Tribe won’t sneak up on league in 2017

CLEVELAND — When the epic, drama-drenched Game 7 was briefly delayed by rain, Indians players returned to their clubhouse, where chairs had been removed and plastic sheets hung in anticipation for a party waiting to pop since 1948.

Later, unopened bottles of Dom Perignon were wheeled out of a luxury suite. An ice sculpture of the World Series trophy was cloaked by a black cloth, soon to melt away.

It wasn’t meant to be.

An amazing, unforeseen season had a familiar ending.

Unable to stop Chicago’s curse-slaying run, the Indians, a team that perhaps embodied Cleveland’s blue-collar, get-off-the-mat ethos more than any other, finally succumbed in the 10th inning, losing 8-7 early Thursday before a downpour soaked thousands of Cubs fans who stood in the rain savoring the end of their 108-year championship wait.

Heartbreak still resides in Cleveland.

Only this time, the hurt isn’t as deep.

The Indians weren’t expected to be playing in October, never mind November, and they took some solace in pushing the Cubs to the limit.

“We shocked the world,” said shortstop Francisco Lindor, the 22-year-old who blossomed on baseball’s biggest stage. “No one had us here. Of course, we didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish. We were going to do whatever it took to win, grind at-bats, pitch after pitch, work hard. That’s our mojo. We battled day in and day out.”

The Indians had hoped to duplicate what the Cavs, their neighbors on the other side of Gateway Plaza, had done in June by winning a championship and ending the city’s 52-year title drought. They managed to sidestep adversity for months, but couldn’t overcome losing two starting pitchers and simply didn’t have enough to put away the Cubs and became the first team since the 1979 Baltimore Orioles to squander a 3-1 lead in the Series by losing Games 6 and 7 at home.

They went down — swinging.

“Nobody gave up,” said reliever Andrew Miller, who was virtually unhittable during the postseason before the Cubs figured him out in Game 7. “It was fighting like hell. It was unfortunate that we didn’t quite get there.”

The fact that they got so close is worth a trophy presentation and parade.

The Indians were short-handed from almost the first day of spring training in Arizona.

All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley, their No. 3 hitter and probably the best all-around player on the roster, was unable to get fully healthy and played only 11 games. Without Brantley, manager Terry Francona had to be creative to find production and fortunately the Indians got huge contributions from sluggers Carlos Santana (34 homers) and Mike Napoli (101 RBIs).

Jose Ramirez played four positions, started in all nine spots in the batting order and didn’t miss a beat, batting .312 and was perhaps the team’s MVP.

The Indians survived despite losing starting catcher Yan Gomes for long stretches — the club tried to trade for All-Star Jonathan Lucroy in July — and the outfield was an almost daily patchwork effort because of Brantley and two PED suspensions.

If all that wasn’t enough to stop them, the Indians closed out their division and beat Boston and Toronto in the postseason despite not having injured starters Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar or losing starter Trevor Bauer after he sliced his pinkie playing with a drone — an odd accident that somehow seemed fitting for this resilient group.

The Indians were stitched together from the start.

Francona conjured magic from his bullpen as Miller, Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen combined to protect leads and stifle rallies all the way to the Series.

But in the end, the injuries caught them.

A handcuffed Francona was forced to ride ace Corey Kluber for three starts in nine days against the heavily favored Cubs; Josh Tomlin, who had dealt with his father’s illness during a dreary August, just didn’t have it in Game 6; and Miller, acquired from the New York Yankees in July for these kind of moments, didn’t have the usual bite on his nasty slider in a finale that rates with any Game 7 in history.

In the quiet of Cleveland’s clubhouse afterward, second baseman Jason Kipnis, a Chicago kid who has grown into Cleveland’s leader, put a season he’ll never forget in perspective. Kipnis was hurting, but knew he — and the Indians — will soon heal.

“We will be back,” he said. “We’re pretty confident in this group we got here. There are a lot of people who probably don’t even know who Carlos Carrasco is or Michael Brantley. Those guys have huge roles for us. We kind of followed Kansas City’s lead a little bit to get here. They lost before they won, so I wouldn’t mind if we follow their lead the whole way through. That would be nice.”

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