the table, hit for pretty good power and play a brilliant centerfield, Sizemore was one of the best players in baseball. Designated hitter Travis Hafner hit 24 home runs and was consistently on base.

The rest of the lineup was filled with Victor Martinez, one of the game’s best offensive catchers, and 20-HR hitters like Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta. Then add in veterans like Casey Blake at third, and others with a championship pedigree in Trot Nixon and Kenny Lofton, and the Indians could certainly hope to compete in the AL Central and perhaps even beyond.

Cleveland’s start to the season met the promise, as they won 17 of 25 and had a two-game lead over Detroit. At a time when the NBA had the city’s attention, the Tigers-Indians promised a baseball corollary to the impending battle between the Cavaliers & Pistons, as well as the ever-present Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry.

But May saw the Tribe start to struggle and it set the tone for a mediocre June and July  that left the team at 60-47 and a game back of Detroit when the month of August started. At this point, the wild card—only one per league at the time–was still a possibility for the runner-up, but the Yankees were in the midst of a scorching summer surge that would eventually result in both they and the Red Sox having separation from the pack in the wild-card fight.

Cleveland reached a crucial series with Detroit in the middle of the month and won two of three. What looked to be one little blow in a fight to the finish, turned out to be the punch that felled a wobbling fighter. Because the Tigers suddenly faded, the Indians surged and by Labor Day they were up six games.

To the surprise of the baseball community they would coast home in September, actually win more games than the wild-card New York Yankees (96-94) and tie with Boston for the best record in baseball. They were hot, they had two great pitchers at the top of their rotation and they had every reason to think they could win the World Series.

New York would be the opponent for the American League Division Series, and they brought in the loaded, high-priced offense that people have become accustomed to. Alex Rodriguez had one of the best years of his career, winning the MVP award with a .314 average, 54 home runs and 156 RBIs. Catcher Jorge Posada had an on-base percentage of a dazzling .426 and slugged .543.

Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui were productive in all facets of hitting and there was no easy out in the lineup. The pitching was suspect, but with Chien Ming-Wang’s 19 wins and 3.70 ERA at the top, and veterans Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens, with ERAs in the low 4s, the Yanks certainly seemed to have enough pitching to win a short series.

Sabathia took the ball against Wang for an early evening start on the first Thursday of October. It couldn’t have started worse for Cleveland, as Johnny Damon hit a leadoff home run. But it was only one run and the Tribe drew two walks and hit three singles in their own half of the first to quickly go up 3-1.

Later, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, a late season call-up who’d swing the bat very well, hit a home run. It was answered by his Yankee counterpart Robinson Cano. Sabathia ground his way through five innings and left with a 4-3 lead. It was the bottom of the fifth where Wang fell apart, allowing a two-run shot to Martinez, a two-run double to Blake with two outs and five runs overall as Cleveland blew the game open and won 12-3.

Game 2 was played in the same timeslot—the Red Sox-Angels got the prime-time preference, so even in a year where the Indians were playing the Yankees, the local fans got jilted with bad late afternoon start times. They didn’t get jilted with bad games though. Carmona and Pettite hooked up in a duel that it looked the Yankee vet would win, as he left after seven with a 1-0 lead.

Then a bizarre circumstance took place. With rookie Joba Chamberlain on the mound, a swarm of bugs descended upon Jacobs Field. Obviously distracted, Chamberlain gave up a walk to Sizemore, a sacrifice bunt and two wild pitches to tie the game. Hafner then won it in extra innings with a big two-out hit. Yankee fans blame the bugs, along with the umpires for not stopping play.
In a rare display of sympathy with this fan base, I’m sympathetic to the gripe, but we also have to note that it was only the rookie Chamberlain—not Carmona, nor Mariano Rivera who also pitched amidst the plague—who allowed it to affect his pitching.

On Sunday night in the Bronx, the city of Cleveland tuned in hoping  to see a sweep. The game got off to a good start, as the Indians got single runs in each of the first three innings and Clemens left with a hamstring injury, ending his career as a pitcher and beginning one as a player in federal court.

But Cleveland sinkerballer Jake Westbrook couldn’t hold off the Pinstripes offense. After getting one run back, the Yanks broke through for four in the fifth, with Johnny Damon’s three-run jack being the big blow. Phil Hughes and Chamberlain came out of the pen to restore order and the Yanks cruised 8-4.

Most of us were expecting to see a Game 5 back in Cleveland. Indians’ manager Eric Wedge made a risky decision to pass on starting Sabathia on short rest, a circumstance that would have made the Yanks beat both his ace and his #2 in Carmona in succession. But at the same time, Wedge could make a reasonable conclusion that if someone had offered him at the beginning of the series that he could have a decisive game with a fully rested Sabathia, and Carmona in the bullpen, it would have been wise to take the deal.

Whatever you think, no one outside Cleveland gave veteran fourth starter Paul Byrd any chance of beating Wang in Yankee Stadium.

But Wang was hit hard from the outset, as Sizemore led the game off with a home run. Peralta hit another and New York was forced to bring in fourth starter Mike Mussina by the second inning. It didn’t stop Cleveland from extending the lead to 6-1. The Yankees would chip away, but even though they hit three home runs it never seemed like a game. There was no consistent rally, nothing that had you thinking ominous “here they come” thoughts. Just three solo home runs, the last of which came in the ninth inning and the Tribe closed out the 6-4 win that sent them to the American League Championship Series.

