Wildcarding: Cleveland Indians in the Big Tyme

When April hits and the new baseball season dawns, every fan, even those of the Mets or Mariners or Marlins, has that hope that their team will do something special. Sure, your starting center fielder might end up being Dustin Ackley or Daisuke Matsuzaka might pitch in an actual game at some point in the season. But fans don’t care about this and can’t predict the future.

Maybe the youngster at third will become Josh Donaldson. Maybe the newest addition to the rotation will go Alex Cobb on the league’s ass. Who knows what will happen?

I was no different – the Indians spent a ton of money in the offseason on a new manager and a few impact players while also making a splash of a trade… and for some reason signed Brett Myers for $7 million. Who knew what it all would equate to at the time. It was at the least a breath of hope after a long stretch of stale misery.

And now? Wildcard, bitches.

Say what you will about the new playoff setup. Sure having it all come down to one game after 162 of them could be construed as stupid. Some wonder if it’s a bastardization of the baseball season taken to the highest degree. Shoot, if this were 2011 the Indians would be in a series already. But it’s not, and they’re not. Instead, they’re facing the wily Tampa Bay Rays of St. Petersburg. And they can win.

I’m jealous of the Rays for many reasons, but for the longest time the primary reason has been Evan Longoria. I’ve long pined for a player like that for the Indians to build around. Until I looked at his numbers this year, that is. He hit 32 homers including a blast in game 163 and compiled a .360 wOBA. Grand feats, to be sure, but not a leap and bound better than a couple guys on the Indians. Carlos Santana has him beat by percentage points at .364, and it took Longo an extra game to do it. Jason Kipnis is on his heels with .357. Plus the Tribe can field an entire lineup with double-digit home runs, or close to it. It’s weird, and a little exciting the Indians have the best hitter in a playoff series. That hasn’t happened since what, 2001 with Jim Thome against the Mariners? This is a good thing.

And how wonderful has Santana been this year? Broke 20 homers again, got on base at a .375 clip, and if only he wasn’t quite a mess behind the plate he’d be incredible, a true superstar. Even without it he’s somewhat quietly one of the premier offensive players in the American League.

The Rays are known for their pitching and defense, and it’s well warranted. At any given moment they can have Sam Fuld and Desmond Jennings in the same outfield. You could have a dead guy in right and that’s still a great outfield, but instead it’s Wil Myers, he of the cannon grafted to a shoulder and some sweet bat flips. The infield is no different with Ben Zobrist, James Loney and Co., and their magic Molina. All told, they pack a 37.7 team UZR, fourth best in the game. The Indians? They’re 25th, at -42.5 UZR.

For you traditionalists, they committed 98 errors, fifth most in the league. The Rays? Fifty-nine. So yeah. Guess that’s what happens with a converted outfielder at second, Asdrubal’s flash and flubbery at short, Santana catching over 120 games and whatever is happening at third. That’s where our old friend luck comes in. She’s bound to kick Cleveland a little love, right? Regression to the mean surely works with that.

That pitching though, that’s the fun part. Top to bottom the Rays have the upper hand in the rotation, but we’re talking about one game, all hands on deck, and that doesn’t mean sending a starter out in relief. Avoiding David Price is rad, but the aforementioned Alex Cobb has been BRILLIANT this year, already twirling a 2.76 ERA (3.36 FIP) at 24, and in the AL East. He’s backed up by Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney, two late relievers who have had a fine couple of years in Tampa. Tough row to hoe.

But you know who else is awesome? Danny Salazar, the SaLAZER, or for the Pokemon fans out there Salazard. You’re welcome. He’s only worked 52 major league innings but been a boss in every one to the tune of a 3.12 ERA and 3.16 FIP. He’s also struck out 63 to 18 walks. Problem – he throws a ton of pitches, often tickling 100 in the fifth inning were he to be allowed that many. Solution – Justin Masterson has reaffirmed his role as Most Badass Pitcher Out of the Pen Ever. Since he won’t be starting for a bit, he’s every bit the fireman you could hope for. Danny comes in and mows them down for five, Big Dirty for another three, and I dunno, Kazmir to close? Wouldn’t that be the bow on his career to this point?

I often dream of amazing things to happen for my team. When they’re down two, I don’t wish for the base hit, I wish for a homer. Than another one. Make the whole stadium explode. That’s why I can’t shake the feeling that Jason Giambi isn’t done here. He saved the season, and if the Indians do make it past the Rays, since I can’t rightly hope for him to do it again so soon, he’s going to be a big piece in October. It’s probably bullshit, but I dunno man, there’s something about him.

At the end of it all I there’s Tito. I don’t like calling him that since it seems wrong to just steal your dad’s nickname, but damn it sounds slick. He’s managing in a way that allows the players to be people, not his tools to win a game. When Chris Perez was removed from the closing role, that wasn’t Francona doing that. Perez told his manager he didn’t want to keep blowing it for the guys, essentially removing himself. It’s comfort level, in a sense a perfect blend of personalities and people that makes the team more than the sum of its’ parts.  I look at the Indians lineup or rotation or ‘pen, and though there’s talent, there’s nothing that blows your pants off. But it works. If there’s weaknesses in one player, another makes up for it and together it spits out winning. Kind of sounds like devil science when you actually write it out, but there you have it.

Wednesday is going to be a bad ass time. Already a sellout as of Monday, Cleveland hasn’t seen a team like this in years. They’re more fun than that 2007 team, that’s for sure. That was a team that had found itself, stumbled and whether it knew or not, nearing expiration. This 2013 Indians are awesome, new and fun. There’s a joy to the dugout like we haven’t seen in who knows how long. It’s nice to see grown men appreciating what their livelihood entails, makes you a little less cynical about the millions they make. Who knows what the future holds. All that matters is right now life is good.

Topics: AL Wild Card, Cleveland Indians, MLB Playoffs, Tampa Bay Rays, Terry Francona

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