CLEVELAND — The end came quickly, painfully and with little warning.
When the final out was made, and Cleveland’s season crashed way before it ever imagined with a 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees, the team retreated to their clubhouse to try to figure out what went wrong.
The list was long.
Ace right-hander Corey Kluber pitched poorly. All-Stars Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez didn’t hit, and Cleveland committed seven errors in the final two games when they didn’t look anything like a team that won 102 games or was favoured to take home the championship coming into October.
“It actually stinks,” closer Cody Allen said in a subdued clubhouse. “They just flat-out played better than us the last three days.”
Unable to finish off a young Yankees team fighting for its manager, Cleveland became the first team in history to blow a two-game series lead in consecutive postseasons.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
After getting to Game 7 of the World Series a year ago, Cleveland set out to win it all in 2017. This was supposed to be their year.
Instead, it’s just another heartbreaker for a Cleveland team that appeared unstoppable and had Kluber on the mound at home for the biggest game this season.
“It’s disappointing,” manager Terry Francona said. “We felt good about ourselves. We came down the stretch playing very good baseball, and we did some things in this series that I don’t think were characteristic of our team. We made some errors, kicked the ball around a little bit.
“Sometimes you don’t swing the bat. That’s part of it. But we made it harder to win in some cases, especially the last two games.”
But the presumptive Cy Young Award winner wasn’t himself in two starts, posting a 12.79 ERA and looking ordinary. Following Game 5, Francona hinted that Kluber may have been bothered by a back injury — and other health issues — that put him on the disabled list earlier this season.
“I don’t think we need to get into details of that,” Kluber said when asked about the injury. “I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch. I don’t think anybody is 100 per cent at this point of the year, but good enough to go out there and try to compete.”
Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius homered twice off Kluber in the first three innings, staking the Yankees to a 3-0 lead.
“I made two mistakes to Didi,” Kluber said. “He’s a good hitter and he hit two home runs. I felt like I threw the ball better than I did the other day, but ultimately it wasn’t good enough.”
When they left for New York on Friday with a 2-0 lead, Cleveland seemed to be in the driver’s seat.
But a team that won 22 straight games — the longest streak in AL history — couldn’t prevent its first three-game losing streak since July 30 to Aug. 1.
Outfielder Jay Bruce, who was so clutch after coming over in an August trade from the New York Mets, was stunned by Cleveland’s unexpected slide.
“It’s a missed opportunity for us,” said Bruce, eligible for free agency this winter. “I’m still very proud of the way we played this year, but obviously it doesn’t mean much when you get to the post-season and can’t do the job.
“I don’t have any explanation for it. I don’t know if there’s an exact science for closing out a series. We couldn’t get it done. We got beat. They played better. That’s the bottom line.”
Jason Kipnis, who moved from second base to centre field late in the season, was having trouble accepting Cleveland’s fate.
“They deserved to win, but I’m not going to tell you the better team is going on,” he said. “I still think we’re the better team, but they played better than we did the last three games.
“When you have that good of a season, over 100 wins, it makes it that more disheartening when you don’t finish the job. Everyone in here knows we had higher hopes than this, but that’s baseball. This game is tough. It just didn’t work out.”