Now that Cleveland’s historic streak is over, it’s easier to fully appreciate just what an incredible thing it was. Twenty-two games! That’s so many! Nearly 15 percent of an entire season spent continuously winning. So many opportunities for something to go wrong, all successfully avoided.
Today we’re going to look at some of those opportunities: the close calls and tight spots that Cleveland still managed to work itself out of. These are the five points — organized chronologically — where, by FanGraph’s win probability, the streak was most in danger of ending:
Streak length: four games
Opponent’s maximum win probability: 72.4 percent
The streak came pretty close to ending before it even started. Coming off a win against the Red Sox and a sweep of the Royals, Cleveland rolled into New York for a three-game set, and gave the ball to Corey Kluber for the opener. While Kluber had a great night — eight innings, seven strikeouts, one walk, and two runs — an offense that was slow to get going had him on the hook for most of the game.
Jose Ramirez hit a solo shot in the top of the first, but Chase Headley responded with a home run of his own to tie the score in the third. The Yankees strung together a pair of hits in the bottom of the fifth—a Jacoby Ellsbury double and a Todd Frazier single—to take a 2–1 lead. When Luis Severino struck out two batters to start the sixth, the Yankees had nearly a three-in-four probability of closing the game out and winning.
But Cleveland made good use of its ten remaining outs. Jose Ramirez homered again, tying the score at 2 and bringing the win probability back to nearly even. Then in the seventh, Carlos Santana hit a solo shot of his own (the fourth of the game) to take the lead, which they wouldn’t give back. The Yankees couldn't put together any more offense, and Cleveland ran up the score to a final mark of 6–2. Admittedly, that doesn’t look very close, but as it turns out, this was a tight game by the standards of this streak.
Streak length: twelve games
Opponent’s maximum win probability: 64.5 percent
The next semi-close call came after twelve straight Cleveland wins, long enough for the streak to be referred to as such. This was an ugly game against the White Sox, in which Cleveland jumped out to a early 3–0 lead against Carson Fulmer, but coughed it up just as quickly. Danny Salazar couldn’t make it out of the first, allowing four runs via two walks, a HBP, and a Matt Davidson dinger. With two outs in the top of the second, Cleveland faced an uphill battle, and their win probability of 35.5 percent reflected that.
But does it count as an uphill battle if it’s against the White Sox? Jose Ramirez hit a solo shot to tie it, his second of the game — apparently, Cleveland trailing activates some kind of ultra-focus in Jose Ramirez — and they never looked back. The bullpen also put in an admirable effort, holding the White Sox in check for the entirety of the game. Their collective final line: 8 1⁄3 innings, nine strikeouts, three walks, no runs.
Again, the final score of 9–4 makes this look like it wasn’t a close game. And honestly, it wasn’t really a close game! Cleveland never trailed after the top of the second inning! But this is what passes for a close game in the midst of this streak.
Streak length: 16 games
Opponent’s maximum win probability: 61.2 percent
These are getting more and more mundane as we get deeper into the streak. That’s part of the reason that, around this point, passing the Athletics’ 20-game streak seemed like not just a possibility but almost expected—Cleveland was not just winning every game it played, but winning those games with ease.
In this game against the Orioles, Josh Tomlin had a fine start—five innings, three strikeouts, no walks, two runs—but one of those runs came in the early innings, before Cleveland had scored. As a result, Baltimore was favored to win for a whopping two-and-a-half innings, topping out at the close of the second inning. After the Orioles went quietly in the third, a Giovanny Urshela double tied the score, and Cleveland was off to the races yet again.
Look at this graph. This is the win probability graph of the fourth-closest game Cleveland played in this entire, improbable, twenty-two game streak:
That’s not a close game! This article seemed like a good idea when I came up with it.
Streak length: 20 games
Opponent’s maximum win probability: 60.4 percent
This was the game to break the A’s record, and it has a similar narrative arc to every game preceding it, basically: an opponent who jumps out to a small, early lead, only to be overcome by Cleveland with relative ease.
For a game with so much on the line, this didn’t feature much drama: Mike Clevenger allowed a run in the first, but it was the only run he allowed in six innings of work. And Cleveland’s bats didn’t take long to get going, either: in the bottom of the first, a three-run home run by Jay Bruce put Cleveland comfortably in the lead. The Tigers would come within one run in the sixth and seventh, but even those two runs were unearned, and the bullpen wouldn’t give any more ground. An insurance run later and Cleveland was the new holder of the longest win streak in modern memory.
Streak length: 21 games
Opponent’s maximum win probability: 89.9 percent
Now this game was close. And at the time, it felt like the universe had screwed up the plot of this streak a bit. This was the game after the really important one; shouldn’t that game have been the one that required a late-inning comeback? But in hindsight, we can impose some meaning on the randomness: Cleveland had already broken the record at this point, and really, this was the game when the streak was fated to end. Still, Cleveland could overcome even fate, at least for one night.
Fate did indeed seem to be on the side of the Royals for much of this game. KC starter Jakob Junis threw 5 2⁄3 innings with seven hits, one walk, and just one strikeout, but still managed to escape the night almost wholly unscathed, allowing just one run. The game stayed tied at one — the Royals having scored a run off Josh Tomlin — until the sixth, when doubles from Whit Merrifield and Eric Hosmer gave the putative streak-breakers a 2–1 lead. The score stayed that way through the bottom half of the 8th inning, which Francisco Lindor led off with a fly out to center.
Let’s pause here for a moment. In game number 22, with 21 consecutive wins behind them, Cleveland trailed by a run in the bottom of the eighth, with one out and nobody on base. Its win probability: 24.6 percent. This was the first time in the entire streak they had a win probability below 25 percent. From one perspective, this isn’t surprising: We know Cleveland won all 21 of those games, so never being that close to losing makes sense. On the other hand, Cleveland’s streak (until this game) is a lot more remarkable when we recognize it for what it was — not just 21 straight wins, but 21 straight drubbings, with opponents who barely put up a credible resistance. Nobody held a lead against Cleveland later than the 6th inning for 21 straight games. I know I’m overusing italics, but I just cannot get over this.
Naturally, after dipping below 25 percent for the first time in nearly a month, Cleveland’s win probability immediately rocketed back upward, with a Greg Allen walk and Jose Ramirez double setting up an intentional walk of Edwin Encarnación and bringing the game back to an even 50–50. But two quick outs shut down the eighth-inning rally, and after a couple of ground balls and a fielder’s choice in the ninth, the Royals were just one out away from putting an end to Cleveland’s run, with a mere 10.1 percent chance of losing.
But you know what happened next: Cleveland kept it going for one more night, with a Lindor double driving in the tying run, and a pair of doubles from Jose Ramirez and Jay Bruce in the tenth giving them the win.
Maybe I’m more surprised by this than I should be. A team clearly can’t fluke its way into a 22-game winning streak, so that Cleveland was never that close to losing at any point in the streak shouldn’t be a shock. But it is surprising! You’d expect everything to have to break right for a team to not drop a single game for three straight weeks. Maybe that’s just one way to put together a streak like this; maybe the other way is just to be really, really good. We know which path Cleveland took.
Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.