The Cleveland Indians participated in a time-honored, albeit goofy, ritual throughout the regular season. The Indians would notch another win at Jacobs Field in their final at bat and the game’s hero would inevitable find himself being interviewed on live television. And while he was answering questions about his big hit, without fail one or more teammates would slam a whipped cream pie into his face. Then, when the Indians clinched the American League Central title last Sunday, there were more pies flying around their clubhouse in Jacobs Field than in a Three Stooges episode.

A tad juvenile, to be sure, but that is what stands for baseball humor, in all its glory. “It’s become a tradition,” Indians third baseman Casey Blake said with a grin. “It’s just something to keep the boys loose.”

The irony of the entire ritual is that the Indians have been anything but cream puffs this season. Despite having the first seven games of their home schedule snowed out, which resulted in make-ups galore and an unscheduled trip to Milwaukee for three “home” games, the Indians persevered and notched their first AL Central title in six years, winning a division many observers thought coming into the season could feature a four-team race among the defending AL champion Tigers, the defending division champion Twins, and a White Sox team two years removed from winning the World Series. “When you look at the talent in this division and the number of great organizations, it’s quite an accomplishment to finish on top,” Indians manger Eric Wedge said. “It’s something we’re very proud of.”

While the Indians can talk all they want about fate and momentum, there is a bigger and more tangible reason to believe they can go deep into October, according to Detroit manager Jim Leyland. “If you’re going to get far in the postseason, you’ve got to have great pitching, and Cleveland has it,” Leyland said. “They’ve got two horses at the top of the rotation, and two very good pitchers behind them. With the way the schedule is in the postseason, you can go a long way with that kind of rotation.”

the Indians are making their first postseason appearance in a half-dozen years on the strength of their pitching, as they are third in the AL in runs allowed with an average of 4.4 a game. Left-hander C.C. Sabathia and right-hander Fausto Carmona are an outstanding one-two combination, and veteran right-handers Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd provide an outstanding pair of complementary starters to round out a playoff rotation. With the Indians having clinched a playoff spot with a week left in the season, Wedge has his pitching lined up for the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, in which the Indians will have home-field advantage. Carmona leads the AL with 6.9 SNLVAR, and Sabathia is third with 6.7, while Westbrook clocks in at 3.2, and Byrd 2.5.

If the starters get the Indians deep into games, Cleveland also has an useful late-game bullpen trio in closer Joe Borowski, right-hander Rafael Betancourt, and left-hander Rafael Perez. Betancourt is second in the major leagues in WRXL with 6.734. Perez ranks 13th in the AL with 3.086 and Borowski is 19th with 2.533.

When the Indians were winning six division titles in a seven-year span from 1995-2001, they relied on a fearsome hitting attack. The lack of consistent pitching during that time is why the Indians are still seeking their first World Series title since 1948. True to form, the Indians are sixth in offense in the league by scoring just over five runs a game this year (and seventh in Equivalent Average). They’ve generated that amount of offense despite a major drop in production from DH Travis Hafner, whose VORP fell from 79.7 last season (second in the AL) to 28.1 this season, good for just 40th in the league. Hafner ranks only third in the lineup this year in Equivalent Average at .299, behind catcher Victor Martinez (.306) and center fielder Grady Sizemore (.305).

The Indians feel their offensive catalyst going into the postseason is 21-year-old rookie middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, who was called up from the minor leagues on Aug. 8 to replace struggling Josh Barfield at second base. The Indians heisted Cabrera from Seattle last season in a trade for aging platoon DH Eduardo Perez–now an ESPN analyst. “Our offense was really lethargic. We were in a rut,” Blake said. “Then, Asdrubal came up and everything changed. He has a lot of energy. He makes things happen. He just seemed to wake up the entire team.”The Indians are 41-16 since Cabrera joined them.

They are also 30-11 since Aug. 14, when Wedge questioned his team’s toughness and said the Jacobs Field fans had every reason to boo the Indians following a 6-2 loss in 10 innings to the Tigers. However, Wedge, one of the leading candidates for the AL Manger of the Year, deflects the credit to his players. “I just said some things I felt needed to be said,” Wedge said. “I don’t look at it as any monumental moment. I believe the manager’s job is to stay the hell out of the way when things are going good, and to get out in front when the team is struggling. When the team isn’t playing well, it’s my fault. That’s the way it works, that’s the way it should be. It’s the players’ game. They are the ones who do all the work. I’m just here to offer a little direction.”

