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Tribe are AL Central Champions

CLEVELAND – As champagne soaked Cleveland’s clubhouse from floor to ceiling, Charlie Manuel toasted the Indians’ AL Central title the only way he could.

He raised a glass of cranberry juice.

The Cleveland Indians returned to the top of the division they’ve always believed was theirs, clinching their sixth division crown in seven years with a 9-1 win Sunday over the Minnesota Twins. However, as the players celebrated, their thoughts were with Manuel, who remains hospitalized with an abdominal infection. “This one’s for Charlie,” said first baseman Jim Thome, his shirt and cap drenched. “Charlie’s our leader. We’ll celebrate this one without him, but hopefully he’ll be here for a few more.”

Bartolo Colon pitched eight shutout innings and Thome hit his 49th homer as the Indians routed the surprising Twins, the team they had to chase down in the second half to get back into the playoffs.

After injuries led to a second-place finish behind Chicago and deprived them of a postseason berth last year, Cleveland set out in 2001 to reclaim the Central, which it won from 1995-99. And once they finally reeled in the Twins following the All-Star break, there was no stopping the Indians.

“Clinching in front of our fans was great,” said Kenny Lofton. “But I’m glad we clinched it against Minnesota. They knocked us out last year; I didn’t like that.”

When Omar Vizquel flipped to second baseman John McDonald for the final out, the Indians merely walked out of their dugout like they had following 88 previous victories this season.

They gathered at the pitcher’s mound for heartfelt hugs before walking as a group to center field where popular pitcher Charles Nagy helped hoist the division pennant.

The Indians picked Nagy, who has the longest tenure on Cleveland’s roster, to raise the flag. The right-hander pitched until August despite having no cartilage in his elbow, and after ending his season prematurely, he rejoined the club recently to pitch batting practice.

“He didn’t want to do it,” said Lofton. “But the vote was 39-1.” An emotional Nagy was overwhelmed by the gesture.

“I tried to give it back,” Nagy said. “They wouldn’t take it. I can’t put into words my feelings. I was very honored.”

Ellis Burks added a two-run homer and Jolbert Cabrera and Lofton had two RBIs apiece as Cleveland finished the season 14-5 vs. Minnesota.

The Twins, who led the division by five games on July 16, fell to 26-43 since the break.

“The Indians beat us fair and square,” said Twins manager Tom Kelly. “They’re clearly the best team in the division and now we’ve got to root for them and hope they represent the Central very well.” Manuel said he’ll probably be released from the Cleveland Clinic on Monday and will likely rejoin the club next weekend in Toronto.

Manuel, who was on the phone with TV announcers from his hospital room for the final three outs, said his coaches and Thome called him immediately after the game.

“I watched it, and I really enjoyed it,” Manuel told reporters in a conference call. “Everybody in Cleveland was dejected last year when we didn’t make it. Getting back to the playoffs was a giant step today.”

While he recovers, Manuel can begin setting his pitching rotation and finalizing his roster for the postseason, something he missed out on doing a year ago in his first season as manager.

The Indians will open the postseason on either Oct. 9 or Oct. 10 against Seattle or Oakland.

Colon (14-11) allowed four singles and overpowered the Twins whenever he needed to. The right-hander, who will likely start Game 1 of the division series, walked four and struck out 10.

Thome’s 435-foot shot to right-center off Rick Reed (4-5) – his seventh homer against Minnesota – put the Indians up 2-0 in the fourth. With the homer, Thome moved within one of tying Albert Belle’s single-season club record set in 1995.

Travis Fryman and Einar Diaz followed with singles and moved up on a throwing error before Cabrera hit a two-run single, giving Cleveland a 4-0 lead.

Burks, finally starting to hit with power again after a thumb injury, followed Thome’s double in the fifth with his 27th homer, a towering drive to left off Travis Miller.

The Twins left the bases loaded in the third. But Colon struck out Corey Koskie before Russell Branyan made a diving catch in left to rob Torii Hunter of an RBI hit.

Notes: The Indians’ 14 wins against Minnesota were their most against an opponent since beating the Twins 14 times in 1968. … Twins coach Paul Molitor was ejected for the second straight day. Molitor was thrown out three times this season – all at Jacobs Field. … Indians OF Juan Gonzalez, the AL’s RBI leader, missed his third straight game with an ear infection. … Wednesday’s rainout – the only one at Jacobs Field all season – will cost the Indians an estimated $800,000 in revenues to have it replayed as a doubleheader Friday at SkyDome.

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