It was different this year. And in the wake of the Tribe’s stunning collapse against the Yankees in the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, we can safely say the differences, well, made a difference.
There’s a U2 lyric that goes, “Freedom looks like too many choices.” The name of that song is “New York,” and perhaps that’s appropriate given the location where it all began to fall apart for a Tribe team that had too many choices, and in the end, too few satisfying selections.
If Corey Kluber was beset by another back injury (“I think he’s fighting a lot,” Francona said after Game 5), that’s obviously a major hurdle. But Kluber’s situation wasn’t devastating enough to keep him from taking the ball. That’s your basic gray area where you can neither sit nor completely trust your ace. It’s easier to understand now why Francona went with Roberto Perez behind the plate and not Kluber’s more frequent batterymate, Yan Gomes, in Game 5 while touting Perez’s ability to make in-game adjustments. There was never a confident expectation that Kluber was going to go deep into Game 5, and the Indians were counting on employing the ‘pen early and often.
Regarding that ‘pen — its makeup was unusual. The Indians deprived themselves of more traditional middlemen (Nick Goody, Dan Otero and Zach McAllister would have had no trouble cracking your average postseason roster) to look for length. They rostered starters Mike Clevinger and Salazar as relievers, but by Game 5, when Kluber was yanked in the fourth, it was clear that trust in those two was something south of implicit. Somehow, the team with “too many quality starters” still wound up pitching Trevor Bauer on short rest in the fourth game of the ALDS … with a series lead, no less.
Clevinger, remember, had been the Indians’ best starter during The Streak — that 22-game run of baseball brilliance that now, unfortunately, stands as a footnote of a feat. The fact that he wasn’t even a starter at all by the time the postseason began speaks to a general trend of a team that metamorphosed quite a bit between September and October.
How does a team win its 22nd consecutive ballgame one month, then squander a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five the next?
Well, in part because this wasn’t really the same team that won 22 straight.
Bradley Zimmer got injured during The Streak, and that left the Indians without a steady presence in center field. So second baseman Jason Kipnis, who was injured for the entirety of The Streak, became a center fielder, in a scrambling effort to get his bat back in the lineup while retaining the awesome infield defense that took place in his injury absence. But in the ALDS, Kipnis went 4-for-22 and the defense fell apart with nine errors, two of which were critical ones committed by the formerly fantastic young third baseman (and easy out at the plate) Giovanny Urshela.
Speaking of Urshela, the Indians spent the latter part of the season preparing him for a postseason super utility role, only to upgrade him to starting third baseman just as October arrived. Yandy Diaz, who had established himself as the primary third baseman during The Streak, wasn’t even on the roster.
The Indians had various Spring Training elements sprinkled into the postseason, which is not ideal. Brantley was working on his timing at the plate after so much time lost to an ankle injury; likewise Lonnie Chisenhall after a calf issue. Andrew Miller was outstanding in Game 5, but his last few weeks were obviously an uphill climb toward his usual standard because of patellar tendinitis in his plant leg.
So there was a lot of this strange stuff going on, and maybe none of it affected the bottom line, because the truth is that even the Indians, who didn’t have a lead after Game 2, were outplayed and were fortunate to have a phantom hit-by-pitch in Game 2 go their way. Furthermore, losing Edwin Encarnacion for two full games only amped up the pressure on Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, both of whom were mostly AWOL (save Lindor’s gargantuan game-changing grand slam in Game 2, of course) at the plate.
But the point here is that little on this club was clear cut. In 2016, it was all pretty matter-of-fact: without its two best starters, the Tribe was left to pick up the pieces. This time, the pieces were scattered all over the place. There were too many injuries and issues that kept the Indians from attaining traction when it mattered most.
None of this absolves the Indians of fault from their ALDS disaster, because that is undoubtedly what this was. It just helps explain why a team that made history one month can become history the next.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.