Heading into the final few games of the season, I heard an interview with Joe Maddon where he was asked what it will take for the Rays to get through these next few games and into the postseason.
Part of his response: "You need your best players to perform." (Or something of that ilk.)
The two best players in this tiebreaker game were David Price and Evan Longoria, especially with Yu Darvish having pitched Sunday for the Rangers and Adrian Beltre playing on a sore hamstring. We spend a lot of time these days breaking down everything that goes into a baseball game, and that's fun and informative and interesting, and dissecting all the numbers and strategies and potential strategies are part of what makes baseball so appealing to many of us.
But sometimes the analysis is simple. Sometimes you just need your best players to perform. Price was outstanding, Longoria homered with one of his three hits, and the Rays beat the Rangers 5-2 to keep their season alive.
For Price, he exorcised some personal demons of sorts. He had defeated the Rangers just once in 11 career starts, including three postseason starts. His career ERA in Texas was over 10.00 in four games. He wasn't necessarily dominant, striking out just four in throwing a complete game. He had pretty good command of his fastball, however, and basically challenged the Rangers to hit it. He threw fastballs on 73 of his 118 pitches, and while the Rangers swung and missed at just one fastball all game, they didn't do any severe damage against it, or at least not enough damage. (Price actually induced just four swing-and-misses the entire game.)
The Rangers didn't exactly throw out a strong lineup. With Jeff Baker sidelined with a sports hernia, Ron Washington's starting nine included three lefties -- Price held left-handed batters to a .195 average with just two home runs -- and two of those, Leonys Martin and Mitch Moreland, are pretty weak against lefties. Nelson Cruz hadn't played in two months due to his suspension, Beltre hurt his hamstring on Sunday and Elvis Andrus had just 25 extra-base hits on the season. It was a game where the Rangers shouldn't have expected to score many runs.
It didn't help that Andrus got picked off in the first inning and Ian Kinsler got picked off in the third. Washington had apparently stressed to his club to play aggressive, but in the end those were two costly mistakes.
Once the Rays took a 4-2 lead, the key at-bat against Price came in the eighth after Kinsler doubled down the third-base line with one out. Price was over 100 pitches, and you could have expected to see Joel Peralta in the game to face the right-handed threesome of Andrus, Alex Rios and Beltre. Peralta was warming up, but he can be a little home run-prone (seven home runs) and Maddon might have been thinking of the four outings in September where Peralta allowed two or more runs.
Sometimes you just go with your best.
Andrus laid down a near-perfect bunt down the first-base line on an 0-1 pitch, but Price made a terrific play (especially for a lefty), flipping the ball with his glove to first to get Andrus. Rios grounded out to shortstop to end the threat. What if Andrus had hit away? We'll never know, which is the beauty of "what if" in baseball. With a little more cushion after Sam Fuld created a run in the top of the ninth, Maddon let Price begin the bottom of the ninth. Why not? One-two-three, game over.
As for Longoria, he lined a single to right-center in the first inning off rookie lefty Martin Perez to send Wil Myers to third; Myers would score on Delmon Young's sac fly. In the third, Perez faced Longoria with two outs and a runner on first. Longoria took an inside 94 mph fastball and drilled it into the wind tunnel in right-center, just clearing the fence for a two-run homer.
I can't really fault Washington too much in this game. His bullpen had been worked hard in the final few days (although he inexplicably used closer Joe Nathan for a fourth straight game on Sunday to close out a 6-2 lead), and while you could argue for a Matt Garza or Alexi Ogando earlier in the game, Garza hasn't been good and Ogando started on Friday.
Perez settled down after the Longoria home run, and Washington correctly yanked him with one out in the sixth when Longoria came up again. Ogando just didn't have much in this game. Longoria doubled off him, and with two outs, pinch hitter David DeJesus doubled him home (you could argue that Neal Cotts should have been brought in there).
In the end, the Rays are the better team. The AL East was easily the best division in the majors this year and the Rangers made it this far in large part due to their 17-2 record against the lowly Astros, an opponent the Rays didn't get to face 19 times.
Now the Rays get the Indians, and while the game will be in Cleveland, the Rays have to like their chances with the underrated Alex Cobb, who went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts, on the mound. Cobb throws an excellent changeup that dives away from left-handed hitters -- they hit .214/.245/.325 off it -- but he changed the grip on his curveball last summer and it's given him a second out pitch alongside the changeup. Cobb learned the grip from former teammate James Shields and batters have hit .260 off it, but with just one home run in 100 at-bats.
The Rays will face another rookie in hard-throwing Danny Salazar, who has made 10 career starts, but averages 96 mph on his fastball and has reached 100. The Indians have held him to tight pitch counts, going more than 89 pitches just once and held under 80 in five of his starts, so Terry Francona will likely tell Salazar to cut it loose for as long as he can go and turn it into a bullpen game early on.
Thanks to Price, Maddon will also enter with a rested bullpen, so there should be plenty of pitching changes and possible pinch-hitting moves to discuss and argue about.
Of course, it could be that it will come down to the best player. The Indians are good and they're hot, having won 10 in a row, but Longoria will once again be the best player in this game.
FYI: He's hit 22 of his 32 home runs off fastballs.