Nobody synthesizes pitching and defense better than the Rays, and that's why they have won three straight elimination games in three cities in two countries, and advanced to play in a fourth game in a fourth city, Boston, where they begin the American League Division Series Friday. In the preceding three games this week Tampa Bay starters Matt Moore, David Price and Alex Cobb combined to go 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA, while the defense behind them played errorless baseball.
The Rays play a "system" kind of baseball that invokes Bill Walsh's West Coast offense with his Super Bowl-winning 49ers teams. Tampa Bay plays more defensive shifts than any team in MLB (in part because the Rays' intra-divisional rivals, the Red Sox, the Orioles and the Yankees, are loaded with dead pull hitters) and do so in such pitcher- and count-specific ways (watch third baseman Evan Longoria move within the same at-bat) that you half expect the fielders to be wearing number-coded wristbands.
"We have extreme confidence in where we play people," manager Joe Maddon said recently, "because we have extreme confidence in the data. Everything we do is based on lots and lots of very good information."
Cobb, with his pinpoint control and his ability to throw ground balls, is the perfect system pitcher. He proved it yet again last night in beating the Indians in the Wild Card Game, 4-0, while taking the ball two outs into the seventh inning. Tampa Bay gave Cleveland nine hits but no runs, becoming only the ninth team in postseason history to throw a shutout with so many hits -- the first since Johan Santana and the Twins blanked New York in the 2004 ALDS.
Cobb is a cold-blooded escape artist with a terrific defense to support him. Last night he got seven huge outs with runners in scoring position, but he got only one of them with a strikeout. The other six outs all came on balls put into play.
In 34 starts since Aug. 1, 2012, Cobb is 19-4 with a 2.77 ERA. He has not given up a home run with a man on base since April. He has never given up a three-run homer or grand slam.
The System travels well -- yes, to Fenway Park, too. The Rays held Boston to a .342 slugging percentage at Fenway this year, the lowest mark by any team in baseball and 73 points lower than the league average in the park. Tampa Bay pitchers at Fenway also held the Red Sox to their lowest batting average (.210) and on-base percentage (.262). Finally, check this out: Boston batted .340 at Fenway this year on balls they put into play -- except against the Rays. Tampa Bay and the System reduced that batting average to .251, another league low.
2. The unfairness of unbalanced schedules
That the Indians departed from the postseason in one game doesn't invalidate their season, not any more than one win would have proved they belonged in October after a late-season schedule that was the baseball equivalent of two months of homecoming opponents. Baseball mattered again in Cleveland and that is what counts, especially with reason to think 2014 can be better.
But the inequities of the schedule, which bother the AL East teams especially, remain a legitimate cause for concern. Slice it any way you want: The Indians were 29-6 against last place teams and 63-65 against the rest of baseball. They had 15 fewer wins against winning teams than did the Blue Jays, the AL East's last-place team. After July 28, the 111-loss Astros had as many victories against winning teams (five) as did playoff-bound Cleveland.
Some teams get easier schedules, and things broke right for the Indians down the stretch. "We need to go to a balanced schedule, or something a lot closer to it," said one AL manager. "Teams fight for the same [wild card] playoff spot but the schedules aren't the same."
I doubt baseball will change the schedule much, if at all. The business people in the game love this schedule because it gives teams the most games that can be televised in prime time in their markets, and because teams make more money off regional rivalries than they would off a balanced schedule.
Meanwhile, Cleveland had to watch yet another team celebrate at its expense and on its turf. Since 1999, the Indians are 1-10 in postseason games when they had a chance to clinch and advance. The franchise has been playing baseball for 113 years. Only twice has the club won a postseason series at home: the 1997 ALDS and the 1920 World Series.
Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. But somehow the Dodgers were not that much better as a team when Kershaw started (19-14, .575) than when he didn't (73-64, .533). Today the Braves begin the difficult assignment of having to beat Kershaw at least once, and perhaps twice, to advance to the National League Championship Series. What can Atlanta learn from the 14 times opponents found a way to win against Kershaw and Los Angeles? Some clues:
You better get a stellar game from your own starting pitcher, in this case Kris Medlen for the Braves in NLDS Game 1. In games the Dodgers lost with Kershaw on the mound, the opposing starters combined for a 1.92 ERA. No team beat Kershaw this year when their own starter gave up four earned runs. And only twice -- in 33 games -- did a team beat Los Angeles and Kershaw when its starter gave up even three earned runs.
Don't count on knocking him from the game in the middle of the inning. It happened only six times all year.
Manage from the start as if it will be a low-scoring game. In games the Dodgers lost with Kershaw on the mound, the winning team averaged just 3.79 runs.