Indians win AL Central for 1st time since '07

Tribe never lost grip after grabbing hold of division lead on June 4

September 27th, 2016

DETROIT -- threw one last strike, and then threw his arms high in the air. As the Indians' closer walked off the mound at Comerica Park on Monday night, the party began. After nine years, the wait is over. Once again, Cleveland holds the rights to the American League Central crown.

Manager Terry Francona hugged bench coach Brad Mills. Chris Antonetti, the team's president of baseball operations, turned and embraced Mike Chernoff, his general manager. , , Jose Ramirez and met in the middle of the infield, jumping together as the edges of their circle began growing into a celebratory mob with all their teammates.

"I want them to celebrate," said Francona, who escaped the champagne for a moment after Cleveland's 7-4 victory over the Tigers. "They should be so proud of what they did. We're proud of them. It's hard. There's a lot that goes into winning a division. They deserve every minute of joy they have in there."

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Celebrate, Cleveland's players did.

The cramped visitors' clubhouse at Comerica Park -- home to the four of the last five AL Central titles -- was wrapped in plastic, and the players tested the strength of the sheets. The Indians reached the postseason as a Wild Card winner in 2013, but this tasted sweeter. Not only did the Tribe clinch its first division crown since 2007, and eighth in team history, but it still has a chance to chase down the rights to home field in October.

"We've got six games left," said Lindor, as champagne dripped from his ski goggles. "We've got to go out there and try to take home-field advantage and continue to play the game the right way."

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Pitcher caught every moment of his celebration with the camera strapped atop his hat, as he snuck around the room to douse unsuspecting teammates in champagne and beer. Pitcher -- the longest-tenured player in the organization -- poured one out on Francona's bald head, while the manager tried to do a television interview.

More players then began attacking Francona with bubbly, forcing the manager to playfully erupt.

"The next person to pour [something] on me," Francona boomed, "is playing tomorrow!"

The room erupted in laughter.

Cleveland's unofficial rallying cry all season has been, "Party at Napoli's," and the burly first baseman proved to be a great host as he made his way around the room, creating much of the mist lingering in the air. When Antonetti emerged from the clubhouse, drenched from his matted black hair to his shoes, he looked around at a group of dry staffers and reporters and yelled, "Who wants a hug?"

Star outfielder , still recovering from right shoulder surgery, stood in the hallway, watching everything from afar.

"To be here," Brantley said, "to celebrate with your teammates, with all the hard work all the guys put in together as one, I don't know if there are the right words for it."

And this took so much work.

To climb to the top of the AL Central, Cleveland had to overcome the loss of Brantley, who played in only 11 games this year and unsuccessfully attempted a comeback. The Indians had to withstand the suspensions of outfielders and . The team had to weather ' offensive struggles, which preceded a series of injuries that robbed the Tribe of its starting catcher for the second half.

On the pitching front, Cleveland has been dealing with the losses of right-handers (broken hand) and (right forearm). Then, during Monday's win, ace exited with tightness in his right groin as a precaution after four innings. The bullpen logged five innings after his departure, while and delivered critical home runs.

"That's our M.O. We all pitched in," said Kipnis, who was then drenched from behind by Perez. "Everybody contributing, everybody hands on deck. That's the way we needed to win games, and you saw that tonight."

After Cleveland reached first place on June 4, the team never let go. The Indians have owned the AL Central for 115 days and counting.

"It's been really incredible," Antonetti said, "to watch the way our players, Tito, the coaching staff have come together and overcome a lot of challenges over the course of the year. To be here celebrating in the end, it's pretty fun."

Sandy Alomar Jr. was a part of a run of great Indians teams in the 1990s, when Cleveland won the bulk of its division crowns, and now he has watched this group as the Tribe's first-base coach. Given all the issues that have been thrown at the Indians this year, he has been blown away by the players' resiliency.

"It's been very interesting watching this group of guys fight," Alomar said. "The fact that they have overcome all these obstacles has been remarkable, because we went through a tough schedule and put in some good winning streaks. Everyone here is as important as the guy next to him. That's what makes this team so special."

The Indians do not want Monday's party to be their last, though.

"The champagne smells familiar," Indians owner Paul Dolan said. "It never grows old.

"We've done it before. We just want to get a little further on in the process now."

Now, Cleveland will watch the scoreboard over the next six days, while jockeying for position with the Red Sox and Rangers in the fight for home field. When Spring Training began, winning the division was not the only goal. The goal from the start was to bring home the first World Series title for the Indians since 1948.

"We were so certain that it was our year, that it was our turn," Kipnis said. "I don't think you could convince us otherwise. As soon as we got a hold of first place, you probably saw the tightest grip on it ever. We never let go of it. That's how much this team competed. That's how much this team wanted it."