CLEVELAND – Sporting sunglasses, a teal shirt and a backpack hanging from his shoulder, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon looked like a tourist as he arrived late for his news conference.
Maddon didn’t have time to slip into his uniform and had a valid excuse. The Rays have been on the road.
In the past week, they’ve gone from Tampa to New York to Toronto to Texas to Cleveland, a journey covering 3,627 miles.
Tonight, the Rays hope to book a trip to Boston.
Getting a complete game from starter David Price, Tampa Bay beat Texas 5-2 in a tiebreaker 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 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.”
Wednesday’s winner will meet the Red Sox in Game 1 of the division series Friday.
The Rays always believed they’d be in position to make a run at a first World Series title. And although they’ve racked up some frequent-flyer miles and lived out of their suitcases to keep their season alive, they’re confident their season isn’t about to end.
“When you get into this momentum kind of a thing on a daily basis and you’re playing great competition and you’re going from city to city to city and it’s an adverse territory, all of this stuff is what you train for and you really dig and you love it,” Maddon said. “You don’t have time to get nervous or overthink, you’ve just got to get ready and go play – and for our guys, they kind of like that moment right now.”
Like the Rays, 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.
“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,” 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 in nine starts.
Cobb said two months of rest may have helped, but he was also driven to pitch in the postseason after missing out in 2011 when he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in his ribs.
“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.”