Technically, the 2013 MLB postseason kicked off Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. The Pirates beat the Reds 6-2. With that, Cincinnati went home, the third team under the new two-Wild Card format to be eliminated from the playoffs before they felt like they’d gotten there, and the first team ever to be knocked out without getting a post-season home game. On Wednesday night, in Cleveland, either the Indians or the visiting Rays will join the Reds on the scrap heap.

I have a major beef with this system, and will tease it out more soon. For now, though, rather than bemoan the farce of these one-game showdowns, I want to try to savor one that pits baseball’s two best active managers and two of the game’s deepest positional rosters against one another. Unlike the Pirates-Reds contest, which turned into a clunker and had problems of pacing, hysteria and lacking competitiveness, I expect this game to be taut, thrilling and fun to watch.

The Indians went on a 10-game win streak to close the regular season. That has no bearing on the likelihood of their winning Wednesday, but it demands to be noted. Their competition may have been tepid over that span, but nonetheless, they finished with 10 straight wins to earn home-field advantage in this game.

A few structural truths about the Indians roster made that streak possible, and inform the matchup tonight. For one thing, they have a surprisingly deep rotation now. Despite the loss of Justin Masterson to an injury in early September, the whole starting staff—as currently comprised, Ubaldo Jimenez, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir and Zach McAllister—turned in outing after outing that gave the team a chance to win.

With the arrival of playoff time comes a compression of that rotation, such that if they survive Wednesday’s game, McAllister will join Masterson in the bullpen, and only the top four will need to sustain their performances in order for the march to go on. Salazar will pitch Wednesday night, and that gives the team a good chance to win. In late June, if told that Jimenez (who pitched Sunday to secure the club’s spot in this contest) and Masterson would both be unavailable, one would struggle to find an arm that offered Cleveland any hope in a game like this.

The relentlessness of the Indians offense also facilitated the streak. Their balance—of handedness, of skill sets throughout the lineup, of skills within each individual—prevents any team from exploiting them, and protects them from extreme run environments. That will come into play tonight, although in a game wherein the opponents are willing to use everyone on the roster to get match-up advantages, that virtue is somewhat muted.

Then there’s the bullpen. Winning that many consecutive games required positive contributions from more than just a few elite back-end bullpen arms. They got them. Indeed, with Masterson in relief for as long as they stay alive and at least two starters available on Wednesday night, the Indians run five or six deep with above-average (though not dominant) relievers. Ultimately, the Indians were able to win 92 games and finish so strongly because they’re a well-rounded and deep team, not just because of a weak schedule.

The Rays took a different path to this game. They won 92 games themselves this season; it just took them 163 games to get there. They went 17-18 over their last 35 scheduled games to fall behind Cleveland and into the tie with Texas that forced them to win Monday night. It was principally a run scoring problem: They scored just 3.65 runs per game over that stretch.

Trim that to the last 10 scheduled games, though, and they scored 5.4 runs per contest. Neither of those numbers perfectly captures their offense, but the second one is closer. With several platoon options, the Rays can start a full lineup of average or better batters on any given night—so long as they can afford to start Jose Lobaton over Jose Molina.

For the first time ever, this season, Joe Maddon’s Rays really had to patch holes all year in their rotation. Unlike the Indians, Tampa Bay lacks a fourth playoff starter in whom one can have much confidence, although the guy is Jeremy Hellickson, and his 2013 has been better than it looks when considering his top-level numbers. David Price missed nearly two full months. Matt Moore missed all of August. Alex Cobb started June 15 and August 15, but not at all in between.

They always had the depth to stay afloat, though, and now all three of those pitchers are healthy and ready for October. That’s been the Rays’ magic over the past half-decade: They always seem to get right at just the right time. By a wide and rather angry consensus, they waited too long to call up Desmond Jennings in 2011. Many agreed it would likely cost them a playoff spot. It didn’t, and while you can call that luck, the fact is that Tampa Bay came back and took a playoff spot by a single game.

This year, there was the Wil Myers call-up, which was less hilariously put off but still raised some hackles throughout the game’s Internet set. Yet, here the Rays are. They also press all the right buttons with late-season moves, as demonstrated by Delmon Young’s and David DeJesus’s huge roles in the resurgence that saved the Rays’ season over the final fortnight.

Both teams are fundamentally healthy, though Jennings and Jason Giambi are nursing minor injuries. Both are deep and well-balanced. This game will come down to matchups, managers and, we can hope, pure talent in a high-leverage, late-game moment or two.

The Starting Pitchers

Salazar and Cobb are both young and inexperienced in games of this magnitude, although I tend to set little store by that criterion for evaluating matchups, and anyway their mutual inexperience probably cancels out any advantage. Both are right-handers, although they have very different styles.

Salazar is a fun story. He began the season in Double-A, just one full season under his belt after a Tommy John surgery that cost him more than the standard amount of time. He quickly got a promotion to Triple-A, though, and by July, got a spot start in the big leagues.

When he returned, after a short sojourn back to the minors, Terry Francona gave him a permanent rotation spot. In his first game in that role, he saw the eighth inning, throwing 103 pitches in a solid but unspectacular effort against the Detroit Tigers. After that, someone talked to Terry Francona. I can’t prove that, but I can demonstrate it: 71, 75, 77, 77, 80, 78, 82, 89. Those are Salazar’s pitch totals in his eight starts since then. Clearly, a choice was made to use Salazar in shorter bursts, letting his high-90s fastball and plus slider dominate opponents, then get him out of there before any erosion set in or the opposing lineup could catch up.

