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Indians fall before completing rise

Cleveland still looks tough from here, but the competition is tougher

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals and the Cubs made it look so easy. Reach the postseason with a team that advanced further than most thought possible the first time, then use that experience to finish the job the following year.

Through 164 games, the Indians enhanced the script. They set an American League record with 22 consecutive wins en route to a league-best 102 victories, they had a fully healthy rotation that could take the stress off a bullpen that did the heavy lifting last year, but they had those relievers, too. Terry Francona’s lineup card was so swollen that Jason Kipnis had to play center.

Francona surprised everybody by using Trevor Bauer in place of Corey Kluber in Game 1, but when Bauer looked as good as Kluber could that night, it appeared as though Francona had a second horse. When Kluber stumbled in Game 2, Francisco Lindor was there to rub the Yankees’ face in an awful decision by Joe Girardi, hitting a game-tying grand slam after receiving a lifeline. The Indians won a game they shouldn’t have, which paired nicely with the remaining games, all of which they could have won with Carlos Carrasco, Bauer and Kluber in the mix.

Except they didn’t. Miller’s lone blemish on another strong postseason was a solo homer, which was enough to take the loss in Game 3 because the Indians couldn’t solve Masahiro Tanaka. Bauer looked ragged in an abbreviated Game 4, and Didi Gregorius had Kluber’s number in Game 5, which gave CC Sabathia, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman all the runs needed to cap off the comeback.

That’s a brutal way for the Indians’ season to end. In fact, I’ll say it could be the worst way for Cleveland’s season to end. Losing a 3-0 series lead in the ALCS or World Series might be more agonizing in the moment, but the suddenness of Cleveland’s exit drains more of the season of its meaning. Take the 22-game streak. In the middle of the Game 5, you had John Smoltz trying to shift the narrative into, “Maybe the Indians came in too hot.”

That’s dumb, but the Indians’ collapse was largely incomprehensible, which left a lot of spectators at a loss. It even turned Austin Jackson into a spectator two times over. He watched strike three, which is defensible on a borderline call, albeit inglorious. He then watched Gary Sanchez drop strike three, pick it up without tagging him, and then run to the mound to celebrate, and Jackson never tried running to first.

That’s indefensible, and adds another layer of irony, as Jackson said the Indians “fought hard right down to the last out” after the loss in Game 3. (If only A.J. Pierzynski were on this Fox broadcasting crew instead of Dodgers-Diamondbacks.)

This reversal of fortunes will leave a mark on its fans, especially if the lede on Let’s Go Tribe is any indication:

You may have come across the phrase memento mori at one time or another in your reading. The phrase is in Latin, and roughly translated it means “remember that you have to die.”

But while the Tribe might be a tougher follow for its own fans, their short-term future is suddenly far more interesting for the rest of baseball. Their impending free agents -- Jackson, Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Bryan Shaw — can be overcome if they all find work elsewhere, but Santana and Shaw will leave complexion-changing vacancies to fill. There’s also the matter of Kluber, whose health was called into question after Francona’s shift to Game 2, and the subsequent performance.

Kluber said of his health: "I don't feel like I need to get into details right now. I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch."

Said Francona: "He's fighting a lot. I think you also have to respect the fact that guy wants to go out there, and he's our horse. And sometimes it doesn't work.''

The concerns are easy to overstate after such a staggering failure. All the front office can do it is what it did last year -- get six or seven starters, a stout bullpen and a deep, modular lineup. It’s already most of the way there, and hey, maybe the early exit helps address any lingering health concerns.

It’s tougher for those invested in them. The Indians lost a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, then saw a record-setting winning streak marginalized to trivia this time around. 2018 could be a slog for fans if October is the only thing that validates everything that happened before then.

Not that anything in baseball is preordained, but had the Indians earned the World Series, it would have felt like the coronation of their team-building efforts. With the Yankees burning the Indians’ KC script by turning into the 2014 Royals and the Astros eight wins away from burying the Sports Illustrated cover jinx for good, Cleveland no longer has the only process in the American League deserving of a reward.