CLEVELAND (AP) — They raised a flag and then raised some hell.
After only partying on the road in the postseason last year, the Cleveland Indians finally got a chance to throw a bash in their own home.
For an hour or so, they sprayed each other with champagne and beer and carried on in their clubhouse the way grown baseball players do after winning something meaningful. But almost as quickly as the bash started, it ended and the Indians headed off on their last trip in the regular season.
There are bigger games ahead, and maybe, bigger parties.
On Sunday, the team that couldn’t lose for a few weeks, celebrated winning its second straight AL Central title after beating the Kansas City Royals 4-3 to conclude a homestand during which included the Indians setting a league record with a 22-game winning streak.
And while those accomplishments were certainly worth commemorating, the Indians, who went to the limit in last year’s World Series before losing to the Chicago Cubs and overcame injuries and other obstacles this season, won’t be satisfied until they’re the last team standing in 2017.
“It’s still not done,” All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor said.
Cleveland clinched the division crown Saturday night when second-place Minnesota lost to Toronto. When the championship became official at around 10 p.m., the Indians were long gone following an 8-4 win over Kansas City. So the plan on Sunday was to pop some champagne — win or lose.
Before the game, manager Terry Francona addressed the sellout crowd on a warm, sunny day as the Indians gathered in front of their dugout to watch a red-and-white AL Central championship hoisted beyond the center-field wall.
Then, the Indians sent out ace Corey Kluber and beat the Royals 3-2 before turning their clubhouse into a shower of suds. Unlike last year, when they won their division in Detroit, a playoff series in Boston and the pennant in Toronto, the Indians were happy to be home and Francona was thrilled the Indians could share the moment with their fans.
“They’re loud. They’re passionate,” he said. “I think it’s an easy team to like. I think some teams are probably more likable than others. It’s probably just human nature. This is an easy team to like and get behind. But our fans have really come through. I’m glad we’re able to share that. It’ll be very memorable for everybody.”
The standings show the Indians ran away with their division.
It was anything but a cakewalk.
Much like last year’s postseason, when Cleveland made it to Game 7 of the Series despite missing two starting pitchers and All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, they were forced to overcome adversity from the outset. Injuries started in spring training and piled up. Even Francona was out for an extended period to have surgery to fix an irregular heartbeat.
Still, the Indians persevered. They started slowly, muddling around .500 for almost three months before moving to first place on June 26. Following the All-Star break, Cleveland went 1-5 on a West Coast trip before ripping off nine straight wins.
They barely looked back.
“In a way when we come across those types of things, injuries, Tito’s scare, not that it doesn’t affect us and we don’t care about it, but we just brush it off and move on,” Kluber said. “It’s just the mentality that started with the way things went last year and developed throughout the postseason with the different adversity we went through.
“And to be able to still go out there and get the job done just kind of carried over I guess.”
Kluber has anchored the league’s deepest starting rotation, putting together another season that could land him a second Cy Young Award. Carlos Carrasco bounced back and has won 16 games after missing the 2016 postseason and Trevor Bauer finally matched his talent and potential to become a dependable No. 3 starter. Mike Clevinger has reached double figures in wins and Josh Tomlin, the longest tenured player on Cleveland’s roster, has been solid and a role model for young players to follow.
Two of them — Lindor and second baseman Jose Ramirez — have become MVP candidates and given Cleveland a dynamic infield duo as good as any in baseball.
Lindor seems to make a sparkling defensive play every game and Ramirez, who slid over from third to second when Jason Kipnis got hurt, is a one-man offensive juggernaut, leading the league in extra-base hits and ranking in the top five in runs, hits, average and slugging percentage.
The Indians rode the momentum of coming so close to winning their first World Series title since 1948 into the offseason. They signed free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion to the largest contract in club history, a three-year, $60 million deal that cemented them as favorites.
And when Brantley went down with an ankle injury in August, the club pulled off another shocker by acquiring All-Star outfielder Jay Bruce in a trade with the New York Mets. Bruce, who is in his final season under contract, knew he was joining a special group.
“This team has been a really, really high-quality, well-rounded, super-competitive team for going on two full years,” he said. “I think it took a strong year last year for people to really to start to believe, but it’s pretty obvious now — we’re one of the forces in the league.”
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