Tampa Bay Rays vs. Cleveland Indians AL Wild Card Game 2013 Preview

Dirk Hayhurst@@TheGarfooseNational MLB ColumnistOctober 2, 2013

Sep 29, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) celebrates in the dugout after scoring against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

I'm not going to waste your time beating around the bush with some gushing narrative about heart and hustle in a town that really needs a team to root for.

There will be enough of that Wednesday, when the postgame theater opens and your screen gets flooded with shots of Nick Swisher charging his Bro-hioans. Instead, let's cut right to the facts: The Indians are a weaker team in a weaker division, and they've played at the absolute extreme of their bell curve to get where they are.

If, for some miraculous reason, they find a way to outmaneuver the superior Rays on Wednesday night, Darwin will roll over in his grave.

The Rays are the bigger predator, from a stronger division, and have enough talent in all areas of play to compete for top of the baseball food chain.

It's a shame they put themselves in a one-game-playoff scenario, but this is in no way an endorsement that the Indians are similarly talented.

While the Rays fought for a wild-card spot with the rest of the monsters in the AL East, the Indians were rolling over the Twins, White Sox and Astros—the crud on the bottom of the AL barrel.

Sep 25, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians first baseman Nick Swisher (left) and shortstop Mike Aviles celebrate a 7-2 win over the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

I have an immense amount of respect for what Terry Francona and the Indians have done this year. Cleveland is a small-market town with a smallish payroll, in a division that holds the Tigers.

But, to be fair, Joe Maddon and his Rays have been doing it better with less in a tougher division for years now. As a Cleveland native myself, I'm happy for the Tribe and the town, but I'm not impressed. 

Not yet. 

The Rays have done this whole one-game, death-match playoff thing before. Heck, when you look at their payroll, they've practically been baptized in long-shot, overcomer odds. 

While it's true the Rays don't crush the ball like Cleveland does (Cleveland had the seventh-most homers in the AL this season), they produce when it counts and can manufacture runs utilizing all fields and stealing bases, even in high-leverage situations. They have more depth to their rotation, pen and bench, all working under a manager who believes fortune favors the bold. 

And yet baseball, in its infinite cruelty, is a game wherein any team can beat any team on any given day. This, too, is something Maddon thrives under; something that may prove to be his undoing Wednesday. 

Aug 20, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon (70) during the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs were practically made for teams that shouldn't win. Teams with wild inconsistencies in their talent. Getting to the postseason is certainly about having the best team, but winning in the postseason is about having the hottest team, and there is no denying that the Indians are red-hot coming into this game. 

Speaking of heat, the Indians will run Danny Salazar and his 100 mph fastball to the mound. A rookie pitching in the most important game of his life to date, and the most important game of the Indians' season.

This young man has succeeded at every level he's ever been at and the Rays have never faced him before—all good signs. He'll also be doing it in his own park, where the 10th man will be cheering for him and not against.

He could very well ambush the Rays, render their bats useless and give his boys a chance to do what they've been doing for the last two weeks—shock and awe.

Aug 27, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar (31) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Or, he could completely implode under the immense pressure of being a young man with the weight of a town that's been perennially disappointed by failing franchises on his back. It's a hell of a gamble, just one of many the Indians have made all year. 

Tuesday night, the Reds put Johnny Cueto on the mound even though they likely preferred Mat Latos. It's what they had to do.

When the Reds lost, Brandon Phillips went on record saying his team choked. Bold words. False words. The fact of the matter was, the Reds didn't have any other options. Cueto was the best choice at the time; it just didn't work out. 

Salazar is the best choice for the Indians. Maybe not the first choice, but, considering the long haul of the season, injuries and matchups, he's the best. 

If the Indians lose, no one on that team will say they choked. Not because they are classier than the Reds, but because they've embraced the idea of winning with whomever and whatever they take the field with, and that belief may be the impetus behind all this postseason magic. 

My gut tells me Salazar is going to have the game of his life—it's just how things have gone for the Indians lately.

However, if the Indians do win, they'll just move on to face a bigger, meaner predator on the AL food chain, and they'll have to hold up over more than one game. I don't think they have the depth or talent to pull it off this year, but the Rays do.