The stinging loss still too fresh to process, outfielder Michael Brantley worked his way around the solemn, shocked clubhouse and hugged some new Indians teammates and ones he’s played with for years.
The emotion was raw, not like in 2016, when broken hearts were filled with pride following an extra-inning loss in Game 7 of the World Series.
It hurt more this time.
Josh Tomlin’s eyes welled with tears as he searched for words to explain what had happened. None ever came.
October, the month when championships are seized or squandered, was callous to Cleveland once more.
“I’m not really sure how you get over something like this,” Tomlin said after the Indians were pitched from the postseason with a 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees on Wednesday night in Game 5 of the AL Division Series. “I’m not really sure I’m over last year, either. The only way to get over something like this is to go out there and win, and that’s not what happened.”
What happened was the Indians didn’t hit, didn’t pitch and, like last year, didn’t deliver a knockout punch while giving up a two-game lead in the postseason. It’s an unforgiveable sin, and sadly, one Cleveland teams have repeated.
Since 1999, the Indians are 3-17 in series-clinching games, an unconscionable record in the most consequential month. In the past two years, Cleveland has lost six consecutive games — three with a chance to win their first Series since 1948, and now three to the Yankees — with a chance to close out a series and is 2-8 in those games under manager Terry Francona.
It’s somewhat unfair to label a team this successful as chokers, but they’ve done nothing to dispel that tag.
“It’s baseball,” said Brantley, whose personal comeback season was disrupted by another injury. “Nothing matters after the regular season is over. The goal is to win three games. We came up short. They’re a great team over there. We’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. They beat us. We just need to make sure we come back stronger, mentally, physically and just prepare to get back in this situation again.”
Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is promised.
The Indians won 102 games in the regular season, strung together the AL’s longest winning streak in 116 years and entered the postseason as the league’s top seed in a four-week tournament where the madness can match anything that happens in March.
The postseason will go without them.
“It absolutely stinks,” said closer Cody Allen. “It’s like you’re a kid and you go to the amusement park and you stay for 10 minutes and you have to leave.”
The sudden exit was quickly followed by questions about Corey Kluber’s health. An 18-game winner, the expected Cy Young winner and the AL’s best pitcher from April through September, Kluber was ordinary in October. Actually, he wasn’t that good.
Kluber didn’t get the past the fourth inning in either start against the Yankees, and after downplaying the idea that the right-hander’s tricky back might be bothering him again, Francona said the ace was “fighting a lot” on the mound.
In hindsight, Francona’s decision not to start Kluber in Game 1 may have been a warning sign. Francona’s explanation at the time was that he wanted Kluber in case there was a Game 5, but that reasoning went against everything the revered manager had preached all season, evoking his “win today” mantra ad nauseum.
But while Francona may be getting second-guessed, the bottom line is that Cleveland’s best players didn’t delivers.
Kluber posted a 12.79 ERA and gave up four homers in 6 1-3 innings. All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor and MVP candidate Jose went a combined 4 for 38 in the series, often flailing at pitches out of the strike zone. Jason Kipnis didn’t hit, Edwin Encarnacion missed two games with a sprained ankle and no one else stepped up.
While Lindor and Ramirez represent the team’s youthful core, the Indians have major offseason decisions to make with some important veterans like Brantley, Tomlin and first baseman Carlos Santana. Jay Bruce, whose acquisition in an August trade made the club stronger, will hit the free agent market as will dependable relievers Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith.
Brantley’s situation is the most delicate. The team has a $12 million contract option on the 30-year-old for 2018, and must weigh whether he’s worth it after being limited to 101 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
The key piece when Cleveland traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee nine years ago, Brantley blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around players as the Indians grew into contenders.
He can’t imagine playing for another team.
“I started a quest back in 2009,” Brantley said. “I want to finish it the right way. I don’t want to go out like this if it’s my choice. It’s not.”