September 21, 2014

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Return to the playoffs: Indians back for first time since 2001

CLEVELAND — The Indians can officially put the painful memories of the 2005 season behind them.
They are no longer chokers, but champions.
With their 6-2 victory over Oakland on Sunday, the Indians clinched the Central Division title, ending a playoff drought that had spanned five years for the one-time perennial power.
In the process, Cleveland erased the memory of a season two years ago in which the Indians saw their playoff hopes dashed during a catastrophic collapse over the final week.
“It makes it sweeter,” said center fielder Grady Sizemore, who played his first full season in the majors during the ’05 season. “A lot of the same guys are still here (from 2005). I think we’ve grown as a team.
“Today, we knew it was in our hands.”
With the Tigers losing on Saturday, the Indians squandered their first opportunity to clinch by dropping a 9-3 decision to Oakland. With its fate in its own hands, Cleveland didn’t miss the second chance in its season finale at home.
The pivotal victory was the culmination of a stretch that saw the Indians pull away from defending American League champion Detroit by playing their best baseball of the year. Though nothing had been decided until Sunday, with a 71/2-game lead in the division standings, it was only a matter of time.
“I’m just so proud of these guys,” said manager Eric Wedge, a candidate for the league’s top manager award. “I love watching them play. It all came together. They just keep coming out here and doing it.”
“This is without a doubt the greatest moment in my career.”
The Indians took a relatively easy route to make it all happen.
Leading 2-0 through two innings, Cleveland scored four times in the fourth inning to all but put the game away.
A two-run double from Casey Blake put Cleveland in front 4-0, with Sizemore adding an RBI triple and Asdrubal Cabrera driving in a run with a hit to cap the inning’s output.
Sizemore led the way all day offensively, equaling a career-high with four hits, while adding a pair of RBIs and a run.
After Cleveland erupted in the fourth there was little to do but The Wave for Indians fans, who anxiously awaited the impending celebration.
Scoring early took the pressure off Cleveland’s starting pitcher Jake Westbrook, who was on the mark for much of the day, allowing two runs on four hits, while striking out a career-high nine batters through seven innings.
Westbrook allowed just two hits and no runs through the first five innings, surrendering a two-run home run to Daric Barton with two outs in the sixth for the only blemish to his line.
It was sweet justice for Westbrook, who, after signing a lucrative contract extension in the offseason, battled injuries and periods of ineffectiveness before putting it together when it mattered most.
“I wanted to be out there today,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been through a lot this year. It was a lot of fun to go out there and pitch well today.”
Pitching well has been a characteristic of Cleveland’s bullpen all year long. Nothing changed Sunday, with the twosome of Rafael Perez and Rafael Betancourt combining to hold Oakland scoreless over the final two innings.
Betancourt, one of the majors’ top setup men, gave closer Joe Borowski a rest, getting the last out in the eighth before coming back for the ninth with fans on their feet for the entire final inning.
Three outs away from clinching the division title, the right-hander started working the crowd into a frenzy by striking out the first batter he faced, Jack Cust.
Mike Piazza popped to second for the second out and Betancourt ignited the celebration by throwing a high fastball by Mark Ellis on an 0-2 pitch for the final out.
Though it became a foregone conclusion that the Indians would clinch the division, doubters began to surface when the team began the second half in a month-long slump at the plate.
Would they choke again?
“There were a lot of questions,” said catcher Victor Martinez. “But we stayed within ourselves. Everybody knew what we could do. We made it happen, and here we are.”
The Indians arrive in the postseason after a bizarre start to the year that began with their home-opening series being postponed by winter weather. They went from snow squalls to champagne showers and caviar dreams.
“Somewhere between the snow and the craziness and the injuries, this team became a family,” said pitcher Paul Byrd.
A championship clan.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com.