The Indians have spent the last three days begging anyone who would listen not to make a big deal out of this series with the New York Yankees. The party line was that it was merely a tuneup for the postseason, not a time for sending messages.
But, oh, how the tune changed after Saturday's 5-4 Cleveland victory before 43,022 at Jacobs Field.
Starting pitcher Charles Nagy sure took it seriously, working into the seventh inning after a disastrous start that saw him allow three home runs to the first seven New York hitters. Nagy even drilled Derek Jeter in the hip leading off the fifth after Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel was nailed in the wrist by New York's Orlando Hernandez the previous inning.
Tribe manager Mike Hargrove also admitted there was more at stake in this game, which began with the teams tied for the best record in the American League. Cleveland entered it with a four-game losing streak while the Yankees had won four straight.
"We're all professionals here and I don't want anyone to get the idea we didn't think these games were important," Hargrove said. "But winning is what makes it fun. It was important to beat the Yankees just to get the smiles back on everybody's faces."
"Had we lost this game and the one tomorrow, would it have been a disaster going into the postseason? I don't think so. The Yankees got swept by Boston last week and they're playing pretty good baseball right now."
The Yankees had defeated the Indians five straight times and scored 18 runs in winning the first two games of this series. And for the third straight day, they scored twice in the first, the damage coming this time on back-to-back home runs by Jeter and Paul O'Neill.
That quick strike finally woke the Indians out of their slumber, as they roared back with three runs in the bottom of the first off Hernandez (16-9) to take their first lead of the series. RBI doubles by Roberto Alomar and Jim Thome and a sacrifice fly by Richie Sexson did the damage.
"That was huge," Nagy said. "To come back like that by getting a couple guys on and scoring some runs let everybody know we were here to play."
The Yankees tied the score, 3-3, on Ricky Ledee's homer in the second, but Cleveland came right back in the bottom of the inning on an Alomar sacrifice fly to regain the lead, 4-3.
Ledee's blast to right had Hargrove pondering a call to his bullpen to find some relief for Nagy.
"After the third home run, I started to think, 'This just may not be his day,' " Hargrove admitted.
"When you give up a couple of home runs, you can either fold up the tent and feel sorry for yourself or just bear down and make your pitches," Nagy said. "I tried to do that."
Nagy shut out the Yankees over his final 5 1/3 innings to improve to 17-9. Nagy and Atlanta's Greg Maddux are the only pitchers in the majors to win at least 15 games each of the last five years and Nagy has two more starts to break his career high of 17 wins, set in 1992 and equaled in 1996.
Cleveland took a 5-3 lead on a sacrifice fly by Enrique Wilson, who was in for Vizquel. The Yankees got one run back in the ninth on Chuck Knoblauch's RBI double. Wilson prevented the tying run from scoring by keeping Jeter's grounder to deep short in the infield to hold Knoblauch at third.
Mike Jackson then struck out O'Neill to end the game and earn his 37th save. O'Neill entered the at-bat 7 for 15 in the series and has homered in all three games.
"To say that last at-bat was nerve-wracking would be an understatement," Hargrove said.
Vizquel is listed as day-to-day with a bruised wrist after he was drilled by Hernandez while trying to bunt. Most Indians felt it was clearly intentional.
"Omar tried to bunt twice and I don't think he liked that," Wilson said. "Those things happen but we just have to hit somebody back. No way we want to lose a player like that."
Nagy responded quickly, coming inside on the first pitch of the fifth to Jeter and plunking him with the second.
"It's part of the game," was the cryptic response from Nagy, who offered no further thoughts on the subject.
He didn't really need to say much more. His actions made his statement. That's how the Indians wanted things Saturday.