BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Indians Climb, Braves on Top : American League: With Belle on crutches, Hill throws a clutch game to even series.


His team was trailing the Seattle Mariners in the American League championship series, his once-potent offense was flailing away at a .229 postseason clip, and his cleanup hitter, Albert Belle, one of the game's most feared sluggers, hobbled into the clubhouse Saturday afternoon on crutches.

How devastated was Cleveland Indian Manager Mike Hargrove?

"I thought they'd have to bring in a stretcher for me to go with his crutches," he said.

A few hours later Hargrove--and the Indians--were still standing. Ken Hill and three Cleveland relievers combined for the first AL championship series shutout in 10 years, and the Indians, as if someone had rubbed smelling salts on their bats, roughed up Seattle for a 7-0 victory before 43,686 in Jacobs Field.

That evened the best-of-seven series, 2-2, and swung momentum back to the Indians, who will send October prodigy Orel Hershiser to the mound to face Seattle's Chris Bosio in Game 5 tonight.

"No doubt, this was the biggest win of my career," said Hill, a right-hander who gave up five hits and struck out six in seven innings. "We didn't want to be down 3-1 and have to go back to Seattle trailing the series."

The afternoon began with little promise for Cleveland. Belle, who batted .317 with a major league-leading 50 homers, 52 doubles and 126 RBIs during the regular season, sprained his right ankle when he was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning of Game 3.

But Belle remained in the game, which went 11 innings, and when he left the clubhouse Friday night, Hargrove was not aware of the injury. But Indian second baseman Carlos Baerga said Belle "could barely even walk" when he arrived Saturday afternoon.

The left fielder did not respond well enough to treatment for Hargrove to insert him into the lineup, so Wayne Kirby started in left. And to compound matters, Sandy Alomar, the Indians' .300-hitting catcher, was a last-minute scratch because of a stiff neck and was replaced by Tony Pena.

So what happens? The Indians pound out nine hits, including two-run home runs by designated hitter Eddie Murray and third baseman Jim Thome, and score six runs in the first three innings to put the game away.

"I thought Albert was joking when he came in on crutches--I was wondering what in the world was going on," said Kirby, who singled, stole second and scored on Omar Vizquel's double in the sixth, which snapped Vizquel's 0-for-14 postseason skid.

"I didn't find out until an hour before the game that I was starting. But we're a very composed team, and when one of our big guns goes down, someone else has to pick him up."

Murray, who was two for 14 in the series before Saturday, helped fill the void when he smashed an Andy Benes pitch into the center-field bleachers to give Cleveland a 3-0 lead in the first, and Thome followed Baerga's third-inning single with a homer into the left-field bleachers off Benes for a 6-0 lead.

That was more than enough support for Hill, the former St. Louis ace who was acquired in a late-July trade and had little trouble dealing with the chill of a 53-degree evening, a 26-degree drop from Friday night.

Hill mixed his fastball, slider and split-fingered fastball well and hit the outside corner consistently. He pitched out of a first-and-second, one-out jam in the second inning, a second-and-third, two-out jam in the third, and a second-and-third, none-out jam in the fourth.

"Any time you get a guy who hit 50 home runs out of the lineup you feel fortunate," Seattle Manager Lou Piniella said. "But the story tonight was Hill pitching a good game and our guy giving up six runs in three innings."

Benes, the Mariners' late-July, playoff-push acquisition from the San Diego Padres, had control problems--of the 15 batters he faced, he went to three-ball counts on eight.

Asked if there was anything that struck him about Benes, Piniella said, "Yeah, the balls that were going into the seats. He got a few pitches up and they hit them."

The Seattle offense is struggling too. The Mariners had only six hits Saturday, and even though designated hitter Edgar Martinez snapped his 0-for-11 spell with an infield single in the second, he and first baseman Tino Martinez are now a combined three for 30 in the series.

Cleveland ended Seattle's string of eight postseason games with a home run, and leadoff batter Vince Coleman is now one for 16 in the series.

"We're going to do some things differently tomorrow," Piniella said.

Piniella would not elaborate on possible lineup changes, but it's likely he'll replace Coleman with Alex Diaz in left and move Jay Buhner, who hit two homers in Game 3 and had three hits Saturday, up from the sixth spot in the order.

The Indians, meanwhile, hope Belle, who was walking without crutches by the fifth inning Saturday, can return to the lineup today.

"I'm not going to turn Albert into the next Wally Pipp," Kirby said. "I did what I had to do tonight, but I'm no Albert."


* ROSS NEWHAN: Cleveland has used its three former National League starters to keep the Mariners tied up in knots. C10

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