AL Wild Card Game: Tito on the horizon?

AL Wild Card Game: Tito on the horizon?
October 2, 2013, 1:00 pm
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Terry Francona left John Farrell a mysterious voicemail before World Series Game 6.

(USA Today Sports Images)

It’s been 10 long days since the Red Sox clinched the AL East. In that time, America’s learned the fate of Walter White, witnessed the shutdown of our nation’s government, and watched as BatDad slowly took over the Internet. All the while, the Sox could only sit back and wait. Actually, first they had to clinch the No. 1 seed, but then it was just waiting, as the rest of the field duked it out for the chance to open the playoffs against the best team in the American League.

Today, two contenders remain: The Indians and the Rays, and they’ll faceoff tonight at Progressive Field. Loser goes home. Winner flies to Boston for Friday’s 3:07 pm start. Alex Rodriguez puts his feet up on the couch, applies another layer of lipstick, and edits the names on his personal revenge list.

Truth be told, location is Cleveland’s only distinct advantage tonight. Sure, maybe you can argue that they have momentum, after winning 10 straight and 15 of their last 17 games. If you think it feels like a long time since the Sox clinched the division — that was on September 21.  The Indians haven’t lost a game since September 18.

Remember how hot the Rockies were before the start of the 2007 postseason (and before sweeping two straight playoff series)? Well, they only won nine of their last 10, and 14 of their last 17 regular season games. The Indians are hotter than that.

But you can also argue that the Rays have momentum of their own after Monday night’s dramatic play-in win in Texas. Or you can ague that the respective momentums will offset each other. Or that momentum isn’t even a real thing and tonight’s game will come down to nothing more than nine innings of baseball. In which case, the edge goes to Tampa.

With no disrespect to the Indians and everything they’ve accomplished, the Rays are just a better team. Even if Tampa finished with one less victory, Cleveland benefitted from playing 19 games against the White Sox (they went 17-2) and 19 games against the Twins (They went 13-6). In 19 games against the division-winning Tigers? The Indians went 4-15.

Cleveland scored the fourth most runs in the American League; 45 more than the Rays. But over 162 games, and considering the competition, there’s not much difference. Neither team has a hitter batting over .300 and each has only one with more than 20 home runs. For the Indians, that’s Nick Swisher, and that fact that he’s Cleveland biggest power threat tells you a lot about their power. Meanwhile, the Rays are led by Evan Longoria. A game changer. A guy with eight career postseason home runs, who went deep on Tuesday night in Texas, and whose mere presence screws with opposing pitching more than anyone on either roster. Tampa’s Wil Myers might be second on that list. So, yeah. Cleveland has the season-long offensive edge, but if forced to pick one line-up to win one game, I’ll take Longoria and the Rays.

On the mound, 25-year-old Alex Cobb makes his first career playoff start for Tampa. He went 11-3 this year with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts. For his career, he’s 25-14 in 54 starts, and though that hardly qualifies him as a seasoned veteran, Cobb is basically Jamie Moyer compared to Indians’ starter Danny Salazar.

The 23-year-old Salazar made his Major League debut on July 11, and comes into tonight with a 2-3 record over 10 career starts. Aside from Ubaldo Jiminez, he’s probably been Cleveland’s best arm down the stretch, especially after an injury knocked Justin Masterson out of the rotation. Still, Salazar’s pitched into the seventh inning and thrown more than 90 pitches in a game only once in his career. Even if he’s effective, it’s fair wonder for how long he’ll last. And while the Indians bullpen has been pretty good, their relievers have very little postseason experience. But who knows? Maybe this is the night Danny Salazar explodes onto the national scene. Maybe he’s the next Livan Hernandez or Jaret Wright and comes out of nowhere to take baseball by storm.

It’s one game. Anything can happen. Especially for the home team, playing in front championship-starved fans, hosting their first baseball playoff game since 2007. It’s going to be wild at Progressive Field. Even if Indians fans were non-existent for most of the season (Cleveland had baseball’s third worst attendance), they’ll show up tonight. Haven’t you seen Major League?

That’s Cleveland’s biggest advantage. Well, that and fate.

It’s no secret that the Red Sox want the Indians to take care of business. For all the reasons why the Rays have an edge tonight, plus the prospect of facing Matt Moore and David Price (twice) three times in a five game series, Boston would much rather host Cleveland than Tampa.

But aside from the preferable match-up, the aesthetics of a potential Red Sox/Indians series are almost too perfect to process. I mean, just the idea of this whole season and playoff baseball returning to Fenway for the first time in four years is already so surreal. You could sense it a little if you watched Monday’s play-in game and/or last night’s NL Wild Card game. The familiar feeling of what it’s like when every pitch means so much. But I don’t think it will really hit until Game 1 on Friday afternoon. Regardless of who they play.

But after everything this team has gone through, the idea that Terry Francona might be sitting in that opposing dugout on Friday takes surreal to a whole new level. It’s almost fantasy.

Which is to say, it’s almost guaranteed to happen.

Why?

The 2013 Red Sox.

That’s why.

This season waved bye-bye to reality months ago, and there’s no reason to think things will start changing now.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine