BOSTON -- If Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona has any regrets about the way Monday night ended, it would be about the final images from the field at Fenway Park.
The Indians won 4-3 to sweep the Red Sox out of the American League Division Series, and Boston slugger David Ortiz came out to acknowledge the home fans after his final game. He stood at the pitcher's mound, tipping his hat in all directions -- soaking it all in for the last time -- and tears filled his eyes. It was a hard ending to a great career.
This series spoke to the grit of the Indians, who held the lead in the AL Central for the entire back half of the season. It also spoke to the club's wise moves in acquiring reliever Andrew Miller and Coco Crisp, who were the difference-makers in Game 3 on Monday.
But more than anything, this series sweep spoke to the genius of Francona.
In 2004, he took over the Red Sox after a bitter AL Championship Series loss to the New York Yankees and showed he was willing to manage on the edge: leading Boston back from 0-3 to the Yankees to win the pennant and in guiding the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years.
He still knows how to get it done. His ingenuity in deploying Miller since his acquisition -- and especially in this series -- shows how Francona's willingness to defy convention makes him exceptional.
The Indians, headed by president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff, were willing to go "all in" by dealing top prospect Clint Frazier, among others, to the Yankees for Miller.
Miller became the best weapon in the Cleveland bullpen, but Francona didn't do what so many managers automatically do: He didn't install the left-hander as closer and move down effective Cody Allen to the eighth inning. He saw that typically there is more than one time to save every win and was willing to use Miller whenever the first chance came; Allen would stay the closer.
And, boy, was Miller a weapon in the AL Division Series with four scoreless innings -- all thrown before the eighth or ninth innings -- as he shortened the games and allowed Cleveland to win Games 1 and 3.
Francona truly understands what it is to manage a team in the postseason. He was willing to use closer Keith Foulke in untraditional situations to help the Sox end "The Curse." And he was willing to use his most lethal weapon, Miller, when the game wasn't on the line, putting it on the line for the other team.
"I'm glad I have Andrew Miller," Francona said.
Some will say this was Francona's revenge, beating and eliminating the Red Sox at Fenway; he is big enough that maybe he doesn't need to say it himself. He wouldn't concede that this was in some way special because it was against Boston, only that he was thrilled to do it with the Indians organization the he worked in before he started managing.
Every major league manager is hired knowing that there will come a day when he is fired. Francona was no different when the Red Sox hired him to be their manager in 2004. He rewarded them in a big way during his first season with their first World Series championship nearly nine decades. He piloted them to another title in 2007. But things ended badly, as they often do for the stars in Boston (thankfully, not Ortiz).
His 2011 team had a historic collapse. And then he was smeared by the front office, the "chicken and beer" stories about the starters who weren't playing and the innuendo about health issues and how he was addressing them. It was unseemly of the Red Sox organization to go that route with someone who should always be revered in Boston.
But Francona showed all who follow baseball what he is really about. He is about winning, and that always has been the case.
The rainout on Sunday could have shifted so much in this series. Without the off day between the potential Games 4 and 5, he might not have been able to go with Miller for 40 pitches as he did in shortening a Game 1 win. He might not have been able to ask Allen to throw 40 pitches to close as he did in Game 1. Such moves would have made it virtually impossible for them to pitch if there would be a Game 4. But he had a lead in Game 3 because of Crisp, whose bunt set up Tyler Naquin's two-run single in the fourth and whose two-run homer in the sixth made it 4-1.
As Francona said before the game: "If you have a chance to win a game, that's what's right in front of you, and that's what's important. And then if you don't, then you figure it out the next day."
And that was precisely what he did.
For Ortiz, always one of Francona's favorites when he managed in Boston, it was a sad day.
"What (the Indians) did to us, we were expecting to do to them. We thought we were the better ballclub," Ortiz said. "I was cheering to my teammates (after being replaced for a pinch runner): 'Put me back in this one more day.'"
But he also said he congratulated Francona.
"I love Tito," he said of his former manager. "He is the best."
Francona certainly looked like it in this series.