The idea is that a young team, an upstart one like the Cleveland Indians, needs to experience some sort of crushing defeat before taking the next step as a true contender.
Consider Wednesday’s AL Wild Card defeat that crushing blow.
After winning ten straight games to close out the season, it was gone in one blink-and-you-miss-it exit, a 4-0 defeat by the Tampa Bay Rays and escape artist Alex Cobb, who consistently danced around trouble and held the top three of the Indians’ order hitless through his 6 2-3 innings.
Following the game, Indians players were understandably upset, many of whom chose to sit in front of their lockers as long as possible, soaking in the abrupt end of a surprisingly successful season.
It was also a chance to stew, to feel the sting of defeat when there were burgeoning rumbles that maybe, just maybe, theirs was a team of destiny.
“We’ve gotta use it for motivation, we’ve gotta use it for fuel,” outfielder Michael Brantley said. “We fell short of our goal this year but at the same time we made great progress. All these guys in this locker room are gonna learn from it. It was a great experience.”
Scott Kazmir, one of the biggest reasons for the Indians’ success this season, sees a bright future for the team even as his own is currently cloudy.
“Hopefully I’ll be back with these guys next year and we can continue and pick up where we left off,” the left-hander said. “I think that we came a long way throughout the course of the season. You could just tell just by how well we did in the second half.”
The Indians have put themselves in a good position, as their young core is complemented by a respected, productive group of veterans. The key will be for the front office to find a way to bring back Kazmir or Ubaldo Jimenez, who could certainly be viewed as the team’s 2013 MVP.
And as their Wild Card loss showed, the Indians also have a pressing need for a middle-of-the-order bat, a no-doubt-about-it run producer. Cleveland has some pieces to trade – including shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera – and a free agent signing could help bring added legitimacy to a team on the rise.
In other words, the Indians have options. It’s just imperative they capitalize on them.
There is always talk of a “window,” a short period of time in which a team – usually a small-market one – can contend. For the Indians, it came a year early and can really take off in the next few seasons.
The players certainly sense it.
“This might be one of the best group of guys I’ve ever played with, one of the most fun teams I’ve ever been on,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “The chemistry in here has been a great time, been a great learning experience for lots of younger guys, including me, and we’re going to use it, the way we’re feeling about it in the clubhouse right now. We’re going to go into next year with a little more determination.”
The front office surely recognizes the kind of rare, cohesive team it has. But if it wants a true contender, there is still more work to be done.
As for the players, they’re ready now for next spring, more determined than ever.