Jason Giambi, at age 42, an unlikely mentor for Cleveland Indians

Jason Giambi of the Cleveland Indians celebrates after

Jason Giambi of the Cleveland Indians celebrates after hitting a walk-off two-run home run to defeat the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. (Sept. 24, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

CLEVELAND - A year ago, Jason Giambi was so close to his post-playing days that he interviewed for the Colorado Rockies manager's job -- and almost got it.

Now, Giambi is an important member of a Cleveland Indians team that will host Wednesday night's AL wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Maybe not so much on the field -- he appeared in only 71 games and batted .183 -- but in the locker room.

Manager Terry Francona, in a quiet moment in his office following the Indians' champagne-soaked celebration of their wild-card berth on Sunday in Minneapolis, was asked what the 42-year-old has meant to his team.

"You don't have enough tape in that thing," he said. "He's meant everything. In the batter's box he helped us. Out of the batter's box he helped us. We leaned on him. Everybody, myself included, more than is probably fair. And he responded. In the clubhouse -- just his presence. Without him, we're not here. And that's not an exaggeration."

Yes, this is Jason Giambi we're talking about. The same formerly free-living slugger who is best known for long home runs, allegations of long-term steroid use and -- once while with the Yankees -- wearing a gold thong under his uniform for good luck.

That Giambi has become an elder statesman is something that didn't seem likely during his younger days. But here he is, providing value to the Indians for more than just his nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

"I just tried the whole year to mentor and keep the team together and do the little things," Giambi said. "Help the young kids or keep them from getting down on themselves. Kind of crack the whip when I needed to crack the whip. I saw the potential in this team early on that this team could be something special because we really have that philosophy that there really isn't one player more important than another."

In one season, the Indians went from 68 wins to 92. Along with hiring Francona, Cleveland last offseason signed former Yankee Nick Swisher and almost-Met Michael Bourn to expensive free-agent contracts.

The Indians needed a soft schedule and a season-ending 10-game winning streak to earn the AL's first wild-card spot. They got 10 victories from former Mets prospect Scott Kazmir, who spent part of last year in the same league as the Long Island Ducks, and on Wednesday night they will pitch rookie Danny Salazar, who has 10 career starts, against 11-game winner Alex Cobb.

The winner will face Boston -- Francona's old club -- in the ALDS starting Friday.

Giambi, who has been bothered by a sore forearm, could start against the righthanded Cobb. Or he could be a bat off the bench, like he was on Sept. 24 when he hit a pinch-hit, walk-off two-run homer against the White Sox in one of Cleveland's biggest wins of the year.

"It's really a gift this year, everything that went on," Giambi said. "This ballclub coming together and where they were the last couple years. Bringing all these new faces in and watching these young kids grow. It's something special."

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