Championship Central: Indians wrap up division title with 6-2 victory over Oakland
CLEVELAND (AP)—The Cleveland Indians finally tasted something sweeter than all those postgame pies.
Expensive champagne—cases and cases of bubbly—soaked the home clubhouse at Jacobs Field for the first time since 2001 on Sunday as the Indians, overlooked as a contender in baseball’s toughest division, clinched the AL Central with a 6-2 win over the Oakland Athletics.
The Indians, whose home opener was postponed by a freakish snowstorm and whose path to a title was unlike any in team history, will again play meaningful games in October.
After finishing fourth and 18 games out of first place a year ago, Cleveland is back among the AL’s elite.
“Somewhere among the snow and the craziness of the schedule and the injuries, this team became a family,” pitcher Paul Byrd said amid the delirium and flying liquid. “Everybody chipped in. I’ve never been on a team where everybody has been included in the victories as much as we have.”
And after every one of Cleveland’s home wins, the star player got smacked in the face during their TV interview with a whipped-cream pie, a tradition outfielder Trot Nixon started and one he continued during Sunday’s postgame mayhem by first nailing manager Eric Wedge and then general manager Mark Shapiro.
“This is what it’s all about,” Wedge said, clutching a bottle of champagne. “This is what we’ve waited for.”
Jake Westbrook struck out a career-high nine and Grady Sizemore had four hits as the Indians became the second team in the majors to clinch. The Boston Red Sox assured themselves of at least the AL wild-card spot Saturday night.
When reliever Rafael Betancourt struck out Oakland’s Mark Ellis for the final out and his second save, the sun-splashed crowd of 40,250 erupted as the right-hander jumped into catcher Victor Martinez’s arms.
The Indians poured onto the infield, and moments later, ace C.C. Sabathia led the club toward center field where they watched as a 2007 championship banner was hoisted atop the center-field scoreboard.
“Goosebumps,” Sabathia said, searching for words to describe his emotions. “It was so good to do it at home. I had no doubt that we would win it.”
Sabathia was a rookie the last time the Indians made the postseason. He went 17-5 back then on a veteran-heavy squad that came up short in its quest to become the first Cleveland team to win a World Series since 1948.
Sabathia’s a No. 1 starter now, and among the favorites to win the Cy Young Award this season.
However, his eyes are on a grander trophy.
“I just want to win a World Series,” he said. “I don’t want to stop now. I want more.”
Disregarded by many, Cleveland overcame a strange start and recaptured a crown it won six times in seven years from 1995-2001.
But for these Indians, little went as planned.
Their first homestand in April was postponed by snow, forcing the club to play three “home” games in Milwaukee’s Miller Park against the Los Angeles Angels. Three other games against Seattle were made up at the Jake.
Technically, Cleveland still has one “home” game remaining—on Wednesday, 2,000 miles away at Seattle’s Safeco Field as part of a doubleheader with the Mariners.
The Indians, rebuilt the past few years by Shapiro, began 2007 with question marks around the diamond, and especially in their bullpen. But after moving into first place on Aug. 15, they stayed there by going 27-9 and ran away from the defending AL champion Tigers.
Now, they have a chance to finish with the best record in the majors.
“Their front office did a great job,” A’s manager Bob Geren said. “Eric Wedge is a friend of mine so I’m happy for him. You could feel the excitement in the air for them.”
And while much of their lineup looks as it did in April, the Indians made some major changes to snap them out of a midseason slump that threatened to spoil a season filled with thrilling comebacks.
Rookie second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, one of three players who began the season at Double-A Akron, became a spark after Josh Barfield was benched. The Indians also got unexpected contributions from reliever Rafael Perez and outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco.
The guys Cleveland was counting on came through, too.
Sabathia anchored a strong pitching staff that included 18-game Fausto Carmona, who went 1-10 as a rookie and had a disastrous tryout as a closer last season. He was only on the staff because of injuries to Westbrook and Cliff Lee.
Byrd bounced back from a subpar year to win 15 games and Cleveland’s bullpen, a nightmarish collection in recent years, finally solidified behind Betancourt and Joe Borowski, who only got the job because Keith Foulke retired.
“I’ve never seen things like that happen in my career,” Byrd said. “It seems like every time we needed a lift, a pickup, somebody came through. It’s been a lot of unsung heroes, people that have really made this a team.”
While not equal to New York’s or Boston’s powerful lineups, the Indians have balance, depth and timing. Martinez was an All-Star and the club’s steadiest hitter all season, and his power numbers helped compensate for designated hitter Travis Hafner’s unexpected decline.
Cleveland has 43 come-from-behind wins, including 13 in their final at-bat at home.
After failing to clinch before a sellout crowd on Saturday, the Indians didn’t want to disappoint on Fan Appreciation Day and scored four runs in the fourth to open a 6-0 lead against Dallas Braden (1-8).
The six-run cushion was plenty for Westbrook (6-9), who along with Sabathia and Kenny Lofton are the only players still around from ’01.
As his teammates emptied bottles and cans of beer on each other a few feet away, Lofton, acquired in July from Texas for his third stint in Cleveland, smiled as memories of other parties washed over him.
“This is just as special as the first time for me,” he said. “I think to the young kids, being their first time through this, it lets them know how special this team really is. When I got the chance to come back to Cleveland, I knew this team had a chance, but I don’t think some of the guys here really understood how good they were.
“Now, they do. This is a team of winners.”
The Indians’ seven division titles in 13 seasons since realignment in 1995 trail only the Atlanta Braves (11) and Yankees (10). … It was the fourth time the Indians have clinched in their 155th game. They also did it in 1948, 1997 and 2001. … A’s 1B Daric Barton hit a two-run homer and has reached base safely in all 13 games since being recalled from Triple-A Sacramento on Sept. 10. … Oakland, which will not finish with a winning record for the first time in nine seasons, has lost 18 of 28.