Indians try to follow Cubs in ending MLB title curse

Jim SLATER
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Albert Almora Jr. of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with teammates at home plate after hitting a three-run home run in the first inning of an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds, at Cashman Field in Las Vegas, on March 26, 2017

There's still a bit of hangover from last year's epic World Series as the 2017 Major League Baseball campaign opens Sunday with the champion Chicago Cubs back on the field.

The seemingly cursed Cubs won their first crown since 1908, ending the longest title drought in American sports, by edging the Cleveland Indians 4-3 in the best-of-seven championship final.

The Cubs, who figure to contend again this year, open at St. Louis while the San Francisco Giants visit Arizona and the New York Yankees meet Tampa Bay in Sunday's other games.

There were back-to-back Cubs titles in 1907 and 1908, but no National League club in 40 years has won back-to-back World Series crowns, a feat last managed by the New York Yankees from 1998-2000.

Yet history might give a clue for this year. The last team to end an epic "curse" was the Boston Red Sox, who snapped an 85-year drought in 2004. The next year, the Chicago White Sox ended an 87-year drought.

So could there be another curse foiled this year? The Indians certainly hope so.

The Tribe fell one win short of ending their drought in falling to Chicago, instead seeing it stretch to 68 years without a World Series crown, the longest active run of title frustration. They also lost the World Series in 1954, 1995 and 1997.

Cleveland kept the core of the squad that came within one game of the title and added slugger Edwin Encarnacion. The 34-year-old Dominican slugger, who drove in an American League-leading 127 runs last year for Toronto, signed a three-year deal in January for $60 million.

The Indians also welcome back outfielder Michael Bradley, out for most of 2016 after shoulder surgery, but now second baseman Jason Kipnis has a shoulder injury.

- 'It's a fine line' -

Cleveland's starting pitchers remain the class of the AL with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin all winning at least 11 games last year.

The Tribe led the AL in strikeouts and were second with a 3.84 earned-run average and have such relievers as Andrew Miller, Most Valuable Player of last year's AL Championship Series, and closer Cody Allen.

"Our goal this year is to pitch them a lot without pitching them too much," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "It's a fine line."

Three AL West division favorites have never won the World Series, the Texas Rangers after 56 seasons, the Houston Astros after 55 and Seattle after 40.

"The division is going to be very competitive -- every club has a case to be improved from last year," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said.

The Rangers, who were within one strike of winning the 2011 World Series before falling, feature strong pitching with Japan's Yu Darvish, veteran Cole Hamels ancd left-hander Martin Perez.

Boston lost slugger David Ortiz to retirement but infielders Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts give the Red Sox a chance to remain the AL's most prolific scoring squad.

But the Yankees, with Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, and Toronto, a solid batting lineup despite losing Encarnacion to Cleveland, could threaten the Red Sox.

- Cubs, Dodgers eye NL title -

In the National League, the Cubs will challenge again behind star right-handed pitchers Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks and lefty Jon Lester plus a tough defense that backstopped a major-league best 103 wins and clutch hitting from NL Most Valuable Player Kris Bryant at third base and World Series Most Valuable Player Ben Zobrist at second base.

"It's hard. It's a gauntlet," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the quest to repeat. "There are so many things that can play a role."

Injuries will be one factor. New talent will be another. After losing outfielder Dexter Fowler to St. Louis and closer Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees, the Cubs have added outfielder Jon Jay from San Diego and closer Wade Davis in a trade with Kansas City.

The Washington Nationals and New York Mets figure to fight for the NL East crown while the NL West favorites, and the Cubs biggest threat, looks to be the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ace left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw powers a Dodgers lineup that includes Japanese ace right-hander Kenta Maeda, a 16-game winner last season in his first North American campaign after eight seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and relief ace Kenley Jansen.