When I woke up this morning, I decided to put on one of my Cactus League shirts. It seemed fitting – this team first came together in late February, about seven months ago, and stepped onto the diamond for the first time in Goodyear, Arizona. Throughout the season, the Indians have had their share of ups and downs. Despite the disastrous season series against the Detroit Tigers, and times where their chances looked bleak, the Tribe managed to keep themselves in contention. It set the stage for game #162 – if the Indians brought home a win, it didn’t matter what the Rays and the Rangers did. They would advance to the wild card game, and would have home field advantage this Wednesday against one of the other two teams. And I would get to use this:
Ubaldo Jimenez was fantastic yet again today, shutting down Minnesota hitters and striking out 13. I noticed there was an interesting debate in the open thread on whether or not he should have been held back for Wednesday, and I think there are very valid points on both sides of the argument. This sets Danny Salazar up for the start in the wild card game on Wednesday, which has its positives and minuses. On the “cons” side, you have the fact that he’s a young rookie that’s only been in the majors for a couple of months, and will be thrown into the biggest game of his career with a few months of major league experience under his belt. Plus he’s never thrown this many innings in a season before, and has been on limited pitch counts for many of his starts. On the “pros” side of this, he’s an unknown commodity to Texas and Tampa – neither of them have seen him before. If his fastball has good movement, it could make things difficult for their hitters. Plus, the Rangers and Rays both burned top pitchers today in the form of Yu Darvish and Matt Moore, just trying to stay alive. The Rays and Texas both won – that means they’ll have to each burn another starter tomorrow in game #163.
As they have during much of this 10-game winning streak, the Indians made a statement early on, as Nick Swisher hit a 2-run home run to give the Tribe the lead. They got a bit of an assist from some shoddy Twins defense to expand the lead to 4-0; it would eventually end 5-1. As they have during this series (their seventh four-game sweep of the year) and during much of this 10-game winning streak, they took command of the game and did not relinquish it.
I’m not sure of everyone else, but I’m always nervous, and just end up expecting the worst. I joked today, that the Indians could have been up 20-1 late in this game today, and I still would have been a basket case. When I wrote this about the Jason Giambi homer the other day, I joked that I always just wait to be crushed – it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” and how disappointing it will be. For some reason, the 2005 series kept popping into my mind over the past few weeks, probably because it’s the last time the Indians were serious contenders for the wild card spot. And if you remember the last week of the 2005 season, you probably remember their epic collapse, that started with a dropped routine fly ball by Grady Sizemore during a game in Kansas City. The Indians went on to lose their next six out of seven games and missed the postseason (although if there was a second wild card back then, they would have earned it). They were far enough ahead, that even though they had lost five of their last six, a win on the last day of the season would have sent them to a one-game playoff with Boston. They lost, and the Red Sox captured the wild card. Back to 2013 – on the off-day last Monday, I was terrified that the Indians would somehow lose five of their next six. Instead, they went 6-0.
There’s been a lot of fuss, particularly among the national media, about the Indians’ “soft” schedule over the last couple of weeks of the season. Yes, they were playing some bad teams – but bad teams still win baseball games. There’s yet to be a bad team that went 0-162; even the 1962 Mets, one of the worst teams in history, won 40 games, probably some of those against contenders. People can continue to clutch their pearls, but guess what? The Indians still managed to win 92 games. If you win 90+ games, I think you’re still doing something right, even if your schedule is a little soft in September. The playoffs themselves are a complete crap shoot – just look at the 2001 Mariners, a team that knocked the Indians out of the playoffs in the ALDS. They won 116 games during the regular season, tying the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most in history, and still couldn’t even get to the World Series. You never know what can happen in October. Even though the wild card is a one-game do-or-die affair, it’s not the first time in team history that the Indians have had something like that. In 1948 (prior to divisional play) the Indians tied at the top of the AL with the Boston Red Sox. They had a one-game playoff with them in Boston, winning and going on to play the Boston Braves in the World Series. Even though the Indians wouldn’t go straight to the World Series if they win on Wednesday, they will ironically move forward to play the Red Sox in the ALDS.
I don’t presume to tell you how to watch and enjoy the wild card game later this week, but let me make a suggestion. It’s been six years since the Indians made any form of playoff appearance, and it ended with heartbreak in the ALCS. Expectations were high that year, it was sort of a “World Series or bust” mentality, since the team tied Boston for the most wins in baseball at 96. I don’t know about any of you, but I never expected the 2013 Indians to be in this position right now. I predicted that they would win 82 games, and that they would be a fun team to watch, regardless of their won-loss record. With the stockpile of talented teams in the AL East, and both Oakland and Texas in the AL West, I never thought they’d come close to a wild card spot. Now that they’re here, enjoy Wednesday’s game, regardless of the outcome. This is a team that only won 68 games last year, a team that had me feeling so bleak in September 2012, I wrote this. A couple of weeks ago, I said “I’d kill for at least one playoff game in Cleveland, at least one game I got to go to.” Now that my wish has come true, I still want more. I want 5-10 playoff games in Cleveland over the next few weeks. At the same time, I remember the last home series of the season last year. It was empty and depressing; Manny Acta had already been fired and the Indians were getting trounced by the White Sox in their final home game. To come this far in just one year is thrilling – and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.