Cleveland Indians designated hitter Jason Giambi, left, picks up manager Terry Francona after Giambi hit a two-run home run off Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Addison Reed in the ninth inning Sept. 24.
Of the many reasons the Indians won an AL wild-card spot with a stunning September surge, manager Terry Francona joked that it had nothing to do with his final days in Boston.
"We stayed away from chicken and beer," he cracked. "That helped."
Francona was typically jovial Monday, a day after Cleveland completed an improbable 10-0 run to finish the regular season and earn its first playoff appearance since 2007. As the Indians await the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday, a relaxed Francona discussed his team's superb chemistry, resiliency, and a roster devoid of superstars but loaded with selfless players.
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Francona also poked some fun at himself, alluding to the end of the 2011 season when his Red Sox collapsed with a 7-20 record in the last month. Francona guided Boston to two World Series titles, but parted ways after the team's historic fold. Later, the team's clubhouse was characterized as an out-of-control fraternity house with players drinking beer, eating chicken, and playing video games during games.
Now, after five months of ups and down in Francona's first season with Cleveland, the Indians put it all together and went 21-6 in September, playing error-free ball over the last 90 innings to reserve a place in October.
They had to be nearly perfect over the final two weeks, and the Indians took advantage of a favorable schedule by sweeping the White Sox, Astros, and Twins. One misstep would have cost Cleveland, but the Indians stayed on the path Francona mapped out for them all spring and summer and will now play in the fall.
"I'm not surprised. I'm pleased," Francona said of his team's impressive closing kick. "That's the way we have to play, and like I said all year, I'm OK with that because it's baseball and it just goes to show you that when you play the game right, the sum of all our parts can be a pretty good team, and that's not such a bad way to come to work."
As he does every day, Francona made the short commute from his downtown apartment to Progressive Field on his Vespa scooter as the Indians held an optional workout and a few players came in for treatment before Wednesday's winner-take-all game.
Francona said center fielder Michael Bourn, who pulled up with a leg issue while stealing a base on Sunday, "doesn't feel too bad" and indicated the leadoff hitter will be ready for the Rays. Francona has mostly finalized his 25-man roster and indicated he will likely use a nine-man bullpen for the wild-card game.
Rookie Danny Salazar will start, and Francona will have the luxury of handing the ball over to All-Star starter Justin Masterson, who recently returned from a side injury and will pitch in relief.
"That guy's a weapon," Francona said. "We plan to use it."
Francona spent a few minutes reflecting on Sunday's playoff-clinching win in Minnesota, which was followed by the Indians turning their clubhouse into a playground. He vaguely remembers planting a kiss on designated hitter Jason Giambi and said he most enjoyed seeing owner Paul Dolan take part in the celebration.
"This team grew on me really quickly," Francona said. "It's pretty obvious. I'm pretty fond of this team. We could have lost the last couple games, and I would have been very disappointed, but it wouldn't have changed my feelings for my team. It's not been a big secret that I love where I work. I respect my bosses. I care about them greatly."
The feeling is mutual.
From the first day of spring training, Francona has molded a collection of players — not too far from the oddball groups he had in Boston — into a true team. The Indians may not have the most talent, but they overcome any deficiencies in statistical data or All-Star resumes with determination and depth.
"I've been asked so many times 'Who's your MVP?' I don't know that we have one," Francona said. "I could name probably 15, 16, 17 guys who if they weren't on our team, we wouldn't be here. I don't know if a lot of teams can do that. We don't have the 100-RBI guy. We don't have the 20-game winner, but you start going through the list, we would not be where we are."
Francona's impact on the Indians is evident in the team's strong bond. Cleveland's clubhouse, so somber and serene in past seasons, bustles with activity and energy. It's something Francona began working on from the moment he was hired, making trips to visit players during the offseason.
He has already directed a 24-game turnaround to 92 wins and given skeptical Indians fans a reason to believe again.
"He's a gift to this game," said Giambi, whose walk-off homer last week against Chicago seemed to jump off a movie screen. "He loves his players. You want to play hard for him. You want to run through a wall for him just because of the type of person he is and the way he believes in you. What you're seeing is what happens when guys play for him."
Francona said he may manage a little differently in the postseason, but he won't head into it giving his players any advice on how to play in October."Sometimes you can overdo it," he said. "The game is the game, and I think the best way to do things is pretty much the routine that you've done all year."