Sep 30, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) is welcomed back to the dugout after scoring a run against the Texas Rangers during the sixth inning at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

AL Wild Card Preview: Cleveland Indians vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Well, we finally made it. Today is the day we have all been waiting for. The Cleveland Indians will finally participate in a postseason baseball game for the first time since the 2007 season. There’s no sense in rehashing history. We all know what happened and we’re better off forgetting that it ever happened. You’re better than that, Cleveland. You’re better than that.

This time around, the Indians find themselves forced into a one game, winner take all, Wild Card play in. Thanks to Major League Baseball and their incessant need to manufacture drama rather than allowing it to occur naturally, the Indians will have to win one more game in order to play in an actual postseason series. Standing in their way, none other than the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays come into play tonight fortunate to be in this situation. After having a strangle hold on the top Wild Card spot for the majority of the second half of the season, they faltered early on in September and allowed themselves to fall into a one game playoff against the Rangers. They passed that challenge convincingly behind an outstanding effort from their ace, David Price, and will not rely on Alex Cobb to carry them into the promised land against the Boston Red Sox.

For Alex Cobb, he’s also lucky to find himself in this situation. On June 15th, He took a line drive to the side of the head off the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer. It was a scary moment and looked far worse than the end result would ultimately turn out to be, just a concussion. After two months on the DL, Cobb returned in a big way and since August 15th he has gone 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA in nine starts spanning 59.2 innings of work. He has been absolutely lights out and is showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

The last time the Indians faced off against Cobb was all the way back in the month of April. On that night, Cobb went 7.1 inning  and completely shut the Indians down. He allowed no runs to cross the plate and allowed only four hits and three walks. Admittedly, however, this is a much different team than the one that took the field on April 6th versus Alex Cobb. Players such as Ryan Raburn was an afterthought that was nothing more than a spare outfielder. Yan Gomes was still toiling away in the minor leagues while Lou Marson handled the back up catching duties. Most importantly, the Indians were still figuring out how to gel all of their new personalities and it showed.

On the flip side, the Rays will be forced into finding a way to solve the mystery that has been Danny Salazar. They’ll need all of the luck and positive mojo they can muster up in order to do that. Salazar has been magnificent in his limited time at the big league level. He finished the year with a 3.12 ERA, 1.135 WHIP, and 11.3 SO/9. In other words, Salazar has been damn near unhittable thanks a mid to upper 90’s fastball and devastating curve.

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Of course, one has to wonder whether or not the moment will be too big for Salazar. This will be his first postseason start and it’s in a one game playoff against one of the most playoff battle tested teams in all of baseball. While you can understand Francona’s confidence based on Salazar’s performances to date, it is easy to see Jeff Mount’s interesting argument for why starting Ubaldo Jimenez may have been a more worthwhile endeavor. But, what’s done is done and Salazar will have the unfortunate task of shutting down a scrappy Tampa offense.

The Rays are lead by a three headed monster at the top of their order. Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria are well known at this point and have established themselves as a potent one-two combo of OBP and power. Throw in super prospect extraordinaire Wil Myers and suddenly the Rays have a 2, 3, 4 in their order that can do serious damage. Ultimately, that will be the key to whether or not the Indians can move past the Rays and on to Boston. Can they limit the damage inflicted by those three, particularly Longoria, who burned the Rangers in their one game playoff on Monday. Can they force players like Delmon Young, Sean Rodriguez, Sam Fuld, James Loney, and Yunel Escobar to bet them?

Meanwhile, the Indians offense has really come into it’s own over the last two weeks of the season. Terry Francona seems to have a handle on what his best lineup is and which players give him the best opportunity to win one game. Expect the usual cast of characters like Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Nick Swisher, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana as well as late season favorites Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Raburn. It’s that combination that seems to have gelled and finally created a well balanced attack one through nine. The addition of Gomes behind the plate also provides the Indians with a valuable defensive weapon that can wipe as many runs off the board with his arm as he does with his bat.

In the end, this game is a toss up. Baseball is just too unpredictable of a game to make any sort of accurate prediction. One play, one bounce, one hit can mean the difference between winning and losing. All we can hope is that the Indians find themselves on the positive end of any potential breaks that might happen during the game. What I can predict, however, is that tonight is going to be one hell of a good time. Progressive Field will be packed to the brim with Tribe fans and if they take notice from the fans in Pittsburgh last night, they will bring it strong. And by all means, try to enjoy yourselves. There’s no way of knowing when we’ll get to do this again.

Tags: Alex Cobb Cleveland Indians Danny Salazar Evan Longoria Tampa Bay Rays

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