Heading into this season, the Cleveland Indians were predicted to be just another non-contender in a tough division, not ready for a deep postseason push. Many expected the Kansas City Royals and the Detroit Tigers to dominate the division, overlooking the well-balanced Indians team.
But then, they just kept on winning.
They won the AL Central, finishing eight games ahead of the second-place Detroit Tigers.
Entering the playoffs, many injuries hit this Indians team. Michael Brantley, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco were all sidelined due to injury, and none of them would be able to return until the season was over. Facing a tough Boston Red Sox team in the first round, just about every baseball expert predicted that the Cleveland Indians would not last long in the 2016 MLB Playoffs.
But then, they just kept on winning.
Cleveland won seven of their eight playoff games, and have now advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1997.
Let's look back at how this spirited team made a run for the ages, with more work still to do.
In the offseason, many believed the Indians could start a bit of a rebuilding process. With three of the best pitchers in the league in Corey Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar, the Indians were rumored to be looking to trade either Carrasco or Salazar for top tier prospects.
However, Indians GM Mike Chernoff thought otherwise and elected to instead build his team around his three young pitchers. The Indians biggest need in the offseason was a power bat in the middle of their lineup. No Indians hitter hit more than 20 home runs in 2015, and their 141 homers as a team were the third-worst in the American League.
They got that power bat in Mike Napoli, and they got him for a terrific deal, possibly the best deal of the offseason.
The Indians managed to sign Napoli to a one-year deal worth $7 million. Napoli had a rough 2015 as a member of the Red Sox and Texas Rangers, finishing with just a .224 batting average. Napoli has had postseason experience, as he helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2013.
Another need for Cleveland was a centerfielder who hits well against left-handers, which they got in Rajai Davis, signing the speedy outfielder to a one-year, $5.25 million dollar deal. Cleveland also turned to another veteran for their need at third base, inking Juan Uribe to a one-year, $4.5 million deal.
Therefore, instead of looking to sign a star player to a mega deal, the Indians turned to three veterans for their biggest offensive needs. And boy did it work.
Dan Otero and Tommy Hunter were also acquired in the offseason, boosting Cleveland's bullpen.
The beginning of the season was not necessarily a good one for the Indians. The team finished April with a record of 10-11 and were swept by the Philadelphia Phillies in a three-game weekend series to close out the month. The offense had not yet come along, as they were hitting just .248 as a squad. They began the season without Brantley, but he would return on April 25th. However, this gave rookie Tyler Naquin a chance to play every day, and he took full advantage. In 19 games in April, the rookie outfielder hit .341 including two triples. Jose Ramirez was the other bright spot, as he hit .305 with a homer in the first month of the 2016 season after a disappointing 2015 campaign. Salazar and Carrasco were both fantastic out of the gate, as both of their ERAs were below 2.50.
In May, the team went 16-13. The offense began to produce more, as Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Lonnie Chisenhall all finished the month with a batting average above .300.
But in June, the energy of this team changed.
On June 17th, the team returned home following a dismal series against the defending World Champion Kansas City Royals, as they were swept in a three-game series. The team combined for just seven runs in the series as opposed to Kansas City's 15. Cleveland enjoyed a lot of success in their first six games of the month, finishing 6-0, scoring 33 runs as opposed to their opponent's 11. However, they went 3-6 in their next nine games, including Kansas City's sweep.
But then, after a much needed off day, the team got hot again, and it resulted in a franchise-record win streak.
It all started on June 17th against the Chicago White Sox. Trevor Bauer and Jose Quintana were locked in a heavy pitcher's duel, as the game was tied at 1-1 after seven innings. In the eighth, Jason Kipnis connected with a RBI double, giving the Indians a 2-1 lead. However, in the ninth, Brett Lawrie and Alex Avila hit back-to-back doubles for Chicago, tying the game at 2. But in the bottom of the inning, Carlos Santana led off and hit a walk-off homer to seal the victory for the Indians.
From this point on, nobody could stop the Indians.
