The Cleveland Indians have been eliminated from the playoffs after being beaten by the New York Yankees, 5-2, in Game 5 of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field.
I'm absolutely stunned. I never saw this coming.
I didn't see the Indians losing to the Yankees, and certainly not in the manner in which they were defeated. They blew a 2-0 series lead and essentially did opposite of all of the things that made the 2017 Tribe such a great team.
So what went wrong? Why did things play out the way they did?
I've come up with 5 key factors:
1. Corey Kluber was not 'Cy Kluber'
I don't know if Kluber's back was bothering him, or his ankle, but he just didn't look right in this series. In order to be successful, Corey relies on movement on his pitches. Whether we're talking his sinker, the cutter, his curve, or a slider. But it's all about movement.
Watch where Didi Gregorius gets this fastball from Kluber in the 1st inning. Right out over the middle of the plate:
Didi. Came. To. Play.— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) October 12, 2017
Then in the 3rd, Kluber's prized curveball stays belt high to Gregorius and doesn't move. Kluber's curve is one of the best pitches in all of baseball, but if it's up in the zone, you may as well be throwing batting practice.
And listen, I get that Gregorius, Sanchez, Bird, Hicks, and company are really good hitters. But look at what Kluber did to New York in two regular season starts:
August 3 at Progressive Field: 9 IP, 1 R, 3 H, 1 BB, 11 K in a complete game gem.
August 28 at Yankee Stadium: 8 IP, 2 R, 3 H, 1 BB, 7 K in a victory.
And by the by, Gregorius was 0-for-13 lifetime against Kluber before slugging those two Game 5 homers. Sorry, I'm not buying that New York was just 'in the zone,' the Tribe's ace was not physically right.
And upon further reflection, I'm led to wonder if the decision to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1 had something to do with Kluber's health. We may never know.
2. The top of the Indians order simply didn't produce
You can win a postseason series if maybe one of your best hitters is in a slump, but not both. And sadly, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez (with Jason Kipnis sandwiched in the middle) just didn't produce in this series, save for Lindor's grand slam in Game 2.
In the five games against the Yankees, the Tribe's 1-2-3 hitters were a combined 8-for-60. That's a meager .133 if you're scoring at home. Not going to get it done.
3. The gloves betrayed the team
One thing the Indians did so very well during the 2017 was play defense. And despite Bradley Zimmer's season-ending wrist injury, I'm sure the Tribe went into the postseason feeling like they were going to be in good shape. But in the final two games of the series, the Indians played absolutely putrid defense. And it cost them big time.
In Game 4, the Tribe committed a season-high four errors that marked a franchise record for a postseason game and led to six unearned runs. Wednesday night. the Indians coughed it up three more times, leading to an unearned run in the 9th.
They finished the 5-game series with 9 errors. The Tribe made only 76 errors all season, the lowest total in the American League. That won't work, either.
4. Chicks may dig the longball, but it led to lots of strikeouts and lack of plate discipline
The Indians seemed to fall in love with the home run swing in this series. Maybe it was because Lindor's grand slam and Jay Bruce's bombs in Games 1 and 2 had been such an important part of their victories. Maybe it was because players felt they had to fill the void left by Edwin Encarnacion, who missed most of Game 2 and all of the games in New York. But something happened to the approach of the Tribe hitters in the ALDS.
During the regular season, only the Astros hitters had fewer strikeouts in the American League than did the Indians. The Tribe showed patience at the plate and constantly made opposing pitchers go deep into counts and opposing managers to go the bullpen.
Against the Yankees, the Indians struck out 65 times in five games, or an average of 13 punchouts a game. Yes, New York does have a terrific pitching staff with power arms, but the Indians gave them way too many quick and easy at-bats by swinging at pitches outside the zone.
5. Outfield injuries handcuffed Terry Francona and his staff before and during the ALDS
I've always said that one of Francona's strengths, and one of his vices, is loyalty.
Having Michael Brantley on the ALDS roster was a HUGE mistake. Brantley had been out of action because of an ankle injury since August 8 and had three at-bats before the start of the playoffs. One of them was a pinch hit single after a 10-pitch at-bat against the White Sox. But he did not look ready and it showed when Encarnacion was out of action, as Brantley batted just 1-for-11.
But on further reflection, I'm not sure Tito had too many options.
Lonnie Chisenhall was clearly not healthy either. He had just five at-bats in the series. Add that with Zimmer's season-ending injury, and that of Brandon Guyer, and suddenly the Indians were stuck as they were piecing together their playoff roster.
Jason Kipnis had to be thrust into an unfamiliar role at center field. And the Indians didn't want to put too much on rookie Greg Allen. So they had to go with what they had and hope for the best.
That said, I disagreed with Francona's decision to start Bauer in Game 4 on three days rest when he had Josh Tomlin or Danny Salazar available. I would have had Yandy Diaz on my playoff roster as well.
So what does all of this mean?
A long winter for Tribe players, their front office, and the fans.
This won't help:
Tribe troubles pic.twitter.com/xyYhN6VRdD— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) October 12, 2017
Maybe it's just a streak of bad luck, but I don't think so. When you fail to close out series like this in back-to-back years, it feels like it's something more systemic. Something in your DNA.
What's the answer? You'll see some changes to the roster certainly. Brantley is in the last year of his contract with a $12 million dollar club option. Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce are headed to free agency.
First base coach Sandy Alomar and pitching coach Mickey Callaway have both rumored to be on the list for managerial openings in Detroit, Boston, and with the Mets. So you can expect some change to Francona's coaching staff.
Make no mistake, the window of opportunity is still there for the Indians. This is a team with a strong, young core of players and the best manager in baseball.
They need to follow the advice of Alec Baldwin's Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross: