The American League Central was supposed to be the most predictable division in baseball's new six-division alignment. The White Sox were going to win it because the Indians were a year away from being serious contenders, the Royals were only so-so, and the Twins and the Brewers were just plain bad. Well, at week's end the Central was the most intriguing division in either league.
Start with Cleveland, which hasn't finished within 10 games of first place in a full season since 1959 and has wound up closer to last place than first for the past 25 years, a major league record. Not only could both of those streaks end this year, but the Indians could also reach postseason play for the first time since '54.
The Tribe was in first place (40-25) by 3½ games through Sunday, thanks to a nine-game winning streak. Even more impressive was Cleveland's record in its new home park, Jacobs Field: With an 8-2 win over Red Sox ace Roger Clemens last Saturday, the Indians broke a club record with their 17th straight home win. Overall, Cleveland was 23-7 at Jacobs Field, including a 6-5 win over Boston on Sunday.
Six of the victories in the home-win streak came in the Indians' final at bat, including four that ended with homers. On June 16 leftfielder Albert Belle's two-run single capped a three-run ninth-inning rally that beat the Red Sox 7-6 in what was one of Cleveland's biggest wins in the last 35 years. "It felt like a playoff game," said Tribe second baseman Carlos Baerga.
"I like the way that club has been put together," Athletic manager Tony La Russa says of the Indians. The three young stars who are the Tribe's nucleus—Baerga, 25, Belle, 27, and centerfielder Kenny Lofton, 27—have become terrific players. The veteran free agents signed in the off-season—pitchers Dennis Martinez, 39, and Jack Morris, 39, and first baseman-DH Eddie Murray, 38—have brought a winner's presence. Martinez, Morris and fellow starters Mark Clark and Charles Nagy are on pace to pitch at least 200 innings each. The bench is deep and versatile. If their ragged defense doesn't drag them down and if they can pick up another lefthanded reliever, the Indians certainly could win the Central.
But what about Minnesota? The notion of the Twins' winning this division—they were in second place with a 37-29 record at week's end—still seems inconceivable, given their often horrendous pitching: a 5.76 team ERA, as well as 10 or more runs allowed in a game 11 times this season. But as La Russa points out, "When those guys get a smell [of a race], they know how to win." And no Minnesota player knows that better than rightfielder Kirby Puckett, who, at 33, is having one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career. Through Sunday he was hitting .323 with 65 RBIs.
If Puckett winds up leading the league in both hits (he had 85 at week's end, nine behind league-leader Lofton) and RBIs (he trailed the Rangers' Will Clark by two), he would become the first player to do so since Montreal's Al Oliver in 1982. Puckett is playing as hard as he ever has, and he still has a lot of fun doing so. Now it seems that many of his teammates have adopted his style of play, slashing and spraying the ball all over the park. And it has paid off. During the stretch between June 4 and June 15, which put them in contention, the Twins went 10-2, out-scored the opposition 89-48 and had five or more runs in all but two of those games.
Four of Minnesota's wins in its pivotal run came against the reeling White Sox. During a 1-9 nightmare that ended with Sunday's 7-1 win over the Angels, Chicago dropped five games behind Cleveland. Over that stretch the White Sox gave up four or more runs in the ninth innings of three games, turning leads of 6-1, 5-3 and 3-0 into losses. Closer Roberto Hernandez was blasted all three times, allowing a total of nine runs in three innings.
Hernandez's confidence plummeted when the Comiskey Park crowd booed him off the held after he was shelled by the A's in a 7-5 loss on June 15. The last Chicago closer who was booed so mercilessly, Bobby Thigpen, never recovered from it. Hernandez's stuff alone isn't good enough to overcome all the pressure—he needs that stopper's dose of confidence; so White Sox manager Gene Lamont has demoted him, at least temporarily, to middle relief. But with lefthander Scott Radinsky out for the season with Hodgkin's disease, Lamont has no other certified closer.