CLEVELAND (AP) — The pregame ceremony was brief, appropriate for the occasion. The Cleveland Indians are planning much bigger parties.
On Sunday, the team that couldn’t lose for a few weeks raised a red flag to commemorate winning their second straight AL Central title, one of their goals at the start of 2016.
Later, the Indians will spray champagne — win or lose — after they wrap up a series with Kansas City and cap a thrilling week in which they ran off baseball’s longest winning streak in 101 years.
And while there’s plenty to celebrate, the Indians, who went to the limit in last year’s World Series before losing to the Chicago Cubs and overcame injuries and other obstacles this season, won’t be satisfied with runner-up status.
They want to win it all.
“It means a lot,” All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “It shows what the guys are made of. It shows that no matter how the season went in the beginning, it doesn’t matter.
“It’s still not done.”
Cleveland clinched the division crown on Saturday night when second-place Minnesota lost to Toronto. When the championship became official at around 10 p.m., the clubhouse was empty as the Indians had left Progressive Field hours earlier following an 8-4 win over Kansas City. Most of the Indians kept tabs on the Twins’ loss from home.
Before Sunday’s game, manager Terry Francona addressed the sellout crowd on a warm, sunny day as the Indians gathered in front of their dugout to watch as a symbol of their accomplishment was hoisted beyond the center-field wall.
The Indians didn’t get to celebrate anything at home last year, winning the division in Detroit, a playoff series in Boston and the pennant in Toronto.
Francona was thrilled the Indians could share the moment with their fans.
“They’re loud. They’re passionate,” he said. “I think it’s an easy team to like. I think some teams are probably more likable than others. It’s probably just human nature. This is an easy team to like and get behind. But our fans have really come through. I’m glad we’re able to share that. It’ll be very memorable for everybody.”
The standings show the Indians ran away with their division.
It was anything but a cakewalk.
Much like last year’s postseason, when Cleveland made it to Game 7 of the Series despite missing two starting pitchers and All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, they were forced to overcome adversity from the outset. Injuries started in spring training and piled up. Even Francona was out for an extended period to have surgery to fix an irregular heartbeat.
Still, the Indians persevered. They started slowly, muddling around .500 for almost three months before moving to first place on June 26. Following the All-Star break, Cleveland went 1-5 on a West Coast trip before ripping off nine straight wins.
They barely looked back.
“In a way when we come across those types of things, injuries, Tito’s scare, not that it doesn’t affect us and we don’t care about it, but we just brush it off and move on,” ace Corey Kluber said. “It’s just the mentality that started with the way things went last year and developed throughout the postseason with the different adversity we went through.
“And to be able to still go out there and get the job done just kind of carried over I guess.”
Kluber has anchored the league’s deepest starting rotation, putting together another season that could land him a second Cy Young Award. Carlos Carrasco bounced back and has won 16 games after missing the 2016 postseason and Trevor Bauer finally matched his talent and potential to become a dependable No. 3 starter. Mike Clevinger has reached double figures in wins and Josh Tomlin, the longest tenured player on Cleveland’s roster, has been solid and a role model for young players to follow.
Two of them — Lindor and second baseman Jose Ramirez — have become MVP candidates and given Cleveland a dynamic infield duo as good as any in baseball.
Lindor seems to make a sparkling defensive play every game and Ramirez, who slid over from third to second when Jason Kipnis got hurt, is a one-man offensive juggernaut, leading the league in extra-base hits and ranking in the top five in runs, hits, average and slugging percentage.
The Indians rode the momentum of coming so close to winning their first World Series title since 1948 into the offseason. They signed free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion to the largest contract in club history, a three-year, $60 million deal that cemented them as favorites.
And when Brantley went down with an ankle injury in August, the club pulled off another shocker by acquiring All-Star outfielder Jay Bruce in a trade with the New York Mets. Bruce, who is in his final season under contract, knew he was joining a special group.
“This team has been a really, really high-quality, well-rounded, super-competitive team for going on two full years,” he said. “I think it took a strong year last year for people to really to start to believe, but it’s pretty obvious now — we’re one of the forces in the league.”