CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – At this point, clinching the American League Central Division is shaping up to be purely a formality for the Cleveland Indians.
A loss by Detroit to the Kansas City Royals on Saturday afternoon knocked Cleveland’s magic number down to two, meaning a pair of wins to close out the three-game set against the White Sox will make Cleveland division champs for the first time since 2007.
But as the regular season winds down, the Indians have their eyes on goals much larger than the AL Central crown. And to make those aspirations a reality, manager Terry Francona will need to strike a balance between staying sharp, in addition to chasing the top spot in the AL, and making sure his players are healthy and rested entering October.
After all, a number of players are entering unprecedented territory.
“I’ve always felt, and it won’t change, whoever plays or however much somebody plays, you play the game right and you play it at the same speed,” Francona said. “Then you don’t have to worry about turning a button off and on, things like that. Try to always use good judgement, but the game is still played the same way, always.”
Shortstop Francisco Lindor is currently playing through his first full Major League season. The tremendously talented middle-infielder has never been forced to prepare for a run into October.
That also means dealing with the bumps and bruises associated with a long season for the first time as a big leaguer.
Perhaps that sort of learning experience comes with some tough lessons, including a test of the 22-year-old’s confidence as he plays through a mini slump over the past 13 games. During that stretch, the switch-hitter has just three hits over his past 44 at-bats.
“I think with young guys, for one, they have to live through it,” Francona said. “Until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it. You can certainly give guys days off, which we can. I also think that, for young guys who are wearing down, I’m not sure a day off just puts the spring back in your legs. I think it helps, but I just think you’ve got to learn, that’s part of growing up as a Major League player.”
Mike Napoli presents another case of a player entering uncharted waters.
When it comes to the situation itself, a pennant race is nothing new for Napoli. The veteran slugger has seemingly found his way onto several contenders throughout his career. October will not present anything close to Napoli’s first postseason rodeo.
However, the 34-year-old has never logged this much playing time in his professional career.
Napoli had never played in more than 140 games or received more than 578 plate appearances in a single season prior to this year. He’s blowing those out of the water this season, entering Saturday’s game with 144 games played and 619 plate appearances for Cleveland.
Balancing more playing time has been challenging at times, but the end result has yielded a 34-home run, 100-RBI campaign thus far for the right-handed slugger.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the trainers,” Napoli said. “Everything we’ve gotten from the recovery that we do here, it’s been nice to feel the way I have all year, getting sleep and being able to do some of the things that help me feel good on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s a good feeling to be out there every day and be able to play this much and be a part of what’s going on for the whole year.”
Rest will become important for players like Lindor, Napoli, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and others in the final week. But it won’t be as simple as just giving crucial position players multiple days of rest.
One of the most difficult balances to achieve is between rest and rust. And at the same time, the Indians still have their eyes on landing home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“We want the No. 1 seed,” Napoli said. “We can’t control what [other teams] do, but it’s nice to see if they’re down in the game or if they’re losing or something. We still have to take care of ourselves and win our game.”
As Napoli indicated, part of that equation comes from Cleveland taking care of their own business. The Indians, however, enter Saturday’s matchup against Chicago holding the second slot in the AL playoff picture, meaning they would need a little assistance to overtake the Texas Rangers for the AL’s best record.
Cleveland will certainly take whatever help they can get, but finding the proper balance between keeping the foot on the gas and being responsible with playing time in the final week will be crucial to the Indians’ footing entering October.
“Things have a way of [working themselves out],” Francona said. “You can think it through all you want, it’s not going to change anybody’s record. You play the game, hopefully you win, then you get to go check everybody else and see what they did, which is kind of fun. Then you come back tomorrow and do it again.
“About a week from now, we’ll know where we’re at.”