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Indians embrace team theme in wildcard playoff

The SportsXchange

CLEVELAND -- The American League wild-card game will feature a team loaded with playoff experience and a team filled with postseason neophytes.

The Indians hope home-field advantage and extra rest will overcome playoff savvy when the play host to the Rays on Wednesday.

Tampa Bay earned the final playoff spot with a 5-2 win over Texas in a tiebreaking game Monday. The Rays are in the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six years. Cleveland is making its first postseason appearance since 2007.

"I'm not surprised," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "That's the way we have to play, and like I said all year, I'm OK with that because it's baseball and it just goes to show you that when you play the game right, the sum of all our parts can be a pretty good team and that's not such a bad way to come to work."

The Indians, who went 2-4 vs. Tampa Bay this year, go into the wild-card game on a winning streak of historic proportions.

Cleveland won its final 10 regular-season games to earn the No. 1 wild-card position. The Indians are the sixth team in major league history to finish a season on a winning streak of 10 or more games. Prior to the Indians, the last team to do it was the 1971 Orioles.

The Indians also went a major-league-best 21-6 in September. It was the first time Cleveland won 20 games in a month since doing so twice during in 1995, a year in which the Indians reached the World Series.

Despite their impressive September record, the Indians overcame some hurdles last month. Chief among them was that No. 1 starter Justin Masterson missed most of the month with a strained oblique. Masterson is back, but not in the rotation. He made three relief appearances the last week of the regular season, throwing three scoreless innings.

The plan is for Masterson to continue to work out of the bullpen, with rookie Danny Salazar remaining in the rotation.

"That guy's a weapon," Francona said of Masterson. "We plan to use it."

The Indians will also go into the wild-card game with no officially anointed closer. Chris Perez, the team's closer the past four years, endured an awful month of September -- as his 9.64 ERA would indicate -- pitching so poorly that he was taken out of the closer's role in the last week of the regular season.

Manager Terry Francona declined to name a new closer, saying it would be more of a closer-by-committee arrangement. Joe Smith, however, was the most ninth-inning action since the demotion of Perez. Smith, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and even Masterson are the candidates to handle the closer's job as the postseason begins. It's part of the theme in Francona's locker room -- mighty as one.

"I could name probably 15, 16, 17 guys who if they weren't on our team, we wouldn't be here," Francona said. "I don't know if a lot of teams can do that. We don't have the 100-RBI guy. We don't have the 20-game winner, but you start going through the list, we would not be where we are."

The Indians' pitching was spectacular in September, but the strong closing kick dates back further. Cleveland's 3.16 ERA since the All-Star break was the second best in the American league and the fourth best in the majors. During the 10-game winning streak, Indians pitchers held the opposition to two runs or fewer seven times.

On defense, the Indians are playing better than they have all year. They played error-free ball throughout the winning streak. The offense produced timely hits, meaning all phases of the team are in fine form heading to the postseason.
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