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For Dodgers and Indians, spring training is about turning the page from postseason heartache

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The morning after the Cleveland Indians fell to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, general manager Mike Chernoff's fatherly duties took him to a local elementary school to watch his 6-year-old son, Brody, perform in a first-grade concert. Chernoff's heart was in the endeavor, but his mind kept flashing back to the Tribe's 5-2 loss the previous evening and an ending that came far too abruptly for comfort.

"I am sitting there in a fog," said Chernoff, inadvertently lapsing into the present tense. "I'm enjoying my son's event. In some ways it's helpful because you can separate your work life from what's happening in this amazing moment for your son. But it was hard. It was really hard."

About 18 miles from Cleveland's spring training camp in Goodyear, the folks in Dodger Blue know the feeling. Alex Wood, a starter for the National League champions, landed tickets to college football's national title game between Alabama and his beloved Georgia Bulldogs, and he was counting the downs toward a victory when quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw a 41-year touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to pull off a win for the Crimson Tide.

For Wood, a product of the UGA baseball program, the moment wasn't a fraction as painful as watching the Astros cavort on the Dodger Stadium infield after World Series Game 7. But it did put a crimp in his recovery process.

"That was two tough losses there, not far apart," Wood said. "I saw the pass go up, and I was like, 'Aww.' Then my heart sunk into my stomach when I saw him about 12 yards in front of our D-back. Flip the page, right?"

Talk to players, managers, coaches and baseball executives, and they'll reflexively tell you that 29 MLB clubs are destined to finish their seasons on a down note because for 29 teams, the season is guaranteed to finish with either a loss or a failure to make the playoffs. The Houston Astros were the lone exception last year, on their way to a cigar-chomping, champagne-spraying celebration and a season-ending parade.

Still, some teams have more reason than others to lament unhappy endings. At the Indians and Dodgers spring camps, the offseason routine made for an emotional tug of war.

"The first week or two are the hardest because you're just second-guessing everything," Cleveland infielder Jason Kipnissaid. "Anything can happen in a playoff series. You come up short, and you're like, 'What changed? Everything worked before. Why did we stop doing this?' All these questions start coming, but the answer is that no one changed anything. It's just the game of baseball. It's a tough-ass game, and it's hard.

"As players, we're conditioned to have a short memory and turn the page faster than most people because we usually have a game the next day. Suddenly, there's no more season to play, and you're like, 'What do I do?' You're just stuck with memory of the last game or the last series. Once you start to turn the page on that, you finally start getting more excited for the redemption of next season. You learn from your mistakes, absorb it, and you move on."

Flash back to early October, and the outlook was promising for both clubs. The Indians were barely two weeks removed from a 22-game win streak, and they seemed to have all the pieces in place to go the distance and erase the pain of a Game 7 loss to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

The Dodgers, who peaked at 91-36 in late August, righted themselves after a late-season wobble and entered the playoffs feeling confident, with a healthy Clayton Kershaw leading the staff and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

The oddsmakers were on board. At the end of the regular season, the Westgate Las Vegas Super Book gave the Indians 30.8 percent odds to win the World Series, with the Dodgers close behind at 28.6. The Astros, who joined Cleveland and Los Angeles as one of three 100-win teams, were third at 14.3 percent.

But the Astros' balanced roster and #HoustonStrong karma ultimately prevailed. The Indians took a 2-0 lead in the ALDS, then hit a wall. They batted .171 (28-for-164) against the Yankees and scored five runs in their final three games combined. Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and outfielder Michael Brantley were limited by injuries, and staff ace Corey Kluber absorbed two straight poundings amid whispers of lingering back problems. Four months later, the perpetually stoic Kluber isn't dropping any hints about his postseason physical limitations.

"I was good enough to pitch," Kluber said. "I just didn't get the job done."

