White Sox 4, Indians 3

A playoff opportunity that seemed so certain only a week ago is slipping away, so much so that there is not much the Cleveland Indians can do about it. Perhaps Aaron Boone, the former New York Yankees hero who once eliminated the Boston Red Sox with one wild swing on a raucous night in the Bronx, could make a phone call to his former Yankees teammates asking for their best effort on Sunday. If Boone earned any bit of karma from that home run, which sent the Yankees to the World Series, he certainly needs to cash it in now.

"I might make a call or two," Boone said, "but we need to do our work or it doesn't matter."

For two days the Indians have faced a Chicago White Sox team that had nothing to play for and twice Cleveland has fallen achingly short. Saturday's 4-3 loss keeps Cleveland a game behind the Red Sox in the wild-card standings with only one game remaining in the regular season. The Indians have lost five of six and hardly resemble the team that put quite a scare into the White Sox, trailing Chicago in the American League Central by just 11/2 games a week ago.

"They've basically had their way with us," Boone said of the White Sox, who have won eight of nine games at Jacobs Field.

Now their fates will be decided in part by Boston. If the Red Sox win on Sunday, Cleveland is eliminated no matter what it does against the White Sox. The Indians need to win on Sunday and hope for a Boston loss to New York, which Saturday clinched the American League East title. The Yankees, perhaps looking forward to the playoffs and having nothing to play for, may not have the incentive to beat Boston. At best, the Indians can force a one-game playoff game at Fenway Park on Monday.

"I think if you can stop and look where we were on Monday and the way we were playing, it was a great position to be in," Cleveland designated hitter Travis Hafner said. "I'm kind of stunned at what's happened."

A somber Cleveland team once again exited its clubhouse quietly. The players who stayed had little explanation as to what has happened. Most pointed to the offense, which has offered the pitching staff little help.

"I think we've maybe pressed a little bit with runners in scoring position," Indians Manager Eric Wedge said. "That's been the glaring thing the last few days."

Since last Sunday, the start of their bad run, the Indians have hit just 6 for 49 (.122) with runners in scoring position. This is unusual for an Indians team that scored 61 runs in seven games from Sept. 18 to Sept. 24.

"Guys would get on base and the merry-go-round started," Hafner said. "Now we get a guy on base and we need to throw another quarter in the merry-go-round."

With only one out, the bases loaded and trailing by one run in the eighth inning, the Indians' Ronnie Belliard stepped to the plate. He swung at the first pitch from Cliff Politte and popped out to third.

"I think he had a pitch to hit there," Wedge said, "he just popped it up. You can't have it both ways. Ronnie is an aggressive hitter. You can't fault him for being aggressive on the first pitch."

Ben Broussard ended the inning by flying out to center field.

The struggling offense has almost forced Cleveland pitchers to be almost perfect. In the seventh inning, with a man on base, Chicago's Pablo Ozuna hit a chopper for an infield single that put starter Jake Westbrook in a bind. Wedge decided not to make a pitching change.

"Jake is a guy that could put the ball on the ground and get you out of that inning with one out or two out there," Wedge said.

Westbrook made a slight mistake on a sinker and Tadahito Iguchi sent the ball over the center field wall for a deciding three-run home run.

"Once I saw it take off I knew it was gone," Westbrook said. "That was the ballgame."

There are no answers as to why the Indians have struggled so much in these situations. Perhaps this young team was ill-prepared for the pressure of the pennant chase. Belliard did not give an explanation. He went into the shower prior to reporters entering the clubhouse and then had a clubhouse attendant pick up his clothes from the locker. Belliard dressed in another room and left.

Wedge said he won't likely have a talk with his young team prior to Sunday's game.

"We've talked," Wedge said. "I've talked to these guys as a group. I've talked to individuals."

There is not much to say to a team whose season has almost slipped away.

White Sox' Tadahito Iguchi crosses the plate toward Pablo Ozuna after his three-run homer off Indians starter Jake Westbrook in the seventh inning.Ben Broussard is frustrated after flying out with the bases loaded to end the eighth inning. Cleveland

has lost five of its last six games.