CLEVELAND -- Terry Francona, the gum-chomping sage of the Cuyahoga, has a standard reply when asked for his opinion on single-game, all-or-nothing playoffs. The Cleveland Indians manager thinks players can either embrace the pressure and the heat and glare of the moment, or figuratively run from it. There's no middle ground.
Alex Cobb, the Tampa Bay Rays' starting pitcher in Wednesday's American League wild-card playoff game with Cleveland, embraced the opportunity firmly enough to break its ribs and crush its spleen. Cobb is a born competitor, and he also has the kind of perspective that results from having survived adversity. When you're three months removed from having your face re-arranged, what's a little sudden-death situation?
Before Cobb emerged as Tampa Bay's go-to alternative to David Price, he joined Toronto's J.A. Happ as the co-poster boy for Major League Baseball's early-season crisis du jour -- defenseless pitchers on the business end of line drives. On June 15, Cobb gave lots of onlookers a scare when he took a 102.4-mph Eric Hosmer shot off the right ear and had to be carried off Tropicana Field on a stretcher with his neck in a brace. Several weeks of dizziness, fatigue, nausea and other concussion-related symptoms ensued.
Cobb showed his fortitude by going 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA after the All-Star break, and on Wednesday night he found himself looking up at a sea of red T-shirts and white towels. Rays manager Joe Maddon called on him to start the latest big game in Tampa's September-October odyssey, and Cobb didn't disappoint, throwing 6 2/3 shutout innings to lead the Rays to a 4-0 victory and a spot in the American League Division Series against Boston.
It's a sign of how far Cobb has come that no one feels obligated to ask him for his thoughts on protective headgear for pitchers anymore. That's a brief chapter of his career that he's consigned to the past.
"I can't speak to where he's been, but I'll tell you this: Between that ball off the head and what he did tonight, that's persistence and resilience," said Rays pitcher Matt Moore. "He wants this more than anything, and you can tell. He asks for the ball in these games. He doesn't shy down. To see him do what he's done since then, it's remarkable."
Cobb fits right in with this crew. The Rays, who rank 28th in baseball with a $65.6 million payroll and were last in attendance with 1.51 million fans, keep defying the odds with prudent front-office acquisitions, an emphasis on pitching and defense, and a loose, occasionally raucous mentality. After dispatching the Indians, they engaged in their obligatory postgame routine of celebrating amid strobe lights, silly string, blaring music and a disco ball.
"We don't have a high payroll where we're forced to win," said designated hitter Delmon Young, whose solo homer gave Tampa Bay an early 1-0 lead. "No one ever picks us, so it's a lot easier to go out and play a ballgame instead of having a $200 million roster where it's World Series or bust. Everyone is relaxed and has a lot of fun here, so it's a great environment to be in for players."
That ability to keep churning through setbacks has served the Rays well throughout a chaotic stretch run. During a three-week stretch from late August until mid-September, they fell from a first-place tie in the AL East to 9½ games behind first-place Boston. They dropped two games in Toronto last weekend and nearly coughed up a 7-0 lead before beating the Blue Jays 7-6 in the regular-season finale to extend their season.
After Price pitched a complete game to beat Texas in Game 163 on Monday, the Rays turned around and headed to Cleveland, where the locals are flush with enthusiasm these days. Between the Indians' 10-game win streak to end the regular season and the Browns' two consecutive victories, the cabbies have a lot to discuss with patrons when they ferry them from the airport to downtown.
The Indians hadn't hosted a postseason game since 2007, and the fans came out in full force. Decibel-wise, it might not have risen to the levels that Pirates fans reached in the NL wild-card game Tuesday at PNC Park. But the 43,579 Tribe fans in attendance got plenty loud while cheering Jason Giambi and Francona during pre-game introductions and welcoming old favorite Jim Thome back to Progressive Field when he appeared on the scoreboard from an upstairs suite and waved to the crowd between innings.
The only thing the Cleveland fans lacked was an offense to cheer. Cobb said his fastball was "all over the place" and his changeup was "nonexistent" for much of the night. But he rose to the occasion by making big pitches at pivotal junctures. One Cleveland threat ended when Asdrubal Cabrera grounded into a 3-6-1 double play with the bases loaded. And Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis went a combined 0-for-12 and got the ball out of the infield twice all game.
Rays catcher Jose Molina helped by using his imagination and coaxing Cobb through some rough spots with unorthodox pitch selections, and the Tampa Bay defense, with its assortment of diligently researched shifts, was airtight. But above all, it was a case of a young pitcher with confidence taking a big step forward on a national stage. The Rays chose Cobb out of a Vero Beach, Fla., high school in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, and seven years later, he has officially blossomed.
"I feel like I have pretty good intuition," said first baseman James Loney, "and when I saw him in spring training, I just knew he was a No. 1 or 2 starter."
Now the Rays head to Boston for the opener of the American League Division Series on Friday at Fenway Park. The Rays won only seven of 19 meetings with the Red Sox this season, but held a 51-39 edge over Boston in head-to-head competition from 2008-2012.
One advantage that comes from playing the Sox 19 times a year is that the Rays will never be intimidated going into Fenway. They're also awash in starting pitching. Price and Cobb are out for the ALDS opener, so it appears the Rays will go with Moore, who went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA and made his first All-Star team this season at age 24. Not bad for a third option.
At this point, 10 days into a road trip that refuses to end, the Rays are braced for every obstacle in their path. Or almost every obstacle.
"I gotta wash some clothes now, I think," Loney said. "Or go out and get some new socks."