CLEVELAND -- For one reason or another, championships of any sort have eluded the Cleveland Indians. Bad management. Poor resources. In 1994, a players' strike. Most of all, rotten players.
All of that has changed in 1995, a year of harmonic convergence for the Indians: a beautiful 2-year-old ballpark, lots of income, great players. Great team, one of the best regular-season clubs in history. Last night, Cleveland clinched the American League Central Division, its first title of any kind in 41 years, by beating the Orioles, 3-2.
After exchanging lineup cards with Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken before the game, Cleveland designated hitter Eddie Murray led the way with a bases-loaded, two-run single in the third inning. Orel Hershiser pitched 6 2/3 innings to earn his 13th victory.
As police stepped onto the field for the top of the ninth, former Oriole Jose Mesa, a leading candidate for the AL Cy Young and MVP awards, jogged out of the bullpen to go after a division title and his 40th save.
Ripken grounded out, Harold Baines flied out, Chris Hoiles walked. But Jeff Huson popped out, and the Indians came out of the dugout to hug and slap each other on the back. Many of the Orioles sat in the dugout and watched the celebration.
Orioles manager Phil Regan, a pitching coach for the Indians last year, offered congratulations to his former team. "They've played well all year," he said. "It's good for baseball. It's good for the fans here. They've been terrific in supporting this year. I'm happy for them -- I just wish it hadn't been at our expense."
The Indians' post-game celebration was relatively mild because there really wasn't a whole lot of drama to the championship. Cleveland sprinted ahead of its competition early, taking the division lead for good May 10, and then ran away. The Indians' 22 1/2 -game lead over second-place Kansas City going into last night's action was the largest in AL history. They also clinched a division title second-fastest in AL history; the 1941 Yankees secured a title by Sept. 4.
"We didn't want to sit back and wait for this party," said Hershiser. "We wanted to go after it and have it happen tonight."
They won the clincher like they had won the division, taking an early lead and holding on.
With one out in the third inning, Orioles starter Kevin Brown hit catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. with a fastball that ran too far inside. If you were Regan, red warning lights flashed in your head at that moment. Brown has dominated hitters for innings at a time, and then one thing goes wrong and a minor setback turns into a big inning.
That's precisely what happened in the third. Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton hit a ground single, Alomar running hard all the way to third. Omar Vizquel then flied to medium-deep center field, plenty far for Alomar to tag and score ahead of Curtis Goodwin's throw home.
Two outs, one run in, one man on first, Brown one out away from escaping more damage. But second baseman Carlos Baerga singled, Lofton racing to third, and Brown walked Albert Belle, loading the bases for Murray.
Murray walked to the plate with a .358 batting average with runners in scoring position, and a long history of being a tremendous clutch hitter. (Orioles fans -- and the Orioles' shortstop -- know this first-hand.)
Ball one. Ball two. Brown was digging himself a major hole, Murray never being more dangerous then when he can corner a pitcher into throwing him something over the plate. Brown came back with a strike, and then another ball. No place to put Murray, so he threw a strike.
Murray whacked it to center, two runs scored, and a minor jam had become a major problem for Brown. The Indians led 3-0.
"That gave us a little breathing room," said Murray. "They came back a little. I was walking through the clubhouse and they were taking out the champagne. I was like, 'Put it back.' That was kind of hard to take."
The Orioles got one back in the top of the fourth. Goodwin singled, and when Rafael Palmeiro singled, Goodwin ran easily to third. Bobby Bonilla, trying to pull a ball through the right side, dribbled a grounder that first baseman Paul Sorrento turned into 3-6-3 double play, Goodwin scoring.
Baines hit a soft liner down the left-field line with one out in the seventh inning. Hoiles struck out, but then Huson pulled a ball into the right-field corner, Baines chugging home with the
Orioles' second run.
Cleveland had a runner at first and two outs in the seventh when Belle bounced a chopper weakly down the first-base line. Brown went to pick up the ball and tag Belle, but the ball fell out of his glove -- an error. With the switch-hitting Murray coming up, Regan went to the mound to replace Brown.
When he got there, however, Brown flipped the ball a couple of feet into the air. Regan snapped at it angrily. Brown stalked off the field and down into the runway, and after reliever Mark Lee arrived from the bullpen, Regan followed Brown into the runway.
Regan said afterward that Brown's flip made him mad, and he talked to him. "I'm not going to say what I told him," Regan said.
Lee ended that inning by retiring Murray on a fly to left.
The Orioles got a one-out pinch-hit from Kevin Bass in the eighth inning, but left-hander Paul Assenmacher retired Palmeiro on a fly to center, and reliever Julian Tavarez struck out Bonilla, strike three coming on a split-finger pitch that appeared to dip at a 45-degree angle as it neared the plate.
The Jacobs Field crowd roared, then only three outs away from a title that was a long, long time in coming.
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland
Time: 1:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Rick Krivda (2-3, 3.83) vs. Indians' Chad Ogea (7-3, 3.39)