The Dodgers eliminated the Diamondbacks and Cubs in the NL playoffs before losing to Houston in a classic, seven-game World Series. They're now 30 years removed from Kirk Gibson's circling of the bases in celebration of his momentous World Series homer off Dennis Eckersley.

Players from both teams went back to their everyday lives in the offseason. Kipnis traveled to Maui and Puerto Vallarta for a couple of friends' weddings. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner got married and spent his honeymoon with his bride in Dubai. Francisco Lindor, Cleveland's resident energizer and All-Star shortstop, took part in his traditional offseason workout in Orlando, Florida, with Barry Larkin, Dee Gordon and friends. Lindor arrived in Goodyear with a new look, a searing analysis of his 2017 shortcomings and a strong desire to bring a title to Cleveland.

Other players sequestered themselves in their man caves until the fog lifted, mindlessly occupied themselves with household chores or kept tabs on the lack of news among friends on the free-agent market before drifting back into their routines.

"I started back up in the weight room, but mentally, I wasn't quite there yet," Dodgers infielder Logan Forsythesaid. "That Game 7 loss stuck with me a little bit, but after a while, I just kind of got over it and prepared for next year. Physically, I felt about the same. Mentally, it took a little bit longer."

Both teams went relatively light on offseason activity. The Indians lost first baseman Carlos Santana, workhorse reliever Bryan Shaw and outfielder Jay Bruce to free agency while adding first baseman Yonder Alonso on a two-year, $16 million deal and signing outfielders Melvin Upton Jr. and Rajai Davis to minor league contracts.

The Dodgers won major creativity points when they shed the salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir and brought back Matt Kemp in a December trade with Atlanta. They spent $2 million on former Marlins starter Tom Koehler, who'll get a crack at the bullpen role that Brandon Morrow so adeptly filled last season, acquired lefty Scott Alexander from Kansas City and re-signed Chase Utley to a two-year deal.

Prognosticators are sanguine about the prospects for both teams. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projects the Dodgers and Astros to win 99 games each, the Indians to come in at 97 wins and the Yankees to win 96 in 2018. No other MLB club is projected to win 90 games.

"When you look at the core, there are guys here who are still on the come and trending in the right direction," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "The veteran players here are very productive. To force an acquisition or an overhaul doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I give our front office a lot of credit for standing pat. Not to say we weren't in on deals, but you have to understand what really makes sense for our organization. We're very sensitive to that."

In Cleveland, they've experienced enough heartache to distinguish between types of hangovers. In 2016, the Indians played 15 postseason games and knew that everything would end, win or lose, with a Game 7 matchup against the Cubs. Last year, the Indians were pushing and preparing for an ALCS matchup and a possible World Series return when the Yankees crashed the party. Cleveland's advance scouts suddenly changed their travel plans and came home, and the general manager woke up after Game 5 of the ALDS and attended his son's school concert.

"You're going 100 miles an hour because you always think you're gonna play the next day," Chernoff said. "Then suddenly you just slam on the brakes and stop."

Chernoff looks around Cleveland's camp this spring and sees some players who have yet to fully flush the pain from their systems. But the Indians' core group has been together a while, and manager Terry Francona will never allow his players to dwell on the negative for very long.

"You don't see bitterness here," Chernoff said. "You see motivation and drive."

The same mindset applies in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers regard 2017 as a springboard as much as they see it as a missed opportunity. Cody Bellinger joined Corey Seager as a budding young star, and Turner, Chris Taylor and Joc Pederson were among the players who performed valiantly in October.

"We left every single ounce of energy and focus we had out there, from the front office down to the coaching staff and players," Wood said. "There weren't a lot of regrets in terms of things we could have done differently. The only focus now is looking forward and figuring out how we can finish the drill, so to speak. Losing the World Series is something you won't forget until you right the ship and finish it out."

Cactus League games will begin in a few days, and Opening Day is less than six weeks away. For the Indians and Dodgers, looking back in regret is no longer an option.
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