By Dan Walk
1 A 10-game winning streak to conclude the season. Their best September (21-6) since 1920. A 19-5 record since a chicken graced Progressive Field during pre-game warmups. Zero errors over their past 90 innings. A once cast-off starting pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, who was the best pitcher in baseball in the final month. A big-name free agent signing, Nick Swisher, who hit around .240, and a sub-.200 hitter and low-key free agent signing, Jason Giambi, are two of the most important players on the team — and it doesn’t have anything to do with statistics. And manager Terry Francona, who changed the culture in Cleveland. There are plenty more reasons why Cleveland is in the playoffs this year, but the No. 1 reason is it plays as a team that continued to believe the postseason was in its destiny — even if it took all 162 games to clinch.
2 Playing at home on Wednesday is obviously a huge advantage for the Indians, but they also received a huge boost due to Monday’s wild card tiebreaker. The Tribe will be nice and rested, playing a team that is coming off an emotional Monday game and didn’t arrive in Cleveland until this morning. Danny Salazar will be Cleveland’s starting pitcher Wednesday and though he’s young, I don’t see him struggling in the playoff limelight.
3 I’ve been shy to talk up the Tribe recently, partially out of fear of jinxing them and also because I believed a 2013 postseason trip wasn’t realistic. Bouncing back from a 94-loss season is a tough task. That shyness ends here. I believe the Indians will win Wednesday’s wild card game and upset Boston in the ALDS. No team is hotter than the Indians; momentum is on their side.
4 This has been a historic baseball season to be where we are — pretty much the same distance from Cleveland and Pittsburgh with two fan bases that have been collectively waiting decades for this much success. Never before have both teams reached the playoffs in the same season. This is actually the first time both teams have been over .500 during the same season since 1979. The big question now is if both can make it the divisional series.
5 The first of the two MLB wild card games is tonight — and it includes the Pirates and Reds, who will play each other for the fourth time in a row and seventh time since Sept. 20. The Pirates swept the Reds in Cincinnati over the weekend, and that gave Pittsburgh home field today. The Reds, meanwhile, have lost five straight. What stands out the most to me in this game is Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who is making his third start since recently coming off the disabled list. Cueto is 8-2 in his career at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, while Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano has regressed as the year has gone on. A more experienced lineup and a starter who has the Pirates figured out is on Cincinnati’s side.
6 Dodgers/Braves appears to be the most evenly matched divisional series of them all. Both teams easily won their divisions and rely on strong pitching. Both are playing without star players — Atlanta’s Tim Hudson has been out for the season for a while, while Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp is out for the year because of an ankle injury. Los Angeles’ talented rotation, starting with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, will be incredibly hard to beat in a five-game series.
7 The Tigers’ late-season swoon led to their winning the AL Central by just one game and helped the Athletics steal home-field advantage for the ALDS. But don’t get lost in what happened during the last few days for Detroit, including Sunday’s no-hit defeat. The Tigers have the better rotation and lineup — not to mention a finally healthy Miguel Cabrera. If they play to their capabilities, their series against Oakland may be go fast.
8 Now that the MLB regular season is over, I have to get something to get off my chest: Mariano Rivera is not one of the best pitchers of all time. Rivera is the greatest closer ever, but there are dozens of pitchers in baseball history who are better than him. He averaged 68 regular-season innings a year compared to the 200-plus innings a starter throws each season.
9 I heard an interesting perspective on the Cleveland Browns and why they’re winning under quarterback Brian Hoyer compared to Brandon Weeden. Hoyer is a QB through and through, while the only reason Weeden is in the NFL is because he failed as a professional baseball player. Hoyer is a field general with a so-so arm. Weeden has a great arm but hasn’t proven to be the leader Cleveland needs. Sometimes, and so far in Hoyer and Weeden’s case, leadership trumps physical attributes.
10 NFL quick hits: The Seahawks, traditionally a bad team on the road, proved they’re the best team in the NFL right now by erasing a 20-3 deficit and winning at Houston. ... The Steelers defense — what’s become “The Stolen Curtain” — still has yet to force a turnover; and that’s after facing turnover-prone backup quarterback Matt Cassel on Sunday. ... My top 5: 1. Seattle (4-0), 2. Denver (4-0), 3. New Orleans (4-0), 4. New England (4-0), 5. Miami (3-1). ... And the bottom 5: 32. Jacksonville (0-4), 31. Tampa Bay (0-4), 30. New York Giants (0-4), 29. Pittsburgh (0-4), 28. Oakland (1-3).
The preceding was The Walk Talk 10, which runs in the Tribune's sports section every Tuesday. Assistant news editor Dan Walk can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.