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Near-perfect hosts, Indians wipe up foes in new home CLEVELAND: Still not a nice place to visit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cleveland -- The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at Jacobs Field -- even before the barrage of home runs -- is the way the once-pitiable Cleveland Indians and their environs have been transformed.

In less than the playing time it normally takes to complete one full season, they have gone from divisional doormat to developing superpower, and have reawakened one of America's great sports towns in the process.

Two years ago, the Indians were still in their 40-year slump and cavernous Cleveland Stadium felt like the world's largest open-air mausoleum. Opposing teams couldn't stand to play here.

Now, the Indians may be the best team in baseball, and Jacobs Field is one of the game's new-age shrines. Opposing teams still hate to play here, but for very different reasons.

If you're the Orioles, you certainly can't be looking forward to the three-game series that begins tonight. Not if you were hoping to turn around a slow start. Not if you want to pick up some ground on the division-leading Boston Red Sox. Not if you know what's good for you.

The doormat is gone, and the welcome mat is out. Abandon hope all ye who enter the Gateway Sports Complex.

The Indians have been all but unbeatable here. They have a 15-4 home record and won nine of 10 games on their most recent homestand. They've been particularly tough in the late innings, taking seven of those 15 home victories in their final at-bat.

"We're going to lose ballgames," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove, "but I have never seen this team ever quit, and there have been a lot of times when they could have. We believe in ourselves."

Perhaps there was some skepticism in the stands, which are full of fans who have been waiting for a winner since 1954, but even that may have dissipated during that last homestand, when the Indians staged an unbelievable comeback against the Toronto Blue Jays and scored several other dramatic victories.

The Indians were down 8-0 with Toronto ace David Cone on the mound June 4, but they rallied to run Cone out of the game and won on a two-run homer by first baseman Paul Sorrento in the ninth. Then they celebrated by sweeping a three-game series with the Detroit Tigers to close out one of the best homestands in club history.

Dominance? The Indians have won 13 of their past 15 games to turn the American League Central into a one-team sprint. Drama? They have won four of their past eight games in their final at-bat, including back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday in which third baseman Jim Thome put them over the top with dramatic home runs. Home-field advantage? In their 70 home games since moving into the new ballpark, they are 50-20 and have scored the winning run in their final at-bat 19 times.

"It's like it used to be with the Blue Jays and Orioles," said former Orioles reliever Jim Poole, who landed on his feet in the Cleveland bullpen after finding he no longer was needed in Baltimore. "There was a time when you just knew that the Blue Jays were going to win in the final inning. They had done it so many times. That's the way it is getting here. You can never just throw your bats out there and win, but this team is as close to that as you're going to get."

How can they miss? There is no letup in their lineup, from leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton (.335) to Carlos Baerga (.335) to 1994 MVP candidate Albert Belle (.311) to Eddie Murray (.331) to young, dangerous Manny Ramirez, who is among the league leaders in all three Triple Crown categories.

Newcomer Orel Hershiser, who has made a pretty solid contribution himself since signing with the Indians as a free agent this spring, seemed taken aback when he was asked whether this is the best offensive team he ever has pitched on.

"No, it's the best offensive team I've ever seen," said Hershiser, who has taken advantage of strong offensive support to win five of his first seven AL decisions. "That's not a bold statement. They have proven it statistically. I'm not going out on a limb on this."

The Indians are batting .294 as a team after yesterday's 19-hit performance, and that's significantly down from earlier in the season. They are scoring 6.0 runs per game, but the fact that they have scored only about four a game during their current hot streak actually is a positive sign. They aren't just a one-dimensional team. Far from it.

"People think that our hitting has carried us," said Thome, a relatively unheralded young player who is batting .311 with 12 home runs, "but our bullpen has done an outstanding job and our starters have done great. We wouldn't be winning games in the ninth inning if they hadn't done a great job."

The other thing that strikes you when you arrive at Jacobs Field is how familiar everybody looks. Murray is at first base. Dennis Martinez is the ace of the starting rotation. Poole is the setup man. Jose Mesa is the closer. All former Orioles. All playing key roles. All doing well.