The Pirates have wrapped up their 15th consecutive losing season, one short of the major league record set by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48. And Neal Huntington is sensitive to the fan anger in Pittsburgh. However, the Pirates’ new general manager vows that the time has come to turn the franchise around. Huntington, formerly a special assistant to Indians GM Mark Shapiro, was hired this week to replace Dave Littlefield, fired earlier in the month.

“I know the fans have been told many times that things are going to be different and things are going to change,” Huntington said. “But things are going to change. We are going to systematically implement changes here that are going to improve this organization and make it a winning organization again.”

The Pirates have lost at least 90 games in six of the seven seasons since moving into PNC Park. Nevertheless, Frank Coonelly, who joined the Pirates as club president earlier in the month, is convinced the Pirates can become a winning franchise again, and is just as convinced that Huntington is the man who can restore pride to an organization that has lost much of it in the last decade and a half. “Neal really has all the attributes that I was looking for in a general manager,” Coonelly said. “He doesn’t fit the mold of the ‘old-time’ general manager who makes decisions based on what he sees with his own eyes, and he doesn’t fit the mold of the ‘new-age’ general manager who makes decisions based on what the stat sheet tells him. Neal has the experience and capability of integrating both into the decision-making process. He has a lot of experience in scouting and player development. He understands how to both evaluate talent and develop it. He also understands all the statistical analysis available in today’s game and how to use those tools to help in the decision-making process. I just feel Neal has the perfect blend of abilities and experience to be a very successful general manager who is up to the challenge of making this a great organization again.”

Huntington, 37, spent the past 10 seasons with the Indians in such roles as player development director and assistant GM. Before that, he worked for the Montreal Expos for six years. His having the pedigree of working with the Indians, who have won seven American League Central titles in the last 13 years, including this season, made a strong impression on Coonelly, who also reportedly interviewed Mets VP of Player Development Tony Bernazard, Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer, Blue Jays player personnel director Tony LaCava, and the Brewers‘ special assistant to the GM and amateur scouting director, Jack Zduriencik. “The Cleveland Indians are one of the premier organizations in baseball and Neal has played an integral role in the success of that franchise,” Coonelly said. “That is certainly something that stands out about Neal.”

Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane usually has things his way. So when McLane said he wanted interim manager Cecil Cooper to have the job on a permanent basis, new Astros GM Ed Wade promptly worked out a two-year contract with a club option for 2010. It also didn’t hurt Cooper’s chances that Commissioner Bud Selig endorsed his hiring; Cooper played for Milwaukee when Selig owned the Brewers. “Drayton called the commissioner after our meeting with Cecil, and he was extremely happy that Coop was confirmed as manager,” Wade told the Houston Chronicle. “It was obvious that commissioner Selig holds Coop in very high esteem. It was a very genuine conversation.”

Cooper was promoted from bench coach Aug. 27 when Phil Garner was fired along with GM Tim Purpura. Since then, the Astros have gone 14-16 under Cooper. “I’m very confident I can do this,” Cooper said. “I’ve waited a long time for this, and I know I can do it. We’re going to get it done. We’re going to get after it. They’re going to play sound; they’re going to play aggressive. We’re going to add some speed and pitching.”

Cooper’s philosophy that speed, defense, and pitching win championships jibes with Wade’s philosophy. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of good managers in 31 years in the game, and a lot of it comes down to personality and leadership ability,” Wade said. “What I’ve seen in a very short period of time with Coop is he’s someone with high character and intelligence and is a great baseball mind.”

When last season ended, Mariners Chief Executive Officer Howard Lincoln said GM Bill Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove were on “my hot seat” going into 2007. While the Mariners contended in the American League West for a long time, a nine-game losing streak from late August to early September sent them reeling, and that has many wondering if Bavasi and manager John McLaren, promoted from bench coach July 1st when Hargrove surprisingly resigned, would survive.

They have, at least so far. Lincoln announced this past week that both men would return next season. Bavasi has a rollover clause in his contract that automatically renews each year, so he was already signed for 2008. McLaren does not have a contract beyond this season, but Lincoln said a deal would be worked out shortly.

