By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007
CLEVELAND, Oct. 4 -- On a youthful team, Kenny Lofton is baseball-old. Old enough to have been a part of the last great Cleveland Indians era, old enough to remember what it felt like to be steamrolled beneath the last great New York Yankees dynasty, old enough to own the kinds of records that only belong to those who have played forever. But if you didn't already know Lofton was 40 years old, you never would have guessed it Thursday night, as the bat whipping through the air and the legs motoring around the bases seemed to belong to someone far younger.
When the Indians needed to answer the Yankees' run in the first inning of Game 1 of the American League Division Series, it was Lofton, the 17-year veteran, who delivered the two-run single that put the Indians on top. When they needed one more hit to finish off the Yankees' starting pitcher in the fifth, it was Lofton who stroked the back-breaking hit -- then stole second base and later scored.
And when the Indians, with a crowd of 44,608 on its feet and demanding more, needed one last big blow to break open the game, it was Lofton -- the old man of the team, the last remaining link to the franchise's Albert Belle-Manny Ramirez mid-1990s heyday -- who lashed an RBI double into the gap, a blowout victory soon to go into the books, 12-3.
"I think they remember me from 1995, and all the years I played in the playoffs here," Lofton said of the crowd. "The fans are getting all excited and fired up. This city needs a championship."
On a night when their indefatigable ace, C.C. Sabathia, labored just to make it through five innings, the Indians destroyed a Yankees pitching staff that in recent weeks had begun to think of itself as championship-worthy.
Starter Chien-Ming Wang, chosen to start Game 1 over a trio of veterans (Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina) who own 805 combined wins, surrendered two of the four homers smashed by Indians batters -- one each by Asdrubal Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner and Ryan Garko -- and failed to make it out of the fifth inning.
Things are much different now in the Bronx from the days when the Yankees were winning titles. They entered this October having lost their last three postseason series, none of which began with the word "World." Dating from their stunning loss to the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 AL Championship Series, in which they famously blew a three-games-to-none lead, the Yankees are now 3-11 in their past 14 postseason games.
Cleveland, on the other hand, is woefully underappreciated as a hard-luck baseball town, eclipsed by the sheer romance of the Chicago Cubs' famed futility. They are plagued by no known curses or ghosts, but the Indians' last World Series title was in 1948, and only the Cubs have suffered longer.
On Thursday night, a rowdy crowd worthy of a Big Ten football game jammed into Jacobs Field, dressed faithfully in Tribe colors, waving white towels and exploding at each pivotal moment in the game. They could not have imagined that the oldest player on the field would have been involved in so many of them.
Lofton made six straight all-star teams in the 1990s, when he was the leadoff man, center fielder and sparkplug for an Indians team that made five straight playoff appearances under Manager Mike Hargrove. But he developed a reputation as a malcontent and his career became defined by itinerancy -- he has played for 11 teams, including nine in the past six years (the Yankees, in 2004, among them) -- so much so that he became the butt of the joke in a recent DHL commercial.
"He bounced around to a lot of clubs for a reason," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "They felt he could help them."
Lofton got half of his four RBI Thursday night in the first inning, when the Indians answered Johnny Damon's leadoff homer off Sabathia -- which was mistakenly ruled foul initially, before the umpires huddled and reversed the call -- with three runs off Wang.
But the game was won and lost in the fifth inning, and again Lofton played a major role.
In the top half of the inning, Sabathia's night-long dance on the edge of disaster reached its peak. The inning featured his fifth and six walks of the game -- equaling his career high -- although amazingly, none of those six came around to score.
After Bobby Abreu's one-out double drew the Yankees to within 4-3, Sabathia walked Alex Rodriguez intentionally to load the bases, then fell behind 3-0 to catcher Jorge Posada. But his next four pitchers were fastballs of 96, 96, 97 and 96 mph, respectively, all of them strikes (two of which were fouled back). Posada whiffed on the 3-0 pitch, then swung through the last one for strike three. And when Hideki Matsui followed by popping up to shortstop on a 2-0 pitch -- Sabathia's 114th of the game -- Sabathia strutted off the mound, pumping his fists and shouting at himself.
"I was thinking to myself, 'Just try to end this inning with the lead,' " Sabathia said.
"He's as good as they come," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "He dug down deep and made some big pitches when he needed them."
It would be the last time the outcome was ever in serious doubt. While Rafael Perez, the Indians' supremely talented lefty reliever, came out of the bullpen to quash any hopes the Yankees had of staging a comeback -- with a spotless, two-inning stint that included four strikeouts -- Lofton and his lineup-mates delivered the final blows to Wang.
The itinerant old man was back where it all began, and the Indians and all their fans were glad to see him.