BOSTON — With Kenny Lofton racing around third, Cleveland’s comeback — and a season stuffed with them — came to an abrupt halt.
More heartache, decade upon decade of it, persists for the Indians.
Months of surprises, whipped-cream pies in the kisser, late-inning rallies and an unexpected jaunt through October ended short of a World Series title for Cleveland, which lost 11-2 to the Boston Red Sox on Sunday night.
So close. So tantalizingly close. Again.
Lofton, the speedy 40-year-old outfielder who had returned in a July trade for a third try at winning an elusive Series ring with the Indians, was on his way to scoring the tying run in the seventh inning when third-base coach Joel Skinner cautiously held him up in a 3-2 game turning Cleveland’s way.
Skinner then stopped Lofton, not the Red Sox.
This time, the Indians did it to themselves.
If Lofton had scored and tied it, then who knows?
Instead, another year passed in Cleveland without a championship, a soon-to-be 60-year-old dry spell crossing generations in a city still waiting for one of its three professional sports teams to finally deliver the biggest trophy.
The longing endures.
With three chances to get one win and a World Series date with Colorado, the Indians whiffed — big time. After taking a 3-1 lead in the series, they were outscored 30-5 in the final three games.
But the play long-suffering Cleveland fans will remember, is the one linking Lofton, Skinner and Manny Ramirez, a former Indian — of course.
The Red Sox wound up blowing it open, but that hardly mattered.
The Indians were finished when Lofton was stranded.
With Lofton at second after Boston shortstop Julio Lugo had dropped his popup, Franklin Gutierrez hit a line drive that skirted down the third-base line and quickly caromed off the jutting wall and rolled into shallow left.
Ramirez, who had thrown Lofton out at second in the fifth, was playing back toward the Green Monster and was still charging the ball when Skinner raised his arms overhead like a traffic cop to stop Lofton.
Right away, Lofton knew that it was the wrong call. The left fielder, who nearly rolled both ankles when he hit the brakes at the bag, threw his head back in disbelief and then glared at Skinner.
And when Casey Blake grounded into an inning-ending double play moments later, Lofton’s worst fears were realized, stranded 90 feet from the plate.
The chance to tie had vanished, the Indians had lost all their momentum, and their final push at winning Game 7 was over, too.
Blake compounded the problem with an error to start the seventh, and when rookie Dustin Pedroia’s two-run homer made it 5-2, Skinner sat in Cleveland’s crowded dugout staring straight ahead.
Skinner’s mind was undoubtedly replaying the crucial seconds as Lofton approached the base, a sequence he’ll have to live with forever.
Down 3-0, the Indians could have packed it in. But as they did while staging 44 comeback wins — 26 in their final at-bat, victories Trot Nixon celebrated by smashing teammates with postgame pies, the Indians kept plugging away.
Before the first pitch, general manager Mark Shapiro, the man responsible for dismantling the Indians and rebuilding them, calmly addressed news that pitcher Paul Byrd had used HGH and then turned his attention toward Game 7.
Shapiro had no doubt his team would respond.
“This club has been so resilient all year long. We’ve had so many opportunities to turn adversity or distractions into excuses, and we’ve never done it.”
Jake Westbrook recovered after a shaky start and kept the Indians within striking distance.
Lugo’s blunder then seemed to open the door for Cleveland, but as quickly as it cracked, it slammed shut.