This is the hardest part of being a fan.
When all the meaningless platitudes like “grit” and “clutch” are stripped away, all the stats dissected and parsed, all the analysis completed, you still feel empty.
The postseason continues. But your team is packing up their bags and heading home, leaving the memories and remnants of another unsuccessful season behind them.
Cleveland Indians fans know this feeling all too well.
Success makes spoiled brats of us all. Cleveland has put together the best three-year run in franchise history, punctuated by a historic 22-game win streak. They’ve won three straight AL Central titles, and an AL pennant in 2016. But there’s one thing they’re still missing.
“When you win a three division titles in a row and you keep going to the playoffs year after year, just getting there doesn’t seem to be enough anymore,” said second baseman Jason Kipnis.
It was clear from the first pitch of the series that Houston was the better team. Cleveland’s vaunted starting rotation wasn’t enough to stop the torrid Astros’ lineup. Indians’ ace Corey Kluber fell victim to the home run ball as Alex Bregman, George Springer, and Jose Altuve went deep for Houston. Carlos Carrasco danced around damage in Game 2 until giving up a two-run double to Marwin Gonzalez. Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer both pitched well enough in Game 3 to keep their team in the game, but not enough to give their team the lead. The four stars–Kluber, Carrasco, Clevinger, and Bauer–had a combined 4.73 ERA in the ALDS.
Perhaps even a historic performance from the starters wouldn’t have been enough. The Indians bullpen hemorrhaged runs all series. Erstwhile closer Cody Allen gave up six runs, including critical home runs in Games 1 and 3. Andrew Miller was unrecognizable; Terry Francona barely used the power lefty, and when he did Miller underwhelmed, allowing three walks while registering just one out. The deadline additions of Brad Hand and Adam Cimber both crumpled as well, each giving up runs late in the game.
Not that the offense provided any help either. The meat in Cleveland’s lineup–Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson–went a combined 2-32. Ramirez didn’t register a hit all series. Francisco Lindor was responsible for half of Cleveland’s runs. Combined, the offense slashed .144/.196/.222. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, that’s the fourth-worst average, fifth-worst OBP, and eighth-worst slugging percentage in postseason history. In comparison, the Astros’ deep lineup combined for a .327/.421/.615 slash line.
It’s hard to look at anything the Indians do without seeing that crisp November night in 2016 hanging over everything like a vicious spectre. One win from glory, the World Series slipping through their grasp, until Rajai Davis launched a two-run homer over the left-field fence to spark pandemonium in Progressive Field.
If only they could have plated a few more runs off Aroldis Chapman…if only the bullpen had held together in extras….if only the rain had held off for a few more minutes…
As painful as it is to look at the past, it may be more painful for Cleveland fans to look ahead. Eleven members of Cleveland’s 25-man roster are eligible for free agency at the end of the season: Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera, Carlos Carrasco, Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Guyer, Andrew Miller, Oliver Perez, and Josh Tomlin.
“This organization’s going to be just fine with or without whoever the guys are that are free agents,” Cody Allen said in his postgame presser. But that may be wishful thinking. Allen is the Indians’ all-time saves leader, and Andrew Miller has been the lynchpin of that bullpen for the past three seasons. Despite down years from the both of them, it’s hard to see how Cleveland’s bullpen will improve without those two.
Perhaps a high degree of turnover will help the Indians create a more balanced roster, something they’ve lacked all year. They have the best middle infield in baseball with the young tandem of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Despite their middling performance in the postseason, the starting rotation looks set for another dominant year in 2019. But beyond that, the roster looks barren. The outfield has been a revolving door of mediocrity for two seasons, and the bullpen perpetually has a “Help Wanted” sign hanging on the fence.
Not that the Indians won’t keep getting chances. They face no real competition in the AL Central. The Minnesota Twins have stalled as questions swirl around Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. The Tigers, White Sox, and Royals spent the year fielding teams made up of more Triple-A players than Major Leaguers. No matter what Cleveland does this offseason, they’ll be heavy favorites to make the postseason again in 2019.
And they’ll probably be heavy favorites to crash out of the postseason again in the ALDS.
Missed opportunities haunt the best of us. We try to look with optimism on the future–this is baseball, after all. There’s always hope. But with every painful postseason exit, every season that ends too soon, it’s hard not to think back to that November night, when all hope seemed lost, until Rajai Davis’s line drive cleared the left field fence. The crowded erupted, the team streamed out of the dugout, and for that glorious moment, Cleveland knew that this could finally be their year.
How different it all could have been.