For the third year in a row, the unmistakable aroma of champagne wafted into the hallway outside the visitor’s clubhouse following the final game at Progressive Field.
On the Cleveland side, the smell was sour.
The Indians were built for one goal: to win their first World Series since 1948. Yet after cruising to a third straight AL Central title, they couldn’t get past the first round.
October rejects again.
“We had a good year,” said pitcher Trevor Bauer, whose shift from the starting rotation to the bullpen for the postseason maybe best summed up Cleveland’s unsatisfying, disjointed season. “We definitely could have gone further. We had a lot of talent here and it didn’t go our way.”
Nothing went Cleveland’s way. But beyond being swept by the impressive Houston Astros, who were superior at every level, the Indians barely put up a fight.
The Indians were so close in 2016, when they took the Chicago Cubs into extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Now they’ve lost six straight playoff games since opening a 2-0 lead in last year’s ALDS against the Yankees.
“This isn’t the way we drew it up,” said reliever Andrew Miller. “This is 25, 40 guys that have plans of winning the World Series. It obviously didn’t go our way.”
Other than All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor, who batted .364 and homered twice, the top of Cleveland’s lineup bordered on embarrassing. Michael Brantley, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson hit a combined .095 (4 of 42) with two RBIs, zero extra-base hits and 12 strikeouts.
It’s the second straight postseason flop for Ramirez, who was an MVP candidate until he faded down the stretch. He’s now 2 for 31 in two playoff appearances, an alarming trend he’ll have to wait a year at least to address.
Following Monday’s loss, Ramirez had to be coaxed to speak with reporters by Encarnacion before delivering answers as futile as his swings.
“I didn’t perform to how I wanted to,” he said through a translator. “But these are things that happen in baseball.”
Cleveland’s pitching wasn’t much better. Ace Corey Kluber had his second straight puzzling postseason as the 20-game winner didn’t look like himself in Game 1. The bullpen, a mess for months, completely collapsed in Game 3 after Bauer’s two throwing errors in the seventh inning opened the flood gates for Houston’s 11-3 rout.
There are numerous reasons why the Indians aren’t moving on, but the team’s failure to address the bullpen’s issues, which began when Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith weren’t re-signed last winter, is at the top of the list.
Because Miller, Cody Allen and Co. couldn’t be counted on, manager Terry Francona moved Bauer, arguably the team’s best starter who was on his way to a possible Cy Young when a line drive broke his leg in August, into a relief role.
The decision backfired, and while it’s easy to second-guess Francona following the Indians’ early exit, Bauer wasn’t comfortable in his role.
“Unfortunate that I got hit with the line drive, kind of disrupted the flow for me personally,” Bauer said. “Personally, a lot of bitterness about that. And as a team, I think that we have a good group of core players here, so there’s a lot of hope for the future.”
Looking ahead, the Indians should stay atop their division. But that’s no longer enough.
Cleveland will return one of baseball’s best starting staffs in Kluber, Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger, the first foursome in baseball history to reach 200 strikeouts apiece. The bullpen, though, will likely look very different with Miller, Allen and Oliver Perez eligible for free agency.
Allen is the team’s career leader in saves, but his ERA bloated to a career-worst 4.70 this season and his struggles — and impending free agency — led to the Indians trading top prospect Francisco Mejia to San Diego for lefty Brad Hand, who may take over as Cleveland’s closer in 2019.
With Lindor and Ramirez under contract through 2021 and Encarnacion and under control until 2020, the Indians’ core remains at championship level. Brantley, Donaldson, Melky Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall and Rajai Davis are all expected to be on the free-agent market, so Cleveland could have a different look at several positons in ’19.
As his teammates shared somber yet heartfelt hugs after Monday’s loss, Brantley stood near his corner locker and spoke quietly with Josh Tomlin, the team’s longest-tenured player. Tomlin didn’t make the postseason roster and surely won’t return.
For years, Brantley and Tomlin have represented the Indians’ heart and soul — two selfless, dedicated role models for the team’s younger players.
Brantley’s inspirational comeback from an injury-shortened 2017 season may pressure the Indians to re-sign him. He’ll be 32 in May, but there aren’t many better outfielders in the game and fewer mean as much to their team as Brantley does to the Indians.
When the Indians’ finally surrendered in Game 3, with orange-clad Houston fans outnumbering Cleveland, Brantley’s mind turned to his future — and the real possibility of leaving.
“I’ve got a lot of thinking to do,” he said. “I’ve got my family to talk to. I’ve got these guys in this room to still talk to. Then, we’ll go from there. You never know what’s going to happen in the offseason.”
For the Indians, this postseason felt more predictable.
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