American League Wild-Card Preview: Rays at Indians

Tampa Bay Rays  Cleveland Indians
David DeJesus, LF Michael Bourn, CF
Wil Myers, RF Nick Swisher, 1B
James Loney, 1B Jason Kipnis, 2B
Evan Longoria, 3B Carlos Santana, DH
Ben Zobrist, 2B Michael Brantley, LF
Desmond Jennings, CF Ryan Raburn, RF
Delmon Young, DH Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Yunel Escobar, SS Yan Gomes, C
Jose Molina, C Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
Alex Cobb, SP Danny Salazar, SP

On September 1, the Cleveland Indians sat 3.5 games back in the Wild Card race, and 7.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central crown. When the dust settles on their regular season on September 29, the Indians had won the Wild Card, with only one game separating them from the Tigers. What happened in between? Danny Salazar, and a 21-6 record in the month of September.

Called up for good on August 7, pop-up prospect Danny Salazar struggled with command and the long ball in his first four starts. His numbers were solid on the whole, yet nothing befitting of throwing a rookie starter into a win or go home Wild-Card match-up. September, however, was a different story altogether. Salazar was utterly brilliant in five September starts, striking out 33 (against just 6 walks) in only 25 IP, wrapping up the month with a 2.52 ERA. Thriving on the strength of a mid to high 90s fastball, a devastating slider, and a split-changeup, Salazar led an Indians staff to a best in the American League 2.84 ERA and 2.87 FIP in September.

Pitching was, in general, the key to the Indians success, as the team has generally put up competitive offensive numbers. The Indians finished 7th in the league in ERA and 2nd in FIP this season, a scant calendar year removed from finishing 14th and 11th, respectively. This may be attributed to any number of factors, from luck to Terry Francona to new pitching coach Mickey Callaway, yet it is the sort of dramatic turnaround that is necessary for a team to bounce from non-contender to contender seemingly overnight.

The Rays similarly thrived on excellent pitching this season, finishing 5th in ERA and 2nd in FIP, despite the loss of James Shields. Their reputation as a pitching mill is wholly justified at this point, with Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer stepping up in a big way to fill the void left by the formerly longest-tenured Ray. The bullpen, however, was something of a weakness for what seems like the first time ever, as Fernando Rodney and Jack McGee predictably fell back to earth, and only Alex Torres stepped forward as a true shutdown reliever.

That said, the Rays have more than made due with a seemingly revitalized offense. Myers lived up to expectations following his post-Super Two call-up, and garbage heap pick-ups Loney, Escobar, Young, and DeJesus performed more than adequately. And, of course, there's perennial MVP candidate Evan Longoria waiting in the middle of the lineup.

Inevitably, this match-up has been discussed as a borderline 'David versus Goliath' meeting. The Rays are a yearly contender, and the Indians overachieved relative to the expectations of most - Salazar, a rookie pitcher that missed most of two seasons with arm issues, is the epitome of the Indians success story this season. To me, however, this looks quite like a team that has been building something for awhile on the verge of seeing it come to fruition ... not unlike the Tampa Bay Rays half a decade ago. Either way, it has the makings of a great game.