(SportsNetwork.com) - No team was hotter than the Cleveland Indians down the stretch. The Tribe shoots for an 11th straight win on Wednesday when they welcome the Tampa Bay Rays to Progressive Field for the American League wild card game.
Cleveland won its final 10 regular-season games to earn the No. 1 wild card position. The Indians also became the sixth team in major league history to finish a season on a winning streak of 10 or more games.
Prior to the Indians, the last team to do it was the 1971 Orioles.
Cleveland also went a major-league-best 21-6 in September. It was the first time Cleveland won 20 games in a month since doing so twice in 1995, a year in which the Indians reached the World Series.
"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."
Hosting the game may also be a benefit for the Indians, who were 51-30 in front of their fans this season. However, Cleveland was an absurd 36-52 against teams with .500-or-better records this season.
"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."
The 92 wins for the Tribe were quite a contrast from a year ago when they lost 94 games.
General manager Chris Antonetti made a bevy of offseason moves, but none may have been bigger than landing manager Terry Francona, whose leadership and calm presence has helped the Indians back to the postseason for the first time in six years.
"I have no doubt," Antonetti said, "that we would not be in the position we are without Tito's leadership."
As big of an impact as Francona has had on Cleveland, it was the team's starting pitching staff that carried them to the finish line. Cleveland's 3.16 ERA since the All-Star break was the second best in the American League and the fourth best in the majors.
During the 10-game winning streak, Indians pitchers held the opposition to two runs or less seven times.
One of those starters, right-handed rookie Danny Salazar, gets the call for the Indians on Wednesday.
"This is awesome," said Salazar, who has never faced the Rays. "The team has trust in me. I'm just going to do my best there."
Salazar has been brilliant since joining the rotation in July, boasting a 3.12 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 65/15 K/BB ratio over 52 innings. He pitched to a 2.53 ERA in five September starts and recorded 33 strikeouts over 25 innings in that span.
"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."
If there's one drawback to Salazar it's the fact that the 23-year-old has pitched more than six innings in only one of his 10 starts.
So, Francona's bullpen will have to be ready and it's a unit without a leader at the moment, as the Indians will likely employ a closer-by-committee arrangement after Chris Perez was demoted from the closer's role following an awful final month that saw him pitch to a 9.64 ERA.
"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."