Some say the AL Central title isn't worth

By Ken Berger Associated Press Published:

Some say the AL Central title isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Running away with the division? Hah! This year, the division ran away from the Indians.

Critics can scoff all they want. Despite injuries and season-long slumps, the Indians clinched their fourth straight Central title Wednesday night with an 8-6 victory over the Minnesota Twins.

And no matter how many times they do it or how docile the competition, it's still special to manager Mike Hargrove.

"In '92, if I had told everybody that starting in '95 we'd do what we've done, a lot of people would have laughed," Hargrove said. "And I wouldn't have blamed them."

The Indians, one of the worst teams in sports for nearly four decades, became only the third team to win four straight division titles since divisional play started in 1969. They joined Atlanta, on its current run of seven straight, and the Oakland A's, who won the AL West from 1971-75.

With their 84th victory, the Indians wrapped up the title a week earlier than last season _ when they clinched with a dramatic, seven-run comeback for a 10-9 victory over the New York Yankees on Sept. 23.

Before the clinching game, Hargrove repeated a statement he made last fall before Game 6 of the World Series. With the Indians facing elimination, Hargrove said he "had a good feeling about this team." The Indians won the game _ remember Chad Ogea's two hits off Kevin Brown? _ but blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 and lost in 11 innings.

Hargrove's gut feeling this year is "a lot like I had for last year's team."

As the defending AL champions know, even a postseason ticket punched in the easygoing Central can be good for a trip to the Series.

"The postseason is an entirely new deal," Hargrove said. "I think we proved that last year."

The Indians were 100-44 in the strike-shortened 1995, when they won their first AL pennant since 1941; won 99 games in 1996 but were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by Baltimore; and finished 86-75 last season.

This year, Kenny Lofton returned as a free agent. Sandy Alomar followed his dream season in '97 with an offensive flop that saw his average dip into the .230s.

Jose Mesa, who never recovered from his blown save in Game 7, was traded to San Francisco on July 23. The bullpen purge included trading Eric Plunk to Milwaukee for Doug Jones.

Jim Thome, who started his first All-Star game at first base, had his

right hand broken by a pitch from Tampa Bay's Wilson Alvarez on Aug. 7.

But he returned to the lineup Wednesday night just in time for the

celebration _ even homering in his first at-bat.

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