CLEVELAND -- As the baseball caromed off the clock beyond Progressive Field's intimidating left-field wall, and as Francisco Lindor jumped in the air, pumped his fist and then tossed his bat away, it felt like the Indians just might be able to complete Step 1 in their improbable comeback bid.
For that moment in the fifth inning on Monday afternoon, while the Cleveland crowd shook the stadium, the past seven decades of baseball in this city were an afterthought. Then the Astros quickly reminded everyone that they are the reigning World Series champions, storming back to deal the Tribe an 11-3 defeat that sealed a three-game sweep of the American League Division Series.
"We've got to go home now -- before we're ready to. That hurts. It always stings," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "You know there's going to be some turnover, and it's a real special group to all of us. So that's a hard one, when you're saying goodbye before you're ready."
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All that energy that was unleashed from the stands -- fueled further by Lindor's celebratory sprint around the bases after a go-ahead home run -- will now give way to the frustration of another early-arriving offseason. A 10-run collapse by Cleveland's bullpen across the seventh, eighth and ninth innings paved the way for the final loss of the 2018 campaign.
With no World Series title since 1948, the Indians have the longest drought in the Majors. The defeat carries with it the lingering sting of the past two Octobers, too. Cleveland reached the World Series in 2016, only to lose Game 7 to the Cubs. A year ago, the Tribe had a stacked roster that looked prime for a deep run, but the team was bounced in the ALDS by the Yankees.
"I didn't expect us to lose the way we lost -- 3-0," said Indians slugger Edwin Encarnacion. "With the talent we have in this clubhouse, that's not supposed to happen."
The relief corps was an issue for most of this season, so the Indians devised a different strategy for October. Starter Trevor Bauer would be utilized as a multi-inning leverage weapon to aid the shaky staff. In the finale of this best-of-five series, a pair of throwing errors by Bauer gave Houston the opening it needed to soak another clubhouse with champagne.
"It was my job to get us to the finish line," Bauer said. "I didn't do that."
Following a drama-free sixth, and with the Indians clinging to a 2-1 lead, Bauer remained on the hill for the seventh. The righty promptly allowed a single to the fleet-footed Tony Kemp and then misfired on a pickoff attempt to allow the runner to reach second. Next up was George Springer, who sent a dribbler up the third-base line for an unlikely single.
With runners on the corners, Bauer induced a grounder off the bat of Jose Altuve, but Cleveland was only able to convert the out at second. Kemp scored with ease on the play to pull the game into a 2-2 deadlock. That set things up for Alex Bregman, who chopped a pitch back to the mound, where Bauer gloved the ball.
In an attempt to start an inning-ending double play, Bauer fired the ball wildly to Lindor, pulling the shortstop off the base for the pitcher's second error of the inning.
"There's no way around it. That shoulda been the end of the inning," Bauer said. "It's a 2-2 game in the seventh. We've got a chance. And I didn't execute."
Bauer then walked Yuli Gurriel to load the bases for Marwin Gonzalez, who connected on a 95-mph fastball elevated and out of the zone, sending it into left for a two-run double. The three-run outburst by the 103-win Astros put the Indians in a 4-2 hole that the club was unable to overcome.
That rendered an outstanding effort by Tribe starter Mike Clevinger moot. Over five innings, Clevinger piled up nine strikeouts and allowed only a solo home run to Springer in the fifth. The right-hander generated 18 swinging strikes against Houston, which had 16 swinging strikes combined in Games 1 and 2 against starters Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
"It doesn't mean anything," Clevinger said of his performance.
Springer, who holds the Astros' club record for playoff home runs with 10 in his career, also launched a solo shot in a six-run eighth that transformed the game into a blowout.
After being overpowered by Houston righties Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the first two games, Cleveland had to contend with the left-handed Dallas Keuchel, who takes the sting out of bats more than he blows batters away. For much of his five frames, Keuchel succeeded in that regard, limiting the Tribe to a sacrifice fly from Michael Brantley until Lindor's game-changing shot.
With two outs in the fifth, Lindor crushed a first-pitch fastball over the middle to left field, where it rocketed out at 109.6 mph, per Statcast™. The 446-foot shot was Lindor's longest of the season and the farthest home run of his career from the right side of the plate. The shortstop jumped out of the batter's box, pumped his fist around second, howled to the heavens and clapped his hands hard upon reaching the dugout.
Overall, in the series, the Indians' lineup scored six runs and hit .144 as a team. Lindor launched two home runs, but he downplayed his personal performance.
"I wish I could have helped my team a little better," said the shortstop.
Lindor did not want the Tribe's 2018 journey to end. Neither did his audience. Now, Cleveland's long wait for a World Series triumph continues.
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Allen's last outing? With the bases loaded and Houston holding a 4-2 lead in the seventh, the Tribe handed longtime closer Cody Allen the ball for what may have been his final game in a Cleveland uniform. Allen -- eligible for free agency this offseason -- then struck out Tyler White to end the threat.
Allen returned in the eighth, but he allowed Springer's second home run, gave up a double to Altuve, threw a wild pitch and issued two intentional walks. After Allen's exit, lefty Brad Hand gave up a three-run blast to Carlos Correa.
"I was not good," Allen said. "I was not good, and I feel bad for the guys who were extremely good this year and carried us to this point, because I did not help in getting us past a very, very good team in Houston. We knew we were going to have to play our best baseball, and we didn't, and I didn't."
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Clevinger's escape: Following a leadoff walk to Kemp in the third, Encarnacion could not corral a pickoff attempt at first base, resulting in an error that allowed the runner to reach second. Clevinger later yielded a one-out single to Altuve and hit Bregman with a pitch to load the bases with one out. It was a critical point in the game, and the Tribe starter was up to the challenge. Clevinger struck out Gurriel and induced a flyout from Gonzalez, leaving Houston empty-handed.
"He battled like crazy. I thought he had great stuff," Francona said. "Obviously, a lot of deep counts. I mean, he was close to 100 after 5. They had some really good opportunities, but he made some really good pitches to keep it [close]."
Clevinger's nine strikeouts against the Astros set a franchise record for a pitcher making his first career postseason start. Kluber (seven strikeouts in Game 2 of the 2016 ALDS) and Carrasco (seven strikeouts in Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS) shared the previous mark for the Indians.