What we learned from the Tribe's ALDS loss

Staff, sluggers struggled to find rhythm against dominant Astros

October 9th, 2018

CLEVELAND -- The Indians' roster was supposed to be made for October. The timing of Cleveland clinching its third straight American League Central title was supposed to give the club ample time to dig deep into the Astros' approach and find weaknesses in preparation of the AL Division Series.

Slugger Josh Donaldson was built up to everyday duty. broke free from a rehab-based schedule. and acclimated to their new positions. The rotation was healthy, giving the Tribe a variety of ways to set up the pitching staff for the five-game Division Series against Houston.

For all that seemingly went right with Cleveland's planning over the final three weeks of the regular season, everything came unglued in the Astros' three-game sweep of the Indians. Now, following three straight postseason runs without a World Series trophy in hand, the front office is staring down an offseason that will be filled with turnover and question marks.

In the meantime, the main question is whether manager Terry Francona would have done anything different leading up to or during the Tribe's ALDS sweep at the hands of Houston.

"No. We prepare pretty extensively," Francona said after Monday's 11-3 loss at Progressive Field. "I'd like some of the outcomes to be different, but we felt good going in. That's an important thing. Not a lot of things went the way we hoped they would."

Here are five things that swung the momentum Houston's way.

1. Sticking with in Game 1.

Kluber cruised through the first three innings of his Game 1 start against the Astros, firing only 33 pitches and allowing no hits. The ace then ran into trouble in the fourth, which included 35 pitches in a grueling eight-batter frame in which Houston took a 2-0 lead. Rather than going to the bullpen -- one featuring as a multi-inning leverage arm -- Francona stuck by Kluber following the lengthy, high-stress inning.

and greeted Kluber with back-to-back home runs in the fifth inning, helping Houston pull away with the win. Kluber faced only three more battters in an outing that did nothing to quiet the lingering chatter about his past October troubles. While Kluber helped carry Cleveland to the 2016 World Series with four brilliant outings, the righty has a 10.20 ERA in his past four playoff starts.

2. Pulling in Game 2.

This one is more magnified with the benefit of hindsight. With Cleveland clinging to a 1-0 lead in the sixth, Francona turned to Miller with one out and runners on first and second. The manager cited the fact that the next batter, , already had two hits off Carrasco and was 1-for-8 with six strikeouts in his career against Cleveland's left-handed relief ace.

In 2016, when Miller was a monster on the mound, no one would have questioned the move. This is two years later, though. Miller endured three trips to the disabled list this season, and Cleveland was hoping the lefty could finally find his rhythm for October. Gonzalez sent an elevated outside heater to right field, where bobbled the ball. Two runs scored, which was enough for Houston to pick up its second victory.

3. Bullpen fears realized.

During the regular season, the Indians tied a franchise record by having 25 players log at least one relief appearance. The team's embattled relief corps posted an 8.01 ERA in May, which was the height of the season-long troubles, and it ended 25th in the Majors with a 4.60 ERA. That was the highest ERA for a Cleveland bullpen since 2009.

The acquisitions of Brad Hand, and helped. Over the final month, and Miller looked like they were turning a corner, too. Still, Cleveland tried to strengthen the cast by adding Bauer to the October equation. It didn't work. In 10 combined innings, the bullpen posted an 11.70 ERA, allowing 40 percent of inherited runners (6-of-15) to score. A 2-1 lead through six innings Monday swiftly transformed into a blowout.

4. J-Ram gone MIA.

For four-plus months this season, Ramirez was on pace for arguably the greatest offensive season in the history of the Indians. He also looked like a clear-cut contender for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. On Aug. 19, he was batting .300 with a 1.045 OPS. Then, Ramirez faded in fast and furious fashion. From that point on, the slugger hit .167 with a .583 OPS for the Tribe.

Part of the problem was that pitchers were increasingly hesitant to give Ramirez fastballs, given his .664 slugging percentage on heaters, per Statcast™. Houston's pitchers, however, went right at the All-Star. In the ALDS, Ramirez saw 59.1 percent fastballs, which was a jump over his season rate (52.8 percent). Ramirez was unable to make the adjustment, going 0-for-11 in the series. That gives him a 2-for-31 showing in the past two postseasons.

5. October offense turns frigid.

It is unfair to put the onus only on Ramirez. He was one within a lineup that went cold from top to bottom. Much was made of Cleveland's .171 average and .550 OPS in the team's ALDS exit last year. Well, the Indians' offense hit .144 with a .418 OPS in the three losses to the Astros. The heart of the lineup (Ramirez, and Donaldson) went a combined 2-for-32. The Indians scored six runs: Two via solo shots by , two via wild pitches, one on a groundout and one on a sacrifice fly.

"We were just outplayed," Kipnis said. "I wish it weren't that simple. It just seems from top to bottom we were out-scouted, out-pitched, out-coached a little bit. They really did just a fantastic job over there of being ready and prepared before the series. I don't think we were underprepared. They just went out and executed and played the way you need to play to win."