Even after having a few days to digest the dreary and demoralizing reality, Terry Francona was defiant.
“Nobody should be able to do that against us,” he said.
Yet the Yankees did it.
The Yankees won three games in a row from the Indians, who hadn’t lost three in a row since Aug. 1. Had the Indians won just one of those three, they’d still be playing baseball. But they didn’t, and they’re not.
“It stinks that we’re sitting here today,” said Indians president Chris Antonetti, as the team’s decision makers met with the media Friday for the annual postseason postmortem.
It’s clear the wounds from what happened are still raw, and they should be. This was a ragged ending to a rapturous season, one that ended far too soon for a team this good.
“The way we were playing when we went into (the postseason), I thought we were positioned to do some damage,” Francona said. “But the damage was self-inflicted. We didn’t play our best baseball, and it’s really hard to rationalize.”
So is the fact that Corey Kluber, who led the majors with a 2.25 ERA, but had a 12.79 ERA in two Division Series starts, apparently wasn’t hurt. He just had two bad starts. That’s the Indians’ story, and they’re sticking to it: Kluber was mechanically flawed, but physically fine.
“For whatever reason, his arm slot was lower, and it meant that his fastball was flatter,” Francona said.
Prior to Game 5, Francona had a conversation with Kluber.
“I told him, you’re our guy, but I want to make sure nothing’s bothering you,” Francona said. “He said he was fine. He still says he’s fine.”
With their season on the line, when they desperately needed Kluber to be Kluber, he couldn’t even make it to the fifth inning.
The Indians blame the lack of movement on Kluber’s pitches on his lower arm slot, which is not necessarily caused by an injury. Francona said it can also be caused by the fatigue of a long season, which is what the Indians are hanging their battered hat on for now.
Kluber wasn’t hurt. He was fatigued, which led to a mechanical flaw resulting in the Indians’ record in their last 20 potential series-clinching postseason games falling to 3-17.
The abruptness and magnitude of Kluber’s double implosion — he was even worse in Game 2 — leading to the Indians’ early postseason exit, caught everyone off guard. Even Francona’s pristine managerial chops took a hit from some critics, who placed the blame at the feet of the guy calling the shots.
“It’s open season on second-guessing, but there’s nothing I’d do differently,” Francona said of the three consecutive Yankee spankings. “We had Kluber, who was virtually unhittable this year, for two starts, on his normal rest, and it didn’t go very well. It’s hard to win a series when that happens.”
It’s also hard to win a series when almost nothing goes right, and after winning the first two games of the series, almost nothing did — repeatedly.
The Indians did — Kluber’s struggles notwithstanding — hold a powerful Yankees lineup to a paltry .202 team batting average. Rookie of the Year-to-be Aaron Judge, a possible MVP as well, who led the league with 52 home runs, had 20 at-bats against Indians pitchers and struck out in all but four of them.
The Indians actually outpitched the Yankees. Cleveland had a 2.68 ERA, New York 3.08.
But the Indians embarrassed themselves defensively: an absurd nine errors in five games, seven in the last two.
As a team, they hit .171 — nearly 100 points below their regular-season average. With the exception of their 9-8 win in Game 2, they scored just nine runs in the other four games.
To win in the postseason, your stars need to be stars. The Indians’ weren’t. Kluber was a mess. Francisco Lindor hit .111, Jose Ramirez .100, Edwin Encarnacion .000 (0-for-7), Carlos Santana .211, Jason Kipnis .182 and Michael Brantley — who shouldn’t have even been on the roster, having missed most of the second half of the season with a sprained ankle — hit .091.
“We won 102 games, but the postseason is a completely different animal,” Francona said. “Last year we got hot as all get-out during the postseason, and played better than we did in the regular season. This year it went the other way. You can’t push a button and play your best baseball.”
You can, however, push a button on your TV and watch the best baseball. But Francona won’t be doing that, either.
“I won’t watch any of it,” he said. “When we lose, I want everyone to lose. It hurts. You want to be a part of it and you’re not. You get jealous.”
When a bad thing happens to a good team.
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