Texas escaped from an ignominious choke. Tampa Bay slithered away from the same. And now baseball gets a bonus game to see which of the two will face the team that leapfrogged them both.
The Rangers, Rays and Cleveland Indians all won their final games of the season Sunday afternoon, setting up a win-or-go-home Game 163 with Tampa Bay traveling to Texas on Monday night at 8:07 ET. Last year’s Cy Young winner, David Price, is expected to face rookie Martin Perez, with the winners heading to Progressive Field for a Wednesday one-and-done game that will determine who travels to Boston on Friday to take on the Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
Cleveland avoided the doomsday scenario – a three-way tie – by winning its 10th consecutive game and locking up the first wild-card slot. The Indians, whose last postseason appearance ended when they blew a 3-1 lead to eventual champion Boston in the 2007 ALCS, rode a brilliant 13-strikeout performance from Ubaldo Jimenez to a 5-1 victory over Minnesota.
Tampa Bay looked to be cruising into an easy win, too, dropping six runs on Toronto in the first inning and extending the lead to 7-0. The Blue Jays fought back to 7-6, but Fernando Rodney struck out cleanup hitter Moises Sierra with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, then worked around a leadoff single to close out the victory.
With the pressure on, Texas answered as it has all week, answering an early Mike Trout home run with a barrage of its own in a 6-2 victory. The Rangers were in danger of missing the playoffs after frittering away a divisional lead of 3½ games less than six weeks ago. Playing Houston and the Los Angeles Angels will get a team healthy right quick, and the Rangers swept all seven of their games this week, including a 4-2 victory on Sunday that ensured them Monday’s game.
Cleveland will start rookie Danny Salazar, the 100-mph-throwing right-hander with 10 major league starts, in the wild-card game. Tampa Bay likely would counter with Alex Cobb, and trade-deadline acquisition Matt Garza would be the favorite to start for the Rangers.
An added bonus for the Rangers: Right fielder Nelson Cruz is eligible to return from his 50-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension and could find himself in the middle of the Texas lineup.
The other playoff matchups were set by the end of Sunday. By winning their final six and finishing with the National League’s best record, the St. Louis Cardinals get to face the winner of Tuesday’s wild-card matchup of Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (Johnny Cueto vs. Francisco Liriano), while the Los Angeles Dodgers travel to Atlanta for the other NLDS series. Detroit will go to Oakland, which finished 96-66, the second-best record in the major leagues behind Boston and St. Louis (97-65).