ALCS moments of truth
CLEVELAND -- On Thursday night, a third pennant in 12 years awaits the Cleveland Indians, and anyone wondering how a playoff series that once looked so even has tilted so deeply to the Indians' favor -- far enough that the Boston Red Sox are in danger of being decisively punched out of the postseason just days after winning the opening game of the American League Championship Series in a laugher -- needs only to make a checklist of the money moments over the past three games and see which team is flush and which is dead broke.
When the two teams play again, with Red Sox ace Josh Beckett against Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia, the Red Sox need to win or their season will end and the Indians will host Game 1 of the World Series against Colorado next Wednesday night.
In the big towns like New York and Boston, towns where they are so used to always getting their way, the Indians have shattered the myth that small-money teams don't win series as much as the big cats lose them. And it is that perspective that continuously cheats the accomplishments of the winners and gives teams like the Red Sox and Yankees an eternal, unattractive sense of false entitlement. In times like these, these teams seem to be surprised to find themselves on the brink, put there by a Cleveland team that is simply, at this point, the better team.
Facing the heart of the Red Sox order in the bottom of the 10th -- a powerhouse that banged back-to-back homers in Game 2 and three consecutive homers in Game 4 -- Indians reliever Tom Mastny retired David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell in order.Cleveland 2, Boston 0. In the top of the 11th, the Indians broke free for seven runs, starting with Trot Nixon's defeat of Javier Lopez. The big inning was significant not simply because they took a lead, but the explosion left little hope for any form of Fenway Magic. Cleveland 3, Boston 0. None of this is to say the Red Sox have not had opportunities to put the pressure on Cleveland, and win some points on their serve. Against Jake Westbrook in Game 3, they loaded the bases with nobody out in the second. Jason Varitek popped to left and Coco Crisp hit into a double play.
Cleveland 4, Boston 0. With two outs and a chance to escape the second inning without giving up a run, Daisuke Matsuzaka gave up a two-run homer to Kenny Lofton. Cleveland 5, Boston 0. In addition, the Red Sox hit into three double plays that dug their hole even deeper. In a scoreless game Tuesday, Ramirez stood on second with one out in the second, but Paul Byrd was better, striking out the next two hitters, J.D. Drew and Crisp. In the third, Byrd quickly retired the first two hitters only to yield consecutive hits to Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis, forcing Byrd to face the dangerous Ortiz. Here was a chance for the Red Sox to score on Byrd, put the pressure on him and see if he would crack, with their best postseason performer staring him down. But Byrd was better, and Ortiz hit a hard grounder to the shifted shortstop to end the inning. Cleveland 6, Boston 0. In the decisive seven-run fifth, there were plays on the field for the Red Sox to make, and by a hair, they did not make any of them. There was the Cabrera foul ball that neither Youkilis nor Pedroia could corral, followed by his RBI single that tapped off of Tim Wakefield's glove and died softly in the wet grass. There was the RBI single by Blake -- his second hit of the inning -- that bounced tantalizingly in front of a diving Crisp in center. And of course, Manny Delcarmen could have made a pitch to emerge unharmed from the deep end of the pool -- pitches Westbrook on Monday and Byrd Tuesday found the way to make -- but gave up a backbreaking three-run bomb to Jhonny Peralta. Cleveland 7, Boston 0. This is baseball, simple and unvarnished. These are the moments when series change, the chances to take control of the game, to play at the advantage instead of lamenting those moments that slipped away. Since Beckett's Game 1 win, none of the Red Sox's next three starters -- Curt Schilling in Game 2, Matsuzaka and Wakefield in Games 3 and 4 -- has gotten out of the fifth inning. Westbrook was better than Matsuzaka, Byrd better than Wakefield. Cleveland 8, Boston 0. "I feel like we've been doing a better job just controlling the baseball game in regard to our pitching. It starts right there. It always has and it always will, in regard to working ahead, making pitches when you have to, getting big outs, finishing hitters off, finishing innings off," said Indians manager Eric Wedge. And at each turn, the Indians have been better. If none of this makes the Red Sox's predicament more clear, then leave the analysis to just this: The Red Sox have been dominant in the exact same areas where they overpowered the league during the season. When Beckett pitches, the Red Sox have won. He was great in winning 20 games during the year and has continued his play in the postseason. Ortiz and Ramirez are the heart of the Red Sox order and have carried the Red Sox offense. But the suspect areas of the Red Sox during the season have been apparent in this series. Schilling and Matsuzaka have been good this season, but neither at any point in the season could have been considered automatic against good teams. Lowell is hitting .250, Lugo .143, Crisp .188, Varitek .200 and Drew .267, but without an extra-base hit or RBI. Meanwhile, the Indians have proven themselves to be the more balanced team, producing at the right moments. They've been the better team, carried during the regular season by Carmona and Sabathia but buttressed by Byrd and Westbrook when it counts. Travis Hafner, the Indians' three-hitter, struck out four times, but the nine-hitter, Blake, hit a home run and is hitting .312. Rafael Perez, a top reliever during the season, has a 54.00 ERA, but Mastny saved Game 2. All the performances of this postseason belong to Cleveland. There is no mystery behind what the Indians have accomplished, but two for the future. The first lies in whether Cleveland can close the deal and go to the World Series. The second is whether the Red Sox will get back in this series or keep leaving the crucial money points -- and the final remnants of their season -- sitting there on the field.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.