How the Indians rallied around Carlos Carrasco's leukemia battle to get back in AL Central race

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NEW YORK — On June 4, the Cleveland Indians held a team meeting.

But it wasn’t because they had disappointed thus far, going 30-30 and digging themselves quite a significant hole — 10.5 games back — in the AL Central.

No, it was something far worse:

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Frontline starter Carlos Carrasco had been diagnosed with leukemia.

And Carrasco, who had compiled an uncharacteristic 4.98 ERA in his first 12 starts, wanted to address his teammates with the awful news.

“There’s no playbook for something like this,” Indians manager Terry Francona, who had to endure similar circumstances in 2006 with Boston when Jon Lester was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, told Yahoo Sports.

“We went completely off of Carlos. We asked him what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. He wanted to talk to his teammates, so I got everyone together. Carlos talked to the team. He told the team what was going on.

“It was a punch to the stomach.”

A little more than a month later, the news was made public.

Initially, it was uncertain whether Carrasco would be able to return and pitch again in 2019. But the 32-year-old’s cancer was treatable, and he wanted to attempt a comeback. “I Stand With Cookie” became the team’s motto.

“We just rallied behind him,” Indians reliever Tyler Clippard told Yahoo Sports. “It’s as simple as that. We gave him support. And he was a big part of rooting us on as he was dealing with that. It was huge.”

It hasn’t been the only adversity the Indians have faced this season.

Indians starter Carlos Carrasco's teammates have given him plenty of support during his cancer battle. (USA TODAY Sports)
Indians starter Carlos Carrasco's teammates have given him plenty of support during his cancer battle. (USA TODAY Sports)

Staff ace Corey Kluber hasn’t pitched since May 1 due to a broken arm, and just suffered a two-week setback due to an abdominal strain he sustained during his rehab. Third baseman José Ramirez posted .652 OPS in the first half before rediscovering his dominant form following the All-Star break (1.086 OPS).

Outspoken hurler Trevor Bauer was sent to Cincinnati in a blockbuster three-way deal at the trade deadline. And lately, closer Brad Hand has blown three consecutive save opportunities, as the team has dropped four of its last five.

But Carrasco’s courageous cancer battle trumps them all.

“It’s never fun when something like that happens to anyone — especially a close friend of mine,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis told Yahoo Sports. “But he’s been unbelievably the same throughout this whole process. He’s kept his sense of humor, and the same energy everyday.

“Sometimes I’ll get a little bit out of him. I’ll ask him how he’s feeling and he’ll say, ‘I’m a little tired.’” But he doesn’t let people know, he doesn’t let it show. To see him battling with the same smile that he’s always had has been cool to watch. I think anything we could get from him — just seeing him on the mound, will bring us a little boost.”

On Monday night, 77 days after telling his teammates he had been diagnosed with leukemia, Carrasco threw a 97-mph fastball on the first pitch of his first minor-league rehab outing with Double-A Akron. He will pitch again on Thursday.

And if he can make it all the way back, he might just be able to help the Indians as a power reliever in October.

Because ever since the team began rallying around Carrasco, Cleveland has also surged to an MLB-best 45-23 record to put itself back in contention to win the division.

Pretty incredible.

“Especially because [Carlos] is one of the guys you lean on when things aren’t going well, whether that’s in life or on the field, whatever,” Indians righty Mike Clevinger told Yahoo Sports. “To see him go through that, but bounce back so quickly is pretty awesome.

“And last night to throw 97? He’s already writing his own comeback story right now.”

Carrasco’s teammates are doing the same.

Back where the Cleveland Indians belong

“Tito” isn’t ready to reflect just yet.

The Indians started 29-30. And they were 11.5 games back of the division-leading Minnesota Twins on June 2.

But there’s still plenty of baseball left — and a playoff spot is far from secure.

“Sometimes you look, and the numbers don’t add up,” Francona said. “But that doesn’t mean you put your uniform away. You’ve got to make them add up even when they don’t. That’s your mentality. And when it’s all said and done, maybe you look back and say maybe we were short here, but not now. We’re trying to figure out a way to win, and that’s hard.”

It’s been even harder given all the upheaval they’ve had in their starting rotation. Kluber and Carrasco have both missed significant time, as has Clevinger due to back and ankle injuries. And with Bauer having been dealt, only 24-year-old righty Shane Bieber has made all of his starts.

Fortunately, Bieber has emerged as a strikeout artist with his wipeout slider (207 Ks in 168 1/3 IP); Clevinger has been effective since his return with increased velocity; and rookies Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko have both stepped up to solidify the starting staff. Cleveland currently ranks fifth in starters ERA (3.88) and first in bullpen ERA (3.44) — largely a product of its starters being able to go deep into games. Only Washington’s relievers have thrown less innings (400 2/3 to 386).

Indians starter Shane Bieber was named MVP of the 2019 All-Star Game. (USA TODAY Sports)
Indians starter Shane Bieber was named MVP of the 2019 All-Star Game. (USA TODAY Sports)

“Honestly, there was just no panic,” Clippard said. “We just stayed the course. We knew we were a good team, and we were gonna get back in it. What that looked like, we weren’t sure. But we knew we were gonna start playing better than we had been.”

