On Monday afternoon I was driving home from work when a friend from college sent me a text message: "You have to come to Cleveland this week."
This made no sense. If you're not from Cleveland, there's never a good reason to go to Cleveland. He called a few minutes later, but I missed it. Then he sent an e-mail explaining things. He had two tickets for me:
• One to the Indians' single-game playoff Wednesday night.
• One to the shockingly relevant Browns-Bills game on Thursday.
So I went to Cleveland this week. Because playoff baseball is great even if you don't like baseball, because the Browns turnaround is so ridiculous I had to see it in person, and mostly because my editors said yes. Why not?
We'll start with the Indians game. Or the bar before the Indians game.
The Tampa Bay Rays are off to Boston for a 2008 ALCS rematch after shutting out the Indians, 4-0, Wednesday night in Cleveland. This was a classic Rays win, one powered by talent, but also flawless preparation.
In case you were busy being harassed by Brian McCann and the party police, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
The Detroit Red Wings made an early two-goal lead stand up in their first game as an Eastern Conference team, taking their season opener against the Buffalo Sabres 2-1. "It's tough," said Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg after the game. "We had to get rid of all our board shorts and flip-flops, invest in some blazers and khakis." Zetterberg then looked down at himself, attired nattily by Brooks Brothers, and sighed, before saying, "The Eastern Conference sucks. I feel like I sold out, man."
The Tampa Bay Rays will be playing more postseason baseball after surviving their second consecutive elimination game, with a 4-0 win over the Cleveland Indians in the AL wild-card game. When asked how his team dealt with the pressure of back-to-back one-and-done situations, Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "Terribly. Everyone in the clubhouse is a wreck. Lots of shaking and crying. We were this close to just forfeiting." When asked if he was worried about facing the Boston Red Sox, who had the AL's best record this season, Maddon screamed, "Ahhhh! We get the Red Sox? Why?" before vomiting on himself.
The playoffs are a time for triumph and joy, and in a month our lasting image for the season will be some team celebrating a World Series win with champagne and goggles. But it would be wrong to ignore the flip side of that coin. Wayyyy more teams will lose, and their fans will suffer heartbreak and pain. Plus hatred. Deep, ugly, satisfying hatred. The harsh fact is that if you're a fan of the nine remaining teams, there's an 88.888888 percent chance that you'll end up watching someone else's champagne bash with envy and bitterness. You don't want to admit it yet, but you probably are the 89 percent. To help you prepare, here's a quick primer on the most hateable player from each of the remaining teams.
On Monday, we highlighted how the Rays' starting pitching edge, plus just enough offense, would propel them to victory over the Rangers in Game 163. The starting pitching matchup is much tougher to call for Wednesday's Rays vs. Indians wild-card elimination game, which — along with the 10 million kooky things that can happen in a single game — makes calling the result for either team a hell of a challenge.
In case you were busy spending your EA settlement money as quickly as possible, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Led by running back Frank Gore, the San Francisco 49ers rebounded from two consecutive heavy defeats in style, beating the St. Louis Rams, 35-11. "We couldn't run the ball," said Rams coach Jeff Fisher after the loss. "And they could run the ball." Fisher, a longtime member of the league's competition committee, then added, "That's not fair. At some point it's like, let's at least swap some linemen so that it's a good game. What happened to sportsmanship?"
Mariano Rivera played his final game at Yankee Stadium, throwing 1⅓ perfect innings in New York's 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Rivera, who has spent the season being given gifts on a de facto nationwide farewell tour, was approached by manager Joe Girardi after the game. "I bet you noticed we hadn't given you anything," Girardi told Rivera. "I had, but I don't mind; this organization has given me everything," Rivera said. Girardi smiled, and told his longtime closer, "I saved that third wish for a reason," before yelling, "I wish for Mariano to be free!" Suddenly, a swirl of blue light came from the ground, and the lamp that Rivera had quietly carried with him for his entire Yankees career shattered as if made out of glass. "Now run. No more saving us," Girardi whispered in Rivera's ear. "Now you can save yourself." Rivera then thanked Girardi before awkwardly reminding him that he was still contracted to play the final series of the season at Houston.
With five days to go in the regular season, three teams are vying for two playoff spots in one league, while three more jockey for position in the other. With help from our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, here's what we're watching for four of those teams. (Don't fret, Pirates and Rays fans, we'll have plenty to say about your teams soon.)
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Games ahead in NL Central race: 2
What's happening: One of the biggest and most successful youth movements by any playoff team in the expansion era.
Michael Wacha became the third pitcher this season to lose a no-hitter in the ninth inning. It was a heartbreaking play, with Ryan Zimmerman rapping a chopper to short with two outs in the ninth, an off-line throw allowing him to sneak in with an infield single.
