Francona restores winning culture to Tribe in 2013
Skipper helps club reach potential, make playoffs in first season in Cleveland
While Terry Francona's return to the dugout was the big story around the Indians in Spring Training, he knew he was taking over a team with potential.
Francona's ties to the organization -- both from his father Tito's years in Cleveland and his working in a front office run by Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti -- were a part of the story, yes. But Francona was sincere on his first day on his new job, when he spoke about possibilities others weren't seeing.
Francona talked about the potential of a team that had Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez on its roster. Then, with the help of fellow newcomers Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Jason Giambi and Scott Kazmir, among others, Francona went out and made Progressive Field a great place to play again, as it had been when it was known as Jacobs Field and guys like Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle prowled the home clubhouse.
In the end, after a solid season capped with a magical September, Francona and his players hosted the American League Wild Card Game against the Rays, who had joined them in denying the Rangers and Orioles a chance to return to the playoffs.
"I think they've been dying for a game like this," Francona said before the game on Oct. 2, which drew 43,579 to a stadium that averaged 19,661 in the regular season.
There was no doubting this was playoff baseball -- a game Francona said was every bit as significant as a Game 7 because the loser went home -- as fans dressed in red and roared like they had in 1997, when the Indians came so close to their first championship since 1948.
Unfortunately for the Indians, Alex Cobb outpitched rookie Danny Salazar, working the first 6 2/3 innings of a 4-0 shutout by the Rays. Cleveland's trip to the playoffs, the first since the 2007 AL Championship Series, was a one-and-done affair, but that was hardly the story.
Who saw this team coming in March?
Anyone who says they did is probably lying. But Francona's players knew the tone had been changed with the bold managerial hiring.
"It's easy to see why he's had winning teams under him," Kipnis said in Spring Training. "The guy has meetings every morning. He's here with a purpose every single day. He doesn't want to waste a day."
The Tribe beat R.A. Dickey on Opening Day in Toronto and served notice in May, climbing to 27-19 at one point. But when August ended, it was treading water, seven games above .500 and in fifth place in the crowded Wild Card race, 4 1/2 games behind the Rays, who held the second spot behind the A's.
There was no time to waste when Francona helped produce a stunning closing act. Led by the pitching staff, the Indians won 20 of their last 25 games, including 10 in a row to end the season. Analysts had pointed to a soft finishing schedule -- as analysts will do -- but seldom has a team taken care of its business better than Francona's team.
The Royals were the only team with a winning record that the Tribe played after Sept. 4, and it didn't matter that Masterson was hurt or that Chris Perez's struggles had left Francona with a closer-by-committee at crunch time. Everything Francona did seemed to work, with the decisive blow being delivered by Giambi on Sept. 24.
Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza of the White Sox had homered off Perez in the top of the ninth, turning a potential 3-2 victory into a deficit. But Giambi answered with a two-home run off Addison Reed, giving the Indians a 5-4 victory and the momentum to carry them into October.
"It doesn't get any better than that," the 42-year-old Giambi said. "I'm speechless."
Francona nipped Boston's John Farrell in AL Manager of the Year Award voting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Kipnis, who probably deserved better, placed 11th in AL MVP Award voting.
But any awards were secondary to the Indians' remarkable journey. Cleveland came a very long way in 2013, and it started with a manager getting a team to embrace its potential.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.