CLEVELAND — The Indians had to scrap their way into the postseason. Cleveland ended a topsy-turvy regular season under manager Terry Francona by ripping off 10 wins in a row, playing error-free ball during the stretch.
Now, when every mistake is magnified and there's no room for lapses, the Indians want to keep rolling and will start rookie Danny Salazar in their biggest game in six seasons when they host the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive field today at 8 p.m.
"This team wasn't expected to do anything," said right fielder Nick Swisher, one of the team's high-profile free-agent signings. "Just to be where we are right now is awesome, man."
Tampa won four of the six games against Cleveland this season, but the teams haven't met since early June.
Rays starter Alex Cobb (11-3) was asked what he learned about the Indians in his one start against them on April 6.
"That was so long ago, I don't know if that really applies anymore," he said.
"Plus," manager Joe Maddon said, interrupting his young right-hander. "That was before you got hit in the head."
Fortunately, the Rays can now make light of the scary situation involving Cobb, who was struck in the head by a line drive hit by Kansas City's Eric Hosmer on June 15. Cobb missed 50 games with a concussion, but he's been a different pitcher since the injury, going 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA.
Cobb said two months of rest helped, but he was also driven to pitch in the postseason after missing out in 2011 when he had surgery to remove a blood clot.
"Watching the postseason and just the feeling of being left out is indescribable," he said. "It's a terrible feeling that you don't want to have again, so I think it was extra motivation to get back and it definitely fueled the fire even more to get back to the postseason and know that we have a special group that can go far."
The Indians feel just as strongly about making this an unforgettable season, perhaps even ending Cleveland's 65-year drought between World Series titles.
Francona has no hesitation in handing the ball to Salazar (2-3), an unflappable 23-year-old who began the season at Double-A Akron but zoomed to the majors and carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his debut. The Rays have never faced him.
"Believe me, we wouldn't pitch him if we weren't confident in him giving us the best chance to win," Francona said. "Danny has done nothing to make us think he can't handle this. He's so poised. If I had stuff like him, I'd be poised too. But there's a difference between throwing 100 mph and being able to get major league hitters out. Danny can do that."
He’ll be facing a team that could be excused for feeling a little road weary.
In the past week, they've gone from Tampa to New York to Toronto to Texas to Cleveland, a journey covering 3,627 miles.
Getting a complete game from starter David Price, Tampa Bay beat Texas 5-2 in a tiebreaker on Monday night, earning the Rays a wild-card spot for the third time in four years and a chance to face the Indians, making their first appearance in October since 2007.
Forced to win almost every day down the stretch as they went neck-and-neck-and-neck with the Indians and Rangers in a thrilling wild-card scramble in the final weeks of September, the Rays won in Toronto on Sunday before traveling deep in the heart of Texas and surviving a win-or-go-home scenario.
"I'll tell you what," said Maddon, whose team went 14-5 after Sept. 12. "We've already played this wild-card game a couple times. We did it in Toronto a couple days ago. We did it yesterday in Texas, and we're going to come here tomorrow and do it again. I don't know if there's a battle-tested component to that, if you get immune to whatever that pressure is and you go play."
NOTES: Indians CF and leadoff hitter Michael Bourn did some agility drills and ran the bases before working out with his teammates. He pulled up with a leg injury on Sunday in Minnesota, and his status is not yet known. ... Francona followed up on his joke about the Indians avoiding chicken and beer during his September surge, a jab at his final days in Boston. "I lied about that," he said. "We have had some chicken."