You probably don’t remember unless you’re a hardcore Cleveland or Boston sports fans, but the Indians and Red Sox have done this dance before, and the Indians have been left with a world of hurt from the aftermath.
This is 2016, and the Indians have a chance, albeit a day late, to end this American League Division Series in a shocking three games. They now face the prospect of playing three games in three days, which would certainly favor the Red Sox given that Boston can now bring back both Rick Porcello and David Price to start on regular rest.
These teams are meeting in the playoffs for the fifth time in the wild card era, having split the first four meetings. But the last two have gone Boston’s way, and those matchups began in an eerily similar fashion to this one.
In 1999, the Red Sox dropped a Game 1 squeaker in Cleveland before a blowout loss in Game 2. Then-Red Sox manager Grady Little essentially warned that the Tribe better not let the Red Sox win one because they would go on a tear, and it turned out he was right. Boston won Game 3, 9-3, and then Game 4 in a complete runaway, 23-7.
As this year’s Red Sox would need to do, the 1999 club went on the road to Cleveland in Game 5, and rode the tired arm of Pedro Martinez in relief for six no-hit innings en route to a 12-8 victory. The Red Sox, who also rallied from an 0-2 hole to beat Oakland in 2003, are still the only team in the Majors to win two division series after dropping the first two games.
In 2007, it wasn’t the division series, but higher stakes for the Red Sox and Indians when they met in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox appeared to be in good shape with a blowout win in Game 1 before the tide turned and the Indians won three straight. Yet up 3-1, the Indians not only couldn’t capitalize, but couldn’t compete. The Red Sox won Game 5 in Cleveland and Games 6 and 7 in Boston by a combined margin of 30-5 to dash the Indians’ hopes of a World Series trip.
This isn’t rocket science for current Indians and former Red Sox manager Terry Francona: manage Game 3 as if it were Game 5. Francona knows that, especially with the rainout, a Boston win would turn the tide considerably for a team that led the Majors by a landslide in runs scored and have yet to get going in this division series. Porcello and Price are looming, as is the notion of having to tread carefully with standout relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen because of the loss of the off-day.
Game 3 is the game the Indians have to have. Knowing how streaky this Red Sox team can be — just look at the 11-game winning streak that preceded this mini 1-7 slide they are currently on — the series must end today. Both starting pitchers, Boston’s Clay Buchholz and Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin, will have very short leashes. The Indians’ offense has been rolling while Boston’s high-octane one has been stagnant, but don’t expect that to continue against Tomlin, who gave up the third-most home runs in the league this year with 36. The Indians are going to have to score early and often.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for the Indians to win the series in four or even five games, but I am saying it’s going to get exponentially tougher each day this series drags on. In general, history is on the Indians side even if their own franchise history isn’t. In 17 seasons in which baseball has employed a 2-2-1 format in the division series, 22 teams have taken a 2-0 lead with them on the road. 20 of those 21 have won, with 14 completing the sweep and only one of those 20 going the full five games. The exceptions, of course, are the Red Sox — in 1999 against the Indians, and in 2003 against the Athletics.
We shouldn’t ignore the David Ortiz factor, either. We haven’t heard much about the pending retirement of the future Hall of Famer, and my gut feeling is that’s about to change. It doesn’t feel like it’s ready to be over for Big Papi, so Francona needs to think ahead if a scenario in which Ortiz could play hero might present itself in the late innings.
There are a lot of variables that would make you believe this series isn’t ready to be over, even with Cleveland holding a 2-0 advantage.
This isn’t Game 5, but the Indians certainly need to treat it that way.