By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
NEW YORK, Oct. 8 -- There is a certain, startling incongruity to the spectacle of a visiting team celebrating a clinching playoff win at Yankee Stadium, as the House That Ruth Built, normally so alive, goes all silent and ghostly, the only sounds the strains of Sinatra's "New York, New York" and the hoots and hollers from the heaving huddle in the middle of the diamond. The Cleveland Indians couldn't help it if their victory Monday night destroyed the final vestiges of a glorious New York Yankees era. Young and unrelenting, they have their own glory to chase, and in the silent old stadium they savored this first sweet taste.
With a 6-4 win in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, the Indians, most of whom had never been to the playoffs before, vanquished a team that vastly outpaces them in experience, star power, payroll and melodrama.
As 56,315 fans contemplated the emptiness of another title-less winter in the Bronx, and the awful consequences it might beget, the Indians -- as the Boston Red Sox had done at the end of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and the Florida Marlins in the 2003 World Series -- danced across the famous old ballyard, then retired to the clubhouse for a raucous, champagne-soaked celebration, as if they owned the place.
"Nothing is tougher," said Indians veteran right-hander Paul Byrd, the winning pitcher, "than coming into Yankee Stadium and pulling this off."
The Indians will meet the Red Sox in the ALCS beginning Friday night at Boston's Fenway Park, with a trip to the World Series at stake. The Indians, who last appeared in the playoffs in 2001, are seeking the franchise's first World Series title since 1948.
For the Yankees, meantime, the repercussions from another first-round exit -- their third straight -- could be swift, brutal and far-reaching.
Owner George Steinbrenner had publicly vowed to fire Manager Joe Torre if the Yankees lost the series. Veteran right-hander Roger Clemens, removed from the Yankees' roster earlier in the day because of a hamstring strain suffered the night before, could be pushed toward retirement. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez, whose seventh-inning homer drew the Yankees to 6-3 and deflected some of the attention away from another disappointing October, could depart via an opt-out clause in his contract.
"The 12 years," Torre said, referring to his Yankees tenure during an emotional postgame news conference, "felt like they were 10 minutes long. . . . Whatever happens from here on out, I'll look back on these 12 years with great, great pleasure."
The last gasp of the Torre era, if this was indeed the end, came in the sixth inning, with the Yankees trailing by four runs, when Robinson Cano finally chased Byrd with a leadoff homer to right-center, and pinch hitter Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon rapped back-to-back singles with one out. But lefty Rafael Perez, one of the toughest set-up men in baseball this year, coaxed Derek Jeter, the Yankee captain, to hit into an inning-ending double-play.
"You play for a long time to get in this position," said Jeter, who was just 3 for 17 in the series, "and when you lose it hurts pretty bad."
After the sixth, the Yankees would not again bring the tying run to the plate, although Bobby Abreu's one-out homer in the ninth off Indians closer Joe Borowski cut the deficit to two.
Indians Manager Eric Wedge has been criticized over the loyalty he has shown to veterans such as Byrd and Borowski, when other managers might have turned to younger, more talented options. Wedge gave Byrd the ball for the Game 4 start even though ace and Game 1 starter C.C. Sabathia could have pitched on three days' rest, and he handed the lead over to Borowski in the ninth even though set-up man Rafael Betancourt had just overpowered the Yankees during a 1-2-3, two-strikeout eighth inning.
"It was Paul Byrd all the way for us," Wedge said. "I mean, he was our Game 4 starter -- and deservingly so. He won 15 games" this season.
Thanks to that decision, and Byrd's ability to pitch out of constant trouble for five innings, the Indians now have Sabathia and Fausto Carmona lined up to start Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS.
The Yankees, meantime, made the opposite choice -- starting the young ace, Chien-Ming Wang, on three days' rest, rather than the veteran, right-hander Mike Mussina. It took only three pitches for Wang to put the Yankees in a 1-0 hole, after Indians leadoff man Grady Sizemore homered, and the Yankees wound up turning to Mussina after all -- in relief.
The sum of Wang's output Monday night: Nine batters, three outs, four earned runs.
The early hole seemed a microcosm of the Yankees' season, which began with 29 losses in their first 50 games, then slowly turned around and produced the best record in baseball in the second half.
But there would be no successful rescue this time. Mussina gave up two more runs in the fourth, on Victor Martinez's bases-loaded single, and the Yankees continued to squander opportunities against Byrd and the Indians' bullpen.
And just like that, it was the ninth, and Borowski was on the scene, and Yankees catcher Jorge Posada -- himself a pending free agent -- was waving at strike three, ending the game, the Yankees' season, perhaps a career or two and an entire era. As the Indians flooded the field, Torre turned and led his troops up the tunnel to their clubhouse, and into the unknown.