CLEVELAND -- It isn't easy to single out the most dominating player in the Cleveland Indians' lineup. Albert Belle hit 50 home runs in the regular season. Manny Ramirez had 107 RBIs. Eddie Murray soon could become only the third player in history to accumulate 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
But the player who frightens Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox the most appears to be little Kenny Lofton, who re-emerged as the Indians' offensive catalyst in Tuesday night's 7-6, extra-inning victory. Lofton reached base six times -- twice on intentional walks -- and scored three runs to awaken his club's sleeping lineup.
Belle may look -- and act -- meaner. Murray may have the glare. But Lofton is so disruptive and so effective that he can never be ignored.
"Right now, it's all or nothing, and that's the way I'm playing," Lofton said after the game."
He did it all in Game 3. He hit safely in his first three at-bats to jump-start an Indians offense that had been averaging just four runs through 11 postseason games. He pressed the action, stealing a base to set up an important run. He played good defense.
Lofton was so difficult to stop that Cox finally decided to give up trying. When was the last time you heard of a leadoff hitter -- with seven home runs in the regular season -- being walked intentionally twice in a row in the late innings? When was the last time you saw anybody voluntarily put the perennial American League stolen-base leader on even once?
"I think it happened one other time in an extra-inning game," Lofton said. "Both times were a second-and-third situation and they were trying to set up the force."
True. That's what Cox was doing both times, and it worked both times. If he hadn't, maybe Game 4 wouldn't have lasted until 12:42 a.m. The Braves finally figured it out, so somebody else had to take over. Carlos Baerga and Murray teamed up to deliver the winning run in the 11th inning, but it never would have gotten that far without Lofton, who displayed leadership on the field and in the clubhouse at the Indians' most desperate hour.
Down two games to none, the team held a meeting before the game, and guess who led off? Lofton stood up and reminded the players that they were the best team in baseball until the World Series started and they could be the best team in baseball again.
"We talked about the little things we weren't doing right," Lofton said. "Once we started doing those little things right, things started going well for us . . . like focusing at the plate. Swinging at good pitches. Swinging at the pitches they swung at all year."
... TC Then he went out and showed them. He singled to lead off the Cleveland first and shortstop Omar Vizquel -- the one guy who isn't expected to hit -- followed with an RBI triple. Lofton led off the third with a double. His teammates followed with three straight singles for two runs. Even Belle, who has slumped and brooded his way through October, poked a single through the middle for a run. Message received.
In the same kind of situation in the playoffs, Belle was more likely to go for the 500-foot bomb and come up with a 200-foot pop-up.
"Kenny's on fire right now," catcher Sandy Alomar said in the early hours of yesterday morning. "He wants to win so bad. That's what he said in our meeting. We've come so far, we've had such a great season, that it would be so disappointing to lose."
Instead, Lofton went out and did everything he could to make sure that didn't happen, at least in a Game 3 that could have pushed the Indians to the brink of elimination. Which prompted someone to ask him after the game how he would have felt if the club had come up short again.
"I never thought about losing the game," he replied, "so I can't answer that question."