CLEVELAND – Terry Francona is a baseball lifer with 17 seasons as a manager behind him, so mounting pressure Wednesday was hardly foreign. He was under far more duress as the Red Sox's skipper in 2004, when they won their first World Series in 86 years and exorcized the Curse of the Bambino.
Francona returned to his usual state of serenity hours before Game Five, using his usual quick wit and experience to relax before the Indians played the Yankees with an American League Division Series on the line. You never would have known the Indians were in danger of adding another chapter to their sad baseball history.
Cleveland won 102 games this season and had the best record in the AL. They rattled off a record 22 straight victories in August and September and were 33-4 over their final 37 games. Many thought this would be the year for the Tribe, finally, before the Yanks pushed them to the limit with two wins in the Bronx.
"History, if you allow it to enter into what you're doing, it can get in the way a little bit," Francona said. "I think our group is pretty solid when we've got to win a game. Whatever happened in 1959, or whatever happened on Tuesday, doesn't matter. We just need to go win a baseball game."
Francona coincidentally was born in '59, the year his father, Tito, played the first of his six seasons for the Indians. Terry always had a soft spot for Cleveland and played 62 games for the Tribe in 1988. He wasn't about to head down Memory Lane, but you can safely assume he knew the Indians' history.
The Indians have been carrying the weight of high expectations all season, not to mention decades of failure. Even before the season began, they figured to take a run at their first Series title since 1948. They came close last year before Mother Nature rained on their parade during a Game Seven loss to the Cubs in extra innings.
Clevelanders were terrified about the prospects of losing Wednesday and seeing another opportunity slip away, a feeling Buffalo knows all too well. You knew what was going through the minds of our Lake Erie cousins in joints like the Harry Buffalo and the Winking Lizard.
It sounds eerily similar to what's said in the Swannie House and Big Tree Inn: Pray for the best and brace for the worst.
The Indians didn’t lose four straight Super Bowls, but in a way they did. Three times last year, after building a 3-1 lead over the Cubs, they were a win from winning the Series and lost them all. And there was the 1997 Series, when they were three outs from winning before falling to the Marlins in 11 innings.
Cleveland's failure has been so … so Buffalo.
It changed, but only slightly, when Cleveland won the NBA title in 2016. Basketball is different than football and baseball (and hockey) in that one player can carry a team. The Cavs' title was a LeBron James production, and some fans had mixed feelings about him in victory after he abandoned Cleveland six years earlier.
Francona didn't know if the Indians could bear the burden of trying to win the World Series, the way the tormented teams like the Red Sox and Cubs did. Going into the final game of the ALDS, the pressure was cranked up considerably more on the Tribe than the young, up-and-coming Yankees.
It was a heck of a boulder to push up the hill. And with dark clouds hanging over Cleveland after steady rains, gloom seemed to wait for doom.
"Last year, we lost," Francona said about how his players handled their emotions. "This is our first time this year. I'll have a better answer after the game."
Francona was hailed as a genius for starting Trevor Bauer over ace Corey Kluber, the presumptive Cy Young winner, after the Indians won the opener. Francona made the decision with the idea he would have Kluber on the mound for Game Five, if necessary. The strategy worked, but it came with a problem.
Kluber was terrible in the second game after putting together an 18-4 record and 2.25 ERA during the regular season. He was behind on counts and gave up six runs, including two homers, in 2 2/3 innings. The Indians rescued him when they came back from a five-run deficit and won in extra innings.
On Wednesday, nobody knew what to expect with Kluber taking the mound in Progressive Field. The Indians took some comfort in home teams going 14-3 in the postseason, and they had not lost three straight since the first week of August, but it hardly put anyone at ease.
The Indians had also lost five straight games when given a chance to clinch, going back to the Series last year. Since '97, when they were in a position to end a postseason series, they were 4-16. They had not lost two straight games in more than six weeks before the Yanks beat them twice to force Game Five.
And there was Yanks starter CC Sabathia, who spent his first seven-plus seasons in Cleveland and won the 2007 AL Cy Young after going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA with the Tribe. Sabathia, 37, conducted a pitching clinic in Game Two on the importance of movement and location over velocity before leaving with an 8-3 lead.
"It's a hell of a lot more fun to be in it than to be sitting on the side," Sabathia said between games. I'm just glad that I get an opportunity to participate and not have to watch. Watching, you get an ulcer."
The Yankees, with their 27 world championships, have much richer history than the Indians but, unlike Cleveland, they weren't playing against their past. New York supposedly was in transition and wasn't expected to reach the postseason before its youth came together and won more games than expected.
Other teams might have caved after losing in extra innings and falling behind, 2-0, in the series, but the Yanks showed there was another gritty team in the series. They felt good about their chances given all that had gone wrong in the first two games, especially the second one.
All the pressure was on the Indians with their best pitcher on the mound, their fans behind them at home and 69 years separating them from their last Series title. Another chapter in their history was certain to be written Wednesday with the Indians still searching for the perfect ending.