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DEFENSE, DESTINY CONTINUE TO SPARK INDIANS' QUEST

For the record, today's is Michael Dudley Hargrove's birthday. Let's all congratulate the Indians manager for making it to this point with his baseball team still alive.

It's enough to make you wonder, enough to get you thinking about the "d" word. You know, destiny.

Cleveland wasn't expected to do much in this postseason. The Indians won 86 games. They were dismissed as a long shot. But since then, they've proven to be a resilient foe, a team that refuses to go away.

They were four outs from elimination in the fourth game against the Yankees and wriggled off the hook. They were four outs away from being down, 2-0, against the Orioles and rallied.

And Saturday night, they were one game from World Series elimination against Florida ace Kevin Brown, who has the lowest earned-run average (2.24) of any big-league starter over the last two seasons.

This time, you figured, the Indians were finally done. On Friday, the Marlins announced plans for a victory parade. A Miami columnist referred to them as "your World Series champions."

Evidently, the Indians had the Marlins right where they wanted them. Once again, they were at their best when the circumstances seemed grimmest, beating the Marlins, 4-1, to force a seventh game tonight at Pro Player Stadium.

"We have a club that a lot of people wrote off a couple of times, in some cases rightfully," Hargrove said. "But these guys are good people. They've got talent, they believe in themselves, and they've got a lot of heart."

They treated Brown like some shabby middle reliever, reaching him for four runs in five innings. They got another solid outing from Chad Ogea, who helped himself in improbable fashion with two hits (his first since high school) and two RBIs.

In the end, though, it was that other "d" word that carried the Indians through. Defense. You can talk all you want about destiny and fate. It makes for a compelling story line.

But behind every tale of sporting destiny, you'll find a team making all the right plays. The main reason the Indians have advanced this far is they can flat-out play the game -- especially with their gloves.

Defense was one of the big reasons to favor Cleveland in this series. They can put five Gold Gloves on the field at any time, including the four positions up the middle.

At some point, you figured the Indians' defensive superiority would show. But the defense went to pieces in the 14-11 game, and the other games were too one-sided for it to express itself.

That changed Saturday. The Indians were brilliant in the field from the first inning to the last. With each big play by the defense, you could sense the momentum shifting in the series.

"The defense played wonderfully behind me," said Ogea, who won his second game and established himself as an MVP candidate. "Those guys played great."

Right fielder Manny Ramirez ran into the bullpen fence to snare Edgar Renteria's foul fly in the first. Center fielder Marquis Grissom resurrected memories of Willie Mays in the second, racing back to the deepest part of the park to make over-the-shoulder basket catch on Jeff Conine.

Left fielder David Justice made a fine sliding catch on Conine in the fourth. Tony Fernandez, inserted at second base when Bip Roberts left with the flu, made a couple of solid plays on slowly hit groundballs.

The best and most vital play of all, however, came from Omar Vizquel, the best shortstop in baseball. With runners and second and third in the sixth, Vizquel dove in the shortstop hole to stab Charles Johnson's grounder, bounced up and threw him out by a step.

It was the sort of play they show on film years from now, a Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles kind of play. Vizquel makes those plays routinely during the year, but the Marlins hadn't tested him much to that point in the series.

"I was getting a drink when the ball was hit," Hargrove said. "I looked up just in time to see him dive and make the play. I almost choked. Nothing Omar does with the glove surprises me."

Vizquel said he's still capable of plays that surprise himself, but the play on Johnson wasn't one of them.

"What I did tonight didn't surprise me," he said. "That play, I've done before. But it was the most important play I've ever made, because of the situation."

Vizquel said he might not have thrown to first if a decent runner had hit the ball. But knowing it was Johnson, a notoriously slow runner, he realized he had a good shot to bounce up and throw him out.

It's the alert kind of play that great defenders make, and the Indians make a lot of them. The Marlins, on the other hand, showed they're not in Cleveland's league with the gloves.

Bobby Bonilla butchered a ball at third base to start Cleveland's first rally. Sheffield made a high throw to the plate in the same inning. Brown failed to hold Vizquel, who made him pay by stealing third and scoring on a sacrifice fly.

"It's not just who pitches and hits the best," Vizquel said. "The team that wins is the one that plays the best baseball.

"We've been in this situation before, falling behind in the series and now it's tied up," he said. "They're the ones with the pressure on them now, because they're in their own park."

Vizquel said he was encouraged by how relaxed his teammates were before Saturday's game. When he saw them goofing around, he knew they were loose.

Maybe today they can even throw a party for their manager. Hargrove turns 48 today. Cleveland has a chance to win its first championship since '48.

But I wouldn't read too much into it.

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