Tribe basepath decisions prove costly
Lofton at center of two big plays before Game 7 gets away
BOSTON -- Kenny Lofton said there was no doubt in his mind that he was safe at second base in the fifth inning.Third-base coach Joel Skinner spoke with the same conviction about holding Lofton at third base in the seventh inning. There was no doubt in his mind that not sending Lofton home on Franklin Gutierrez's single was the right thing to do. They were the two biggest plays of the night Sunday for the Indians as their season came to end with an 11-2 loss to the Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. One was an aggressive baserunning play, the other conservative, and the Tribe couldn't win either way. The two plays represented Cleveland's best chance of overcoming Boston's early three-run lead and extending its season. "Who knows what happens if we tie it up there," third baseman Casey Blake said. "That's hard to answer ... it would have been nice." Instead, the plays are two that could rank right up there with other Cleveland "what if" moments, like Browns quarterback Brian Sipe throwing an interception against the Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC playoffs, running back Earnest Byner fumbling near the goal line in the 1988 AFC Championship Game or Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez's error in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. The Indians trailed, 3-2, at the time and as manager Eric Wedge said about the Red Sox at that point, "They just kind of took off from there." Kind of like John Elway driving the Denver Broncos 98 yards in the final minutes of the 1987 AFC Championship Game, Michael Jordan hitting the shot over Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo in the 1989 NBA playoffs or Pedro Martinez's six scoreless innings of relief against the Indians in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS. Cleveland fans have something else to remember as their Indians fell one game short of reaching the World Series. "That's the way it goes," Lofton said. "That's baseball. There's nothing you can do about it. It's over." The Indians were trailing, 3-,1 when their baserunning adventures began. Lofton, leading off the fifth inning, hit one off the left-field wall and had a double on his mind all the way. But Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez read the ball off the wall perfectly, made a strong, accurate throw to second, and second baseman Dustin Pedroia slapped the tag on Lofton as he came sliding in head first with arms outstretched. Second-base umpire Brian Gorman called him out. Lofton disagreed. He didn't put up much of a fuss at the time but made his feelings clear afterward. "I was safe," Lofton said. "He didn't tag me until I hit the bag and then he tagged me in the chest."
It may have cost the Indians a big inning. Gutierrez and Blake followed with singles, and Grady Sizemore's sacrifice fly cut the Red Sox lead to 3-2. But it was still that way when Lofton came up with one out in the seventh.This time Lofton, facing Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima, hit a high pop into shallow left field that shortstop Julio Lugo dropped for an error. Lofton ended up on second and Gutierrez followed with a sharp grounder over the third-base bag and into foul territory down the line. Right there, one of Fenway Park's unique features came into play. Beyond third base, the grandstands angle out toward the foul line. Gutierrez's grounder hit the wall in front of the stands and caromed out into short left field. Skinner held Lofton at third while Lugo and Ramirez went after the ball. Skinner said later he thought Lugo would get it. Instead, Ramirez picked it up well after Lofton reached third and it appeared the Indians missed a chance to tie the game, especially when Ramirez later said after the game that he was "going to throw it to the cutoff man and let him deal with it." "I've had plays where the ball kicks off and goes right to the shortstop," Skinner said. "Where I'm at, I have to make a decision, and I did. From a higher vantage point, you might see the carom better, but from the ground level, it looked like it struck right behind shortstop. "The ball probably ended up deeper than I thought, but we still [had] runners at first and third with one out." Lofton said he was looking to score on the play and appeared to be surprised that Skinner held him up. "I'm always thinking I have a chance to score, no matter what," Lofton said. "If there's a base hit, I'm always thinking I have a chance to score. But my job there is to pick up the third-base coach. I can't see what's happening behind me." Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell has seen that play before and agreed with Skinner that there are times when baserunners get thrown out at home by a hustling shortstop. "Sometimes that ball caroms right to the shortstop," Lowell said. "I don't know, that's a tough angle. I had a tough angle at it. After the fact, maybe you say, 'He has a chance.' But I don't think you can second guess that play." Perhaps it would have been forgotten if Lofton eventually scored. Instead, Blake immediately brought the inning to an end by with a double-play grounder right at Lowell. "I had a good approach," Blake said. "I was looking for something soft in the zone. I was a little ahead of it and cued it off the end of my bat. If I had waited a second longer, I might have hit it harder."
Instead, Cleveland fans have another disappointing moment to remember for a long time to come.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.