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The art of closing an 11.5-game gap

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A timeline of the biggest news, events, and plays that led to the Indians closing a massive gap and retaking the AL Central lead

Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

When Carlos Santana sent a ball over Progressive Field’s left field wall against the Red Sox on Monday night, he gave the Indians sole possession of the AL Central lead for the first time since April 20.

There is still a lot of work to be done, and obviously the goal of the season is not simply to win the division, but the Indians are just pure fun right now. Such a thing seemed impossible with how the season started with a dreadful offense and deteriorating pitching staff. Even last year, when the Indians were pretty much locks to win the AL Central from day one, the season dragged on as the team never really clicked yet kept leading by double-digits.

This year’s team is special for so many reasons, and they’ve overcome so much adversity. Already they’ve given us so much to cheer and believe in, and it feels like it should be documented in some way just how many exciting moments they’ve had as they closed an 11.5-game lead the Twins held as late as June, because baseball is cruel and it could all come tumbling down in an instant. But this stretch of games shouldn’t just be forgotten like everything else.

So let’s do just that. Let’s look back at all the best events, news, and plays that led to them retaking the AL Central lead over a two-month span. Starting from ...

June 2, 2019: The low point

Ask any Indians fan how they felt at or around June 4 and they’ll either tell you they were extremely worried, or they’ll lie to your face. The Tribe were stunned, 11.5 games back from the Minnesota Twins in a division they were supposed to steamroll from the start. Numerous injuries and slow starts, along with the Twins starting the season on a dinger-infused tear, was a recipe for a lost season in the midst of their window to win.

At this point in the season, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana were dragging an otherwise lifeless offense through the paces. The two of them, plus platoon batter Jordan Luplow, were the only batters with a wRC+ over 100; the only above-average hitters on the team.

The Indians just wrapped up a series against the White Sox, losing two of three and dropping to a virtual tie with Chicago for second place in AL Central. They were at risk of falling to third in the standings if they couldn’t get it together and if somehow the White Sox kept winning.

Lucas Giolito would come out after holding the Indians to just five hits over 7.1 innings and comment how easy it was, knowing the Indians weren’t adjusting to changeups. It was an ugly, ugly time. The deficit sat 11.5 games. The largest it would be all season.

June 18, 2019: Indians dingers and Rangers routs

The Indians went 8-3 over their next 11 games, aided by a sweep of the Tigers and an impressive showing against both the Twins and Yankees. Still, though, the Twins were playing well and the Indians only managed to gain 1.5 games while playing their best baseball of the season to that point.

They traveled to Texas for a pivotal matchup against a team they should beat. After dropping game one with an anemic two runs on the board against Lance Lynn, the offense came alive to outscore Texas by a combined 20-7 in the next two games before dropping the finale, 4-2.

Jake Bauers, Roberto Pérez and Tyler Naquin drove the dagger in the second game of the series with back-to-back-to-back home runs — the first time the Indians hit three straight home runs in 15 years.

After the dust settled against the Rangers, the Tribe were 39-35, now 9.0 games back of the Twins who were a mere 5-5 over their last 10. The cracks were starting to show.

In the two weeks since they began their climb back into the AL Central race, Roberto Pérez led the team with a 187 wRC+, six home runs, and a .300/.370/.800 slash. Seven Indians batters with at least 40 PA in that stretch had a wRC+ over 100.

June 20, 2019: Frankie has enough of Leonys Martin

The finale of the Rangers series also saw the end of Leonys Martin’s time in Cleveland. It’s a trade the Indians undoubtedly lost as Willie Castro knocks on the door of the Detroit Tigers. Even if Castro doesn’t amount to much, Martin just didn’t work out for the Indians.

On June 20, Martin lazily played a ball in center that cost the Indians a run, and team leader Francisco Lindor let him know it in the dugout. Martin was released a day later, and it opened the door for rookie sensation Oscar Mercado to thrive as the team’s everyday center fielder.

June 22, 2019: Aaron Civale’s debut

Two days later, Aaron Civale dazzled in his major league debut. The 24-year-old held the Tigers scoreless over two hits with six strikeouts and three walks. He has yet to allow more than one run in any of his three starts, and has gone exactly six innings in each of them.

The Indians still were 9.0 games back on June 22, but optimism was growing.

June 23, 2019: Bobby Bradley arrives

The Indians were rolling at this point, but the offense still lacked a certain spark. They were still only 23rd in wRC+ as a team, 21st in home runs, and 22nd in total runs scored. Meanwhile, Bobby Bradley just kept crushing in Triple-A with nothing left to prove in Triple-A. So the Indians promoted him, and for a brief time it looked like a great move.

Along with Oscar Mercado, the Indians had two more young studs to add to their core group of veterans. Unfortunately, Bradley flared out just as fast as his (still) team-leading 457-foot home run left Progressive Field. Bradley played in 15 games, and in 49 PA had just one home run and struck out 40.8% of the time.

With the Indians acquiring Franmil Reyes at the deadline, there’s a chance we might have seen the last of Bradley in an Indians uniform. But for a time, in the middle of a season filled with misery, The Assassin was a brief moment of excitement. I’ll never forget that.

June 26, 2019: Jason Kipnis catches fire

One of the quietest, but most important, aspects of the Indians’ early run at the division was Jason Kipnis coming back to life. From June 7 through June 24, Kip was one of the hottest hitters on the team with a 183 wRC+, four home runs, and team-leading 16 runs batted in. He seemed to finally be finding his stroke, which in itself plugged a huge hole for the Indians offense.

June, 30, 2019: A series to forget in Baltimore

The Indians were outscored in back-to-back games by a total of 26-0 against the Baltimore Orioles. It wasn’t great.

