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AL Wild Card: Indians vs. Rays

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins

Hellllllo Cleveland!

Playoff baseball returns to Progressive Field for the first time since Game 5 of the 2007 ALCS when the Indians held a 3-1 advantage over the Red Sox, only to see Josh Beckett out-pitch CC Sabathia sending the series back to Boston. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series while the Indians fell to 81-81 the next season and began selling off most of their pending free agent players over the next few years.

Deals included: Carlos Santana for Casey Blake, Justin Masterson for Victor Martinez, Corey Kluber for Jake Westbrook (three-way deal with Padres), Zach McAllister for Austin Kearns and Michael Brantley as a player to be named later in the Sabathia trade to the Brewers. Moves like those, along with smart drafting (Jason Kipnis) and supplementing in the offseason with free agents like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have the Indians back in the playoffs. Cleveland also had a dash of baseball fortune smile on them, getting 158 innings from Scott Kazmir and nine home runs from 42-year-old Jason Giambi, along with some clutch homers from Tigers castoff Ryan Raburn.

Tampa’s season is also, in part, defined by an offseason deal when it landed Wil Myers from Kansas City for James Shields. It was one of those trades everyone had an opinion on. Shields helped the Royals lead the American League in ERA, but they missed the playoffs. Myers meanwhile put up a .293/.354/.478 line after his call-up on June 18. Myers finally gives Tampa a player to pair in its lineup with Evan Longoria.

Your starters tonight in Cleveland (8:07, TBS) are Alex Cobb for the Rays, who came back from that nasty liner off his head in June to finish with a 2.76 ERA. Cleveland counters with rookie Danny Salazar who’s only made 11 starts but is striking out 11.25 batters per nine.

Narrative Storyline:

This one is all about the managers.

Terry Francona is a “calming influence” his “leadership” helped transform the Indians from middling 68-win fourth-place club to a team that won 10 straight to close out the season to streak into a Wild Card spot. Joe Maddon forever remains “quirky” and “unconventional.”

There’s a tie between the two skipers. Maddon’s Rays ended the season for Francona’s Red Sox in 2011, which in turn got him fired by Boston. It led to all the nasty stories about Francona allegedly popping pills and a fractured clubhouse. Francona, credit to him, joked about the infamous “chicken and beer” line on Monday.

Analytical Storyline:

In the year 2013 we know better to place any significance on benchmarks like 30 home run or 100 RBIs seasons and .300 batting averages.

The Indians didn’t have anyone reach any of those arbitrary figures in 2013. Swisher paced them with 22 homers. Kipnis was their leading RBI guy with 84. Catcher Yan Gomes’ .294 batting average was the highest. Cleveland also had six regulars strike out more than 100 times.

And yet, they’re in the Wild Card playoff.

Tampa wasn’t much better offensively, relying more on its strong starting rotation.

In tonight’s game the only regulars with OPS’s higher than .800 are Longoria, Myers, Santana and Kipnis.  Even so, they were sixth and seventh, respectively, in team OPS in the American League.

Player to Watch:

Yan Gomes. Yes, really, Yan Gomes.

The first Brazilian-born player in the Majors quietly assembled a very useful season for the Indians with an .826 OPS in 233 at bats. Playing catcher more-and-more as the season progressed it allowed Francona more lineup flexibility with Carlos Santana playing first base. A seemingly throwaway trade last November between Cleveland and Toronto that netted the Indians Gomes and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers didn’t make headlines but it helped the Tribe out as the season progressed.

Obligatory ‘Major League’ Video:

The 1980s sports movie montage meme has been done to death, but god help me if this sequence isn’t pure gold.

Baseball Fever?:

Interpret however you choose to do so, but tonight’s Wild Card game pits the last-place American League team in attendance, the Rays, vs. the second-to-last place attendance team, the Indians. Tonight’s game is a sell out.

Clip to Watch if Chris Perez Enters the Game:

The Indians were rolling on all cylinders in September except for former closer Chris Perez. Francona demoted thanks to a 9.64 ERA in the month. It’s doubtful Francona trusts him with the ball with the game on the line, but in case he does …

Related: Yankees: More Questions than Answers Heading into Offseason
Related: Baseball’s Current Wild Card Format is Far From Perfect

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