Now that I’ve looked at the worst moments of the season, it’s time to look at the best moments of 2011. Even though things kind of fell apart for the Indians in 2011, there were a lot of good times for fans this past season (particularly when compared to 2010). These aren’t in any particular order, and include a mix of specific moments and larger themes.
The Ubaldo Jimenez trade. See, I said this made both lists. Even though the Indians surrendered a lot for him, and his performance was less than stellar once he arrived, there are some positives to think about when considering this trade. The big thing for me was that for the past three years, we’ve watched big stars leave Cleveland, especially star pitchers. CC Sabathia – gone. Cliff Lee – gone. Jake Westbrook – gone. Victor Martinez – gone. It was nice to be in the heat of a pennant race and to see a big star come to Cleveland for once. Jimenez has great stuff, and one has to hope that he can turn it around for the next two seasons. While Alex White and Drew Pomeranz could end up as high-profile stars, they are still somewhat unproven commodities. Neither was excellent with the Rockies after the trade, so there’s always the possibility that this is the kind of trade that works out for everybody, or works out for nobody.
The Tribe starts the season 30-15. I have to be honest here – when I returned from Spring Training in Arizona this year, I thought the Indians would be absolutely dreadful. While Spring Training performance doesn’t necessarily translate into regular season performance, there were many warning signs – poor offense, disastrous outings from Fausto Carmona…I’d never seen the Tribe look quite this bad in the spring before. Last spring I was a teaching assistant for a sports history class at Case Western Reserve University; I told the students upon my return that the Indians looked terrible and I had no hope. A couple of weeks into the season (and the Indians’ red-hot start), a few students reminded me of my pre-season prediction. I’d never been happier to be wrong! It would’ve been nice to maintain that pace over the course of the season, but for a brief time we once again had a taste of first place baseball in Cleveland.
Asdrubal Cabrera. Even though his performance slipped a bit toward the end of the season, for most of the season he was truly outstanding…both at the plate and defensively. Prior to the season, Orlando Cabrera tweaked his batting stance a bit, suggesting that he go for more power. The advice worked – he hit 25 home runs this season. In his prior 4 seasons, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, Cabrera hit a total of 18 total home runs. So Cabrera managed to hit 4+ seasons worth of home runs in 2011; a feat that was just one of the reasons he earned his first All Star appearance in 2011. Cabrera’s stellar performance carried over to the field, where he seemed to make another flashy defensive play every week.
Walk off wins, including two walk off grand slams. This was a season for late game dramatics from the Cleveland Indians. The best part about the dramatic walk-offs – they didn’t stop once the team started to slump and there were times this season when no deficit seemed insurmountable in the late innings at Progressive Field. On April 29 the Indians saw a walk-off grand slam by Carlos Santana against the Detroit Tigers. As dramatic and awesome as that one was, it was nothing compared to the one hit by Travis Hafner on July 7. The Tribe trailed the Toronto Blue Jays 4-0 going into the 9th inning, and put one run on the board to make it 4-1. When Hafner came to bat, I already considered the game over; thankfully Hafner didn’t feel the same way. His grand slam gave the Tribe a 5-4 win and left the Blue Jays stunned. I was lucky enough to see a number of these walk-offs in person, with my good friends the Rally Cows in attendance as well.
Justin Masterson. He really stepped forward as the ace of the squad this season, a title that was supposed to belong to Fausto Carmona. I knew that Masterson was probably something special when I heard that the Red Sox tried to convince the Indians to trade him back to Boston prior to the season. He finished the 2011 season 12-10; his win total probably would have been much higher with better run support. He had a 3.21 ERA with 158 strikeouts – the strikeout total was a career best. He also had the highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) score among all of the Cleveland Indians at 4.1.
Bullpen Mafia. The Tribe bullpen, under the guidance of new pitching coach Scott Radinsky, was fifth in the American League in ERA this season. While the bullpen did have its flaws at times, or just players that I never wanted to see run out of that doorway onto the field (cough, Chad Durbin, cough) they were still incredibly solid. You also saw the emergence of Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith and Chris Perez as relatively reliable stars. Perez saved 36 games this season; he made you nervous at times (especially in non-save situations) but he still got the job done most of the time. The group even got together to film this fun Oceans 11 style video for the MLB Fan Cave.
Team chemistry. Something that’s in line with the lighthearted Bullpen Mafia’s video is the team’s chemistry this season. They appeared to be a tight group that stood up for each other, and called each other out when it was necessary. One example is this sweet story about the premature birth of Jack Hannahan’s son. When Hannahan was unable to find a flight home in time, the team chipped in and helped pay for him to take a private plane home to be with his wife. He made it just in time to see his son born.
14 straight wins at home. Not only did the Indians have a great start to the season, but from April 3 to May 10 the Tribe compiled 14 straight home wins. It was their longest home winning streak since 1996, when they won 13 in a row. Even though the Indians finished 2011 with an 80-82 record, they were 44-37 at home and 36-45 on the road this season.
Columbus Clippers. The Clippers won their second straight Triple-A national title this season, with an 8-3 win over the Omaha Storm Chasers (Kansas City Royals). This was despite the fact that the team saw over 100 roster moves with players constantly moving in and out of Columbus. All a fan can hope for is that some of this success at the minor league level starts to translate to the Indians at the major league level.
Jim Thome returns. So Jim Thome’s return didn’t propel the Tribe into the playoffs. In fact, his very first game back was actually kind of ugly…he went 0-4 and looked bad doing so. Despite that, the night of his return was still unforgettable. The sight of a sold out crowd, waving signs and cheering like it was the playoffs every time he came to bat, just made you smile and gave you chills simultaneously. There was an energy at Progressive Field that night that I haven’t really seen since the 2007 playoffs.
So what are your favorite moments from the 2011 season?