CLEVELAND: Champagne from the celebration Sunday might have still been stinging his eyes, yet Indians manager Terry Francona was clearly ready for the postseason Monday afternoon.
He was brash, he was confident, he was honest, he was funny. Especially when he made a reference to his firing in 2011, when the fat and happy Boston Red Sox went 7-20 in the final month.
Asked the key to the Indians’ September surge that ended with a 21-6 record and 10 consecutive victories, Francona joked, “We stayed away from chicken and beer.”
With that comment, Francona left no doubt he is ready to step onto the big stage again.
He’s already won two World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and ’07. In his 13 seasons as a manager, he will make his sixth playoff appearance and first since 2009 Wednesday when the Indians host the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League wild-card game.
The Indians haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007, when they were eliminated by Francona’s Red Sox four games to three in the ALCS. The glory days under manager Mike Hargrove, who led them to the World Series in 1995 and ’97, seem so long ago, especially for a fan base looking at a 49-year championship drought.
When the Indians started searching for manager Manny Acta’s replacement last year, they were fortunate Francona was such close friends with Tribe president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti from 2001, when Francona worked under them as an Indians special assistant. Francona admitted Monday had that not been the case, he wouldn’t have come to Cleveland. He said he’d probably still be working in television, after spending 2012 as an ESPN analyst.
After a needed break and an even-more-needed fresh start, Francona is clearly having more fun in the dugout than in front of the camera.
“This team grew on me really quickly,” he said. “We could have lost the last couple games. I would have been very disappointed; I wouldn’t have changed my feelings for our team. It’s not been a big secret, I love where I work. I respect my bosses. I care about them greatly.”
Francona, 53, has been jovial for days, confessing his room service order of two pints of ice cream and chocolate sauce in the wee hours before game 162 in Minnesota. That continued after the Tribe returned home following a raucous celebration at Target Field in which he kissed 42-year-old slugger Jason Giambi on the cheek.
“I don’t remember a lot. I hope it wasn’t on the lips,” Francona said. “If it was, I’m going to claim I was out of my mind.”
Some managers might have held off on the bubbly until the team reached the division series. The Indians are one victory away from that step, but Francona sensed his players needed to let loose. It could prove to be another example of the way he’s accurately gauged the Indians’ pulse all season.
“We stayed a little bit longer, held the second bus, let ’em have their fun,” he said. “Then you get on the plane and come back and set your sights on the next thing. Rather than having it linger, I wanted them to enjoy it. Now it’s time … we’ve got more baseball.”
That’s not to say he will over-manage now. He doesn’t think he will address the team before Wednesday’s game.
“I don’t think we need to have a meeting, that sets off a red flag,” he said. “They understand what’s going on here. They’ve played 162 games and done a heckuva job. The best thing I can do is to be consistent. If I do that, they’re going to go play. I’ll sit where I sit on the end of the bench and pat ’em on the back and tell ’em to keep going. They don’t need a speech this time of year.”
Francona knows managing in the postseason is different. The games are longer because of extended commercial breaks. In the wild-card game, he will probably have a nine-man bullpen because there is no need for five starters on the 25-man roster. When to go to the bullpen is another matter.
“You know you’re going home if you lose. Because there’s finality to that game, the one thing you can make a mistake, sometimes you can take your starter out too quickly,” he said. “That’s probably the hardest thing.”
But when it comes to starter Justin Masterson, pitching out of the bullpen after returning on Sept. 25 from a strained oblique, Francona practically threw down the gauntlet to playoff opponents. Masterson could be the closer in the wild-card game, a question Francona deferred Monday.
“We went from losing our best pitcher to probably being the only team left in baseball that could have a guy finish the game potentially throwing three innings. That’s quite a weapon. We plan to use it,” Francona vowed.
Francona hopes such weapons bring another chance to spray and swig Champagne. But if his moves and the love he continues to profess for the 2013 Indians result in even more good fortune, Francona may be wearing goggles.
“I was a mess. There was actually a moment there where I wished we would have lost,” he said, laughing uproariously. “And I don’t mean that.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.