The personality of the Cleveland Indians—the best hitting club in the major leagues since the 1950 Boston Red Sox—is such that even when someone takes note of Cleveland's arms, they're usually those of muscular leftfielder Albert Belle. He conveyed the essence of the Indians in their Division Series against Boston when he defiantly struck a Charles Atlas pose in the dugout and pointed to his right biceps after blasting a home run, all but kicking sand in the face of the Red Sox. By comparison, the Indian pitching staff, however competent, has not been nearly so compelling.
That oversight was corrected in the American League Championship Series, in which the Indians, on the strength of their pitchers—particularly those in their starting rotation—had moved to within one game of their first pennant in 41 years. Through five games, Cleveland starters were 3-1 with a 1.53 ERA while holding a hot-hitting Seattle Mariner lineup to a .191 batting average. The Mariners' potent double Martinez, Edgar and Tino, were served up extra dry, producing four hits and no RBIs in 39 combined at bats.
"We're not making a lot of mistakes," Indian pitching coach Mark Wiley said on Sunday night, after Cleveland had won 3-2 and taken a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven series. "Our pitchers are experienced guys who step up and focus for the big games. You're not talking about chumps out there."
The Indians still had to win one more game in the Kingdome, where they were expected to confront the Mariners' daunting lefthander Randy Johnson in Game 6. Seattle had won five of its last six games at home, and was 4-0 when facing elimination. Johnson won three of those four games.
Cleveland's four starters—Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Charles Nagy and Ken Hill—all have won at least 16 games in a season and feature the sort of aggressive, power-pitching style traditionally associated with the National League. Indeed, all but Nagy have won at least 70 games in the senior circuit. "What they've been able to do in this series is throw hard, with movement, to both sides of the plate," said Indian coach Buddy Bell.
Superlative outings by Hill and Hershiser in Gaines 4 and 5—they allowed one earned run between them in 13 innings—took away the momentum the Mariners had gained with a stunning 11-inning, 5-2 win in Game 3. That loss was the Tribe's first in 15 extra-inning games this year, and it came on a three-run homer by Seattle rightfielder Jay Buhner, the Mariner with the shaved head whose spiky goatee gives him the look of a Chia Pet.
Hill responded last Saturday with seven scoreless innings to put Cleveland on track to the first ALCS shutout in 10 years, a 7-0 rout. Hill's fastball was clocked at 95 mph, representing an emphatic comeback from what began as a miserable season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Hill was 2-7 with a 5.91 ERA in his 10 starts for the Cards before Cleveland obtained him on July 27 for three minor leaguers.
"We knew his mechanics needed help, but we had a 15-game lead at the time, so we had time to get him straightened out," says Cleveland general manager John Hart. "If we had been one game up, we probably would have gone for someone else." Wiley helped fix a flaw in Hill's stride that caused his right arm to drag across his body and reduce his velocity. "It took time," says Hill, who was 4-1 with Cleveland entering the postseason, "but now my confidence is sky-high."
In Game 5, Hershiser extended his October invincibility even though, at age 37 and on a blustery night, he pitched on three days rest for only the second time since undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery in 1990. Pitching six innings for the victory, Hershiser, who also won Game 2 in Seattle, improved his postseason career numbers to 7-0 with a 1.47 ERA. He popped his fastball at as much as 92 mph—he has added 4 mph in just the past two months—while getting nearly the same deadly sink to it that he had in his Cy Young season of 1988.
After leading the league in ERA for the first time since divisional play began and limiting Seattle to 12 runs in five games, the Indian staff was yearning to measure itself against the ultimate pitching yardstick: the National League champion Atlanta Braves. "They're good, but we know we can do the same kind of job," said Martinez. "If we get to play the Braves, then everyone will find out we're better than people thought."