CLEVELAND -- The sting is still there for the Indians. It might linger through October while the rest of baseball's postseason clubs battle it out for a World Series title. Cleveland did not think its run to the playoffs would be a one-and-done affair.
When that sting from Wednesday's loss to the Rays in the American League Wild Card Game does wear off, though, the Indians should be able to appreciate all they accomplished in 2013. The Tribe will not be satisfied -- simply reaching the postseason is never the ultimate goal -- but the club can head into next year with heightened expectations.
"Once you step back and look at it," second baseman Jason Kipnis said, "this was a great year for our team and our organization. I thought we did a tremendous job of turning this place around. It's only a step in the right direction. It's going to be another stepping stone that we take into next year."
General manager Chris Antonetti's offseason overhauling of the team began with the hiring of manager Terry Francona last October. Cleveland then reeled in top free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and used an array of trades -- big and small -- to drastically alter the offense and pitching staff. It was all done in an effort to swiftly move on from Cleveland's 94-loss showing last season.
There were plenty of ups and downs, and injuries mixed in, but the Indians held their ground all season, with the team's 21-6 outburst in September leading to the AL's top Wild Card spot. Cleveland won 10 games in a row to end the regular season, becoming the sixth team since 1900 to finish a campaign with a streak at least that long.
The final result was a 24-win improvement over the Indians' showing in 2012. Excluding strike-shortened seasons, that tied the 1986 Indians for the largest year-to-year win jump in the 113-year history of the Cleveland organization.
"It truly was an organizational effort to have the success we've had this year," Antonetti said. "That made it all the more gratifying, because everyone contributed."
There were plenty of veterans in the fold, but the Indians also featured young cornerstone players, such as pitching prospect Danny Salazar, left fielder Michael Brantley, catchers Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana, setup man Cody Allen and Kipnis, among others. Down on the farm, shortstop Francisco Lindor heads a talented class of prospects.
"Hopefully, everybody buys in to what we've got," Gomes said. "I feel like we've got a great future ahead of us."
The Indians earned the right to host the Wild Card Game, but hoped to extend their run deeper into October.
"You kind of feel like you let the city down a little bit," Swisher said. "It was nice to get a little taste. Now, it's go home, work hard, get your work in, get back ready for Spring Training. Hopefully, [we'll] get back here, and more."
The Indians are convinced they are on the cusp of something special.
"Definitely. I think you saw that from what they did this offseason," reliever Joe Smith said. "I said it all along -- when you bring in a guy like Terry Francona, things are only going in one direction. At least the thought process is in one direction. It's nice to see. We had a few down years. This was fun."
Record: 92-70, second in the AL Central
Defining moment: In the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 24, veteran Jason Giambi crushed a pitch from White Sox closer Addison Reed, launching it into the seats in the right-field stands for a pinch-hit, walk-off, season-saving home run. The two-run shot overcame a blown save in the top of the ninth by closer Chris Perez, and gave the Tribe its fifth victory in the 10-game winning streak that clinched a Wild Card berth.
What went right: In his first season at the helm, Francona completely changed the clubhouse culture and helped the Indians quickly turn the page on the nightmare that was the 2012 campaign. ... Under the guidance of new pitching coach Mickey Callaway, the Tribe's rotation enjoyed a great turnaround. Justin Masterson made the All-Star team, Ubaldo Jimenez reemerged as a frontline starter, Scott Kazmir turned in an incredible comeback season, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister turned into reliable options, and Salazar dazzled in his debut. ... Kipnis enjoyed his first All-Star season, winning the AL Player of the Month Award in June, while stepping into the lineup's third spot and once again distinguishing himself as one of the league's most versatile offensive weapons. ... Gomes came up from Triple-A and captured the starting catching job by the second half with a blend of potent offense and stellar defense and game-calling. ... Santana continued to serve as a powerful and patient hitter, while adjusting to more time as a designated hitter down the stretch. ... The midseason trade for lefty Marc Rzepczynski brought stability to Cleveland's bullpen in the second half. ... The roster's depth was sound with the additions of utility men Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles. ... Giambi was brought in to provide leadership and the occasional pinch-hit home run. The 42-year-old slugger excelled in both regards.
What went wrong: Not all of Cleveland's offseason signings worked out as hoped. Mark Reynolds was brought in to provide right-handed power, and he did through early May. A prolonged slump led to his release by August, though. Right-hander Brett Myers, who was in the plans as the No. 3 starter, suffered an elbow injury in April and was also released in August. ... The late-inning due of setup man Vinnie Pestano and Perez faltered. Pestano was demoted to Triple-A in July and Perez lost his role as the closer in late September. ... Lonnie Chisenhall struggled early in the year and was sent to Triple-A. When he returned to the Majors, Cleveland essentially platooned him with Aviles at third base. ... Kluber and McAllister both missed time due to right middle finger injuries. ... Pitching prospect Trevor Bauer, who was acquired from Arizona in an offseason trade, struggled in his first year in Cleveland's system. ... Relievers Nick Hagadone, Rich Hill and Scott Barnes each struggled, hurting the Indians' left-handed relief situation. ... Bourn, Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera fell short of their career standards overall, but performed better down the stretch to help the Tribe reach the playoffs. ... Cleveland went just 4-15 against Detroit, which won the division by just one game.
Biggest surprise: Jimenez went from losing 17 games a year ago to having the best ERA in the AL in the second half. After Masterson was sidelined with an oblique injury in early September, Jimenez went undefeated and posted a 1.09 ERA in the final month. He tied a career high with 13 strikeouts in Cleveland's Wild Card-clinching victory in the final game of the regular season. Jimenez will be eligible for free agency, so the Indians need to decide whether to make a run at retaining the righty for 2014.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.