The Indians were blown out 13-0 in back-to-back games by the lowly Baltimore Orioles on June 28-29 before ripping off a 12-2 stretch to move 16 games over .500. On Aug. 12, they moved a half-game in front of Minnesota.

“I think we’ve literally been all-in together,” Kipnis said. “We knew we couldn’t get all 11 games back in one game. But we have a group text talking about it almost everyday like, ‘Hey, big game, piece-by-piece, this one,’ or something like that, where it’s just kind of keeping guys involved.

“We knew it was going to be a marathon, and it’s still not over. It’s going to be a hard finish, but we accomplished the first step of catching back up to them, and now we’ve got to pass them and then hold them off.”

The Indians have won three straight AL Central titles, while posting an MLB-record 22 consecutive victories in 2017.

But this one could be the most satisfying given how they started.

“Every year, somebody comes out of the gate 10-0 and you hear the same quotes: ‘We love each other,’” Francona said. “And then they go in the s--tter. I want to see what it’s like when you’re struggling. That’s why when we were 29-30 I didn’t see anybody pulling the plug. We were a little frustrated, but nobody was pulling the plug on the season. They were working their asses off to get better. And we did.”

Making a blockbuster trade, and not missing a beat

Clevinger is throwing hard again.

And his close friend and former teammate, Bauer, is a big part of that.

“It’s been years and years of work and just trying to get my backside to work properly,” said Clevinger, who struck out 10 in a victory over the New York Yankees last Sunday.

“We knew I had a 100-mile-per-hour arm. I just couldn’t get it out off the mound. I could do it on flat ground and was basically just letting the slope dictate my mechanics. And that got me way out of sync. But over the years I’ve gotten more and more synced up through drills, and now it’s gone from 91 to 99.”

Bauer, of course, is a Red now. He imploded in his final start with Cleveland in Kansas City, and infamously threw the ball over the center-field wall before he exited.

Shortly thereafter, he was gone, dealt to Cincinnati in a three-way blockbuster trade that brought back massive outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes — along with lefty prospect Logan Allen — to help the Indians’ anemic offense.

Yasiel Puig has compiled an .870 OPS since being traded to the Indians. (USA TODAY Sports)
Yasiel Puig has compiled an .870 OPS since being traded to the Indians. (USA TODAY Sports)

“I can’t look at it that way,” Clevinger said of losing his close friend. “I’m older now. I’ve been around the business longer. It’s a business, man. It’s not about your heart. It’s not about your friends. It’s about winning, and understanding that side of things.

“Obviously, he’s a friend. And I’m going to miss not just the friendship but also the resource I had here. Everyone does. But at the end of the day, it’s a business.”

A business that brought the Indians a pair of 20-homer bats. Francisco Lindor (.866 OPS, 21 HRs) has been Mr. Consistency as usual. And Carlos Santana (.965 OPS, 30 HRs) is having the best year of his career at age 33. But Cleveland needed more.

With its young starters exceeding expectations and Bauer due a significant raise in arbitration, the move made sense.

“That’s what I even joked with him about, because we had lunch before he left town,” Clevinger said. “And I said, ‘Oh, look at what you got us. So when we win a World Series ring, I’ll call you with it.’”

Said one front-office executive: “It was a really great return. They went to the marketplace with the idea it makes sense to move him, but only if we get something that we can’t refuse. And I feel like they stepped up and got a lot of things taken care of both financially and made sure the present and future were better for it. It’s a hard deal to pull off, and that’s what they did.”

It’s the present part that was important to Clippard and the rest of his teammates.

“I think that was the big thing — where I didn’t want it to be a situation where they were just trying to get rid of him to get rid of him,” Clippard said of Bauer. “It was a really smart baseball move. We got a truckload of guys in return so it made sense, and we haven’t missed a beat since.”

The mercurial Puig in particular has gotten off to a hot start with his new team (.870 OPS in 17 games).

“When you’re playing against him, I’m not gonna lie, I’d be like [his antics and mannerisms] annoy me a little bit,” Kipnis said, echoing what other players would tell him about Puig. “But as expected, when he’s on your team it almost makes you laugh instead now. Now you kind of giggle at it.

“And you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s just being a clown or an idiot,’ instead of like, ‘That guy’s a clown or an idiot.’ Just the way you say it. You’re saying the same thing, but there’s different connotation to it now.

“But he’s been a good teammate so far. He definitely brings what we thought he would — this electricity, this thump in the middle of our lineup. He’s an imposing figure, and we’re going need more of it down the stretch.”

Seeing Carlos Carrasco back on a mound in October would be something. For that to happen, the Indians are going to have to keep winning for Cookie. Sure, there are still question marks on the roster. But it’s been a helluva ride. Time to finish it off.

“We’ve been tested along the way and will continue to be,” Francona said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to be good. It’s hard, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”

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