Tribe nears clinching with win over A's

Tribe nears clinching with win over A's

CLEVELAND -- This was merely the dress rehearsal.

Mathematically, the Indians had no chance of clinching the American League Central Division title on Friday night. Emotionally, however, they're already there.

The Indians know it from the simple fact that a ballgame was going on elsewhere involving the Detroit Tigers, and they really couldn't have cared less about the outcome.

All that mattered to them was the outcome of this one -- a 4-3 win over the A's in front of a sell-out crowd at Jacobs Field on a warm September night.

"It's nice," first baseman Ryan Garko said of the pressure-free environment in which the Indians now operate. "We don't have to worry about what Detroit's doing."

For the record, though, the Tigers did beat the Royals. That means the Indians will need a little help if they're going to lock up their first American League Central Division crown since 2001 on Saturday night. They need a win, combined with a Tigers loss, to make it happen.

With a title now essentially a matter of when and not if, this laid-back night was more of a showcase of what got the Indians in this position in the first place.

Fausto Carmona, once a sixth starter merely filling in for an injured teammate, picked up his 18th win. Garko, the last position player added to the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, hit his 20th homer to give the Indians the lead. And the bullpen's stalwarts, Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski, nailed down another close one.

These were the focal points of the Tribe's 50th home win of the season -- the club's first 50-win home slate since 1996 -- but the storyline was familiar.

"I feel we've been a pretty consistent ballclub all year," manager Eric Wedge said. "The way we win ballgames has been very consistent. The way we lose ballgames has been consistent, too. And that's OK. Because then you know how to fix that."

Carmona hasn't put himself in a position to lose much in this second half, and that's a credit to his quickly developing ability to fix himself.

This outing was a perfect example. The A's started to get to Carmona with two outs in the second. Jack Hannahan walked, and Marco Scutaro, Kurt Suzuki and Jeff DaVanon notched consecutive singles. The A's took a 1-0 lead.

"I was a little off the first couple innings," Carmona said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I made a lot of pitches."

But after walking two more batters to open the third, Carmona began to make the pitches to heal his wounds. He retired the next seven guys he faced.

"He's been doing a good job of game management, in regard to making adjustments," Wedge said of Carmona, who is 4-0 with a 1.27 ERA over his last four starts. "He has a feel for what the opposition is trying to do against him."

After Carmona got through the sixth, his pitch count was at 106. So his Indians had a feeling his outing was over.

They wanted to get him the victory.

And in the bottom of the sixth, that's just what they did.

A's right-hander Joe Blanton had been remarkable, up to that point. His only miscue came with a runner on second in the third, when Victor Martinez lined a double to center to tie the game at 1. Other than that, the Indians couldn't get anything going off him.

"He's tricky," Garko said. "He can get the ball on you."

But Blanton left a slider up to Garko to begin the sixth, and Garko lofted it into the left-field bleachers.

"I was trying to catch something out front," Garko said. "He left a slider up in the zone."

Now the Indians were up, 2-1, but they weren't done. Righty Jhonny Peralta stepped up and got a first-pitch fastball from Blanton. He lined it the other way, over the right-field wall. It was the fourth time this season two Indians have teamed up for back-to-back blasts.

"Jhonny can drive the ball out of any part of the ballpark," Wedge said. "He has as much power to right field as he does to left."

And the Indians' offense, especially in recent days, has the ability to beat teams multiple ways. They took the lead in the sixth with the big ball. They added to that lead with a little small ball. Kenny Lofton and Franklin Gutierrez both singled, setting up Casey Blake's sacrifice bunt. After Grady Sizemore was intentionally walked, Asdrubal Cabrera hit a line drive right to left fielder Shannon Stewart, and Lofton was able to tag up from third to make it 4-1.

"We saw both sides of our offense in one inning," Wedge said.

That insurance run proved pivotal, because left-handed reliever Rafael Perez wasn't his usual dominant self in the seventh. Perez had given up just one extra-base hit to a left-handed batter in two big league seasons. But with one out in the seventh, left-hander Daric Barton doubled and left-handed Indians-killer Jack Cust hit a homer to the bleachers to make it 4-3.

"He's human," Wedge said of Perez. "He hasn't pitched that way for us for quite a while now, but he is. These are the best players in the world, on both sides. You're going to have days like that."

Perez might have been a tad off, but his mates in the 'pen weren't. Jensen Lewis came in to strike out Mark Ellis with the last out of the seventh, Rafael Betancourt worked a perfect eighth, and Joe Borowski finished the job in the ninth for his league-leading 43rd save.

No, it wasn't the coronation the Indians will soon enjoy. But with another large throng on hand and with no need to check the out-of-town scoreboard, it was nonetheless a win to savor.

"I've never seen this ballpark the way it was tonight," Garko said. "It was loud."

Just think how loud it will get when the champagne starts flowing.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.