It was also the 51st start by a Cardinals rookie. Shelby Miller has led the way among St. Louis rookie starters, posting a 3.12 ERA, with a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk rate and a strikeout an inning over 30 starts. Wacha's near-no-no dropped his ERA to 2.78, with a 2.92 FIP over nine starts. Tyler Lyons (eight starts), John Gast (three starts), and Carlos Martinez (one start) have also repped St. Louis first-years. That puts the Cards in rare company.
In case you were busy finding out what really happened when your cousin broke your grandmother's collection of valuable plates, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha became the third pitcher to lose a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning this season, but still collected a crucial win as St. Louis beat the Washington Nationals, 2-0. A disappointed yet upbeat Wacha addressed the media after the game, saying, "The most important thing is that we won; the no-hitter was secondary. Now I'll take questions from anyone who isn't Fozzie Bear." But when the assembled media began to yell his name, Wacha stormed off the podium, yelling, "Stop following me around, you stupid puppet bear! You're ruining my life!"
The Yankees found themselves short on bobbleheads for Mariano Rivera Bobblehead Night, causing a commotion outside of Yankee Stadium while inside the stadium the team was short on power, losing 7-0 to the Tampa Bay Rays. "You can't have him, you can't," a wild-eyed Yankees general manager Brian Cashman yelled as he sat atop a stack of boxes of Rivera bobbleheads, armed with a shotgun and a bottle marked with three X's. When told by team president Randy Levine that he had to get off the boxes to allow the fans to have them, Cashman threw his bottle at Levine and yelled back, "Let's ask Mo. Do you want to go to the fans?" Cashman then pulled out one of the bobbleheads and tapped its brim. A heartbroken Cashman looked at the small nodding Rivera in his hands with wild eyes and said, "I thought you'd never do this to me. If I can't have you, no one can!" before firing his shotgun wildly into the stack of boxes below him.
Only two more weekends left in the regular season, and to use one of my favorite clichés, these guys have EVERYTHING to play for! Let's get to it.
10. How the Nationals Will Destroy the NL Central (MIA-WAS)
At exactly the moment in the season when it was pretty much too late, the Nationals started winning like fiends. Going back to September 3, they've put together a 13-3 streak and salvaged a very remote chance of snatching the final wild-card spot. It's still a huge long shot; with nine games remaining, they find themselves five back of the Reds. We're at the point where one Reds-win-Nats-lose night will basically sink them. On the other hand, the Reds have six games remaining against the Pirates, and as long as Pittsburgh has a shot at the NL Central title, thus avoiding the wild card, they won't be laying down for anyone. The Nationals don't have it much easier, finishing with the Pirates and Diamondbacks, but they do have three games against the Marlins this weekend. In theory, it's not insane to imagine that they could be two back with six to play on Monday. And that's a very different outlook.
So, this is how the Nationals could destroy the NL Central. First, they finish in a tie with the Reds for the final playoff spot. That would result in a one-game playoff. If the Nationals won that, they would then play the wild-card game against whoever loses the Pirates-Cardinals battle for the NL Central for argument's sake, let's say the Pirates. If they won that game, and St. Louis maintained a lead in the standings over the Dodgers, the Nats would then play the third NL Central team in the divisional round. It could be a clean sweep! Five games, and a whole division destroyed! If that happened, I would add the NL Central massacre to this Wikipedia page over and over until they let it stay.
In case you were busy wishing you could just be a linebacker, and not the go-to name when someone gets tricked on the Internet, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Chris Davis's 12th-inning single gave the Orioles a 5-3 win over Boston, leaving the Red Sox's magic number for clinching the AL East at three. "Yeah it is. Oh, three, is a magic number," Red Sox manager John Farrell sang after the game before leading his team in a Schoolhouse Rock sing-along that both raised team morale and clarified for second baseman Dustin Pedroia exactly how a bill becomes a law.
Desmond Jennings's walk-off single was the final blow in the Tampa Bay Rays' back-and-forth extra-inning 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers. "Even if we have a lot of kids and other team's rejects, we have a great team spirit that I think is going to bring us into the postseason," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was dressed as Oscar the Grouch in a strange bit of morale-draining one-upmanship. "Because we here in Tampa love trash. We love it because it's trash."