It’s worked. Salazar has 48 strikeouts against 13 walks in 38.1 innings over his last eight outings, which have ranged in duration from 10 to 18 outs, from 16 to 25 batters faced. He’s only faced 160 total batters over that stretch, making that strikeout rate eye-popping.

Wednesday night, he should be about an 11-out guy, in my opinion. I’d want him to keep the bullpen’s task manageable, but to get out of there before facing what are sure to be some tough lefty bats a third time. Though his splits have been small this season, his heat-and-slider mix belies them. David DeJesus, Matt Joyce and company could make life tough on him. Francona should make it clear to Salazar ahead of time that nothing need be held in reserve for a fifth inning of work, and that getting through those guys without giving up early runs is the only priority.

After Salazar, I think the Indians should go to Scott Kazmir. He pitched Saturday, and with both Kluber and McAllister more fully rested, that makes him an unconventional choice. It would be the right one, though. Kazmir is a lefty, which means two things:

  1. He could either neutralize or force the removal of some of those lefties with whom Joe Maddon is sure to stack the batting order; and
  2. Starting him in either of the first two games of a hypothetical ALDS in Boston is out of the question, anyway.

That’s the right way to manage the personnel in this situation. Using Kazmir would both maximize the matchup advantage for the Indians in the middle innings and make beating Boston more realistic if they win.

The Rays should use a similar tack. While Alex Cobb, with his low-90s heat and changeup-curveball mix, is not Salazar for platoon vulnerability, he’s not quite the kind of dominant arm that demands full usage in a game like this. The Indians will almost certainly start Jason Giambi and Lonnie Chisenhall against him, along with full-time lefties Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis.

Matt Moore should be for the Rays what Kazmir is for the Indians. He can come in and turn around some switch-hitters, and will also either set Cleveland at an offensive disadvantage or force Francona to fire his right-handed bench bullets (Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles, especially) earlier than he would like. Moore has a certain pedigree, some shiny numbers racked up this season that recommend him as a Game 1 option in the ALDS, but again, sending a lefty in to face Boston at Fenway is self-immolation in action. Moore should help ensure the Rays reach Boston; Hellickson can try to help them sneak a win there.

The Starting Lineups

Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Indians – Optimal Lineups

Rays

Indians

David DeJesus – CF

Michael Bourn – CF

Wil Myers – RF

Nick Swisher – RF

Ben Zobrist – 2B

Jason Kipnis – 2B

Evan Longoria – 3B

Carlos Santana – 1B

Matt Joyce – DH

Michael Brantley – LF

Kelly Johnson – LF

Yan Gomes – C

James Loney – 1B

Jason Giambi – DH

Yunel Escobar – SS

Asdrubal Cabrera – SS

Jose Lobaton – C

Lonnie Chisenhall – 3B

I don’t know what the lineups will look like; this is just what I think they should look like.

Swisher, Kipnis, Santana and Gomes aren’t helpless against righties, but they kill lefties. Kill them. If the Rays are to use Moore, they’ll have to do so carefully. Actually, the split stats make a pretty strong case for staying as right-handed as possible on the mound, if you’re the Rays. On the other hand, Progressive Field is one of the toughest parks in the league on right-handed power, so those lefty mashers aren’t exactly well-positioned to avail themselves of their own greatest strengths.

The Rays will use Young, Jennings and Sean Rodriguez to hit back if the Indians go to a lefty out of the bullpen, so stringing together Joyce, Johnson and Lpney isn’t a problem.

Lobaton versus Molina is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, it’s easier to identify and exploit a high-leverage plate appearance than to find the right time to make a defensive substitution. That argues for Molina to start, and to wait to need Lobaton. On the other hand, if Joe Maddon is going to have any compunction about burning his backup catcher by pinch-hitting in the fifth frame, that big offensive moment might pass without the Rays being able to take advantage. It’s also true that freezing the running game, Molina’s specialty, has higher value in those late-game moments when a steal can significantly change the win expectancy. All things considered, I went with Lobaton to start.

The Bullpens

Neither of these units has the guys who throw 99 with vicious sliders but can’t grow a goatee yet. They’re veteran, crafty groups. The Rays have a slight edge, for me, because they have short-burst lefties (Alex Torres and Wesley Wright) who can get a crucial out. The Indians might be able to clear the lefties from the heart of the Rays order by bringing on Kazmir, but if they can’t, Chris Perez or Justin Masterson could end up facing David DeJesus or James Loney with the game on the line, and that’s a problem. It’s also worth noting that the Rays will have Luke Scott still on the bench, in case he’s needed to pinch-hit for a pinch-hitter.

The Managers

I love Joe Maddon and Terry Francona. They’re the game’s best active managers. They each have rosters that offer plenty of buttons to push, plenty of options, and that should make for a delightful chess match. There’s very little reason to fear that either guy will stick with his starter too long, or feel obligated to bring in his Closer and leave him in with a two-run ninth inning lead, matchups be damned. There’s almost no risk of a foolish sacrifice bunt or a medium-risk, low-reward stolen-base attempt. The game could go long, but it shouldn’t be boring.

The Possible Outcomes

I think this game is a race to an early lead. Neither offense is going to go off or string together a bunch of extra-base hits. Forcing the other team to change its gameplan, whether for pitcher usage or bench deployment, gives the team with the lead the hammer. I’ll take the Rays, for reasons of both superior depth and more flexibility.

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