MINNEAPOLIS — Win number nine in a row counts the same as the other eight for the Indians, but it sure put the baseball team from Cleveland in an advantageous spot as the season heads to its last day.
Cleveland’s 5-1 win over Minnesota on Saturday combined with Tampa Bay’s loss to Toronto put the Indians one game up in the wild card chase, ahead of Texas and Tampa Bay.
Which means the Indians are assured of playing after Sunday — either in a playoff to earn a wild card spot, or in the wild card game itself.
Many possibilities remain, but the one certainty is that if the Indians win the regular season finale, they host the wild card game on Wednesday at Progressive Field. That matters to the team, a lot. It matters so much that the Indians will keep Ubaldo Jimenez as the starting pitcher on Sunday and not hold him back for a postseason game.
But if the Indians lose, the complexities begin:
—If Cleveland loses, Tampa Bay wins and Texas loses, the Indians would play a wild card game in Tampa on Wednesday.
–If Cleveland loses, Tampa Bay loses and Texas wins, Texas would play at Cleveland on Wednesday.
–If Cleveland loses and the other two teams win, the result would be a three-way tie. That would lead to a complex playoff in which the Rays and Indians would play a game on Monday in Cleveland. The winner of that game would become one wild card team. The loser would go to Texas for a second game, with the winner earning the second wild card spot.
The easiest thing to remember, the thing the team is keeping in mind, is a win ensures the first wild card spot and a game at home on Wednesday.
A win would polish off a shiny finish, too, because it would give the Indians 10 in a row, a streak of streaks to end the season.
“How can you not be super-stoked?” said Nick Swisher. “It’s kind of one of those seasons that doesn’t come along very often.”
“We’re in a good place right now,” said Scott Kazmir, who struck out 11 in an effective six-inning start on Saturday. “I feel like we’re still very hungry, so we’re going out there every day and grinding at-bats and making quality pitches.”
The numbers continue to pile up. Ninety-one wins after winning 68 a year ago. Nine wins in a row heading into the final game. In those nine games, the starting pitchers compiling an ERA of 2.61 (including Corey Kluber giving up six runs in 5 1/3 innings on Friday).
The schedule is what it is, but the Indians have beaten up on the teams they should beat, and they’ve done it in impressive fashion, with a 20-6 record in September and a 55-18 overall mark this season against losing teams.
Swisher does not want to hear about the schedule.
“No one was bitching about the schedule when we lost 96 games last year,” said Swisher, who wasn’t with the team last year but knows the Indians played the same schedule. “You still have to win the games.”
There was no excessive locker room celebration Saturday, no inkling that this win was any more important than any other.
“Look around,” said reliever Joe Smith, “it’s pretty relaxed in here right now. I think that’s good, because I think that everybody knows that we have to win (Sunday). We want to win (Sunday). Why not finish off strong?”
The Indians will entrust their chance to Jimenez, a guy who represents the team’s turnaround as much as anyone. Jimenez led the league in losses last season, but this season he’s become nearly unhittable — with an ERA of 1.86 the second half, and September numbers of 3-0 and 1.04.
In the clubhouse, the notion that the Indians will play somewhere and somehow after Sunday seemed almost inconsequential.
“I look around here and I don’t even think anybody’s even thinking about that,” said Swisher, who said the words “one more” to each of his teammates as he shook hands after the win. “I think we got our minds on coming out and winning on (Sunday). This is great because it’s kind of uncharted territory for a lot of these guys.
“And just to be able to see them … it’s great because nobody’s really thinking about that. We’re just kind of going about our business, coming to the ballpark every day and playing hard.”
Smith was one of the younger guys who suffered through the past couple seasons.
“It’s fun again, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “The past few years basically you’re just playing to save your stats. Fifteen games out or whatever, it’s not a fun feeling.”
Fun could be the mildest word to describe this season, one that seemed to catch folks off guard as if they were never sure the success would continue.
It has, and the Indians now could match the biggest season-to-season improvement in team history. They also know the season will continue after the regular season ends. Whether it’s a playoff to get into the wild card or whether it’s the wild card game itself, there will be postseason baseball in Cleveland.
That’s a notion very few thought likely a year ago at this time.