- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
CLEVELAND -- Greed is a dangerous thing. Eric Wedge and the Cleveland Indians found this out Thursday night the hard way.
Maybe the 2-1 lead the Red Sox held to start the seventh inning would've stood and the Indians wouldn't have beaten Josh Beckett, anyway. Maybe nobody can beat Beckett in October, a suggestion that doesn't sound so preposterous after he sliced through Wedge's lineup for eight innings, 11 strikeouts and one in-game shouting match with Kenny Lofton to beat Cleveland twice in the past week. Maybe nothing could have prevented these two teams from flying back to Boston for Game 6 on Saturday night, which is what they did after the Red Sox avoided the New England winter for another day with an easy and suspenseless 7-1 victory in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
But following six tense, laborious innings from C.C. Sabathia, Wedge chose to send his ace out for the seventh in a one-run game. Sabathia, beaten by the Beckett in the series opener and pitching with both something to prove and a chance to push the Indians into the World Series, was tough and resolute throughout the evening, but not dominant. While Beckett cruised after the first inning, Sabathia fought himself and the Red Sox equally, looking relieved following the end of each inning.
Wedge's gamble did not work. With Rafael Betancourt, unhittable to this point in the series ready, Sabathia gave up a leadoff double to Dustin Pedroia -- a.k.a. the cockiest rookie this side of Nuke LaLoosh -- that started the collapse of the Indians and began the end of the competitive portion of the evening. By the end of the inning, the Boston lead was 4-1, which against Beckett seemed like a 10-run cushion.
It wasn't malicious greed on Wedge's part -- the kind of greed that prohibits day games in the playoffs in favor of 10 p.m. start times that prevent kids from watching the most important games the sport can offer -- but his decision to leave Sabathia in the game for the seventh cost the Indians a chance to stay close against Beckett, close enough to possibly steal this game and go to the World Series. To Wedge, Sabathia's sixth inning, where he retired Jason Varitek, Coco Crisp and Julio Lugo in order served as proof that perhaps he could extend Sabathia through another inning.
"We had a couple of decisions to make there. One, C.C. pitched probably as good as he pitched the prior inning. He was pretty efficient," Wedge said. "If you go straight to Betancourt, you're talking about Betancourt throwing two innings down, and the way C.C. was throwing, it was not something I was interested in because it's going to weaken us over the weekend, if everything remains the same.
"Otherwise, we're talking about potentially using three relievers in one inning because we're at the top of the order and we go right-hander, left-hander, right-hander, and we're using three relievers in one inning. And if we tie it up late, you're talking about being pretty thin in your bullpen."
Wedge's, thinking was solid, but the gamble was in looking forward when winning Thursday would have made Saturday irrelevant. It sounded as though the manager was saying that the calculated risk of potentially burning his bullpen on a night where Beckett appeared unbeatable just wasn't worth it. In the end, should his bullpen win him the pennant Saturday, Wedge will be vindicated. But on this night, Sabathia appeared if not finished after six, then clearly closer to fumes than a half tank.
The problem was that Sabathia was a different pitcher against the bottom of the Boston lineup than the top. After six innings, Varitek, Crisp and Lugo were 1-for-8 with a hit batter, while Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz were 3-for-8 with a home run and two runs scored. By the time Sabathia departed in the seventh, the numbers for the 1-2-3 hitters were 5-for-10 with a homer, a double, a triple and four runs scored.
"If C.C. can work through Ortiz, then we go to Betancourt, then we've got a decision where we can ultimately keep the game the same way and not overuse Rafi in that situation," Wedge said. "It didn't work out, but C.C., I felt like he worked through it and got a little bit better as the game wore on. He's thrown 120 pitches before I think he was 103 or 104 going out there that inning, but it just didn't work out."
The Indians still lead 3-2 in games, and only Beckett has beaten them in this series, but in losing Thursday, they lost a bit of their mojo. For the first time since Game 1, they played uninspired baseball -- odd for an elimination game -- and their relief pitching showed a rare fallibility. After the game, Wedge was frustrated his hitters did not appear to adjust against Beckett the second time around, allowing so tough-minded a pitcher the courtesy of taking first-pitch curveballs for strikes regularly, and generally seeming unprepared for offspeed pitches in the strike zone.
"Where my disappointment lay was in the lack of adjustments in hitters. We just saw him four or five days ago and not to take anything away from Beckett because he was very good, but we were in-between all night long," Wedge said. "When you've got somebody throwing against you like that with that type of stuff, you can't live in-between. You've got to make some decisions. You got to take some chances and get after it, and we never did tonight."
Meanwhile, Sabathia redeemed himself somewhat in a losing effort. In the first game of the series, Sabathia did not sufficiently challenge the Boston hitters, allowing them to stand in the batter's box, unmoved. He didn't challenge hitters inside, even hitters like Ortiz, when he had them down in the count. He knew his lack of aggressiveness was a major contributor to Boston's 10-3 win in the opener, and he vowed a tougher approach.
On Thursday, Sabathia fought hard. He immediately gave up a home run to Youkilis and faced numerous situations in the third, fourth and fifth innings that saw him a pitch from being knocked out. Still, he persevered, forcing Youkilis into a double play in the third before allowing Ortiz, who walked, to score on a disputed ball by Manny Ramirez that hit the top of the right-center fence for a single. He started the fourth by yielding consecutive singles to Bobby Kielty and Varitek but struck out a dying Crisp -- he's hitting .143 in the series -- and forced Lugo into a 6-3 double play. He was on the edge again in the fifth by snatching two quick outs before loading the bases for Kielty, who flied out to right on a 3-2 pitch. Sabathia is 0-2 in the series, but did not wilt under the big lights.
Still, Beckett was better and the Red Sox are still alive. Sabathia had the ingredients of a legacy game set in place for him. He was on the mound in an elimination game, facing the pitcher who will win the American League Cy Young Award if he does not, needing redemption following two poor postseason performances. His mission -- to keep the Indians' plane to Boston on the tarmac until next season -- was a singular one. The moment was there for him, but it was Beckett who upstaged him, taking the floor for himself.
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.
22hInterview by Buster Olney
14hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com