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The Strike Zone

AL Wild Card Game preview: Rallying Rays face streaking Indians

[si_video id="video_B82F26FA-9CA0-9CB3-C2B7-749E7DF9C941" height="500"]

Rays at Indians

Start time: 8:00 p.m. ET

TV: TBS

Starting pitchers: Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) vs. Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA)

Having eliminated the Rangers in Monday's wild-card tiebreaker behind a complete game from David Price, the Rays now find themselves in Cleveland for yet another one-game playoff, this one an official postseason game. They will be up against an Indians team that has won 10 straight.

Cleveland is hosting this game thanks largely to a tremendous stretch run in which it won 15 of its last 17 games, and 20 of its last 25. Of those last 25 games, however, just eight were against teams with winning records -- none of whom made the playoffs. In those eight games, the Indians went 4-4.

For anyone who can't quite figure out how a good but largely unexceptional Cleveland team managed to find itself hosting the Wild Card Game, that 4-4 record is a solid clue. The Indians beat up on sub-.500 teams in 2013. Of course, a good team is supposed to do that, but the following breakdown of Cleveland's winning percentage against sub-.500 teams, winning teams who missed the postseason and playoff teams (presented alongside Tampa Bay's breakdown for the sake of comparison) suggests that its success this season may have been primarily due to such matchups.

(NOTE: In the following table "≥ .500" indicates teams with records of .500 or better that missed the playoffs):

IndiansRays
GPct.GPct.
Playoff46.30440.425
≥ .50042.52457.544
< .50074.75766.667

The Indians not only had a far higher winning percentage against losing teams, they also played eight more games against such teams than did the Rays, who played in a division with just one losing club. Also problematic for Cleveland is the Tribe's weak performance against their fellow playoff teams, which includes a 2-4 record against Tampa Bay -- the Indians dropped two of three both at home and on the road to the Rays, though the two teams last played on June 2.

There is precious little history between these two teams. Tampa Bay didn't have a winning season until 2008 and Cleveland hasn't been in the postseason since '07. In fact, this is the first season since the Rays' joined the league in 1998 that both teams have a winning record.

What's more, only two Rays have ever played for the Indians: reliever Jamey Wright, who spent a half-season in the Cleveland bullpen in 2010, and Roberto Hernandez -- formerly Fausto Carmona -- who is not on the active roster for tonight's game. The only member of the Indians to have played for Tampa Bay is starting pitcher Scott Kazmi. The comeback kid likely won't even make an appearance in the Wild Card Game given that he is on only three days of rest since he delivered a crucial win against the Twins last Saturday.

Instead of Kazmir or the similarly resurgent Ubaldo Jimenez, who was needed for the wild-card clinching win over Minnesota on Sunday, Cleveland will start 23-year-old rookie Danny Salazar. Salazar made his major league debut on July 11 and didn't become a regular in the Indians' rotation until early August. The Wild Card Game will be just his 11th big-league start. A hard-throwing righty with a small frame and a Tommy John surgery in his past, Salazar's prospect projections may have sold him short thus far. He has dominated the strike zone across three levels this season, starting in Double-A, and had 65 strikeouts, with only 15 walks, in 52 major league innings (that's a 11.3 K/9 and 4.33 K/BB). He has only thrown more than 89 pitches and gone deeper than six innings once since reaching the majors.

Salazar mixes a high-90s fastball with a sharp slider. He also throws an increasingly effective third pitch, alternately described as a splitter and a changeup (or a split-change), which he throws in the mid-80s with a sharp downward break and some arm-side run. None of the Rays, who haven't faced Salazar this season, have seen any of those pitches.

The presence of Salazar makes 25-year-old Tampa Bay righty Alex Cobb, who has just 54 major league starts, the veteran in this matchup. Cobb threw seven shutout innings against Cleveland in his first start this season, but he hasn't faced the Indians since. On June 15, he was hit in the head by a comebacker and missed exactly two months as a result. But since returning to the rotation in mid-August, he has gone 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA in nine starts. In his final three outings of the season, with the Rays fighting to keep their playoff spot against the Rangers, the Orioles and the Yankees, Cobb went 3-0 with a 1.16 ERA and 26 strikeouts, with five walks, in 23 1/3 innings. Twice in those three starts he struck out 10 or more men in at least eight innings; in the other, he twirled seven scoreless frames. The nine Cleveland players who started against him on April 6 are the only Indians to have faced him.

There is one last important reason for how Cleveland got here: Tampa Bay and the Rangers gave them the opportunity. Both those teams had late-season collapses that put their wild-card berths in danger and allowed the Indians to surge past them. The Rays have pulled out of their nose-dive, winning nine of their last 11 games and 14 of their last 19. Thanks to Price's complete game on Monday night, Tampa Bay's bullpen is just as rested as Cleveland's. The Rays have not used a relief pitcher since last Sunday, and after playing on 21 straight days, they got a much-needed off-day on Tuesday.

All of the above seem like good reasons to favor Tampa Bay in this game.  Expect the Rays to end both the Indians' winning streak and their season.

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