Breaking down tonight's Rays-Indians matchup

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October

As dangerous as the Rays believe they can be in this postseason, they’ll first have to get past a red-hot Indians team in tonight’s wild-card showdown. Cleveland won its final 10 games to secure its first playoff berth since 2007, capping off a remarkable turnaround season. Led by former Red Sox boss Terry Francona, a manager of the year candidate, the Indians made a 24-win jump from last year’s 94-loss team. A few new veterans played key roles, from ex-Rays LHP Scott Kazmir’s reclamation to DH Jason Giambi and 1B/OF Nick Swisher providing power and clubhouse presence. They’ve had a flair for the dramatic, with 11 walkoff wins and 31 come-from-behind victories.

Here's our breakdown of tonight's game, from today's Tampa Bay Times page 3C.

Mound matchup
RHP Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) has been one of the best starters in the league down the stretch, winning his past three outings while posting a 1.16 ERA and striking out a combined 26. As Orioles OF Nate McLouth put it, “He’s pretty much unhittable.” The Indians will start relatively unknown rookie RHP Danny Salazar, a 23-year-old Dominican who began the season in Double A and has made just 10 big-league starts. Salazar has swing-and-miss stuff, striking out 11.25 per nine innings, the highest single-season rate in club history. Salazar can hit 100 mph with his fastball and also throws a slider and split-changeup that has action similar to a sinker. The Indians have kept Salazar on a short leash as he hasn’t pitched past the sixth inning since Aug.  7 against the Tigers, the only game in which he threw as many as 100 pitches.

Battle of the bats
The Rays will need another big game from their best hitter, 3B Evan Longoria, who came up clutch with three hits, including a two-run homer, in Monday’s 5-2 win over the Rangers. The Indians aren’t a big power-hitting team but have a couple of key weapons. 1B/OF Nick Swisher (22 homers) had a strong September, hitting .288 with five homers, 11 RBIs and 11 walks in the final 17 games. C Carlos Santana (20 homers) has hit .277 since moving to cleanup in August and has been tough against the Rays, batting .303 in 25 career games. Santana is 3-for-7 against RHP Alex Cobb and 3-for-5 with a homer against RHP Fernando Rodney.

Bullpen blues
The Indians enter tonight’s game with uncertainty at the back of their bullpen. Former All-Star RHP Chris Perez was stripped of his closer’s role last week after posting a 7.52 ERA since August, including a four-run ninth inning in Thursday’s 6-5 win. The Indians have blown 22 saves, second most in the American League. In a save situation, they’ll likely turn to RHP Joe Smith, a side-armer who has allowed two runs in his past 232/3 innings. Rookie RH setup man Cody Allen (2.43 ERA) has been impressive, with 88 strikeouts in 701/3 innings. They’ve also used sinkerballing RHP Justin Masterson, their ace starter who recently came back from an oblique injury, as a bullpen weapon.

Need for speed
The Rays struggled to control the running game, allowing 119 steals and throwing out 22 percent of attempted runners, third worst in the AL. Expect the Indians to try to take advantage, having stolen 117 bases this season, with four players boasting 15 or more. 2B Jason Kipnis led the way with 30, CF Michael Bourn had 23 and Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs had 17 each.

Patience pays off
The Rays drew seven walks Monday to surpass the Reds for the major-league lead (589). That patience could suit them well tonight, as the Indians issued 554 walks this season, second most in the AL.
Indians vs. Rays closer Fernando Rodney
Asdrubal Cabrera 5-for-15
Mike Aviles 4-for-10, HR
Carlos Santana 3-for-5, HR

'Goon Squad’
Mike Aviles calls the Indians’ versatile bench the “Goon Squad,” consisting of him, veteran Jason Giambi and utility man Ryan Raburn (16 homers in 87 games), along with C/INF Yan Gomes (11 homers). But 6-year-old fan Jake Raffin became an honorary member last week after returning the home run ball from one of the biggest Indians plays of the season, Giambi’s pinch-hit two-run walkoff homer Sept.  24 to beat the White Sox. The next day, Raffin’s family was invited to visit Giambi, 42, who gave the boy signed batting gloves as well as a Goon Squad T-shirt.

