The first part went like this: What does it mean to be 5.5 games out as opposed to 7.5 games out if you’d lost this game?
Francona said simply, “Two games.” Traveling secretary Mike Seghi, standing behind a group of reporters, beat Francona to the exact same answer in a stage whisper.
“Thanks, Seghs,” Francona said.
That was not the answer the reporter was looking for so he tried again. That’s OK because that’s what reporters do.
The second part of the question went like this: What does it mean psychologically and mentally to be two games closer?
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Francona said with a laugh. “Psychologically I’m not smart enough to answer it and mentally I’ve been tired since June so I don’t think it matters.”
The baseball season is long enough as it is. It’s even longer when you’re playing catchup as the Indians (84-61) have been doing since June. They trailed the Twins by 11.5 games on June 3. They caught and momentarily passed them on Aug. 12, but couldn’t hold the lead.
The Indians (85-61) have gone 17-14 since. The Twins have gone 18-8 to reclaim the division lead in the same span.
Now they have 16 games left to play and entered Wednesday’s game at Anaheim with an even five-game deficit. It’s understood that they will treat them all as postseason games. It doesn’t mean they’ll win them all, but that’s pretty much the way they’ve been playing since June 3.
It’s impossible to play that many games with postseason intensity. It just won’t work. Francona deals with it one day at a time.
“We try to win the game that’s in front of us every day,” he has said many times. “That makes the most sense to me. Then we turn the page to the next game.”
Mike Clevinger, who won Sunday’s games to improve to 10-0 with a 1.98 ERA over his last 13 starts, peeled back that minimalist approach even farther.
“We’re here to win every day,” Clevinger said. “It’s more of an emphasis on every play than every game. The more you look at every game you can look up in the seventh and be down by three. I think we’ve been doing a good job of trying to win that pitch, win that at-bat and keeping everyone in good spirits whether it’s going good or bad on the field.”
Realistically, it’s hard to see the Indians catching the Twins. They lead the season series, 9-7, and play them three more times — starting Friday at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Unless the Indians get help from the Twins other opponents, even a sweep this weekend wouldn’t be enough to take control of the division.
The Twins (89-55) definitely have some problems with their starting rotation following the suspension of Michael Pineda and Kyle Gibson’s season-long bout with colitis. Gibson is expected to be back as soon as Thursday, but Pineda’s 60-game suspension will carry over until next season. He is also ineligible for the postseason.
What the Twins have done is simple — they’ve won more games than the Indians and nothing matters more at this time of the year. They’ve also played a bit better against teams with winning records.
The Indians best chance at the postseason is the Wild Card Game. But even that entrance is guarded by rolls and rolls of barbed wire.
Tampa Bay (87-59) and Oakland (85-60) are the two teams in front of them. Entering Wednesday night, the Rays own the first wild card position by two games over the Indians. The A’s own the second spot by a a half-game over them. Even if the Tribe overtake one of those two teams, they’d be at a disadvantage in the one-game playoff because the Rays went 6-1 against the Tribe and the A’s went 5-1.
Not only that but the Indians would have to travel to either St. Petersburg, Fla., or Oakland for the Wild Card Game on Oct. 2. If they won that game, they’d have to travel to Houston — if the postseason started today — to play the Astros in the AL Division Series on Oct. 4. The Astros and Yankees are tied for the best record in the AL, but the Astros own a 4-3 advantage in head-to-head games.
“These games are almost must wins,” setup man Nick Wittgren said. “We’re in a wild-card hunt and we’re trying to catch the Twins. Taking two out of three from the Twins was big because it puts us up a game from where we were."
How the Indians fare from here to end of the regular season on Sept. 29, and where they go after that, not only depends on how they play, but how the Twins, Rays and A’s play. It’s a hard thing to lose control of your own season, but that’s where the Indians are at.
They are on pace to win 93 games, two more wins than they had last season when they won the Central by 13 games. But it may not be enough.
Here are the remaining games for the Indians, Twins, Rays and A’s headed into Wednesday’s schedule:
Cleveland: at Angels (67-78), Sept. 11; vs. Twins (89-55), Sept. 13-15; vs. Tigers (43-100), Sept. 17-19; vs. Phillies (75-69), Sept. 20-22; at White Sox (64-80), Sept. 24-26 and at Nationals (78-64), Sept. 27-29.
The Tribe plays 53 percent (9-of-17) of its remaining games against teams with winning records. They are 22-33 against teams with winning records.
Minnesota: vs. Nationals (78-64), Sept. 11-12; at Indians (85-61), Sept. 13-15; vs. White Sox (64-80) Sept. 16-18; vs. Royals (53-92), Sept. 19-22; at Tigers (43-100) Sept. 24-26 and at Royals (53-92) Sept. 27-29.
The Twins play 33 percent (6-of-18) of their remaining 18 games against teams with winning records. They are 30-34 against teams with winning records.
Tampa Bay: at Rangers (72-74), Sept. 11-12; at Angels (67-78) Sept. 13-15; at Dodgers (94-52), Sept. 17-18; Red Sox (76-67) Sept. 20-23; Yankees (95-51) Sept. 24-25 and at Blue Jays (56-89) Sept. 27-29.
The Rays play 50 percent (8-of-16) of their remaining 16 games against teams with winning records. They are 32-33 against teams with winning records.
Oakland: at Astros (95-51) Sept. 11-12; at Rangers (72-74), Sept. 13-15; Royals (53-92), Sept. 16-18; Rangers (72-74) Sept. 20-22; at Angels (67-78) Sept. 24-25 and at Mariners (59-86), Sept. 26-29.
The A’s play 11 percent (2-of-18) of their remaining 18 games against teams with winning records. They are 32-26 against teams with winning records. After they complete their current four-game series against the Astros, they will not race another team with a winning record.