Murray has nine home runs and 30 RBIs. He's also just a couple of weeks away from his 3,000th career hit. Martinez is 5-0. Poole has a 2.76 ERA. Mesa is perfect in 14 save opportunities.

Mesa, whose erratic performance as a starter kept him from catching on with the Orioles, might be the single most important factor in the Indians' success. The club was in the market this spring for an experienced closer -- Rick Aguilera was the leading candidate -- but Mesa solved that problem and saved the organization at least a couple of quality minor-league prospects.

"I never thought they would give me the job," Mesa said, "but, thank God, things have worked out well and I've been able to do it."

No one projected him as a 40-save kind of guy, but if Mesa continues to pitch well, the Indians are going to be all but impossible to overtake.

"I think the jury is still out, but he's a lot farther down that road than a lot of people imagined he would be," Hargrove said. "We talked about him closing when Phil [Regan] was here. It really is important, because it allows us to put everybody else in roles they are suited for."

Perhaps the jury still is out on the Indians, who have played only 41 games, but the roster is so deep and the talent level so high that their first postseason appearance in 41 years seems like a foregone conclusion. Nobody is taking that for granted, but the addition of post-seasoned veterans, such as Hershiser and Dave Winfield, only makes it more likely.

"We've got great chemistry," said starting pitcher Charles Nagy. "We've got a lot of guys who have been through a lot, and the new guys blend in real well. Winning does that. You can relax and let your ability take over. Everybody is showcasing their talent right now."

LAST HURRAHS

The Indians have achieved a major-league-best 30-11 record in dramatic style, winning 11 games in their last at-bat.

Date, Opponent, Final, Winning rally

April 30, at Texas, 7-6 (12), Indians break 5-5 tie with two runs in 12th on an RBI groundout by Jim Thome and RBI single by Alvaro Espinoza.

May 7, vs. Minnesota, 10-9 (17), Kenny Lofton's single drives in Manny Ramirez in the longest game (6 hours, 36 minutes) in team history.

May 10, vs. K.C., 3-2 (10), Ramirez's one-out single scores Carlos Baerga, who started the rally with a one-out double.

May 19, at Boston, 9-5, Indians rally from 5-3 deficit in the ninth. Ramirez leads off inning with home run and Albert Belle caps six-run inning with a three-run homer.

May 21, at Boston, 12-10, Indians score eight runs in the final three innings. With the score 9-9 in the ninth, Thome gets an RBI double and Ramirez a two-run single.

May 29, vs. Chicago, 7-6, Indians rally from 6-0 deficit. Tony Pena drives in Wayne Kirby with winning run in the eighth.

May 30, vs. Chicago, 2-1, Throwing error by Chicago's Alex Fernandez enables Kirby to score winning run in the eighth.

June 4, vs. Toronto, 9-8, Indians fall behind David Cone 8-0 in the third. Trail 8-6 entering the ninth, and rally for three runs, the last two coming on Paul Sorrento's home run.

June 6, vs. Detroit, 4-3, Indians load bases with one out in the eighth, and Kirby's groundout scores Espinoza.

June 7, vs. Detroit, 3-2 (10), Thome hits 3-0 pitch from Brian Maxcy for game-winning home run.

June 8, at Milwaukee, 8-7, Thome hits two-run homer off Bill Wegman to cap four-run ninth.

WHAT A RELIEF

CLEVELAND -- Indians closer Jose Mesa isn't afraid to say when he's wrong, especially now that he's doing everything right.

Mesa ranks second in the American League in saves, and he credits former Cleveland pitching coach Phil Regan for much of the success that he has had as the Indians' closer, but he acknowledges that he wasn't happy when Regan decided last year that he was better suited to the bullpen.

"I was mad about it at the time," Mesa said. "Now, I really appreciate that Phil made me a reliever."

Regan can't be happy about it now. Mesa had two saves in the first series of the year between the Orioles and the Indians, and will get an opportunity again this week to show Regan that the Orioles manager is a shrewd judge of pitching talent.

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