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October 16, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Three Report

by John Perrotto

CLEVELAND-Casey Blake pondered the numbers for a moment as he stood in front of his locker in the victorious clubhouse. The Indians third baseman had just been told that teammate Kenny Lofton had just played in his 91st post-season game, spanning 11 years and 21 series.

"That is pretty amazing," said Blake, playing in the first postseason of his nine-year career. "I could see how it would make you hungry, though. These last couple of weeks have been just an amazing experience, something I'm never going to forget. When you have been through it once, I could see why there would be that hunger and that burning desire to want to keep coming back. I think it makes every one of us in the clubhouse understand a little better now why Kenny is still playing after all these years."

Lofton, the Tribe's 40-year-old left fielder, is in the finishing stages of his 18th major league season, and he took a step Monday night toward ensuring that he may play a little bit deeper into October, and maybe even finally get that World Series ring that had eluded him through all these years. Lofton's two-run home run in the second inning opened the scoring and sent the Indians on their way to a 4-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game Three of the American League Championship Series at Jacobs Field. The Indians lead the series 2-1 after winning their second consecutive game; Game Four is scheduled for tonight.

While he has compiled a .299/.372/.423 career batting line and his 622 stolen bases stand 15th on the all-time list, those numbers pale in Lofton's mind to the fact he has played in the postseason with six different teams. "I'm a journeyman now," he said, who has played for 11 teams in all, and is now in his third stint with the Indians. "I'm not embarrassed by that. That's the way it is. I move from team to team. What makes me feel good is that I usually wind up on winning team. Teams in contention know I can still do things to help them win. Winning never gets old. That's why I still watch what I eat, why I don't smoke and why I don't drink. I might be 40, but I still feel like I'm 25 and I want to keep feeling that way so I can keep playing as long as somebody think I can help them win."

The Indians felt Lofton could help them overtake Detroit in the AL Central, which is why they acquired him from Texas in a late-July trade for catching prospect Max Ramirez. With David Dellucci on the DL and Jason Michaels' usefulness being limited primarily to lefty-mashing, the Indians wanted another left-handed bat for their outfield.

"He's a big-game player," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "He likes the stage. It's important for people to understand just what it takes to be a big-game player and to see it right in front of them. This is a guy who has a lot of experience in the postseason. He understands how to slow himself down. He understands just what it takes to have the right heartbeat."

The Indians have only eight players on their 25-man ALCS roster who had ever played in a post-season game prior to this season but they have adopted Lofton's pulse rate. "You just watch how he handles himself in these situations and you learn from it," rookie reliever Jensen Lewis said. "It's great to have a guy who is that battle tested to be on your side. He's been a real calming influence in the playoffs just by the way he has gone about his business every day."

Lofton isn't the type of player who will stand up in the clubhouse and speak his mind. He also has a bit of a contrarian streak which makes him scoff when it is suggested he is the Indians' leader in this postseason. "I just try to tell the guys to play the game the way it's supposed to be played and have fun with it," Lofton said. "Even though it's the playoffs and it's a situation where you're going to do or die, these guys are still having fun with it. They're relishing it and enjoying it. They should because you never know when you might have this opportunity again. You can never take it for granted."

The Indians certainly haven't suffered from any type of stage fright. They dispatched the Yankees in four games in the American League Division Series, winning the clincher at the most intimidating venue in the sport, Yankee Stadium. Then, after getting waxed 10-3 in Game One of the ALCS at Fenway Park, the Indians came back to win Game Two in 11 innings before taking the series lead Monday night. "The only time I even sensed a slight bit of hesitation on our guys' part was Game One at Fenway, where maybe some of the younger guys weren't sure we belonged," closer Joe Borowski said. "But any of those feelings are gone now. Even though a lot of our guys have never been through this before, they really understand that you can't change the way you play just because it's the playoffs."

Rookie second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera is in that camp. "It's still baseball," Cabrera said. "It's the same game we all played as kids and in Double-A and Triple-A. You can't do things differently now. You've got to play your game."

One thing the Indians did differently in Game Three was get solid starting pitching, as Jake Westbrook allowed two runs and seven innings in 6 2/3 innings. While Westbrook wasn't dominating, he did use his sinker to get three double-play balls and 15 of his 20 outs on grounders. He also shot a big hole in the theory that the Indians would be in trouble in this series whenever they had to call on anyone other than co-aces C.C. Sabathia or Fausto Carmona. Those two combined to give up 12 runs in 8 2/3 innings in the first two games. The numbers say Sabathia and Carmona are much more effective than Westbrook, after both rated among the best starting pitchers in the majors. By SNLVAR, Westbrook was a distant third on the staff at 3.3, well behind Carmona's 6.8 and Sabathia's 6.5.

Yet, Westbrook executed a better game plan-he attacked the strike zone after watching Sabathia and Carmona nibble throughout their starts, and threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 27 batters he faced, including the first 11 and 14 of the first 15. The Red Sox swung at only five of those 21 first-pitch strikes. "If you start out 1-0 in the count, it's not to your advantage," Westbrook said. "I was able to get ahead and put myself in some good counts and then make some good pitches when I needed to. I didn't want to just throw fastballs down the middle, though. I wanted to throw good, quality strikes on the outer half of the plate. You have to do that against their lineup."

Rather than second-guess the strategy of taking first pitches that worked so well in the first two games of the series, Red Sox manager Terry Francona gave credit to Westbrook. "The strategy, especially with guys who are sinking the ball, is to get pitches up in the zone you can handle," Francona said. "Tonight, those pitches were down and they were really good pitches. I don't know that we would have done a whole lot with those pitches if we would have swung. That's what pitching is all about. You work ahead and you stay out of the middle of the plate. That's why guys are effective."

Famed Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka wasn't as effective for the Red Sox, giving up four runs and six hits in 4 2/3 innings. After Lofton's homer got the Indians started, they added two more runs off Dice-K in the fifth to make it 4-0. Jason Varitek's two-run homer off Westbrook halved that lead to 4-2 in the seventh, but the Indians bullpen finished with 2 1/3 perfect innings. Lewis got the final out of the seventh, Rafael Betancourt pitched the eighth and Borowski worked the ninth.

While Borowski got the save, it was Betancourt, the Indians' best reliever with a 6.845 WXRL who pitched the high-leverage inning. He cut through the heart of the Red Sox' batting order in the eighth, striking out Kevin Youkilis, getting David Ortiz to line out to deep right field, and inducing Manny Ramirez to hit a towering pop out. "I know how good those guys are and the damage they can do," Betancourt said. "But you can't come into the game thinking about how they can hurt you. You have to be positive. You need to be thinking of ways to get them out. I was very confident. I was going to go right at them with my best stuff and see what happened. I believed if they hit the ball hard, it was going to be right at someone like the ball Ortiz hit. That's how we all feel right now. We're very confident. We feel like everything it going to go our way."

While taking a cue from their 40-year-old left fielder, who's proving that you can go home again, and enjoy it perhaps more than ever the third time around.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Kenny Lofton,  Indians,  Jake Westbrook

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