"There's definitely a good attitude in the clubhouse right now," center fielder Grady Sizemore said. "Guys are working together and we're getting stronger as a team. That shows on the field in a way it hasn't before."
It showed once again Thursday night, when Sizemore's RBI ground-rule double in the bottom of the eighth inning put the Tribe up for good in a 6-5 win over the Blue Jays in front of 16,284 at Jacobs Field.
That put the finishing touch on a 7-1 homestand for the Indians, who have now won 10 of 11 and 11 of 13 overall.
"We're playing pretty consistent baseball," manager Eric Wedge said. "There's a lot of drive in these guys. We know it's early, but they've shown us a lot already."
On this night, it was left-hander Cliff Lee showing up for the first time since a strained right abdominal muscle shut him down early in Spring Training. His outing, however, was not exactly what he hoped for. The Blue Jays beat him up a bit for five runs on nine hits over six innings.
But even when the Jays took a 4-0 lead on Lee with Troy Glaus' two-run homer in the third, the Indians were undeterred. They strung together a little rally off right-hander Dustin McGowan in a three-run third, punctuated by Victor Martinez's RBI single that made it 4-3.
And then things got a little heated.
In the fourth, with Josh Barfield looking to tie the game in an attempt to score from first after center fielder Alex Rios made an error on a ball hit by Sizemore, a collision at the plate led to a benches-clearing incident.
Barfield was nabbed on a perfect strike from shortstop John McDonald to catcher Jason Phillips, and Phillips apparently had some choice words for Barfield after the two became intertwined.
"I just got excited," Phillips said. "I haven't been run over in a while, so I just got excited and said a few things. It was in the heat of the moment and it got out of hand there for a little bit."
David Dellucci, on deck, lent a hand to his teammate by getting in Phillips' face. And then everybody got in everybody's face. Even the relievers sprinted out of the bullpen to join the fracas, though no punches were thrown and nobody was ejected.
"The umpires did a good job of not overreacting to it," Wedge said, "and letting everybody stay in and play."
Actually, one person got the boot. A fan who got as caught up in the moment as Phillips did decided to rush onto the field and remove his shirt, but he soon found himself planted in the outfield grass by security.
With that, it was back to your regularly scheduled ballgame. Although, there was nothing regular about the way the Indians took the lead in the fifth.
Martinez, who had four hits on the night, came through with another RBI single to tie it. One out later, Ryan Garko sent a hard liner to right that momentarily confused the scoreboard-operating crew. They flashed the words "Home Run" on the board, while the ball bounced off the wall, allowing Garko to slide in awkwardly, albeit safely, into third with the first triple of his career.
The two-strike heroics might have been expected from Garko, who's one of the Tribe's better clutch hitters. But speed is not exactly his forte.
"I looked up [after the slide], and [third-base coach Joel] Skinner was laughing," Garko said. "We were both laughing."
Lee wasn't laughing in the sixth, when he let Phillips tie the game back up at 5 with an RBI double.
"I'm not really happy with that," Lee said. "That was a momentum killer."
But the Indians, who have endured every imaginable distraction and even some unimaginable distractions en route to putting together baseball's best record, didn't let their momentum die for good.
With two outs in the eighth, and Jason Frasor on in relief for the Jays, an unlikely igniter stepped to the plate in the form of Mike Rouse, he of just one hit in 19 previous at-bats this season. Rouse ripped a base hit to the opposite field, and Barfield followed suit. Suddenly, the Tribe had runners on the corners, and Sizemore was up to bat.
"We had a lot of big hits," Wedge said. "Up and down the lineup, we had some good at-bats. Guys were fighting through their at-bats."
Sizemore worked his at-bat into a 3-2 count, then he sent the payoff pitch hurtling into the gap between center and right. It bounced off the ground and over the wall for the ground-rule double that brought Rouse home with the winning run.
Once Joe Borowski closed it out in the ninth for his 10th save, the Indians had officially improved to 8-2 in one-run games, and they won in their last at-bat for the seventh time this season.
"It shows you we're getting better as a team," Sizemore said. "We never feel we're out of it."