CLEVELAND — Drenched after his players joyfully doused him with champagne and beer, Indians manager Terry Francona stood at the center of the visitor’s clubhouse in Fenway Park, a ballpark where he had been in the middle of so many similar celebrations.
Francona didn’t get a hit, steal a base or record an out as Cleveland surprisingly swept Boston in the AL Division Series.
He did just about everything else.
As he removed his glasses to wipe the sudsy shower from his face, Francona could finally relax — for a night. His moves pushed the Indians deeper into October.
The bubble gum-chomping, drought-busting motivator is Cleveland’s MVP.
Whether masterfully maneuvering his bullpen in Game 1, playing a hunch with his lineup in Game 2, using platoon players or daring to pitch to slugger David Ortiz in Game 3 as Boston fans roared, Francona had the perfect touch as the Indians won three straight and advanced to face Toronto in the AL Championship Series.
Francona, affectionately known as Tito — his dad’s name — refused to take credit and turned the attention on his players.
“I’ve done it before,” said Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and ’07. “You know what, what it meant to me is to celebrate with the Indians and our crew. I don’t care where it is. I respect that we beat a heck of a team, but to celebrate with our guys, that’s what was meaningful for me.”
The Indians have been defying odds — and baseball logic — for months. Despite a slew of injuries to key players, losing two starting pitchers for the postseason, and being given little chance to win the AL Central, they overpowered Detroit and Kansas City before dismissing the Red Sox, who led the majors in scoring but managed just seven runs in the playoffs.
The obstacles have only empowered the Indians. Francona made sure they were never knocked off track. He did more than manage games, massaging egos and making everyone believe.
“It’s extraordinary,” Indians president Chris Antonetti said. “He’s a master at it. He really understands people. He builds relationships. He creates connections. He communicates extraordinarily well. He has the right balance of providing a professional and prepared group, but also having fun. If there is anybody better, I’m not sure I’ve been around him.”
His rotation close to shambles, Francona understood the importance of winning the opener against Boston.
After Trevor Bauer, who began the season in the bullpen, got him into the fifth inning, Francona brought in tall left-hander Andrew Miller — normally used in the seventh and eighth — and Cleveland’s relievers closed out the 5-4 win.
Despite Boston lefty David Price being on the mound in Game 2, Francona went against the book and started left-handed hitter Lonnie Chisenall, who batted just .217 against lefties during the regular season. Chisenhall was in more for his defense but hit a three-run homer — his first off a lefty all year — in the second inning of Cleveland’s 6-0 win in Game 2.
“Sometimes,” Francona said afterward, “good players make you look smarter than you probably are.”
He trusted his gut after Game 3 was postponed a day, sticking with Josh Tomlin as his starter. The right-hander, who had nearly a 12.00 ERA in August and was briefly bumped from the rotation, held the Red Sox to one run through five innings. Francona sent him back out in the sixth before again turning to Miller, who gave up a sacrifice fly to Ortiz and then struck out Hanley Ramirez with runner at second.
Everything Francona did in the series worked, including a moment that almost backfired before Game 1.
As he shook hands with Red Sox manager John Farrell, Francona took a wad of gum from his mouth and tossed it at Dustin Pedroia, one of his favorite players. Pedroia grabbed and swatted it to the ground, much to Francona’s relief.
“Thank God he caught that,” Francona said with a laugh. “It was going to hit Hanley right in the face, and I don’t know Hanley that well.”
The playful gesture toward Pedroia is typical of Francona, who develops a deep trust inside the clubhouse with how he treats players. He’s firm but fair and he prides himself on keeping his door open. A few weeks ago, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan visited the Indians and when he walked by the manager’s office, Francona was playing cards with Tomlin.
“That was the day we took him out of the rotation,” Francona said. “I was explaining that to Billy. I said, ‘Two hours earlier we had taken him out of the rotation,’ and he was back there playing cribbage with me. That to me, shows that we can get through anything.”
And if Francona keeps playing his cards right, the Indians can go anywhere.