MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The final out had just been recorded and the Cleveland Indians swarmed together on the infield in jubilation to kick off the celebration of a stunning September surge into the postseason.
Terry Francona and the Indians' coaching staff stepped out of the dugout, gathered on the grass behind the third base line, stood there and watched. Francona has been a part of a lot of celebrations in his baseball career, and this is always his favorite part.
``It's like the culmination of everything that you've gone through, all the ups and downs, and you see guys from different countries, different upbringings and they're jumping on the pile, it's just pure joy,'' the first-year Indians manager said after a 5-1 victory over Minnesota clinched the top wild card spot. ``And it makes you feel good.''
Once all but eliminated after a late-August swoon, the Indians finished the regular season on a 10-game winning streak to earn their first postseason berth since 2007. And they go into the wild card game on Wednesday night at Progressive Field brimming with confidence.
The Indians went 21-6 in September - the best record in the majors - and are the first team to win its last 10 games since the 1971 Baltimore Orioles won their final 11. The pitching staff has been one of the best in the big leagues since the All-Star break and the offense has provided just the right amount of magic at the most opportune times to capitalize on a soft schedule.
Sure, the Tribe racked up those last 10 wins against the three worst teams in the AL - the Astros, White Sox and Twins. But they weren't about to apologize. It's been too long since there's been a winner in Cleveland, and they blew off some steam in the Target Field clubhouse. Champagne was spraying, goggles were donned and Nick Swisher turned the plastic-draped floor into a beer-filled slip and slide.
``It's time to party!'' hollered Swisher, whose two-run homer in the first inning got the Indians rolling.
And while Francona and the coaching staff sat back and let the players have their moment on the field, they happily got right into the middle of the celebration backstage. The manager, who saw a celebrated run in Boston end on a sour note in 2011, doused players and GM Chris Antonetti with bubbly and gave out hugs to anyone who came within arm's length.
``It's a testament to these guys and the way they've played,'' Antonetti said. ``To go out and win 10 in a row, we needed every one of them. It'll be fun to come back to Cleveland and play some games.''
The Indians entered the season finale clinging to a one-game lead over Tampa Bay and Texas. If the Indians had lost Sunday and the Rays and Rangers won, two days of tiebreaker games would have been needed to determine the wild cards.
It turns out the Indians really did need to win, because the Rangers and Rays were victorious as well and will play a tiebreaker on Monday. The winner will head to Cleveland for the wild card game on Wednesday night.
``Whoever we play, both teams are going to go at it because if you lose you go home,'' Francona said. ``It'll be exciting to be a part of that. We're honored to be a part of that.''
It's been a remarkable turnaround for these Indians. Cleveland lost at least 93 games in three of the previous four seasons. But the Indians increased their wins total by 24 games this year to catapult back into the playoffs.
Now maybe the hometown fans will start taking notice. Attendance at Progressive Field was the second-lowest in the AL, behind only perennially empty Tropicana Field in Tampa. But word was that the Indians had already sold more than 35,000 tickets for the wild card game as of early Sunday, making a sellout increasingly possible.
``The way we've been playing as of late, talk about starting pitching, talk about clutch hitting from our guys,'' a goggled Swisher hollered amid the celebration. ``I'm telling you, we're bringing that wild card game back to the 216 and that place is going to be packed out and rockin', baby!''
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