While the Red Sox slugged their way out of what had been a Game 5 pitching duel, a Hafner ground ball brought in the Indians' only run. But it wasn't an RBI, and it quieted a potentially bigger rally. It was a first-inning double play with runners at the corners and nobody out in the first inning against Josh Beckett. It set the tone for the rest of Hafner's night, an 0-for-4 performance with two strikeouts and two ground balls to short.
All in all, however, it completed his struggles for the middle three games of this American League Championship Series. Not only is he 0-for-11 since his single in the ninth inning of Game 2 at Fenway Park, but he hasn't hit a ball out of the infield in that span.
It's his longest slump since an 0-for-11 skid in early September, and it'll seem longer if the Indians are unable to finish off the Red Sox at Fenway in Game 6 or 7.
"We need him to get it going," manager Eric Wedge said. "He's right there in the heart of our order."
The skid is the first sign in a while of the relative power outage Hafner battled over the summer. After a strong start in April, his first signs of struggles showed up the next month. He batted just .184 from May 2-28, with three home runs, 15 RBIs and 21 strikeouts over 87 at-bats.
Ironically, Hafner snapped out of that stretch briefly with a three-hit, two-double game against the Red Sox at Fenway on May 30, then drove in four runs against the Tigers the next day back home at Jacobs Field.
He didn't homer again until June 25. Over the 19 games and 77 plate appearances in between, he batted .197 with just two extra-base hits. He was drawing walks, but he wasn't driving the ball. All the while, he said he was fine physically until a sore knee and mild hamstring strain surfaced in August. For whatever reason, he simply could not drive the ball.
Hafner homered just once over a month-long span from the end of July to the final days of August, driving in seven runs at that point, before awakening in September. His .300 average from Aug. 15 until season's end made a genius out of Wedge, who said amidst the slumps that the final months would be the most important for his slugger.
It's only a few games, but there has been little complicated about the approach of the Red Sox pitchers against him. While Tim Wakefield knuckleballed him en route to four strikeouts Wednesday, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett simply overpowered him.
Though Beckett can be devastating with his curveball, the bulk of his damage against Hafner on Thursday came with his mid-90s fastball on the outside corner. He used it to set up the double play in the opening inning, then fired back-to-back heaters to set up a curveball that sent down Hafner swinging in the third.
By the eighth, as Beckett labored across the 100-pitch threshold, he went with all heat against Hafner. All seven pitches were fastballs as he fell behind 3-0, then challenged Hafner over the plate. Hafner fouled back back-to-back pitches before swinging through the third for his sixth strikeout in the last two games.
Wedge hinted that confidence could be a factor.
"He just needs to go up there and hit," Wedge said. "He's such a great talent when it comes to being an offensive player at this level, and he needs to go up there and just trust that and just hit. I think right now he's getting in his own way a little bit."
The intrigue will continue on Saturday, when Hafner gets his second set of cuts against Curt Schilling. Their first meeting on Saturday saw Schilling work inside and out while changing his speeds to try to keep him contained. Hafner went 0-for-2 against him before centering a ground ball through the middle in the ninth against Jonathan Papelbon.
The Indians aren't planning to work out on the off-day Friday, so Hafner's next cuts will likely come during batting practice Saturday evening. The Indians hope that one pitch to hit, one good turn on a ball will get him going again when they need him.
He already has a history of happy endings. After all, it was less than two weeks ago that Hafner had the game-winning single in the 11th inning in Game 2 of their AL Division Series.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less