ALDS Game 5: The Indians were better than the Yankees, until they weren't

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

CLEVELAND – So many of them stood for all of it. They gathered at the rails in the right-field corner and over the bullpens and down in the corner where Rajai Davis’ ball landed that night going on a year ago. They stood and believed and begged and pleaded, and bounced lightly on the concrete, and puffed warm breath into their hands, because then it couldn’t happen again. It couldn’t possibly happen again.

They’d arrived early and raced through the gates when the whistle blew, like a train whistle over the city, and they bunched in their usual places, their lucky places, and they measured the vibe in Kluber’s sodden gait, the sturdiness in Encarnacion’s right ankle.

They were better than the New York Yankees. Everybody knew it. They’d won all those games, and they’d done this before, and this time they’d make the last pitch, and they’d be the lucky ones. Their guys would be the lucky ones. They were delightfully nervous and perfectly certain and just the right amount of afraid, and they leaned over those rails, still beaded from an afternoon rain shower, and shouted away the last of their doubt.

The Indians watch during the ninth inning against the Yankees in Game 5 on Wednesday night. (AP)

It’s terrible to lose sometimes. It’s terrible to watch. And the baseball kept landing in the bleachers beyond right field. The innings fell away. The sky grew so dark.

The universe, irony, cruelty, whatever it is, manages to find its own place on the rail, squeezes in, broadens its shoulders. The big stuffed figures that race each other between innings were done for the night, and they walked past the home clubhouse. Mustard held his head under his arm and did not smile. Ketchup and Onion trailed by a few steps, their heads secure, but looking no less displeased. The sad condiments passed, and when the clubhouse door opened, the clock on the wall read 11:59. A few seconds later and the day was done. The Cleveland Indians were done, too, gone from an October that wasn’t halfway done, gone from a postseason that wasn’t supposed to be the Yankees’, or the Astros’, or anyone’s but theirs. They’d won 102 games. They’d barely lost for two months. They’d scraped their baseball souls to practically nothing last October, and that was going to be the last ounce of character, of experience, of been-there-almost-done-that they’d require.

The clock turned and they sat and stared into the backs of their lockers. Just like last October, when they’d won and won and won and then lost three, the final two right out there in front of those very people. So they’d won again and felt like it was all right to finish a division series and get on with it, to bury the past, only to lose three again, on Wednesday night to the Yankees, 5-2. They’d committed three more errors. They’d been hitless against a bullpen that took over in the fifth inning. For another postseason series, they’d done everything but throw the last spade full of dirt on it, and turned out it wasn’t their time at all.

Gosh, now the Indians had lost 17 times in their last 20 clinching games, going back to when the men in this clubhouse paid hardly any attention to the Indians, long before they’d actually become Indians. And now they’re a part of it too, the part of it that really hurts, because it’s so fresh. They didn’t finish. They can’t close. What could possibly be missing?

“It doesn’t wind down,” said their manager, Terry Francona. “It comes crashing to a halt. And nobody, myself included, was ready for it to be over.”

The story, maybe, was the Yankees. In their dramatic return from oh-two, from the indecision that would chase their manager into old age, from a clear inability to hang with the here-and-now Indians. They thrashed about in the other clubhouse into early Thursday morning, however, praising the men around them, hoisting the bottles that stood for their resilience. This was their win at least as much as it was the Indians’ defeat. They’d overcome the losses. They’d shown up for every inch of every game since, even while being told their energy would be wasted. Their MVP, Aaron Judge, batted .050 in the series. He struck out 16 times. Yet, here they were, maybe a bit amazed themselves, searching their brains for memories of the Houston Astros, what they did, who they’ll be.

“Just win one game,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi had told them so many days ago, so many fights ago, and it seemed to work. That and the pitching.

Still, the Indians. Corey Kluber pitched barely more than six innings over two starts, and afterward there came suggestions he wasn’t quite healthy. One of the better offenses in the game hit .171 for five games. The defense, so adept, committed nine errors, three of them in the game they absolutely could not lose. The Yankees scored 21 runs across five games, seven of them, a third of them, because the Indians kicked, dropped, misfired and/or whiffed on plays they’d made for six months, that they’d promised themselves to make for a year.

“I wouldn’t say stunned,” Kluber said, and maybe he’d be alone in that.

They said they’d go home, find a gym, work this out of their system, start over in February, be better. They’d leave an empty ballpark behind. The rails empty. The streets getting there. Plenty of them will be back next season, fresh off another three-game losing streak that scraped their souls raw again.

“I just feel like it’s just baseball,” Francisco Lindor said. “You’re not going to win every game. Just so happens the last two years we’ve gone on a three-game losing streak to finish the season.”

He smiled and added, “We’ll be back next year.”

Next year. Already.

“I didn’t think this early,” he said. “It’s … it’s part of the game. You know? I was thinking I was going to do it all the way to Nov. 1. With Champagne.”

He shrugged. Like that, it was time to go. The Yankees packed for Houston and more baseball. The Indians hugged, said goodbye, tried for it to not be quite so awful. It’s terrible to lose.

Outside the clubhouse, in the hallway that leads to the parking lot, a man in a Yankees cap strolled past. It was quiet except for his voice, and he sang Sinatra, the song that chases Yankees wins. A handful of Indians passed and pretended not to notice. It’s not important. It’s not worth the energy. They were better than the Yankees. And they’re leaving today.

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