AL Wild Card Preview – Rays (92-71) at Indians (92-70)

For the first time since 2007, Progressive Field will be host to a postseason game.

The Cleveland Indians will welcome the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League Wild Card game on Wednesday night at 8:07 PM ET at the landmark still affectionately referred to as Jacobs Field by a large portion of the Cleveland fan base. The contest can be seen on TBS and heard on ESPN Radio.

With an unbelievable ten game winning streak to conclude the regular season and a 21-6 final month, the Indians were able to squeak by the Rays into the top AL Wild Card spot, avoiding a potential tie-breaker situation.

The Rays were forced into that exact dilemma on Monday night after dropping two of three to the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend, capping off a two month stretch in August and September with a 28-27 record after a 21-5 July. A complete game effort from starter David Price helped to propel Tampa past the Texas Rangers for the right to come to Cleveland for their shot at a championship.

The Rays won the season series against the Indians, four games to two. The Indians have the advantage all-time with a 75-50 record, including a 43-20 record at home.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona will opt for 23-year-old fireballer Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA) over Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber for the playoff start. Salazar has not pitched in a week, winning a 7-2 decision in Chicago against the White Sox with five and one-third innings on the mound. He struck out eight batters on the night and allowed two runs on six hits. He walked one.

It will be the eleventh Major League start for Salazar, who has yet to face the Rays in his young career. Three Rays on the Tampa 40-man roster faced him while he was with Triple-A Columbus. During his two starts against the Durham Bulls, former Indian Chris Gimenez was 0-for-2, Kevin Kiermaier was 0-for-2 with a strikeout, and Tim Beckham played in both contests and was 1-for-4 with a single and a strikeout.

Why go with Salazar in such a key start?

Salazar struck out seven batters or more in six of his ten starts at the Major League level, despite just once pitching more than six innings in a game. He accumulated 65 strikeouts and walked just 15 on the season. At home, he struck out 33 in 23 innings (12.9 strikeouts per nine innings) and had a 1.04 WHIP in four starts.

In his limited action for the big league club, he held left-handed batters to a .216 batting average and a .292 on-base percentage. He averaged 3.18 strikeouts per walk, due to eleven walks issued in 114 plate appearances. Right-handed batters have had slightly better luck reaching base via hit, with a .237 average on the season, but have averaged seven and a half strikeouts per walk.

As he has pitched further into the game, he has been harder to hit. During his first 25 pitches of the game, he has allowed a .259 batting average and has given up four home runs in a limited sample size. He has struck out 18 of 59 batters (30.5%) and allowed five free passes. From pitches 26 through 50, the opposition hit just .159 on the season. Twenty-three of the 66 batters faced (34.8%) went down on strikes while only three walked.

Thirty-seven of his strikeouts came on his fastball that hit triple digits throughout his debut year and averaged just under 96 on the radar gun. His strikeout per nine inning rate (11.25) was third best of American League rookies, trailing Danny Farquhar of Seattle (12.77) and teammate Cody Allen (11.26).

Having thrown Matt Moore on Sunday and Price in the tie-breaker on Monday, Tampa manager Joe Maddon will utilize Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76) as his Wild Card starter.

The 25-year-old Cobb has pitched against Cleveland three times in his career, including once this year. In his first start in the season’s fifth game, he was pulled after retiring one batter in the eighth inning. He allowed four hits and three walks and struck out six. He was aided by a pair of double play balls. No Indians batter crossed home plate and the Rays went on to win the game, 6-0.

The right-hander has been quietly one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball in 2013. He missed two months of the season after being hit in the head by a comebacker by Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer during his start on June 15th against the Royals. While attempting to return from the concussion, he was delayed by a blister on his right index finger.

In his nine starts since rejoining the Rays, he posted a 5-1 record with a 2.41 ERA. Only once in those nine starts did he allow more than four runs in an outing and he has pitched five innings or more in every start. He struck out ten and twelve in back-to-back starts at home against Texas and Baltimore in mid-September.

His pitch repertoire revolves around a low-90’s fastball, a solid curveball that hovers around 80 miles an hour, a two-seamer, and a changeup. He relied on the change 100 times more than the next closest pitch, which could come into play against hitters like Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher, who were both in the top 25 in the AL in hits off of changeups. The Indians as a team had the sixth highest percentage of hits off of changeups in all of baseball this season.

Several big bats in Tampa’s lineup are worth pitching carefully, as each of these players played key roles in getting the Rays into the postseason.

Evan Longoria was a big part of Tampa’s offensive success. Despite hitting .257 in the second half, he led the team with 14 home runs and drove in 36. His second half home run power was tied for the third-most hit in the AL. He finished the season with 32 long balls and 88 RBI in 160 games.

AL Rookie of the Year candidate Wil Myers was an immediate offensive injection into the Rays lineup when he made his Major League debut in mid-June. The right fielder was second on the team after the All-Star break with ten home runs, but led the club with 38 RBI. He batted .294 after the All-Star game and .308 in September. He finished the season with a .293 batting average in 88 games while hitting 13 home runs, 23 doubles, and 53 runs batted in.

First baseman James Loney, signed to a one year, $2 million deal in the offseason, led the AL in road batting average, hitting .351 on the season with six home runs and 46 RBI. He batted .299 on the season, with 13 home runs and 75 runs batted in.

The Indians postseason push could very well be attributed offensively to the late emergence of both Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Swisher, who underperformed at the plate throughout the season, hit .263 in September. His seven home runs pushed him past the 20-home run mark for the ninth straight year. Seventeen of his 63 RBI on the season came in the final month. He had a total of 13 home runs and 32 RBI in the second half. He has three hits in 12 plate appearances against Cobb, but has also struck out five times.

Cabrera, like Swisher, struggled at the plate. While his offense hovered near his season average in the month of September, he supplied the club with five home runs and tied Swisher for the team lead in runs batted in during the month with 17. He has two hits in eight career at bats against Cobb.

The Doctor of Smooth, Michael Brantley, continued to be a clutch contributor down the stretch. He batted .345 in 22 September games and finished the season third in the AL with a .375 batting average with runners in scoring position. He was second on the team with 14 RBI in the month and finished with career-bests in home runs (10), RBI (73), stolen bases (17), at bats (556), and runs scored (66). In the field, he continued to expand on his club record errorless streak by an outfielder. With 268 total chances, he did not commit an error and had eleven outfield assists. He is 0-for-5 in his career against Cobb.

Yan Gomes led the club with a .319 batting average since the All-Star break and was a substantial upgrade defensively behind the plate. He remained consistent in September, hitting a pair of home runs and driving in nine of his 18 second half runs while hitting .309. His bat helped to replace the production lost when Mark Reynolds fell into a lengthy slump prior to his release. Behind the plate, he threw out 40.8% of would-be base stealers, the best percentage of qualified catchers in the AL.

The winner of Wednesday night’s game will fly to Boston, where they will begin a best-of-five series with the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Friday afternoon in the American League Division Series.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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