CLEVELAND – This is how it ends against the Houston Astros, with your ballpark slowly, quietly losing its color. Here, on a Monday afternoon, the red of T-shirts and caps and banners and face paint had, by rush hour, gone the green of aggravated tummies and abandoned seats and sad exits.
You play your songs and hold your breath and bang your drum and, and, and it ends the same way, with the Astros a little better, if not a lot better. With the shadows long and your season over. With the weariness that comes with playing your heart out and concluding it wouldn’t be quite enough or, here, in the case of the Cleveland Indians, not near enough.
The Astros once won 101 games and then, inch by inch, breath by breath, their first World Series championship. Then, in an era where it’s maybe too much to ask to do it again, because it’s hard to reach the one career achievement you’ll be remembered for and then cold-start the whole thing again, because the journey is too arduous and the luck – there’s always luck – too fleeting, the Astros won 103 games and, by early Monday evening, had dismantled the hopeful Indians in three games.
So they left their dugout not in hysterical revelry but composed satisfaction. Over three games in four days they’d outscored the Indians 21-6, outhit them .327 to .144, outhomered them 8-2, committed zero errors, did their thing, spotted their fastballs, hit their cut-off men, took their walks. Just played the game, nearly flawlessly.
And then they drank some beer, the way the gods intended.
The final score on Monday, playing in the early afternoon JV time slot, was Astros, 11-3. George Springer, who’d homered three times in a month-and-a-half since injuring his thumb, homered three times in the series, twice on Monday, both on first pitches, because, as he explained, “It’s hard to hit in this league behind in the count.” And Marwin González lobbed the most beautiful opposite-field, two-run double you’ll ever see, which, he corrected, “I don’t know if it was a gorgeous swing. It was an ugly swing.” And, whatever. And Carlos Correa, previously hitless in the series, smoked a 3-0 fastball for an other-way home run, which was more than a good swing, more than three more runs, because whether the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees are coming, the Astros are going to need Carlos Correa.
“Not so much the swing,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “but the confidence to swing 3-0.”
A sore and sticky back has turned Correa into a guy who bats seventh and survives most days or tries. The easier way out on a 3-0 pitch is to wait on ball four, to pass the inning to the next guy, who’s probably and for the moment a bit more capable. So Hinch was encouraged that Correa isn’t there yet, isn’t in a place of defensiveness, and instead attacked a pitch that by all means should have been attacked. Which is a reasonable metaphor for the Astros, who’ve not yet been accused of living off a never-ending victory parade, who’ve not once wondered where that extra ounce of energy has gone, and instead appear to have gotten better.
This is where we defer to Alex Bregman, who had two more hits Monday and finished the series batting .556. He is the brash, third-year player who already embodies the fight in the Astros – him and Jose Altuve and Springer and, hell, a lot of them. Soaked in whatever had been tossed and sprayed in his clubhouse for the past hour, Bregman was explaining hitting, how results and mechanics come and go, how base hits are chased with such single-mindedness, and in the process summarized what a championship season must also feel like.
“You paddle out,” Bregman said, “get on a wave and ride it out as long as you can. Then, as soon as you don’t have it anymore, you paddle back out. You paddle back out and find a new wave.”
That’s the relentlessness of it. How it must be. How 101 wins and a World Series title that sweeps a city off its feet becomes 103 wins and a decent chance at another, how there’s little or no drop-off, how if anything you’ve discovered something inside you that you can keep and wield. A Division Series sweep doesn’t conquer the world, not when those big boys are still fighting it out in the Bronx, but it’s what was in front of them. Just for a little while, turned out.
“As the season got underway, I was curious,” Hinch said of what his team would feel like, the season after. “But not after the first day of spring training. … Obviously there are a lot of things that have to happen to win in this league. Health. Good fortune. You’ve got to catch some teams at the right time. You’ve got to win a lot of games.
“As you can see, our guys are pretty hungry to advance.”
And, then, it’s better than the alternative. The Indians have lost nine postseason elimination games in a row, dating to 23 years ago. It gets old, probably. They were a game from winning a World Series themselves not so long ago. Rather than that moment, that loss, being the start of something huge, the Indians have twice since been out in the first round. That weighs heavy.
“Oh, yeah, the Indians,” a Cleveland cabbie had said Sunday night, as though he’d just remembered they were still playing.
The streets of downtown Cleveland were all but empty, folks having wrung themselves out by dark.
The football team has two wins and October is barely a week old. And a tie. The truth about the Astros, and what that meant for the Indians, was settling in.
“Eh,” the cabbie said, “all their pitchers are hurt,” because that’s what 0-2 feels like, 0-2 to the defending World Series champions, 0-2 when you’ve already spent Kluber and Carrasco, 0-2 and the offense has six hits in 60 at-bats, which doesn’t even sound possible until, by the end, by 0-3, it’s 13 hits (three for extra bases) in 90 at-bats.
So, 24 hours after the Browns put nearly 68,000 people in FirstEnergy Stadium, the Indians put nearly 38,000 people in Progressive Field, and then the Astros put 38,000 people out of Progressive Field. One at a time. Until it was all green again. And then dark.
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