With today's win, the Indians didn't officially clinch the AL Division, but with ten games to play and a 7.5 game lead on the Tigers, it's just matter of when, not if.
Think about this for a moment: Just over a month ago (August 16th), the Indians weren't even in first place, and they may clinch the division with a week to spare. They are now tied with the Angels for the best record in baseball. They've gained 8 games in the division standings in 33 days.
Things have gone right for the Indians, most notably the relative health of the club. Detroit's two key setup men, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, spent much of the season on the Disabled List. Zumaya gave up the key hit of the series on Monday, a game-tying home run off the bat of Jhonny Peralta. David Dellucci was the only position player to lose any appreciable time to injury, while Gary Sheffield was on and off the DL all season, and still isn't 100%.
But the Indians also had bad surprises in 2007, most notably the ineffectiveness of two of their starters (Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers), and a first-half DL stint to a third. Of the four free agents they signed for their bullpen, one (Keith Foulke) retired before the season started, one (Roberto Hernandez) was released a couple months into the season, and a third (Aaron Fultz) has been little more than a mopup man down the stretch. Josh Barfield, who was supposed to be the Indians' everyday second baseman, hit .246/.273/.326 and is currently useful only as a pinch runner. Andy Marte didn't even make it to Memorial Day.
Marte's replacement, Casey Blake, won Friday's game with a home run. Jensen Lewis, who made his MLB debut just two months ago, pitched three high-leverage innings yesterday, allowing one baserunner. Asdrubal Cabrera, who was on the prospect radar but generally thought too young to be of any service this year, scored the first run on Monday and made an impressive defensive play to help finish the game today.
You'll notice thus far that I've said nothing about Leyland's wizened wisdom, or Eric Wedge's nervous tics. Of course the convenient narrative would be that Wedge learned the secret art of fundamentals and clubhouse tirades. Moving on...
When you're facing the second-best offense in baseball, having good starting pitching is going to be crucial. The first two games of the series featured two yeoman-like efforts by Indian starters. Paul Byrd gave up 5 early runs (not entirely his fault), but stuck long enough to have the bullpen set up for extra innings. Jake Westbrook had nothing as far as stuff was concerned, yet toughed it out for five innings. Neither got wins for their effort, but they played pivotal parts the victories. CC Sabathia pitched a strong seven innings today, and won his 18th (important for Cy Young voters, not so much for us).
The bullpen was even better than their usual selves, holding the Tigers scoreless over the course of the series. This included seven scoreless innings on Monday. And this came without Rafael Perez making a single appearance.
The Indians offense made the most of their opportunities, hitting eight home runs, four off Tigers ace Justin Verlander in Tuesday's win. The offense wasn't clicking, but took advantage of enough mistakes to stay in and finally win games.
The magic number is now 3, and with any luck, the Indians should leave Cleveland with a division flag hanging at the Jake.
Next Up: The first game of the rest of the season. Carmona vs. Blanton, 7:05 PM.