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10/08/07 12:25 AM ET

Tribe can't deliver knockout punch

Early lead evaporates after Yanks erupt for four runs in fifth

NEW YORK -- A knockout punch it was not.

The only worry now, in the wake of an 8-4 loss to the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, is that the Indians might have exposed themselves to a variation of the ol' rope-a-dope.

A Tribe team that was hoping to become the first club to sweep the vaunted Yanks in a postseason series in 27 years will instead have to suit up for Game 4 at 7:37 p.m. ET Monday night, with veteran Paul Byrd getting the start opposite Chien-Ming Wang.

And in dropping a game that had been in hand early on, the Indians exposed themselves to the possibility that they just might have rattled the lion's cage.

"They made a statement tonight," Byrd said of the Yanks.

The statement, simply, was that this series is far from over.

It looked to be over in the early innings of this game, when the Indians jumped on an aged and hobbling Roger Clemens, and starter Jake Westbrook was racking up the double-play balls.

The Tribe had a 3-0 lead in the middle of the third. It was built on a solid approach against Clemens, who looked like a shell of his former self. His fastball was topping out around 91 mph, and he appeared to still be feeling the effects of a left hamstring strain that limited him to just two September starts.

The Indians took advantage with Ryan Garko's RBI single up the middle in the first, a second-inning solo shot from Trot Nixon, who was given a rare start because of his history of success against Clemens, and Jhonny Peralta's RBI double in the third.

"[Clemens] is a competitor," Nixon said. "He's a Hall of Fame pitcher. But obviously, he wasn't 100 percent."

And obviously, the Indians' chances of winning this game weren't 100 percent, either, regardless of the strong start. Still, the champagne -- and an ALCS berth against the Red Sox -- was beginning to come in sight.

The picture, though, began to fade as Westbrook's five-inning outing evolved.

In the bottom of the third, the Yankees woke a slumbering sellout crowd by pushing a run across on Johnny Damon's RBI single. Yet Westbrook still managed to get out of that potential trip-up by forcing his third double play in as many innings, and he set the Yanks down in order in the fourth.

Trouble was, by that point, the Yankees had already made the pitching change that would dictate an overall change in the tone of the game.

Clemens was gone by the end of the third and replaced by young Phil Hughes. The Rocket's hamstring problem had gotten the best of him, but the Indians couldn't get the best of the rookie Hughes. He pitched 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, holding the Tribe to just two hits in that span.

"He was huge for them," manager Eric Wedge said of Hughes. "That kid came in, and he's got a live fastball and a tough breaking ball. He started mixing in a changeup a little bit. If you talk about the difference between Roger and him and just the way they pitch, [the change] threw us off a little bit."

And when Westbrook's outing was similarly thrown off course, the Indians saw their 3-1 lead go to waste.

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That happened in the bottom of the fifth. Westbrook punched out Jason Giambi to start the inning, but Hideki Matsui singled, Robinson Cano doubled and the Indians' bullpen got active.

Melky Cabrera lined a single to left to bring home one run, making it 3-2. Westbrook's sinker appeared to be losing its bite, but he remained in the game. Wedge reasoned that it was worth sticking with the sinkerballer because he always has the potential to force a double play.

But the double play Wedge was looking for wouldn't come in this inning.

Instead, with two on, Damon stepped up, drew a 2-0 count, then pounded an elevated sinker over the right-field wall for a three-run shot that put the Yanks ahead, 5-3.

"To go into that inning with a 3-1 lead," Westbrook said, "and come out down 5-3 was very frustrating."

The Indians' frustration would truly mount in the sixth.

Westbrook gave up an infield single to Alex Rodriguez and was relieved by left-hander Aaron Fultz. The Yankees went on to put two runners in scoring position with one out. Fultz intentionally walked Matsui to get to Cano, and Cano lined a single to right.

The single should have just scored one run. But Nixon, who has struggled on the defensive end much of this year after offseason back surgery, peeked up at the runners and misplayed the ball. It rolled under his glove and toward the warning track as three runs scored and Cano went in safely to third.

It was 8-3, and it was over.

"It was just an error," Nixon said of the crippling play. "I closed my glove too soon, and that was it. It was an error and a costly error, at that. It was my fault."

The question that arises now is whether the Indians are guilty of handing the momentum of this series to a Yankees team that had the best record in baseball over the last four months of the regular season.

"Not at all," Garko said. "I think momentum is so overrated. What's the difference? We're up 2-1 in a five-game series. And if someone had told you that on Thursday, before the series started, we would have taken that, for sure."

Regardless, the power of the Yanks' potent lineup and the unpredictable nature of October baseball, particularly in "The House That Ruth Built," is not to be taken lightly. An Indians roster filled with postseason neophytes learned that lesson all too well on this night.

"I don't think we played particularly well," Wedge said. "We opened up some doors and gave them some opportunities."

And the biggest opportunity of all is the fact that a Game 4 at Yankee Stadium will, indeed, exist.

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