Indians anticipating shot at Series redemption
CLEVELAND -- In the long, tortured history of the Cleveland sports fan, few events have the psyche-battering staying power of the John Elway-led "Drive" in 1987 or Earnest Byner's goal-line fumble a year later.The beloved Browns suffered two crushing defeats on the cusp of Super Bowls, and all because of the hated Denver Broncos.
A day after the Colorado Rockies advanced to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, the Indians moved within a game of making it a matched set. With a 7-3 victory over Boston on Tuesday night, Cleveland is one victory away from its first Series appearance since 1997, and a chance at its first title since 1948.
Several obstacles remain for the Indians, in the form of a potentially momentum-killing off-day Wednesday, a date with 20-game winner Josh Beckett on Thursday, and the ever-present fatalism in this city stemming from "The Curse of Rocky Colavito."
But the Indians have lots of reasons to feel upbeat. They're 6-2 against New York and Boston in the postseason after losing 11 of 13 to the AL East bullies in the regular season. They've posted two seven-run innings in the past three games. And they have 19-game winner C.C. Sabathia ready to go Thursday in Game 5 at Jacobs Field, where he went 11-3 with a 3.13 ERA during the regular season.
"We beat the Yankees and moved forward, and now we're in a pretty good position,'' said catcher Victor Martinez. "We don't get intimidated by anybody.''
Said reliever Rafael Betancourt: "With the confidence we have right now, we know we're going to do it Thursday. We don't want to go back [to Boston]. We want to finish it here and start thinking about the World Series now. I know C.C. is going to come and do his best and pitch like he can pitch.''
The series has assumed a different feel since it shifted from Fenway Park to Jacobs Field and the Cleveland pitchers shed their inhibitions and began pounding the strike zone with regularity. First it was human ground-ball dispenser Jake Westbrook, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced in a 4-2 victory Monday.
The tone for Game 4 was established by Paul Byrd, he of the old-fashioned windup and self-deprecating sense of humor. Just a week ago, Cleveland manager Eric Wedge was excoriated in advance for pitching Byrd against New York rather than starting Sabathia on short rest. Byrd beat the Yankees in the division series clincher, but not without causing some stomachs to churn.
Against Boston, Byrd showed why he went 15-8 this season in the ultra-competitive AL Central. He threw 43 strikes and 12 balls through the first four innings, yet rarely put a pitch in a spot where the Red Sox could do significant damage.
I was very happy for [the Rockies] -- for the fans and the players there -- because they never had a chance to be in a World Series. You could feel how it was there. We want to get to that point, too.
--Indians reliever Rafael Betancourt
"It's hard to explain what he does,'' said Kelly Shoppach, Byrd's personal catcher. "He attacks hitters without the greatest stuff. But he works the strike zone and works the ball up and down, changing speeds. He's been doing this a long time, and there's a reason why. He's got a pretty good idea what he's going to do.''
Byrd created a stir in the dugout when the outfield scoreboard clocked one of his fastballs at 90 mph. That's sort of like your neighborhood UPS driver winning the Indianapolis 500.
"I high-fived a couple of guys in the dugout and said, 'Hey, pick me up here. I just hit 90,''' Byrd said.
The Red Sox finally touched Byrd with back-to-back homers by Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz in the sixth inning, but he had a legitimate excuse. The Indians kept Byrd planted to the bench by sending 12 men to the plate during a seven-run, 35-minute onslaught against Tim Wakefield and Manny Delcarmen in the bottom of the fifth. Jhonny Peralta's three-run homer was the highlight of the inning for the Tribe.
The lingering images from the past two days tell you all you need to know about where this series is headed. There was Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, sitting despondently at his locker in a haze for nearly 40 minutes after a rough outing in Game 3. Then there was Manny Ramirez, raising his arms and strolling down the first-base line in a "Hey, look at me'' celebration after hitting a solo homer off Jensen Lewis on Tuesday night.
Problem was, the Red Sox trailed 7-3 when Ramirez jumped into Ortiz's arms in celebration after circling the bases. It was about as blatant a show of self-absorption as you'll see on a baseball field.
The Indians, in contrast, are one harmonious, efficient unit at the moment. Kenny Lofton broke Rickey Henderson's postseason record with his 34th career stolen base Tuesday night. Peralta is hitting .353 in the series, and Betancourt just keeps finding ways to mow down the middle of the Boston order.
One more Cleveland victory, and the World Series will pit the Rocky Mountains vs. the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the birthplace of Tim Allen vs. the home of Drew Carey, and the Sons of the Blake Street Bombers vs. Casey Blake and friends.
Some Cleveland players, like Betancourt and Martinez, stayed up late enough to see Eric Byrnes' game-ending groundout and the ensuing celebration at Coors Field after the Rockies swept Arizona for the National League pennant. When the Indians watched the Rockies spray each other with champagne, it helped create an anticipatory mood.
"It was very special,'' said Betancourt. "I was very happy for them -- for the fans and the players there -- because they never had a chance to be in a World Series. You could feel how it was there. We want to get to that point, too.''
Some Cleveland players missed the scene in Denver altogether, through it was no fault of their own.
"It was too late for me,'' Shoppach said. "Shoot, they're a couple of time zones behind us. I fell asleep when [Manny] Corpas came into the game in the eighth inning. I'd had enough.''
In the end, living vicariously just doesn't cut it. The Indians have every hope and intention of clinching the pennant at Jacobs Field on Thursday, before their loyal fans, and avoiding a return trip to Boston, where only bad things can happen.
Those amazing Rockies have lived up to their end. All they need now is an opponent.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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