The Tampa Bay Rays were able to go into Texas and take away the one game play-off behind the strength of a complete game by David Price. There is little question that the better team won, despite both teams being tied going into the game. The Rangers benefited greatly by playing in the AL West against two of the worst teams in all of baseball. In total, the Rangers went 53-23 against the West while the Rays were a full ten games worse against their own division, going 43-33. While the Indians would have certainly preferred to play the Rangers who they had much greater success against during the regular season, but that is irrelevant now as they will have to take on Tampa Bay.
The same argument could be made to say the Rays are also the better team when compared to the Indians. The Indians also took advantage of their games against the West going 25-8 while going just 12-21 against the East. They also played in an easier division as four of five Eastern teams won 85 or more games while only three teams in the Central completed that feat. Even the Blue Jays won 74 games this year and had a winning record against teams outside their division. Of course, regular season records mean very little in a single game match-up. Instead we'll judge the different facets of the two teams to see who has the advantage.
The Rays were forced to use their number one bullet against the Rangers just to get into this game, so the Indians will take some advantage in that. Instead of David Price, Alex Cobb will be making the start in Cleveland. Cobb began his season against the Indians, throwing a seven innings shutout in route to a Rays 6-0 win. Of course, the Indians roster has changed much since then with at least three new starting batters. On the season, Cobb has been great overall as well, holding a 2.76 ERA through 143.1 innings. In his career, the Indians have been one of his favorite opponents, going 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in three games.
Danny Salazar will be taking the mound for the Tribe, another member who wasn't with the original team. He may be the perfect pitcher for the Indians to use in this game as he is an all or nothing big strike out pitcher. With the nature of this game, the Indians will be able to pull Salazar after any trouble at all and go with Justin Masterson out of the bullpen. He has never faced the Rays before, which could be an advantage as they will not be used to the difference between his fast ball and breaking pitches. When he has pitched well it is the vast difference between his three pitches that has allowed him to strike out more than 11 batters per nine innings.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
There is likely to be a very different management style in this game between Terry Francona and Rays manager Joe Maddon. Yesterday, despite struggles and a high pitch count, Maddon stuck with Price and allowed him to pitch the entire elimination game. Assuming Cobb doesn't go the distance, the Rays have one of the leagues top closers in Fernando Rodney (3.38 ERA), although he is nowhere near his 2012 season, and the most used pitcher in baseball, Joel Peralta (3.41). They also have a great left handed match-up man in Alex Torres, but using him would work right into the Indians game plan by allowing them to use their right handed heavy bench. If the Rays have to go deeper than Rodney and Peralta, they could be in a little trouble
The Indians have the second most used reliever in the league in Cody Allen and he has been far more efficient than any pitcher in the Rays pen. With Masterson available in the bullpen, the Indians are likely to use hold themselves to four or fewer relievers. Even if Salazar can't get out of the fourth, Masterson, Allen (2.43), Joe Smith (2.49) and LHP Marc Rzepczynski (0.89) will be the only pitchers used in this game.
The Rays were the second best team in the AL as far as committing errors and have always been a top defensive team. Ben Zobrist is a ridiculously versatile player, who is a plus defensively at five different positions. Will Myers is Tampa's rookie phenom hitter, but has also been impressive in the field and didn't commit an error in the outfield in his 77 games.
While the Indians defense has improved vastly since the beginning of the year, making the biggest improvements at third base and catcher. Even with these, the Indians came in tenth in the AL in fielding percent. Their biggest asset on defense is their ability to keep runners from taking extra bases, something the Rays are always looking to do. Yan Gomes has effectively shut any opposing running game down as the new starting catcher and Michael Brantley can turn almost any double to left into a single. Even the weak armed Michael Bourn has been effective in throwing out base runners, grabbing six assists. Of course, you can't forget that the Indians have the fastest outfield in baseball normally, but there is a good chance Drew Stubbs will start the game on the bench in order to get Ryan Raburn into the lineup.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
This is actually a weakness for both teams. Against tough pitching with few offensive stand outs, this is likely to be a low scoring game. The Rays biggest stand outs are Evan Longoria and the aforementioned Myers, who combined for 141 RBI of the Rays total 670 and that was with Myers playing only half the year. It should be no surprise to anyone that Longoria hit the home run that sealed the game against the Rangers and the Indians know he is the one player they cannot let beat them. If it is Delmon Young or Luke Scott batting behind Longoria, you can expect the Indians to work around him all night, pitching instead to the much easier to strike out batters to follow.
The Indians are a much more well rounded team that actually scored more runs (745) despite having no power hitters or any significant stand outs. Obviously, Jason Kipnis is the team's top hitter, but he is a multiple skill player that can hurt teams on the bases as much as with his bat. Taking into account recent success, Nick Swisher may be the Indians hitter to look out for. He has post season experience and was the Indians top hitter in September with seven home runs to give him the team lead on the season. The Indians hitters will have to be patient against Cobb, working the count early in order to remove him from the game as soon as possible so they can take advantage of the much more vulnerable relievers. Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley have been great at this all season and should perform well against the young right hander.
Obviously, anything could happen in a one game play-off (well not anything, either the Indians or Rays will probably win) and this one should be particularly close. If anything, this gives an advantage to the Indians, who have won 64% of their one run games, while the Rays have won just 55%. While luck has largely been in play here, the Indians solid late bullpen has had a lot to do with it as well. The home field advantage is also significant as the Indians have a .630 winning percent at home (the Rays went .500 on the road), but the simple fact is that any team can win any game on any day and in the play-offs, you never really know what is going to happen.