CLEVELAND — As they packed their bags for a critical trip to Atlanta and Detroit, the Cleveland Indians may not have realized they could be bringing something valuable on the road with them this week.
Although the Indians don't often look like a playoff team, they're in the thick of the AL wild-card chase as August drains to its final days. The key now is for them to stay in contention.
If the Indians, who somehow found a way to beat Minnesota on Sunday despite making four errors, have any desire to still be playing in October, they'll have to survive a daunting upcoming schedule. Today, they'll open a three-game series against the Braves before playing three games against the Central-leading Tigers, who have beaten Cleveland 13 of 16 times this season.
Then, it's back home for a three-game set against the Baltimore Orioles, one of several teams Cleveland is currently fighting for a spot in the postseason.
It's crunch time.
"It's awesome," said Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, also the team's emotional leader. "This will be a great challenge for us. We're playing great baseball and want to keep doing what we're doing."
Hopefully, there won't be any duplications of Sunday. The Indians can't afford any sloppiness against the Braves and Tigers, teams that have been out ahead of the pack most of this season.
"They're two of the better teams in baseball," said Indians all-star second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "It will be a good scale to see where we're standing right now and how we're playing. I know if we play the way we played [Sunda], we're not going to able to beat those teams but we've got a little bit of momentum."
There may not be a more resilient team in the majors than the Indians, who have been counted out this season only to rebound and climb in the standings.
After being swept in four straight games by Detroit earlier this month, the Indians were left for dead. They instead went 6-3 on a recent road trip, winning a few games that seemed out of reach.
"It's not always pretty, fellas," Swisher said with a laugh after Sunday's win. "We've got a scrappy squad."
It's a group that abides by manager Terry Francona's one-day-at-a-time mantra almost to a fault. The Indians don't dare look too far ahead. All that matters is that day's game.
Francona will not let his players think about anything but what is right in front of them, and that's how he's having them approach an upcoming stretch that may define the season.
"I hope we view it as, 'Tuesday night's a big game,'" Francona said. "That's the best way I know how to do it. I know where we're going, just because you have to pack for two cities. Other than that, there's no sense concerning yourself about a team that's on the next homestand. We need to play well Tuesday."
The Indians will start rookie Danny Salazar in the interleague opener at Turner Field. The right-hander has been another bright spot for a pitching staff that has been much better than advertised this season. Cleveland's rotation has overcome predictions it would be the club's weak spot.
Instead, Cleveland hasn't gotten the production it expected from Swisher ($11 million salary in 2013), center fielder Michael Bourn ($7 million), and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera ($6.5 million), the Indians' highest-paid players. However, there's still plenty of games left and now would be a good time for any of the three to start carrying the lineup.
If the Indians can come out of this nine-game stretch still in contention, the schedule is in their favor. Other than the Orioles, they'll only play one other team — Kansas City (65-64) — in September with a winning record.
"It's not a make-or-break-the-season trip," Kipnis said. "These are games we need to win, games we want to win, but every game we play will be a crucial game. That's what you want, important games down the road and playing meaningful games in September.
"That's what we're doing."