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GOODEN MAKES STRONG PITCH FOR SPOT IN PLAYOFF ROTATION

Yankees manager Joe Torre now knows for sure his club will meet the Cleveland Indians when the playoffs open Tuesday night. Torre doesn't know if Dwight Gooden will be on the mound for any of those games, but he got plenty of food for thought Wednesday at Jacobs Field.

Gooden pitched seven strong innings to extend his mastery of the Tribe as the Yankees rolled to an 8-4 victory.

The victory was the Yankees' 92nd of the season, equaling the total of last year's World Series champions. That figure, however, wasn't good enough to repeat as American League East champions because Baltimore clinched its wire-to-wire run to the title with Wednesday's 9-3 win in Toronto.

The Indians-Yanks dress rehearsal concludes tonight at 7, with Cleveland's Orel Hershiser pitching against New York's David Cone in a matchup of the expected starters for Game One of the Division Series Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. It's expected to be Charles Nagy vs. Andy Pettitte in Game Two, with Jaret Wright going for Cleveland in Game Three.

The Yankees, meanwhile, still have to choose between Gooden (9-5) and David Wells (15-10) for that one. It will be a tough call, especially since Gooden is 3-0, with a 2.25 earned-run average against the Tribe this season and is 5-0, 2.88 in his career.

"He kept himself out of pitch-count trouble (throwing just 88 in his seven innings) and his stuff looked good," Torre said. "He didn't do anything to hurt himself. If anything, he enhanced his chances."

Gooden, who is 4-1 with three no-decisions in his last eight starts, was particularly pleased with the fact he didn't walk any batters. His pitch count was his lowest of the season for an outing of at least seven innings.

"I'm very happy with that," Gooden said. "It's been a long time (16 appearances) since I won a game without any walks. I'm probably more impressed with that than with anything else."

"He's trusting his stuff a lot better," Torre said. "I like what I see. I'm not sitting on the edge of my seat when you have to think about pitching behind in the count all the time."

Gooden held Cleveland to two hits over the first four innings. After giving up the Indians' fourth run in the sixth, he rebounded to retire his final six batters.

"I've just been trying to be as consistent as I can to make the (playoff) roster," Gooden said. "I just want to be better than my last start. I feel like I'm finding a rhythm and will have a chance to build on it."

After their wild 10-9 victory Tuesday wrapped up their third straight AL Central title, the Indians were in post-clinching mode Wednesday. Three of their four pitchers were in Buffalo this season and seven of the 14 position players who saw action also spent time at North AmeriCare Park.

Regulars given the night off were third baseman Matt Williams, shortstop Omar Vizquel, second baseman Tony Fernandez and center fielder Marquis Grissom. Bip Roberts left after one inning with mild back stiffness, while Jim Thome and Sandy Alomar were both lifted after five.

Jeff Manto led the Cleveland offense with a solo home run and two-run double. He had been just 3 for 16 with two RBIs since joining the Tribe July 31 after smacking 20 homers in 54 games for the Bisons. Shortstop Enrique Wilson made his first big-league appearance and collected his first hit, a single in the fifth.

All the backups didn't dull Gooden's performance in Torre's mind: "He still had some bangers in there to get out," Torre noted. "Getting Jim Thome and David Justice (who were a combined 0 for 5) was a good test for him."

Lefty Brian Anderson (4-2) started for the Tribe and may have killed his chances of making the Indians' post-season roster. With John Smiley out with a broken arm, Anderson gave Cleveland another left-handed option for a possible Game Four starter or long reliever.

But the Yankees rocked Anderson in a four-run first started by Derek Jeter's solo home run. They knocked him out with a three-run third that featured a triple by Chad Curtis, a two-run homer by catcher Jorge Posada and a solo shot by Tim Raines that made the score 7-1.

During the Indians' celebration Tuesday, Anderson grabbed a microphone and joked not expect too much from him the next night after the big party. It turns out he wasn't kidding.

"That was way too much prophecy there," he said. "What an idiot thing it was to say. I was just kidding but it really came back and bit me on the butt."

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