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 had an excuse. The Rays have been on the road.
In the past week they’ve gone from St. Petersburg to New York to Toronto to Texas to Cleveland, a journey covering 3,627 miles.
On Wednesday night 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 the postseason since 2007.
Forced to win almost every day down the stretch, 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, “we’ve already played this wild-card game a couple times.”
The Rays always believed they’d be in position to make a run at a first World Series title.
“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 new manager Terry Francona by ripping off 10 wins in a row, playing error-free ball.
Now, when there’s no room for lapses, the Indians will start rookie Danny Salazar in their biggest game in six seasons.
Tampa Bay 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 April 6.
“That was so long ago, I don’t know if that really applies anymore,” he said.
“Plus,” Maddon said, interrupting his young righty, “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 liner 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 then, going 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA.
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.
“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,” he said.
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), 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.