CLEVELAND — The chant brought it all back.
Six years later.
The first inning was only a batter old, and the red-clad, towel-waving sellout crowd was in full voice. “Let’s go Tribe! Let’s go Tribe!”
The ballpark only sounds like this in October.
A full house — for the introductions. Nerves, excitement and anticipation expressed through cheers, boos and a familiar chant.
This is the way every October was almost two decades ago. After no Octobers for 40 years.
Playoff baseball returned to Progressive Field on Wednesday night for the do-or-die, winner-take-all wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was nothing and death for the Tribe. The postseason’s stop on the North Coast lasted nine innings, as the Rays advanced with a 4-0 victory.
Rookie right-hander Danny Salazar couldn’t channel the 1997 version of Jaret Wright, even though he hit 100 mph on the radar gun. Salazar allowed a leadoff homer to Delmon Young in the third on a waist-high 95 mph fastball and a two-out, two-run double to Desmond Jennings in the fourth.
He didn’t get an out before leaving in the fifth, allowing three earned runs on four hits with four strikeouts.
Salazar wasn’t brutal, he just wasn’t sharp enough. Especially with an offense that did nothing more than threaten.
The timely hitting that enabled the Indians to win the top wild card and host a playoff game abandoned them when it mattered most.
With the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning, Asdrubal Cabrera turned a 1-0 pitch into a 3-6-1 double play — first baseman to shortstop to pitcher — the hardest to turn. And it wasn’t close at first.
An inning later, Yan Gomes doubled and Lonnie Chisenhall singled to put runners on first and third with nobody out and the top of the order coming to the plate. Michael Bourn struck out, Nick Swisher grounded to first and Jason Kipnis hit a weak chopper to the mound.
No runs scored.
The outcome was the same in the seventh when Bourn flied out and Swisher struck out with two aboard.
“It was deflating. I’m not going to lie to you,” Bourn said. “I put the blame on myself.”
Every Cleveland sports fan knows just how cruel fate can be. This was the latest unwelcome reminder.
Yes, the Indians were a playoff team. Yes, they won 10 straight to end the season and qualify. Yes, they made September thrilling. Yes, they improved from 68 wins in 2012 to 92.
No, they won’t be playing past Oct. 2.
In Major League Baseball’s new expanded postseason, the two non-division-winning qualifiers in each league get a single game to prove they belong in the final four.
That doesn’t seem fair following a 162-game schedule (163 for Tampa Bay, which won at Texas in a tiebreaker Monday), but the Indians knew the rules.
Their playoffs started with – and were finished by – a Game 7-type situation.
“We played 162 games to come to this game and be deflated,” said third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, who had three hits. “It’s a tough one-game series. It’s a tough one to swallow.
“It doesn’t feel real yet. I’m sure tomorrow when we don’t have to come to the ballpark, it’ll kind of sink in.”
If only they had waited until Friday in Boston to lose. But the streak was stopped one game too soon. And the winter arrived much too early for the Indians and their fans.
“I wish we could have given them a better game,” said manager Terry Francona, who walked out of the interview room into a hug from his father, Tito. “The support was fantastic. It was pretty awesome to see how it can be, though.”
Before the game, Francona said the team wanted to win to extend the excitement for the fans. Instead, they got one gorgeous autumn night together. Both parties tried to prolong the lovefest, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Tampa Bay won the battle of young right-handed starters. Alex Cobb went 62⁄3 scoreless innings, walking one and striking out five with a fastball around 93 mph. Salazar couldn’t harness all his power on every delivery, leading to an early hook.
Tampa Bay was also better at the plate in the clutch. Young and Jennings provided the early RBIs, the only ones necessary.
By the end, reality had begun to set in.
The Indians misplayed two balls in the field in the ninth and flailed at the plate. The fans continued to clap, but the belief of three hours earlier was gone. Replaced by desperation.
“Let’s go Tribe!” was Northeast Ohio’s “aloha” in the late-1990s. It served as hello and goodbye for family, friends and strangers.
That’s when playoff baseball was in its golden era in Cleveland. It stayed for the better part of a decade, before departing suddenly. It came back for a heartbreaking cameo in 2007 – Game 7 loss in the ALCS — then disappeared again.
Five years between trips to the postseason was long enough to forget what it felt like. Thirty seconds and one chant were all it took to remember.
The Indians, under Francona and with arms like Salazar, Corey Kluber, Cody Allen and Justin Masterson, should re-create the feeling soon. But on this night, “Let’s go Tribe” served as goodbye.
Perhaps only until next October.
“That loss is going to burn for a while,” Bourn said. “We’ll be back.”