CLEVELAND — The magic deserted the Indians when they needed it most.
A perceived team of destiny after finishing the regular season with 10 straight wins to clinch the top spot in the American League wild-card race, Cleveland tasted defeat for the first time in two weeks Wednesday.
And it was the type of loss that ends a season.
Failing to capitalize on the few scoring opportunities they had throughout the night, the Indians were blanked 4-0 by Tampa Bay, which won a one-game wild-card playoff at Progressive Field to earn the right to face Boston in the Division Series.
“We knew what we were getting into, and they outplayed us,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We were excited about coming into this game, and we lost, so now we’ve got to go home. That hurts.”
“It just wasn’t our night,” first baseman Nick Swisher said. “It feels like we let the whole city down.”
With Progressive Field sold out for just the second time this year and the crowd at a fevered playoff pitch, the projected duel between up-and-coming right-handers Danny Salazar and Alex Cobb never transpired.
Cobb held up his end of the bargain, shutting out the Indians on eight hits over 6⅔ innings. But Salazar, a fireballing phenom with 10 career big league starts on his resume, wasn’t up to the task, allowing three runs on four hits and failing to last five innings.
After breezing through the first two innings — striking out three of the first four hitters — Salazar made his first mistake when he served up a solo home run to Delmon Young on his first pitch of the third inning.
The Rays stayed after Salazar in the fourth, scoring twice on a two-out double from Desmond Jennings, who shot a hard grounder down the third-base line to put Tampa Bay up 3-0.
“When he worked ahead in the count, he was tremendous,” Francona said of Salazar. “When he fell behind, that’s when they got their hits in fastball counts.”
The early support was all Cobb needed.
He didn’t dominate Cleveland hitters, but he made the pitches when he had to, with the Indians failing to produce a timely hit all night.
Cleveland threatened against Cobb in the fourth and fifth and he pitched out of it both times.
Asdrubal Cabrera grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases full in the fourth, then Cleveland put runners on first and third with nobody out in the fifth, only to have Michael Bourn strike out looking silly, Nick Swisher ground sharply to first and Jason Kipnis ground back to the mound.
“He didn’t pitch like a young pitcher,” Francona said of the 25-year-old Cobb. “We had our share of hits and our share of opportunities, and when we had men on base, but he was able to take something off. He took the sting out of our bats by changing speeds.”
The Indians also squandered an opportunity in the seventh after Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall had back-to-back one-out singles to leave runners on first and second. Cobb retired Bourn on a fly ball before leaving for right-hander Joel Peralta, who struck out Swisher to end the inning.
Cleveland got no production from some of its biggest offensive weapons with Bourn, Swisher, Kipnis and Cabrera combining to go 0-for-16.
“We just couldn’t come up with that clutch hit,” Swisher said. “They popped three runs there early and you have to give credit where credit’s due. Their pitching staff did a great job tonight.
“We’re the kind of team that’s been doing this all year long. We’ve kind of scrapped and clawed for runs, but today just wasn’t our day.”
The bottom of the Indians’ batting order — Gomes and Chisenhall — produced most of Cleveland’s offense, combining for five of the team’s nine hits.
Swisher’s postseason futility continued, with the first baseman going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. He entered the night batting just .169 with four homers and eight RBIs in 46 playoff games.
Though it had a disappointing end, this season will undoubtedly go down as a success for the Indians, who matched the franchise record for improvement from season-to-season. Cleveland lost 94 games last year, but bounced back to win 92 this season and qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2007.
“It was such an amazing year for us,” Swisher said. “It (stinks) right now just to be in this spot. The sting is super bad right now. But either way, man, I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. We fought our tails off. Just to get to this spot. No one expected us to be here.”
“When you make that big of transition in one year, this was a great year for our team and our organization,” Kipnis said. “I thought we did a tremendous job of turning this thing around.
“It’s only a step in the right direction. The way we feel about it in the clubhouse right now, hopefully we go into next year with a little bit more determination.”