With the Tampa Bay Rays besting the Texas Rangers in their tie breaker game, the Rays will meet the Cleveland Indians in their second win-or-go-home matchup of the week on Wednesday. A one-game playoff leaves much to chance but the teams match up well against one another.
The wild card in the wild card game will be Indians starter Danny Salazar who got the nod after the Indians opted to use Scott Kazmir on Saturday and Ubaldo Jimenez on Sunday to seal their playoff spot. Salazar is just 23-years-old and has all of 10 Major League starts under his belt, a one-game playoff is by far his biggest test of his very young career.
Salazar will need to get off to a good start in the early innings of the game. He owns a 4.50 ERA in the first inning and a 5.40 ERA in the second over his ten starts. As Martin Perez and the Rangers showed on Monday, you don’t have the luxury of settling in when starting a one-game playoff.
While Salazar is not the most optimal option, he’s a capable one. Young as he may be, he’s put up sub-3.00 ERAs in each of his last two minor league seasons and owns a very strong 3.12 ERA in the Majors. We haven’t seen much of him against good teams but he’s faced off against the Tigers’ ferocious lineup twice this season and held them to four runs over 13.2 IP while striking out 15 and walking just one. Those two games and a four inning start against the Braves have been his only real tests, however. His other seven starts came against some of the worst teams in the league, including the White Sox, Mets, Blue Jays, Angels, and Twins.
Either way, Salazar has little experience pitching past the fifth inning and the Indians will likely lean heavily on their bullpen. Salazar has made it into the sixth inning in only six of his 10 starts, posting a 5.79 ERA over those sixth innings.
The bullpen, specifically Chris Perez, is also suspect. Perez hasn’t saved a game since September 17 and has given up six runs on three home runs in his last two appearances. If the Indians need a save, they might want to look to Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw as they have a couple of times during the win streak. The bullpen as a whole owns a solid 3.62 ERA on the season and the key guys have been reliable. Shaw (3.24 ERA), Allen (2.43 ERA), Joe Smith (2.29 ERA), and Matt Albers (3.14 ERA) are all plenty capable of holding down the fairly mediocre Rays offense.
Offensively, the Indians have a lot less questions. They rank fifth in the league in runs and seventh in on-base percentage. Not only have they won 10 straight games and 15 of their last 17, they’ve scored at least five runs in each of their last seven games. You can’t be hotter than the Indians bats are right now. Led by Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Michael Brantley, the Indians offense ranked third in offense in September.
Still, these two teams have faced off six times during the regular season and the Rays took four of those games, holding the Indians to just 23 runs. The Tampa Bay pitching matches up well with this lineup so the Indians will need all the momentum they can get.
Tampa Bay Rays:
Much like the Indians, the Rays used their best pitchers, David Price and Matt Moore, to seal their playoff fate so they’ll have to turn to young Alex Cobb against Salazar. Cobb has improved tremendously in his third Major League year, posting a strong 2.76 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 22 starts this season.
Unlike the untested Salazar, you can’t have a better matchup option than Cobb. He pitched 7.1 scoreless innings against the Indians in his lone start against them this season, allowing just four hits and three walks while striking out six. Cobb has a 2.51 ERA against teams over .500 this season and put up a 2.41 ERA in nine second half starts. Also unlike Salazar, Cobb has made it into the sixth inning in all but two starts this season.
The offense is a different story. They ranked 12th in runs on the season but ranked 24th in runs after the All-Star break. Evan Longoria and Wil Myers are their only real threats and Longoria went just 5-for-23 in six games against the Indians this season and is coming into the post-season cold. He batted .194 in July, .245 in August, and .259 in September, hitting just three home runs in the final month before his big game against the Rangers on Monday. Over Myers’ last couple of weeks, he’s driven in just four runs while striking out 13 times over 12 games. The whole offense batted just .243 over the final month of the season and batted just .246 against the Indians over their six matchups this season despite winning four of those contests.
The Rays clearly have the advantage on the mound and, as David Price proved, that’s the biggest difference in this kind of do-or-die game. The Indians, however, are by far the hottest team in baseball and momentum is often the key to post-season success. It’s a great matchup but the winner doesn’t get any breaks, they get to face the best team in the American League in the Boston Red Sox. With a 12-7 record against the Rays and a 6-1 record against the Indians, the BoSox will have a big ALDS advantage no matter who wins this one.