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Indians, no longer underdogs, seek another title shot


It is a long climb up to the summit, to Game 7 of the World Series, at home in extra innings. That is where the Cleveland Indians found themselves in November, the apex of an especially jagged path. The Chicago Cubs knocked them down, stole their flag and planted it in baseball lore. The loss still hurts, and it always will.

“Those guys, they’re practically on a parade every day,” Andrew Miller, a star reliever for the Indians, said on Tuesday morning. “They earned it, but you just can’t avoid it. You can’t get away from it.”

Miller absorbs it all: the fans in Cubs championship gear, the commemorative Cubs magazines at his local bookstore, the Cubs players basking in the afterglow of victory. As the Indians started over on Tuesday, with their first spring training workout for pitchers and catchers, they did so with a renewed sense of purpose.

“We could be better than everybody else out there,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “However, if we don’t play the game the right way, we ain’t going nowhere. We’ve got to take advantage of every situation.”

The front office did that this offseason, seizing on a sluggish free-agent market for power hitters by signing Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract. Encarnacion, a designated hitter and first baseman, had 42 home runs and 127 RBI for Toronto last season, and only Baltimore’s Chris Davis has hit more homers since 2012.

Lindor helped recruit Encarnacion, getting his number from his Indians teammate Carlos Santana and making his pitch. Encarnacion has not yet reported to camp — position players are not due until the weekend — but his locker is ready, tucked between those of two other players who were not on the Indians’ World Series roster.

To his left will be outfielder Michael Brantley, who is recovering from a shoulder operation, and to his right will be starter Carlos Carrasco, whose season ended in September when a line drive broke his hand. Add the All-Star Danny Salazar, who returns to the rotation after a forearm injury, and the Indians look even stronger than they did in the fall.

“We can’t claim ‘poor little us’ anymore,” Miller said. “We can’t say: ‘Everybody says we’re done — it was just a fluky run the middle of the year that carried them; now they’ve got these injuries; they don’t have a chance.’ We don’t have that chip on our shoulder.

“I doubt that we’re going to be able to go into a playoff series as an underdog because we’re ‘little Cleveland’ or whatever. That’s just not going to be the case. We showed what we’re capable of.”

Miller was a sensation for the Indians after he was traded from the New York Yankees in July, with a 1.49 earned run average in 36 appearances, including the postseason. He averaged more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings and redefined the role of bullpen ace, proving available whenever manager Terry Francona needed him. He entered two World Series games in the fifth inning, upending the notion that a manager must save his best reliever for the eighth or ninth.

The Indians played 15 postseason games, and Miller worked 19 1/3 innings — a pace that equates to almost 210 innings across a 162-game schedule. Clearly, he cannot be used the same way now, and neither can closer Cody Allen, who had a similar postseason workload. But Miller said he expected his role to be roughly what it was late last summer, when Francona often used him before the eighth.

Another veteran left-hander, Boone Logan, signed with the Indians to provide more depth for Francona, who will navigate a fine line: using his best relievers a lot but not too much.

“In theory, it’s wonderful, but every time a situation comes up, you have to get that reliever loose,” Francona said. “Situations come and go quickly — whether it’s a double play or a team scores and that situation goes away — and if you have to do that again the next inning, the next inning and the next inning, that’ll last about a week and then guys will be going on the DL.”

He added: “I agree that it’s nice to have your leverage guys up at important parts of the game. I totally agree with that. I just think that you need to be cognizant of the fact that if you get them up throwing too many times, they’re not only going to be hurt; they’re not going to be as productive because they’re going to be worn out.”

That seemed to happen in Game 7 as Miller and another reliever, Bryan Shaw, combined to allow four runs in an 8-7 loss. Francona said he had not dwelled on the details of that game, citing another home loss — the 2013 American League wild-card game, in which the Indians lost to Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays — as more devastating.

That game abruptly ended a charmed late-season run. Last year, the Indians stretched the schedule as long as they possibly could.

“Yeah, you want to win — I mean, my goodness,” Francona said. “But I can’t sit here and tell you that I was really disappointed — other than we didn’t win — in anything. If you laid out what you want to be as a team, our guys did that. As a manager, that’s what you’re asking, and I thought they went above and beyond.”

The last team to lose a Game 7 of the World Series — also by one run, at home, with the winning run at the plate — was Kansas City in 2014. The Royals had also waited many years for a spot on that stage, and they returned the next year to win it all.

“That’s our model, what they did,” said Miller, who would soon climb back on a bullpen mound for his first official steps up the mountain.


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