"It's nice that they tied and had to throw Price in that game," Indians reliever Chris Perez
said. "But you never know. This is the time of year when people step up, come out of nowhere, make a name for themself and go down in history."
Earlier this season, Indians left-hander Scott Kazmir said this year's Tribe team reminded him a bit of his old Tampa Bay squad, which began the Rays' ascent from the AL cellar to perennial contender back in 2008. Much like that Tampa Bay team years ago, Cleveland this season has drastically turned its fortunes around after losing more than 90 games last summer.
Under manager Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay has become a postseason threat year in and year out, having won at least 90 games in five of the past six years. The Rays seem to always feature talented young pitching these days -- they will throw 25-year-old righty Alex Cobb at the Tribe on Wednesday -- and their much-lauded front office has a way of getting key contributions on the field from unexpected sources.
Down the stretch this season, the Rays won nine of their final 11 games, including Monday's tiebreaker. The two losses in that span allowed the Indians -- winners of 10 in a row and 15 of 17 to end the season -- to overtake Tampa Bay for the top AL Wild Card position.
"They always seem to be in the postseason mix all the time," Indians All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "They're very familiar with Game 162 and Game 163. You never underestimate their starting pitching with all the quality starts they've given them. They can always take them deep in the game and keep their team in it.
"And they usually come up with the big plays, the big hits. It might not be a high-scoring game, but it seems like they always find ways to win."
This season, Tampa Bay won four of the six meetings with Cleveland, taking two of three both at home and on the road. The Rays outscored the Indians, 30-23, in those contests, which took place from April 5-7 at Tropicana Field and May 31-June 2 at Progressive Field.
Those games were so long ago, Perez said, that it's hard to put too much stock in the results.
"We haven't played them in a while, but they're battled tested," Perez said. "It's going to be a good challenge. At this time of year, you throw the previous records out the door. I think they won the season series, but you throw out that record. The playoffs are totally different."
Tampa Bay has not faced Indians rookie right-hander Danny Salazar, Wednesday's probable starter, but Cleveland has faced Cobb this season, during which he went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts. On April 6, Cobb turned in 7 1/3 strong innings in a 6-0 victory over the Indians, who struck out six times against the right-hander.
First baseman Nick Swisher has the most experience against Cobb among Cleveland's batters, having hit .300 (3-for-10) off the righty in 12 plate appearances. Indians catcher and designated hitter Carlos Santana has hit .429 (3-for-7) against Cobb, and utility man Ryan Raburn has posted a .375 (3-for-8) average against the right-hander.
If it is a close game, the Indians know the Rays pose a threat.
"They find a way to scrape across runs," Indians setup man Joe Smith said. "That's why they're a good team. When they get in a one-run ballgame, they're not panicked. I feel like they play like that a lot. A lot of close ballgames. A lot of come-from-behind games. Playing them, you just have to hope you can keep adding on. They've got a lot of fight in them."
That being the case, the Indians -- with 11 walk-off wins in the regular season -- certainly feel fortunate to be playing the AL Wild Card Game in Cleveland.
"It's extrememly important," Kipnis said. "To have our city behind us, playing in front of our crowd, that's where home-field advantage comes from. Having your own crowd cheer for you, build you up, get the blood going a little bit more, it makes it more fun to play in and makes the other team a little bit more nervous."
Wednesday's game was announced as a sellout, which has Cleveland's players excited about the atmosphere they will experience with a spot in the AL Division Series against Boston on the line. The Indians last hosted a postseason game back in 2007, when the club fell one victory shy of reaching the World Series.
"We're expecting a lot of energy," Smith said. "We're all looking forward to it, because none of us have ever really heard it like that. [Asdrubal] Cabrera is the only one from that 2007 team that went to the playoffs. He's probably the only one who's heard that stadium rocking like it can."