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On Wednesday night, the Cleveland Indians host the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL wild card play-in game. The Rays will send Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) to the mound opposite the Indians’ rookie starter Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12). First pitch is at 8:07 PM.
Why do we care? Well, the winner advances to play the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, so who would the Red Sox want to face? Okay, the Red Sox would say they don’t care who they play, but we fans certainly do. So when we’re all watching to see who the Red Sox will be facing, who should we be cheering for? The Indians, or the Rays?
Let’s do what any difficult decision calls for: a pros and cons list.
Pros: The Red Sox were 6-1 (+13 in run differential) against the Tribe in 2013…The “Return of Terry Francona” storyline…Francona has to turn to a rookie who still goes by the name “Danny” in a must-win game, and Scott Kazmir is somehow featured prominently in their playoff rotation…The Indians beat up on their lowly division mates, the Twins and White Sox, going a combined 30-8 against the two cellar dwellers. Against teams with winning records? 36-52, minus-82 in run differential. Not exactly a force to be reckoned with…Nick Swisher, he of the Yankees of Yore and currently hitting in the #2 spot in the Indians lineup, has a whopping slash line of .169/.283/.305 in his postseason career (six seasons)…It’s only a matter of time before the Cleveland Indians join the Washington Professional Footballers on the country’s most wanted nicknames list…Their closer for the season, Chris Perez, is no longer fit for the role, leaving them with Joe Smith (his name tells you everything you need to know) or Justin Masterson (just off the DL) to close out games…No one expected anything of the Indians, so they may just be happy to make it out of the wildcard round.
Cons: The Indians ran the table to get into the wildcard game, winning their last 10 in a row (granted against the Astros, White Sox, and Twins – add it to the Pros!)…The “Return of Terry Francona” story line…Ubaldo Jimenez has finally started living up to the hype after Cleveland brought him over from the Colorado Rockies (years ago, but still!), posting a 1.82 ERA over 13 starts with 100 strikeouts in 84 innings after the All-Star break…The “Revenge of Terry Francona” story line…The Indians were fifth in runs scored in the majors (745), led by offseason free agent acquisition Michael Bourn atop the lineup (75 runs scored and 23 stolen bases in 130 games)…No one expected anything of the Indians, so they have nothing to lose against the top team in the AL…Did I mention Francona coming back to Boston – and exacting retribution for being fired and thrown under the bus with all the pain killer tabloid stories – being a terrifying con?
Pros: The Red Sox went 12-7 (+14 run differential) against the Rays in 2013…The Rays were just 37-30 (-6 run differential) after the All-Star break…The Rays will have played in Toronto on September 29th, Arlington, Texas on the 30th, and then Cleveland on October 2nd before flying into Boston for Friday’s ALDS Game 1, their fourth city in six days. That much travel can’t be good for being well rested and prepared for a playoff series against the best team in baseball…Outside of third baseman Evan Longoria and right fielder Wil Myers (maybe Ben Zobrist?), their lineup is pretty easy to work around – unless James Loney and Desmond Jennings strike fear in your hearts…They’ve been playing must-win baseball for a long time now, and at some point they’ll have to start feeling the pressure.
Cons: The Rays have been an unrelenting thorn in the side of the Red Sox since the 2008 ALCS…Rays starters Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29 ERA) and David Price (10-8, 3.33 ERA) have been lefty buzz saws against the Red Sox lineup (combined vs. Red Sox in 2013: 4-2, 2.27 ERA in 47.2 innings pitched over 7 starts)…The Mad Scientist Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in the business…Closer Fernando Rodney (37 saves, 3.38 ERA, 82 Ks in 66.2 innings pitched) leads a solid bullpen that has a 3.59 ERA (7th in AL) and a .221 batting average against (2nd)…Evan Longoria always seems to come through in the clutch (see his game-winning home run in Game 162, 2011)…They’ve been playing must-win baseball for a long time now, and at this point they respond to pressure by saying, “Pressure? What pressure?”
While the Indians have been hot and carry some of that fun, nothing-to-lose swagger that (dare I say it?) the 2004 Red Sox exuded, there’s just something about the Tampa Bay Rays of the Joe Maddon era that makes my heart race when I start thinking about facing them in a five game series (or any series, for that matter). Not even the remote possibility of the “Curse of the Francona” is enough to offset the fact that the Cleveland Indians are serious overachievers and playing well above their talent level. So when tonight’s game rolls around, I know who I’ll be rooting for to win and take on the Red Sox in the ALDS starting Friday: former Red Sox manager Terry Francona and his Cleveland Indians.