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10.02.2013

The Morning of Wildness: The Night Has Arrived, Cleveland; Indians Prepare for Rays

Nino Colla | Wednesday, October 02, 2013 | | | | | | | | Best Blogger Tips

Not only was I there twice during the posteason, I was there several times down the stretch when the Indians had some heated games against the Detroit Tigers en route to winning the AL Central in 2007.

Nothing is better than that Cleveland crowd when Progressive Field is filled up and rocking. There is no better atmosphere. I will always complain and whine about the lack of support for this team in the attendance war. It is definitely sad when this club can't draw 10K for a game.

2007 ALDS v. Yankees, from right field
But the reason that it is so sad is because we've seen this fan base come to bat. And when they come to bat, they usually hit it out of the park. I know tonight that Progressive Field will not only be filled with Indians fans, it will be filled with loud and proud Indians fans.

It is a little depressing that it takes a solidified playoff game for that to happen, but at least it is there. This isn't a team like Arizona, where there's a struggle to fill the park for a playoff game. This isn't a team like Miami where they don't draw a darn thing during the season.

This is a franchise that once sold out 455 straight games. And while I know and fully understand that those days are not only over, but a different time with a perfect storm of circumstances, you can see that drive. This is a franchise that comes to bat for their team when it counts. I've seen it, I've experienced it, I've felt it.

If you are going tonight, and it is the first time you've had that opportunity. Soak it in. Take a minute to look around you when you are on your feet and you can't even hear your own thoughts in your head. Cherish the high five you give to the person you don't even know sitting right in front of you when a big play happens.

I can't remember if the Indians sold "standing room only" tickets last time they went to the playoffs, but the fact that they are now is awesome. I know that park was jam packed back in 2007 and I know it will be tonight. This is a different atmosphere folks. If you watched the Pirates game last night, you saw what an impact that crowd had. Say what you want, but those fans got to Johnny Cueto and he had early exit because of it.

And even if they wouldn't have gotten to Cueto like they did, those fans were buzzing and it would have been impossible for the Pirates to not get behind their fans and feed off that energy. The Indians players have been asking for it all season. And now tonight they're going to get it. They're going to get a crowd to feet off of. They had a little taste to close out the year, but this is a different animal.

Wear your red. That's what the Indians are asking. 40,000 people wearing red and screaming their lungs out. They're also giving out rally towels to everyone. They did it in 2007 and trust me, that was a pretty rockin' scene just to see as well. Make it an environment that the home team can feed off of and enjoy playing in.

Do your part if you are going, but most importantly, enjoy it and take it in. These games are special and the Indians didn't lose many in 2007 when they played in Progressive Field. Make it the advantage it is supposed to be.

"It's extremely important," Kipnis said. "To have our city behind us, playing in front of our crowd, that's where home-field advantage comes from. Having your own crowd cheer for you, build you up, get the blood going a little bit more, it makes it more fun to play in and makes the other team a little bit more nervous."

And don't think the club doesn't know what this crowd can be capable of.

"We're expecting a lot of energy," Smith said. "We're all looking forward to it, because none of us have ever really heard it like that. [Asdrubal] Cabrera is the only one from that 2007 team that went to the playoffs. He's probably the only one who's heard that stadium rocking like it can."

Swisher, Giambi, they've played in front of those crowds, so I'm sure they can even hand down the lessons. Cabrera as well, in terms of this stadium specifically. It's important, and something that needs to help support the team tonight.

[COBB VS DANNY]

This is going to be one heck of a pitching match-up. Last night you saw the two team's best pitchers start the game, and that was because both teams weren't exactly in a position where they needed to win their final game, they didn't need to just get in like Cleveland and Tampa, so they could set their rotation up a little more favorably to them.
Photo - Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports

Cleveland and Tampa just have to go with the guys they feel strongest about who have the rest. Both of them are not really in that "well, I guess we star this guy" mindset though, because Danny Salazar has been really good since coming up and Alex Cobb has been pretty untouchable the past few weeks.

"He pitched extremely well once again," Maddon said. "Curveball outstanding, changeup … I think he was having a hard time command-wise with the changeup early. … Then he started using his fastball more, which I thought was a great move. But overall, a fantastic performance."

Cobb has three straight wins to end the year and in all of them he has gone at least seven innings and given up two runs or less. He's struck out a 26 hitters over those 23+ innings and has walked five. He beat Texas, Baltimore, and New York.

