CLEVELAND — They conquered injuries, adversity and doubts all season. The little team that could.
The Indians were models of resiliency, the comeback kids. Knock ’em down, they bounced right back and they did it again in Game 7 on the brink of heartbreak.
But they couldn’t contain the curse-busting Cubs.
Cleveland’s unexpected, unforgettable season ended one victory shy of — and so achingly close to — a World Series title as Chicago completed a comeback from a 3-1 deficit to capture its first championship since 1908, beating the Indians 8-7 in 10 innings early Thursday.
“An incredible game,” manager Terry Francona said, “to be a part of.”
The Indians just didn’t have enough as ace Corey Kluber couldn’t win for a third time in the Series, Andrew Miller looked mortal in relief and an overtaxed bullpen finally crumbled in extra innings.
“They tried until there was nothing left,” Francona said.
Rajai Davis’ two-run homer in the eighth briefly saved the season, but this year belongs to the Cubs, who scored twice in the 10th off Bryan Shaw following a 17-minute rain delay.
Cleveland tried to rally yet again in the bottom half, when Davis’ two-out RBI single made it 8-7. But then Michael Martinez grounded out against Mike Montgomery, and it was over.
“That was quite a Series,” Francona said.
“To be associated with those players in that clubhouse, it is an honor. And I just told them that,” he added. “It’s going to hurt. It hurts because we care, but they need to walk with their head held high because they left nothing on the field.”
Forced to take on America’s new favorite postseason pastime, these talented Cubbies, without two starters, Cleveland came up just a bit short.
Now the Indians’ World Series drought of 68 years is baseball’s longest.
After the final out, most Cleveland players quickly left the dugout. Not Jason Kipnis.
The second baseman, who grew up in suburban Chicago rooting for the Cubs, leaned on the railing and briefly watched a celebration that remains only a dream.
This one hurts for Cleveland fans, but not as much as 1997, when the Indians blew a late lead in Game 7 on a humid night in Florida and lost in extra innings to the Marlins.
The 2016 Indians weren’t expected to win the AL Central or beat Boston in the Division Series or take out Toronto in the AL Championship Series or push Chicago up against the wall. And yet, that’s what the Indians did, which is why it will sting all winter.
It was right there for them. After winning two of three at Wrigley Field, the Indians came home to Progressive Field with two chances to close out the Cubs, but couldn’t get it done. Cleveland is first Series team since the 1979 Baltimore Orioles to lose Games 6 and 7 in their own ballpark.
Kluber, magnificent throughout Cleveland’s dash through October, ran out of gas on a warm November night.
Taking on the Cubs for the third time in nine days was too much to ask of the right-hander, who won his first two starts in the Series. He gave up a homer to Dexter Fowler on his fourth pitch and was pulled in the fifth by Francona, who had no choice but to start the 30-year-old on short rest if the Indians were going to have any chance against Chicago’s loaded lineup.
And while Kluber wasn’t as sharp in Game 7 as he had been, neither was Miller.
The lights-out left-hander, whose acquisition at the trade deadline vaulted the Indians from competitive to contenders, allowed two runs — one a homer to 39-year-old Cubs catcher David Ross — and didn’t dominate. Entering Game 7, he had allowed just one run in 17 innings over nine appearances in this postseason.
As it turned out, a second title for a Cleveland team in four months was too much to ask.
When LeBron James and the Cavaliers ended the city’s 52-year championship drought in June, the Indians went along for the ride as Cleveland morphed into “Believeland” and there was a feeling anything was possible.
And it was, until the Cubs came calling.
The Indians moved into first place in the AL Central on June 4 and never moved out. They won 14 straight games from June 17 to July 1 — a run that coincided with the Cavs winning their title — and then held off the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers despite losing starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injuries in September.
Cleveland played all but 11 games without All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley, who tried but couldn’t make it back following offseason shoulder surgery. The Indians also shook off PED suspensions of outfielders Marlon Byrd and Abraham Almonte by acquiring Coco Crisp and Brandon Guyer, two veterans who not only plugged holes in the lineup but provided veteran leadership for Cleveland’s youngsters.
But Francona was the real difference maker.
The 57-year-old manager, who guided Boston to two Series titles, somehow steered the Indians around danger for months. He got the most out of this team, mostly unknowns to the rest of the country, but now a team worth watching for years to come.