Soak in in Tribe fans. Every second of it. Say it loud and proud. Your Cleveland Indians are champions of the American League Central Division and will be back playing October baseball for the first time since 2001. A mix of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance carried this club from the snowed out home opener all the way through today's clincher at Jacobs Field. The man who carried the bullpen all year, Rafael Betancourt fittingly closed it out, striking out Mark Ellis to set off a wild celebration. He won't get any votes, but the team's real MVP is Betancourt. Without him, no way the Indians winning the division, let alone competing.
For C.C. Sabathia, its a return he thought he may have never seen again. As a 20 year old phenom in 2001, Big C probably thought he'd see this every year. The man who set him straight was none other than Chuck "Kitaen" Finley. 38 and at the end of his career at the time, Finley told young C.C. not to take this for granted, it won't happen every year. Boy was he right.
Six years and one close call later, and C.C. is back. This time as the leader. He took the microphone on the field and thanked the fans for their support and said "we've got two more banners to raise, so stay with us." Victor Martinez, the team's offensive MVP grabbed the mic next and said "I'm at a lost for words...WE DID IT!" Even stoic manager Eric Wedge managed to crack a smile as the team raised the AL Central champs flag during an impromptu postgame celebration on the field, which continued back into the clubhouse.
This was so good for so many people. For the much maligned and all around good guy Casey Blake, the dues have been paid and now he'll be playing in his first playoffs. Jake Westbrook, a guy who has been with the Indians for seven seasons (do you believe he's been here seven years?), signed an extension with the Tribe for less than he could get on the open market, because he loves the organization and the city top to bottom. He may be your game three starter in the ALDS after his solid seven inning, nine K, two run performance to pick up the win. What about Paul Byrd? Another veteran loved in the clubhouse. He signed here last offseason because he wanted a chance to pitch in meaningful games late in the season and into the playoffs. Well he will get his chance.
But lets be honest, this season would be nothing without the kids. When Trot Nixon proved early in the season he was not the player he once was, there was Franklyn Gutierrez to step up and take his place. He provided gold glove defense in Right, and the knack for clutch hitting. His power stroke was something the Tribe brass hadn't seen in the minors, but he has begun flexing as a regular with the big club. When Josh Barfield went into a deep slump and Mike Rouse was, well, being Mike Rouse, out of Akron and a week in Buffalo came AC, Asdrubal Cabrera. Everyone knew of his soft hands and rocket arm, but did we know he would hit like this? Did we have any idea he would move into the two hole with such ease and provide the spark this team sorely needed?
As great as Betancourt has been, where would the Tribe pen be without "Raffy Left," Rafael Perez? His emergence as a viable option to pair with "Raffy Right" stabilized a shaky pen. Fellow Rookie Jenson Lewis has taken the role most thought the long-forgotten Fernando Cabrera would have had. Did I forget to mention the rotation's co #1 starter Fausto Carmona; he of the 18 wins and AL leading 3.03 ERA. Having a legitimate ace in a pitching staff is a rarity; to have two is almost unheard of. But thanks to the Carmona and Sabathia, the Tribe has just that.
GM Mark Shapiro got the ceremonial pie in the face after today's division clincher, and rightfully so. He has loaded up the farm system with so much young talent that in a league where $100 million payrolls rule the day (Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Tigers). That young talent blended with the experienced holdovers has done something amazing. In the face of high expectations and arguably the best division in baseball, they have defied the odds and brought home a division crown.
Here's hoping it doesn't end here.