Indians spoil the big party, advance to ALCS

NEW YORK -- That archival footage of Pedro Martinez slamming Don Zimmer to the ground? Stow it. Casual references to Grady Little, Aaron Boone and Dave Roberts' pivotal stolen base in 2004? Please. All the Athens vs. Sparta comparisons will have to wait until spring training, when the hype begins anew and Red Sox-Yankees tickets are going for $150 a pop.

The Cleveland Indians didn't do much for East Coast corridor baseball mania or the suits at TBS, but they can take satisfaction in knowing they've rescued a large segment of the American baseball-viewing public from another dose of Armageddon fatigue.

The Indians, who revel in being very good and nationally underexposed, are headed to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1998. The proceedings will begin Friday night, when Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia square off at Fenway Park in a meeting of Cy Young Award candidates.

If that's only half a dream matchup from a marketing or TV executive's point of view, it's because those folks typically don't reside in Cleveland.

"I'm sure the networks wanted Red Sox and Yankees,'' said Indians outfielder Trot Nixon. "You've got two marquee teams, so many big names and big payrolls. But if you're a baseball fan, this is what it's all about. The game is decided on the field, not by all that other stuff.''

The Indians did their part to spice up the postseason with a 6-4 victory Monday night before a dispirited crowd of 56,315 in the Bronx. In the course of turning Yankee Stadium into the world's largest outdoor funeral parlor, the Tribe showed that winning in October is more about talent than experience, and that spending wisely is a heck of a lot more important than simply spending.

Proponents of a salary cap, take note: While Boston ranked second in the major leagues on Opening Day with a $143 million payroll, Cleveland was 23rd at $61 million.

In the first round of the National League playoffs, Marshalls and T.J. Maxx triumphed over Macy's and Bloomingdale's. Colorado, 25th in the major leagues with a $54 million payroll, eliminated Philadelphia, and Arizona (ranked 26th at $52 million) swept the free-spending Cubs.

The Indians eliminated the Yankees on the strength of superior pitching. They held New York's prolific lineup to a .232 batting average, and limited Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui to a combined seven hits in 43 at-bats.

The Indians also might have cost longtime Yankees manager Joe Torre a contract renewal, but that's another story altogether. Cleveland is headed to the ALCS in Boston, with Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, a pair of 19-game winners, scheduled to pitch Games 1 and 2.

The scene in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium was every bit as raucous as you'd expect, as players wrapped each other in bear hugs, sprayed each other with a variety of beverages, and even busted a dance move or two. At least, that's what we think Travis Hafner was attempting.

The celebrants included Cleveland's talented young general manager, Mark Shapiro. As the Indians watched a 6-1 lead nearly melt away in the late innings, Shapiro sat in the stands holding his little boy, who was working on a plastic batting helmet filled with ice cream. Shapiro wasn't able to exhale until Indians closer Joe Borowski whiffed Posada on a slider to end it.

"I said there was no easy path through the American League, and I believed that,'' Shapiro said. "We know what we're getting into now. We know how good the Red Sox are. We have good friends over there. But they know they're going to be in for a fight.''

Most observers believed the Indians were destined for a turnaround this season after they went 78-84 in 2006 despite scoring 88 more runs than they allowed. All it took was great starting pitching, a bullpen revamping, continued progression from the team's core of young players and a little luck.

Staying healthy was part of the equation. This year, for the second straight season, Cleveland had the fewest number of disabled-list days of any team in the majors. The Indians lost only 323 days to injury while using the DL a total of nine times.

The farm system also kept churning out talent, as Carmona, Asdrubal Cabrera, Franklin Gutierrez and Ryan Garko emerged as full-time players, and Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis arrived from the minor leagues to lay claim to important roles in the bullpen.

The Indians were 65-54 on Aug. 14 when they began a prolonged run to pull away from Detroit and seize control of the American League Central. While the Yankees and Red Sox were monopolizing the media coverage, as usual, the Indians finished the season on a 30-12 run.

Outfielder Kenny Lofton, acquired from Texas in a trade-deadline deal, also played a significant role, hitting .283 in 52 regular-season games for the Indians and going 7-for-16 in the Division Series.

Lofton, so accustomed to one-year cameos, is enjoying his third stop in Cleveland every bit as much as the previous two. The fans chant his name each time he comes to the plate, and he's feeding off their energy.

He also burns to win and seems to feel a personal obligation to bring the city its first World Series championship since 1948.

"I was around when this team started to get the winning back [in the '90s], and I'm just glad to be a part of what's going on right now,'' Lofton said. "Every time you go out in Cleveland, you see the fans cheering and doing what they have to do to help the team win. It's an unbelievable feeling to start that whole process again.''

With two elite starters in Sabathia and Carmona, the Indians had all the makings of a team ready to make noise in October. They rolled 12-3 in Game 1, beat the Yankees 2-1 in that bizarre bug game Friday, and split a pair in New York to avoid returning to Jacobs Field for a deciding Game 5 Wednesday. Nobody is questioning manager Eric Wedge for his decision to start Paul Byrd now.

While Lofton is enjoying every minute at age 40, Nixon is close behind. After signing a one-year, $3 million deal as a free agent, Nixon has seen less playing time as the season has progressed. But he makes his contribution coming off the bench, encouraging the kids and, in his words, "stirring the pot.''

"I want these guys to experience what I've been able to experience, and I want to experience it some more,'' said Nixon, a member of Boston's World Championship club in 2004. "I've always been in awe of someone like Derek Jeter, who's won so many championships.

"I want to be greedy and win as many as possible. I remind these guys that when the opportunity is there, you have to take it. It's not going to be given to you. You've got to take it.''

For the Indians, it's one opportunity down and two to go. Their days of flying under the radar are history.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.