Before this season, the Boston Red Sox had been to the playoffs just twice in the last seven years. Two men who were instrumental to both of those postseason appearances will be in the other dugout Thursday night.
General manager Terry Francona and first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli have played major roles on a Cleveland Indians team that won 94 games this year en route to an American League Central title, setting up an AL Division Series showdown against their old club, the Red Sox.
For Francona, who spent eight years as Boston’s manager from 2004 to 2011, it’s the second time in four years he’s guided the Indians to 90-plus wins. He has yet to win a postseason game in Cleveland — the Tribe lost the 2013 AL Wild Card Game to the Tampa Bay Rays — but his player-friendly style again has delivered results so far this season.
“Shoot, we’re here because of (the players),” Francona said Wednesday, via Cleveland.com. “There are enough tough conversations in this game, but the players are so much fun for the most part to be around, it seems like a waste not to enjoy it. I mean, shoot, they probably give me as hard a time as I give them, but when it’s time to take the ball, that’s baseball. And they all understand that. So it kind of makes it fun.”
Francona’s laid-back approach paid off in World Series titles with Boston in 2004 and 2007. That managerial style also drove Napoli, who spent two-plus years with the Red Sox from 2013 to 2015, to sign with Cleveland ahead of the 2016 season.
“He told me he was a player’s manager, a guy that cares for everything you do, that it’s genuine,” Napoli said Wednesday, via Cleveland.com. “He said he’s a guy who knows the game and that I’d love playing for him because he’s such a veteran manager.”
Napoli’s stats this year seem to bear that out. Despite striking out a franchise-record 194 times, the 34-year-old set career highs with 34 home runs and 101 RBIs, a dream season for a guy who hit a total of 18 homers and 50 RBIs last year.
The impact of Francona and Napoli goes beyond the stat sheet, however, as the two ex-Red Sox have helped cultivate strong chemistry on an Indians club that stayed the course despite losing key contributors like Michael Brantley and Danny Salazar.
Cleveland even added a third former Red Sox player at the trade deadline in reliever Andrew Miller, who has been an absolute weapon out of the bullpen in the second half. And we haven’t even mentioned ex-Boston outfielder Coco Crisp, who joined Cleveland in a trade on Aug. 31.
In short, Boston will be facing a very familiar opponent over the next few days, and those old friends will be very much the enemy when this series kicks off Thursday night.
Thumbnail photo via Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports Images