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Three keys for Indians in AL Wild Card Game

Three keys for Indians in AL Wild Card Game

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CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona does not like to look too far ahead. For fans who might believe destiny or fate have played any kind of role in the Tribe's surge to the postseason, it is tempting to take a peek beyond Wednesday night's American League Wild Card Game.

A win over the Tampa Bay would pit Francona's Indians against his former Red Sox in the AL Division Series.

"I've been asked a lot about it," Francona said. "But we're so consumed with Wednesday."

AL Wild Card

That sums up the daily approach taken by Francona, whose players have embraced his one pitch, one inning and one game at a time mentality. Cleveland's narrowed focus allowed the team to rattle off 10 wins in a row to end a 21-6 September that led to Sunday's clinching of the AL's top Wild Card spot.

That has set the stage for the Wild Card Game on TBS at 8:07 p.m. ET at Progressive Field, where the Indians picked up 51 wins, including 11 in walk-off fashion, during their improbable push to October. Here are three keys for the Tribe to extend their run into the second round:

Danny Salazar
The Indians are sending the hard-throwing Salazar to the mound to start the Wild Card Game, trusting a 23-year-old rookie with the most important game of the team's season. Potentially working in the right-hander's favor, however, is the fact that the Rays have never faced him.

Salazar features an overpowering fastball that can reach triple-digits on the radar gun, a slider that slices out of the zone and a split-change that has action similar to a sinker. The rookie's ability to drastically change speeds, and his recent improvement with mixing in more offspeed pitches, has led to an extremely high strikeout rate in his first taste of the big leagues.

Throughout Salazar's season, which included stops at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus prior to joining Cleveland's rotation, the Indians have kept a leash on his pitch count. In his past two outings, however, the team has allowed Salazar to add more to his workload. Salazar said the recent loosening of the leash has helped him relax more on the mound.

Nick Swisher
The Indians signed Swisher to a four-year, $56 million contract to provide leadership in the clubhouse and to serve as a run producer in the batter's box. The switch-hitter has played through left shoulder soreness and endured his share of offensive struggles, but he turned it on over the final six weeks to help lead the offense.

Keeping Swisher hot in the No. 2 spot of the batting order could be key for the Indians.

In Sunday's AL Wild Card-clinching win over the Twins, Swisher launched a two-run home run in the first inning and Cleveland never looked back. Over the final 17 games, in which the Tribe collected 15 wins, the first baseman (and part-time right fielder) hit .288 with five home runs, eight extra-base hits, 11 RBIs, 11 walks and 12 runs.

Swisher posted an .869 OPS in September, doing his part in helping Cleveland to a 21-win month for the first time since 1995. In his final 40 games of the year, Swisher hit .269 with an .862 OPS, clubbing 10 home runs and driving in 26 RBIs while Cleveland posted a 27-13 record. He hit .231 with a .702 OPS, 10 homers and 31 RBIs in his previous 90 games.

Back-end of the bullpen
The Indians stripped Chris Perez of his closer's role in the final series of the regular season after allowing six runs over his last two appearances. His 7.52 ERA dating to Aug. 1 is evidence enough of his recent struggles late in games. Bringing some consistency to the final frame would go a long way in keeping Cleveland's playoff hopes alive.

In a one-game playoff situation like the Wild Card, there are any number of ways the Indians could go with the last few innings. Francona has a wide array of options in relievers such as sidearmer Joe Smith, rookie setup man Cody Allen, right-hander Bryan Shaw or even lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who has plenty of playoff experience from his days with the Cardinals.

Cleveland's secret weapon -- though it is hardly a secret any longer -- might be sinkerballer Justin Masterson. The Opening Day starter sustained a left oblique injury on Sept. 2, but recently returned in a relief role. Masterson is not stretched out to start, but he is an overpowering sinkerballer capable of logging multiple innings out of the bullpen.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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