CLEVELAND — The Indians took another step toward their first Central Division title since 2001 on Friday, and they did it with their usual flair for the dramatic.
Recording their 43rd comeback victory of the season (tied for tops in the American League), the Indians rallied to turn back Oakland 4-3 in the series opener in front of 36,016 feverish fans.
“Guys believe late in the game that we have the chance of coming back,” said Cleveland closer Joe Borowski, who earned his league-leading 43rd save with a scoreless ninth inning. “We even joke about it, that you can fast forward to the seventh inning.”
The victory kept the Indians’ lead in the division standings at 7½ games, while trimming their magic number to two. That means with a Cleveland win today coupled with a Detroit loss, the Indians will clinch the Central title at home.
The Indians still own the majors’ best record at 91-62.
“It’s real exciting,” said first baseman Ryan Garko, who paired with Jhonny Peralta to hit back-to-back home runs in a pivotal sixth inning for the Indians. “The best part is that we don’t have to watch the scoreboard. We know how close we are. We don’t have to worry about what Detroit’s doing.”
Both starting pitchers, Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona and Oakland’s Joe Blanton, kept the offense at a minimum through the first five innings, with each team scoring a run apiece.
Oakland got its first in the second inning, with Carmona allowing his first baserunner on a two-out walk to Jack Hannahan before serving up three consecutive hits, including an RBI single from Kurt Suzuki.
The Indians, who squandered a plethora of scoring chances against Blanton, got theirs in the third on a two-out double from Victor Martinez before Cleveland changed the complexion of the game in the sixth.
Garko and Peralta hit consecutive homers off Blanton to lead off the inning, with a sacrifice fly from Asdrubal Cabrera chasing Blanton and putting the Indians in front 4-1.
Blanton left to a chorus of “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye” from the sellout crowd at Jacobs Field.
Peralta’s homer, his 21st of the year, tied him with Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau for second on the franchise’s all-time list with 62 career homers as a shortstop. Woodie Held holds the record with 85.
Carmona, who has not lost since Aug. 21, won his fourth straight decision, allowing just a run on five hits through six innings, even though he wasn’t at his best.
“I was a little off the first couple innings,” Carmona said through an interpreter. “I tried to make the pitches I needed to and battle for six innings.”
Though C.C. Sabathia is considered the team’s strongest candidate for AL Cy Young Award honors, Carmona has as many wins as Cleveland’s ace (18) and a lower ERA (a league-leading 3.03).
“He’s had a very consistent year for us,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s been right there with C.C. as one of our top starters.”
Carmona will start once more before the regular season is complete, wishing he had another for the chance to win 20 games. As it stands, he and Sabathia are the first two Cleveland pitchers to win 18 or more games in the same season since Bob Lemon, Herb Score and Early Wynn all won 20 in 1956.
“It would be nice, but I never thought about winning 20 games,” Carmona said. “Since the first time they gave me the ball, I believed in myself and I had confidence in my ability.
“I felt like it was my job to keep my job.”
Oakland made a move against Cleveland reliever Rafael Perez in the seventh, pulling to within a run on a two-run homer from Jack Cust that followed a one-out double from Daric Barton.
It was the first runs surrendered by the Indians bullpen in seven games and the first allowed by Perez in 13 games, covering 15 innings. Cust managed just the third extra-base hit by a left-handed hitter off Perez in the past two seasons.
Oakland’s uprising ended there, with setup man Rafael Betancourt working another scoreless outing in the eighth — striking out two of the three batters he faced — to turn it over to Borowski.
Betancourt, who lowered his ERA to 1.44 in 64 games, has allowed just two runs in his last 17 appearances.
“I think Betancourt’s arguably been the most consistent relief pitcher in baseball,” Wedge said.
Borowski retired pinch hitter Mike Piazza on a fly ball to center for the first out of the ninth before allowing a single to Shannon Stewart. He struck out Barton for the second out and with the crowd on its feet and at a fever pitch, Borowski fanned Cust looking at a 2-2 pitch to end the game.
It was the Indians’ 50th victory at home, their highest total since 1996, when they won 51.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or email@example.com.
WHO: Cleveland vs. Oakland
WHERE: Jacobs Field
PITCHERS: Byrd (15-6, 4.36 ERA) vs. Haren (14-8, 3.12)
TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM
MAGIC NUMBER: 2