Don’t let the final score fool you: This was an interesting game, from Danny Salazar looking like the second coming of Bob Feller to sabermetric whipping boy Delmon Young hitting another postseason home run to the Cleveland Indians creating one scoring opportunity after another after falling behind, only to come up empty in every single one of them.
In October baseball, we love to dissect the strategies and the percentages and the bullpens and everything a manager has a pulse on, but what makes the postseason so exciting are the individual showdowns: Pitcher versus batter, fans on their feet, ducks on the pond, game potentially on the line.
In this wild-card game, there were three huge at-bats that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to survive and beat the Indians 4-0.
Let’s set the stage. Salazar, the rookie with the upper-90s gas and just 10 career starts, looked unhittable for two innings, but then Young tagged him for a home run in the third inning, a first-pitch 95 mph fastball low and in, a pitch Young rarely does damage against. In the fourth, Salazar fell behind James Loney two balls and Loney singled off a 97 mph fastball; he fell behind Longoria two balls and Longoria singled off a 96 mph fastball; after getting the second out, he fell behind Desmond Jennings with a changeup and then Jennings doubled down the left-field line on a 97 mph fastball to score two runs.
One thing about the Rays: You know no team is going to be more prepared. Others may be as prepared, but no team is going to out-prepare them. Salazar had 24 2-0 counts in his limited action this season and threw 24 fastballs. He had 93 1-0 counts and threw 77 fastballs. Major league hitters can hit 97 mph fastballs if they know they're coming.
So the score is 3-0, with the wind sucked out of Indians fans like it never was Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
Big at-bat No. 1: Bottom of fourth, bases loaded with one out, Alex Cobb versus Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera didn’t have a good season for Cleveland. A productive hitter the previous two seasons, he hit just .242/.299/.402. Terry Francona kept giving him a chance to get going and he was hitting cleanup even into August before finally moving down in the order.
Cobb posted a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts (he missed time after getting hit in the head with a line drive) and a good strikeout rate despite lacking an overpowering fastball. But he expertly mixes speeds and has a sharp, downward-breaking “spike” curveball and excellent changeup.
Cabrera actually handled changeups very well, hitting .297/.354/.582, with six of his 14 home runs. Left-handers hit just .214 against Cobb’s changeup. Strength against strength. Cobb started with a curveball for a ball and then threw a changeup that was actually a little flat and up in the zone. But Cabrera rolled over on it and slick-fielding first baseman Loney turned a 3-6-1 double play to escape the inning.
Big at-bat No. 2: Bottom of fifth, runners at the corners, no outs, Cobb versus Michael Bourn. Yan Gomes doubled and Lonnie Chisenhall singled, bringing up Cleveland’s leadoff hitter. Bourn is a speed guy, but one who strikes out too much for a speed guy. Still ... at least put the ball in play on the ground and you score a run and likely avoid the double play because you’re a speed guy.
But here’s the genius of Cobb: Two-seam fastball for a strike, a swinging strike on the curveball, a two-seamer for a ball ... and then another curveball, biting into the dirt, for a swing and miss. Bourn may have been looking for the changeup and got the curve. Great pitch, both in thought process and execution, probably his best pitch of the night.
Big at-bat No. 3: Bottom of the seventh, runners at first and second, two outs, Joel Peralta versus Nick Swisher. Joe Maddon had gone surprising deep with Cobb, 107 pitches and even let him face the tying run in Bourn with one out (Bourn flied out to deep left-center). That brought up the switch-hitting Swisher, a guy with a miserable postseason history, a .169 average in 46 games entering this game.
Maddon went to Peralta, keeping Swisher on his weaker left side (.220/.310/.370 versus .295/.397/.521). Peralta had some bad outings in September and can give up the long ball, but it’s understandable why he’d use Peralta there instead of lefties Jake McGee or Alex Torres. (If anything, it’s a little surprising that Cobb was left in to face Bourn.)
Swisher swung from his heels on a curveball and splitter, missing with two wild, go-for-the-fences swings, stumbling across home plate on the second one. He then swung through an inside 93 mph fastball. If Reggie Jackson is Mr. October, Swisher is the opposite.
There were a couple other key plays -- in the fourth, Ben Zobrist made a diving play on an infield hit to prevent a run before Cabrera’s double play; an error and hit/error off Swisher's glove led to Tampa’s fourth run in the ninth. But, really, this came down to those crucial one-on-one battles, and the Rays won those.
In the end, I think the better team won. Tampa Bay came from the tough AL East; the Indians had gone just 36-52 against teams over .500 this season. It was a magical ride the final two weeks for Cleveland to get here and it’s a shame it had to end so quickly for a city so desperate for a championship in any sport.
But the Rays are moving on to face the Red Sox and their left-handed pitching can perhaps match up with the lethal Boston lineup. Matt Moore will likely start Game 1 but with two off days in the series, David Price could start Game 2 and Game 5, if necessary, on regular rest.
Let the showdown begins.