Tribe's promising season ends in disappointment

CLEVELAND -- Now that the final Indians baserunner has been stranded until spring training, Cleveland sports fans are free to turn their attention to Romeo Crennel and the Browns. The lesson: No matter how grim things seem, they can always get worse.

The last, enduring image of Cleveland's 2005 baseball season was a painful one to behold. Center fielder Grady Sizemore, whose goal in life is to run out every groundball more fervently than the one before, hit a tapper to second base for the final out in a 3-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox, then trudged back to the dugout with the forlorn air of a kid who'd just lost his bicycle. Or his iPod.

Sizemore's shirt was untucked, his helmet was lying in the infield, and his body language suggested he was utterly devoid of energy. He peeled off his batting gloves, tossed them to a fan leaning over the dugout and disappeared down the runway.

Scouts love Sizemore because of his outsized motor and tools, and the female teenage demographic is sufficiently ga-ga over Grady that "Mrs. Sizemore" T-shirts are now a fashion prerequisite in the city. But for this moment -- this singularly painful instance -- Grady Sizemore was just a 23-year-old kid who wanted desperately to be playing ball Monday, and had absolutely no place to go.

"To end our season and end the game like that is frustrating. It's a horrible feeling." Sizemore said in the clubhouse afterward. "I wanted to fall on the ground. These were definitely the most exhausting games of my career, mentally and physically."

As the Indians watch the White Sox and the usual big-market suspects compete in the AL playoffs, they can derive solace from a slew of positive developments this season. After winning 68 games two years ago and 80 games in 2005, they finished 93-69 this year. General manager Mark Shapiro's get-well plan has officially been expedited.

Cleveland's pitching staff finished with a league-leading 3.61 ERA, and Kevin Millwood became the first Indians starter to win an individual ERA title since Rick Sutcliffe in 1982. Bob Wickman led the league with 45 saves, Travis Hafner will most likely finish among the top five in MVP balloting, and Sizemore and Coco Crisp developed a nice little Rafael Furcal-Marcus Giles type of synergy at the top of the order.

Yet for every positive, there's a corresponding negative. That ERA title? The Indians joined the 2000 Boston Red Sox and 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers as the only teams in the last decade to win one and still fail to make the playoffs. And those 93 victories? It would have been enough to win the AL Central or make the postseason as a wild card every year but one since 1995, so the Indians' timing sure is rotten.

Most galling of all, things were set up so favorably down the stretch. The Indians managed to stay healthy, and the schedule was neatly arranged with lots of games against Kansas City and Tampa Bay. Even the White Sox cooperated by clinching the division title before the final weekend, ensuring that their clubhouse would be Hangover Central when they arrived in Cleveland on Friday.

In hindsight, the bad vibes began to germinate a week ago in Kansas City, when Sizemore lost a fly ball in the sun and Cleveland lost in the ninth inning to the Royals. From that point forward, enough things went wrong for the Indians to wipe the smile off even Chief Wahoo's face.

The Indians hit three homers in a 6-0 victory over Tampa Bay on Thursday, but it was their only win on the season-ending homestand. In five losses to the Devil Rays and White Sox, they scored a total of 10 runs, batted .211 (38-for-180) as a team and hit a total of one homer, which came off the bat of second baseman Ronnie Belliard in a 13-inning loss on Friday.

Several Indians can say they weren't pressing, but they'd have to bring a note from the team psychologist to make you believe it.

"When you're that close, everyone is trying to get the job done," Sizemore said. "Everyone knows we're one hit away, so we're all trying to get that one hit or make that one big play. It's tough."

If things had played out according to plan, the Indians would have taken care of business against Chicago, then congregated in front of the big-screen TV in the clubhouse to watch the Yankees beat Boston to force a one-game playoff Monday at Fenway Park. Instead, they were just a prop to generate a little more suspense for Red Sox Nation.

Manager Eric Wedge stood in the hallway outside the clubhouse and talked about togetherness and team play and the Indians coming up just "one hit short." On the other side of the wall, Wedge's players expressed the hope that what doesn't kill them can only make them stronger.

"We're a young team, and you can always learn from any experience," Crisp said. "If you don't tie your shoelaces the right way and you trip on them going into second base, then you make sure to tie them the right way the next time."

The Indians have reason to feel optimistic about next year. They have young, dynamic everyday players in center field (Sizemore), left field (Crisp), shortstop (Jhonny Peralta), designated hitter (Hafner) and catcher (Victor Martinez). And three returning starters -- Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook -- combined for 48 victories this season.

Shapiro's biggest offseason chore is addressing the free agency of Wickman, Scott Elarton, Belliard and Millwood. As a calming veteran influence, Millwood appears to be a nice fit on such a young staff. But the free-agent starting contingent is so weak, he could have lots of suitors. And he's represented by Scott Boras, who has never been known for sentimentality.

When a reporter asked Millwood if he would like to sign a deal with the Indians quickly, the pitcher smiled. "If they came over here in the next five minutes and offered me what I wanted, yeah, I could get something done quick," Millwood said.

Wickman, Cleveland's beefy Everyman of a closer, walked off Jacobs Field on Sunday and tossed baseballs into the stands and hugged the grounds crew. Now he plans to sit down with Shapiro and get some idea where he stands in the team's plans. While Wickman has a history of elbow problems, his ability to stay healthy this year enhanced his chances of playing again in 2006. If the Indians decide to look elsewhere for a closer, Wickman won't rule out signing with another club.

"It's a struggle being away from my family on the road," Wickman said. "If I go home and get too comfortable, I just might hang it up. But I still love pitching. That's the thing that always leads me in the baseball direction: I really like to compete."

There's a business and a personal side to every postmortem. The Indians players already under contract for next season are free to dwell on clutch hits that failed to materialize, wins that never came and lots of other things that went wrong down the stretch. It's one gut-wrenching endeavor.

"To win over 90 games isn't easy," said third baseman Aaron Boone, "but as bright as the future is here, this is a little tough to swallow."

When Boone turns on the TV and sees the Yankees playing the Angels and Boston playing Chicago, it's not going to get any easier.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.