Indians savor unforgettable run in 2013 season

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 on Wednesday night,
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.”

The Indians blew several scoring chances against Tampa Bay
starter Alex Cobb., who deserves credit for making pitches when he
needed to. But Cleveland’s failure in the clutch – one of their
strengths during the season – can at least partially be pinned on
Swisher, Kipnis and leadoff hitter Michael Bourn. The trio went a
combined 0 for 12 with four strikeouts.

It’s just one game, but Swisher’s postseason problems have
trailed him from Oakland to Chicago to New York and now to
Cleveland. He’s batting .165 in 47 career playoff games.

With two runners on in the seventh inning, Swisher, swinging out
of his cleats at every pitch to try and hit a game-tying homer,
struck out on three pitches from reliever Joel Peralta. The at-bat
summed up Swisher’s night and further exposed one of Cleveland’s
glaring weaknesses, the lack of a big, run-producing bat in the
middle of the lineup.

The Indians didn’t have a player with 85 RBIs, and one of
general manager Chris Antonetti’s top priorities in the offseason
is to find a slugger. That won’t be easy, but Antonetti, who has
been aggressive in rebuilding the Indians – with owner Paul Dolan’s
financial backing – 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
in both league 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,” Bourn said ”That’s something
we’ll improve on.”

The starting pitching, a major 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 – 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in September – 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. ”They
never gave up on me.”

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, another
possible free agent, has told the Indians he wants to stay.

Giambi, who essentially saved the season last week with a
pinch-hit, ninth-inning homer to beat Chicago as the Indians were
fighting for a wild card, doesn’t know what his future holds.

Francona has credited Giambi, more than any other player, for
Cleveland’s stunning rebound.

Giambi could receive managerial offers after nearly getting
Colorado’s job last year, 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. We came together. We exceeded
everybody’s expectations, now guys have a little taste of what it’s
like to go to the playoffs, so hopefully they continue to work hard
and keep that push.”