Barring an epic collapse, the Indians were just about a shoo-in to win their third straight American League Central Division title anyway. But no one could have envisioned the kind of clincher that took place Tuesday night at Jacobs Field.
The Tribe roared back to stun the New York Yankees, 10-9, by scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Jeff Nelson after two men were out. The rally capped a stirring comeback from a 9-2 deficit in the final four innings.
David Justice's single up the middle on an 0-2 pitch scored Bip Roberts to tie the game, 9-9. Sandy Alomar then blooped another Nelson delivery up the middle to knock in Matt Williams and send a crowd of 43,039 into delirium.
But wait. Minnesota had to hold its lead over second-place Chicago for the division to be wrapped up. The wait was 25 minutes for Minnesota's Rick Aguilera to record the final out, cementing the Twins' 5-3 victory and thus eliminating the White Sox.
The game was being shown on the stadium video board and, of course, in the clubhouse. When it ended, bedlam broke out all over the Jake. (Ex-Indian Albert Belle's strikeout for the second out of the ninth prompted hoots and howls in the Cleveland clubhouse).
The standard champagne shower took place in the clubhouse, and several players eventually came back to the field to salute the diehards in the crowd.
Roberts popped up on the dugout roof to slap hands with the faithful. Someone found a microphone and suddenly Jim Thome was hosting a late-night talk show, with Omar Vizquel, Jaret Wright, Brian Anderson and Justice among those taking turns pumping the crowd.
They were celebrating a comeback that was highly improbable because the Indians were 0-62 this year when trailing after eight innings.
It was the kind of turnaround the Indians made commonplace in their 100-44 blitz of the American League two years ago, when they eventually lost the World Series to Atlanta on Justice's Game Six home run.
"It was awesome," said Justice, celebrating his first postseason berth with his new team. "It was great for our fans. You would have thought we won the World Series already. You play for nights like this."
It was also nice to send a message to the Yankees, who are Cleveland's likely opponent when the Division Series opens next Tuesday in New York.
"It's special because they are the World Series champions," said Vizquel. "If we want to be, they're the first team we have to beat."
The fans were roaring when Roberts led off the ninth with a walk. Vizquel sacrificed him to second, but Manny Ramirez struck out and the Indians were down to their last out.
Nelson never got it.
"We kept battling for a full nine innings," Justice said. "I hope we remember that in the playoffs.
"We have to win games any way we can," said Alomar, whose magical season has included a 30-game hitting streak and the game-winning home run in the All-Star Game played here in July. "We can't think about players we lost for whatever reason because that's how you get frustrated. You have to think about how the players here can help you win.
"That's the bottom line and that's what makes this a great win."
Just 9-24 against New York the last three years, the Indians are 5-4 against the Yankees this year. New York built its 9-2 lead with seven runs off starter Charles Nagy, two on Tino Martinez's 44th home run of the season.
The Indians got four back off starter Kenny Rogers in the sixth, the last two on Tony Fernandez's two-run laser into the left-field bleachers.
Out went Rogers and in came Hideki Irabu, who fanned three of the first four men he faced before Justice sent a majestic home run into the right-field seats with one out in the eighth to make it 9-7. Alomar, who finished 3 for 5 with four RBIs, then doubled to finish Irabu and bring on Mike Stanton.
After pinch-hitter Thome grounded out, Fernandez pulled an RBI single through the right side of the infield to cut the deficit to a run and set the stage for the ninth.
"Winning means everything," Alomar said. "It's the first time we came back like this. We had done it so much in '95 and the fans were asking us for it and we did it."