CLEVELAND – When their turnaround season hit a dead end in October, long after most expected it to stop, the Indians spent a few minutes reflecting on their six-month thrill ride and what might have been.
There wouldn’t be any more champagne but there was plenty to celebrate.
“We proved a lot of people wrong,” first baseman Nick Swisher said. “Still, it hurts.”
The pain, though, was only temporary. Following a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL wild-card game Wednesday, there were few tears as the Indians said goodbye to a year none of them will ever forget. They became a close-knit group, bonding under first-year manager Terry Francona, who not only oversaw a 24-win improvement from 2012, but made them believe anything is possible.
“All this team really ever needed was a heartbeat,” said 42-year-old designated hitter Jason Giambi, “and we kept it all the way down to the end.”
In returning to the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Indians rekindled their on-again, off-again relationship with Cleveland fans, who had grown distant and disenchanted in recent years, mostly because of the team’s inability to re-sign Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
But although they may not have shown their support at the box office during the regular season, Indians fans were there when it mattered most. Dressed in red, more than 43,000 of them raged for three hours as they urged the Indians, a team that pulled off 11 walk-off wins and won their last 10 games to make the playoffs, to give them one more magical moment.
It wasn’t to be.
“There wasn’t one guy that didn’t think we weren’t winning that game in the bottom of the ninth,” said All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis. “We didn’t come up with the big hit.”
But the Indians didn’t even have a player with 85 RBI, and one of General Manager Chris Antonetti’s priorities in the offseason is to find a slugger. He could get creative with trades perhaps involving closer Chris Perez, catcher Carlos Santana or shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
All three had disappointing 2013 seasons and could be dealt to bolster Cleveland’s power.
Another issue for the Indians to address is their inability to beat quality teams. They were just 14-33 against the playoff teams and 54-17 against teams with under .500 records.
“We had a good year but one thing we did wrong was not play better against teams like the Rays,” said leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, who went hitless in the wild-card game. “That’s something we’ll improve on.”
The starting pitching, a question mark when the season started, became a strength with Ubaldo Jimenez bouncing back from a 17-loss season to win 13 and lead the Indians’ staff down the stretch when All-Star Justin Masterson was injured.
Jimenez has an $8 million mutual option for next season with a $1 million buyout. If he chooses to venture into free agency, Jimenez could land a monster deal but he appreciated the Indians’ willingness to stick with him during tough times.
“They did everything possible to help me out,” he said.
Left-hander Scott Kazmir, too, said he would like to return to the Indians, who signed him to a minor league deal in January and got 10 wins on a $1 million investment. Reliever Joe Smith also has told the Indians he wants to stay.
Giambi could receive managerial offers but he wouldn’t mind being a part of this Indians revival.
“I had the time of my life, no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute watching this ballclub grow and being a part of it.”
TIGERS: Though not in the starting lineup, Jhonny Peralta is on the playoff roster as just over a week ago the All-Star shortstop completed his 50-game suspension for ties to the Biogenesis clinic.
Jose Iglesias, whom the Tigers acquired from the Red Sox, will start at shortstop.
ROYALS: Dale Sveum was hired to handle infield instruction and other coaching duties, three days after he was fired as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Contracts of third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez and bench coach Chino Cadahia were not renewed.
RANGERS: While Texas isn’t in the playoffs for the first time in four years, General Manager Jon Daniels said he feels “as strong about” Manager Ron Washington as he ever has.
Washington has only next season remaining on his contract, but Daniels plans to sit down with him to discuss that situation. Texas has averaged more than 91 wins a year the past five seasons and made its only two World Series appearances in that span.