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How’d Cleveland last this long before slipping?

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The wheels have pretty much fallen off of the season, but it’s amazing they made it this far

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Midway through watching Cleveland grind out the second miserable game in an ugly mid-week series against what was supposed to be one of the teams challenging for a division title the other day, I came to a couple of stark realizations.

First, just how miserable to watch the team had become. There’s something to be said for watching a hilariously bad team or one that is prone to epic collapses. It’s one of the reasons the Mets have such a remarkable, romantic past — they’re just so good at doing things poorly. Heck, the Mariners get great documentaries made about them, and they consistently disappoint.

Cleveland is neither excitingly bad nor a huge let-down. They’re usually good. Beyond that though, it came to me that it’s pretty incredible it took this long for the wheels to actually fall off. At 58-61, they’re in danger of a losing season for the first time in almost a decade, and more than that, in danger of not being a second-place club.

It’s amazing they made it this far.

I watch baseball because it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and neat things happen. You can watch a game that’s been played a million times and see something you’ve never seen. It’s not always good — like when José Ramírez gets thrown out at first after not tagging up on a fly ball to deep center — but it’s the instance as much as anything that draws me in. I’d think, it being a spectator sport and us all being fans, that’s kind of the case for everyone who’s tuning in. That’s why this past week especially — but really this whole run after the All-Star Break — has been such a struggle. They’re 13-19 in that time, a 96-loss pace for a full year, and for most of that time, they’ve looked it.

Like, there are things I like about Eli Morgan or Cal Quantrill, pieces of what could eventually be fun pitchers to watch. They’re simply prone to mistakes and just not being that good sometimes. And It’s been neat to see these flashes of Bradley Zimmer maybe, possibly, finally actualizing the prodigious potential that made him a first-round pick and has tantalized us nearly every year since. These are good things, but there’s so much more that sucks the life from the game. Seeing a lineup where half of it hits under .230 without pop gets depressing after a while. Watching Bryan Shaw for the fourth time in a week, or Nick Wittgren grind through an ugly inning, it’s like having someone slowly step on your little toe.

Still, it’s astounding that it took this long for the team to start collapsing. The cracks were always there, and even coming into the season there was a concerning lack of depth in the starting rotation. We felt good about the bullpen though, with so many intriguing arms backing up triple digits and a wild fastball/curve combo. Who knew that one of the key pieces of the bullpen can’t naturally create that spin that made him so lethal, or that all those intriguing arms would actually fail to get outs?

It’s been a year of constant stress tests on every position, every aspect of the on-field product, and it just gave in. When you think about the fact that they’ve got a combined 1,269 plate appearances (or 47 total games) from Eddie Rosario, Austin Hedges, Yu Chang, Oscar Mercado, Andrés Giménez, Owen Miller, and Jake Bauers, and they still had a winning record until a couple of days ago, it’s astounding. Combine that with the havoc that’s reigned on the rotation — and the 28 starts (and counting) from the likes of J.C. Mejía, Sam Hentges, and Logan Allen — how was any of this achieved? Only by the grace of God and the AL Central being mostly toilet teams are they not worse.

Luck matters of course. Their Pythagorean record gives them two fewer wins, and they’ve gotten to play bad teams, They’re 7-7 against the White Sox, but it’s still incredible how narrow the margins have been, and how Cleveland has come out on the right end time and again. I’m not mad about this, and nobody should be. At least, if we shouldn’t be if we were honest with ourselves about how gutted the team was coming into the year. Even before they missed a month of Franmil Reyes and their “big” signing of the offseason in Eddie Rosario just stunk it up before he was traded for cash and Pablo Sandoval’s withering corpse, the signs of a collapse were there.

It’d be fun to think it’s an organizational thing, that they’re able to squeeze all this juice out of such cruddy fruit and figure out how to rebound and reload while the Pirates are stuck on the treadmill of suck and the Orioles seem to have permanently nested in a pit of despair. It’s some small consolation if that’s the case, and at least we get to see some young guys work out kinks, right? After all, one of these Mendoza lookalikes has to turn into a consistent major-leaguer. If they can’t put together at least a mediocre lineup to back what’s probably going to be a strong rotation next year, what are they even doing? The whole point of being excited about rooting for a small market team is that they’re supposed to be smarter than the other guys. When one or more of these guys click, we’ll all be much happier. It’d just be nice to not have it be such a slog the rest of the way.

It’s almost enough to watch the games for José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes. The pair of them are exciting in different ways, and there are other little jolts of fun to each game. It’s just they’re outweighed by wanting to do other things with my evening, see players on other teams that actually inject excitement and are good at the game I love to love. Tim Anderson and the rest of the White Sox or Vladdy Junior or the somehow great Giants, there’s a lot else to see, and I can tune into Cleveland on my phone if I need to. Mostly though, I don’t want to watch a boring product. I don’t know how you fix it, and becoming spectacular in your badness only helps to build that world of eternal pain that so many fanbases find themselves stuck in.

So maybe this forgettable misery is good for them, and good for the fans. As long as — and that’s a big qualifier — they can turn it around next year and get back to challenging for at least Wild Card slots, or get back to where they were in the middle of last decade, this is all going to be forgotten. It’ll be less a “wheels fall off” moment and more of a funny blip while our fun new stars learn how to play the big boy’s game.

That’s where the hope continues to live, we just have to gut out this struggle for the rest of the season to get there. Or go watch Shohei Ohtani or something. I’d prefer that, personally.