GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Above the small cactuses and flowering plants dotting the concrete-blocked plaza outside the doorway to Cleveland’s training complex is a new sign that serves as both a reminder and motivator.
“American League Champions 2016,” it says.
The Indians have some unfinished business.
One swing away from beating the Chicago Cubs in an epic World Series last year, the Indians, who pumped up their payroll to nearly $130 million by winning baseball’s offseason with the surprise signing of free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion this winter, have their sights set on a return to the postseason — and this time winning it all.
“Everyone is very proud of what we accomplished last year, but everybody wants that one more run,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said Sunday. “Everybody wants to get back. We finally got a taste of that fruit, and we want to be there and we want to stay there.”
With one of baseball’s best starting rotations, deepest bullpens and a lineup counting on the return of All-Star Michael Brantley from injury, the Indians, who lost 94 games in 2012, are positioned to make another run at ending a World Series title drought stretching to 1948 — now the majors’ longest.
Cleveland has vaulted from powderpuff to powerhouse.
The Indians are determined to erase the memory of last year’s Series when they gave away a 3-1 lead to the Cubs, who completed their comeback by winning an unforgettable Game 7 on Nov. 2 in extra innings. Chicago’s victory not only triggered a celebration on the soggy grass in Progressive Field, but a national outpouring of affection for the lovable Cubbies and their fans, who waited 108 years to sip championship champagne.
There was obvious heartache in Cleveland. But also hope.
By going so far in the postseason despite not having Brantley, missing starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and losing starter Trevor Bauer in the AL Championship Series when he sliced open his right pinkie while repairing a drone at home, the Indians showed resiliency, confidence and a glimpse of their potential.
They were one step away, and this year the Indians are better prepared to take it.
Kipnis pointed to the Kansas City Royals, who bounced back from losing Game 7 of the World Series in 2014 to winning it the following year, as a model for the Indians.
“They knew they wanted to be right back there,” he said. “They knew what it might take or fill in the hole from what they were missing the year before and they went out and did it. We’re kind of hoping to follow that path and there are guys who now know what it takes and what they need to work on and what they need to kind of fix to get back there. It gives you that past experience that now you don’t have to ask any questions. You have that experience yourself.”
With a light rain falling and the nearby Estrella Mountains shrouded in low clouds, manager Terry Francona laid out his expectations during a team meeting on Sunday. Francona said he spent the past week stressing over how to deliver the proper message — “cutting and pasting the old-fashioned way, erasing” — as he felt he owed his players a clear outlook for 2017.
Francona wants his players to be proud of what they accomplished, but not to dwell upon the success or be satisfied. He reminded them not to cut corners or to take anything for granted.
As great as it was, last season is over.
“Our players have with their talent, and with the way they have played, people think they have a chance of doing some pretty good things,” he said. “Now you gotta go out and do it and there’s a way to do it. … if you got rewarded for last year, we would do it. Like if (baseball) said, ‘Hey, man, you went to the World Series last year, you get five extra wins.’ We’d take them. But that’s not how it’s going to be.”
The Indians were attentive while Francona spoke, and Kipnis said without being disrespectful, most off the players knew the message already.
“Guys were almost not like, ‘We know,'” he said. “But was like, ‘Hey, we know. Let’s get-this-going-kind-of-thing.’ It wasn’t like we’re too good for it by any means. It was we’re right there with you, and let’s get back to work — right now. You could get that sense around the room, and I think it’s a real good thing.”
NOTES: Francona isn’t ready to name ace Corey Kluber his opening-day starter, and said the club is “slowing” the right-hander down early in camp. Kluber pitched 215 innings during the regular season and another 34 1/3 in the postseason, making three starts on short rest. “If he’s not ready for Game 1, we can adjust,” Francona said. “We’re more than willing to, because there’s a lot at stake over the course of the year. We know opening day is a big deal, but we want him to position himself where he’s ready to log as many innings as we need.” The Indians open at Texas on April 3.
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