CLEVELAND — Entering this past weekend's four-game series with the Minnesota Twins, the Cleveland Indians had the opportunity to return somewhere they hadn't been in more than 100 days: first place.
After last being tied with the Twins for the top spot in the American League Central on April 26, the Indians had seen their division deficit rise to as many as 11.5 games. Yet thanks to an MLB-best 39-16 run since June 2, Cleveland entered this weekend's four-game series in Minnesota trailing the Twins by just two games in what would be the Indians' first chance to return to first place in more than three months.
They didn't disappoint.
Winning three of four games in Minnesota, the Indians leave the Twin Cities tied for first place, resetting their quest for a fourth straight division title with 44 games remaining on the schedule. Although a difficult slate remains -- including three games against the Boston Red Sox and four against the New York Yankees -- this week, Cleveland's midseason surge has been nothing short of remarkable considering where it stood in the standings just two a months ago.
As for who deserves credit for the Indians' turnaround, the list is both fascinating and plentiful. With that in mind, here are the five biggest reasons why Cleveland returned to a place in the standings that seemed unattainable as recently as last month.
Entering the 2019 season, the one certainty about the Indians' roster seemed to be that it would possess one of the best starting pitching staffs in all of baseball.
It didn't take long for that thinking to be put to the test.
Between early-season injuries to Mike Clevinger and Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco's leukemia diagnosis and Trevor Bauer being traded to Cincinnati, second-year starter Shane Bieber has been the only constant in Cleveland's rotation this season. What's more is that as a result of the injuries and illness endured by their staff, the Indians have been forced to call upon a number of young starters, including Jefry Rodriguez, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale.
Yet despite not possessing the plethora of Cy Young candidates it expected to at the start of the season, Cleveland's pitching staff has remained one of the best in baseball. As of Monday, the Indians' lay claim to the third-best team ERA in MLB (3.63) and have possessed the third-best pitching staff in baseball this season with a defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 17.08, per Baseball-Reference.
Having been sidelined since May 1 with a fractured forearm, Kluber could be nearing a return, with the 2-time Cy Young Award winner scheduled to make his second minor league rehab start on Tuesday. It's also worth noting that a return for Carrasco by season's end has yet to be ruled out, meaning that a pitching staff that has already established itself as one of baseball's best may only be getting richer in the weeks to come.
It's been less than two weeks since the Indians agreed to send Bauer to Cincinnati in a three-way deal also involving the San Diego Padres to acquire Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes. But already, Cleveland has begun to reap the rewards of its MLB Trade Deadline blockbuster.
While Reyes has yet to find his footing in Cleveland, hitting .111/.128/.167 and 3 RBIs, Puig has almost instantly fortified the middle of the Indians' lineup. In 11 games with his new team, Puig has hit .357 (.984 OPS), 6 RBIs, 4 doubles and 1 home run.
On top of all that, the former All-Star has injected Cleveland's clubhouse with a newfound sense of energy, as evidenced by his wave to the Minnesota dugout on Friday night.
In a lineup that formerly lacked a consistent right-handed bat, the Indians have added one of baseball's most talented, who also happens to be playing at his best. And should Reyes get going anytime soon, watch out, as there may not be an easy out to be found in Cleveland's batting order.
MLB's best bullpen
For all the love the Indians' starters have received this season -- and rightfully so -- the team's bullpen has been even better. Despite losing Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in free agency, Cleveland's bullpen has improved, to the point that it could be considered the best in baseball this season.
Through their its first 118 games, the Indians bullpen lays claim to a 3.21 ERA -- the best in the MLB. To put that number in perspective, the Tampa Bay Rays possess baseball's second-best bullpen ERA, which measures in at 3.67.
While closer Brad Hand has amassed the second-most saves in the American League (29), Cleveland has also received valuable contributions from the likes of Nick Goody, Oliver Perez, Tyler Clippard and Nick Wittgren. And with the team's starting pitching only getting healthier, it seems feasible the Indians' bullpen may only get deeper as the postseason approaches.
Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana's steady play
For all of the inconsistencies, the Indians' offense has endured this season, All-Stars Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana have combined to provide a steadying force in Cleveland's batting order.
Laying claim to a team-best .300 batting average, Lindor has quietly turned in another strong season that has further established his status as one of baseball's best young players. Despite missing the first month of the season with an ankle injury, the 4-time All-Star has hit the second-most home runs on Cleveland's roster (20) and also ranks second on the team in runs (67), total bases (214), OPS (.878) and stolen bases (18).
Although he's cooled off some since starting in the All-Star Game, Sanatana's first season back in Cleveland has doubled as a career year. Laying claim to team-highs in home runs (25), runs (80), RBIs (70), walks (84) and OPS (.925), Santana has single-handedly carried the Indians' offense at times and provided clutch hits, like his 10th-inning game-winning grand slam in Cleveland's 7-3 victory over the Twins on Sunday.
Although other hitters have been hotter recently, the Indians likely wouldn't be in the position they currently are if not for Lindor and Santana's steady play throughout the season. And Cleveland will need that reliable production to continue if it's going to have a chance at extending its season this fall.
Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramriez's summer hot streaks
While Lindor and Santana have been steady and Puig and Reyes are still getting accustomed to their new surroundings, the biggest change in the Indians' production this summer has been the improved play of Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis. After slow starts to the season from both, each has hit hot streaks since the start of June, which have coincided with Cleveland's surge in the standings.
After hitting .218 in the first half of the season with just 7 home runs and 35 RBIs, Ramirez has returned to All-Star form in the second half with a .328 average (1.035 OPS), 9 home runs and 29 RBIs in the last 30 games. Perhaps most tellingly, the Indians are 14-2 in games in which Ramirez hits a home run this season, including a pair of wins over the Texas Rangers last week prior to the team's pivotal series in Minnesota.
Similarly, Kipnis has overcome early-season struggles, which included a calf injury that delayed his 2019 debut. Nevertheless, the 2-time All-Star has bounced back to hit .319 (.917 OPS), 4 home runs and 21 RBIs in the last 28 days, sliding from cleanup to sixth in the Indians' new-look, post-trade deadline lineup.
Should either -- or both -- of Ramirez and Kipnis' second-half surges continue, Cleveland's lineup could prove as potent as any other team's come postseason play. Factor in the production Lindor, Santana and now Puig, as well as one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise the Indians find themselves in the position that they do.