CLEVELAND — Tampa Bay’ manager Joe Maddon and Cleveland skipper Terry Francona continued their mutual admiration prior to Wednesday night’s American League wild-card game, won by the Rays, 4-0. They have met so many times over the years when Francona was with the Red Sox that the one-game playoff pitted two rivals who know each other’s styles as well as any two managers in baseball.
“You play a team 18, 19 times, it’s a lot,” Francona said prior to the game. “You know, they were good. I mean, they found a way in the American League East on a smaller payroll to compete every year. So you know they’re doing things right. They’ve made tremendous decisions. I mean, there’s a lot to respect. In one game, though, you go play and turn your players loose and hope you get to keep playing.”
Francona said that when you play the Rays, “You need to prepare for the unexpected because they’re not afraid to do anything at any time, so the ball better end up where it’s supposed to, especially when they get a run or two up on you. They really hit the gas pedal, try to take the extra base.”
Maddon said of Francona, “We’ve got to prepare for him. I think when he says something like that he’s talking about our athleticism, our abilities on the field. Over the years in Boston against him we were really athletic. We’ve had some great battles. I have so much respect for Terry and hopefully it’s going to continue for several years.”
They are similar in some ways — they both keep their teams loose in the clubhouse. Maddon is more of a baseball nerd who gobbles up stats and metrics to help set his defense and shifting, where the Rays have saved a major league-high 16 runs according to Bill James.
Francona guided the Indians to 92 wins, marking the seventh time in his career he’d gotten to 90. It was the ninth-best turnaround from one year to the next, a 24-game turnaround from 2012.
The best ever? Dusty Baker had a plus-31 for the 1993 San Francisco Giants; Billy Martin had a plus-29 for the 1980 Oakland A’s; John Farrell had a plus-28 for the 2013 Red Sox; BobLemon had a plus-26 for the 1977 Chicago White Sox; George Bamberger had a plus-26 for the 1978 Milwaukee Brewers; Bob Melvin had a plus-26 for the 2005 Arizona Diamondbacks; Jim Frey had a plus-25 for the 1984 Cubs; Jim Leyland had a plus-24 for the 2006 Detroit Tigers, which brings us to Francona.
Francona entered the game with a .609 winning percentage (28-18) in the postseason, the third-best in major league history. The Yankees’ Joe McCarthy, in the days when the World Series made up the entire postseason, went 30-13 (.698).
Maddon is already a two-time American League Manager of the Year.
Pretty good chess match from the dugout.
Giambi a leader
Francona said on the first day of spring training he knew Jason Giambi would be his leader in the clubhouse.
“The first day of spring training, I told him you don’t need to take grounders,” Francona said. “He wasn’t going to play first base, but he took his glove out there. We had a kid names Jesus Aguilar and you could tell he was nervous. He was kind of boxing them and I happened to hear ‘G’ walking behind him, kind of pat him on the back and say, ‘Hey kid, relax.’ I heard it and I know it wasn’t intended for me to hear, but the way he said it to that kid, that was my first taste of ‘G’. It obviously grew from there.
“He’s lived through everything,” Francona added. “There’s no ego. What other guy who has accomplished as much as he has can you pinch-hit for in the fifth inning and before his fanny hits the bench, he’s screaming for the guy that’s hitting for him. That’s the type of guy he is.”
Rays are on a roll
The Rays have won nine consecutive games against teams over .500 following their victory. The Rays have played 98 games against teams .500 or better and are 49-49 . . . One of the great stories for Tampa Bay was that reliever Jamey Wright was named to his first postseason roster. Wright had played more seasons (18) than any other active player without appearing in a postseason. Wright has three more seasons than Vernon Wells and Bruce Chen. Rays outfielder David DeJesus had gone 1,277 regular-season games without playing in the postseason . . . The Rays have won 90-plus games in four straight seasons and five of the last six . . . When the Rays walked seven times Monday vs. Texas, they surpassed Cincinnati for the major league lead in walks with 589. Since 2,007 the Rays have walked a major league high 4,216 times . . . By virtue of their 4-13 record from Aug. 25-Sept. 11, they are just the fifth team to have endured a streak of 4-13 or worse in the final six weeks and make the playoffs. The others were the 2008 Brewers, the 2000 Yankees, the 2000 Mariners, and the 1995 Yankees . . . Nick Swisher has the most postseason appearances on the Indians with 46, followed by Giambi with 45, Marc Rzepczynski with 17, and Asdrubal Cabrera with nine . . . Former Indians great Andre Thornton threw out the first pitch.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.