In the regular season, the Red Sox beat the Indians five of seven times. Normally a matter of no consequence in October, but since each team had gone 96-66, it meant that Fenway Park, rather than Jacobs Field, would open the series and potentially close it.

Boston still had the power tandem of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, now in their fifth year together, anchoring the lineup, but it was no longer the machine of a few years earlier. Ramirez’s slugging percentage was .493, good for anyone else, but low for the outfielder who’d left Cleveland for Boston following the 2001 season. The same went for Ortiz and his 35 home runs. What the Red Sox still did was get on base, with eight of nine starters doing so at a better than .350 clip.

And they had pitching—big-game pitching to be precise. Josh Beckett, the World Series MVP with the Marlins in 2003 was the ace of the staff, a 20-game winner and would end up second to Sabathia in the Cy Young voting. Curt Schilling had already made his legend with his role on the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and the bloody sock epic for the 2004 Red Sox, and he was healthy after a summer battling a shoulder problem. The bullpen was lights-out with Jonathan Papelbon closing and three top setup men in front of him.

Beckett and Sabathia got the series underway on a Friday night and the Cleveland ace did not have it. Even though Hafner staked him with a first-inning home run, the Red Sox quickly answered, then scored three in the third, then chased the ace in the fifth and won 10-3.

Game 2 took place on Saturday night and neither Carmona nor Schilling pitched well. Once again, the Tribe scored in the first and the Red Sox got three in the third. This time, Cleveland punched back, as Peralta hit a three-run bomb in the fourth, and Sizemore went solo in the fifth. But Carmona couldn’t hold the lead, as home runs by Ramirez and third baseman Mike Lowell put Boston back up 6-5. The Indians tied it in the sixth, and then the relievers got things settled down and the game went into extra innings.

In the 11th, after a single and walk, it would be the former Red Sox Nixon, who delivered the base hit that gave Cleveland the lead. And the Indians kept piling it on, scoring seven times in the inning and winning 13-6.

Cleveland now had homefield advantage and Games 3 & 4 went their way in front of a raucous crowd. Westbrook pitched brilliantly in Monday night’s Game 3. Lofton hit an early two-run homer and the Indians won 4-2. The following night it was Byrd and Red Sox vet Tim Wakefield, in the battle of the old guys, and after a scoreless four frames, the Indians busted it wide open in the fifth with seven runs, a three-run bomb by Peralta being the big blow. If a comeback can be loud and inconsequential, Boston managed, hitting three successive solo shots in the sixth, but the game ended 7-3.

It was now back to Sabathia and Beckett. While the Indian ace gave up a first-inning home run to Kevin Youkilis, his team got him the run back and both hurlers settled in. Boston nudged out to a 2-1 lead, but in the seventh, Sabathia cracked and the Red Sox added two runs. Beckett was something close to unhittable and the game ended 4-1.

Cleveland was still ahead in the series, but the momentum had shifted. They needed to beat Schilling for a second time in Fenway Park—or failing that, play a Game 7 on the road that no team, least of all one who was up 3-1 and had the Cy Young winner on the mound at home, wants to face.

As a Red Sox fan, I recall e-mailing friends prior to Game 5 and saying that was the game to decide the pennant. One reason for my belief, was thinking the collective weight of the city’s past failures would weigh on this team if the pressure built.

Whether that had anything to do with it or not, the Indians played Game 6 like a collapsing team.  Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew hit a grand slam off Carmona in the first inning with two outs and the rout was quickly on, 13-2. Boston then came out blazing in Game 7, grabbing runs in each of the first three innings to lead 3-0.

But something happened on the way to an epic collapse and it’s that Cleveland fought back. Westbrook had gamely gotten some key outs in the early innings that kept the game manageable and it was back to 3-2 by the fifth inning and held that way into the fateful seventh.

With one out, Lofton hit a harmless pop down the left field line. Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo gave chase. He was looking over his shoulder, so it wasn’t a can of corn, but it was a ball any major league shortstop would be expected to catch. Lugo dropped it. The speedy Lofton was on second base with the tying run. The next batter, Franklin Guiterrez slapped a single down the left field line that was set to the tie the game.

But the ball hit the part of the stands in Fenway that juts out a bit on the third-base side. Lofton would have scored easily, but apparently the strange path of the ball, led him to be held up. It was rightly considered a huge break for the Red Sox, but the Indians still had first and third with one out. A simple sac fly or a grounder to the right side could render it all moot. Instead, Casey Blake slapped a room service grounder to third, which was quickly turned into a 5-4-3 double play that ended the inning.

Blake compounded that by making an error in the bottom of the inning, and then Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia hit a two-run homer to make it 5-2. We might think this all but ended the game, but it did not.

Sizemore bunted his way on to lead off the eight, and another hit followed. The middle of the Tribe lineup would get successive cracks as the tying run against Papelbon. Hafner, Martinez and Garko were all retired. Now, if there was any doubt the game was over, it was removed in the bottom of the inning, when the Red Sox scored six more times. The season was over, 11-2.

The end result of the Red Sox winning in seven games couldn’t be considered a shock, but the way it unfolded made it all worse. But if nothing else, this was still a team with good pitching, good young every day talent that surely had better days ahead.

At least that’s how it seemed. It turned out that by the next time the Tribe made the postseason it would be Terry Francona—the manager of the 2007 Red Sox, in the dugout in Cleveland for the 2013 season. The fans would have to make the good memories of the 2007 Cleveland Indians last for a while.