It is finally here. The day we have all been waiting for since October 21st of 2007. A Joel Skinner stop sign. A Casey Blake double play. A Blake error. The opened up flood gates. From those moments in Boston to almost six full years later, Cleveland Indians baseball has been littered with times we would like to forget. The end of the Eric Wedge years spawned the beginning of “ActaBall.” Manager Manny Acta’s stay atop the good ship Wahoo last just under three seasons. The organization was at rock bottom for the Jacobs/Progressive Field era a year ago at this time.
And now here we are. Waiting for night to fall so we can all watch our beloved Indians host a Wild Card game.
The 92-win Indians finished the season with a flourish, winning 10 straight to overtake two teams for the top Wild Card spot. Standing in their way for a trip to Boston are the Tampa Bay Rays, a team with a lower payroll, little fan support, but arguably the best talent developers in baseball. The Rays blueprint is the model for all small to mid-market franchises. Draft well, watch your young pitchers and position players grow, let them walk via free agency, wash, rinse, repeat.
Their skipper Joe Maddon is one of the best in the game. He is an interesting character who has a group of players every single year that want to run through a wall for him. The be-speckled manager possesses one of the most brilliant baseball minds, working off hunches and the eye test more than “the binder.” He prefers versatile grinders and plays deep into his bench, something that most AL managers do not do. The Rays are a true 25-man effort.
Does that sound similar to any team and manager you know?
When you are talking about the Rays offense, the conversation starts with Evan Longoria (.269/32 HR/88 RBI). The All Star third baseman does it all. He is a plus defender at the hot corner who hits for both average and power (who is also the Doppleganger for MTV Challenge start Johnny Bananas). Longoria sits in the cleanup spot and to me, the Indians pitchers should treat him like Miguel Cabrera. This is the one guy in Tampa’s lineup you cannot let beat you. Unlike Miggy, Prince Fielder is not protecting Longoria.
Maddon likes to change his lineup around more than any other manager you will fsee. Depending on how the mood strikes him tonight, Longoria could be followed by either DH Delmon Young, OF David DeJesus, or 1B James Loney.
Young (.258/3 HR/7 RBI) played 80 games with Philadelphia this season before being DFA’d and picked up by Tampa Bay, the team that originally drafted him. He played 23 games with the Rays but has a history with the Indians as a member of the Twins and Tigers for the previous five seasons. DeJesus (.251/8 HR/ 38 RBI) was a waiver trade deadline acquisition as well. He plays a solid left or center field depending on where he is needed. The veteran will put up professional at bats. Loney (.299/13 HR/75 RBI) is the Rays big surprise.
The former Dodger was supposed to be a star but never lived up to the advanced billing. Los Angeles shipped him to Boston as a part of the big deal last season that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and others to the West Coast. The Sox non-tendered him and Tampa Bay picked him up on a 1 year, $2 million deal. All Loney has done is put up his best numbers in five years while playing gold glove caliber first base. He also neutralizes left handed pitching, hitting .299 against them (yes, he is lefty).
The Rays usual leadoff man is Desmond Jennings (.252/14 HR/54 RBI/20 SB). A lot was expected of him this season. Jennings was expected to take that next step and become their new Carl Crawford. Instead, he struggled with the bat and is strikeout prone. The centerfielder was also supposed to be more of a stolen base threat, but he only swiped 20 in 28 attempts (sounds kind of like Michael Bourn’s season a little, doesn’t it?). Jennings can really pick it in center and gets to balls that many can’t, but is struggling with soreness in his legs.
Another Tampa mainstay is Ben Zobrist (.275/12 HR/71 RBI). The uber-versatile switch hitter has played third, short, and both corner outfield spots in his years with the Rays, but he has settled back into his natural position of second base in 2013. The 32-year old All Star is a tough out and is a catalyst for this offense. Like with Longoria, it will be of the utmost importance for Tribe starter Danny Salazar to keep Zobrist off base. He was much better after the All Star break, hitting .294/.365/.427.
The guy the Rays have that is the great unknown to the Tribe is Wil Myers (.293/ 13 HR/ 53 RBI). Heading into this season, Myers was dubbed one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball, on top of many lists depending where you looked. The Rays were able to snag him in a trade with the Royals for ace James Shields. Myers started the season in AAA but came up in mid-June and just took off. His 53 RBIs led the team from the time he arrived in South Florida. The rookie helped carry this team in September, hitting .309/.362/.542 with 14 RBIs. He swing is a thing of beauty and the Rays offense really started to take off once Myers was called up. The Royals will rue the day they let this kid go.
Shortstop Yunel Escobar (.256/9 HR/56 RBI) and catcher Jose Molina (.233/2HR/18 RBI) finish off the Rays starting nine. Escobar is a defensive wizard who nobody wanted after making off-color remarks and being known as a clubhouse cancer who wore out welcomes in Toronto and Atlanta. Maddon and the Tampa Bay clubhouse have been the perfect match for Escobar who has been steady yet unspectacular all season. His shortstop play has the rock of the one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Escobar has pop in his bat, but doesn’t scare you. When Molina is in the lineup, it is for his defense. It is very possible that Maddon could go with Jose Loboton (.248/7 HR/32 RBI) behind the plate. Molina appeared in 99 games, Loboton 100.
Bench options for pinch hitting include UTL Sean Rodriguez, OF Sam Fuld, 2B Kelly Johnson, and OF Matt Joyce. All of these guys have played significant roles this season and aren’t just a cold group. Again, like Terry Francona, Maddon knows how to utilize his bench to the fullest.
As for the pitching, the Indians will have to face right-hander Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA). You may not know the name, but you should know his game. Cobb shut out the Indians for six innings in April in Tampa, but that was a long time ago. Things have dramatically changed for both Cobb and the Tribe. Cobb was drilled in the head by a line drive on June 15th against Kansas City. It looked very serious and nobody knew if or when Cobb would come back to pitch. Not only has he come back, he has been a better pitcher.
With such a small margin for error over the last three weeks of the season, Cobb made three starts and won them all, giving up just three earned runs in 23.1 innings of work. While he is not a classic strikeout pitcher with high 90s velocity, Cobb K’d 26 in those starts – 12 in one and 10 in another. He is a fastball/changeup/curveball guy. This will be no easy task.
Should this get to the bullpen early, the Indians will have an advantage. While Maddon has a bevy or arms he trusts, this has not been one of his better pens. He likes lefties, carrying three of them that he went to often down the stretch in Wesley Wright, Alex Torres, and Jake McGee. McGee (28 holds, 4.02 ERA) is his most trusted set up man. Torres (39 appearances, 0,91 ERA) will be more of a matchup guy (.175 vs lefties). From the right side, veteran Joel Peralta (41 holds, 3.41 ERA) would match McGee from the right side. He made a team high 80 appearances and has been Maddon’s horse for three seasons.
If things work out the way Maddon wants them to, he will hand the ball to his closer Fernando Rodney with a lead in the ninth. Last season, Rodney was the top closer in baseball, posting career bests in ERA (0.60), WHIP (0.78), saves (48), and Strikeouts (76 in 74 innings). 2013 has not been as smooth. While he saved 37 games, he has blown eight, second in the AL. Rodney also walked 36 in 68 innings and his ERA jumped more than two and a half runs to 3.38. The Tampa closer can be wild and easily rattled. Lets hope we don’t have to see him.
Tonight will be no cake walk for the Tribe and will be an interesting chess match between two of the best managers in the game. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.