What they’re saying
“We stayed away from chicken and beer.”
Indians manager Terry Francona on the key to the team’s 21-6 September, referencing his Red Sox collapse from 2011 when some pitchers ate fried chicken and drank beer during games.

Rally Chicken
The Angels used a famed rally monkey during their 2002 World Series victory. The Giants had the “rally thong” worn by ex-Rays 1B Aubrey Huff during the 2012 championship run. But the Indians had their own good luck charm: a “Rally Chicken.” RHP Justin Masterson brought a live chicken — wearing a Cleveland “C” cape — onto the field during batting practice of an early September win over the Orioles, partly to poke fun at rookie RHP Cody Allen’s nickname of “Chicken Al” but also to loosen up the team. The Indians have gone 19-5 since, and Rally Chicken T-shirts are popping up around Cleveland.

The Indians’ Yoda
This past winter, Jason Giambi, 42, interviewed for the Rockies’ managerial position — twice — before signing a minor-league deal with the Indians. Though Giambi, a decade removed from being one of the game’s most feared sluggers, hit just .183 and appeared in 71 games, manager Terry Francona calls him the team MVP. Giambi is the team’s clubhouse Yoda, providing advice and calling team meetings while also coming through with several clutch home runs. “If we hadn’t signed him,” Francona said, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Head-to-head
The Rays won the season series 4-2    * Home team in ALL CAPS
April 5: RAYS 4, Indians 0
LHP Matt Moore pitched six scoreless innings as the Indians were held to two hits.
April 6: RAYS 6, Indians 0
RHP Alex Cobb shut out the Indians for 71/3 innings and Kelly Johnson hit a two-run homer.
April 7: Indians 13, RAYS 0
LHP David Price allowed eight runs on 10 hits. Mark Reynolds hit two homers and Carlos Santana had five hits.
May 31: Rays 9, INDIANS 2
After five hours of rain delays, the Rays scored five runs in the third and held the Indians to one hit.
June 1: INDIANS 5, Rays 0
Jason Giambi had a homer and three RBIs as the Indians ruined RHP Chris Archer’s return to Cleveland.
June 2: Rays 11, INDIANS 3
Indians manager Terry Francona was ejected, OF Sam Fuld tripled off a ball boy and 3B Evan Longoria homered.

Wild card Q&A
The Rays are in the playoffs — and in a one-game playoff with the Indians tonight — because of a change commissioner Bud Selig made before the 2012 season. Selig added a second wild-card team to each league to increase the reward of a division championship while allowing additional markets to experience playoff baseball.

Has it worked?
It certainly has led to more September suspense, as several AL teams were within striking distance of a wild-card berth heading into the final weeks, capped by the Rays’ 5-2 win over the Rangers in Game 163 on Monday. The road is definitely tougher for the wild-card teams, who now must play an elimination game before moving on to the five-game AL Division Series this weekend against the AL East-winning Red Sox.

Why a one-game series?
A longer series between wild-card teams could lead to scheduling difficulties and hurt the division champion by having it wait five days or more between games. But after a grueling 162-game regular-season grind, Rays manager Joe Maddon feels it’s almost unfair to have just one game settle a playoff fate. Maddon would prefer the two wild cards play a best-of-three format, offering to play a doubleheader to expedite the process.


Does it favor the home or road team?
Hard to say, but the road team won both wild-card games last season, with the Orioles beating the Rangers 5-1 and Cardinals beating the Braves 6-3. The home Pirates beat the Reds in Tuesday's NL wild card game.

Tale of the tape
Stat    Rays    Indians
W-L    92-71    92-70
vs. .500+    48-49    36-52
RS/RA    700/646    745/662
BA    .257    .255
HR    165    171
BB    589    562
OBP    .329    .327
SLG    .408    .410
SB/CS    73/38    117/36
ERA    3.74    3.82
SV/Opp.    42/60    38/60
E    59    98


Indians   |   By the Numbers
10-2
Record in extra-inning games
31
Come-from-behind wins
11
Walkoff wins, by nine different players
31-20
Record in one-run games
117
Steals, fourth in the AL
22
Blown saves, second most in AL
56
Wins against teams with losing records

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 11:39am]

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