Cleveland Sports Weekly: One game to rule them all…

Jim Piascik

It has all come down to this.

One game. Tonight. The playoffs.

After the way the 2012 season ended, no rational fan should have expected Cleveland to make the playoffs this year. Yet here we are, counting down the hours to Cleveland-Tampa Bay in the American League Wild Card game.

Sure, it would be nice to have more than one guaranteed playoff game, but beggars can’t be choosers. Cleveland is one of the best teams in baseball and will get the chance to prove it tonight at Progressive Field.

Taking the mound for for the Indians tonight is rookie phenom Danny Salazar. In his 52.0 major league innings this year, Salazar owns a 3.12 ERA, and a strikeout-walk ratio of 65 to 15. He may be a rookie, but he just might be the best pitcher in terms of raw ability on the whole roster.

Countering for Tampa is Alex Cobb, another relatively young pitcher with a 2.76 ERA and 134 to 45 strikeout-walk ratio. Cobb has a little more experience than Salazar (332.1 career innings to 52.0), but both are strong starting options for the Wild Card game.

Even better for Cleveland, Justin Masterson should be available to relieve Salazar. Masterson is the staff’s ace normally, though the right-hander is still recovering from injury. Chris Perez’s issues have raised some questions at the back of Cleveland’s bullpen, but with Masterson on call, the bullpen probably will not be much of an issue.

Cleveland may not have players who add as much value as Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist do for Tampa, but it might not matter with the way the team is constructed. This team was never built to ride on the successes of one player but to be a strong lineup from top to bottom.

Between Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana and others, Cleveland has a number of above-average to average major league starters. Granted, the Rays can counter with their own stacked lineup, including Longoria, Zobrist and Yunel Escobar, but that just underscores how even Tampa and Cleveland are.

There is no real use going in-depth to find some kind of magic prediction for who will win tonight. Baseball plays 162 games in order to determine its playoff teams. This is one singular game where anything can happen.

Every pitcher has bad games. Every star has 0-for-5 days. Salazar could throw a no-hitter. He could be run out in the first inning. There is no way to know.

Cleveland finished 92-70. Tampa finished 92-71. In all reality, this is one giant coin flip being executed in front of a sellout crowd at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. The home field advantage likely means the coin is weighted slightly in Cleveland’s favor but probably not much.

The playoffs will make heroes and goats tonight based on who has one good (or bad) game. While far from fair, that is the nature of the beast. Progressive Field is actually sold out tonight; now the fans are showing up and paying attention. Cleveland finished 14th out of 15 in the American League in attendance, but now that the team is officially in the playoffs, everyone is watching.

If Santana hits a big first inning home run to lead the team to a blowout victory, he becomes the hero. If he strikes out to end the game, he becomes the goat. None of which is fair considering he is one of the big reasons Cleveland is even in this place.

What really matters is that Cleveland is winning again. All season I wrote fans should be happy the team is competitive whether or not the Indians actually made the playoffs. Now that the team is there, why would that change?

If Cleveland wins tonight and faces Boston in the Divisional Series, everyone should be excited to see if this is finally the year for Northeast Ohio to celebrate a championship.

If Cleveland loses, this was still a successful, fun year.

Either way, let’s enjoy the playoff baseball that has officially descended upon Cleveland.

Contact Jim Piascik at [email protected].