They won a franchise-record 14 games in a row, carrying into the second of July. Their wins came against the White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Tigers, Atlanta Braves, and Toronto Blue Jays. They outscored opponents 80-27. After being tied for the lead in the AL Central once the streak started, they enjoyed a seven-game lead once the streak came to an end. Naquin had an excellent month of June, hitting .338 with six homers, 15 RBIs, three triples, and stole two bases.
At the Trade Deadline, the already terrific Indians team with a stellar bullpen got even better. The team acquired reliever Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees in exchange for prospects Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen.
Earlier in the day, the team was set to also acquire all-star catcher Jonathan Lucroy from the Milwaukee Brewers for Sheffield, Francisco Mejia, Yu-Cheng Chang, and Greg Allen. However, Lucroy vetoed the trade. Looking back on this now, Cleveland must be pleased he chose to do so, as Miller has been arguably the most valuable player on the Indians during their postseason run, as he won ALCS MVP.
In August, the Indians struck another trade, landing Coco Crisp from the Oakland Athletics for Colt Hynes. Crisp began his career with the Indians all the way back in 2002.
As the season went on, no team in the AL Central ever came close to the Indians, as their 94-67 record was eight games better than the 86-75 Tigers. Napoli and Santana each led the Indians with 34 homers, while Kipnis finished with 23. Jose Ramirez was a pleasant surprise for the Indians, as the third baseman hit .312 with 76 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 152 games. Francisco Lindor also emerged into a star, as the young shortstop batted .301 with 78 RBIs in 158 games to go along with his unbelievable defense at his position.
On the other side, Corey Kluber finished as a potential Cy Young Award candidate, as the right-hander finished 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA, 227 strikeouts, and a .216 opposing batting average in 215 innings pitched. Also, led by Otero, Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen, the Indians bullpen finished with a 3.45 ERA, the second-best in the American League.
Entering the playoffs, the Indians knew they'd be without Salazar, Carrasco, and Brantley. Salazar battled injuries all year long, but his latest forearm injury in September sidelined him for the remainder of the year, Cleveland was hopeful he'd return during the playoffs, but that has not been the case. However, Salazar could return in the World Series.
However, there was never any chance Brantley, or Carrasco would return. Brantley underwent shoulder surgery in August, and his injury may not even be fully healed at the start of 2017. Carrasco broke his hand on September 17th, and it was announced he would not return this season.
But even without three of their best players, they still found ways to win.
In the ALDS, they went up against Terry Francona's former team, the Boston Red Sox. They won the AL East but struggled to end the season, allowing Cleveland to take home field advantage. In game one of the series, the Indians hit three homers in the third inning off Cy Young candidate Rick Porcello, leading to a narrow 5-4 victory.
As the series went on, the Indians' strong play continued. Cleveland completed a three-game sweep of the Red Sox, outscoring them 14-8. Cleveland combined for five home runs during the series and took advantage of their strong bullpen to win the series in just three games. The bullpen yielded just two runs in 10.2 innings of work.
The Indians matched up with another AL East team in the ALCS, as they were forced to battle against the Toronto Blue Jays following their surprising three-game sweep over the Texas Rangers.
Similarly to Boston, Toronto had one of the best offenses in the league, led by Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. However, Cleveland's pitching staff showed no fear, as they continued their dominance. In the first three games, Toronto scored just three runs. Andrew Miller was flawless, as he allowed just two hits and no runs over five innings of work.
This gave Cleveland a 3-0 series lead, and although Toronto started to show life, their deficit was too much to overcome. The Blue Jays won game four by a score of 5-1, but Ryan Merrit and the Indians kept the Blue Jays in check in game five, winning 3-0.
Miller was the ALCS MVP, as he pitched 7.2 innings without giving up any runs and struck out 14 of the 26 hitters he faced. In the World Series, Cleveland will go up against a tough Chicago Cubs team. While the Indians haven't won since 1945, Chicago hasn't won since 1908. It will be a terrific matchup, and it all begins on Tuesday night.