By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — For months, they’ve been ignored, overlooked and mostly dismissed.
The Cleveland Indians weren’t supposed to be playing in October and yet here they are: AL Central champions with a chance to end a World Series drought approaching its 68th anniversary.
While many baseball fans remain fixated on the Chicago Cubs, those lovable losers trying to rewrite baseball history, the Indians have quietly overcome injuries to put themselves in position to bring another championship to Cleveland, a city still giddy after LeBron James and the Cavaliers won an NBA title this summer.
“We don’t mind if we have to play the underdog,” said second baseman Jason Kipnis. “We don’t mind if we have to take people by surprise. We know what kind of team we’ve got here and the kind of organization we have here — and we’re pretty happy with what’s going on.”
The Indians have defined resiliency this season. They played all but 11 games without star outfielder Michael Brantley and didn’t have starting catcher Yan Gomes for most of the year. Cleveland lost starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar down the stretch to injuries and won’t have them in the postseason. But the Indians cleared the obstacles thrown at them, motivated by the guidance of manager Terry Francona.
With unexpected contributions from players like Jose Ramirez, Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis, the continued rise of star shortstop Francisco Lindor and a lights-out bullpen, they grabbed the division lead in June, reeled off a 14-game winning streak and never looked back, dominating rival Detroit and dethroning the defending champion Kansas City Royals, who finished 13 1/2 games behind Cleveland.
It didn’t go according to plan, but when does it ever? And as they prepare to take on the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-five division series starting Thursday, the Indians, who have craved the spotlight for years, are again being given little chance to advance.
Kipnis and his teammates have grown accustomed to a lack of respect nationally.
“It’s Cleveland,” he said. “It’s a smaller market and people tend to forget that. It’s OK if we’re not the favorite. We’ve been proving people wrong all year. “We have plenty of people who believe in us.”
On Tuesday, the Indians arrived at Progressive Field and were greeted in their clubhouse by boxes filled with new cleats and some cold-weather gear. They won’t need any layering in Games 1 and 2 with temperatures expected to be in the 70s for the first pitch.
But although they’ve made it to October, the narrative has yet to change on the Indians, and that’s just fine with them.
“We haven’t been a popular pick all year long,” said the fun-loving Lindor, who plays with an infectious passion. “That’s OK. We believe in each other.”
That confidence comes from Francona, who leads the Indians flock of faithful.
From the outset of training camp, Francona, who guided the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years in 2004 and then added another three years later, has instilled confidence in his players. By using his entire 25-man roster — and then some — he’s developed a group that values depth and understands it takes everyone doing their share.
That was apparent when the Indians ripped off 14 wins in a row from June 17 to July 2. There was a different hero every game, and the stretch climaxed with a 19-inning victory in Toronto.
Francona pulled out all the stops in that 2-1 win, even using Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer in relief for five shutout innings. The victory sapped the Indians, but the more-than-two-week winning streak also bonded them.
“Winning breeds confidence,” Kipnis said. “That kind of laid the foundation for the season and the team that we are today. It needs to be all hands on deck for us to win and we’ll be good if we do that.”
The streak began as the Cavs were rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the finals to beat Golden State and give Cleveland its first major sports championship since 1964.
On June 17, hours before the Cavs would win Game 7 on the road, fans in Progressive Field alternated chants of “Let’s Go Indians” with “Let’s Go Cavs” during Cleveland’s 3-2 win in 10 innings over the Chicago White Sox.
Kipnis said the Indians fed off the city’s energy.
“It gave positive vibes around the stadium and gave positive vibes to the fans,” he said of the Cavs’ championship run. “Everyone was in a better mood. The sun was shining. There was no longer that dark cloud over Cleveland. LeBron didn’t throw any shutouts for us or hit any home runs, but at the same time, the Cavs winning it all it took that pressure away of bringing home the first title.”
A second one might not be that far away.