Tampa Bay vs. Cleveland: Keys to Each Team Winning the AL Wild Card Game

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2013

Tampa Bay vs. Cleveland: Keys to Each Team Winning the AL Wild Card Game

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    Two teams that took drastically different paths to the same destination, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, will meet with their seasons on the line at Progressive Field in the American League Wild Card Game.

    The Rays got here by way of a thrilling play-in game against the Texas Rangers this past Monday, while the Indians earned the right to host the one-game playoff—according to manager Terry Francona—by staying away from chicken and beer, per the Associated Press (via ESPN).

    Francona was, of course, poking fun at himself and how his tenure as the manager of the Boston Red Sox—the team that awaits the winner of Wednesday night's game—came to an end.

    But the skipper of baseball's hottest team won't be cracking jokes once 8 p.m. ET rolls around and Danny Salazar prepares to throw the first playoff pitch for the Indians since 2007, hoping that his rookie hurler can shut down Joe Maddon's playoff-tested squad—which will be making its fourth postseason appearance in the last six years.

    Let's take a look at three keys for each team in this win-or-go-home scenario.


    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

Key for the Indians: Danny Salazar Trusting His Stuff

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    Danny Salazar's first taste of the big leagues couldn't have gone much better, with the 23-year-old pitching to a 3.12 ERA and 1.14 WHIP while averaging more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings of work in 10 starts.

    But he's pitched more than six innings in only one of those starts, against Detroit on August 7, and he's allowed six earned runs and 12 hits over his last 12.1 innings, getting away from his overpowering fastball and relying more on his secondary pitches, as you can see in the chart below from BrooksBaseball.net

    While his ability to drastically change speeds from pitch-to-pitch is an important part of his game, Salazar's four-seam fastball is a lethal weapon, one that sits comfortably in the high 90s and can reach triple digits with regularity.

    Salazar didn't pitch enough this season to qualify as a "power pitcher," according to Baseball-Reference's definition of the term, but he is most definitely that—and Tampa Bay has struggled against those types of pitchers this season:

    vs. Finesse Pitchers.267.337.760260 (91)306/552
    vs. Power Pitchers.233.321.65663 (15)120/247

    Just like Cleveland legend Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn, Salazar needs to trust his best pitch—his heater—and attack the Rays, daring them to try and get a piece of it.

    Doing that will allow him to effectively mix in his secondary stuff, keeping the Rays bats off-balance and his pitch count low, allowing him to go more than six innings in his first postseason action.

Key for the Rays: Getting Length from Alex Cobb

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    It's been nearly six months to the day that Alex Cobb last faced the Cleveland Indians, tossing 7.1 innings of shutout baseball, scattering four hits along the way in his first start of the season on April 6.

    Three months removed from getting hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, the 25-year-old has been excellent since returning on August 15, pitching to a 2.41 ERA over his last nine starts while holding the opposition to a .642 OPS.

    He's been especially filthy over his last three starts, pitching at least seven innings in each while limiting opponents to a .492 OPS. In 23.1 innings, he's allowed only three earned runs and 14 hits, walking five and striking out 26.

    While getting at least seven quality innings out of Cobb on Wednesday night would be ideal, six solid frames is typically enough for the Rays to emerge victorious:

    2013 SplitsERAWHIPRays' Record
    Cobb goes at least 6 innings1.951.0011-4
    Cobb goes less than 6 innings5.401.693-4

    If Cobb can go deep into the game, Tampa Bay's chances of facing Boston in the American League Division Series increases significantly.

Key for the Indians: Nick Swisher Remaining Swishalicious

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    Nick Swisher's first season as a member of the Indians hasn't exactly gone according to plan, with the veteran hitting a rather mediocre .246/.341/.423 with 22 home runs and 63 RBI.

    He's battled a myriad of injuries, moved around the lineup a few times and at times made the four-year, $56 million contract that the team signed him to this past winter look like a mistake.

