Near-perfect hosts, Indians wipe up foes in new home CLEVELAND: Still not a nice place to visit

June 12, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Cleveland -- The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at Jacobs Field -- even before the barrage of home runs -- is the way the once-pitiable Cleveland Indians and their environs have been transformed.

In less than the playing time it normally takes to complete one full season, they have gone from divisional doormat to developing superpower, and have reawakened one of America's great sports towns in the process.

Two years ago, the Indians were still in their 40-year slump and cavernous Cleveland Stadium felt like the world's largest open-air mausoleum. Opposing teams couldn't stand to play here.

Now, the Indians may be the best team in baseball, and Jacobs Field is one of the game's new-age shrines. Opposing teams still hate to play here, but for very different reasons.

If you're the Orioles, you certainly can't be looking forward to the three-game series that begins tonight. Not if you were hoping to turn around a slow start. Not if you want to pick up some ground on the division-leading Boston Red Sox. Not if you know what's good for you.

The doormat is gone, and the welcome mat is out. Abandon hope all ye who enter the Gateway Sports Complex.

The Indians have been all but unbeatable here. They have a 15-4 home record and won nine of 10 games on their most recent homestand. They've been particularly tough in the late innings, taking seven of those 15 home victories in their final at-bat.

"We're going to lose ballgames," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove, "but I have never seen this team ever quit, and there have been a lot of times when they could have. We believe in ourselves."

Perhaps there was some skepticism in the stands, which are full of fans who have been waiting for a winner since 1954, but even that may have dissipated during that last homestand, when the Indians staged an unbelievable comeback against the Toronto Blue Jays and scored several other dramatic victories.

The Indians were down 8-0 with Toronto ace David Cone on the mound June 4, but they rallied to run Cone out of the game and won on a two-run homer by first baseman Paul Sorrento in the ninth. Then they celebrated by sweeping a three-game series with the Detroit Tigers to close out one of the best homestands in club history.

Dominance? The Indians have won 13 of their past 15 games to turn the American League Central into a one-team sprint. Drama? They have won four of their past eight games in their final at-bat, including back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday in which third baseman Jim Thome put them over the top with dramatic home runs. Home-field advantage? In their 70 home games since moving into the new ballpark, they are 50-20 and have scored the winning run in their final at-bat 19 times.

"It's like it used to be with the Blue Jays and Orioles," said former Orioles reliever Jim Poole, who landed on his feet in the Cleveland bullpen after finding he no longer was needed in Baltimore. "There was a time when you just knew that the Blue Jays were going to win in the final inning. They had done it so many times. That's the way it is getting here. You can never just throw your bats out there and win, but this team is as close to that as you're going to get."

How can they miss? There is no letup in their lineup, from leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton (.335) to Carlos Baerga (.335) to 1994 MVP candidate Albert Belle (.311) to Eddie Murray (.331) to young, dangerous Manny Ramirez, who is among the league leaders in all three Triple Crown categories.

Newcomer Orel Hershiser, who has made a pretty solid contribution himself since signing with the Indians as a free agent this spring, seemed taken aback when he was asked whether this is the best offensive team he ever has pitched on.

"No, it's the best offensive team I've ever seen," said Hershiser, who has taken advantage of strong offensive support to win five of his first seven AL decisions. "That's not a bold statement. They have proven it statistically. I'm not going out on a limb on this."

The Indians are batting .294 as a team after yesterday's 19-hit performance, and that's significantly down from earlier in the season. They are scoring 6.0 runs per game, but the fact that they have scored only about four a game during their current hot streak actually is a positive sign. They aren't just a one-dimensional team. Far from it.

"People think that our hitting has carried us," said Thome, a relatively unheralded young player who is batting .311 with 12 home runs, "but our bullpen has done an outstanding job and our starters have done great. We wouldn't be winning games in the ninth inning if they hadn't done a great job."

The other thing that strikes you when you arrive at Jacobs Field is how familiar everybody looks. Murray is at first base. Dennis Martinez is the ace of the starting rotation. Poole is the setup man. Jose Mesa is the closer. All former Orioles. All playing key roles. All doing well.

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