Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays believe they're team to beat

CLEVELAND — Just getting here was hard enough for the Rays, what with the seemingly never-ending 4-13 skid, the game they stunningly gave away to the Twins, the Friday-Saturday losses to the Blue Jays.

But they recovered in an all-but-must-win game Sunday in Toronto, beat the Rangers in Monday's tiebreaker in Texas and, after a dizzying three-cities-in-three days itinerary, made it to the playoffs — albeit the one-game American League wild-card playoff — against the Indians at 8 tonight.

And now they figure they might as well stick around a while.

"If we win the game (tonight), I'd give us as good a chance as anybody," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "Anybody. I don't think there's anybody who should be favored over us. …

"There's no question in my mind that there's no one that says they want the Rays. Absolutely not. Whether it's Cleveland, Boston, Detroit or Oakland. Nobody's looking forward to that."

The Rays have two things that historically play well — and allow a team to play on — in the postseason: dominant pitching and momentum.

The stockpile of arms is obvious, as the Rays tonight will send out Alex Cobb, the tough, competitive right-hander who overcame the trauma of being hit in the head by a line drive and a two-month recovery to be their most consistent starter down the stretch.

If they go on to face Boston, they are lined up to start Matt Moore on Friday and David Price, off his dominant complete game win over the Rangers, on Saturday, with some combination of Cobb and probably rookie Chris Archer in Games 3-4, then Moore or Price — or both — in Game 5.

"Pitching wins in the postseason for the most part — very few teams slug their way to the championship — and we certainly have the pitching to get it done," Hickey said.

Add in the top-notch run-saving defense they have on the field behind them and what now is a well-rested bullpen, having been off since Sunday afternoon, and the Rays have reason to feel confident.

"As you're moving forward in a short series, the team that plays the clean game is normally probably going to win," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You hear it in football, in basketball, you hear it all the time — you have to play a clean game.

"It starts on the mound all the time. If your pitching is on and you're catching the ball, we'll figure out a way to score a couple runs. And I think that's why people may consider us dangerous."

The momentum is obviously harder to define, and the Indians certainly feel they have it as well by winning their last 10, although over the Astros, White Sox and Twins.

But the Rays seem confident after a series of false starts that they have it now when they need it most, winning seven in a row before the back-to-back losses in Toronto then the two they had to.

"We've already played this wild-card game a couple times," Maddon said. "We did it in Toronto a couple days ago, we did it (Monday) in Texas and we're going to come here (tonight) and do it again. I don't know if there is a battle-tested component to it, you get maybe immune to whatever that pressure is and you just go play. …

"I think there is something to be said for that. Not making light, because you would have liked to have a couple days off, but when you get this momentum kind of thing on a daily basis, and you're playing great competition, and you're going from city to city to city and it's in adverse territory, all this stuff is what you train for and really dig, and you love it."

Cleveland manager Terry Francona, having seen the Rays up close during his eight years in the Red Sox dugout, knows what the Indians are up against tonight and what the others may experience.

"They always pitch. They run the bases. They play defense. And they probably match up better than most teams in the league if not every team in the league. … They use that to their advantage a lot," Francona said Tuesday.

"We respect how they go about the game. You know, when we play them, the ball needs to end up where it is supposed to or they can run you into a bigger inning."

Cobb is among those who believe they are — finally — putting everything together at the right time.

"It's just a complete baseball team right now — offense, defense and pitching has been at the top of its game," he said. "We went through this real struggle point last month and I was happy about that in a weird way.

"I knew this is such a streaky game that we had been at a high point before that, so getting down to a low point with enough season (left) to get our chances back to get into the playoffs. And I knew if we got into the playoffs while hot, like Joe is saying we are right now, and it's obviously showing the way we've been playing, we would definitely be a dangerous team."

Maybe most dangerous of the nine remaining.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

 
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