By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The Cleveland Indians are done marveling at their record-setting season, focused instead on avenging their dramatic extra innings Game Seven loss in last year’s World Series and snapping Major League Baseball’s longest title drought.
There are big expectations on Cleveland in a post-season where the Chicago Cubs will chase a second consecutive World Series and the Washington Nationals look to finally win a division series.
The Indians, who were beaten by the Cubs in last year’s World Series, are favored to celebrate their first championship since 1948.
Cleveland open their best-of-five games American League Division Series on Thursday against big-hitting rookie Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees
“It’s time to get to work,” Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin said. “Everybody is looking forward to that. This is when the fun begins.”
The Indians have all the tools necessary to make another deep post-season run given a lineup featuring plenty of power from the likes of Jose Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion, a shutdown rotation and bullpen that can make quick work of most teams.
Cleveland used a torrid second half of the season, which included an AL-record 22 consecutive victories between August and September, to finish two wins short of the National League’s Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors.
“For whatever reason, it took us a while to get — whether it’s your rhythm, whether it’s your footing,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But once they did, it’s like they never took their foot off the gas.”
As a result, the Indians are brimming with confidence and should they eliminate the Yankees will face either the AL East champion Boston Red Sox or a Houston Astros team that won the AL West by a 21-game margin.
The Astros had the AL’s best record on Aug. 31 when they added Justin Verlander to a rotation that already featured fellow Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel.
The addition of Verlander, who has been brilliant since joining his new club, tilts the series in the Astros favor but they face a Boston rotation anchored by Chris Sale in the best-of-five series.
The Los Angeles Dodgers finished with the best record in the majors but a recent 11-game skid has raised some concern about whether the National League West champions can make a run.
The Dodgers will face the winner of Wednesday’s NL Wild Card showdown between the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks in a best-of-five series starting on Friday in Los Angeles.
The Cubs will face the Nationals in what looks to be a competitive series.
Washington have never advanced beyond a division series but the return of right fielder Bryce Harper from a knee injury along with improved play from the bullpen make them a legitimate threat.
The Nationals’ two-headed pitching monster of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg could trouble the Cubs hitters as long as the former shows no ill effects from a tweaked hamstring he suffered last Saturday.
But the Cubs, who last year snapped a 108-year title drought, have gained plenty of playoff experience over the last two seasons, have a deep lineup and need no motivation.
“There’s nothing I can say that’s going to be stirring, motivational, substantive in a sense that it’s going to change their minds about anything,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
“I just want our guys to go out and do what they’ve been doing since the All-Star break. No different.
“Go out and play. Play unencumbered. Go out and play mentally freely and play the game we’ve learned to play over the last couple years.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)