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Now, it's time to see if the AL

Associated Press Published: August 19, 1997 12:00 AM

Now, it's time to see if the AL Central-leading Indians will build on the momentum, or kill it again.

David Justice and Manny Ramirez supported Orel Hershiser with homers and Cleveland closed a homestand that began in turmoil with their fifth victory in six games, beating the Toronto Blue Jays 5-3 on Monday.

The two-time defending division champs now head to the West Coast for eight critical games against Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim.

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"I think this trip is a large part in determining our season," Jim Thome said.

There was little mention of the "We're still in first place" mantra the Indians repeated throughout a recent 8-17 slide that sparked talk of manager Mike Hargrove's future. After salvaging the homestand, Cleveland seemed intent on protecting the lead, not talking about it.

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"We caught the Dodgers in '91 on the last day of the season," said Justice, drawing on his extensive pennant-winning experience with the Atlanta Braves. "You don't want to relax until the last game is played."

The first-place Indians went 7-5 on a homestand that got off to an ominous 1-3 start last week. Cleveland has a five-game lead on Milwaukee, which split a doubleheader with Texas, and Chicago, which kept pace by beating Seattle.

The Indians won five of six after a 13-3 loss in the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers last Wednesday. The split came one day after general manager John Hart said Hargrove would not be fired despite the GM's public assertions that the club was underachieving.

"How can you fire a guy when he's leading the division?" Thome asked. "I think in that respect, there's been too high of expectations placed on this team."

Justice, who won four NL championships with the Braves, said a manager's role in kick-starting a team gets exaggerated.

"I believe we've got a team full of veteran players who've been playing the game a long time," Justice said. "They should be kicking themselves."

Justice did his part, hitting .513 with five homers and 15 RBIs on the homestand.

Justice put Cleveland up 3-0 with a three-run homer, his 24th, in the first off Woody Williams (7-11). He led off the sixth with a double and scored on a double by Kevin Seitzer to make it 5-3.

Hershiser (11-5) allowed two earned runs and three hits, but lasted only 5 2/3 innings for the second straight start since being activated from the disabled list Aug. 13. He threw 83 pitches after throwing only 78 last Wednesday in a 9-1 win over Detroit in the second game of that doubleheader.

"I don't want to be a 5 2/3 inning starter," said Hershiser, the 1988 NL Cy Young Award winner. "Today I should have been able to go six or seven innings."

Even though Hershiser wasn't at his best, he was good enough.

"It's like having Roger Clemens on the mound," Toronto rookie Shannon Stewart said. "This guy's had a great career."

Mike Jackson pitched 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, and Jose Mesa pitched the ninth for his sixth save.

Omar Vizquel, who had three hits, singled in the first, advanced to second on a groundout and stole third with two outs before Jim Thome walked. Justice then drilled a 1-0 pitch from Williams into the right-field stands for a 3-0 lead.

Hershiser gave up his 23rd homer of the season in the third, a solo shot by Shawn Green. Benito Santiago singled, advanced to second when Marquis Grissom overran the ball in center, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Shannon Stewart to make it 3-2.

Manny Ramirez put Cleveland up 4-2 with his 20th homer, a blast to center that went over the wall just out of a leaping Stewart's reach. Ed Sprague got the run back with a solo homer off Hershiser in the fourth.

Notes: The Indians hit 21 homers in the last 12 games and are still on

pace to break last year's club record of 218. ... Vizquel fouled a ball

off his left foot in the seventh, but said he was OK. ... Sprague's

homer was his first since Aug. 2 and second since May 31. ... Cleveland

third baseman Matt Williams took the day off after jamming his left

shoulder diving for a ball Sunday. ... Second baseman Tony Fernandez,

who was in Florida with his ailing brother, rejoined the club but did

not play. Hargrove said he would have considered using Williams, who was

drafted as a shortstop, as Vizquel's backup if the situation came up

while Fernandez was gone.

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