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  • Children of Eden written by Joey Graceffa
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Tribe rolls on through magical season

By Tom Withers The Associated Press

CLEVELAND – They opened the season in snow piled up to their stirrups following a freakish storm. Five months later, as summer’s final days dwindle, the Cleveland Indians stand alone atop the AL Central.

And in the on-deck circle for the playoffs.

With an unmatched starting rotation and a lineup stocked with young players mostly unknown outside Ohio’s borders, the Indians, drawing on painful lessons learned in a late-season collapse two Septembers ago, are on the verge of securing their first division championship since 2001.

Just as C.C. Sabathia predicted.

A few weeks ago, with the Indians tangled in the throes of a second-half slump that threatened to destroy their promising 2007, the club’s All-Star left-hander and Cy Young hopeful, made a bold prediction.

“We’re going to win this division,” Sabathia said unflinchingly.

The big man – and his teammates – have backed up his big talk.

The Indians have a magic number, and this time they don’t expect it to go, poof!

Cleveland (81-58) entered last night’s game against the Los Angeles Angels – Game 4 of a 10-game road trip – with a seven-game lead over the second-place Detroit Tigers. With only 23 games left, the Indians, who have gone 16-4 since Aug. 15, would have to flop monumentally to miss the postseason for a sixth consecutive season.

That would seem about as likely as having four straight home games postponed by a spring blizzard, which is what happened to the Indians in April, so they’re not taking anything for granted.

“We’ve got a lead and that feels good, but we must recognize that we have not won anything yet,” said Paul Byrd, the club’s No. 4 starter. “Two months ago, we had a three-game lead and it was gone in three days. Hopefully, we’ve learned something from that.”

In the past few weeks, the Indians have run away with baseball’s toughest division. By winning 11 of their last 12, they’ve left the Tigers, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox in their dust.

Trouble is, no one seems to have noticed Cleveland’s climb.

The Indians have been baseball’s hottest team for weeks, yet the club has received minimal national attention. They know that will come.

“I think that happens when your team hasn’t been in the playoffs,” third baseman Casey Blake said. “People know the players on teams that get in the postseason. There are a lot of good players in this clubhouse. Hopefully, people will have a chance to get to know them better.”

Cleveland opened this trip by beating Twins ace Johan Santana for the fifth time this season. It’s the first time a team has gone 5-0 against a reigning Cy Young Award winner since the award was instituted in 1956.

“Those guys over there – they’re playing good baseball,” said Santana, who is 14-6 against everyone else. “They’re comfortable. They have a lot of confidence, and that’s how you win games. They have improved a lot. You see those guys out there. They’re hungry. They want to win.”

The Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1948, a 58-year drought eclipsed only by the Chicago Cubs’ 98-year wait. But this Cleveland club, with a strong starting staff of Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook and Byrd, could be extremely dangerous in October.

Sabathia, who was a rookie the last time the Indians made the postseason, leads the AL in wins (16) and innings pitched (211). He’s second in complete games (3) and fourth in strikeouts (182). If the Indians had hit better for him in a few recent starts, the 27-year-old would almost certainly be a 20-game winner – something the Indians haven’t had since Gaylord Perry went 21-13 in 1974.

Carmona has been nearly as good. His brief tryout as a closer last season was a disaster, but the right-hander, whose nastiest pitch is a drop-off-the-table sinker, has become a dependable No. 2 starter.

Not since the powerful Cleveland teams of the 1950s with Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and others, have the Indians had such a 1-2 pitching punch.

With his offense stuck in a prolonged slump last month, manager Eric Wedge benched second baseman Josh Barfield and replaced him with rookie Asdrubal Cabrera. Since the switch – on Aug. 15 – the Indians have been the majors’ best team.

Two years ago, Cleveland was poised for a playoff run.

With a week remaining in the ’05 season, the Indians trailed the first-place White Sox by just 1 1/2 games and led Boston in the wild-card race. But a 1-6 final week sealed Cleveland’s fate, and the hangover from the collapse continued last season when the Indians went a disappointing 78-84.

They don’t plan a repeat performance.

“I hope that helps us now,” Blake said. “I think it should. We had never been through it before and I think it showed. We have that experience now and I think we’ll handle it better.”

So far, they’ve handled everything else.

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