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First Step Complete, Indians Look To World Series

September 18, 1996

CLEVELAND (AP) _ Though it wasn’t as easy as last year, the Cleveland Indians hope their second straight AL Central title leads them to the World Series again _ this time with different results.

The Indians clinched the AL Central Tuesday night with a 9-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox. Last year, they finished 100-44 and won the division by a major league record 30 games. But they lost to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.

As soon as the first bottle of champagne was flowing Tuesday night, the defending AL champions were talking about what’s next.

``Right now these guys are happy, obviously,″ manager Mike Hargrove said on local television as he squinted through champagne-soaked eyes. ``But there’s a feeling that this is just the first step, and that’s good to see.″

The Indians made quick work of the second-place White Sox by winning the first two games of this series in Chicago. These last two weeks, when Cleveland has won 10 of 12, have provided some of the rare moments this season when things have been easy for the Indians.

After taking charge of the Central race with a 31-9 streak in April and May, Cleveland suffered through an 18-21 slump from May 27 to July 6. Julio Franco was sidelined with a pulled hamstring and free-agent signee Jack McDowell couldn’t make that split-fingered pitch dive anymore. Albert Belle was embroiled in yet another series of controversies.

Then came ``The Trade.″

The Indians sent Carlos Baerga to the New York Mets on July 29. The city was in an uproar. How could they get rid of the most popular player on the team?

Cleveland got Jose Vizcaino, a much better defensive second baseman than Baerga, and Jeff Kent, who struggled at first but seems to be a smart addition to the Indians bench.

General manager John Hart wasn’t finished. He dealt Eddie Murray to the Baltimore Orioles for Kent Mercker. Hours before the trade deadline, Hart sent Jeromy Burnitz to the Milwaukee Brewers for Kevin Seitzer.

The prevailing opinion around town was: Hart had better hope this tinkering works.

So far, so good.

Seitzer, who is going to the postseason for the first time in his nine-year career, has hit .388 in the No. 2 spot behind Kenny Lofton. Appropriately, Seitzer hit a grand slam in the clinching game in this season of controversial changes.

``It’s awesome. It’s a great feeling,″ said Seitzer, who was telling his wife one night how Cleveland’s magic number kept shrinking.

``Magic number?″ Lisa Seitzer said, a stupefied look on her face. ``What’s that?″

Though the Indians are 11-4 since adding Seitzer to the lineup, their winning percentage actually is a little worse since the Baerga trade. Through July 28, Cleveland was 64-41 (.610). Since the trade, the Indians are 27-18 (.600).

Yes, the Indians were the first team to clinch their division, and, yes, they have the best record in the majors at 91-59. But there is more work to be done.

Cleveland has regained some of the swagger of 1995 in this recent streak, but much of it has come against some iffy competition _ teams like Detroit, Milwaukee, California and Oakland. And the Indians have been shaky at best against the teams they are likely to face in the playoffs: Baltimore (7-5), Texas (4-8) and New York (3-9).

With ace Charles Nagy scheduled to pitch the first game of the playoffs, Seitzer hopes there are a few more magic numbers left.

``I just want him to win games 1, 4 and 7 of the World Series,″ Seitzer said, ``and I’ll give him a big hug.″

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