CLEVELAND (AP) — By the time Indians manager Terry Francona hops on that motorized scooter he rides from his downtown apartment to Progressive Field on game days, his mind is racing and his stomach’s churning.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s nothing better than coming to the ballpark and being nervous and excited,” he said. “That’s the best feeling. I love that feeling.”
With a September surge, the Indians have Francona feeling great.
Two months ago, they were in a baffling funk. Cleveland’s offense couldn’t match the club’s solid starting pitching, and a season of high expectations — the Indians were Sports Illustrated’s pick to win the World Series — appeared doomed.
But following a few trades, and energized by the arrival of All-Star-in-the-making Francisco Lindor and a few other youngsters, the Indians have battled back to .500 and are in the thick of the wild-card race.
An 8-3 win on Monday night over AL Central-leading Kansas City in the opener of a four-game series was Cleveland’s 13th victory in 18 games and moved the Indians back to .500 (71-71) and within 4½ games of the second wild card.
And although they’ve got to slug it out with several other teams to make October’s postseason, Francona, who deserves much of the credit for the turnaround, is proud of how his team has responded.
“We were frustrated for four months, there’s no getting around it,” Francona said. “What we did, which was good, was we took that and we made it better. Again, I wish we had been 20 games over .500, which we weren’t. Rather than pack up the bags and say, ‘Well,’ I like what we’ve done.”
When it began to look as if the playoffs weren’t possible, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti began planning for the future by trading veterans Brandon Moss, David Murphy and Marc Rzepczynski before the July 31 for prospects. Then, Antonetti dealt Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn — a pair of disappointing free-agent signings — to Atlanta on Aug. 7.
The departures of Swisher and Bourn, along with their massive contracts, seemed to unburden the Indians, who have gotten major contributions from Lindor and fellow rookie third baseman Giovanny Urshela as well as Abraham Almonte and Chris Johnson, who both came over in trades. Also, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has blossomed after switching to right field, a move that may have saved his career.
The Indians have experience at late-season comebacks.
In 2013, they won their last 10 to clinch a wild-card spot. This climb appears more treacherous as they have six games left with the playoff-bound Royals and seven against Minnesota, another one of the clustered teams fighting for a wild-card entry.
Like his teammates, the gifted 21-year-old Lindor, who has batted .309 with eight homers, 37 RBIs and led the team in smiles since being promoted in June, believes the Indians can finish what they’ve started.
“We’re not going to stop playing until we’re done,” said Lindor, who has built a strong case for rookie of the year consideration. “These games are fun. We’re not thinking about next season or anything else. All that matters is what we’re doing now. We’re not only playing for the name on the back of our jersey. We’re playing for the name on the front. We want to win.”
For Francona, the Indians’ unexpected push has been rewarding. At the time of the trades, Francona didn’t look far ahead. He wanted his clubhouse to stay focused on this season, not the future and remained confident the Indians would come around.
“When we started talking about things in the second half, I tried to be real careful in what I said,” Francona said. “Because, regardless of who’s playing, I never wanted to sacrifice winning. It just kind of goes to show you, if you give yourself a chance pitching, which we normally do, and our defense has drastically improved, and when players pay attention to detail, we’ve given ourselves a chance to win — a lot.”
They may come up short, and the Indians, who are 64-57 since May 1, haven’t convinced many skeptical Cleveland fans they’re legitimate — Monday’s series opener only drew 10,356.
Still, their rally has Francona’s insides filled with butterflies like the orange-and-black winged monarchs who have stopped at Progressive Field during their 2,000-mile trek from Canada to Mexico.
“It’s made it gratifying for all of us,” he said. “You can see more energy, not just in the players, but even with the coaches. It kind of gets contagious. The guys, even though it’s September, they’re willing to learn. The younger guys are out running the bases during batting practice. We’re not dragging them out there. It’s been enjoyable.”
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