NEW YORK — It was all there in front of the Indians on Sunday.
They were leading the Yankees and Roger Clemens was out of the game after re-aggravating a hamstring injury.
Cleveland was on the verge of sweeping the hated Yanks and advancing to the ALCS for the first time since 1998.
And then it all turned in the most disastrous of directions for the Indians.
A three-run home run from Johnny Damon off Jake Westbrook in the fifth inning put the Yankees in front for the first time, with New York tacking on plenty more from there to win Game 3 of the division series 8-4.
With the Yankees staving off elimination, much to the Indians’ chagrin, there will be a Game 4 tonight at Yankee Stadium.
“I don’t think we played particularly well,” said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge, who confirmed that Paul Byrd would start tonight, with the Yankees announcing they would go with Game 1 starter Chien-Ming Wang. “We opened up some doors and gave them some opportunities.”
The Indians cleared the first hurdle en route to a sweep when they deflected the noise and clamor from the voracious sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium to score early off Clemens, who was pitching for just the second time in six weeks.
It was clear early that Clemens would not be able to conjure up another magical postseason performance when he labored through the first two innings, throwing 47 pitches, while the Indians scored twice.
The Rocket reached the end of the line in the third inning, leaving after striking out Victor Martinez for the first out and re-aggravating an injury that he’s dealt with for the last month.
The Indians led 3-0 and appeared to be in control.
Not so fast.
Though Westbrook limited New York to just a run through four innings, the Yankees apparently were timing him up for a future wrath, which they unleashed in the fifth.
After striking out Jason Giambi for the first out, Westbrook allowed four straight hits — the last being Damon’s home run that put New York up 5-3 and on top the rest of the way. Damon delivered for the Yankees all night, driving in their first run in the third and going 3-for-4 with half his team’s RBIs.
“Johnny is such a good pressure guy,” said Yanks manager Joe Torre, who was greeted Sunday morning by reports that owner George Steinbrenner would fire him if New York doesn’t win the series. “It’s been an emotional day. When you work here you understand the pressure to win every time.”
Westbrook, who allowed an infield single to Alex Rodriguez to lead off the sixth before being removed, surrendered six runs on nine hits through five-plus innings.
He was on the mound when the Indians clinched the Central Division title, but the right-hander wasn’t able to accomplish the same in the division series.
“It’s disappointing being on the mound and having something to do with it,” Westbrook said.
Wedge was asked if he considered removing his starting pitcher in the midst of New York’s fifth-inning uprising.
“He can always put the ball on the ground, so you stick with him,” Wedge said of the right-hander, who is 0-3 with an 11.85 ERA in three starts against the Yankees this year. “He got a ball up to Damon and Johnny did a good job with that.”
New York’s fate turned dramatically when its hitters began to use the opposite field against Westbrook in the fifth.
“The frustrating thing is I felt good. I felt strong,” Westbrook said. “They came out with a different approach in the fifth inning and I didn’t mix it up the way I wanted to.”
The Yankees didn’t get much from Clemens, but his replacement, rookie right-hander Phil Hughes, was a handful for Cleveland hitters.
With Hughes on the mound, the Indians went scoreless on just two hits through 3 2/3 innings, while the Yankees began picking up steam at the plate.
“He was huge for them,” Wedge said. “The difference between him and Roger threw us off a little bit.”
“Once he settled in, he looked like a seasoned thrower out there,” Torre said.
Wedge’s hunch to play Trot Nixon for the first time in the series paid off offensively, with Nixon going 2-for-4 with a home run, double and two RBIs, but the playoff-tested veteran let the Indians down in the field.
With Aaron Fultz on the mound in relief of Westbrook and the bases loaded in the sixth, Nixon overran an RBI single from Robinson Cano that let two more runs cross the plate, giving New York a commanding 8-3 advantage.
The Indians scored their final run of the game off Joba Chamberlain on a double from Nixon.
But the Yankees finished things off from there, proving that while they’re down, they’re far from out.
“I felt like we made a statement in Game 1 and they made one tonight,” Byrd said.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or email@example.com.