The Indians go into tonight’s ALCS Game 1 against the Blue Jays with momentum. They just swept the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. After winning a pair at home, Cleveland eked out a nail-biter at Fenway Park behind a strong effort by unheralded right-hander Josh Tomlin, prudent bullpen usage, and — as they did throughout the series — the execution of a well-formulated game plan.
The Indians were underdogs. They won 94 regular-season games and captured the AL Central, but they lacked the star power of their first-round opponent. The same will be true when they face Toronto. Moreover, their No. 2 and 3 starters — Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco — are on the shelf with injuries. When the latter went down in mid-September, it was written that they were no longer serious postseason contenders. Despite the inevitable backlash, many outside the organization agreed with that opinion.
The extent to which the proverbial chip on the club’s collective shoulder contributed to the sweep can’t be quantified. It was undoubtably there, but by no means was it the biggest factor. The roster is more talented than many realize, and manager Terry Francona knows how to optimize it. Behind the scenes is one of baseball’s most analytically savvy front offices.
How do the players, coaches and executives view the battles with Boston, and their underdog role going forward? I queried several (including a few from the losing side) both before ALDS Game 3 and during its champagne-soaked aftermath.
On Coming to Fenway Park for ALDS Game 3
Cody Allen, before Game 3: “I don’t think there’s really any momentum involved. They’re coming back into their home ballpark, and they probably feel pretty good coming back here to play. This is two very good baseball teams going at it. ”
Josh Tomlin, before Game 3: “You know that it’s going to be a packed house. It’s going to be rowdy and loud. The reason you play the game is for opportunities like this. I couldn’t be happier to be pitching here.”
Josh Tomlin, after Game 3: “We knew what we were getting ourselves into, coming here. I was surprised they knew my name, to be honest with you. It was awesome. Once they started chanting my name, it became real. I knew where I was at.”
On Extra Incentive from Suggestion They’re Not Real Contenders
Trevor Bauer, after Game 3: “It didn’t put a chip on my shoulder that wasn’t already there. I’m eternally motivated to succeed. The big problem with that was saying, because one or two individuals got hurt, the team doesn’t have a chance. That discounts the efforts and talents of everybody else in the room. That’s not fair.”
Pitching coach Mickey Callaway, after Game 3: “I think there was [extra incentive]. Any time you don’t believe in those guys, they’re going to step up. [Josh] Tomlin has always been the underdog, from A-ball on, and he’s always come through. That’s never going to change.”
Andrew Miller, after Game 3: “There wasn’t for me, but if there was for anybody in this clubhouse, that’s a good thing. I think this team is going to play well, regardless. This team is focused on winning.”
Bench coach Brad Mills, after Game 3: “There’s no doubt. But these guys really believe in themselves, in what they can do, and if they keep coming together like they have, a lot of good things can happen. We’ve seen it so far. We’re ready to push on.”
Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz, after Game 3: “Did they have a chip on their shoulder? Yes. No. Maybe. Who is to say they did or didn’t? But clearly, there was something. They’ve had a lot of setbacks, but they found a way.”
On the Game Plan and Execution
Cody Allen, before Game 3: “We have a plan of attack with certain guys. [Game 1] was probably one of my better days [with the curveball]. I put myself in a few spots where they kind of had to be aggressive, and I was able to execute a few breaking balls.”
Pitching coach Mickey Callaway, after Game 3: “I’m really proud of the way our pitchers attacked, the way they executed the game plan. The game plan was getting strike one against a very below-average aggressive team. They did a really good job of that.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell, after Game 3: “To say that we have an approach that doesn’t work against a certain style of pitching, I won’t go there… They had a pretty specific game plan, based on the individual pitcher who was on the mound at the time.”
Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz, after Game 3: “They’re scrappy. They found a way to beat us. I think we were the better team, but they got the big hits, and the big outs, when they needed to. They did everything right this series.”
Josh Tomlin, after Game 3: “We know what kind of style of baseball we’re capable of playing. We’re not letting the stage overwhelm us at all. We’re just going out and doing what we’re capable of, and it’s good enough. We understand that now.”
On the Impact of Analytics
President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti: “It’s a collective effort. Our analytics group, the rest of the guys in the front office, the pro and amateur scouts, our international scouts. If you look at the composition of our team, every facet of our organization has contributed to the success. That’s a source of pride for us.”
Trevor Bauer: “I think a lot of us do [understand the impact of analytics], and the ones that don’t do what the coaches tell them. They manage a game a certain way, and sometimes you question it, but there’s always a reason. When you look at the way it’s played out, our front office, our management staff, has obviously done a tremendous job of putting the players in the best position to succeed. That’s what it’s all about.”
Andrew Miller: “This is an organization that believes in that and knows how to execute it. But the big thing to me is that they’ve found a way to get it to the players without them being resistant of it. Whether that’s the lineups or the matchups — whatever it is — Tito is such a good communicator that he can pass a message along and everybody is all for it.”
Bench coach Brad Mills: “Everybody kind of works in the same direction. [Terry Francona] works with everybody. He takes all the information and uses it to our best advantage.”
On Advancing to the ALCS and (Potentially) the World Series
Trevor Bauer, after Game 3: “I love the atmosphere. [Rogers Centre] is going to be loud. Cleveland is going to be rocking again. I can’t wait.”
Brandon Guyer, prior to Game 3: “[Playing the Cubs] would be unbelievable. But we’re still a long way away from that. We have to take care of business here — we’re not out of the woods yet — and then we’d have [the ALCS]. But if it ever got to that, it would be amazing. I played at Wrigley Field with the Rays two years ago, and any time you can play there, it’s cool. To play there in the World Series would be really cool.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.