CLEVELAND (AP) — Jason Kipnis let his heart heal a little before heading home last November. He didn’t wait long enough.
Crushed after losing an unforgettable Game 7 of the World Series, Cleveland’s second baseman thought he was mentally prepared to visit Chicago, his hometown, which was still partying like it was 1908 a week after the Cubs won their first title in 108 years. Kipnis had barely gotten off the plane at O’Hare Airport when he was reminded that the Indians finished second.
“A random guy, probably at 6 a.m., yelled ‘Go Cubs Go!’ at me and I didn’t give the right response,” Kipnis said. “I didn’t handle it too well.”
It’s Cleveland’s turn to fix that.
After failing to finish the job despite a 3-1 lead in last year’s Series, the Indians are intent on ending their own long championship drought — now baseball’s longest at 68 seasons. With one of the majors’ deepest pitching staffs and a loaded lineup now featuring slugger Edwin Encarnacion at its center, Cleveland has all the pieces. It’s just a matter of the Indians putting them all together.
Their run to 94 wins, an AL Central title and first pennant since 1997 last season had its obstacles. Expertly guided by manager Terry Francona, the Indians overcame injuries — All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley played in only 11 games, catcher Yan Gomes went down in July and two starters missed the postseason — and upset both Boston and Toronto in October before pushing the Cubs into extra innings of a climactic final game that gave baseball a major bump in TV ratings.
It also made the Indians believe they can do it again.
“We know what to expect,” said Kipnis, who will begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. “We know what we need to do at this time.”
What’s different this time is that the Indians won’t sneak up on anyone. They’re no longer underdogs or considered a fashionable pick.
Cleveland’s in style and potentially poised to wear its first crown since 1948.
Here are some things to consider as the Indians embark on a season in which expectations couldn’t be higher:
GAME CHANGER: Seizing on their momentous ’16 season, the Indians signed Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal — the richest in club history. He made an impact before his first homer as his signing triggered a spike in season-ticket sales. Encarnacion hit 42 homers and drove in 127 runs last year for Toronto, and his presence alone in the heart of Cleveland’s lineup will influence what pitches all the Indians see. There will be pressure, but Encarnacion, who has hit 193 homers since 2012, has the disposition and swing to thrive in it.
IN OR OUT FIELDER?: Brantley’s recovery from right shoulder surgery — and a second procedure on his biceps — has sidetracked a career that was just taking off. The 29-year-old was on the cusp of becoming one of baseball’s biggest stars when he got hurt diving for a ball in the gap at the end of 2015. Both he and the club have taken a deliberate approach this spring, with the goal to get him completely recovered and ready — no matter how long it takes.
Brantley’s status will have a huge trickle-down effect. If he’s not ready to open the season, Francona will be forced to mix and match in the outfield. The good thing is that he’s had practice at it.
UP IN ARMS: With Andrew Miller, Cleveland’s bullpen has gone from good to elite. The left-hander’s postseason dominance — 1.40 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings — changed Francona’s late-game strategy and ignited debate over whether he was breaking new ground. Cody Allen is overshadowed by the 6-foot-7 Miller, but the right-hander has been one of the AL’s most dependable closes for several seasons. Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero are durable and reliable, and left-hander Boone Logan will be c ounted on in key situations.
FUTURE INVESTMENT: In no time at all shortstop Francisco Lindor has become the Indians’ most valuable player and one of the league’s best. All Lindor did in his first full season was bat .301 in the regular season, .310 in the postseason, make the All-Star team, win a Gold Glove and display the confidence of a seasoned vet from start to finish. Only 23, his brightest days are ahead which is why the Indians have discussed signing him to a long-term contract despite having financial control over him through at least the 2021 season.
ROOKIE WATCH: With Kipnis slowed by the shoulder injury, Francona may start the season by moving Jose Ramirez from third to second. That leaves another opening that could be filled by Yandy Diaz, a sweet-swinging 25-year-old, who hit .325 in 95 games at Triple-A Columbus in 2016. His defense needs work, but the Indians are confident he will hit. Also, outfielder Bradley Zimmer, an elite 6-foot-5 athlete who can run, will help the Indians at some point in 2017.
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