Alright, by show of hands, who of you had the Cleveland Indians hosting an elimination wild card game at the beginning of the season? Come on, don't be shy.
Okay, really, if any of you reading this article did have the Indians hosting the American League wild card elimination game tonight and can prove said claim, can you be my life coach? Who are you? Where are you? Seriously, who saw this coming?
None of that matters, as tonight the Indians play host to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League's edition of the wild card elimination game.
The last time the Cleveland Indians reached the playoffs was in 2007 when they lost in seven games to the Boston Red Sox, the eventual World Series Champions.
Coincidentally, credit to much of Cleveland's success this year can be attributed to their new manager and Boston's former manager: Terry “Tito” Francona.
Last season, the Indians finished with a record of 68-94, good enough for fourth place out of five teams in the AL Central. This season, Francona and company soared to a record of 92-70, finishing only one game behind the Detroit Tigers for 1st place in their division.
Who was the focal point?
Terry Francona doesn't really have a single player in mind that will answer that question. “I could name 15 or 16 guys,” Francona said when asked who Cleveland's MVP was.
Come on, Terry, you know better; you know you won't get off the hook that easily. So, Francona offered up an actual answer: “Jason Kipnis has become one of the best players in the league, but ‘G’ is our Most Valuable Player, because he’s made all of us better” The 'G' Francona is referring to is 42-year old Jason Giambi.
While his stats on the season won't grab your attention (.183/.282/.371), his value reaches beyond raw statistics, insists Francona. “It’s Giambi’s intangibles, his leadership, and his clubhouse presence that Francona finds so valuable.”
Oh, and then there was this moment:
After Chris Perez blew a save in the top half of the 9th inning against the Chicago White Sox, Giambi came on as a pinch-hitter with 2 outs and one man on base, down 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th. The 42-year-old responded with this.
When Francona was asked if Cleveland would have still made he playoffs had Giambi not hit that home run, he said: “If we hadn’t signed him, we wouldn’t be here.”
The resurgence of Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't hurt, either. In just over 41 September innings, Jimenez has an ERA of 1.09 with 51 strikeouts and seven walks.
But that's not who Cleveland will send to the mound in this scenario. They'll call on 23-year old rookie Danny Salazar, whom Francona trusts entirely: “It’s a cool story, but we wouldn’t start him if we didn’t think he could win the game. This is a kid who is the kind of pitcher you build your team around as you start looking ahead.” Salazar has yet to face off against the Rays.
Speaking of those Rays, they missed out on the postseason last year, but David Price wasn't about to allow that to happen for a 2nd straight season, tossing a complete game against the Texas Rangers in game 163 to clinch the 2nd AL wild card spot.
To counter Salazar, the Rays will send 25-year old Alex Cobb to the mound. Cobb, in just his 3rd major league season, has improved tremendously. In 22 starts, he holds an ERA of 2.76 to go along with 134 strikeouts and only 45 walks. Also, opponents have hit just .228 against him. His only start against Cleveland this season came on April 6, when Cobb pitched 7.1 innings, didn't allow a run and struck out six. Something tells me a lot has changed since April 6th.
Salazar's numbers at home are nearly identical to those on the road. At Progressive Field, Salazar holds an ERA of 3.13 over 23 innings of work. He's struck out 33 and walked only 5 in four starts at home. In six starts away from Progressive Field, he holds an ERA of 3.10 to go along with 32 strikeouts and 10 walks over 29 innings of work.
As for Cobb, the same can be said: his numbers are nearly identical. In 13 starts at Rays Ballpark, Cobb holds an ERA of 2.81 to go along with 87 strikeouts and 26 walks over 83.1 innings of work. Away from Rays Ballpark, Cobb holds an ERA of 2.70 to go along with 47 strikeouts and 19 walks over 60 innings of work.
Tonight's contest is the very definition of a toss-up. If we were going to bet on experience, the Rays would have this in the bag. However, if we're going off of which team has the better story, there's no argument: it's the Cleveland Indians.
What's unfortunate for these two is their fan attendance, or lack thereof. For the Rays this season, attendance has been historically bad. The Rays drew a total attendance of 1,510,300, last in the major leagues.
Imagine playing in front of almost nobody night in and night out. Imagine filling your home ballpark to 54.7 its capacity on average. It's painful to think about, and the Cleveland Indians are almost as bad at drawing crowds as Tampa Bay is.
The Indians drew a total attendance of 1,572,926, ranking 3rd-worst in baseball. They filled their stadium to 45.3 percent its capacity on average. These numbers are downright staggering when you take into account the 184 combined wins between these two ball clubs.
My gut tells me the Rays will take this one and go on to face their division rivals, the Boston Red Sox. However, I'm a sucker for the underdog – and yes, I realize the 'underdog' I speak of is playing at home.
But how cool would it be if Francona led his team over the Rays, then over his former team and eventually on to the World Series?
Don't let what I think sway you. Who's your pick for tonight?