CLEVELAND — Sometime in the future, once the biting sting of defeat eases, the Cleveland Indians will look back on a 2007 season that began in falling snow and ended with a stunning collapse.
They’ll savor all the good moments.
Not just yet.
“Maybe in a week or so I’ll be able to reflect back and be like, ‘Wow, we had a pretty good season for a team that’s come a long way,’” Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. “But right now it still hurts.”
On Monday, just hours after their October odyssey stopped one win shy of the World Series with a Game 7 loss in the AL Championship Series at Boston, the Indians gathered for the final time at Jacobs Field.
Silence replaced the usual laughter in the clubhouse, where teammates spent six months playing cards, dueling each other in video games and hanging out. The screech of packing tape was the prevailing sound.
But as they boxed up belongings and headed separate ways, the Indians, who won 96 games during the regular season, captured an AL Central title, knocked off the New York Yankees in the playoffs and pushed the Red Sox to the brink of elimination, reflected on progress and possibilities.
“We’ve got a lot of great young players,” first baseman Ryan Garko said. “We have a lot of kids. This is our first full season, myself included. We learned a lot about ourselves and what it’s like to play in the big leagues.
“We could be having games and seasons like that for a long time to come. Hopefully, we can keep getting back to the playoffs and Game 7s — and win a few.”
Looking for its first World Series trip since 1997, Cleveland was beaten 11-2 on Sunday night at throbbing Fenway Park, which swayed after the final out as some of the Red Sox danced an Irish jig in the infield.
The kick-in-the-gut ending could have been avoided. The Indians held a 3-1 series lead and had their top starters — Sabathia and Fausto Carmona — on the mound in Games 5 and 6. But the Indians’ aces folded under pressure, and went a combined 0-3 with a 12.56 ERA in the series.
Two of Cleveland’s biggest bats, DH Travis Hafner (.148) and center fielder Grady Sizemore (.222), fell silent, too. After hitting a homer in the first inning of Game 1, Hafner went 3-for-26, and struck out 10 times in one horrific 16 at-bat stretch.
There were other problems: third-base coach Joel Skinner’s decision to stop Kenny Lofton at third with the tying run in the seventh inning of Game 7 killed Cleveland’s momentum. Reliever Rafael Betancourt suddenly lost his fastball while protecting a one-run lead. And Garko’s poorly timed comment that “champagne tastes just as good at home as it does on the road,” came back to haunt him.
The quote was blown up and posted on the back of Boston’s clubhouse door. Garko dismissed it. The Red Sox rallied around it, chanting, “The champagne tastes sweeter at home,” in the postgame delirium.
And then, there was Paul Byrd’s mess.
As manager Eric Wedge prepared his team for the season’s biggest game, Byrd stood against a brick wall outside Cleveland’s clubhouse admitting to injecting human growth hormone from 2002-05 — before it was banned by baseball — after the San Francisco Chronicle reported the 36-year-old pitcher spent nearly $25,000 on HGH and syringes.
Byrd claims he has a tumor on his pituitary gland and only took the drug under a doctor’s care. He said MLB was aware of his situation, a claim baseball officials denied. Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said he only learned of Byrd’s HGH use two days earlier.
Byrd’s situation created a huge distraction for the Indians at the worst time possible.
All of it added up to a tough lesson for a young team without much postseason practice.
“It’s a huge learning experience, kind of like 2005,” Sabathia said, referring to the Indians’ late-season collapse two years ago. “It’s definitely going to help. We’ve always been a group that’s learned from our experiences.”
It’s a group Shapiro has built for the long haul.
With the exception of Sabathia, a 19-game winner who will be eligible for free agency after next season, Cleveland’s core group of players are signed to long-term contracts or under the club’s control.
Among the position players, only aging outfielders Kenny Lofton (40) and Trot Nixon (33) are potential free agents.
In the rotation, Game 7 starter Jake Westbrook signed a three-year extension in March through 2010 and Carmona’s rights are held by the Indians until 2013. In the bullpen, Betancourt (2009), Rafael Perez (2012) and Jensen Lewis (2013) are all locked up.
The Indians will have decisions to make on closer Joe Borowski, the AL saves leader, and lefty reliever Aaron Fultz. Cleveland will likely pick up a $4 million option on Borowski, but Fultz’s $1.5 million option isn’t so certain following the emergence of Perez, who pitched brilliantly until the ALCS.
Byrd is the club’s most interesting offseason case. He won 15 games in the regular season, beat the Yankees in the series-clinching win and the Red Sox in Game 4.
But his HGH use — Byrd’s expected to meet soon with MLB officials — could affect his future in Cleveland, which holds a $7 million option for 2008. After Byrd spoke to reporters Sunday, Shapiro was asked if the HGH allegations would affect the option.
“I don’t feel like we have the full landscape of what’s going on,” he said. “Like any decision we make, we’ll factor everything in.”
That’s what Sabathia did in gauging the entirety of ’07, a season in which everything fell into place until the final few days. While disappointment was in the left-hander’s eyes, Sabathia could also see a bright future.
“It’s hard for this team to hang its head, especially as far as we’ve come,” he said. “To be able to get to the ALCS and fall one short, it’s tough. I plan on us getting back and being able to get it done next year.”