CLEVELAND — History and heartache loomed Wednesday night over Progressive Field, twin demons the 2017 version of the Cleveland Indians were supposed to extinguish. As of the weekend, the Indians boasted an enchanted summer, a powerhouse roster and an untested, overwhelmed American League Division Series opponent. They had only taken the first steps toward redeeming the final inning of last October. Autumn had only started, and the chill seemed to carry only reassurance.
Suddenly, cruelly, inconceivably, winter arrived. The Indians will gather next spring still lacking a World Series title since 1948 after the New York Yankees toppled them, 5-2, in Game 5 of the ALDS and completed a comeback from down 2-0 in the series, stunning the Indians three times in four days. As the Yankees' visions of a burgeoning dynasty materialized a year early, the Indians, dating back to last year's World Series, lost their sixth potential series clincher in row.
The Indians swallowed another disappointment at the hands former franchise pillar CC Sabathia and a monstrous Yankees bullpen, a combination that produced 15 strikeouts and shocked silence at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. A franchise that had blown a two-game lead in an epic World Series last year endured the same fate in the very next playoff series it played. A team that won 22 consecutive games this summer could not win one out of three when it mattered most.
"It feels soon," Indians relief ace Andrew Miller said. "This is a team that was able to win a World Series. You don't get too many opportunities like that."
The Indians have suffered frequent miseries the past six decades, but maybe none so harsh as this season. Their scalding lineup faltered, scoring five runs in the three losses. Their ace, likely Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, imploded, yielding nine runs in 6 ⅓ innings in the series, including three in 3⅔ innings Wednesday night. Their defense, tight all season, committed four errors in Game 4 and gifted New York an insurance run in the ninth inning in Game 5 on a bobbled relay throw, which came after Brett Gardner singled on the 12th pitch of his epic encounter with Cody Allen.
The Yankees struck out 16 times Wednesday night, and yet they will still face the Houston Astros in AL Championship Series. Of the Indians teams, in all the years, how could it crumble like this?
"I feel like it's an opportunity that's missed," Indians outfielder Jay Bruce said. "To be part of a team this talented, with this much depth and this much ability to win games, there really wasn't a weak spot. I truly felt this team had a legit opportunity to do it."
The Indians only added another layer to their tortured postseason history. The names and moments stack up like cordwood, recognizable to anybody in a Chief Wahoo cap: Jose Mesa in 1995, Pedro Martinez in 1999, J.D. Drew in 2007, rain in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
Now add another: Didi Gregorius, the man Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman handpicked three years ago to replace Derek Jeter. Gregorius homered twice off Kluber in the first three innings, accounting for all three Yankees runs. Jeter played 158 postseason games, and not once did he homer twice in one.
"You don't hear much about Jeet other than him owning the Marlins now," Sabathia said. "If it wasn't for Didi, we'd be talking a lot about him playing shortstop for us."
The Indians held a 3-1 lead in last year's World Series and survived until the 10th inning of Game 7 before losing. They had another three chances to clinch this ALDS and lost all three, continuing a franchise legacy. Since 1999, they have played 20 games with a chance to advance in a playoff series and lost 17.
"History, if you allow it to enter into what you're doing, it can get in the way a little bit," Manager Terry Francona said Wednesday afternoon. "But I think our group is pretty solid where we've got to go win a game. Whatever happened in 1959 or whatever happened on Tuesday doesn't matter. We just need to go win a baseball game. Fortunately, I think our guys are pretty good at that."
The 2017 Indians will stand beside a different vintage of Tribe heartache, those loaded mid-90s teams of Ramirez and Thome and Alomar. They will be remembered as an unfulfilled juggernaut, a team with all the ingredients to win a championship, but not the trophy. The Indians outscored their opponents by 254 runs, the widest margin since the 116-win Seattle Mariners. In a year of stacked teams, they possessed the most talent. Now, their 102 wins reside in history's dustbin, a monument to October's fickleness.
"This is as perfect-run an organization as you can have," Cashman said of the Indians. "They're someone all of us are trying to emulate, the way they go about their business both on and off the field. It seems like every move makes sense and is a stroke of genius. This was an extremely well-put together team. I would call this team a superteam, actually. . . . That's why you got to play the games out. I've produced 100-win teams that got knocked out in the first round too many times. That's why you don't bet on baseball. A lot can change really quick, as we've just seen again."
Four days ago, Francona could have been forgiven for contemplating his ALCS rotation. They led the series, 2-0, with their ace in their back pocket, ready to pitch at home for Game 5, if they even needed it. They had been steeled by last October, and these Yankees had never been here. They had a genius in the dugout, and the Yankees' manager had just fumbled away a game. They had a verified powerhouse; the Yankees only had the makings of one.
"It's hard to believe," Manager Joe Girardi said. "Because we just beat a really, really good team."
The Yankees are a team of mighty youth and an incandescent future, with a core of Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and more to come. In Game 5, they handed the ball to an aging star. Sabathia authored an abrupt departure, but only after he struck out eight of the first 14 batters he faced and gave Girardi an opportunity to get his strikeout-heavy bullpen in the game with a lead.
"They get a lead, man, they're capable of going as far as they want," Bruce said. "You kind of feel whoever gets to the bullpen with a lead first is in pretty good shape."
A potential pivot came early for Cleveland. They trailed, 3-0, entering the fifth, with Sabathia having allowed one hit and struck out eight. They had 15 outs left to mount a comeback, but the circumstance dictated they score in the next three. If the Yankees could hand a 3-0 lead to a fresh bullpen, including fully rested closer Aroldis Chapman, for the final 12 outs, the Indians would be staring at winter.
Sabathia whiffed Carlos Santana to start the inning, his ninth strikeout, a total he had not reached since August 2016. Two more outs until the Indians neared the brink.
Before the game, according to ESPN's Buster Olney, a video loop of Sabathia yielding hits to the opposite field played inside the Indians clubhouse, a clear reminder of their approach. All game, the Indians had lunged for cutters and sliders. Finally, when they needed it most, they exercised patience against Sabathia's finesse.
Austin Jackson smoked a single to center. In the bullpen, David Robertson started warming. Bruce drilled another single to right. Roberto Perez slapped a single to right, scoring the Indians' first run. Giovanny Urshela followed with a carbon copy. In four batters, Sabathia toggled from excellence to exit. Girardi had to hand the game to his relievers two outs before he hoped, leading only 3-2.
Robertson quickly demonstrated the power of the Yankees' bullpen. He induced a grounder up the middle from Francisco Lindor to Gregorius, who shuffled to second base and sidearmed a dart to first for an inning-ending double play.
Robertson would toss a 1-2-3 sixth, too, and then pitch around a walk to handle the seventh. He had built a one-man bridge from Sabathia to Chapman, to whom Girardi entrusted the final six outs. Last year, the Indians forced extra innings in Game 7 by ambushing Chapman. In this clincher, Chapman set down the Indians in two dominating innings, rifling 100-mph fastballs until the end.
The Yankees swarmed the field, maybe signaling the start of a new era. The Indians retreated to their dugout, the coda to another collapse. Another long winter lies ahead. Heartache still lingers, next to the questions of how it all could happen again, to this team, in this year.
The Indians' clubhouse hushed after the game. A whiteboard announced clubhouse hours for Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., three hours devoted to packing up and saying goodbye to the best team any of them had played on, to a season over too soon.
"I was thinking I was going to do it Nov. 1 with the champagne," Lindor said. "I wasn't thinking I was going to do it here."
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