CLEVELAND -- The weak popup sailed to the left side of the infield, entirely catchable and ready to be labeled the final out of the inning. But this popup fell before the befuddled faces of Paul Byrd, Kelly Shoppach and Casey Blake. It should have been an out. Instead, it was a single that opened the door to a two-run inning for the A's. No, the misplayed second-inning popup off Mark Ellis' bat was not the Indians' only mistake in a 9-3 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 40,663 at Jacobs Field on Saturday night. Yet it stood as a telling representation of what transpired on a night in which the Indians had a chance to grab the American League Central title, only to watch it drop away from their outstretched hands.
"It seems like it just stemmed from there," manager Eric Wedge said. "That was one of those funky popups. It was not very high. It was in-between, and nobody took charge. It was one of those fluke things you see in baseball." Not all of what Wedge and the Indians saw on this night was bad. About 170 miles away in Motown, the Royals put the finishing touches on a 7-4 win over the Tigers. Detroit's defeat knocked the Tribe's magic number for clinching the division down to one, so Sunday's series finale with the A's gives the Indians one last chance of locking this thing up at home. Beating Oakland, or having Kansas City handle the Tigers again, would give the Indians the AL Central crown. And they've already guaranteed themselves at least a tie atop the division standings this season. So they've got that going for them, which is nice. But not much was nice in this loss. Paul Byrd had a rough start, and Tom Mastny's relief work wasn't any better. And it didn't help matters much that A's starter Dan Haren was downright dominant for six innings. "We just didn't have it going on," Wedge said. No, they did not. And that simple fact began with Byrd's outing. He took responsibility for the popup mishap. Apparently, he called out for Blake to make the grab, but Blake was playing too far back to get to the ball in time. Shoppach or Byrd would have had a much easier time catching it.
"That was bad quarterbacking by me in the infield," Byrd said. "It was a big key."
It became big when Byrd was unable to retire the next batter, Marco Scutaro, who reached with a single. Jack Hannahan then brought both runners home with a double on a changeup that Byrd thought was a decent pitch.
"I was thinking, 'How did we get here?'" Byrd said.
The going got worse in the fourth, when Ellis sent a solo shot to the left-field porch to make it 3-0. In the fifth, Byrd surrendered an RBI single to Nick Swisher before leaving with the bases loaded.
"I needed to do a better job on the hill tonight," Byrd said. "It wasn't my night."
It wasn't Mastny's night, either. Sent in to relieve Byrd, Mastny left a ball up to Ellis, who pounded it off the left-field wall to bring in two more runs and make it 6-0.
That lead looked more than safe in the hands of Haren, who had allowed just three hits through four scoreless innings. Grady Sizemore finally got to him with a two-run homer in the fifth, but that was all Haren allowed on the evening.
"He threw real good," Wedge said of Haren. "He didn't start the All-Star Game without credence. He's tough."
For the Indians, the going got tougher in the sixth. The A's put the game away for good when Mastny gave up an RBI double to Swisher and a two-run homer to Jack Cust to make it 9-2.
Mastny has had a sporadic role out of the Indians' bullpen, and that hasn't exactly helped his ability to string together quality outings, Wedge said.
"We have some guys in the 'pen we haven't been able to give consistent work to," Wedge said. "For Tom, it's been tough. But he goes out there and grinds it out."
No amount of grinding was going to save the Indians in this lost cause. They took solace in the fact that Sunday affords them another opportunity to win the title in front of the home fans, but that didn't take away the sting of this missed chance.
"I feel a hunger to get it done," Byrd said. "To be able to do it at home would be special. I wish I could have been a part of that and helped it happen."
|"I needed to do a better job on the hill tonight. It wasn't my night."|
|-- Paul Byrd|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.