MINNEAPOLIS — A team that was left for dead on countless occasions this season is alive and well atop the American League wild-card heap.
With a 5-1 victory over Minnesota at Target Field on Saturday, coupled with a Tampa Bay loss, the Indians shot to a one-game lead over the Rays and the Rangers in the race for the final two AL postseason berths.
Another win today for Cleveland would clinch homefield advantage in the wild-card game Wednesday. At the very least, the Indians’ ninth straight victory Saturday assured them of at least a 163rd game.
But that’s not where the focus lies.
“We’ve got our minds on coming out (today) and getting that win (today),” first baseman Nick Swisher said. “We’re just kind of going about our business, coming to the ballpark every day and just playing hard. We gotta continue to do that, but I think what our mindset is is just winning (today), and then we’ll kind of go from there.”
The only way the Indians don’t clinch a spot in the wild-card game is if they lose and Texas and Tampa Bay win. That would leave a three-way tie, with Cleveland getting a chance to play a tiebreaker game to get into the one-game wild-card battle.
“Every time you win, it makes the next day that much more important,” manager Terry Francona said. “It’s exciting, it’s fun. I know I’m supposed to come up with some stuff to say, but we show up and play. We need to be one run better (today) and then go from there.”
The Indians are in this situation thanks to a sparkling outing from left-hander Scott Kazmir and some timely hitting.
Kazmir allowed just a run on six hits while striking out 11 batters over six innings, giving Cleveland a much-needed quality start.
“I thought Kaz had a lot of life on his fastball, because I don’t think he located as well as he can,” Francona said. “He threw some good breaking balls, but he had good life. Kaz kept making pitches when he had to.”
It was the third time in his last five starts that Kazmir recorded a double-digit strikeout total.
“I’m going out there and getting them in swing mode, and once I get two strikes, I’ve got quite a few pitches that I’m able to sit them down with,” said Kazmir, who has allowed three runs or fewer in four of his last five outings. “You just have to go out and attack hitters.”
It took a bit for the offense to get in gear against unheralded Twins starter Cole De Vries, a right-hander who retired the first 11 hitters he faced, striking out five of the first seven.
It was a different story the second time through the order, with Cleveland catching up to De Vries in the fourth inning — Carlos Santana landing the big blow with a two-run blast to right field after Jason Kipnis collected the first hit with two outs.
Cleveland managed just seven hits on the day, but most of them were clutch, with six of them coming with two outs. Up 2-1 with two outs in the fifth, center fielder Michael Bourn delivered a two-run triple, then scored on a base hit from Kipnis.
Bourn was playing for the first time in four games after injuring his right wrist.
“Carlos’ swing was huge,” Francona said. “It helped loosen up everything and then Bourny with a big hit. We made good use of our hits. We didn’t have a ton, and I think we got them all with two outs.”
The Indians are in uncharted waters, with their last playoff appearance coming in 2007. Until now, it has been season after season of disappointment and waiting for next year.
“Losing 96 games to winning 90-plus. How could you not be super stoked about that?” Swisher said. “It’s kind of one of those seasons that doesn’t come along very often.”
And it’s far from over.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @CAwesomeheimer.