Experience is the greatest teacher

When last we saw the Cleveland Indians, they wore a look of collective disbelief. On the final day of the 2005 season, the Indians dropped their third game in a row and sixth in their final seven games, and when the final out was made, a number of players sat transfixed in the Jacobs Field home dugout, unable to comprehend what had happened to them.

What had happened to them was this: The Indians had gone from near-certain playoff participants to also-rans in the span of a week, their fortunes cruelly and completely reversed.

Needing only a few wins in the final week, the Tribe lost everything. No AL Central title, no wild card, no nothing. Worse, they came unglued against the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, arguably the two worst teams in the league, and, finally, the Chicago White Sox, a team that had already clinched the division title and had nothing for which to play.

As down-the-stretch collapses go, it might not have been the 1964 Phillies. But it wasn't very pretty.

The timing of the Indians' meltdown couldn't have been worse, but its origin was entirely familiar. When the Indians pitched, they didn't hit. When they hit, they didn't pitch. What they did, unfailingly, was lose, usually in excruciatingly close fashion. Five of their last six losses were by a single run, including one that lasted 13 innings.

This weekend, the Indians reconvene in Winter Haven, Fla., for the start of spring training. It's manager Eric Wedge's job to make them forget last September's free fall and focus on a new season.

Everywhere Wedge and his players went around Ohio this winter, the collapse was mentioned. Wedge patiently answered all the questions and tried, as best he could, to explain how the Indians could have fallen so far, so fast.

But starting this weekend, it will be time to look forward. There will be no wallowing in the disappointment, no reconstructing last autumn's unraveling.

Just like the other 29 teams, the 2006 Indians will begin spring training with the proverbial clean slate.

"It's understood [that it's behind us]," said Wedge. "Everybody that went through that experience, that last week, will be better for it. One thing this team has done a great job with has been learning -- from losing or winning. Our discussions will be about our expectations for this year, preparing for the spring, but most important, preparing for the regular season and meeting our goal, which is first place in the division."

Were it not for the presence of the world champion White Sox, first place would be the logical progression for the Indians. Wedge is about to begin his fourth season in Cleveland, and in each of the last two years, the club has shown enormous improvement. After finishing 68-94 in 2003, the Indians nearly reached .500 (80-82) in 2004, then were 93-69 last season. They've gone from fourth to third to second in the AL Central.

The rebuilding that began with general manager Mark Shapiro's overhaul is complete. Now it's time for results.

The Indians team assembled in the Chain O'Lakes Park complex will be largely familiar. Gone are Kevin Millwood and Coco Crisp and Arthur Rhodes. In their place will be Paul Byrd, Jason Michaels and Guillermo Mota. The core -- led by Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Cliff Lee and Travis Hafner -- remains the same.

"We're still moving forward," Wedge said. "I feel good about the direction of the last three years. We have a lot of upside here. We still have a lot of work to do. But we're in a good place. We just have to make sure we keep going forward."

To do that, the Indians have to shed the final-week spinout of last season and make sure that the mental hangover doesn't follow them into this season. They have to remember that they nearly erased a 15-game deficit in the standings in July, going 39-18 after the All-Star break. And they have to forget, as best they can, the six painful losses near the finish line.

"I don't worry about these guys," Wedge insisted when asked about his team's mental frame of mind. "These guys are tough. They've already shown tremendous mental toughness."

If some of his younger players stumble, Wedge will be there to help.

"I'll pull guys aside from time to time," he said. "It's all about interacting and communicating."

Veterans Aaron Boone and Bob Wickman can help, too, since as Wedge freely concedes, "The experience factor is something that goes a long way with young ballplayers."

But Wedge doubts that his clubhouse will dissolve in some crisis of confidence. After playing at a torrid pace for the final two months, the Indians hit an almost inevitable cold spell. It happened to come at the worst possible time.

Live and learn.

"These guys do a good job of leaning on each other," Wedge said. "They respect each other. They're family. They make each other better; part of being a good teammate is being there in the tough times. These guys are already ... going to have a strong resolve because of everything that happened."

Having fallen just short of the postseason, the Indians won't lack for motivation. From offseason phone conversations with his players, Wedge knows last season doesn't have to be addressed. The Indians can't change history, but they can make some of their own this season.

"Every conversation I had," Wedge said, "it was all more in a positive sense, directing toward this year. When you get knocked on your butt, you can get back after it or you can dwell on it."

Wedge and the Indians have already made their choice.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.