His record against Cleveland is 2-1, as he's made three starts, the one this year was back in April in the second series of the season when he looked pretty impressive. But like the Indians did with Andew Albers last week, you have to expect them to adjust their approach.

Salazar meanwhile has not pitched against the Rays, so you have to think that is an advantage for him going in. He's also coming off an electric performance against Chicago with eight strikeouts in five-plus innings. The Indians may look a little crazy entrusting such a high-stakes game in the arm of a young rookie, but the spotlight doesn't appear to be of a concern to him and the team doesn't think it will be.

"He's not a finished product," Francona said. "The finished product is going to be special, but he's comfortable on the mound. We wouldn't do it if we weren't comfortable."

The leash is off Salazar, so expect Tito to go with him as long as he feels Salazar can handle it. he also has a stocked bullpen, so he can feel free to get what he needs out of Salazar and make a move. I think we're in for a treat though and Danny can at least be counted on for five solid frames.

[THE PLAN OF ATTACK]

On Monday when I played around with the roster, I was in an all-encompassing roster setting mode. The Indians can readjust their roster come the ALDS if they are to win tonight, so expect some slight changes. They can run with a deeper bullpen, because they don't have to carry Ubaldo Jimenez for a game he won't pitch in. They'll also probably roll without Zach McAllister just to make sure they have enough arms in the pen for this one.

So Matt Carson, congratulations, you'll probably be there an available to be played. Chris Perez probably makes the roster, for this series at least. Tito is going to have his options. And you know hes put his time in and done his homework and when it comes down to it tonight, he's going to be prepared for the decisions he'll need to make before and during the game.

"He has an unbelievable work ethic," Antonetti said. "He gets to the ballpark ridiculously early to be able to prepare. What that allows him to do is not only be exceptionally well prepared for the game, but it allows him to have the freedom and time to interact with players and coaches."

The way Tito has pushed buttons the past few weeks, I'd be hard pressed to see him not making the right choices and pulling the right strings tonight. The guy has managed like it has been the playoffs the past month. He's managed in the playoffs before. He knows what he's doing in this situation His counterpart does too. So you know you're going to get a well-managed game.

It will all depend on Salazar though. How deep can Danny get you? I think Tito would be overjoyed with six innings and he'd probably be satisfied with five. He's also probably prepared for four, because Salazar could go out there and strike out two hitters in the first four innings and be spent.

The beauty is he has a bullpen and has been managing that same situation multiple times a week. Let the chess game begin.

[THE NUMBERS GAME]

In the six meetings this season, Tampa Bay has come away with four of the wins. The two wins that the Indians had? Both shutouts. Ubaldo Jimenez on June 1st in a 5-0 win and Justin Masterson on that Sunday in April when he went toe-to-toe with David Price. The Indians put up 13 in that game. 
Photo - Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports

Funny thing is, the Rays have two shutouts against the Indians of their own. One was started by Alex Cobb a day before Masterson shut the Rays down and the other came in the opener of that series in April behind Matt Moore

Right now though, here are some numbers that are worth noting though.

The Rays and Indians are pretty evenly matched in the offensive realm. The Indians have scored 33 more runs this season, but have virtually the same batting average and on-base numbers. The Rays have usually been a run-heavy team, but not so much this year as the Indians are one of the better base-stealing teams int he AL, ranking fourth in steals.

We're also dealing with pretty even looking bullpens. The Indians pen has had to work a little more, but they share virtually equal ERAs and supporting numbers. Of course the thing that separates them is the lack of closer for Cleveland, but even with a full-time closer who hasn't been hurt, the Rays only have four more saves as a team.

And the Indians have had Masterson starting all year, not in the pen, so that's an added weapon. Something Francona keeps mentioning every time the media asks him about his bullpen.

And if you are looking for a spot for Masterson, it will probably be used to neutralize that middle-to-lower half of the order, check out Masty's numbers against Monday's 5-9 hitters.

Delmon Young: 3-for-20 (.150), 0 BB, 5 K
Sean Rodriguez: 0-for-2, 1 BB, 1 K
James Loney: 0-for-2, 1 BB
Yunel Escobar: 3-for-14, 1 BB, 6 K
Jose Molina: 1-for-6, 0 BB, 2 K

You want someone to neutralize the top of the order? Marc Rzepczynski is going to come in handy. The lefty is nails against the two big hitters in the Rays lineup. Ben Zobrist is 1-for-10 with four strikeouts and Evan Longoria is 1-for-11 with four strikeouts against Letters. And they hit three and four, so you know that when it's the seventh or eighth inning, and those guys come up late in the game, look for Francona to use him in that situation, even though the guys aren't lefties. 

