"They've just made some incredible plays in the field," starter Paul Byrd said of his supporting cast. "It's meant so much to me, because, with the way I pitch, balls are going all over the place. We might not have the best defense in the league, but it is very, very good, especially of late."
With contact-inducing pitchers Jake Westbrook and Byrd on the mound in Games 3 and 4, the Indians' defenders knew they'd be challenged. They responded the way they have all year.
The Tribe turned 167 double plays in '07 -- tying the Mariners for the fourth most in the league. In the ALCS, they have converted 21.6 percent of their 37 double-play opportunities.
For the first time since his Triple-A days, third baseman Casey Blake turned a double play at second base in the first inning of Game 3. The Indians put a full shift on Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who hit a scorching grounder to Asdrubal Cabrera. The second baseman picked the ball and tossed it to Blake at the bag, and Blake made the throw to first to complete the first of three inning-ending double plays in that game.
"It's about the timing of the ballgame," manager Eric Wedge said. "It's about making plays when you need to, putting the ball on the ground and turning a double play when you need to."
Cabrera, installed as the everyday second baseman in August, has made just about every play the Tribe has needed, including a particularly flashy leaping grab of a hard liner hit by Dustin Pedroia to end the seventh inning of Game 4.
Cabrera has picked up and even improved upon the defense the Indians received from Josh Barfield before Barfield's slumping bat forced him out of the lineup. In addition to the second-base upgrade over a year ago, the Indians also have seen better range from shortstop Jhonny Peralta, a steady hand in the hot corner from Blake, who was in right field in '06, and more consistency from first baseman Ryan Garko.
The Indians made 118 errors in '06 -- the second most in the AL. This year, that number was cut to 92.
"Last year, I didn't feel like we were as bad defensively as maybe the numbers would show," Wedge said, before adding with a laugh, "I just felt like our timing was really bad. We broke down defensively at key moments. This year, we've stepped up defensively in key moments."
And no moments have been bigger than the ones in this ALCS.
Don't think ahead:
Byrd was like every other baseball fan in assuming the Yankees were going to put the Red Sox away in the 2004 ALCS. New York took a 3-0 lead in that series, only to lose the next four, as Boston vaulted itself toward its first World Series victory since 1918.
"I remember thinking that was destiny," Byrd said of the Red Sox's come-from-behind series win. "I hope when a plague of gnats chewed Joba Chamberlain's right ear off [in Game 2 of the ALDS], there was a message behind that that this is our year."
Of course, knowing the lesson of what the Red Sox did to the Yanks just speaks to the importance of the Indians, who held a light workout at Jacobs Field on Wednesday, not looking ahead to a possible World Series matchup with the Rockies. The Tribe knows it still has one more win to take care of -- preferably at home. Returning this series to Boston would only serve to put more pressure on Cleveland.
"We know our work is not done," Blake said.
Wedge said he isn't putting particular emphasis on the importance of winning Game 5 to avoid going back to Fenway.
"It's not about where we play or who we play, it's about how we play," he said. "The last thing we want to do is get ahead of ourselves. Yeah, we'd love to do it at home, but the heartbeat and the pace and the way we play, it needs to be the same we've been doing all year."
Manny being Manny?
Most of the Indians have been pretty diplomatic in addressing Manny Ramirez's admiration of his own handy work in Game 4. Ramirez stood in the box and watched his majestic solo shot off Jensen Lewis in the sixth inning, even though his Red Sox were down 7-3.
"In a game like this, I don't really care what players do," Tribe catcher Victor Martinez said. "We just focus and play our game. We don't watch the other team. Whatever they want to do, they do it. We just earn respect the way we play."
Blake, though, clearly found Ramirez's tactics to be a bit over the top.
"He got 'em within four. Good job," Blake said sarcastically. "People say, 'Manny being Manny,' but I don't know. That's so opposite of the way I play that it's hard for me to deal with."
Blake had two hits in the fifth inning of Game 4. It was the 11th time in postseason history that a player has had two hits in a single inning. The last was the Marlins' Juan Pierre in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. ... Blake was the third player in postseason history to notch five total bases in an inning. The others were the Pirates' Barry Bonds in Game 6 of the '92 NLCS and the Angels' Adam Kennedy in Game 4 of the '02 ALCS. ... The Indians have hit seven home runs in the four ALCS games, and the Tribe has scored first in every game.
The elements of a memorable night are all lined up for the Tribe for Thursday's Game 5 at Jacobs Field. Cleveland's ace, C.C. Sabathia (0-1, 16.62 ERA) will be on the mound, with a chance to wrap up the Indians' first World Series berth in 10 years in front of the home fans.
Problem is, right-hander Josh Beckett (1-0, 3.00) will be on the mound for the Red Sox, looking to continue his October dominance. The first pitch is set for 8:21 p.m. ET, and the game will be broadcast nationally on FOX.