Indians’ Final Game Emblematic of Tumultuous Season

The Cleveland Indians’ 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers last night wasn’t a positive note on which to end the 2011 season, but it was an exceptionally fitting one.

Just as the Indians got off to a hot start this year, keeping the Tigers’ potent offense off the board and scoring first. By the middle of the fourth inning, Cleveland had a 3-0 lead, and things were looking good—just as they did in mid-May.

But reality started settling in. Detroit got on the board in the bottom of the fourth, and after six Cleveland’s lead had completely evaporated. Heading into the eighth, the Tribe trailed, 4-3.

Then the Indians looked poised to mount a comeback, as they have been want to do all season. Travis Hafner got the rally started with a one-out double, and two batters later the bases were loaded. But while they managed to tie it up on Jack Hannahan’s sacrifice fly, the Tribe couldn’t take the lead, and Jhonny Peralta’s home run in the bottom of the inning put the game out of reach.

The scoring wasn’t the only part of the game that was analogous to the Indians’ season on the whole. A quick look at the box score from the game reveals another way in which the game summed up the year: the starting lineup.

Of the 10 men whose names manager Manny Acta pencilled into the lineup card (before his first-inning ejection), a full half were not starters for Cleveland on Opening Day. All joined the organization in different ways and for different reasons, but the circumstances that led to their seeing significant time with the Tribe this year tell the story of the Indians’ season.

Starting in left field, Shelley Duncan (along with Austin Kearns and Travis Buck) started getting playing time right out of the gate in 2011 when Grady Sizemore opened the season on the disabled list. It was just the first of many major injuries that plagued the Tribe.

In center was Ezequiel Carrera, another guy who got his first playing time due to an injury (though it wasn’t an outfielder, it was Hafner) and spent the season bouncing between the majors and Triple-A depending on just how injury-depleted the Indians’ outfield was at the time. Both he and Duncan ended up becoming valuable contributors to the team, but neither was supposed to play a major role this year.

Health problems hit the rotation hard, too, as Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Alex White, and Mitch Talbot all suffered injuries. One of the replacement arms the Indians turned to was Zach McAllister, who took the mound for Cleveland last night and would have earned his first MLB victory if not for Detroit’s comeback.

But injuries weren’t the only cause of instability in the Cleveland’s lineup. For all the good Orlando Cabrera did in the clubhouse and as Asdrubal Cabrera’s hitting coach, he was below replacement-level on the field, and Cord Phelps and Luis Valbuena didn’t solve the problem. Not until Jason Kipnis—the Tribe’s second baseman for Game No. 162—got the call in July did the Indians find a real solution (though he, too, suffered injuries).

Finally, from the trade contingent, we got Kosuke Fukudome in right field. Yet another outfielder who wasn’t part of Cleveland’s original plans, he and ninth inning pinch-hitter Jim Thome represented the few weeks between when the Tigers took the AL Central lead for good and when the Indians lost hope.

The composition of the lineup, the quick start, the heartbreaking finish—the whole game was emblematic of the Indians’ season.

So begins the wait ’til next year.

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