    But there's no denying the impact that he's had in the clubhouse. And over the last month or so, he's been hot:

    First 122 games.239.322.72940 (15)4663117
    Last 23 games.284.375.94311 (7)171421

    Swisher has struggled badly against Tampa Bay this season, managing only two hits in 21 at-bats (an .095 batting average). Though for his career, he's hitting .300/.417/.400 slash line in 10 at-bats against Alex Cobb.

    If Cleveland is going to head to Fenway Park to take on Boston in the ALDS, Swisher is going to need to continue being effective in the two-hole, even if that means that he doesn't swing the bat at all, drawing walks and getting on base for the heart of the lineup to drive him in.

Key for the Rays: Evan Longoria Must Buck the Trend

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    If Evan Longoria was Superman, then Progressive Field in Cleveland would be his kryptonite.

    Of all the stadiums that Longoria has played at least 10 games in, the .175 batting average he owns over 17 games in Cleveland is the lowest of his career, while the .678 OPS is his second-worst mark, trailing only the .663 OPS that he's posted in 13 games at Minnesota's Target Field.

    In six games against the Indians this season, Longoria is hitting only .217/.308/.391 with two extra-base hits (one home run) and five RBI.

    Yet he comes into the Wild Card Game against the Indians swinging the bat as well as he has all season, hitting .400/.423/.840 with five extra-base hits (three home runs) and 10 RBI over his last six games, including a 3-for-4 performance against Texas in Monday night's play-in game.

    For the Rays to advance to the next round of the playoffs, Longoria is going to have to leave his normal struggles at Progressive Field behind and build off his recent performance. Without a big game from their best player, the Rays' World Series aspirations will be as dead as a fish out of water.

Key for the Indians: How Terry Francona Uses Justin Masterson

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    Still not stretched out enough to start since returning from a left oblique injury on September 2, Justin Masterson has thrown 3.2 innings of scoreless relief, allowing two baserunners (one hit, one walk) while fanning seven.

    Chris Perez lost his job as the team's closer heading into Cleveland's final regular-season series, and while the Indians have a handful of quality relievers who could fill that void—Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith, primarily—Masterson is an intriguing option.

    As previously mentioned, he's not stretched out enough to start. But he is a starting pitcher and as such is capable of throwing multiple innings in relief. That gives skipper Terry Francona multiple options after Danny Salazar's night comes to an end.

    He could use Masterson to relieve Salazar, say, after six innings, leaving the team's former ace in the game for the final three frames.

    He could stick with what worked when Perez was still a ninth-inning fixture, using a combination of Allen, Shaw and Smith to bridge the gap in the seventh and eighth innings before turning the ball over to his veteran sinkerballer in the ninth.

    Or he could bring Masterson in for a two-inning save.

    One way or another, Masterson is going to play a pivotal role on Wednesday night against Tampa Bay—a team that he shut down in his second start of the season on April 7, tossing seven scoreless innings while scattering two hits, walking three and striking out eight.


Key for the Rays: Health of Desmond Jennings' Hamstring

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    Desmond Jennings returned from an eight-game absence on Monday night against the Texas Rangers, going 1-for-3 with a walk and run scored before being replaced in the bottom of the seventh inning by Sam Fuld.

    Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger on Tuesday that he's confident that his speedy center fielder will be ready to go against the Indians in the Wild Card Game: 

    Desmond is doing really well. You saw him play last night. The first ball down the line, I don't even know if under normal circumstances it would've been closer, but Gentry made a nice play on it. Overall, I'd say he's about 85 percent. He swung the bat really well last night so he should be fine for tomorrow night.

    It's not so much Jennings' ability to produce at the plate with the balky hamstring that should concern the Rays as much as his ability to cover ground in center field, where a healthy Jennings is already a below-average defender.

    According to FanGraphs defensive metrics, Jennings' minus-7.0 UZR/150 and minus-six DRS ranks 16th out of 19th qualified center fielders. Should Jennings' hamstring act up, costing him even half a step as he tracks a fly ball or line drive, it could cost the Rays the game.