Indians fall two outs short of World Series title

By Ronald Blum Associated Press Published:

Coming oh so close and falling oh so far.

The exuberance of youth fulfilling dreams.

A curse seemingly dooming one of baseball's oldest teams to unending failure.

It was one of the great ones Sunday, a seventh game of the World Series going to extra innings for only the fourth time. And in the end, eight months after the season's start, baseball had its youngest champion, a Cuban defector who relished in rewards and reunion all at once, and a team that just couldn't believe what slipped through its hands.

"I guess every little boy imagines this might happen at one time. It's a total fantasy for me," Marlins manager Jim Leyland said after Florida's incredible 3-2, 11-inning victory over Cleveland.

A fantasy for one team was a nightmare for another.

Two more outs. That was all Cleveland needed in the ninth inning to wrap up its first World Series title since 1948.

But singles by Moises Alou and Charles Johnson, and Craig Counsell's sacrifice fly tied the score against Jose Mesa in the ninth. And Tony Fernandez's error in the 11th set up a Edgar Renteria's game-winning hit off Charles Nagy.

In just their fifth season, the Marlins had won it all, the fastest title ever for any franchise in the majors. The $89 million they spent on free agents last winter showed money can buy success in baseball these days.

"I'm very disappointed that we lost. I can't describe how disappointed," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said on his unhappy 48th birthday. "I don't really know what to tell the team, other than they played hard all year long."

Only once had baseball's season been stretched this far, in 1924, when the Washington Senators beat the New York Giants in the 12th inning of Game 7. The tension in extra innings was immeasurable. Players knew even the tiniest mistake could blow it apart _ just look at the way Cleveland right fielder Manny Ramirez nearly let Alou's two-out, two-on fly in the 10th pop out of his glove.

"I was too nervous to watch," Florida first baseman Jeff Conine said. "I don't think you can find a better finish than that."

The World Series had been bashed for 10 days: The Marlins were a wild-card team than finished nine games out of first; the Indians, at 86-75, had just the fourth-best record in the American League; neither team could manage a well-pitched game; television ratings were at an all-time low.

Well, all of that was true. Yet none of it mattered Sunday night.

Players and fans spend their entire lives hoping for a night like this. Most never make it.

"We haven't given up all year," Leyland said, "and tonight wasn't a night to give up."

Fernandez had the biggest turnaround of all. His two-run single off Al Leiter had put Cleveland ahead in the third. Jim Thome walked, Marquis Grissom singled and Jaret Wright moved the runners over.

For most of the night, it appeared Wright would become the first rookie to win Game 7 since Babe Adams led Pittsburgh over Detroit 8-0 with a six-hitter in 1909.

He gave up two hits in 6 1/3 innings. One of them turned out to be critical _ a leadoff homer by Bobby Bonilla in the seventh. Because of what happened in the ninth, none of what Wright did mattered.

"My performance is separate," Wright said. "It's a team. We go out there together. Next year, there'll be a fire to go out there and celebrate like the Marlins did tonight. All you can do now is wait."

Hargrove, like he has throughout the postseason, used a bunch of pitchers to get to the ninth, trying to get to Mesa with a lead. Paul Assenmacher, Mike Jackson and Brian Anderson followed Wright with scoreless relief.

For Cleveland, it all came down to whether Mesa could hold the lead for three final outs. Finally, the curse of Colavito would end, the one that supposedly began with Rocky's 1960 trade to Milwaukee.

In 1995, Mesa converted 46-of-48 save chances _ a record. This year, he began the season in a courtroom facing rape charges, was acquitted, then stumbled and wound up with only 21 saves in 26 tries.

He already had wasted two in six chances this October. This is the one that will be remembered. As Mitch Williams found out after a disastrous Series in 1993, when closers fail in October, they may never bounce back.

Alou, his first batter, singled up the middle. He struck out Bonilla, but Johnson singled to right. Counsell's fly to right was deep enough that Ramirez had no chance.

All of a sudden, the play in the top of the inning when Renteria threw out Sandy Alomar at the plate on an infield grounder was all-important.

"This has been a crazy year for us ... an adventure year," Alomar said.

Cleveland didn't get a runner past first in the 10th or 11th off Rob Nen or Jay Powell. Florida's two-on threat in the 10th was snuffed when Nagy threw a third strike past John Cangelosi, then got Alou to fly out.

Both teams and their fans will replay the 11th for a long time.

Bonilla singled to center, Gregg Zaun popped up a bunt and Counsell hit a grounder to the right side that rolled past Fernandez at second.

"It was a play I should have made," Fernandez said. "It wasn't going to be a DP. All I wanted to do was get the lead runner. I gambled. I tried something I shouldn't have by charging. It was my decision, my fault."

Jim Eisenreich was intentionally walked, Devon White hit a bouncer and Fernandez threw out Bonilla at the plate.

Maybe, perhaps, this would keep on going all night, like the games little kids dream about in so many parks.

Then came Renteria's hit up the middle.

Florida exulted!

Cleveland? The most crushing loss of all.

"This," the 22-year-old Renteria said, "is the greatest thing in life."

Not so. Only Livan Hernandez really could say the night was better than any other.

Before the game, he saw his mother for the first time in more than two years. He had defected from Cuba to play in the majors, and he became the MVP of the NL championship series. Now, with Florida's victory, the 21-year-old was MVP of the World Series, too, getting two of the Marlins' four wins.

"My mother's here and we're champions," Hernandez said. "The victory, I give to her."

Youth had triumphed. A World Series had been redeemed.

For one glorious night, baseball seemed back on track.

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