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In what was likely his last significant act as a Toronto Blue Jay, Jose Bautista decided to bait the Cleveland Indians.

It might've seemed clever in hindsight if Bautista's "shaking in his boots" shot at rookie starter Ryan Merritt had turned out that way. It rather spectacularly did not.

"That's why you don't say dumb [stuff]," Cleveland's Jason Kipnis said shortly after his team won the game 3-0 and the series 4-1.

Related: Blue Jays eliminated from MLB postseason after ALCS loss to Indians

Related: Focus shifts to whether Jays' Encarnacion and Bautista will return

As Cleveland celebrated, the Rogers Centre crowd tried to coax the Jays out onto the field for a curtain call. People stood and cheered. They tried chanting. A few sang Happy Birthday to Bautista (it was his 36th).

The players had no interest. A couple flung their gear blindly into the stands behind the dugout. They filed desultorily back into the clubhouse.

A half hour later, perhaps a thousand supporters still waited rowdily. A few photographers stood at the tunnel entrance. Surely, they were going to come out for one last hurrah.

At the hour mark, the photogs had given up. You could count the die-hards in dozens, still waiting on a goodbye that would never come.

It's been a glorious 15-month ride, but this felt like the end.

"You can point the finger at us and say we didn't do a good job," catcher Russell Martin said. Of course, there was a second part to that quote, but that should have been the end of it. They didn't do a very good job.

"They were better than us," Josh Donaldson said.

Yes. That, too.

It's roughly the same result at the same stage as last year, but also different. You could feel it in the locker room postgame.

When the Jays were bounced last year in Kansas City, the clubhouse was shell-shocked. Guys were laid out on couches in states of undress staring fixedly into the middle-distance. They couldn't believe it had gone wrong.

The only person anxious to do his media duties and leave was free agent starter David Price. He'd already mentally disengaged from Toronto and didn't want to bother pretending.

Was he coming back?

"I don't know."

Was he open to it?


Not, as it turned out.

When the rest eventually roused themselves to speak, there was a lot of "we'll get 'em next year" talk. That feeling permeated the 2016 season from the first day of spring training.

Bautista was so emboldened, he gave management a take-it-or-leave-it offer. I mean, who in their right mind would break up this band?

When he wasn't signed in spring training, Bautista seemed stunned. Then angry. Then hurt. Then kind of average. Then momentarily great again once the postseason began. And then very average again.

There was really only one thing that separated Toronto from Cleveland in a series much closer than four losses in five games suggests – confidence.

As in, Toronto had too much of it. Bautista's comment was only a visible symptom of a deeper malaise.

Josh Donaldson showed up. Everyone else took a week off. They spent a lot of time spinning angrily out of the batter's box on called strikes, something Cleveland didn't do.

Toronto's many boldface names were reverting to regular type.

Bautista struck out 12 times and often with such thwarted brio that it's a wonder he didn't have to be unscrewed from the turf. Edwin Encarnacion hit under the Mendoza line for the series. Troy Tulowitzki had two hits. Martin became an automatic out. It was made worse by the fact that the pitching was so good.

Again, it happens, but man, it shouldn't have. Not now.

In order, Toronto faced Corey Kluber, a Triple-A candidate, a drone boy and bullpen chum, a tired Corey Kluber and a greenhorn rookie who throws as fast as some very muscular people bowl. And the Jays scored eight runs in total.

What must hurt most is that this looked like a genuine chance. Not a just-happy-to-be-here moment, but an opportunity to take a strong across-the-board team into a World Series with home-field advantage and maybe win it.

That chance is probably gone. Several key cogs on this team will leave. Even assuming whatever replaces them is of equal or greater quality, it will take time to gel.

This was the year. At best, next year is a version of last year. They'll have to learn how to do it together again.

Back in the clubhouse, there was no shell shock this time around, no mourning. This team had started into the stages of grief after going down 3-0. Fifteen minutes after losing the series, they were already at acceptance.

"Overall, they deserved it. They played really well. I don't know what else to say," Martin said cheerily.

This time around, every man on the Jays was anxious to get out. Bags were being packed at pace. Guys who normally have to be dragged there were running to the centre of the room to do interviews.

Now a free agent, Bautista was waiting when the media hit the room.

"I don't really feel I'm in the proper state of mind to be talking about [free agency]," Bautista said. "I know it's a possibility, but we'll see."

In other words, "Farewell, Toronto. Remember me for my bat flips rather than as I am now."

This is not to say that whatever comes next cannot be as great, as groundbreaking, as magnificently new as the past season-and-a-half. Winning would still feel that way. But whatever it is, it won't be the same.

Every time a team goes from consistently bad to suddenly good, a city rediscovers its baseball innocence. What rarely gets talked about is the next stage – the expectation that the rise will never end. Once it stalls, frustration sets in. It hasn't hit the stands yet, but it has already got to the clubhouse.

That's the challenge for next year – jump-start the bandwagon. But this time, they'll have to do it on an incline.