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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Outburst puts Tribe one win from Series

Seven-run fifth inning helps Byrd earn Game 4 win over Boston
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com

CLEVELAND -- This Indians' story, remember, does not begin here in the present tense, in the pomp and circumstance of October baseball and the national spotlight that comes with it.
It has short-season A ball roots at Mahoning Valley, where Victor Martinez and C.C. Sabathia were teammates in 1999. It harkens back to the days when Jhonny Peralta, Fausto Carmona and Rafael Betancourt weren't postseason studs, but rather non-drafted free agents.

It is borne out of the lessons learned in the trauma of a 94-loss season in 2003 and the tease of a 93-win season in 2005 that fell short of a playoff berth.

It is the tale of a group of young players who not only share a locker room but also a common thread of Minor and Major League experiences that got them where they are today. And where they are today, specifically, is a lone win away from the organization's first World Series appearance in a decade.

A 7-3 victory over the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at a sold-out Jacobs Field on Tuesday night has the Indians holding a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven slate and on the doorstep of the dreamland.

"It means a lot to every single person here in this room," Martinez said. "We came up from a long way, and to be in this spot right now is amazing. You look three or four years ago, and pretty much the same guys in this room were rookies."

Well, they weren't all rookies, and they weren't all here.

Paul Byrd, for example, is one of the Tribe's veteran hired hands, brought aboard in the midst of the journey to add some experience to the youthful unit. It was experience that revealed itself once again in six-plus innings of work in which Byrd successfully tamed a dangerous Red Sox lineup.

The Indians' bats also looked pretty tame early on in this one, until they awoke with a seven-run fifth inning off an unsuspecting Tim Wakefield and Manny Delcarmen.

A club getting assertive outings from its Nos. 3 and 4 pitchers, as the Indians have the past two nights from Jake Westbrook and Byrd, and getting big hits up and down the lineup -- as the Tribe did on this night from Martinez, Peralta, Casey Blake and Asdrubal Cabrera, among others -- can authoritatively be described as a club that's clicking.

And talk about good timing.

Only 10 of the 65 teams in postseason history who have taken a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven set have gone on to lose that series, so the past and the present are on the Tribe's side.

"It's not just one player," Martinez said of the Indians' postseason charge. "Every night, it's a different player. That's what makes this team really exciting. We expect anything from anybody."

A team never quite knows what to expect when a knuckleballer like Wakefield takes the mound. And for four innings, the only thing that came to be expected were the zeros Wakefield and Byrd were quickly stringing up on the scoreboard.

The Indians didn't get a hit off Wakefield until the fourth inning, and Byrd, not known for being prone to punchouts, struck out four batters in his first five innings of work.

"I didn't really expect to strike anybody out," Byrd said. "I was hoping to jam some people. But Wakefield was really tough. He threw a great game, and I wasn't expecting very many runs."

Seemingly out of nowhere, though, the runs arrived in the bottom of the fifth.

Blake led off the inning by slapping Wakefield's knuckleball out to the left-field home run porch to break up the scoring monotony. Franklin Gutierrez singled and Kelly Shoppach was hit by a pitch, and, suddenly, the Tribe's offense had some life.

After Grady Sizemore hit into a fielder's choice at second to put runners on the corners, Cabrera punched a bouncer up the middle that ricocheted off Wakefield's glove and fell in for an infield RBI single to make it 2-0.

When Wakefield got Travis Hafner to go down swinging for the second out, it appeared he'd get out of the inning without further harm. But an Indians team that, entering this game, had scored 22 of its 44 postseason runs with two outs once again showed a flair for the dramatic. Martinez grounded a single through the hole on the left side to knock in another run and end Wakefield's night.

In came reliever Manny Delcarmen, and out went Delcarmen's 2-1 offering to Peralta, who belted a three-run homer to right to make it 6-0.

"When I hit the homer," Peralta said, "I thought, 'That's the game.'"

Still, just for good measure, the Indians kept piling on. Kenny Lofton kept the rally going with a two-out single, and he stole second base to become the all-time stolen-base leader in postseason history. That swipe loomed large when Blake hit a fly ball to shallow center that just barely avoided Coco Crisp's diving reach. It fell in for an RBI single to complete the seven-run onslaught.

It was the second time this series the Indians have put up a seven spot -- the first coming in the 11th inning of the 13-6 victory in Game 2 at Fenway Park.

"Somebody gets it going," Blake said, "and there's maybe a little advantage, a little momentum going there, and it's just a combination of guys working the pitcher and just battling."

This battle, for all intents and purposes, was over, once that 35-minute fifth was finalized. The Red Sox kept it moderately interesting with consecutive solo shots from Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the sixth, but the Indians weren't going to cough this one up.

The Tribe's focus now is to not cough up a prime opportunity to wrap this thing up at home on Thursday night. They'll have their ace Sabathia on the mound, and another bustling Jacobs Field crowd behind them.

Only when -- and if -- that next victory comes will this story have the final chapter the Indians are seeking out.

"We're up, 3-1, and that doesn't mean anything," Martinez said. "We've got to finish them off."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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