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Under pressure, Indians don't blow up


CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Indians awoke to uneasy circumstances yesterday for the first time in 1995.

Having won their division by 30 games and having swept the Red Sox in their divisional series, they had reached the American League Championship Series without experiencing so much as a single tense moment.

The only pressure in Cleveland this year was the pressure of trying to win 100 games.

Or seeing whether Albert Belle could hit 50 homers to match his 50 doubles.

Tough life.

"When was your last must-win game?" someone asked Indians second baseman Carlos Baerga.

"I guess 1993," he said.

That was before last night. The Indians finally knew from pressure after losing Game 3 of the ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in extra innings Friday night, putting them down 2-1 in the series.

Suddenly, their loud bats were quiet, their overconfident fans were jittery and the pinch-me Mariners were starting to believe. Another loss in Game 4 last night at Jacobs Field would have put the Indians in truly dire straits.

And that was before it was determined that Belle would miss the game with a twisted ankle and catcher Sandy Alomar was out with a stiff neck.

As Ken Hill threw the first pitch, the Indians' situation matched the gray clouds overhead. Their fine season seemed perilously close to ruin.

How did they respond? Let's just say that pressure seems to become them.

They scored three runs in the first inning, one in the second and two in the third to turn Game 4 into a blowout and effectively tie the series long before the final out of their 7-0 win.

The only Indian who succumbed to the pressure was their mascot, Slider, who fell off the outfield fence during a routine and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee. As Steve Martin said, comedy is not pretty.

But just about everyone else wearing an Indians uniform was splendid on a chilly night when the club was behind in the standings or a series for the first time since it took over sole possession of the AL Central lead more than five months ago on May 9.

Not that the pressure is off now, of course. If the Indians don't come right back and win Game 5 tonight, they'll have to sweep the last two games of the series in the Kingdome, where the Mariners have seldom lost lately.

"I'd say it's real important that we go back to Seattle needing to win just one game instead of two," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. "I don't know that it's essential. But it's real important."

Put it this way: If the Indians win tonight, they can lose to Randy Johnson (who would start Game 6) and still win the series. In other words, the Mariners' trump card (Johnson) would no longer be decisive.

On the other hand, the Mariners, with a win tonight, would fly back to Seattle knowing that they'll have a chance to win the series with Johnson pitching at home, where he has lost only one of 19 starts all season. Johnson probably would pitch Game 7 if the Mariners win tonight.

"We need to win Game 5; it's the biggest game of the series for us," Jim Thome said. "Going back to Seattle down 3-2 would not be a good situation."

So the pressure is still very much on the Indians, who were supposed to stroll to the World Series after dominating the American League in 1995 like no other team since the days of the Yankees dynasty.

But their response to tense circumstances last night had to encourage them. Shortstop Omar Vizquel fell into the stands to record the game's first out, and, Hargrove said, "everything snowballed from there." The offense provided a 3-0 lead after four batters, thanks to Eddie Murray's three-run homer. Thome's two-run homer in the third made it 6-0.

It was as if the "real" Indians were back, scoffing at the idea that anyone could keep them down for long.

Murray's hit was huge. He was only 2-for-14 with no RBIs in the series, raising echoes of his infamous World Series slumps with the Orioles in 1979 and 1983. But his homer seemed to deliver the Indians from the tension that had hung over them all day.

Of course, the Indians had insisted all along that they weren't such strangers to pressure.

"It might look like we strolled through this season, but we had our share of adversity," Hargrove said.

Such as?

"Well," he said, all but stammering, "the usual aches and pains."

Oh, are we sympathetic.

"And the usual difficult ins and outs of getting a team through a season with 25 players," Hargrove said.

Tell it to the Orioles, Mike.

The truth was that the Indians hadn't dropped a bead of collective sweat all year until last night.

As it turned out, they didn't give themselves a chance to sweat last night. But there is no time for them to revel in the moment. The pressure is still on.

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