The Rays’ Alex Cobb is 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA in nine starts since returning from a concussion.
Tonight the Rays and Indians will play in the American League wild-card game. The winner advances to the Division Series against the Boston Red Sox on Friday.
Roster: Roster for Rays Indians Wildcard game
UPDATE: Cobb leads Rays to early lead over Indians
Alex Cobb will have to be special to top David Price's complete-game effort to put the Rays into the playoffs. But while Price lived up to his staff-ace status in the play-in game against the Texas Rangers, it's Cobb who truly has pitched like one since Aug.15. That's the day he returned from two months on the sidelines after taking a line drive to his head. As Cobb lay on the field that night, he said he wanted to get back up and keep pitching. If he had been able to, the Rays might not find themselves in this series of win-or-go-home scenarios. Since he came back, Cobb is 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA in nine starts. It's not that he wasn't already emerging before the concussion from the line drive. Cobb, 25, was 6-2, 3.01 before the injury, including his only start against Cleveland this year - 71/3 shutout innings April6 in St. Petersburg.
Danny Salazar's upper-90s fastball is what grabs everyone's attention. The fact the Indians rookie says he's trying to use the fastball only about 50% of the time speaks to the growth that gives Indians manager Terry Francona enough confidence to start him in a winner-take-all game. Salazar threw nearly 77% fastballs in his second major league start - averaging his season-high of 97.2 mph. He lost that game 6-5 to the Detroit Tigers, striking out 10 in 71/3 innings but allowing four runs. But he blanked the Tigers for six innings Sept.1, a game the Indians point to as a measuring stick for his progress and why they're willing to hand him the ball tonight. He was down to 58% fastballs in the Sept.1 game but the average velocity still was above 96. The 23-year-old hasn't faced the Rays in his 10 major league appearances.
The Rays' biggest concern is Desmond Jennings, who isn't at full speed (manager Joe Maddon says 80%) because of a sore hamstring. They haven't run as much this year as Maddon teams usually do (Jennings leads with 20 steals), but the lineup has been progressively more balanced during the second half as the pieces around Evan Longoria improved. James Loney has been the most consistent hitter all year, leading the team with a .299 average. Then along came rookie Wil Myers (.293), who has hit well enough to spend time in the clean-up spot, and David DeJesus later came in a trade and has produced in the leadoff spot.
Depth was a crucial piece of the Indians' success this season, but the bench shouldn't have as much impact in a one-game showdown. Center fielder Michael Bourn was still testing his sore leg during Tuesday's workout. He expects to play, but taking out that speed element would hurt the Indians. Right fielder Drew Stubbs could move into the leadoff spot if needed and runs as well as Bourn at his best, but Stubbs is more challenged reaching first base. Michael Brantley has been the team's hottest hitter (.325 in September), and Nick Swisher hit seven of his 22 homers the final month.
Why the Indians will win
If Maddon likes a swarming offense, he might get more than he bargained for from Cleveland. That's exactly what the Indians have done through their 20-5 finish to the season, including winning their final 10. Seven players had 11 or more RBI in September, and nine Indians combined to knock in 116 runs with nobody driving in more than 17. An electric Salazar would set the tone in front of a full house that should remind everyone how Cleveland and its ballpark rocked in the glory days of the 1990s.
Why the Rays will win
Cobb's return from injury is a compelling story, but don't let his breakout season get lost in the drama. He has been better than Price. Maddon says the Rays offense swarms. What they do is make you pitch, swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than any other team in the majors. They are poised on offense, with a poised young pitcher on the mound and facing a team that isn't sure how it will cover the final few innings once its starter is gone.
It's not about teams on a roll coming into October - ask the Rangers. Momentum is today's starting pitcher - an old baseball cliché but quite possibly the difference-maker in this game. Salazar can be dazzling, but Cobb is every bit as impressive and more likely to go deeper into the game. That's especially crucial with the Cleveland bullpen in flux. The Rays grand tour has become as matter-of-fact as the way their offense beats you - and continues with a stop in Boston.