It's not often that you can spot the turning point in a baseball game, seeing as how baseball games don't really have turning points. But Game 7 of the American League Championship Series Sunday night had one.
You saw it. I saw it. Kenny Lofton saw it. The cat going through your garbage saw it.
Lofton was at second base with one out in the top of the seventh inning for the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox clinging to a 3-2 lead and closer Jonathan Papelbon warming up in the Boston bullpen. Franklin Gutierrez drilled a pitch from Hideki Okajima over third base and down the line. It clanged off the box-seat facing and ricocheted toward center field.
Lofton was rounding third when Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez was still 10 feet away from the ball. Ramirez, who had thrown out Lofton at second base earlier in the game -- though Lofton should have been ruled safe on that play -- later admitted he had no thought of throwing home to try to get Lofton. The tying run was as good as scored.
But Cleveland third-base coach Joel Skinner threw up the stop sign. Lofton, who at 40 is still very fast, obeyed. Then he did something else you don't see every day: a double take. He looked from Skinner back at the ball, then quickly back to Skinner. As in: What!?!
The Indians still had runners at first and third with one out, but you just knew, didn't you? Of course the next batter, Casey Blake, hit into an inning-ending double play. And of course the Sox salted the game away with two runs in the bottom of the inning against the previously unhittable Rafael Betancourt. Jacoby Ellsbury reached on Blake's error. Dustin Pedroia homered over the Green Monster.
I don't believe in momentum or curses, destiny, karma or superstition. But has there ever been a more predictable half-inning in baseball history? The cat going through your garbage looked up, shook its head and said, "Dude, gotta send Lofton there. Hell to pay for that."
Not that Joel Skinner can be made the goat here. It's a split-second decision and he blew it, but you don't lose three straight games by a combined score of 30-5, as the Indians did after building a 3-1 lead in the ALCS, and then turn around and blame the third-base coach.
The Red Sox added six more runs in the eighth, after Papelbon had come in and shut down a two-on, none-out rally in the top of the inning, and that was that. David Ortiz assumed the position in the Boston dugout: Jersey off, goggles on, awaiting a champagne shower. The Indians went quietly in the ninth and the Red Sox had won the American League for the second time in four years.
They'll play the Colorado Rockies in the World Series beginning Wednesday night in Boston. The Rockies spent part of Sunday playing catch in the snow at Coors Field, but the long-range forecasts, for what they're worth, are fairly optimistic about snow not interrupting the Late Fall Classic.
It was a horrible way to go for the Indians, leading the series 3-1 and on a three-game winning streak, then losing three straight by scores of 7-1, 12-2 and 11-2. Not that there are ways to go that aren't horrible. But getting to within one win of a pennant, with a two-game cushion, and then getting pole-axed three times in a row: That's one of the bad horrible ways you can go.
The Indians were let down by their best pitchers. Betancourt, so great all year and all postseason, couldn't keep the Sox close in the decider, but Cleveland didn't do any more scoring in that game anyway. The story of this series was the two Cleveland aces, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona.
Everyone who picked the Indians coming into this series -- ahem -- picked them because of those two. They combined for 38 wins and a 3.14 earned-run average in 456 innings. Sabathia had been shaky in his division-round start against the New York Yankees, but he'd finished the season strong and he's the veteran horse of the Cleveland staff. Carmona had finished even stronger, then dazzled the Yankees.
The Indians lost three of the four games the pair started, the only win coming because of that seven-run 11th inning in Game 2, seven innings after Carmona's departure. They combined for an ERA of 12.67, walked as many as they struck out, put 2.39 runners on base per inning.
The Indians' best starters turned out to be the other two. Paul Byrd did a solid job in Game 4 and got the win. Jake Westbrook twice turned in yeoman efforts, including the six tightrope innings that kept Cleveland in the game Sunday. And when Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook are leading your pitching charge, it's probably not your year, especially when you go out by scoring five runs in three games.
So the Red Sox bring their glamour and money and swagger to the World Series against a team that has almost none of all that, but is as hot as any team has ever been at this time of the year. Or as cold, if you count that practicing in the snow thing.
The Rockies have won 21 of their last 22 games, you might have heard, and they'll no doubt relish being cast as the other guys in the World Series, a role they'd have had to arm-wrestle the Indians for had Cleveland prevailed.
No team has ever had to sit idle for eight days before, as the Rockies will have done by Wednesday, so we don't know how that will affect their unprecedented hotness. Those of us who don't believe in momentum wouldn't have known whether their unprecedented hotness would have continued even without a break. We also don't know how to compare it with the hotness of the Red Sox, who have now won seven out of 10, including three straight routs of a good team.
All we can say is that the Red Sox look like the better team on paper. Without getting into too much Pedroia-Mike Lowell-Kevin Youkilis-Jacoby! Ellsbury! detail, consider for a moment that over the last two games, the Red Sox scored 23 runs while David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were combining to go 2-for-14 with four walks and two RBIs. That might not scare you, but you don't have to pitch this week.
That's all there on the paper that'll say the Red Sox are heavy favorites. Then again, that's the same paper that said the Indians would be tough to beat because of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, last seen watching the Boston Red Sox celebrate the American League championship.
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