CLEVELAND — If the Central Division race wasn’t already over, it is now.
Thanks to a 4-2 victory over Detroit on Wednesday that completed a three-game sweep of the defending American League champions, the Indians own their largest lead of the season — 71/2 games — over the Tigers in the division standings.
Barring a monumental collapse, Cleveland will hoist its first division title flag since the 2001 season.
“That was the goal in spring training,” said Indians ace C.C. Sabathia, who strengthened his Cy Young candidacy with another quality outing that earned him his career-high 18th win. “We’re close. We’ve still got some work to do, but we’re real close.”
Detroit, which entered the series needing at least a win and looking for much more, has already conceded.
“They’re going to be the Central Division champions, obviously,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “They’ve done what championship teams do.”
Cleveland, which tied Boston for the best record in the big leagues, trimmed its magic number to three. That means the Indians have a chance to clinch the division title at home during a three-game series against Oakland that begins Friday night at 7:05.
“It’s in our hands,” said closer Joe Borowski, who earned his league-leading 42nd save by retiring the side in order in the ninth inning for the second straight day. “You don’t want to sit back and relax. Hopefully we can just take care of it this weekend.”
The Indians are that enviable position thanks to their first three-game sweep of the Tigers since — ironically enough — 2001.
They came from behind to win all three games of the series, trailing 2-1 through four innings Wednesday before rallying and taking command once again.
“You never anticipate something like that happening,” said Indians manager Eric Wedge of his team’s sweep. “You want to win the series. Anything after that is a bonus.”
Sabathia has been a bonus for the Indians all year long, and this was no exception.
The big left-hander started slowly, allowing two runs in the third, but was his usual dominant self for much of the afternoon. Sabathia (18-7, 3.1) allowed the two runs on five hits, while striking out seven through seven innings.
It was the 11th time in his last 12 starts that Sabathia has allowed two runs or fewer.
Sabathia ranks among the leaders in nearly every statistical category for starting pitchers and is a favorite, along with Boston’s Josh Beckett, to win the league’s top pitching honor.
“All I can do is go out and help the team win,” said Sabathia, who along with late-season addition Kenny Lofton is the only player who was also on the 2001 team. “I don’t really try to state my case for the Cy Young. I’d much rather win the World Series than the Cy Young.”
A solo home run from Casey Blake to lead off the third was all the Indians could muster off Detroit starter Nate Robertson through the first four innings. It was Blake’s sixth career homer in 32 at-bats off Robertson.
But as they have done on numerous occasions this season, the Indians kept coming.
Consecutive doubles from Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Michaels put the Indians in front 3-2 in the fifth, with Asdrubal Cabrera’s single in the same inning providing the final count.
Cleveland’s bullpen rode to the rescue from there with setup man extraordinaire Rafael Betancourt working out of a sticky jam in the eighth to pass the torch to Borowski.
After walking leadoff batter Curtis Granderson, Betancourt got the first out before allowing a single to Gary Sheffield. The Tigers loaded the bases with two outs, bringing Marcus Thames to the plate.
Thames, 4-for-4 this season with two grand slams and 13 RBIs with the bases loaded, ended the inning by lifting a shallow fly ball to left field.
With no place to put Thames, it was a battle of wills.
“There’s a certain time when it’s individual vs. individual, and that was it,” Wedge said.
A Detroit sweep would have left the Indians in a decidedly different frame of mind, conjuring up memories of the 2005 choke. Now it’s the Tigers feeling the pain.
“I think it crushes you,” Borowski said. “You go out there and know it’s pretty much do or die. Psychologically, it probably takes a toll.”
The Indians are winning the race against the Tigers thanks to playing better when it mattered most. After their game on Aug. 15, the two teams were tied atop the division standings. Since then, Cleveland has gone 24-8 to Detroit’s17-16.
If the Indians do cross the finish line, it will make a soothsayer out of Sabathia, who predicted last month in Minnesota that his team would be wearing the Central crown.
“I just felt it,” Sabathia said. “I knew it was coming.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: Cleveland vs. Oakland
WHEN: Friday, 7:05 p.m.
WHERE: Jacobs Field
PITCHERS: Carmona (17-8, 3.07 ERA) vs. Blanton (14-9, 3.78)
TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WTAM 1100-AM
MAGIC NUMBER: 3