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CLEVELAND — The fans came to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario Avenues in their red shirts, waving their white towels. They packed Progressive Field for just the third time this season. Remember, the days of every-night sellouts are long gone here.

The crowd of 43,579 was ready to explode, poised to cheer the Cleveland Indians all the way to Fenway Park, all the way to a made-for-TV playoff rematch of Terry Francona against the Boston Red Sox.

But the finality hits hard in October, and such was the case with the Tribe’s 4-0 loss Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League wild-card game.

“It was such an amazing year for us that it sucks right now to be in this spot,” outfielder Nick Swisher said through the pin-drop quiet of the Tribe’s post-midnight clubhouse. “The sting is super-bad right now but either way I could not be more proud of these guys.”

It’s impossible to rag on this group of Indians for the fact this franchise hasn’t won a World Series since 1948. No one had them getting anywhere near the postseason anyway. But Francona magically transformed a 68-94 team into a 92-70 one in just one season. They had 11 walk-off wins and rekindled a fan base that had drifted away in the face of five straight moribund seasons.

“I wish we could have given them a better game,” Francona said of the fans. “The support was fantastic. We have some work to do in the offseason, take maybe an hour or two to rest and then we’ll get back to work. It was pretty awesome to see how it can be here though.”

The unfortunate part about the loss is that it essentially becomes a referendum on the Indians’ amazing finish to the season.

The Tribe, you’ll recall, became the first team since the 1971 Orioles to win the last 10 games of the season. And they needed every one of them to avoid a three-way tie for the wild card with the Rays and Texas Rangers. Pretty incredible feat.

Still, the result in this game probably should not have been too surprising. The Tribe went just 36-52 this season against teams above .500 – and a staggering 56-18 against teams below .500.

Cleveland went 17-2 and won the final 14 meetings against the Chicago White Sox, the last-place team in the AL Central. It swept a four-game September series against the 111-loss Houston Astros.

The Indians really are the poster children for baseball’s need for a more balanced schedule.

While the Minnesota Twins were rolling over for them and playing dead on the final weekend, the Rays were in a three-game death match in Toronto. The ex-Bisons/Blue Jays won the first two games and nearly wiped out a 7-0 deficit in the final.

Then Tampa went on to Texas and won a tiebreaker there to get here. And now the Rays get that trip to Fenway. The Rays got 6∏ gutsy innings from starter Alex Cobb, some great infield defense and just enough offense. The Rays and Cardinals are the only 2013 playoff teams that have made four postseason appearances in the last six years and it showed in Tampa Bay’s game.

The Indians went 2 for 9 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base. They were shut out with at least nine hits and three doubles for the first time since June 9, 1938. Bummer for the crowd.

There were plenty of chances for the Cobb & Co. to crack in this one. It never happened.

A big chance for Cleveland came in the fourth with the bases loaded and one out. But Asdrubal Cabrera – the answer to the trivia question of who is the lone remaining ex-Bison on the Tribe roster – bounced into a 3-6-1 double play to quell the threat.

Cobb found more trouble in the fifth in the form of a first-and-third jam with no out. He even survived a gaffe by first baseman James Loney, who fired home rather than to second, when he would have had a sure inning-ending double play there. Didn’t matter. Jason Kipnis tapped back to the mound for the third out.

The Tribe put two more men on in the seventh, but leadoff man Michael Bourn, who went 0 for 4 against Cobb, hit a lazy fly to center and reliever Joel Peralta came on. Great move by manager Joe Maddon, who knew Swisher was batting .220 this year from the left side and was 2 for 18 with eight strikeouts against Peralta.

Swisher fanned in an at-bat that must have sparked nightmares of 2012 from Yankees fans watching television. Now Indians fans have that same feeling.

“We battled through some tough times, we had some great times,” Swisher said. “We just kind of ran into a buzzsaw today.”

Great season. Great run. Lousy ending.



email: mharrington@buffnews.com