July 6, 2019: Carlos Carrasco reveals leukemia diagnosis

Carlos Carrasco hasn’t pitched since May, with what was called a “blood condition” prior. On June 6, in an interview with a Dominican TV station, Carrasco revealed that he had been battling leukemia, or cancer of the blood. It served as a rallying point for the Indians as Leonys Martin’s bout with life-threatening bacteria had in 2018.

July 8, 2019: Francisco Lindor makes a declaration

Whether intentional or not, Francisco Lindor set the hype train in motion when talking to media prior to the All-Star game: “I’ve liked my team since spring training. We’re going to add pieces and get better in the second half.”

July 9, 2019: The All-Star Game

Shane Bieber was a last-second replacement on the All-Star Game roster; most didn’t even consider him in the running prior to replacing Mike Minor. But he got his shot, struck out the side, and was named Game MVP. It was still uphill from there.

July 12, 2019: Playoff atmosphere in July

The Indians ended up collapsing and blowing game one of this series late, but coming out of the All-Star break to face the Twins meant the Indians had a shot to put the lead within 2.5 games if they could sweep. Progressive Field was hopping with a playoff-like atmosphere, but the Indians ended up losing the series, 2-1, and were 6.5 games back when all was said and done.

The Indians would have to keep playing good baseball and hope the Twins couldn’t keep up if they wanted a shot at the division. The two teams weren’t scheduled to play each other again for nearly a month.

It wasn’t a great series, but it gave us this neat Clevinger-Pérez synchronized celebration in a big moment.

July 23, 2019: The YouTube Game

This wasn’t an especially noteworthy game for anything the Indians did, but it sure did make us all miss Matt Underwood and Rick Manning.

July 24, 2019: Shane Bieber shines

Shane Bieber put his name on the map with All-Star Game performance, but he really got people’s attention when he carried a no-hitter through six innings before losing it to a ground-rule double in the seventh. Bieber struck out 10 and pitched his second complete-game shutout of the season. With the Indians continuing to play well and the Twins slowly but surely coming back down to earth, the AL Central lead was just 2.0 games. The Indians now clearly had their next great pitcher in Bieber.

July 25, 2019: Dreams of Puig

Trade deadline season was coming up fast, but the Indians were mostly absent from any hard rumors. Why not this guy in Cincinnati who licks his bat?

July 27, 2019: Tribe within 1

This is when it started to really sink in that the Indians could swipe the division back. They were floating between two and three games back for what felt like months, but they trounced the Royals, 9-1, and were finally within a game of the division lead.

July 28, 2019: Trevor Bauer’s bad day

Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep momentum going. They dropped the series finale against the Royals in what would end up being Trevor Bauer’s last game as an Indian. His last throw as an Indian traveled 300+ feet and over Kaufmann Stadium’s center field wall.

The Indians would lose two of their next three games, and by the end of August 2 they were once again 3.0 games back of the Twins.

July 30, 2019 (9:55 p.m.): Indians in desperate need of a bat

The Indians offense was putrid against the Houston Astros and Justin Verlander — Shane Bieber held the ‘Stros offense to just two runs, but Verlander blanked the Indians to give them their first losing streak since July 12-July 13. The Indians needed clearly help on offense to be able to compete with big teams.

July 30, 2019 (10:00 p.m.): Indians get bat

... then they got it.

(Bonus tweet: This guy)

August 1, 2019: Salazar returns, likely for the last time

Danny Salazar made his highly anticipated debut, and first start in almost two years. It went terribly and we may never see him pitch in an Indians uniform again.

According to Baseball Savant, Salazar topped out at 88 mph and for the longest time Statcast wasn’t sure if he was actually throwing four-seamers or sliders. It was bad.

August 3, 2019: Baker Mayfield Gets Us

In the most “Gets Us” moment in Cleveland sports history, Baker Mayfield slammed a beer on the jumbotron and showed off his Francisco Lindor jersey. It was magical.

August 5, 2019: Indians bunt away shot at division

The Indians dropped game one of another important series against the Rangers because they bunted while losing in the bottom of the ninth. The run didn’t score, and they lost. I can’t make this up.

August 7, 2019: Indians sweep doubleheader ahead of Twins series

Actually playing the Twins is important, but what the Indians did on August 7 should be noted right alongside taking three of four from the Twins themselves.

After a rain delay forced a doubleheader on the 7th — one day before the Indians faced their toughest test of the season with the division on the line — Tito opted for Zach Plesac in game one and a planned bullpen day in game two.

Plesac was outstanding in game one, lasting six innings and striking out six. His performance meant that only Nick Goody and Brad Hand had to be used for a combined 3.0 innings, leaving them both available for game two and/or not burned out for the Twins series.

In game two, AJ Cole, Hunter Wood, and Tyler Clippard all pitched two innings apiece, while Nick Wittgren pitched a perfect 1.2 innings. Only Oliver Perez looked shaky in the outing, but the offense gave him a five-run lead that he held onto.

Having two play two games in a day before the most important series of the season to date was a daunting task, but the Indians nailed it.

August 8, 2019: The Twins and The Slam

I’m writing this a day after Carlos Santana walked off the Red Sox and mere days after he grand slammed his way to a win over the Twins, of course you still remember how it went. Game one was an instant regular season classic; a game that would probably have gone as an all-timer if it occurred in October. The Indians took three of four from the Twins, stole game one from the Red Sox and now sit alone atop the AL Central.

If the Indians manage to pull this off and not give up the lead from now until the playoffs, Carlos Santana’s grand slam should forever be in Indians lore. He gave the Indians the lead in the top of the 10th and hid the fact that Brad Hand gave up the lead in the ninth. By all accounts, he saved everyone that day. And through some sheer force of will he did it again the next day, only this time at home and for a true walk-off win.