CLEVELAND — Thanks to sitting on the coast of Lake Erie, winters are often long in Northeast Ohio. The region can get a foot of snow dumped on it with seemingly no warning.
Fans of the Cleveland Indians are in the beginning of their 69th consecutive long winter… and it has nothing to do with the calendar claiming it will still be autumn for another two months or any meteorological phenomena.
It is all because the Indians failed again in their quest to win their first World Series since 1948. This year’s miss was much more painful than most of the others.
The Indians were favored to win the American League pennant after going 102-60 in the regular season to lead the league in wins. They also entered the postseason having won 31 of 35 games, a stretch bolstered by an AL-record 22-game winning streak.
No wonder the Indians were devastated Wednesday night after losing 5-2 to the New York Yankees in the winner-take-all Game 5 of their American League Division Series at Progressive Field.
The Indians won the first two games of the series but couldn’t close it out. It was just like last year when they took a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs in the World Series but lost the final three games.
That makes the Indians 0-6 in their last six close-out games over the last two seasons. In today’s professional sports culture in which success is measured strictly by titles, the Indians — fair or not — are considered failures.
“They deserved to win, but I’m not going to tell you the better team is going on,” Indian center fielder Jason Kipnis said of the Yankees after Game 5. “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.”
The question now is if the Indians can bounce back and make another run at winning the World Series in 2018.
They clearly suffered a hangover after losing in 10 innings to the Cubs in Game 7 last year. The Indians were just 48-45 on July 19 before winning 54 of their final 69 games.
It would be easy to see the Indians being in a funk when they report to Goodyear, Ariz., for spring training in February.
One thing the Indians will have going for them is they return most of the key members of a pitching staff that led the major leagues with a 3.30 ERA. Included are starters Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco, along with swingmen Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger and relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller.
The very affordable $3 million option on starter Josh Tomlin’s contract for 2018 figures to be exercised.
The Indians have a core of an outstanding offense, the young double play combination of 23-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor and 25-year-old second baseman Jose Ramirez. They also have veteran designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion.
However, there are lineup questions to answer, first and foremost whether the Indians will exercise their $11 millon club option on left fielder Michael Brantley for next season or buy it out for $1 million.
Brantley, 30, is a two-time All-Star and a quiet clubhouse leader. However, he has also been limited to 101 games over the last two seasons after undergoing a pair of surgeries on his right shoulder in 2016, then spraining his right ankle this year.
First baseman Carlos Santana is also eligible for free agency and will be seeking a long-term deal after spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Indians. President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti would like to re-sign Santana, but he admits he does not know if the Indians will be able to afford the 31-year-old.
Right fielder Jay Bruce, acquired Aug. 9 from the New York Mets in a trade, will also certainly be out of the Indians’ price range despite his desire to stay in Cleveland. The chances of signing reserve outfielder Austin Jackson, who resurrected his career after coming to spring training on a minor league contract, seem more realistic.
Three relievers — right-handers Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith and left-hander Craig Breslow — are also eligible for free agency.
While Shaw has been a key member of the bullpen, the Indians may be leery of making a long-term commitment. He has led the AL in games pitched in three of the last four seasons and has made 378 relief appearances in his five seasons with Cleveland, an average of 75.6 a year.
Smith has reasons beyond baseball to stay with the Indians. His mother, Lee, is fighting Huntington’s disease and lives only two hours away from Cleveland in Southwest Ohio. His wife, CBS Sports broadcaster Allie LaForce, is a native of the Cleveland area.