The Cleveland Indians entered the 2013 season without lofty expectations. There was optimism with the arrival of new manager Terry Francona, but the Tribe were projected to finish at the bottom of the American League and miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year.
Now, the club finds itself playing the AL Wild Card game.
On Wednesday night, the Indians will host their first playoff game since 2007. They face off with the Tampa Bay Rays for the right to play the Boston Red Sox in the American League Divisional Series.
The two clubs had similar regular seasons, with the Indians winning 92 games, compared to the Rays' 91 victories. Joe Maddon's squad enter the contest with some momentum after defeating the Texas Rangers in a one-game wild-card playoff on Monday. However, no team is hotter than Cleveland. They rattled off 10 straight wins to end the year, becoming the fifth team in MLB history to accomplish that feat. The Indians were dominant in the second half of September, outscoring their opponents 57-24.
Both teams have been playing with a sense of urgency for the majority of the last month. Besides each other, the clubs had to contend with the Texas Rangers, who went undefeated in the final week.
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"I'll tell you what," Maddon said on Tuesday. "We've already played this wild-card game a couple times. We did it in Toronto a couple days ago. We did it yesterday in Texas, and we're going to come here tomorrow and do it again. I don't know if there's a battle-tested component to that, if you get immune to whatever that pressure is and you go play."
Part of Cleveland’s success down the stretch has been there young pitching. Danny Salazar entered the rotation at the beginning of August and has been the team’s best pitcher ever since. Now, the 23-year-old has been chosen by Francona to take the mound in the most important game of the season.
In 10 starts, Salazar has recorded a 3.12 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. He’s picked up just two wins because he’s averaged just five innings per outing. Pitching to a 2.52 ERA in five September starts, though, makes him Cleveland’s best option.
"Believe me, we wouldn't pitch him if we weren't confident in him giving us the best chance to win," Francona said. "Danny has done nothing to make us think he can't handle this. He's so poised. If I had stuff like him, I'd be poised, too. But there's a difference between throwing 100 mph and being able to get major league hitters out. Danny can do that."
Salazar will be opposed by Alex Cobb, who has been, maybe, even more effective in the past couple of weeks. The right-hander spent some time on the disabled list after getting hit in the head by a line drive, but didn’t miss a beat upon his return. In his last three starts, he’s thrown 23.1 innings, allowing just three runs and striking out 26 batters.
The Rays will be seeing Salazar for the first time, while the Indians’ hitters have a limited history against Cobb. Cleveland’s home run leader, Nick Swisher, has the most experience against Cobb with three hits in 10 at-bats.
If Cobb gets Tampa Bay to the ninth inning with a lead, Francisco Rodney and his 37 saves will likley come on to close out the game. It’s unknown who would get the call for the Indians. After Chris Perez lost his job as the closer, Francona said the team would use a closer by committee. However, Justin Masterson might be the favorite to get a save attempt. The starter has pitched in relief three times since suffering an oblique strain in early September.
"We went from losing our best pitcher to probably being the only team left in baseball that could have a guy finish the game potentially throwing three innings," Francona said. "That's quite a weapon. We plan to use it.”
Start Time: 8:07 p.m. ET
Betting Odds: Tampa Bay (-113), Cleveland (+103)
TV Channel: TBS
Live Stream: Postseason.TV
Prediction: Cleveland 2, Tampa Bay 1