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It was a few minutes before 1 a.m., a full 20 minutes after the final out of Game Three, and still there wasn't a single player to be found in the Indians clubhouse.

No one, it seemed, wanted to be the first one to come out and face the world, to answer questions about their 14-11 loss to the Florida Marlins, one of the most unsightly and monumental collapses in World Series history.

Finally, one by one, a few brave souls began trickling into the room. They were not hostile or angry, like certain former Indians might have been. Instead, they seemed grim, almost apologetic, as if they'd just vandalized the great game they play for a living.

There was no escaping the knowledge that they'd thrown away a game they should have won, a game that could wind up costing them the Series.

"You're up, 7-3, you've got to put the other team away," said Marquis Grissom. "This is the World Series, not a regular-season game. We lost focus as a team, as a whole. There's no one in particular to blame.

"But I hope we learned a lesson," said Grissom. "I hope we go out and play hard for nine innings, not seven, and not get too confident. Hopefully, we'll get that killer instinct back."

Grissom had good reason to be chagrined. He is renowned around baseball for his work ethic. This Cleveland team has taken on his personality in the postseason, winning all six of its one-run games by playing with poise and intelligence.

Then Tuesday night, in the pivotal third game at Jacobs Field, a proud, disciplined team went to pieces at the most inopportune time. In the frigid Ohio night (and early morning), they froze. They went slapstick.

For all the talk about the Indians' potent offense, it was defense and relief pitching that were expected to separate them from the Marlins in the Series.

Cleveland had five former Gold Glove winners on the field, including shortstop Omar Vizquel, center fielder Grissom and catcher Sandy Alomar.

Their bullpen had been magnificent in the postseason. In their last 11 games heading into Game Three, the Tribe relievers had been 5-0 with a 1.22 earned run average.

So when Jim Thome hit a two-run homer off a wild Al Leiter in the fifth, giving the Indians a 7-3 lead, you figured the lead was safe. But once again in this wildly unpredictable Series, you figured wrong.

Just when the Indians seemed to be seizing the series by the throat, they came unraveled. They gave up 11 runs in the final four innings. In a ghastly, seven-run ninth, they tied a Series record by committing three errors.

It was a little pathetic, watching the few who showed their faces try to explain it away in the wee hours of the morning.

"If I don't give up that home run to (Jim) Eisenreich, we win the ballgame," said starter Charles Nagy. "It got them back in the ballgame. It gave them momentum."

He has a point there. Eisenreich hit only two homers during the regular season. His two-run, sixth-inning homer, which pulled Florida to within 7-5, seemed to reawaken the Marlins.

It also seemed to rattle the Indians. Nagy certainly didn't pitch well. He gave up three home runs, nibbled too much at times, and didn't do much to refute his reputation as a talented pitcher with no guts.

But he was too hard on himself. He can't be blamed for the nine runs Cleveland allowed after he left. It wasn't his fault that the bullpen was awful or that the defense lost its poise in the fatal ninth.

"When you have a 7-3 lead, you don't expect to lose," said Cleveland's Bip Roberts. "That's a total collapse. Whether it was a loss of concentration, I don't know.

"I'd say the cold affected the defense late in the game," Roberts said. "It got extremely cold out there. But I don't blame anything. We lost the

The cold was something of a factor. There was also some bad luck in there. In the ninth inning, Grissom fielded Darren Daulton's single to center and tried to gun down a gimpy Bobby Bonilla at third.

But the throw glanced off Bonilla's shoulder and skipped into a camera bay, allowing Bonilla to score and Daulton to take third. Then it all came apart, as the Indians made two more errors and let in six more ninth-inning runs.

"I've played a long time," said reliever Eric Plunk, who started the ninth for Cleveland and took the loss. "I've seen a lot of things in this game. But the World Series was definitely not a good time for something like this."

They should let Plunk chop up the loss into 25 equal pieces and distribute them to the rest of the Indians. It was an ugly performance, in one of the ugliest Series games ever, and they deserve to share in it equally.

"It happens, man," said Matt Williams. "It happens. If Marquis' throw doesn't ricochet off Bonilla, maybe we have second base and one out. Who knows what happens?"

Who can predict anything, the way this Series has gone? Every time you think you have it figured out, some fresh oddity comes along to confound you.

As devastating as it was, this was only one game, one loss. The Indians have come back all year. They shouldn't let a game like this destroy them. But it won't be easy.

"It's one o'clock in the morning," Roberts said, somehow managing a smile. "We have to put this one behind us. Quickly."

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