The Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians have already survived so much this season to get to this point. Now we'll see who survives one more game.
The Rays beat the Rangers in Arlington, 5-2, in a rare Game No. 163 tiebreaker on Monday night and will turn right around and head to the shore of Lake Erie to face the hottest team in baseball, an Indians club that finished off the season with 10 consecutive wins and 21 victories in 27 September games to storm into the top spot in the American League Wild Card Game and earn home-field advantage.
The stage is set for the elimination game, set for Wednesday night at 8:07 p.m. ET on TBS at Progressive Field, with Rays right-hander Alex Cobb taking on Indians rookie Danny Salazar. The winner goes to Boston to play the Red Sox in the AL Division Series. The loser gets to think about it all winter.
"Get your 92nd win, you go to Cleveland against a really good ballclub," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after his team's win on Monday. "They're rested. I like the notion that we've pretty much been playing this [elimination-type] game for about a week now."
The Rays have won games like Monday's with excellent pitching and inconsistent but timely offense throughout a hard-fought season that had them treading water in the AL East long enough to qualify for the tiebreaker in Texas with a last-day-of-the-season win over Toronto.
Then came Monday night and David Price's nine gutty innings, a two-run home run by torrid third baseman Evan Longoria, a few insurance runs, and the Rays ended the Rangers' seven-game winning streak. Now they're right back where they seem to always find themselves: in the hunt for October.
"It's a lot different when you're in the postseason," Longoria said. "This is something that, as a team, we'll all savor. You don't get a chance to go to the postseason every year, and we've been fortunate, so we're really going to enjoy this."
The Tribe, meanwhile, turned on a September switch and became a buzz saw under the seemingly magical helm of manager Terry Francona.
Down the stretch, the Indians got a little bit of everything: a walk-off home run from 41-year-old Jason Giambi, gem after gem from reclamation project Scott Kazmir and reborn ace Ubaldo Jimenez, and big hits up and down their underrated lineup, which now seems formidable.
"This is what you play for," Indians pitcher Justin Masterson said on Sunday. "You play to win a World Series, but you've got to get there first, get to the playoffs. So you play to get to the playoffs, and here we are with that opportunity. It's just been incredible. The ups and downs of this organization the last few years, we couldn't ask for anything better."
Now Progressive Field is sold out for Wednesday's game, the Indians have already executed a turnaround in the standings that doesn't seem like a fluke, and they meet a resilient team in the Rays that isn't a stranger to success.
"It's been a long time since Cleveland's had something like this," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said after Cleveland clinched the Wild Card spot on Sunday. "I hope the fans are as excited as we are."
In other words, it should be Wild Card Game to remember.
Rays: Cobb pitching like an ace
The Rays have to feel good about what Cobb has done lately, especially after the right-hander was struck in the face by a line drive on June 15 and missed two months of the season. He's been untouchable of late, striking out 26 batters over his past 23 1/3 innings of work, all in victories.
In his previous outing, he overcame the emotion of Mariano Rivera's last appearance at Yankee Stadium to toss seven shutout innings and improve to 11-3 this season with a 2.76 ERA.
"He pitched extremely well once again," Maddon said. "Curveball outstanding, changeup … I think he was having a hard time command-wise with the changeup early. … Then he started using his fastball more, which I thought was a great move. But overall, a fantastic performance."
Cobb is 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in his career against Cleveland. This year, he faced the Indians once and beat them, 6-0, with seven shutout innings on April 6.
• Longoria is 11-for-19 (.579) with seven homers, 11 RBIs and nine runs scored in the Rays' final five games of the regular season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Longoria was tied with St. Louis' Stan Musial for most home runs all-time (six) in the final games of individual seasons, including three homers in last year's finale and two in 2011, before breaking that mark with his two-run homer on Monday.
• The Rays have a club-record 17 shutouts this season, including four in their past 18 games. Their 32 shutouts over the last two years are tied with the Dodgers for most in the Majors. They are the first AL team with 15 shutouts in consecutive seasons since the 1989-90 A's.
Indians: Salazar the confident choice
Salazar is 23 years old and began the season in Double-A, and now the Indians are giving him the ball with their whole season on the line. They feel good about it, too, given the fact that Salazar regularly throws fastballs in the upper 90s and has the numbers to back up the stuff.
Salazar posted a 3.12 ERA and finished with 65 strikeouts and 15 walks in 52 innings this season, and in five September starts, he pitched to a 2.52 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 25 innings as the Cleveland coaching staff ratcheted up his pitch counts.
"He's not a finished product," Francona said. "The finished product is going to be special, but he's comfortable on the mound. We wouldn't do it if we weren't comfortable."
Salazar seems comfortable with the assignment, too.
"This is awesome," Salazar said quietly. "The team has trust in me. I'm just going to do my best there."
• The Indians are still figuring out how to approach the closer's role during the postseason, and it happened because recently demoted closer Chris Perez suggested his own removal from the ninth-inning job.
"I'm here to help the team," Perez said. "I went into [Francona's] office the other night and said, 'I'm not going to cost this team a playoff spot. You need to make a change right now. You've got four or five guys who are throwing the [heck] out of the ball. I don't have an ego. Make the change.' And he did.
"Fans asked me at the start of the year about what my goals are. I told them I'd take 20 saves if we could make the playoffs. We made the playoffs and I've got 25 saves."
• Cleveland is only the sixth Major League team in the modern era (since 1900) to end a season with 10 consecutive victories, joining the 1915 White Sox (11), '37 Pirates (10), '60 Yankees (15), '70 Orioles (11) and '71 Orioles (11), according to STATS.
• Rays first baseman James Loney led the Majors with a club-record .351 batting average (97-for-276) on the road this season.
• For the seventh time in his career, Francona has guided a team to 90 wins, tying him for second among active managers with Davey Johnson (retiring) and Jim Leyland and behind Dusty Baker (eighth).