CLEVELAND — After polishing off the Cleveland Indians’ season, George Springer glanced into the Monday afternoon sky, at the baseball he just crushed, and proceeded to breeze around the bases at the center of a deadened, defeated ballpark.
Springer was watching his second home run of the game, a liner over the right-center-field fence, a gut punch to the Indians as they bowed out of the American League Division Series with an 11-3 loss at Progressive Field. Soon, the Astros brought home five more eighth-inning runs and the home crowd started a round of tired boos. Soon, those boos turned to restless, reeling yells as the Astros neared a three-game sweep. And soon after that, with an inning and a half still to play, some fans headed for the exits one last time, another season behind them, another playoff run over before it really began.
The Indians could not solve Springer. They could not handle Marwin Gonzalez, who hit a go-ahead, two-run double for the second straight game and added another RBI in the eighth. They could do little against the reigning World Series champions, across all three games, who showed the Indians that success is always fleeting, and the postseason needs to be grabbed right away.
“We got to go home now, before we’re ready to,” Indians Manager Terry Francona said after the loss. “That hurts. It always stings.”
Cleveland is a shifting sports town in these first days of fall. When the NBA season starts later this month, LeBron James will be in Los Angeles with the Lakers as the Cavaliers begin another life without him, the sport’s brightest star, an Akron native who left Ohio before coming back to deliver a championship the city will always hold close. But James is gone now, once again, and basketball in Cleveland may never be the same.
Then there are the Browns, long the punchline of a thousand jokes, 2-2-1 to start the NFL season and maybe even sort of good, beating the Baltimore Ravens for their first victory on a Sunday since 2015.
And yet the Indians are still the same Indians, at least of the past three years, great throughout the regular season, not quite good enough when it really counts. In 2016, they lost to the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series, on a night baseball will never forget but Cleveland remembers for the wrong reasons. In 2017, the Indians won an AL-high 102 games, strung together a 22-game winning streak beginning in August and fell to the New York Yankees in the ALDS. Then in 2018, after coasting to a third straight division title, the Indians flatlined in Games 1 and 2 of this series to wind up here, on a sunny afternoon in early October, with another season on the line.
“I’m glad we’ve had the chance,” Francona said of settling in the same spot in back-to-back seasons. “If you keep giving yourself a chance, there’s . . . at some point, you believe you’ll break through. We haven’t been good enough to this point.
“But, I mean, it’s frustrating for sure,” Francona continued. “I think there’s a lot of teams that would like to be in this situation, but when you come up short, you take stock and try to do better.”
The Indians, after collecting only six hits in the first two games of the series, scored first on a sacrifice fly from Michael Brantley in the third. But that lead evaporated when Springer crushed a slider from starter Mike Clevinger into the left field seats. His homer in the eighth was the 10th of his playoff career, the most in franchise history, and the eighth in his past nine postseason games. And it is not just Springer who thrives for the Astros in October. It is Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and a roster full of players who seem to raise their games when the games matter more.
Clevinger was strong, striking out nine in five innings, leaning on a humpback curveball that left the Astros swinging at air. The Indians’ offense was opportunistic, manufacturing the run in the third before Francisco Lindor blasted a 446-foot homer in the fifth. But the Astros, again, were even stronger and more opportunistic and made fewer mistakes when everything was added up.
“We were just outplayed,” Indians center fielder Jason Kipnis said. “I wish it weren’t that simple. It just seemed like from top to bottom, we were out-scouted, outhit, outpitched, out-coached a little bit, they really just did a fantastic job over there of being ready and prepared before the series.”
That all showed in the seventh, when reliever Trevor Bauer missed his chance to keep the Indians alive. He had already allowed the game-tying run that inning, but now Bregman gave him a gift, a chopper into his glove that should have killed the rally with a double play. Then Bauer threw the ball wide of second, then both runners were safe, then he walked Yuri Gurriel to load the bases and Gonzalez hit that go-ahead double inside the left field line.
And that was it. That was all the Astros’ bullpen needed even as the offense piled runs on. That was all the Indians needed to let another postseason slip away. They came into the day with an age-old choice — win or go home — and will sit with the latter for the next five months, because baseball in Cleveland is finished for now, as if little has even changed.