When asked what he was most disappointed with following Monday’s season-ending 11-3 loss against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field — the Cleveland Indians manager quickly responded.
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that,” Francona said.
Francona doesn’t have to think about it too much in the immediate aftermath. The longest-suffering fan base with regards to a championship drought in Major League Baseball will have plenty of thoughts to go around following a humbling sweep against the defending champion Astros.
“We got to go home now, before we’re ready to,” Francona said. “That hurts. It always stings. So that’s a hard one, when you’re saying goodbye before you’re ready to.”
Even the most die-hard Indians fan will have a hard time processing this one, yet alone the decision-makers within the organization. Consider what happened Monday had only taken place one other time in franchise history — and that was 64 years ago.
The last — and only time — the Indians were swept in a postseason series was the infamous 1954 World Series. Cleveland set the American League record for wins in a season (111), but were unable to win a game against Willie Mays and the New York Giants.
But that was in the Fall Classic. There was at least a sense of accomplishment and excitement in winning the AL pennant in record-setting fashion that year. Same goes for the last 17 postseason series where the Indians won at least one game and had an opportunity.
The 103-win Astros never let this version of the Tribe off the mat in the later innings. Houston outscored Cleveland 21-6 over the three games — but a little deeper look shows the Astros scored 14 of their 21 runs in the seventh inning or later.
This series was won in the later innings — but a year-long struggle in the bullpen is hardly the biggest disappointment over the past four days.
Two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber obviously didn’t pitch well in Game 1 — though the Indians trailed 4-2 and had runners in scoring position in the sixth inning of the 7-2 loss at Houston. Carlos Carrasco pitched well enough to win in Game 2. And though he went five innings, Monday’s starter, Mike Clevinger, was electric in allowing one run and recording the most strikeouts (9) ever by an Indians pitcher making their postseason debut.
This series was ultimately lost in the batter’s box. I don’t need to go any further than pointing out the Indians batted .144 on Monday — and it was far and away their best performance in the three games.
The 3-4-5 portion of the lineup, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson, combined to go 2 for 31 in the series. Since Game 2 of the ALDS last season against the Yankees, Ramirez, a legitimate AL MVP candidate for four-plus months, is hitting just 1 for 28 (.036) in seven postseason games.
All told, the Indians had six runs on 13 hits in the three games. Late inning meltdowns or not, the offense simply never gave Cleveland the opportunity to win — though Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel each had a lot to do with that.
“When you’re not feeling great at the plate, this isn’t exactly the recipe to get out of it, facing Verlander and Cole and those guys,” Francona said. “They’re pretty good.”
All the numbers aside, there is no way around the obvious disappointments as a whole. The run to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was stunning considering the injuries. There was a sense of appreciation despite coming agonizingly close once again.
Losing a 2-0 lead to the Yankees last season in the ALDS — fresh off an AL record 22 straight victories and a 102-win season — was frustrating.
After a season that saw a historically bad Central Division with no competition, the 91 wins and a return to the postseason was met with a general sense of boredom. We often believed and heard the veterans of the past two or three seasons were just waiting for October to arrive — then they would all turn it on and perform, no matter the records of Houston, New York or Boston.
That obviously didn’t happen. Also obvious was the injuries to outfielders Bradley Zimmer, Lonnie Chisenhall and Leonys Martin — along with the injuries and general decline of super relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
There was a lot to overcome, but the bottom line is Houston was simply that much better than Cleveland. No way around it.
Monday was the ninth straight postseason loss for the Indians when facing elimination — the longest such losing streak in MLB history. The numbers when looking to close out a series are just as unsightly.
As the 2018 season comes to a sudden end, fair or unfair, this core of players during the past three years has the identity of being unable to deliver in October.
The window to contend is still open for at least the next two, if not three seasons. The state of the rest of the AL Central teams alone makes that almost a guarantee.
However, Michael Brantley, Allen and Miller are among the key free agents who aren’t likely to return. The arms of Kluber, Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Clevinger will continue to pile up the innings and strikeouts for only so long.
There are plenty of questions and pending roster turnover.
But unfortunately for the Indians and fan base, there is little question about one thing as another empty, cold off-season looms: the level of disappointment in another early October exit.