ESPN – CLEVELAND — After Brett Gardner‘s line single to right field scored two runs to put away Game 5 of the American League Division Series for the New York Yankees, hundreds of crestfallen realists in the Progressive Field stands succumbed to the inevitable. They lugged their disappointment and dashed dreams up the stairs into the night, fully cognizant that the Cleveland Indians‘ streak of world championship-free seasons will turn 70 in 2018.
When Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman struck out Austin Jackson looking to seal a 5-2 victory, the Cleveland players headed down the dugout steps into a long, regret-filled winter. The season wasn’t supposed to end this way — or at least this soon — and it was a time for a little introspection on the fly.
In Cleveland, there always seems to be a new twist on despair. Either the World Series ends in heartbreak after a rainstorm gives the Cubs the time and space to compose themselves, or an Indians team that won 102 regular-season games suddenly forgets to field or hit at the worst possible time. It all comes down to degrees of disappointment and pain.
Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ wondrous young shortstop and franchise face, confronted all the difficult questions Wednesday night: When did the Indians lose their momentum? What happened to the bats — and the gloves? How did this unhappy ending compare to the World Series loss to Chicago last fall? And why do the Indians seem to have so much trouble putting away teams in October?
Including this year, the Tribe have dropped six straight potential clinching games in October and 17 of 20 such games since 1999. That’s an awful track record by any objective standard.
For much of his give-and-take with the media, Lindor lapsed into default mode and stuck to platitudes: It’s baseball. That’s part of the game. Hats off to the Yankees. They outplayed us.
But the look on his face reflected the growing pains of a 23-year-old kid who expected so much more.
“I was thinking I was going to be playing all the way to November 1, with champagne,” Lindor said. “I wasn’t thinking about doing this here, early in October. It’s tough. It hurts. But you learn from it.”
The Indians could have at least taken some solace in playing their best and coming up short — as they did in 2016. But a team that won 33 of 37 games to end the regular season and two more to start the ALDS went cold in almost every facet of the game against the Yankees.
Team defense, such a source of pride this season, went south in Games 4 and 5. The Indians committed seven errors in the final two games to hand the Yankees seven unearned runs.
Staff ace Corey Kluber, who went 11-1 with a 1.79 ERA after the All-Star break to emerge as the clear front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award, was a pale imitation of himself in the division series. In two starts against the Yankees, Kluber gave up four home runs in 6⅓ innings and logged a 12.79 ERA. He gave the Indians everything he had, but it wasn’t nearly good enough.
Skeptics had reason to wonder why manager Terry Francona would pitch Trevor Bauer in the series opener and relegate Kluber to Games 2 and 5. Kluber missed a month because of a back injury early in the season, and there were rumblings that the problem flared up again during the postseason. Those questions won’t go away anytime soon.
When asked if Kluber might have been fighting a back problem, Francona replied, “You know what? I think he’s fighting a lot, and I think you also have to respect the fact that the guy wants to go out there and he’s our horse. And sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Kluber, typically succinct and stoic, declined to shed any further light on his condition. He volleyed every inquiry about his health with a vague half-answer.
“I don’t think anybody is 100 percent at this point of the year,” Kluber said. “I was good enough to go out there and try to compete. I don’t know if I need to get into the details. I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch.”
Even if Kluber were on his game, the Indians’ offense would have given him almost no margin for error. While a lot of credit goes to Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and the Yankees’ bullpen, the Cleveland hitters went outside their comfort zones and lost any semblance of selectivity at the plate in the division series.
After striking out a mere 18.5 percent of the time during the regular season — the second-lowest percentage in baseball behind the Houston Astros – the Indians whiffed 61 times in 164 at-bats against New York. Lindor and Jose Ramirez, the team’s top-of-the-lineup catalysts, were particularly ineffective, hitting a combined .105 (4-for-38) with 13 strikeouts against New York. But up and down the lineup, the Cleveland hitters appeared to be pressing.
“You press because it means so much to you,” veteran Jason Kipnis said. “You press because you want to get it done. You press because you want to succeed. You don’t press because you fear failure. When you press in those terms, you just want it so bad, I guess. It was just bad timing to switch off. There’s no other answer than that.”
The Indians’ early departure hurts the most, in the end, because those exhilarating midsummer memories are so fresh in everybody’s minds. They were the talk of baseball with 22 straight wins in August and September, and they were considered by many to be the game’s most complete and balanced team entering the postseason.
Compared to last year, when the Indians lost Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to injuries and had to rely so heavily on Kluber, they had a rotation built to win in October. Edwin Encarnacion gave them a reliable, power-hitting anchor in the cleanup spot, and Jay Bruce provided one big hit after another after coming over from the New York Mets in a deadline trade. Lindor and Ramirez were better this year with experience, and the bullpen, while down a tick from 2016, was still formidable with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen at the back end.
Now the Indians are going home and they have to watch the Astros take on the Yankees, who were supposed to be a year away from serious contention.
“It’s a missed opportunity for us,” Bruce said. “I’m so very proud of the way we played overall this year, but obviously it doesn’t mean much when you get to the postseason and can’t do the job. This team really doesn’t have any weaknesses. I felt like we were a legitimate World Series contender. It was an honor for me to be a part of it and come over and experience this with these guys. This group is gonna be around for a long time.”
Bruce might not be around much longer. He’s a free agent in November, so he’ll have something to occupy his time this winter beyond lamenting what might have been. But the disappointment is real and the pain is still fresh, and it’s hard to come to grips with how quickly the season unraveled.
Questions abound for the 2017 Indians. Satisfactory answers, not so much.
“Baseball is a crazy game,” Bruce said. “And I don’t think I’ll ever, ever understand it.”