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Must C Clinch: Indians punch ticket to postseason

MINNEAPOLIS -- Terry Francona wanted to soak it all in for a moment. The Indians' manager waited in the dugout on Sunday afternoon as his players sprinted up the steps, hopped over the rail and stormed the infield at Target Field with arms raised and screams unleashed.

Nick Swisher dropped to his knees near first base. Jason Kipnis pumped his fist and ran toward his teammates to begin forming the celebratory mob. They played as one all season long, pulling off an improbable run to the American League's top Wild Card spot, and now they bounced as one after a 5-1 victory over the Twins in the final game of the regular season.

Francona watched the scene come together.

"It's like the culmination of everything that you've gone through, all the ups and downs," said Francona, as champagne dripped from his clothes. "You see guys from different countries, different upbringings, and they're jumping on the pile and it's just pure joy."

Go crazy, Cleveland.

October baseball is making a return trip to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Summer has turned to fall and the Tribe will play on. Francona has stressed the importance of each game, and Cleveland needed every last one on the schedule to complete this miracle September finish and franchise turnaround. In Sunday's clincher, Ubaldo Jimenez overpowered the Twins with 13 strikeouts and led the way to the win column once again.

The Indians' final act of the regular season was a 10-game winning streak, chasing down the Rays and Rangers, and soaring up the standings to earn a Wild Card Game on Wednesday. Cleveland became only the sixth team since 1900, and the first since the 1971 Orioles, to end a campaign with at least 10 wins in a row. The Tribe also finished September with 21 wins for the first time since the 1948 season.

With a four-game brooming of the Twins, the Indians also became the first team in the Major Leagues to complete seven series sweeps of at least four games since the Cardinals accomplished the feat in 1943.

"I almost become speechless in times like this," Swisher said. "Nobody on the planet thought we'd be standing right now."

The clubhouse celebration was wild and lengthy, with the smell of champagne reaching far down the tunnel outside the clubhouse. Francona embraced Paul Dolan, Cleveland's chairman and chief executive officer. General manager Chris Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro were also in the room as the players partied and corks popped.

"A season like this is a testament to the resilience and the leadership," Shapiro said. "Our team demonstrated character all year long. That started with [Francona] and ran through the veteran players that we brought in here. And then I think over time our younger payers took ownership of it."

Now, the Indians get to go home.

The Indians' next game will be back at Progressive Field, where they will host the AL Wild Card Game at 8:07 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Cleveland will face either the Rays or Rangers, who will square off in a tiebreaker game on Monday in Texas after finishing the 162-game slate in a deadlock for the second Wild Card spot.

The winner of Wednesday's Wild Card Game will face the AL East champion Red Sox in a best-of-five AL Division Series, beginning on Friday at Fenway Park.

"It's like a dream come true," Jimenez said with goggles resting on his forehead, as the clubhouse celebration went on around him. "It was like a perfect moment."

Jimenez led the charge Sunday, taking on the ace-type form Cleveland envisioned when the club reeled in the right-hander from Colorado in July 2011. Jimenez piled up 13 strikeouts to match his career best, allowed five hits and cruised through 17 Minnesota batters in a row between the first and sixth innings. Jimenez logged 6 2/3 innings, picked up his 13th win and helped Cleveland finish with 92 victories.

The Twins' only breakthrough against Jimenez came in the seventh, when he allowed three straight singles to pave the way for a Minnesota run. The right-hander ended September with a 4-0 record and a pristine 1.09 ERA, striking out 51 and holding his opponents to a .230 average across six outings.

"Not only did he step up, he took over," Kipnis said. "He had some personal pride. He stepped up. He said, 'I need to make it better,' and he did. He took care of business. Everyone loves the person he's become and the pitcher he's become."

The Indians began their scoring in fitting fashion.

Michael Bourn and Swisher -- signed to a combined $104 million over the offseason in Antonetti's overhauling of the offense -- jumped on Twins lefty Scott Diamond in the first inning to get the Tribe rolling. Bourn laced a pitch up the middle for a leadoff single and Swisher followed by launching his 22nd home run, a two-run shot that eluded the glove of leaping left fielder Clete Thomas.

"After that home run, I was so excited," Swisher said, "just because I knew what we were looking forward to doing."

A trio of errors by the Twins in the sixth helped Cleveland tack on two unearned runs and Carlos Santana added some insurance in the seventh. Santana pulled a pitch from Minnesota reliever Michael Tonkin deep to right-center field, where the baseball clanked off the out-of-town scoreboard, the double scoring Kipnis from second base to give the Indians a 5-0 advantage.

That was sufficient for Jimenez, who has served as the embodiment of Cleveland's incredible comeback.

Jimenez was the focal point of much criticism a season ago, when he lost a Major League-high 17 games for a rotation that sunk the Tribe to 94 losses. Thanks in part to the pitcher's undefeated run through September, the Indians tied a franchise record (excluding strike-shortened years) with a 24-win improvement over the previous season.

"How about that?" Francona said of Jimenez. "He went out there and pitched like an ace. Last year, he was maybe the butt of jokes or whatever. This year, we end up rearranging our rotation so he can pitch games. He went out there and just pounded the strike zone."

The Indians were last in the playoffs in 2007, when the club fell one win short of reaching the World Series.

The turbulent seasons that followed made Sunday's celebration that much sweeter.

"The new guys don't know what it was like to go through what we went through," Indians reliever Chris Perez. "This has been magical."

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