BOSTON (AP) -As they slogged their way down Fenway Park's crammed concourses, trailing luggage and memories of a just-completed season, the Cleveland Indians received something totally unexpected.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, delirious Red Sox fans paused from their postgame celebration to salute the Indians with clapping and pats on the back. The gestures were appreciated, but of little consolation.
One win from a trip to the World Series, they lost three in a row - another Cleveland heartbreaker.
To The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move comes a new entry: The Collapse.
``Right now,'' Indians ace C.C. Sabathia said, ``it hurts.''
It may for a long time.
With a chance to put the Red Sox away, the Indians, who just a few days ago led the best-of-seven series 3-1, crumbled in a heap as the Red Sox earned a date against the Colorado Rockies with an 11-2 win in Game 7 on Sunday night.
For the next few months, the Indians and their fans will reflect on one play as a defining moment in a season that had so many more good ones. Sadly, though, the sight of Joel Skinner's raised hands and Kenny Lofton's puzzled look will be the one they remember.
Lofton, the speedy 40-year-old outfielder who had returned in a July trade for a third try at an elusive Series ring with the Indians, was on his way to scoring the tying run in the seventh inning when Skinner, Cleveland's third-base coach, cautiously held him up in a 3-2 game quickly turning the Indians' way.
``I didn't know what was going on,'' Lofton said. ``The ball was behind me. It's not my job. My job is to pick up the third-base coach. He stopped me. I just got to do what he says. He's the third-base coach.''
It was Skinner who halted Lofton, not the Red Sox.
``The ball kicked off hard there and it's hard to tell exactly where it is,'' Skinner said. ``I've seen it bounce right back to the shortstop. You have to make a decision, and that's what I did. The ball ended up a little deeper than I thought. But it was one out, runners at first and third. We were OK.''
Not for long. Casey Blake then grounded into an inning-ending double play, and the Indians never recovered.
If Lofton had scored, then who knows?
Instead, another baseball season passed in Cleveland without a championship, a soon-to-be 60-year-old dry spell crossing generations in a city waiting since 1964 for one of its three pro sports teams to deliver the biggest trophy.
The Indians ousted the New York Yankees in the first round, but the painful longing endures.
There were hugs and tears in Cleveland's clubhouse afterward. At one end, Blake, Grady Sizemore and Jason Michaels talked in a close circle, while catcher Victor Martinez sat in front of his locker choking back emotion.
Only when general manager Mark Shapiro came over did Martinez get out of his chair. The two then shared a long embrace.
``We needed something special to happen,'' Blake said. ``We needed things to go our way, and they didn't.''
With three chances to get one win, the Indians whiffed - big time. They were outscored 30-5 in the final three games.
``It's a tough loss to take right now,'' said ace C.C. Sabathia, who lost twice in the ALCS and had his Cy Young-worthy regular season end in a fall flameout. ``We had the upper hand, and then let it slip away.''
The Red Sox wound up blowing it open, scoring eight runs in their final two at-bats, but that hardly mattered.
The Indians were finished when Lofton was stranded.
He was at second after Boston shortstop Julio Lugo had dropped one-out popup. Franklin Gutierrez then hit a shot down the third-base line that caromed off the protruding wall and rolled into shallow left.
Manny Ramirez, who had thrown Lofton out at second in the fifth, was playing back toward the Green Monster and was still charging the ball when Skinner raised his arms like a traffic cop to stop Lofton.
``That's a Fenway Park double,'' Indians manager Eric Wedge said. ``That's a tough read.''
Right away, Lofton knew Skinner's decision was the wrong one. Nearly rolling both ankles when he hit the brakes at the bag, Lofton threw his head back in disbelief and then glared at Skinner.
And when Blake bounced into a 5-4-3 double play moments later, Lofton's worst fears were realized, a castaway 90 feet from the plate.
Cleveland's chance to tie had vanished, the Indians' momentum had been lost, and so too was their final push at winning Game 7.
Blake compounded the problem with an error to start the seventh, and when rookie Dustin Pedroia's two-run homer made it 5-2, Skinner sat in Cleveland's crowded dugout staring straight ahead.
His mind was undoubtedly replaying the crucial seconds as Lofton approached the base, a sequence he said he doesn't regret.
Down 3-0, the Indians could have packed it in. But as they did while staging 44 comeback wins - 26 in their final at-bat, victories Trot Nixon celebrated by smashing teammates with postgame pies, the Indians kept plugging away.
Before the first pitch, Mark Shapiro, the man responsible for dismantling the Indians and rebuilding them, calmly addressed news that pitcher Paul Byrd had used HGH and then turned his attention toward Game 7.
Shapiro had no doubt his team would respond.
``This club has been so resilient all year long. We've had so many opportunities to turn adversity or distractions into excuses, and we've never done it,'' he said.
Jake Westbrook recovered after a shaky start and kept the Indians within striking distance.
Lugo's blunder then seemed to open the door for Cleveland, but as quickly as it cracked, it slammed shut.
Lofton wouldn't even entertain the idea of what his run could have meant.
``What if?'' he said. ``Can't talk about what if.''
The Indians have all winter to do that.

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