BOSTON — The Indians overcame a multitude of obstacles during their quest to return to the World Series for the first time in a decade.
The final one, however, proved too tough to clear.
On a cool Sunday night at a raucous Fenway Park, all the work and sweat that went into one of the team’s most successful seasons in years went for naught, as Cleveland’s world championship dreams faded away in a devastating 11-2 loss to Boston in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
The Red Sox turned a tight game into a rout, scoring eight of their runs over the final four innings.
The Indians lost the series-deciding game, but what will undoubtedly make it even tougher for those in Cleveland’s organization to swallow is that the club appeared to be in prime position to return to the Fall Classic — up 3-1 through the first four games of the series.
“Anytime you go to a seventh game of a series like this, anything can happen,” said Indians manager Eric Wedge. “I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to finish it off, but you knew whoever took advantage of opportunities, that would probably be the difference. And I think it was.
“That’s baseball. There are so many things that happen over the course of a season.”
“It’s difficult,” said Jake Westbrook, Cleveland’s Game 7 starter.
“This is going to take a while to sink in.”
Cleveland put its postseason fate in the hands of Westbrook, who, after a shaky start, was up to the task.
It was clear early that Westbrook did not have the stuff he brought to the mound during his first ALCS start against the Red Sox in Game 3 at Jacobs Field, when he got the win after allowing two runs over 62/3 innings.
The right-hander allowed three runs on nine hits through just four innings — four hits alone in the first, with Boston in front 3-0 after three innings. Still, he kept the damage to a minimum, thanks to a pair of inning-ending double plays that kept Cleveland in the game, and got better as the game wore on.
Westbrook didn’t allow a run after the third inning, retiring the last seven batters he faced and leaving with his team trailing by a run.
“Westbrook got so locked in,” said Boston manager Terry Francona. “That final score was no way indicative of how this game played out.”
Boston did not get the special outing that Curt Schilling predicted for teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka, who lasted just five innings, allowing two runs on six hits.
Matsuzaka was effective early and didn’t allow a hit through 2 2/3 innings, but the Indians began to chip away as the right-hander went deeper into the game.
A pair of doubles from Travis Hafner and Ryan Garko scored Cleveland’s first run in the fourth inning, with the Indians adding another in the fifth on a sacrifice fly from Grady Sizemore to draw to within one of Boston’s advantage.
The tying run never came for the Indians, though it appeared to be en route to arriving in the seventh inning.
After Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo dropped a pop up to shallow left field that allowed Kenny Lofton to check in at second base with one out, Franklin Gutierrez sent a hot grounder down the third-base line that ricocheted off a camera bay as Lofton was chugging for third and Manny Ramirez was retrieving the ball.
Third base coach Joel Skinner began waving Lofton home before throwing up the stop sign, then waving him home again, as Lofton stayed put. Replays appeared to suggest Lofton would have scored.
“It was a tough read,” Wedge said.
The Indians still had a chance to knot things with a sacrifice fly ball from Casey Blake, but Cleveland’s third baseman bounced into an inning-ending double play with Lofton still entrenched on the bag.
It didn’t get any better in the bottom of the seventh for Blake, who committed an error on a routine grounder from Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off the inning. It cost the Indians a run when Dustin Pedroia crushed a fastball from reliever Rafael Betancourt over the Green Monster for his first home run of the postseason and a 5-2 Boston lead.
Betancourt was not the impenetrable setup man he had been all year, getting torched for seven runs over just 1 2/3 innings, with Pedroia driving in five of them over a two-inning span.
Boston outscored Cleveland 33-5 over the final 22 innings of the series, starting with the seventh inning of Game 4.
The Red Sox made history again, erasing a 3-1 deficit to win the ALCS. Entering the series, of the 13 teams to face the deficit, just three advanced to the World Series, with Boston doing it twice, and now for a third time. The Sox are 14-3 in their last 17 elimination games.
“It was tough,” said Pedroia. “I remember sitting in Cleveland after we got beat in that third game. We just had to find a way to turn it around. That team over there, they’re great.”
The Indians were forced to deal with more adversity, even before they took the field, with starting pitcher Paul Byrd admitting to taking human growth hormone after a San Francisco Chronicle report earlier in the day implicated the right-hander.
But in the end, the Indians chose to focus on the learning experience they got in the playoffs, one that would definitely qualify as a tough lesson.
“We fell short, but I think we learned a great deal this postseason,” Wedge said.
“It’s something we’ll definitely learn from,” Westbrook said. “We’ll come back hungry next year. We got a taste, but the feeling is going to be a bad taste, losing in Game 7. Hopefully we can keep that taste through the winter. We don’t want it again.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or email@example.com.