The master plan was for Trevor Bauer to be Cleveland’s secret weapon, the October surprise.
But that idea, and just about everything else the Indians tried, was tossed away.
Bauer’s two throwing errors in the seventh inning helped Houston rally for three runs and the Astros overwhelmed the Indians 11-3 in Game 3 to complete a surprising sweep in the AL Division Series.
After waiting months for a chance at redemption from blowing a 2-0 lead and losing to the New York Yankees in last year’s ALDS, the Indians fell flat in the fall once again.
And the majors’ longest World Series title drought has aged to 71.
“We were just outplayed,” said center fielder Jason Kipnis, who was moved from his normal spot at second for the second year in a row. “I wish it weren’t that simple. It just seems from top to bottom we were out-scouted, out-pitched, out-coached a little bit. They really did just a fantastic job over there of being ready and prepared before the series.
“I don’t think we were underprepared, they just went out and executed and played the way you need to play to win.”
The Indians were inept across the board.
They batted a collective .144, with All-Star Jose Ramirez continuing his postseason slump by going hitless in 11 at-bats. He’s now batting .064 (2 of 31) over the last two playoffs, hardly numbers worthy of an MVP-caliber player.
Josh Donaldson, whose acquisition was supposed to put the Indians over the top, didn’t get his first hit until the ninth inning of Game 3 and the Indians were outscored 21-6 in the three-game blowout.
But pitching, and more precisely Cleveland’s flawed bullpen, was the main reason why the club watched a third straight team celebrate on its field before trashing the visitors’ locker room at Progressive Field.
For months, the Indians managed to work around their bullpen issues, which were exacerbated by injuries. But when it mattered most, the same problems popped up again.
Andrew Miller, the star of Cleveland’s 2016 postseason run, was never himself as the left-hander spent three stints on the disabled three times for his hamstring, knee and shoulder.
Miller wasn’t charged with a run in his two appearances, but he retired only one batter, walked three and gave up a go-ahead, two-run double in the sixth inning of Game 2.
“There were certainly times it was a grind,” said the 33-year-old, who is almost certain to sign elsewhere as a free agent. “Missing time was the hardest part for me. I felt like I was ready to go when the season wound down and I was in a good spot. There were certainly pitches that I didn’t execute in the series.
“We tried to script things as best we could for me personally and for other guys on the team as well to be as sharp and as ready as we could for the playoffs. When the games started, obviously, it wasn’t good enough.”
Bauer, who was having a Cy Young Award-worthy season before his leg was broken by a line drive in August, absorbed the brunt of Cleveland’s relief issues.
Manager Terry Francona chose to use him in a relief role, mostly because it was his best option with both Miller and closer Cody Allen struggling.
Bauer pitched in Games 1 and 2, and entered Game 3 with the Indians clinging to a 2-1 lead in the seventh. But the right-hander made two throwing errors, one on a pickoff throw and the other on a comebacker he should have turned into an inning-ending double play.
Instead, the Astros scored three runs and wound up scoring 10 in their final three at-bats to put a bow on the blowout.
Bauer accepted the role, but it wasn’t the one he envisioned having.
“I executed pretty well pitch-wise,” he said. “Obviously didn’t execute defensively. But it is what it is, man. That was my role. Tito and I and a couple other guys had a meeting in Chicago towards the end of the year. I let them know what I had to say and they let me know what they had to say. I told them when I leave this room, ‘I’m 100 percent bought in on my role.’ That’s what I did. I left that room and got ready to pitch out of the bullpen. It is what it is.”
And it is going to be another long winter for the Indians, who could look drastically different next season with Miller, Allen and All-Star Michael Brantley all eligible for free agency.
“We tried. It’s tough,” Miller said. “There’s probably a million things you can point to why we didn’t win three games. It’s tough. It’s one of those things. You take the hand you’re dealt and make the most out of it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us.”