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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Indians claim AL Central crown

Finish matches month-long span that put Tribe in position
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com

CLEVELAND -- They clinched it the way they claimed it.

The Indians came into Sunday's game with a supreme focus on locking up the American League Central Division championship in the regular-season home finale, in front of a bustling sellout crowd of 40,250 fans.

"That's what we wanted to do," starter Jake Westbrook said. "We got some help yesterday with Kansas City beating Detroit [dropping the magic number down to one], and we just wanted to get it done today for Cleveland and the fans here."

They got it done, officially, when Rafael Betancourt struck out Mark Ellis in the top of the ninth to cap a 6-2 victory over the A's.

But the Indians' first division title since 2001 and their seventh in 13 seasons became theirs, for all intents and purposes, over the course of a month-long span in which they've beared down and played their best baseball of the season.

The division race between the Tribe and the Tigers was knotted up Aug. 15. Then the Indians turned on the jets and went 27-9 over their last 36 games.

So if they seemed a little more intense and a little more determined Sunday, don't let it fool you.

"We're always intense," center fielder Grady Sizemore said. "I don't think we ever lose that.
This is a team that never gives up."

Still, Sizemore had to admit, "We had a sense of urgency to get it done today."

They certainly showed it.

Westbrook, coming off a rough outing in a big game against Detroit, struck out a career-high nine batters over seven strong innings of work.

Sizemore, batting in the leadoff spot, turned in a four-hit performance for the fourth time this season. All the hits came off lefties.

Betancourt, sent in to relieve Rafael Perez of a two-out, two-on jam in the eighth, pitched 1 1/3 perfect innings, striking out three.

It was a game that served as representation of how the Indians got themselves into this enviable position in the first place.

"We've had a great focus for an extended period of time," manager Eric Wedge said. "You saw it again today."

Wedge always harps on how a team's performance starts with the starting pitching. And from the beginning of this game, it was clear Westbrook had his best sinker working. The crowd began to roar as he prepared to throw the game's first pitch to Shannon Stewart, and he fed off that energy to force key double-play balls in the first and second innings.

"I was throwing the ball hard and locating a lot of my pitches," Westbrook said. "It was fun to pitch today."

This season hasn't always been fun for Westbrook. He struggled in April and strained an abdominal muscle in early May, forcing him to sit for six weeks. When he came back, he looked rusty, right up until he put together an outstanding August that was instrumental in the Tribe's standings surge.

"My season had not gone the way I wanted it to, personally," Westbrook said. "But to be a part of this team and pitching in big ballgames in the second half has been great."

The Indians' offense rose to the occasion of this big ballgame, with Sizemore leading the way. His RBI single off Dallas Braden in the second inning gave the Tribe a 2-0 lead. And in the fourth, his RBI triple to the right-field corner was part of a four-run outburst begun by Casey Blake's two-run double and capped by Asdrubal Cabrera's run-scoring single to left.

Did Sizemore, who was batting just .148 over his previous eight games, feel a particular need to spark the offense on this day?

"It's not that I had to, it's that I wanted to set the tone early," he said. "I wanted to get on base and just create. We knew if we could get ahead early, with the way our bullpen's going, [the A's] wouldn't be able to get back in the game."

Sizemore was right. Westbrook worked through the seventh, with his only blemish coming when he served up a two-run homer to Daric Barton in the sixth.

In the eighth, Perez found trouble by giving up a two-out single to Stewart and a double to Barton. But Betancourt came in to fan Nick Swisher.

All that was left was to finish the job in the ninth. Betancourt, who has emerged as one of the premier setup men in all of baseball this season, kept pounding the outside edge with his trusty fastball to get Jack Cust looking at strike three. Mike Piazza then popped out weakly to second, and Ellis quickly found himself in an 0-2 count with two outs.

"I can't describe how it felt to be in that moment," Betancourt said. "Especially when I had Ellis at two strikes. I kept telling myself, 'I need just one strike.' I just threw the ball where [catcher] Victor [Martinez] wanted it. I was going with my best pitch in that situation."

His best pitch was a fastball that Ellis couldn't catch. And when Ellis swung and missed, Betancourt leapt off the mound and into Martinez's outstretched arms.

Despite all the distractions that came with injuries, April snowouts, lost off-days, reshuffled lineups and rotation adjustments, the Indians were finally champs.

After watching stadium workers raise the championship flag on a pole at the top of the scoreboard, the Indians retreated to a champagne-soaked clubhouse. It was there where Wedge reflected on a club that persevered through some unique situations to get to the promised land.

"It's about these guys," Wedge said. "You know what kind of journey it is. That's why you play so many games. Ultimately, to be a champion, you've got to overcome a lot, and our guys have."


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