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10/22/07 2:20 AM ET

Game 7 slips away from Indians late

Fight for pennant ends with third consecutive loss to Red Sox

BOSTON -- A few eyes reddened. More than a few hugs were shared.

Corrupting the quiet of the visitors' clubhouse was the distant roar of the Fenway Park crowd, as the American League championship trophy was hoisted by the home club.

It could have been them.

The Indians swallowed that hard truth as best they could in the wake of their 11-2 loss to the Red Sox in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series on Sunday night. They wrestled with the knowledge that they had become just the sixth team in LCS history to see a 3-1 series lead go to waste.

And then, just as they've done quite often in this season of unimaginable perseverance, they accentuated the positive -- even when it was at its most difficult to decipher.

"There's no reason to hang our heads," said Jake Westbrook, whose six gutsy innings of work had made victory seem so tantalizingly obtainable earlier in the evening. "It's disappointing, yes, but you look back on it -- we came together as a team. I think we're going to look back at what a great year we had and what a great team we had. This is something we'll learn from."

The lessons came hard and fast the last few days. One victory away from clinching the organization's first World Series berth in a decade, the Indians were blindsided, 30-5, over the last three games of this series.

They were befuddled by Josh Beckett in Game 5, foiled by Fausto Carmona's roughshod Game 6 and ultimately eliminated in the late innings of this one, when a controversial decision by third-base coach Joel Skinner, an untimely error by Casey Blake and a deflating home run by Dustin Pedroia sealed their fate.

Though the final score might not indicate as much, Game 7 was actually a Pepto Bismol-worthy affair, right up until the Indians bullpen imploded and let the Sox score eight runs in their final two at-bats.

"We needed something special to happen tonight," Blake said. "It just didn't happen."

Actually, the Indians got a special outing from Westbrook, who danced with danger in his first four innings of work, letting the leadoff runner aboard in each of those innings and letting him score in the first three.

Boston attempted to nickel and dime Westbrook to death through ground-ball singles through the holes, but he managed to get three double-play balls to avoid a massacre.

And when Westbrook suddenly found a feel for his changeup and the Indians strung together a couple mid-game runs off Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, it was a 3-2 ballgame.

The Indians had life, and that resonated into the stands, where general manager Mark Shapiro was expecting -- not hoping for, but expecting -- a rally.

"With the way our guys battle and the way they fight," Shapiro said, "I just started to get that feeling that we were going to do it."

That feeling dissipated in a hurry, though.

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In the seventh, Kenny Lofton was on second after a two-base error by shortstop Julio Lugo, and Lofton could have tried to score when Franklin Gutierrez ripped a single off Hideki Okajima down the third-base line. The ball ricocheted off the photographer's pit and into shallow left field, and Skinner, fearing that Manny Ramirez would gun Lofton down at the plate, held the runner up at third.

When Blake hit into a double play to end the inning, that holdup loomed large.

"It's tough to read if it's ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center," manager Eric Wedge said of that play. "I think it was just a tough read for [Skinner]."

The rest of the game just got tougher for the Tribe. Blake made a fielding error in the bottom of the seventh to let Jacoby Ellsbury aboard, and reliever Rafael Betancourt served up the crushing two-run blast over the Green Monster to Pedroia, making it 5-2.

In the eighth, after Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon retired the heart of the Indians order -- Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko -- with two on and none out, the game got ugly. Betancourt and Jensen Lewis combined to give up six runs in the bottom of the inning, and the Tribe's wild 2007 ride had reached its unwelcome end.

"This one hurts a lot," said Hafner, who hit just .148 in the ALCS. "Every game we play, we feel like we're going to win. We were down, 3-2, late in the game, and the attitude on the bench was we were going to win this game. We had a great opportunity here, and it didn't work out. It's very frustrating."

Yet the fact that this series, between the two clubs with the best record in baseball this year, went to a seventh game was befitting of the Tribe's flair for the dramatic this season.

The Indians, coming off a 78-84 finish in '06, battled snow-outs, rescheduled home dates in foreign lands, major roster shakeups and the vaunted Yankees in the AL Division Series to get to this point. And those were details not soon forgotten when the last out was made.

"This is the greatest group of guys I've ever been a part of," said Paul Byrd, who was the subject of a distracting human growth hormone scandal before Game 7. "The way this team played, the way this team hustled, the way this team fought against adversity was just an absolute pleasure and an absolute blast to watch."

That's the message Wedge left with his team before the players packed up for the return flight to Cleveland and the offseason that looms ahead.

"The respect that they show for the game, what it means to be a great teammate, and how they play the game," Wedge said, "means more to us as the Indians organization than anything. Those guys go out and do it that way -- and win, on top of it."

As a handful of players rolled their luggage bags through the main concourse at Fenway, on their way to the team bus, a large group of Red Sox fans gave them a round of applause.

Their season of dreams had come to a close in devastating defeat. But the Indians had won the respect of the baseball world.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.