CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND (AP) — When their turnaround season hit a dead end in October, long after most expected it to stop, the Indians spent a few minutes reflecting on their six-month thrill ride and what might have been.
There wouldn't be any more champagne, but there was plenty to celebrate.
"We proved a lot of people wrong," first baseman Nick Swisher said. "Still, it hurts."
The pain, though, was only temporary. Following a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL wild-card game on Wednesday night, there were few tears as the Indians said goodbye to a year none of them will ever forget. They became a close-knit group, bonding under first-year manager Terry Francona, who not only oversaw a 24-win improvement from 2012, but made them believe anything is possible.
"All this team really ever needed was a heartbeat," said 42-year-old designated hitter Jason Giambi, "and we kept it all the way down to the end."
In returning to the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Indians rekindled their on-again, off-again relationship with Cleveland fans, who had grown distant and disenchanted in recent years mostly because of the team's inability to re-sign Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
But although they may not have shown their support at the box office during the regular season, Indians fans were there when it mattered most. Dressed in red, more than 43,000 of them raged for three hours as they urged the Indians, a team that pulled off 11 walk-off wins and won their last 10 games to make the playoffs, to give them one more magical moment.
It wasn't to be.
"There wasn't one guy that didn't think we weren't winning that game in the bottom of the ninth," said All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis. "We didn't come up with the big hit."
The Indians blew several scoring chances against Tampa Bay starter Alex Cobb., who deserves credit for making pitches when he needed to. But Cleveland's failure in the clutch — one of their strengths during the season — can at least partially be pinned on Swisher, Kipnis and leadoff hitter Michael Bourn. The trio went a combined 0 for 12 with four strikeouts.
It's just one game, but Swisher's postseason problems have trailed him from Oakland to Chicago to New York and now to Cleveland. He's batting .165 in 47 career playoff games.
With two runners on in the seventh inning, Swisher, swinging out of his cleats at every pitch to try and hit a game-tying homer, struck out on three pitches from reliever Joel Peralta. The at-bat summed up Swisher's night and further exposed one of Cleveland's glaring weaknesses, the lack of a big, run-producing bat in the middle of the lineup.
The Indians didn't have a player with 85 RBIs, and one of general manager Chris Antonetti's top priorities in the offseason is to find a slugger. That won't be easy, but Antonetti, who has been aggressive in rebuilding the Indians — with owner Paul Dolan's financial backing — could get creative with trades perhaps involving closer Chris Perez, catcher Carlos Santana or shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
All three had disappointing 2013 seasons and could be dealt to bolster Cleveland's power.
Another issue for the Indians to address is their inability to beat quality teams. They were just 14-33 against the playoff teams in both league and 54-17 against teams with under .500 records.
"We had a good year, but one thing we did wrong was not play better against teams like the Rays," Bourn said "That's something we'll improve on."
The starting pitching, a major question mark when the season started, became a strength with Ubaldo Jimenez bouncing back from a 17-loss season to win 13 and lead the Indians' staff down the stretch — 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in September — when All-Star Justin Masterson was injured.
Jimenez has an $8 million mutual option for next season with a $1 million buyout. If he chooses to venture into free agency, Jimenez could land a monster deal but he appreciated the Indians' willingness to stick with him during tough times.
"They did everything possible to help me out," he said. "They never gave up on me."
Left-hander Scott Kazmir, too, said he would like to return to the Indians, who signed him to a minor league deal in January and got 10 wins on a $1 million investment. Reliever Joe Smith, another possible free agent, has told the Indians he wants to stay.
Giambi, who essentially saved the season last week with a pinch-hit, ninth-inning homer to beat Chicago as the Indians were fighting for a wild card, doesn't know what his future holds.
Francona has credited Giambi, more than any other player, for Cleveland's stunning rebound.
Giambi could receive managerial offers after nearly getting Colorado's job last year, but he wouldn't mind being a part of this Indians' revival.
"I had the time of my life, no doubt about it," he said. "It's been fun. I've enjoyed every minute watching this ballclub grow and being a part of it. We came together. We exceeded everybody's expectations, now guys have a little taste of what it's like to go to the playoffs, so hopefully they continue to work hard and keep that push."