CLEVELAND — Terry Francona’s emotions are still raw and real. The postseason pain hasn’t subsided just yet.
Still feeling a “sting” after another successful season for the Indians ended in disappointment and well short of a World Series title, Francona tried to explain on Wednesday why his team looked so overmatched against the Houston Astros.
Francona didn’t have all the answers — and he got annoyed at one point while defending star Jose Ramirez — but if October has taught anything to the two-time Series winner while with the Boston Red Sox, it’s that only one manager won’t get second-guessed when the playoffs end.
“When you win, you’re smart, and when you lose, you’re dumb,” Francona said. “That’s kind of the way it is. You have one chance to do it, so you do it to the best of your ability and you have the confidence to come answer the questions and move on. But also move on trying to learn from what you didn’t do good enough.”
The Indians weren’t close to being good enough against the Astros, who had little trouble in sweeping the American League Central champions in three games. Houston outscored Cleveland 21-6 and outhit, outpitched and simply outplayed the Indians in every aspect.
Francona didn’t offer any excuses for his team’s lackluster performance, but he got defensive when pressed about second baseman Ramirez, whose late-season slump carried into the AL Division Series.
Ramirez went hitless in 11 at-bats, continuing a slide that began in mid-August and cost the All-Star any chance of being named MVP this season.
“He got himself into a predicament and he couldn’t get himself out of it,” Francona said. “It’s hard to figure out, because a guy can be that good, that dominant and then he just couldn’t get … he kept peeling off balls even when he got pitches to hit. He kind of peeled off and he knew it and he watched video and he just couldn’t get the feeling of staying through the ball.”
And while Ramirez, who batted .167 after Aug. 19, wasn’t the only player who struggled — the Indians batted .144 as a team against the Astros — he became an almost automatic out in a lineup that had counted on him most of the season.
Francona stiffened when a reporter said Ramirez “killed” the Indians.
“What do you mean it killed us? ” Francona snapped. “We won the division by 15 games.”
Francona said Ramirez tried to make adjustments, but they didn’t work. Francona was then asked if one of his coaches should be held accountable for one of the team’s top hitters failing.
Again, Francona bristled.
“I think that’s a reaction,” Francona said. “I think maybe you would like that. Let me answer. That to me is a very reactionary move. It’s a small sample, and it hurt like crazy losing. Yet, we were probably in the upper tier in just about every offensive category.”
Team president Chris Antonetti pointed out that the Indians outscored the Astros in the regular season, and general manager Mike Chernoff added that Cleveland finished third in the AL in runs.
Francona said he expects all of his coaches to return but believes some on his staff could be interviewed for jobs elsewhere.
Beyond Ramirez’s issues, Cleveland’s leaky bullpen — which was a constant headache for Francona — must be addressed in the offseason.
Cody Allen, the team’s career saves leader, former All-Star reliever Andrew Miller and left-hander Oliver Perez are all eligible for free agency. Antonetti said it’s possible Danny Salazar, Nick Goody and Cody Anderson, all of whom were all sidelined by injuries this season, could come back and help in relief roles.
Cleveland’s rotation is set with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger all under contract (the Indians have options on Carrasco in 2019 and 2020), so Antonetti and Chernoff don’t have to worry about chasing free-agent arms.
The biggest offseason challenge might be closing the gap between the Indians and the defending champion Astros, who seem on another level.
Francona doesn’t think Houston has anything Cleveland lacks.
“They won 101 games, we won 91. I think their division was better. So over the course of a long season, they were better than us,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t win a short series. Their two starting pitchers we faced the first two days were virtually unhittable. If you kind of simplify it, we got three hits off of their first two pitchers, and I actually thought we had a pretty good approach. We didn’t chase much. If we’d have chased, we might not have gotten any hits. We were pretty disciplined in the zone.
“Their stuff was off-the-charts good. You can talk about intangibles, you can talk about analytics. Analytically, those first two guys are really good. That makes you look a lot smarter.”