In Monday's game, Maddon went right-heavy against lefty Martin Perez, so you have to imagine guys like Sam Fuld and David DeJesus will probably get starts tonight. Even so, Zep has the history against those two big guys, so you'd almost have to think he's already penciled in him to face those two, regardless of inning. And that's kind of what the bullpen by committee approach is. Especially since the only Rays that Joe Smith has had extensive experience against is Delmon Young (2-for-14, 3 K, 0 BB) and Yunel Escobar (1-for-6, 2 K, 0 BB).

Whatever ends up being the situation. I'd expect Tito to mix and match those three late in the game. He'll probably rely on Bryan Shaw early, and again, hope Salazar can give him five to six frames. In the ideal world.

For all his big hits, Evan Longoria only hits .194 in the postseason. But he has eight home runs in 25 games, so while he doesn't hit a lot (half of his hits are long balls), he does serious damage when he does. Keep the ball away from Longo where he can do that damage. He'll strike out, not prone to walking (did it a lot this year), so don't let him beat you.

The last time he was in the postseason, Asdrubal Cabrera went 10-for-45 (.217 average) with a home run and six RBI in 11 games. It has been six years, but Cabrera is back and he isn't in as much pressure as he was last time. Cabrera was a young rookie, right up from the minors just a few months prior and in a prominent spot in that Indians lineup. 

Now he's down further and has protection around him. I'd almost think he's been chomping at the bit to get back to this situation. 

The Indians hottest hitters? Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley. Swish is coming off a hot-September with seven home runs and 10 in his last 40 games. Brantley meanwhile is hitting .400 the past two weeks and .324 the past month. 

If Bourn can't go due to that injury that occurred on Sunday, Brantley will fill in fine. Micahel hit .327 in that spot when he was there with a .383 on-base percentage in 25 games. He was plated 15 times, but also knocked in 13, so that's more than a run per game in that spot. 

And the biggest number? The Indians have won 10 straight. There's something to be said for a hot team. Tampa is 8 for their last 10 of course, so they're just as sizzling and have been playing the same type of ball in the same type of situations as Cleveland. Against teams trying to get in, against team's trying to spoil their fun, and in games that are must wins.

You aren't going to find many differences between the two, which makes this such an intriguing one-game battle.

[AND IT COMES DOWN TO THIS]

Throw the numbers out. Throw it all out. You have one game to win. The Indians have been in this situation the past two weeks. The one game at a time attitude that Francona has taken with his team has been working and it will work in this situation. Because that's literally all they have. One game to get it done and extend their postseason stay.

They have the valued home game though and we talked about how important that is. The beauty of it all is that there is no favorites when it comes to this stuff. You are only as good as you come out to be. The Indians have been playing good ball, so you have to like how they're going to come out and play in this one. Tampa has been playing too though. 

Get ready for your stomach to churn. You thought some of those close games were nerve-wracking. This is going to be a whole new level of anxiety, especially with so much on the line. Aside from those unofficial play-in games in the past few years, last year is the first time that this situation has even been around. Four teams, two games, two opportunities to play on in a normal series. The other team goes home. Yeah, you've made the playoffs, but you could be one and done.

Stakes have never been higher in this. Baltimore went on to lose last year, while the Cardinals at least won their NLDS matchup against Washington. This isn't an opportunity to lose to Boston, this is an opportunity to make a run.

The way this team is playing, I like our chances. I love the underdog position. I love the home game. I love this team, their energy, their leadship, their makeup, their manager. I don't know what the result is going to be and we may be sitting here tomorrow morning looking at a blank October. But we also may be there tomorrow morning looking at a serious contender.

This team wasn't the same as they were a month ago, let alone three months ago when they faced this Rays team or more than that in April. This isn't the same team that lost to the Tigers. This is a highly motivated squad who is playing really solid baseball. Who won't be denied when they are close and have a lot of stellar guidance when something is on the line late.

I don't know what the future holds and I love the idea of this team's future. But the Indians are here now. It would be cheesy to say that the future is now, because right now, the Indians are not focused on the future. And that's probably the best mentality a team in an MLB postseason can have. One game at a time, one day at a time, one win before you think about the next one.

And right now, all the Indians need is one. 

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