CLEVELAND — The winter is never an easy one in Cleveland. This one could be particularly long, and filled with regrets.
The Indians could have been the toast of the town, with locals celebrating the revival of a proud franchise, the arrival of a bumper crop of young stars, the joy in cheering for a contender built more with smarts than with bucks.
But the Indians simply collapsed over the final week of the season, and the playoffs will go on without them. The Indians' future is bright but not guaranteed.
"The sad thing is," closer Bob Wickman said, "seasons like this don't come around every year."
After stumbling through a final week and losing control of their postseason destiny, the Indians showed up at Jacobs Field on Sunday needing a victory over the Chicago White Sox and a loss by the Boston Red Sox to force a one-game playoff for the American League's wild-card berth.
By the time the Red Sox took the field in Boston, the Indians trailed, 3-0. By the time the Indians scored, the Red Sox led, 6-0.
That rendered the Indians' final score all but a formality -- Chicago won, 3-1 -- and sent them home for the winter.
The Indians stormed through the summer, putting a scare into the White Sox by chopping their AL Central lead from 15 games to 1 1/2 games. In the process, the Indians vaulted into playoff position, leading the wild-card race by 1 1/2 games with seven to play.
"I thought we had it nailed down," designated hitter Travis Hafner said, "especially with the way we were playing."
But they lost six of those seven games -- one to the last-place Kansas City Royals, two to the last-place Tampa Bay Devil Rays, three to the White Sox after Chicago had clinched.
They stopped winning because they stopped hitting. In those six losses, they hit .215, including .156 with runners in scoring position. At one point, they failed in 23 consecutive at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"I don't think there was too much pressure," Cleveland Manager Eric Wedge said.
"I'm sure people will say that," third baseman Aaron Boone said. "I hope not."
The Indians won 93 games, after winning 80 last year and 68 the year before, the most victories since Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Roberto Alomar played here. Free agency beckons for Wickman and Kevin Millwood, the AL ERA champion, but the cast of rising and returning stars includes Hafner, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, catcher Victor Martinez, outfielders Grady Sizemore and Coco Crisp and pitchers Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook.
That, perhaps, explains why laughter and smiles emanated from some of the young faces in the Cleveland clubhouse after Sunday's game.
But ask Tim Salmon or Jim Edmonds, who looked on the bright side of the Angels' 1995 collapse by assuming a good young team would be better the next year.
Or ask Boone, who played on the 1999 Cincinnati Reds.
"It was my first full year in the big leagues, we won 96 games and lost a one-game playoff," he said. "It was, oh well, we'll win 100 next year."
The Reds haven't won 90 since then. So this season's ending could make the Indians stronger next season -- or sting them forever.
"I guess we'll find out next year," Hafner said. "Right now, it feels pointless to talk about it."
Chicago vs. Boston
American League best-of-five division series, which starts Tuesday. All times Pacific:
* Boston (Clement, 13-6) at Chicago (Contreras, 15-7), 1 p.m., ESPN
* Boston (Wells, 15-7) at Chicago (Buehrle, 16-8), 4 p.m., ESPN
* Chicago (Garland, 18-10) at Boston (Wakefield, 16-12), 1:15 p.m., ESPN2
* Chicago at Boston (Schilling, 8-8), TBA, if necessary
* Boston at Chicago, TBA, if necessary