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CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Indians, victorious in their final 10 regular season games, stormed into Wednesday’s wild card game hotter than any team in the American League.
The Tampa Bay Rays, winners in nine of their last 11, were merely a few degrees below the Tribe’s sizzling pace.
Something had to give in this sudden death duel at Progressive Field between a couple of 92-win teams that got outsized production from their modest payrolls. In the end it was Cleveland’s inability to produce the big hit time and time again that prevented the club from advancing in its first postseason appearance in six years.
The Tribe’s smoldering bats cooled amid a short sleeve kind of October night, leading to a 4-0 defeat that brings a bitter conclusion to the club’s unexpected renaissance under first-year manager Terry Francona.
The Indians stranded nine runners — leaving someone on base in all but the first, sixth, and ninth innings — and didn’t get much assistance from starter Danny Salazar, who gave way in the fifth to a revolving door of relievers.
A sold-out crowd arrived wearing red and waving white towels, an image reminiscent of postseason baseball the way this hard luck sports city remembered it from not long ago.
Unlike the power-packed lineups from the mid-1990s or the Cy Young-heavy staff that anchored the 2007 squad, this year’s club was assured of no more than a single postseason affair in the first season of the amended wild card format.
"As much as we’re trying to keep our chins up around here, it’s frustrating to lose that game," said Nick Swisher, who was 0 for 4 and left four on base.
The Tribe’s undoing — never delivering in the clutch — was not an issue when they came from behind numerous times in the final month of the regular season to scratch away a 4½-game deficit in the wild card standings.
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They finished 21-6 in September and needed every last win to secure a postseason bid that few envisioned, even after a monstrous offseason that delivered marquee bats and, in Francona, one of the most respected leaders in his profession.
Of all the missed opportunities by Cleveland, none burned deeper than in the fifth inning when the Nos. 1 through 3 hitters failed to bring in Yan Gomes from third with no outs.
Michael Bourn and Swisher, the Tribe’s prized offseason acquisitions, went down swinging and grounded to first, respectively. Jason Kipnis followed with a weak tapper to Rays starter Alex Cobb (11-3 regular season).
"That will beat you right there," Gomes said of the nine stranded runners.
An inning earlier, Asdrubal Cabrera, the only remaining member left from the 2007 team that came within a win of reaching the World Series, hit into a double play with the bases loaded.
The story was the same in the second, third, and seventh innings, each time the Tribe failing to conjure up the same magic in October that carried them through September.
Ryan Raburn was stranded in the second after a two-out double. Lonnie Chisenhall never advanced past first with one out in the third. With two on in the seventh, Bourn grounded out before Joel Peralta entered and fanned Swisher. Cobb lasted 6 2/3 innings, allowing eight hits and striking out five.
"It was crazy, man, how many strikes he was throwing," Swisher said. "Sometimes you run into a buzz-saw like him."
Tampa Bay, which survived for the second time this week in a win-or-go-home situation, advanced to play American League East foe Boston on Friday. First pitch in the Division Series is set for 3:07 p.m. at Fenway Park. The Rays didn’t have a postseason ticket until Monday, when they rode the wave of a complete game by David Price to win 5-2 at Texas in game No. 163.
"All in enemy territory," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I’m so proud of our guys."
The Tribe’s Salazar breezed through the first two innings, freezing Rays batters with one 98-mph fastball after the next and making Francona look wise for penciling in the largely untested 23-year-old right hander for his first postseason appearance.
Salazar soon lost form, serving up a home run to left by Delmon Young on the first pitch of the third. The Rays tacked on two more runs in the fourth.
Almost immediately after Bryan Shaw began warming up in the bullpen, Desmond Jennings ripped a shot down the third base line past Chisenhall to score two.
Salazar, who threw just 67 pitches, was gone after walking Jose Molina to start the fifth, and Francona emptied his bullpen.
Marc Rzepczynski (one batter), Shaw (1 2/3), one-time staff ace Justin Masterson (two innings), Cody Allen (1/3), and Joe Smith (2/3, unearned run) took turns over the final five frames.
"I thought as long as we had a chance [if] we kept trying to mix and match in the bullpen and keep it right where it was," Francona said. "You never feel like you’re out of it, ever."