The Pittsburgh Pirates have punched their ticket to the League Division Series, and on Wednesday at 8:07 PM on TBS, the Tampa Bay Rays will take on the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field for the right to face the Boston Red Sox in the AL Division Series. Throughout most of the season, the Rays were the better team. But the Tribe got hot in September, and is rolling into the Wild Card game with home field advantage *and* a ten game winning streak, while the Rays had to win a tiebreaker on Monday in Texas to earn their ticket to the Postseason. This is Cleveland's first playoff game since 2007, while Tampa Bay returns to the Postseason after a year off in 2012.
Starting Pitching: Taking the hill for the Indians will be dynamic rookie Danny Salazar, while Alex Cobb gets the nod for the Rays. The 23-year old Salazar has been a revelation in the majors this year for Cleveland, striking out 65 while walking 15 in 53 2/3 innings over ten starts. Lefties also struggle against Salazar, hitting .216/.292/.294 in 114 plate appearances, compared to .237/.268/.462 by righties. Essentially, Salazar walks a higher percentage of left-handed hitters, but allows more damaging hits to right-handers – including six of his seven home runs allowed. His home and road splits are pretty similar, and at Progressive Field, Salazar is allowing a .221/.267/.388 line. The Indians have handled Salazar gently down the stretch, and while he's only finished the sixth inning twice in his last seven starts, he's only exceeded 80 pitches twice over that stretch. Salazar is great at getting ahead of hitters right away, throwing first pitch strikes to more than two-thirds of the batters he's faced this year, and is a master at getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone (38.2% swing rate).
Alex Cobb has, perhaps shockingly, been Tampa Bay's best pitcher this year not named David Price. The 25-year old Cobb missed two months in the summer after getting hit in the head with a line drive, but has been just as good since his return, striking out 58 and walking 22 in 59 2/3 innings, allowing a .217/.295/.348 line. Cobb is very effective against right-handers, allowing a .216/.287/.305 line in 224 plate appearances compared to a .233/.294/.383 line in 354 plate appearances to left-handers. Cobb has finished the seventh inning in his last three starts, striking out 26 and walking five in wins over the Rangers, Orioles, and Yankees. Cobb got the win against the Indians at Tropicana Field in April, allowing four hits in 7 1/3 shutout innings against a lineup featuring most of the same names he'll see tonight, but in a different order.
Bullpen: Terry Francona and the Tribe has slotted a pair of starting pitchers in their bullpen in case things go awry for Salazar – Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir. Cleveland's bullpen also boasts Justin Masterson, who worked as a starter for nearly the entire season before shifting to relief for the season's final week after missing three weeks with a strained oblique. In his three relief appearances this year, Masterson has struck out seven while walking one in 3 2/3 innings. Masterson has always been deadly towards right-handers, and that may make him Francona's most indispensable option tonight. Erratic closer Chris Perez, who has allowed 17 runs over 20 1/3 innings in August and September, is on the roster, but won't be finishing off games. That honor will end up going to Masterson, lefty-killer Mark Rzepczynski, or really, anyone. Francona hasn't made up his mind, and will just go with the best matchup. In a neutral situation, Cody Allen might be the best option due to his ability to miss bats.
The Rays also have a pair of starting pitchers in their pen as an emergency: Chris Archer and Matt Moore. But Tampa Bay is carrying two fewer pitchers overall than the Indians, who are bringing a total of 11 hurlers to battle tonight. The gem of the Rays' pen is rookie Alex Torres, who only allowed one run in the first half of the season before "struggling" to a 2.84 ERA in the second half. Torres dominates lefties and righties equally, and Joe Maddon isn't afraid to use him for more than an inning, as his 58 innings pitched in 39 games indicates. Closer Fernando Rodney will also be on the roster, and despite his early season struggles, Rodney allowed just one run in 11 September innings. Be wary, though: lefties hit Rodney at a much higher clip than righties did. Lefty killers Wesley Wright and Joel Peralta will also be in the pen tonight in Cleveland.
Lineup: While the specific lineups haven't been announced yet, we can make assumptions based on what the teams have done lately and on the starting pitchers for each side. With a right-hander on the mound, Ryan Raburn becomes a question mark, though Drew Stubbs can't hit righties at all, which could push Raburn into the lineup at the expense of the speedy Stubbs. Aside from that, the only other question is at third base between Lonnie Chisenhall and Mike Aviles. Chisenhall hits righties better, but can't hit lefties at all. Aviles is more balanced, and would likely make sense as a late game pinch hitting option. Aside from those two, you'll be getting the usual Tribe lineup, including Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Bourn, and Michael Brantley. The weak links are Bourn and Cabrera, both of whom have struggled this year, especially in the second half. Bourn is also dealing with a gimpy calf, but is apparently ready to go.
The Rays' lineup is more flexible. Evan Longoria, Yunel Escobar, Ben Zobrist, James Loney, Wil Myers, and Delmon Young are all locks. Desmond Jennings' status might be a question thanks to a hamstring injury that looked to be bothering him on Monday in Texas. If he can't go, David DeJesus will likely man center while Matt Joyce starts in left, but if Jennings is good to go, DeJesus will probably get the nod in left. Behind the plate, Jose Lobaton and Jose Molina share the role, but I'd expect Molina to start on Wednesday thanks to Cleveland's 117 stolen bases.
Bench: Cleveland doesn't have a lot of flexibility. Jason Giambi is useless against lefties, and the Rays have three of them in their pen. 21-year old Jose Ramirez and his 14 career plate appearances earned a spot on the playoff roster, as did 32-year old minor league journeyman Matt Carson. And really aside from those three, Cleveland's other bench options are either Raburn or Stubbs and either Aviles or Chisenhall. Raburn's primarily played the outfield this year, but his versatility in previous years could let Terry Francona get creative in a longer game.
Maddon took a page out of Bobby Cox's book by carrying three catchers for this game, with Chris Gimenez joining Lobaton and Molina. However, aside from that, versatility is the name of the game with the Rays. In addition to Zobrist's chameleon-like tendencies, both Kelly Johnson and Sean Rodriguez can play both the infield and outfield, allowing Maddon to mix and match to get the matchups he wants against the Indians bullpen. Tampa Bay also has a useful defensive replacement outfielder in Sam Fuld, and is rolling the dice with Kevin Kiermaier and his zero major league plate appearances on their bench.
Overall: Both of these teams are very well-balanced and well-constructed. The best player on either side is a Ray (Longoria), but the three best hitters following him might be Indians. Both managers are experienced and know what they're doing, and I doubt there is going to be an egregious move from either side. What I think this game is going to come down to is Salazar. If he's able to keep Tampa Bay's offense in check through six or seven innings, the Indians are probably going to be in a great position to win. But if the Rays are able to get some runs on the board and give Cobb a lead, Maddon can turn the field into a chess board and have an answer for every one of Francona's moves.