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.”