In case you were busy doubling down on a profanity-laced tirade against your own fans, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard had two touchdowns as the Cincinnati Bengals dropped the Pittsburgh Steelers to 0-2 for the first time in the Mike Tomlin era with a 20-10 win. "The guy from The Other Sister! You gotta be kidding me," Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said to Tomlin over his headset after Bernard's first touchdown. A confused Tomlin asked LeBeau what he was talking about, to which the renowned defensive coordinator responded, "I thought it was crazy too! Why would Marvin Lewis bring him in? He was wooden in Avatar, and I hear his new show, Dads, is terrible. I mean he wasn't bad in Saving Private Ryan, but he hardly struck me as an athlete, and that was long enough ago the Bengals still had Ickey Woods at the position. Guy's gotta be pushing 40." When Tomlin then asked LeBeau if he had confused rookie speedster Giovani Bernard with Boiler Room star Giovanni Ribisi, LeBeau went silent for 60 seconds before saying, "So, we might not have the schemes in place to stop this guy."
After a weather delay postponed the final round of the BMW Championship, Zach Johnson fired a 65 to outpace Jim Furyk and Nick Watney, winning the tournament at 16-under. "Man, what a super tournament," Johnson said after surging from behind to take the win. "Just a really sweet victory. And it's my title at 16-under. My super, sweet, 16 under wait that's not on tape is it? Shit."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. How is it mid-September? Did we even have August this year? Are the playoffs really sneaking up on us? This is getting serious, gang. Each team has about 15 games left to win, lose, bargain, plead, suffer, and despair. There are only three weekends of regular-season baseball left, starting today, and here's something important: A fancy word for "third-to-last" is "antepenultimate." Armed with that knowledge, it's time for the antepenultimate weekend countdown. Join me!
The Cleveland Indians, who haven't made the playoffs since 2007, just finished a fairly brutal stretch of baseball. Starting on August 27, they endured 15 games in 16 days against some of the best teams in the game. That list included the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, and Kansas City Royals. The first two teams on that list are playoff-bound, and the last two are in the middle of the wild-card race. The Indians are there, too, but they didn't exactly help their own cause. In the 12 games against those above-average teams, they went 4-8. A series against the Mets provided some relief, but not much; they still finished 6-9.
For practical purposes, the damage to the Indians' playoff hopes was minimal. On August 26, before the onslaught, the Indians held a .546 winning percentage and found themselves two games behind Oakland for the final wild-card spot. Now? They come in at .531, but are just 1½ games out of the wild-card race. They have Tampa Bay to thank for that; the Rays' 4-13 slide over a similar period has kept a number of teams hopeful, including the Yankees, Orioles, and Royals. All the Indians really lost was time.
In case you were busy getting bad news from Dr. James Andrews, because that guy has never once given good news in his life, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Miami starter Jose Fernandez dominated with his arm and bat, throwing seven stellar innings and blasting his first career home run, as the Marlins beat the division-leading Braves, 5-2. Fernandez's outing was not without controversy, however, as both benches cleared after Fernandez indulged himself by watching his home run. "I'm disappointed. He's a great kid, but he let this whole city down," said Marlins manager Mike Redmond after the game. "I mean, this is Miami. You can't just stand around in Miami to check out something because it looks good. This is a city all about hard work and discipline, not about showing off and preening."
New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter has been shut down for the remainder of the season, leaving new acquisition and defensive whiz Brendan Ryan as the Yankees presumptive starting shortstop for their playoff push. "Darn," said Yankees starter Andy Pettitte as he high-fived fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda. "Man, that's tough for Derek. I'm gutted. Just totally gutted. For him." Pettitte then did a giddy shuffle and mimed a shortstop going confidently to his left for CC Sabathia's benefit, before adding, "Don't know how we'll get by without the captain."
In case you were busy being ready for some football, some Wednesday-night football, Wednesday-night football that is never going to come, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner back Darrelle Revis has said he's "happy to spill the beans," in advance of the Bucs' matchup with his former team, the New York Jets. "It was a nice offer," said Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, "but it's just beans." When asked to clarify Schiano added, "Seriously, their whole playbook is just a box of supposedly magic beans. Apparently they traded their old defensive playbook, which was quite good, with some sort of evil space wizard wearing a sleeveless hooded cloak, and ended up with a box of beans." Schiano, a New Jersey native shrugged and said, "I wouldn't believe it, but, you know Jets."
An all-Italian quarterfinal at the U.S. Open yielded the day's biggest upset as Flavia Pennetta beat out no. 10 seed Roberta Vinci, 6-4, 6-1. Vinci was sanguine despite her loss, saying, "I have no regrets, I came, I saw, I Vinci." Meanwhile, despite advancing to her first career Grand Slam singles semifinal, Pennetta was less pleased with her tournament experience, saying, "I have many regrets; I came, I saw, I was detained at LaGuardia Airport after an idiotic mix-up involving former CIA director Leon Panetta. I did not conquer."