TORONTO -- For the first time since 1997, the Cleveland Indians are the American League champions. The Tribe beat the Blue Jays in Game 5 of the ALCS on Wednesday afternoon (CLE 3, TOR 0) to clinch the series victory. They now await the winner of the Dodgers-Cubs NLCS.
"I'm honored that we're going to the World Series," said Indians manager Terry Francona, "because to do it with -- we always said if we could do it with this group, it would be so special because this is as close to a family feel as you can get in a postseason setting. So for that part of it, it is beyond feeling good."
For any team to have success in the postseason -- or the regular season, for that matter -- they need their best players to be their best players. It's sounds obvious, I know, but you can only go so far with surprise performances by Ryan Merritt and clutch homers by Coco Crisp. The big guys have to carry you.
The difference in the five-game ALCS was those big guys. Cleveland's best players were better than Toronto's best players. That was true in Game 5 and it was true for the entire ALCS. Just consider each club's No. 3 and 4 hitters in the series, for example:
Lindor also made several outstanding defensive players to save runs in the series, including in the eighth inning of Game 5. He had two-way impact in a way Tulowitzki did not.
Jose Bautista doubled in the ninth inning of Game 5 in what might have been his final at-bat as a Blue Jay, but otherwise he had negligible impact in the ALCS. He went 3 for 18 (.167) in series. Corey Kluber (11 1/3 IP, 2 R) out-pitched Marco Estrada (14 IP, 5 R). Josh Tomlin (5 2/3 IP, 1 R) out-pitched J.A. Happ (5 IP, 2 R).
ALCS MVP Andrew Miller out-pitched everyone, of course. He struck out 14 in 7 2/3 scoreless innings in the ALCS, which is outrageous. Not even peak Mariano Rivera dominated hitters as thoroughly in October. Miller needed only 21 pitches to carve up the Blue Jays and record eight outs in Game 5.
"He's unbelievable," said pitching coach Mickey Callaway of Miller after Game 5. "It's almost like tonight he's like, 'I'm going to get some ground balls and conserve my pitches.' I think he can do whatever he wants."
Weirdly enough, the best player in the series was Josh Donaldson, who went 6 for 18 (.333) with a double, and homer, and 2 RBI in the five games. He also made some ridiculous defensive plays, none better than his running-save dive in Game 4. That's an ALCS MVP caliber performance assuming, you know, the Blue Jays won the series. One player can't do it by himself.
"We've got a total team. You don't across teams like this often," said Callaway. "Everybody chips in, everybody does their part. We're a balanced lineup. We steal bases -- guys got to worry about that. Our pitching is terrific. But these guys work so hard, whether it's on the mental side of the game, the way they eat, the way they prepare, it's unbelievable."
Baseball is a series of individual sports masquerading as a team sport. Each player has their own individual at-bats and innings, and they all get mushed together. The Indians performed better in those little individual moments throughout the ALCS, particularly their top players, and that's why they have a chance to win their first World Series title since 1948.
"It's been special. It's been a lot of fun," said Miller after Game 5. "And it's just -- I feel like I've said the word 'special' a million times in the last 20-30 minutes, but it's the truth -- it's a blast to be a part of. We have one more big step, but we're going to the World Series and that's what you dream of."