CLEVELAND — Birds headed for I-71 to begin their rush-hour flight south. Squirrels skirmished for nuts. Lake Erie froze over.
Winter in Cleveland arrived cruelly ahead of schedule Wednesday night.
On a do-or-die night when the Indians needed their biggest stars the most, they again delivered the least in a 5-2 loss to the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
And now the Tribe is done and dead, adding the anguished latest page to the franchise’s tortured postseason history.
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What ... just ... happened?
For starters, ace Corey Kluber spun another clunker, Francisco Lindor (2-for-18 in the series), Jose Ramirez (2-for-20), and a reputedly robust lineup vanished, and the Indians’ defense showed more holes than a downtown street here.
As to the how — how a searing team favored to win the World Series could suddenly look so inept in blowing a 2-0 series lead and dropping the franchise’s eighth straight elimination game — your guess is as good as mine.
By the time the Indians committed their third error of the night and their seventh in the last two games in a ham-handed ninth inning, a fan in the first row behind the home dugout grabbed his full bag of popcorn, dumped the contents on his head, and stomped on it.
That about summed up the night.
This was not a heads-must-roll collapse. Baseball is the funniest game. None of us would be paid to write or talk about it if the better and favored team always won. In fact, the best team over 162 games of the regular season rarely emerges from the one-month tilt-a-whirl of October. A team can win almost every game for six weeks, then lose three straight and not be choke artists or losers or bums of whatever else social media is labeling them this morning.
But this one will burn long and deep.
When late commissioner Bart Giamatti famously said baseball is designed to break your heart, what he really meant is Indians baseball is designed to break your heart.
The Indians had snared despair from the wired-shut jaws of victory before. In 1997, they were two outs away from everything. In 1999, they became the first team in 50 years to score 1,000 runs, then rolled Boston in the first two games of the opening round. In 2007, they opened a 3-1 lead over the Red Sox in the AL championship series. Last year, they put the same armlock on the Cubs in the World Series.
And yet never were the expectations greater.
For all the talk of Cleveland as an overestimated, fly-by-night baseball city, the truth is fans here — like their bridesmaid team — were waiting for The One.
And this was supposed to be that team.
The city wrapped its arms around the club in a way it had not since the magic of the 1990s. The Indians had the highest local television ratings in the game this season while more than two million fans passed through the gates of their downtown ballpark for the first time in a decade.
The team was fun and fearless and near formidable as ever. They had their deepest lineup in a generation, a collection of arms that — at least according to the seamheads — leading analytics website FanGraphs called “maybe the best pitching staff ever,” and a manager bound for Cooperstown.
Yes, way, this was supposed to be the year. And this was supposed to be their night, the Indians matching their present ace against former one C.C. Sabathia — now 37 with arthritic knees.
You figured Kluber’s Game 2 lemon was a system error. The baseball droid known as Klubot would reprogram and return fully operational. Since 2014, he had allowed at least six earned runs on seven prior occasions. His ERA in the starts that followed: 1.68.
But this time, the glitch remained.
You had to wonder if he simply again came up small — hard to believe for a pitcher who was so brilliant last October — or he was hurt. Our strong hunch is the latter.
The first sign he was still not himself came early, the pitcher who took one name after another the last four months grooving a 1-2 fastball to Didi Gregorius. The Yankees shortstop swatted it deep into the right-field stands, same as he would another mistake in the third for a two-run blast. The unordinary mistake pitches kept coming. All night, Kluber looked off, his labored mechanics resembling his out-of-sorts form from April, when he battled a lower back strain that prompted a brief trip to the disabled list.
Kluber allowed three runs on three hits while walking two over 3 2/3 innings. When manager Terry Francona yanked him with two outs and a runner on in the fourth after just 67 pitches — marking the first time in Kluber’s career he tossed consecutive starts of less than four innings — you knew the Indians knew something was wrong.
“You know what?” Francona said. “I think he's fighting a lot, and I think you also have to respect the fact that guy wants to go out there and he's our horse. Sometimes it doesn't work.”
Cleveland’s offense, meanwhile, again looked tighter than a vise against Sabathia, striking out eight times in the first four innings. They tagged him for two runs and chased him in the fifth, but Sabathia did his job just the same.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, few of the same players who did theirs so well for six months could say the same.
“Oh, man,” Francona said. “You know, whatever you say isn't going to make anybody feel better, but we win together and we lost together. It was an honor to go through this year with these guys, and there's times it hurt, like tonight. But it's quite a group, and I feel like a better person for going through the year with these guys.”
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