The strange month continued when the Indians won a game over the White Sox in which they got just one hit for the first time since 1992, and appropriately, it ended in more controversy. The Tribe played its final April game under protest after the umpires awarded the Orioles with a run three frames after a contested third-inning timing play. The Indians lost their protest of the retroactive scoring change, but they closed out the month at 14-8 and were off to their best start since 1999.
Jake Westbrook, a few weeks after signing a three-year $33 million extension, headed to the disabled list with a strained rib-cage muscle that would keep him out of the rotation until late June. Yet the injury had an unexpectedly positive impact. Cliff Lee's return from the DL had bumped 23-year-old Fausto Carmona, who had pitched superbly in April, to Triple-A Buffalo. So Westbrook's misfortune allowed Carmona to return to Cleveland for good.
The Tribe's projected Opening Day roster saw a few other shifts, too. The Indians, having run out of both patience and Minor League options with the struggling Jason Davis, traded the hard-throwing right-hander to the Mariners, and Andy Marte was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo. The expected starter at third base, Marte went on the DL with a hamstring strain in April before briefly rejoining the Indians midway through May. But with Casey Blake using a solid start to entrench himself at third and Marte struggling both defensively and offensively, the Indians felt Marte would be better off playing every day in Buffalo.
The early-season flux, however, mattered little on the field. The Indians continued to roll, going 19-11 in May and establishing themselves as a clear contender in the American League Central. Never was the Tribe's early success better encapsulated than in a sweep over the defending AL champion Tigers in Detroit. From David Dellucci's game-winning eighth-inning homer one day to Carmona pitching the Tribe to a sweep the next day, the Indians' successful first half was marked by unexpected stars, late-game heroics and the dizzying ascent of Carmona from bullpen outcast to one of the game's finest starters.
The Indians put together their third straight winning month, at one point opening up a 4 1/2-game lead over the second-place Tigers. Along the way, there were some unlikely heroes, evidenced by a three-game stretch in late June. Backup catcher Kelly Shoppach, pinch-hitting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, hit a walk-off three-run homer to cap an explosive five-run ninth in the Indians' 8-5 come-from-behind victory over the A's. And two nights later, Ben Francisco hit a walk-off solo shot in the bottom of the ninth to lift the Tribe past the Devil Rays. Impressive enough, but consider that it was Francisco's first big league start and the Indians' Major League-leading 24th comeback victory, just three shy of their entire output from 2006.
Meanwhile, Cleveland's roster makeover continued. The Tribe released ineffective 41-year-old reliever Roberto Hernandez, optioned Jeremy Sowers to Triple-A Buffalo -- after he was never able to regain the form that made him so brilliant in 2006 -- and finally placing Dellucci on the 60-day DL with a strained hamstring that required surgery. Also, situational lefty reliever Aaron Fultz went on the DL with a strained rib-cage muscle, and he would never rejoin the bullpen's late-game fray, having been surpassed by rookie lefty Rafael Perez, who emerged as a brilliant third option behind closer Joe Borowski and setup man Rafael Betancourt.
Ownership offered further confirmation of its commitment to building a long-term winner when it signed Travis Hafner to a four-year $57 million extension. The move kept the man known as Pronk in town through 2012, and it left ace C.C. Sabathia as the club's only big-name player who will be a free agent after the 2008 season. A few days later, Cleveland's brass allayed any doubts of manager Eric Wedge's future by awarding him with a three-year extension.
A trio of Indians made the All-Star Game roster, and one more -- Carmona went into the break at 10-4 despite opening the year as a fill-in and spending some time in the Minors -- might have deserved to join them. Sizemore, Sabathia and Victor Martinez made the trip to San Francisco, and they did not disappoint. Sabathia tossed a scoreless inning, and Martinez hit a two-run homer that ultimately provided the winning margin for the AL over the National League.
The Tribe also added some stretch-run help by bringing back Kenny Lofton to the city that he called home during the team's 90s glory days. No. 7's return, which came by way of sending Class A catcher Max Ramirez to the Rangers, was unfamiliar in many ways, as the 40-year-old Lofton was moved to left field to platoon with Jason Michaels. But the offensive spark was still there, and Lofton showed it immediately, going 3-for-5 in a return debut.
It was a month of extremes for Cleveland. By mid-August, the Indians were playing their worst baseball of the season. They had lost 14 out of 21 games, their offense was sputtering, and, on Aug. 14, they found themselves a game behind the first-place Tigers. But a couple of weeks later, folks were again talking about the Tribe as one of baseball's best clubs. Winning 12 out of 15 games, the Indians closed the month amid an eight-game winning streak that vaulted them 5 1/2 games in front of the Tigers. Spurred in large part by the emergence of 21-year-old rookie Asdrubal Cabrera as the everyday starter at second base, the Indians' offense re-awakened to its old form. The Tribe turned its first triple play in 15 years, and the pitching staff looked to be coming together.
At month's end, Sabathia was 15-7, Carmona at 14-7 and Byrd at 13-5. And that doesn't include Westbrook, who went 4-1 with a 1.90 ERA in six August starts, and Borowski, who entered September with a league-leading 39 saves.
Champagne replaced golf clubs as playoff baseball returned to Cleveland for the first time in six years. Playing perhaps its season's finest ball in a month marked by a decisive three-game home sweep over the Tigers, the Tribe ran away with its seventh AL Central title in 13 years and its first since 2001.
Few, unlike during the 90s glory run, took it for granted. As reliever Betancourt lept into catcher Martinez's arms after recording the division-clinching out in a Sept. 23 win over the A's before a sellout crowd at The Jake, the celebration was on. And why not? Despite a number of key injuries, a small payroll, a bizarre April and playing in what many once felt to be baseball's best division, the Indians were heading to the playoffs.