The Cleveland Indians have clinched their third consecutive AL Central crown after today's 15-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers. Mike Clevinger (12-8) pitched six shutout innings and Francisco Lindor, Yonder Alonso, and Michael Brantley all homered for the Tribe, who scored all of their runs in the first four innings. Alonso and MVP candidate Jose Ramirez each had three hits, and Detroit starter Michael Fulmer only threw five pitches before leaving with what was later reported as "right knee inflammation."
This marks the first time since 1997 that the Indians have clinched the AL Central three years in a row, and it's no surprise why. This young and feisty team has responded well to manager Terry Francona since he took the job back in 2013 and has a great balance of top-tier hitting along with a pitching staff that ranks sixth in the AL with a 3.81 ERA.
Speaking of hitting, remember Lindor's home run? It was his 35th of the year, a new career high after slugging 33 last season.
Sure, Cleveland won't win 100 games like it did in 2017, but the team can still heat up as the regular season winds down and enter the playoffs with plenty of momentum. After all, what with last year's stunning elimination from the ALDS, Indians fans are plenty hungry for another shot at a World Series championship. But will they?
A weak contender
Not so fast, Cleveland fans. The Indians this year are very good, but it's not as though they've had to fight tooth and nail to get back to the postseason. Keep in mind, the AL Central is easily the weakest division in the American League. Cleveland rules the roost at 83-65, followed by the same Detroit Tigers they defeated today to win the Central crown. For context, the Tigers are 15.5 games behind the Indians and are an underwhelming 67-80.
Now, consider this. Cleveland is 42-22 against AL Central teams compared to 41-43 against the rest of the American League squads. This includes a Boston Red Sox team that has already clinched a playoff spot with 102 regular season wins, plus the defending champion Houston Astros. If the playoffs started tomorrow, Cleveland would face Houston, against whom the team is 3-4. Were Cleveland to get past Houston, they would face one of either the Red Sox (2-2), Yankees (2-5), or Oakland A's (2-4).
That said, how good can a playoff team be that has already struggled so mightily against its potential opponents. Granted, playoff baseball is completely different and regular season performance is overall meaningless but inter-divisional is still important. Based on the AL Central, one thing is certain. Cleveland basically cake-walked its way back into the postseason thanks to the Minnesota Twins horribly underachieving after last year's AL Wild Card berth.
The good news is the Indians easily have what it takes to silence any and all critics and just run the table come October. However, up against a Boston team that pulls victories out of thin air, a red hot Oakland squad, and a New York Yankees group that could go into overdrive at any time, the 2018 postseason will be an uphill battle for the Tribe.