Rafael Betancourt struck out three of the last four batters to preserve Cleveland’s 6-2 victory over Oakland that clinched the Indians’ seventh Central Division title, and first since 2001.
Rafael Betancourt didn’t put a tremendous amount of mental energy into the finest moment of his professional baseball career.
“I was just out there throwing (the) ball as hard as I can,” Betancourt said with a smile Sunday afternoon.
Minutes earlier, he had struck out three of the last four batters to preserve Cleveland’s 6-2 victory over Oakland that clinched the Indians’ seventh Central Division title, and first since 2001.
The 32-year-old right-hander has been one of baseball’s most effective relief pitchers all season.
Perhaps no one appreciated the chaotic scene inside the champagne-soaked clubhouse Sunday more, because perhaps no one had traveled a more difficult road to get there.
Betancourt was signed by Boston as an infielder in 1994, changed to pitching in 1997, spent 2000 in Japan, missed all of the 2002 season after elbow surgery, then finally found a permanent home in Cleveland in 2003.
“I watched a lot of these (celebrations) on TV,” Betancourt said. “I was hoping to be part of one. Look at everything that’s happened to me, and to this team.”
Most of what happened to the Indians on Sunday happened before Betancourt took the mound.
The Indians seized an early 6-0 lead against A’s starter Dallas Braden (1-8). The score was 2-0 entering the fourth inning, when Braden was pounded for five hits in a six-batter span.
Casey Blake, hitting .186 with runners in scoring position at the time, improved that statistic a bit with a two-run double that landed at the base of the left-center field wall. Grady Sizemore followed with an RBI triple up the right-field line, then scored when Asdrubal Cabrera steered a hit into left field.
Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook (6-9) was charged with two runs over seven innings, both scoring on Daric Barton’s two-out home run in the sixth. Westbrook struck out a career-high nine batters and allowed only one to reach scoring position.
“That’s how I need to do it every time out,” said Westbrook, who won for the first time since Aug. 28. “I wanted to be out there today.”
The Indians needed Betancourt to be out there in the eighth inning after the A’s put the tying run on deck via a pair of two-out hits off Rafael Perez. Betancourt terminated that threat by striking out Nick Swisher on a full-count pitch, and then sailed through a perfect ninth to earn his second save.
When Mark Ellis swung and missed to end the game, Betancourt jumped around between the mound and home plate, then suddenly found himself holding catcher Victor Martinez in his arms.
“It was great to celebrate with my friend,” Betancourt said. “I don’t know what we said. We just started yelling.”
Coming up: The Indians are idle today, then travel to Seattle for four games in three days beginning Tuesday.
Matching up: The Indians have juggled their rotation for the Seattle series. The new pitching matchups – Tuesday: Felix Hernandez vs. Aaron Laffey; Wednesday: Ryan Feierabend and Jarrod Washburn vs. Jeremy Sowers and Fausto Carmona; Thursday: Cha Seung Baek vs. Paul Byrd. Cleveland’s starters for the final series in Kansas City will be C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and a pitcher to be determined.
Pack ’em in: The crowd for Sunday’s finale was 40,250, bringing the season total to 2,225,232 for 77 home dates. The final home average of 28,899 will rank somewhere in the middle of the American League. The Indians sold out 11 games.
Zero Hero: Cliff Lee’s two scoreless innings of relief Saturday marked his first scoreless outing since shutting out Detroit for eight innings Sept. 6, 2005.
Return of Grover: Former Indians Manager Mike Hargrove has joined the staff for the 2008 fantasy camp in Winter Haven, Fla. The camp will take place Jan. 26 through Feb. 2.
Reach Repository sports writer Andy Call at (330) 580-8346 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.