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Division title in hand — now the hard part awaits Tribe

By PAUL HOYNES • Sep 15, 2018 at 7:40 PM

CLEVELAND — Chris Antonetti said there are no foregone conclusions in baseball. He should know better than most as the president of baseball operations for the Indians.

But if there was one, his ball club is it.

Never pushed, never threatened, the Cleveland Indians clinched the AL Central on Saturday with a 15-0 win over Detroit at Progressive Field.

They did it in stages, like an old man getting out of bed. They took over first place on April 21. By June 27, they had an 8.5-game lead. Since Aug. 8, they've had a lead of 10 or more games in a division where every other team is rebuilding. They did all that while barely showing a pulse.

There was no historic 22-game winning streak like 2017. In 2013, Terry Francona's first year as manager, they had to win their last 10 games just to earn a wild card spot. This team never found themselves in such a perilous situation because the competition in the division was so poor.

Yes, the Tigers prevented the Indians from clinching on Friday night with a well-played 5-4 victory. But Saturday's blowout win is much more indicative of what the AL Central is going through everywhere outside of Progressive Field.

Francisco Lindor and Michael Brantley set the tone with consecutive homers to start the first inning. By the time the inning ended, the Indians were up 6-0 and the Tigers had made two of their four errors. Then Mike Clevinger took care of business from the other side of the ball with six scoreless innings.

Saturday's win made the Indians the first team this season to clinch a division title and gave them an 83-65 record. With 15 games left in the season it seems absurd to suggest they have yet to play their best baseball. But Francona would be the first to say that.

Now with certain players getting rested over the last two weeks of the season, it's something that won't be achieved, perhaps, until the postseason. The Indians have had their moments, but this is a team that has basically been geared for one thing — playing well in October.

So if Tribe's third straight division title was such a sure thing, why celebrate it? Just turn the page, slap some ice on Edwin Encarnacion's right ankle — he left in the fourth inning after twisting it at second base — and start breaking down the Houston Astros for their anticipated meeting in the ALDS on Oct. 5.

That would be a mistake. When a team clinches, regardless of the situation, champagne should be sprayed and cigars smoked. This is the Indians' sixth straight winning season since Francona became manager in 2013. This is the third straight trip to the postseason and the fourth overall under Francona.

It is the longest stretch of postseason baseball by the Indians since they won six division titles in seven years from 1995 through 2001. Those teams celebrated after each clinch and every time they advanced in the postseason. The reason why is simple — as quickly as winning becomes routine, it can end.

Ownership can have a change of heart. Teams can get sold and payrolls reduced. Players get old, injured or leave through free agency or trades. After the Indians won the division in 2001, they went to the postseason once in the next 11 years. So when teams get a chance to celebrate, they should.

When the Indians clinched the AL Central in 2001, CC Sabathia was a rookie. I remember him drenched in champagne, imagining that this was the way it was going to be every year with the Indians. Standing next to him was veteran Chuck Finley. When Finley was a rookie in 1986 with the Angels, he went to the postseason and never returned until he joined the Indians before the 2001 season. He told Sabathia to enjoy the moment because it may not come again.

Sabathia said he understood Finley's message. But he was only a kid and fortunately for him he's been to the postseason seven more times in his long career. But it doesn't always unfold that way.

So now the focus moves to October. The Indians can send out their advance scouts — if they aren't already on the road — to follow their potential playoff opponents. They will plan for the future as well.

The Indians, for the second straight year, stand to lose several free agents. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Melky Cabrera, Rajai Davis and Lonnie Chisenhall are among the players who will be free agents at the end of the year.

The organization's goal is to keep winning, to buck the trend that small to mid-size market teams only have a limited shelf life to be a postseason contender. To do that takes contributions from every part of the organization. The Indians have done that for one more year.

They should take a moment and enjoy it.

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