Some danger signs remain. The Indians are a combined 12-22 against the Yankees, the Rangers and the Chicago White Sox, all possible postseason opponents. Although the Indians have the best bullpen in the league (3.73 ERA through Sunday), closer Jose Mesa (34 saves) has not been nearly as dominant as he was last year, when he led the majors with 46 saves. Also, Julian Tavarez, who was so valuable as a setup man in '95 that he made 12 appearances in the playoffs, has been ineffective this year (4-6, 5.47) and might be left off the postseason roster.
More troubling for Cleveland is a rotation that appears to be shallow beyond Nagy and Orel Hershiser (14-8, 4.13). Martinez is out for the season because of an elbow injury, and Chad Ogea, who the Indians hope can be their third starter, has struggled (8-5, 5.08) at times. More likely, Cleveland will turn to McDowell, who threw seven shutout innings on Sept. 11, to end a streak of four horrible starts. Still, through Sunday, McDowell was 11-9 and had a career-worst 5.11 ERA. His lifetime postseason record is 0-4 with a 9.56 ERA in four games.
"The key for us," Hart says, "is Jack. Once the postseason starts, all I can do is sit back, watch and hope for the bes,t like a fan. Anything can happen once you get there, especially in the five-game [divisional] series."
The Indians would have home field advantage in all three playoff series this fall, giving them 11 of a possible 19 games at Jacobs Field. Since the park opened in 1994, they are 140-64 (.686) at home, including a staggering 113-37 (.753) when the opponent dares start a righthander.
Meanwhile, signs of the Indians' reconstruction abound at the Jake, especially in the clubhouse. Two sheets of plywood cover the damage done by Mr. Freeze's heat-seeking bat. On one of them is a crude trompe I'oeil of a thermostat with icicles hanging from the bottom. Set perpetually at 32�, it stands as an accurate measurement of the atmosphere, if not the actual air temperature, in the Cleveland clubhouse these days. Cool. Very cool.