“John McLaren stepped in, and he led the team to a winning season,” Lincoln told the Seattle Times. “He certainly has the confidence and trust and respect of our players. That’s extremely important. So I think he deserves another season. In Bill’s case, Bill has produced a winning season. That was the first challenge. He didn’t get us to the playoffs, but I think he deserves to continue on as the general manager. It’s so disruptive to an organization to change general managers. I think the decision I made last season to stick with Bill and Mike proved to be the right decision. I think the decision to remain with Bill and John will turn out to be the right decision.”

McLaren is getting his first chance to manage at the major league level, and was thrilled to find out he would continue in that job. “I think I’m the right man for the job,” McLaren said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t anxious (about my future), but I had confidence and I knew it would work out. If it didn’t, I was ready for anything.”

From the rumor mill: San Diego is considering making Atlanta center fielder Andruw Jones a one-year offer in the $15 million range as a free agent this upcoming winter. The Padres could lose center fielder Mike Cameron as a free agent, and while they do not want to commit to a long-term deal, Jones may want to spend a season rebuilding his value so he can test free agency again following the 2008 season, as he has had a miserable 2007. … Florida seems certain to finally follow through on the rumors that have been circulating for seemingly forever, and will trade left-hander Dontrelle Willis this winter, rather than go to arbitration and risk him winning a salary of $9 million or more following a poor season. … The Mets and Tom Glavine have a $13 million option for next season that he can decline but is otherwise guaranteed. The Mets may ask him to come back at a lower salary, but that could inspire Glavine to return Atlanta, particularly if the Braves would be willing to give him a one-year, $10 million contract.

Yankees manager Joe Torre had lunch with owner George Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman, but his contract status never came up. Torre’s contract expires on October 31. … Tigers manager Jim Leyland is hoping to work out a one-year extension that will keep him under contract through 2009. … The odds seem to be less than 50-50 that Huntington will retain manager Jim Tracy, who has one year left on his contract with the Pirates. If Tracy is fired, Indians third base coach Joel Skinner would figure to be a strong candidate for the job. … Contrary to some speculation, Brewers manager Ned Yost will return next season despite the Brewers blowing an 8 ½-game lead in the NL Central to finish behind the Cubs this season. … Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton‘s name gets mentioned a lot in connection with replacing Kansas City manager Buddy Bell, but many believe he will stay in Atlanta and eventually succeed Bobby Cox as manager. … Phillies GM Pat Gillick told the Philadelphia Daily News he plans to retire when his contract expires following the 2008 season, then backtracked somewhat on that statement in subsequent interviews. … Angels GM Bill Stoneman is expected to exercise the option in his contract for 2008 rather than move into an advisory capacity with the club. … Marlins pitching coach Rich Kranitz, Baseball America’s Major League Coach of the Year in 2006, left the organization this past week when the Fish only offered him a $5,000 raise; he was already the lowest-paid pitching coach in the major leagues at $110,000. Colorado scout Mark Wiley, a former Marlins pitching coach, is the favorite to replace Kranitz

Mets left fielder Moises Alou, finishing up the season strong at age 41, is leaning toward playing at least one more season. … The Braves deny that Liberty Media, their new ownership group, is going to mandate a deep cut in payroll for next season. … Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein is hugely popular with the fans in St. Louis, but will likely be allowed to leave as a free agent. Look for the Cardinals to try to get shortstop Edgar Renteria back from Atlanta in a trade. … Giants third baseman Pedro Feliz can become a free agent in November and wants a multi-year contract to stay in San Francisco despite being one of the worst offensive players in the game. … Dodgers backup catcher Mike Lieberthal is backing off his earlier stance that he will retire if his $1.5 million club option isn’t picked up for 2008.

Braves right-hander Octavio Dotel has his fastball back up to 95 mph after missing six weeks with a strained triceps, and could draw plenty of interest on the free agent market from teams looking for a closer or set-up reliever. … Right-hander Kevin Hart and outfielder Sam Fuld have been so impressive as September callups that they could land on the Cubs’ postseason roster … Rays manager Joe Maddon told third baseman Akinori Iwamura that he will spend most of his time at second base in spring training next year, which almost certainly means top prospect Evan Longoria will get first shot at manning the hot corner. … Baltimore’s offseason priority will again be fixing the bullpen despite spending $42 million on relief pitchers in the free agent market last winter. … The White Sox could be strong contenders to sign Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez, who plays both shortstop and center field. White Sox right-hander Jose Contreras, who also defected from Cuba, is pushing the club to sign Ramirez.

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