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Start to Finish, the Indians’ 2023 Season was a Roller Coaster

September 27, 2023

The 121st Indians season began early, and with a loud clap of offensive thunder. Opening Night against Omaha was the first March game in franchise history, and after one inning, Indianapolis led 5-0. Endy Rodríguez, among the most renowned prospects on the roster, homered on the first pitch he saw.

The 121st Indians season began early, and with a loud clap of offensive thunder. Opening Night against Omaha was the first March game in franchise history, and after one inning, Indianapolis led 5-0. Endy Rodríguez, among the most renowned prospects on the roster, homered on the first pitch he saw.

Talk about your encouraging starts. What do you think for a final record, 150-0?

Well, no. Omaha rallied with four runs in the ninth inning to beat the Indians 8-6. That evening turned out to be an amazingly accurate omen for the roller-coaster ride to come. There would be high and low moments in a 70-78 season that included two cancellations, but it would seldom be boring. And the people came to watch, more than a half-million strong to Victory Field, averaging 7,842 a night, fourth best in Minor League Baseball.

“I would say the community has rallied around us again," club president Randy Lewandowski said. "I hope it’s the last time we say we’re back to normalcy coming out of the pandemic. I think that’s exciting for everybody.”

Exciting? Sure. Especially in a season whose road seemed to zig when it didn’t zag. A season that seldom seemed… normal. Even the way the Indians busted out of slumps was uncommon.

The same team that started the season 0-7 at home for the first time in 51 years finished with a 14-6 rush, ending 2023 at Victory Field an even 37-37. The way they snapped that 0-7 drought? Pound out 17 hits at the plate and strike out 16 from the mound in a fiery 9-2 win over St. Paul.

The Indians could not produce a single victory in their last at-bat before June 30, but once they got in the habit, anything seemed possible. A three-run homer in the ninth by Ji Man Choi beat Louisville 10-8 to break the dry spell. The Indians went 1-62 this season when trailing after eight innings. That was the 1. The next night they fell behind the Bats 8-2 through six innings but scored 12 unanswered runs, including six in the ninth, to win 14-8. It was the largest comeback in nine years. In all, none of their first 34 wins came in the last at-bat, but 12 of the last 36 did.

They played five extra-inning games – second fewest in the league – winning just one, and produced only three walk-off victories, none until July 6. Miguel Andújar’s sacrifice fly beat Memphis; one of his team-leading 86 RBI, the most for an Indianapolis player since Brandon Moss had 96 in 2010. Twenty days later, Joshua Palacios’ 466-foot homer – Indy’s longest of the season – stunned Louisville to complete a five-run comeback. And to prove the theory there are many ways to send an opponent trudging off the field after a walk-off finish, Nick Gonzales was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded against Iowa – the first walk-off of its kind in Victory Field history.

The can't-catch-a-break bunch that dropped 17 one-run decisions in a row and was once 2-17 in the close-call department did a U-turn and won 12 of its last 16 one-runners.

The defense that had so much trouble making plays early – a league-worst eight errors in the first four games, 29 by April 30 – found its footing as the summer warmed. From June 1 to August 29, Indianapolis fielded at a minor league-best 98.9 percent clip. The Indians made just eight errors all August, tied with Nashville for best in the minor leagues. During that golden glove stretch, the Indians had 39 more double plays than errors.

Indianapolis spent only one full day of the season above .500 – a 5-4 record on April 10 – and had a losing mark for keeps after June 4, but many of the numbers suggested a contender. The Indians finished tied for 12th in the International League standings but were fourth in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage and first with 42 triples. Twenty-one different Indy batters hit at least one of those.

The pitchers set a franchise record with 1,317 strikeouts – 61 more than the old mark set last year. That included the Whiff Weekend in April when they blew away 16 St. Paul batters on April 15 and 17 more on April 16. Then again, twice the Indianapolis hitters struck out 17 times in a game, both coming against Toledo on May 7 and Sept. 6. What the slider giveth, the slider taketh away.

The Indians had a terrible time against Omaha, starting 0-8 against the Storm Chasers and finishing 5-12. They were swept in all six games at Buffalo, outscored 35-14. But they owned neighbors Toledo and Louisville, going 14-4 and 13-5.

No, little seemed routine about 2023. You want screwy? The Indians walked at least once in their first 110 games, did not get a base on balls in a 3-2 win over Nashville on August 12, then walked at least once in each of their final 37 contests. So, 148 games, one without a walk.

Or this: The team that spent nearly all season with a losing record also spent nearly all season on the plus side in run differential. At one point, the Indians’ 29-39 record was 19th in the league, but their plus-23 run differential was sixth best. The teams just ahead of them in the standings were Gwinnett, Toledo, Jacksonville and Buffalo, with run differentials of minus-49, minus-79, minus-46 and minus-37. The final 70-78 record came with a run differential of plus-21.

