NEW YORK - Joe Borowski threw the final strike and the Cleveland Indians ran onto the infield to start the celebration.
Alex Rodriguez, one leg on the top step of the New York Yankees dugout, the other a step below, stared straight ahead.
The Indians were on their way to an AL championship series matchup with the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees were braced for a showdown with their boss, one that could cost Joe Torre his job.
Believe it, Indians fans. Grady Sizemore homered to put Cleveland ahead for good on the third pitch of the game, then Paul Byrd and the bullpen closed out New York 6-4 in Game 4 Monday night to complete the third straight first-round debacle for the Yankees.
“This team hasn’t had a championship in Cleveland for a long time,” said Kenny Lofton, the veteran who hit .375 for the Indians. “This is just an unbelievable feeling to be able just to start this process again.”
Torre, as much the focus as the teams, sounded wistful in what well may have been in his final night in pinstripes.
“This has been a great 12 years. Whatever the hell happens from here on out, I’ll look back on these 12 years with great, great pleasure,” he said, his voice quavering as he tried to avoid choking up. “The 12 years just felt like they were 10 minutes long, to be honest with you.”
He wouldn’t address his future.
“If I have some options, I’ll look at it because I’m certainly not ready to move somewhere and not do anything,” the 67-year-old New Yorker said.
Cleveland moves on to its first ALCS since 1998, opening Friday night at Boston. The Indians were only 2-5 against the Red Sox this season, but will have aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona fully rested for Fenway Park.
The Indians, winless in six tries against the Yankees during the regular season, are seeking their first World Series title since 1948. The NL championship series starts Thursday night with Colorado at Arizona.
Bewildered New York opens yet another offseason of turmoil, another October over nearly as soon as it began. All eyes will be on owner George Steinbrenner, who said over the weekend that he didn’t think he’d keep Torre as manager if New York bowed with another early exit.
Steinbrenner, looking grim, didn’t speak as he left the ballpark.
“Hopefully there will be some reconsideration, but the Boss does what he wants,” Johnny Damon said.
General manager Brian Cashman spoke to Steinbrenner after the game.
“All I told him was: ‘Sorry, Boss,”’ Cashman said.
The owner’s reaction?
Torre managed the Yankees to four World Series titles in his first five years and reached the playoffs in all 12 of his seasons. Yet, that might not be enough for Steinbrenner, impatient his team of multimillionaires has lost 13 of its last 17 postseason games and gone seven years in a row with no championship.
If Torre does depart, Don Mattingly and Joe Girardi are the leading candidates to replace him.
Fans chanted Torre’s name when he made two trips to the mound in the eighth inning, handing the ball to Mariano Rivera for perhaps the final time in an era that brought the Yankees success they had not enjoyed since the 1950s.
“These fans are very special,” Torre sad. “You can feel their heartbeat.”
Torre spoke to the team after the game and said he was proud of the way players battled.
“I love Mr. T,” said Derek Jeter, whose Yankees career paralleled Torre’s. “This is by far his best year. It goes without saying that I support him.”
The Yankees came in streaking, overcoming a 21-29 start to win the AL wild card. But they were done in by poor pitching, an insect invasion and the latest October vanishing act by Rodriguez, whose bat was quiet until a solo home run in the seventh inning.
The pesky Indians, who wasted a three-run lead in Game 3, chased Chien-Ming Wang in the second and burst ahead 4-0. Byrd kept wiggling out of trouble, and Victor Martinez’s two-run single made it 6-1 in the fourth against reliever Mike Mussina.
Once again, the Indians did their best hitting with two outs. Throughout the series, they were the ones who got the clutch hits.
A day after averting a sweep, New York put runners on in every inning except the eighth. But when it counted, its high-octane offense fell flat once again, with late solo homers by Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Bobby Abreu not enough.
“I got some big outs with guys on base,” said Byrd, who stranded two runners in the first and three in the second.
Borowski worked around Abreu’s one-out homer in the ninth for a save.
A disappointed crowd of 56,315 also might have seen Rodriguez in pinstripes for the final time. A likely MVP during the regular season, A-Rod was largely AWOL in the postseason for the third straight year, striking out with two on in the first and again leading off the third.
Rodriguez, who can opt of his record $252 million, 10-year contract next month, did hit a solo homer off Rafael Perez in the seventh — ending a streak of 57 consecutive postseason at-bats without an RBI since 2004. He finished 4-for-15 in the series and said he hadn’t thought about his big decision.
“One of the reasons I came here was to help this team win a world championship,” Rodriguez said. “I have failed at that. Without a championship, everything else is just numbers.”
Rodriguez is not the only one who may depart. Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens also aren’t assured of coming back, although the Yankees probably will try to keep some, if not all.
Jeter will return, of course. But the hero of postseasons past had just one RBI in the series, hit .176 (3-for-17) and bounced into three double plays.
HBT: Robinson Cano homered twice while David Phelps had the longest outing of his career as the Yankees topped the Blue Jays 7-2 this afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
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