hurled 6 2/3 shutout innings in his first career postseason start. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND -- Just three and a half months ago, Rays pitcher Alex Cobb was struck in the head by a line drive that very easily could have ended his baseball career. Now, the 25-year-old righty is a winner in his first career postseason start, and Tampa Bay is moving on to the American League Division Series after beating the Indians 4-0 on Wednesday night in Cleveland.
Cobb, who suffered a concussion when he was hit by a ball off the bat of the Royals' Eric Hosmer on June 15, missed two months with vertigo and other concussion-related symptoms. Cobb returned from the disabled list in mid-August and went 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA, 58 strikeouts and a 1.14 WHIP, finishing with an overall record of 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA. He continued his late-season mastery on Wednesday, throwing 6 2/3 shutout innings at Progressive Field while relying on a devastating changeup and frequently pitching out of trouble.
“He was Alex Cobb,” said Rays starter David Price, who's complete-game victory over the Rangers on Monday had punched Tampa Bay's ticket to Wednesday night's game. "Over the last 380 or so days, he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball. He just pitched to his potential tonight, and that was way more than good enough for us to win. He came back just like he didn't miss a beat right before he went on [the DL]. He was hands down one of the top five pitchers before he went down, and he didn't miss a beat. He should get top five in the Cy Young easy. What he's done for us this year and how he pitched, I don't think there was a time he pitched this year we didn't have a chance to win."
Delmon Young gave Cobb and the Rays the lead when he led off the third inning with a solo homer, his ninth career postseason home run. Tampa Bay added two more runs in the fourth when Desmond Jennings doubled in James Loney and Evan Longoria. Cleveland starter Danny Salazar’s needed 22 pitches to get out of the inning, giving him 55 for the game, and he was done for the night after he walked Jose Molina on eight pitches to lead off the fifth. The Rays plated an insurance run in the ninth.
Cobb, meanwhile, got himself in and out of tough situations throughout the evening. He escaped a bases-loaded jam with a double play in the fourth, and then got out of a first-and-third situation with no outs an inning later. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon left Cobb in to start the seventh rather than going to his rested bullpen, a decision that seemed questionable after consecutive singles by Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall put runners on first and second with one out. But Cobb got Michael Bourn to fly out to center field. Reliever Joel Peralta then came on and struck out Nick Swisher to end the inning.
The Indians never threatened again, getting just one base runner in the last two innings. The closest Cleveland came to doing any damage the rest of the way was when a fan threw a cup at Rays leftfielder David DeJesus in the top of the eighth.
(Via SB Nation)
The loss snapped the Indians' 10-game winning streak and ended a remarkable season that included their first postseason berth in six years.
The future still looks bright for Cleveland, which went from 90 losses (68-94 in 2012) to 90 wins (92-70 in '13) thanks to some key new faces. The additions of manager Terry Francona; outfielders Bourn, Swisher and Ryan Raburn; pitcher Scott Kazmir; and clubhouse sage/pinch-hitter deluxe Jason Giambi -- as well as trades that netted Gomes, Mike Aviles and Drew Stubbs -- added depth and veteran presence to a team that was directionless a year ago.
“As much as it'll sting tonight,” Francona said, "and it will, it hurts -- we didn't want to go home yet -- that once we get past that, for however long it takes, I want them to remember how much me and the staff, it was an honor to go through the season with them and how much we care about them. That's what I'll remember more than anything."
With an improved pitching staff, led by the suddenly rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez, and a strong lineup, the Indians are a move or two away from contending again in 2014. Salazar, who has a fastball that hit triple digits on Wednesday, has top-of-the-rotation stuff. Right-hander Justin Masterson, who returned from oblique injury late in the season as an effective relief pitcher, was an All-Star as a starter in the first half. There is suddenly plenty of depth in the starting rotation -- something the Indians couldn’t have fathomed coming into this year.
A deep rotation is nothing new for Tampa Bay. Their cornucopia of pitching talent is the envy of MLB, and it was on display in both of their do-or-die wins this week. Even with the Rays' Choose Your Own Adventure bullpen, their starters give the team a chance in almost every ballgame.
"The combination of the type of guys we have and the stuff our pitchers have makes it difficult on other teams," Loney said. "We're just on the ride right now."
That ride has taken Tampa Bay from New York to Toronto to Texas to Cleveland over the past nine days. Now the Rays will move on to Boston, where they will open the Division Series on Friday afternoon against the Red Sox
. With a few more pitching performances like the ones they've gotten already this week from Cobb and Price, their ride may have a few more destinations yet to go.