“I was sitting down and looking at some numbers the other day,” manager Miguel Perez said. “It’s been one of those years. It’s part of the Triple-A level, where we’re to provide the best that we can to the big-league team. I think that’s part of it, the inconsistency.”

Indeed, the faces came and went as if the clubhouse was the B concourse at Indianapolis International Airport. There were 257 transactions, a club record. By the season’s end, 36 different players had gone to the plate for Indianapolis and 44 had thrown a pitch. Twelve different Pirates had stopped by Indianapolis for rehab visits. “I guess that’s just baseball in general, especially when you have guys going up and down,” said Ryan Vilade, one of the Indians who stayed put all season. “That’s a part of Triple-A that can be tough sometimes. One day you have this group of guys and the next day you have a whole other group of guys.”

That hardly makes consistency an easy target, but there was a bright side, too. Twelve prospects moved up to Pittsburgh from Indianapolis this summer to experience the magic of a major league debut, tied with the 2016 campaign for the most players promoted for their major league debuts since Indy became the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in 2005. “We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve also had a lot of callups, which is excellent,” Vilade said. “To see guys go to the big leagues and pursue their dream, it’s been amazing.”

Included were pitcher Quinn Priester and the switch-hitting catcher Rodríguez. On July 17, they became the first major league starting battery born in this century. They were also the first battery to be making their debut together for the Pirates since 1943.

The pipeline from Victory Field to PNC Park stayed busy with summer traffic. When the Pirates showed up in Great American Ball Park in mid-September to meet the Cincinnati Reds, eight of the 10 players in the Pittsburgh starting lineup had spent some 2023 time in Indianapolis. So, while 78 losses and four ejections might have rained on a few nights for Indianapolis manager Perez, being able to give the good news to so many young Indians was a delight. He even worked on creative ways to tell them.

“Trust me. I’m always practicing,” he said. “I think it’s the best part of my job, sitting in the manager’s chair, planning how I’m going to tell guys they’re going to the big leagues, to make it fun and to make a good memory for them. I love to do it with the group because I think that’s a special moment that everybody needs to experience. It serves as a motivation to the guys that are still working and fighting to get up there.”

After all the flips and flops and long days and short nights, the Indians’ season more than anything was a collection of moments and feats and oddities. There’s really only one place to start.

Miguel Andújar, referred to as “El Capitán” in the clubhouse.

Outrighted by the Pirates to Indianapolis in late May, the 28-year-old was facing hard times. Then he turned into Mookie Betts. He promptly went on a 20-game hitting streak – the Indians’ longest in 16 years – and drove in 61 runs in his first 55 games back from the bigs. He became only the second Indians hitter in the Victory Field era with three five-RBI games in the same season and the first to ever be named club player of the month in consecutive months. When the Pirates saw the light and called Andújar back in September, his .338 batting average was the highest for an Indianapolis hitter in 34 years.

No shocker, then, that he was named team MVP. “He’s a great example of how having the right attitude can get you a second chance,” Lewandowski said. “It would have been easy for him to pout, and instead he came down and hit and hit and hit.”

Andújar’s revival was not the only clamor to come from Victory Field.

Tucupita Marcano and Palacios streaked across the Indianapolis sky like a meteor shower and then were gone to Pittsburgh. Marcano hit .422 with a 1.147 OPS in 11 games. Palacios arrived from Altoona on April 21 and had two five-RBI games through his first eight contests. In August at PNC Park, Palacios became the 48th player to homer into the Allegheny River.

Henry Davis became the fourth No. 1 draft pick ever to play for the Indians. His first hit was one of those 42 triples. His first game behind the plate, he threw out Omaha’s Dairon Blanco, leading the league at the time with 37 stolen bases. He hit .286 with a .946 OPS in 10 games before the big club quickly found a spot for him in right field.

Canaan Smith-Njigba had one home run in 218 plate appearances for Indianapolis in 2022. He had 15 in 445 this season. The Pirates sent him back to Indianapolis in late April and he turned the disappointment into a big summer, finishing on an 11-game hitting streak and batting .367 with 29 RBI in his last 28 games. “He’s been doing everything we’ve asked him to,” Perez said. “He’s still got a long career in front of him. He came down here to play every day and he’s been taking advantage of it. He hasn’t pulled back.”

Priester won a team-high nine games around his stints with the Pirates, tied for third in the league in victories and was fifth in strikeouts. Hunter Stratton allowed one unearned run his last 12 relief appearances, as opponents went 3-for-43 against him. Then he left for Pittsburgh.

Gonzales produced the first cycle for an Indianapolis hitter in five years on Sept. 19 against Rochester. To fit the 2023 motif, it was on the eccentric side. Gonzales started with a 450-foot homer, then doubled and tripled in the same sixth inning. He completed the cycle with a soft single in the eighth inning against Jack Dunn, a third baseman who had been called on to pitch because the Indians led 19-1. The cycle-clinching hit came on a 50 mph pitch.

