In the immediate wake of the Indians’ 5-2 loss to the Yanks, a defeat that dealt the final blow to Cleveland in the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, plenty of questions still lingered. The main one is this: When Tribe fans look back on this series, what will they cite as the catalyst for the collapse after taking a 2-0 lead in the series? The bottom line is that the Indians did not play like the club that cruised to AL’s best record.
“I feel like it’s an opportunity that’s missed,” 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. Coming to the playoffs, you obviously want that. I think that our pitching is really what made us who we are. We just couldn’t get the job done.”
It felt similar to last fall, when the Indians grabbed a 3-1 lead in the World Series only to fall in seven games to the Cubs. After that final loss, though, there was still a sense of accomplishment by a team that defied the odds in the face of adversity. The clubhouse atmosphere had a different feel to it this time around. This was a 102-win team during the regular season that rattled off an AL-record 22 wins in a row between August and September. A silver lining was hard to identify for the players.
Down the hall in the manager’s office, Terry Francona also had to live with the roster decisions that had a ripple effect throughout this best-of-five series. Cleveland has now lost six consecutive close-out games dating back to the World Series last year, and is 2-8 in such games under Francona since 2013. Prior to Game 3 of the ALDS in New York, where the Indians arrived at Yankee Stadium armed with a 2-0 series lead, Francona was asked about dealing with criticism.
“You do your homework, and you’re prepared, and you make your decisions,” Francona said. “And then, you know, after the game, you have to answer for it, which you’re supposed to. If you don’t have an answer, shame on you. And then you’re confident enough in what you’re doing and you move on. You can’t rush to wake up to see how you’re being perceived, because it’s just not helpful.”
Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, who has played under Francona for the past five seasons, reacted with a disgusted expression when asked if Francona was at fault at all for how this series unraveled.
“Absolutely not,” Brantley said. “Everybody in this locker room has the utmost respect for Tito, including myself. He puts us in position to succeed every single day. That has nothing to do with him. Absolutely not. It’s on us.”
Bruce also responded angrily to such a notion.
“That’s outrageous,” Bruce said. “This guy’s one of the most respected and decorated managers in the game. For people to question his moves, they must have all the answers. I can’t imagine questioning it. This guy’s the most prepared. He’s confident, at ease. He’s the most prepared manager I’ve ever played for, probably.”
• Tribe faces uncertain future
Francona was hit with public second-guessing when he named Trevor Bauer, not ace Corey Kluber, the starter for Game 1 of the ALDS. Bauer returned on short rest for Game 4, and while the Tribe’s defense did him no favors, he lasted only 1 2/3 innings. Kluber came back on his normal schedule for Game 5, a key factor in the decision, and allowed three runs in 3 2/3 innings. Asked if Kluber was fighting an injury, Francona noted after the loss that Kluber was “fighting a lot” to be on the mound.
• Kluber’s short start marred by home runs
For the ALDS roster, Francona opted to go with Giovanny Urshela as his starting third baseman over Yandy Diaz (inactive) due to his defensive upside. Urshela committed two of the Indians’ four errors in Game 4, and Cleveland’s typically-sound defense made nine errors in five games. And late in Game 5, the only right-handed bats available to pinch hit vs. left-hander Aroldis Chapman were Yan Gomes and Erik Gonzalez.
Brantley, who had three at-bats in the final two regular-season games after missing nearly two months with a right ankle issue, made the roster as a pinch-hitter. That move was exposed when slugger Edwin Encarnacion (right ankle injury in Game 2) sat out both games in New York and a rusty Brantley was forced into service as the team’s DH.
The offense as a whole hit .171/.263/.287 with 18 runs (nine coming in Game 2) and 61 strikeouts. That included an 8-for-60 showing combined from Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez.
Beyond the rotation decisions, there was also the move to keep bullpen regulars Dan Otero, Nick Goody and Zach McAllister off the roster in favor of having starters Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin available as relievers.
• Early exit shouldn’t overshadow Tribe’s journey
“He believes in what he does and there’s a rhyme and a reason,” Bruce said of Francona. “And he has personalities around him that challenge his thinking. It’s not just him throwing stuff together.”
Had the Indians emerged victorious in any of the last three games, Francona’s decisions probably would not be placed under the microscope.
“It’s easy to second-guess in hindsight,” Kluber said. “If we would’ve won the series, people probably wouldn’t question him. I don’t think the guys in the clubhouse question him at all, and I think that’s all he cares about.”
This is not how anyone inside Cleveland’s clubhouse saw this conclusion coming.
“Nobody wanted the season to be over,” Francona said. “It doesn’t wind down. It comes to a crashing halt. And nobody, myself included, was ready for it to be over.”
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.