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Must C Clutch: Hafner smacks a walk-off homer

CLEVELAND -- The Indians are on a mission. There is, of course, the matter of continuing to contend for a division title and everything that follows later in the fall. First, however, the Tribe wants to win over its fans.

On Friday night, in front of a packed house at Progressive Field, a rarity so far in this magical season, the Indians did all they could to make people believe. The latest hero was Travis Hafner, who used a titanic blast in the bottom of the ninth inning to send Cleveland to a 5-4 victory in walk-off fashion.

"That's what you have to do in front of big crowds," Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. "You have to win them over, kind of. We believe in this locker room that we're going to be a great team all year round and, hopefully, we'll get to the playoffs and win a World Series here."

Wins like the latest one make such lofty goals seem less far-fetched.

After an anemic night in the batter's box, spoiling a solid effort from sinkerballer Fausto Carmona, the Indians did what they have done so often at Progressive Field this season. The Tribe rallied late and partied hard, spilling out of the dugout and storming the field under a sky aflame with fireworks.

The Indians have captured victories in their last at-bat in each of their past five wins at home. Overall, the Tribe now boasts a 24-13 record with a Major League-best 15-4 mark at home. On Friday, the Indians found the win column in front of an announced crowd of 33,774, representing the largest gathering since Opening Day.

"It's always nice to win when you have crowds like that," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "They can tell that these guys are going all out for them."

This time around, it was Hafner who provided the crushing blow.

The stage was set for him when Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera opened the bottom of the ninth inning with consecutive doubles off Seattle closer Brandon League. Brantley scored on Cabrera's two-base hit to trim the Mariners' lead to 4-3. After League retired the next two batters, Hafner strolled to the plate.

League snapped off an 0-1 sinker -- an offering that the Tribe's veteran designated hitter anticipated. The pitch lingered over the heart of the plate just enough to draw Hafner's mighty swing.

Hafner made hard contact and watched the baseball rocket over deep center field. Seattle center fielder Michael Saunders sprinted back toward the wall and Hafner said a prayer to the baseball gods.

"I knew it would be close," Hafner said. "I wasn't exactly sure where it was. I was hoping he wouldn't catch it."

Saunders did no such thing.

The outfielder jumped and grabbed the top of the wall, where he hung for a few moments as the baseball disappeared, well beyond his reach. Hafner thrust both of his arms high into the air and the crowd let out a thunderous roar. The rest of the Tribe circled around home plate, waiting to deliver the usual celebratory beating.

Hafner ran into the bouncing mob, which pounded him with friendly jabs until he emerged from the pile with a wide smile.

"They're a lot of fun," Hafner said of the parties at home plate. "You've just got to be the one dishing it out. The only rule you need to know is, 'Dish it out.'"

For League, it marked his third blown save in a row.

Early in the evening, it hardly seemed like a comeback would be necessary.

Carmona cruised through the first 14 Mariners batters he faced without allowing a hit -- a streak that ended with a solo homer from rookie Carlos Peguero in the fifth inning. At that point, the Indians still clung to a 2-1 advantage behind earlier solo shots from Shin-Soo Choo and Brantley.

Cleveland's offense struggled to mount anything more against Mariners starter Doug Fister, though. Fister pieced together eight solid innings, providing time for Seattle's nine to find a way to solve Carmona. Sure enough, the Mariners (16-23) pounded out three runs (two on a homer by Justin Smoak) in the seventh to claim a 4-2 lead.

Carmona looked like he would be hit with a hard-luck loss, but thanks to Hafner, wound up with a no-decision.

"He didn't deserve to lose the ballgame," Acta said of Carmona, who logged 7 2/3 innings. "He pitched well. Four runs [allowed] might not show that, but I'll take that effort every time."

Those late rallies are another story.

Acta would prefer to head to the ninth inning with a lead.

"I really don't want to be feeling comfortable with trailing in the ninth," Acta said. "At least I know that they're not going to roll over. That's the spirit that these guys have showed me since last year."

And it is the spirit that the Tribe showed the large crowd on Friday night.

The players appreciated the turnout, which included 8,519 tickets sold through walk-ups, even if part of the reason the fans came out was for the postgame fireworks.

"We know they came out for fireworks," Brantley said. "But at the same time, we put on a great show for them."

A show that included fireworks after Hafner's blast.

"We're kind of almost making that routine," Brantley said with a smile.

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