The first Triple-A hit of Brenden Dixon’s life came in April against Columbus. It was a grand slam.

Vilade played five different positions in the field and committed only two errors in 102 games in the outfield. A leaping over-the-shoulder catch he made against Columbus in June ended up No. 3 on that night’s ESPN SportsCenter Top 10.

Fishers’ own Matt Gorski took the field once again at Victory Field on Sept. 7, which was 358 days after his aborted debut. That 2022 appearance ended with a quad injury suffered while diving for a line drive, so his grand return home did not last past the seventh inning. “To only be able to play a certain amount of innings in front of people that come out to watch you play back in your hometown was definitely upsetting and frustrating,” he said. “You’re mad but you’re also sad. The emotions were definitely very high and very low the same day.”

Sept. 7 was his second chance. “Make it through one game, that’s the goal,” he said that night. He did more than that, doubling twice in a 4-1 win. On Sept. 17 on the road against Omaha, his homer made him the only player in the Pirates’ organization with 20 or more homers, doubles and stolen bases, counting what he did at Altoona and Indianapolis.

On and on the fascinating moments came, even if the win-loss record didn’t always show it.

In Game 2 of a doubleheader on May 3, Caleb Smith threw 7.0 zeroes at Toledo and produced the first complete game shutout of the season in the minor leagues. It would also end up the Indians’ only complete game of the year.

On May 18, the Indians and Iowa Cubs drew 13,186 to an 11 AM weekday game, thanks to an army of school kids. Indianapolis won 10-5.

May 20 brought a rare double scoop of major league pitching to Victory Field, with two starters facing one another on rehab assignments – the Indians’ Vince Velasquez against the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks. Velasquez pitched into the fifth and led 1-0, but Iowa rallied to win 2-1, with Hendricks working 6.0 innings. The Indians lost the second game of the doubleheader 1-0, leaving them swept on a day they gave up only three runs. Nearly 13,000 were there to watch. “That was an awesome crowd out there and having Vince over there was like a throwback a little bit to a few years ago,” Hendricks said.

The Indians mashed Toledo 13-1 on May 31, getting both a grand slam and back-to-back home runs in the same game for the first time in 16 years. They crushed Columbus 18-5 on June 23, at that point the most runs at Victory Field in 19 seasons.

They sold out July 4 for the 25th consecutive year and beat Memphis 8-5 to even their Victory Field record on the holiday at 13-13. Choi hit a home run that left the park and bounced along West Street.

There was no playoff chase in September, but the season still ended well. The final week included Gonzales’ cycle and the 19-1 thrashing of Rochester that was the largest margin of victory ever at Victory Field. Three days after winning by 18 runs, they won by one for the last time on a Chris Owings three-run triple in the bottom of the eighth, Indy’s final win in its last at-bat.

There was also a gaggle of awards to be handed out. Andújar the MVP, Priester the pitcher of the year, Stratton the top reliever, Vilade for his defense, Owings the most unsung position player, Cam Alldred and his 31 appearances and eight wins the most unsung pitcher and Josh Bissonette the community champion.

The season, then, had a very full plate: A changing cast, a parade to Pittsburgh, some days to forget but even more to cherish.

“The thing you’re going to remember are the guys you played with. I think I’ve made some lifelong friends in this clubhouse,” Vilade said.

“There’s been a lot of special moments for me this year, especially in the clubhouse,” Perez said. “I put myself in their shoes before I talk to anybody about anything because I know how hard this game is, and I know how complicated it can be.”

Especially when the Pirates are so often holding on the other line, wanting somebody else.

“On the field, we still have lots of movement on the team,” Lewandowski said. “I think that’s challenging for everybody. You’re going to have the ebbs and flow. The guys who probably need the biggest pat on the back are guys like Vilade and (Aaron with his 14 home runs) Shackelford. They didn’t get a taste (of the big leagues) but they stayed with it all year long and gave us some level of consistency. Another guy, Bissonette. Whenever we need anything, guys like that become the glue to what you are and who you are, in the clubhouse and in the community and on the field. That’s the stuff that makes it fun."

Perez thought so, too. “I had the fortune to have Chris Owings in my clubhouse, a guy who’s been in the big leagues for eight-plus years. The fact he’s so humble, he’s a great human being. You cannot tell this guy has been in the big leagues for eight years.”

Bottom line from the front office?

“We would call this year a success,” Lewandowski said. “Sure, we want to get back to being in the fight for the playoffs. But by and large we have good guys who run through the clubhouse. Miggy and his staff have been great to work with the last couple of years. I think we’re in a good spot, which gives us some great momentum for 2024.

“It almost feels parallel what we’re doing from a business perspective with what we think is coming on the field. I just think the Pirates are getting better and as they get better on the major league level, that hopefully lends to more stability here.”

It was, then, a season of making noise and making do. But that’s Triple-A baseball.