© 2007 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
CLEVELAND -- His evening's at-bats had been exasperating -- much like his season, as a whole.
Travis Hafner had been punched out twice Friday, had been one of 14 Indians runners stranded on the basepaths, and had seen what would have been a game-tying RBI single in the eighth inning go straight into the mitt of first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.
This was a night that echoed a year. The man known as Pronk had struggled all season to live up to his own enormous potential, and the frustration was mounting on the game's biggest stage.
Then came a twist.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 11th, Hafner drew a full count from reliever Luis Vizcaino and lined a single up the middle to score Kenny Lofton with the winning run. It gave the Tribe a thrilling 2-1 victory and a commanding 2-0 lead in an ALDS that will now shift from Jacobs Field to Yankee Stadium.
"I came up in a great situation," Hafner said of his heroic at-bat. "Bases loaded, two outs. That's what you dream about as a kid."
This season, admittedly, hasn't gone the way Hafner dreamed it up. Yes, he drove in 100 runs for the fourth consecutive year, but he hit a relatively meager .266 in the process. Opposing teams' ability to successfully work the infield shift had robbed him of many base hits. But he consistently shrugged off his own troubles, as he was more caught up in the success of the club.
Now, this club is en route to New York with the most comfortable of leads in this best-of-five series. And it has Hafner to thank.
"It was great to see him come through for us," manager Eric Wedge said, "and for him individually."
No one was coming through at the plate for the Tribe for the majority of this game, and that simple fact nearly wasted an outstanding start from Fausto Carmona.
The game's regulation innings were alternately dominating and devastating, from the Indians' perspective.
Domination came in the form of Carmona's nine innings of work, in which Melky Cabrera's third-inning solo shot proved to be his only miscue. Carmona allowed just three hits, induced 18 groundball outs and two double plays. And with the score knotted at 1 with a man on second and two outs in the ninth, he went out with a flourish, striking out likely American League MVP Alex Rodriguez on a 3-2 pitch and leaving to a thundering ovation from the sellout crowd.
Devastation came in the form of the Indians' inability to deliver in the clutch against left-hander Andy Pettitte to back Carmona up. The Indians had at least one hit in each of the seven innings tossed by Pettitte, and they put their leadoff man aboard five times. They came up empty each time.
"Andy Pettite was not making mistakes," said first baseman Ryan Garko, who went 0-for-3 off Pettitte. "I was watching film, and the guy did not miss a spot all night. He's a great postseason pitcher, and he proved it. He made good pitches. What are you going to do?"
Not much, apparently.
Notable empty feelings arose when the Indians stranded Grady Sizemore at third after his leadoff triple in the sixth (Hafner's strikeout helped put an end to that opportunity), and when Jhonny Peralta, who had been gunned out at home earlier in the night when trying to score on a Lofton single, hit a towering fly ball to dead center field that was just barely knocked down by the 19-foot outfield wall.
"I thought that would be a home run," Peralta said. "I've never hit it to that part of the park. I guess that happens in the game."
In the eighth, something happened that neither club could have expected. With the Indians down, 1-0, and up to bat in the bottom of the inning, a swarm of insects descended upon The Jake and severely bugged Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain.
Perhaps this was the Indians' secret weapon. Whatever the case, it worked.
A distracted Chamberlain walked Sizemore, then threw a wild pitch that allowed Sizemore to move to second. Sizemore advanced to third on Asdrubal Cabrera's sacrifice bunt. And when Chamberlain threw another
wild pitch, Sizemore sped home and just barely eluded the tag at the plate.
Gnat's all there was to it. The game was tied.
It remained that way into the extras, as left-hander Rafael Perez relieved Carmona and worked a pair of perfect innings for the second night in a row. All the Indians, who had squandered opportunity after opportunity, needed was the big hit.
To that point, they had been carried by Carmona, boosted by bugs and picked up by Perez. Now, they were about to be propelled by Pronk.
In the bottom of the 11th, Lofton drew a walk from Vizcaino to become the eighth leadoff man to reach for the Tribe. Unable to get a sac bunt down, Franklin Gutierrez instead scooted a two-strike base hit through the hole on the left side of the infield to put runners at fist and second.
"In that moment," Gutierrez said. "I had to fight to make contact and get it done."
Casey Blake got the bunt job done, laying a perfect sacrifice down to move the runners over. Sizemore was intentionally walked to load the bases, but Asdrubal Cabrera's attempt to lift a sac fly to the outfield resulted in an infield popout.
This, then, was Hafner's moment to seize. And the moment became all the more tense when he worked his way into a 3-2 count.
"There's nobody else we'd rather have up there," Garko said. "You look at his track record throughout his whole career, and who else would you rather have up in that situation? There was just a feeling, once it was 3-2, that he was going to get it done, one way or another."
Hafner got it done. Vizcaino ran a changeup down the middle, and Hafner punched it into the gap up the middle. A sellout crowd of 44,732 fans who sat through this four-hour, 23-minute marathon erupted.
"It was great to come through there," Hafner said. "But the most important thing is just winning games. We're a team, and every night we want to go out and win."
This team has won all year, even though Hafner hasn't always delivered on his best intentions.
But when Pronk signed a contract extension this summer that will keep him in an Indians uniform through 2012, this was precisely the type of experience he had in mind.
"This city's been hungry for a winner for a long time," Hafner said. "And I'd love nothing more than to win a World Series for these fans."
He and his teammates are certainly off to a fine start.