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What could have been

There was the third base coach, Joel Skinner, facing a group of reporters who prodded him about the play that would be analyzed as much as the Zapruder film over the next 24 hours.

"I've seen that ball kick right back to the shortstop, so you really have to be sure," the coach said of his decision to hold Kenny Lofton at third base in the seventh inning of the seventh game of the ALCS. Skinner shook his head as he added, "What exactly that angle is ... you just can't really be sure."

The Indians know: they blew it. With a 3-1 lead in the series entering Game 5, Cleveland went on to get outscored 30-5 by the Red Sox over the next three games. The Indians never once enjoyed a lead in any of the final three games of the series. Boston is now 14-3 in their last 17 elimination games.

"I think that games of a huge magnitude, our guys don't get overwhelmed," Boston manager Terry Francona said after Game 7. "It doesn't assure that you're going to win, but it is a good feeling."

The Indians, meanwhile, are left to wonder what could have been. What would have been if Skinner hadn't put the brakes on Lofton after Franklin Guitierrez's grounder bounced off the photographer's box down the left-field line and caromed into shallow left; if Casey Blake hadn't hit into the double play one at-bat later; if Fausto Carmona hadn't offered up that beach ball to J.D. Drew with the bases loaded in Game 6; if Indians manager Eric Wedge hadn't trotted C.C. Sabathia back out in a one-run game in the seventh inning of Game 5; if Sabathia and Carmona had given their team just one quality start in the series.

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Indeed, the Indians had such little room for error in this series after their two 19-game winners provided such disappointing performances in four of the series' seven games. Sabathia and Carmona could not get to the fifth inning in three of their four combined starts. "We had a chance to finish out at home and I didn't come through," said Sabathia, the likely Cy Young winner who was tagged with the loss in Games 1 and 5 after allowing 12 runs in the 10 1/3 innings he pitched.

In Game 7, the Indians got as fine of a performance from Jake Westbrook as they could have hoped. As he did in his masterful Game 3 start, Westbrook attacked Red Sox hitters with a barrage of first-pitch strikes, but tonight the Boston hitters swung early and often.

"Any mistake we made they hit," said Indians closer Joe Borowski. "That's a very good lineup over there."

Meanwhile, Cleveland's best hitters went cold at the worst possible time -- with their team one win from the World Series, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Victor Martinez went a combined 7-for-35 (.200) with three extra-base hits and two RBIs. The Indians struck out more times (63) than a team ever had in an LCS. "We know we had our chances," said Sizemore.

The Indians also know this: they're loaded for another run in 2008. Every significant piece of their postseason roster is locked up through 2008; Sabathia's pending free agency after the '08 season is the most urgent question. The Indians payroll will likely rise from $62 million this year to $80 million. "Yeah, we know we're a young club with a good future, and we learned a lot here," said Sabathia. "But this still hurts a lot."

The hurt won't go away anytime soon. Still four months to spring training, 2008. The long and cruel off-season begins now.