CLEVELAND — A packed stadium can be oddly and eerily quiet given the right — or wrong, depending on your point of view — circumstances. By the late innings Wednesday night, Progressive Field carried all the energy of a 24-hour pharmacy at 3 a.m. The fans of the Cleveland Indians tried, they really did. When the evening began they waved the towels that had been handed to them when the gates opened and provided the expected din.
But by 11:47 p.m., when the final out was finally recorded, Alex Cobb and the Tampa Bay Rays’ flawless defense had long since strangled an entire lineup, and taken the city along with them. Thus Cleveland, which would have loved to follow Pittsburgh in using October to revive its proud baseball past, was cast aside with but a murmur. Cobb pitched the Rays to a 4-0 victory in the American League wild-card playoff game, a clinical performance from a 23-year-old who, nearly four months earlier, lay helpless on a field, his teammates concerned for his future.
“He didn’t pitch like a young pitcher,” Cleveland Manager Terry Francona said. “It was like as the stadium got louder, he could take something off — spin a breaking ball, throw a change-up. . . . He took the sting out of our bats.”
Delmon Young jacked a solo homer, Desmond Jennings laced a two-run double, and Cobb shut the Indians out over 62 / 3 innings, dancing around eight hits and striking out five. It all means the vagabond Rays — whose route to the postseason included winning a tiebreaker — will travel to Boston to begin a division series Friday.
“That’s tremendous,” said Rays Manager Joe Maddon, embracing the challenge of facing a division rival to whom his team lost 12 of 19 games.
It is less tremendous in Cleveland, which was trying to overcome five straight losing seasons with one unlikely run. This ballpark once was filled every single night. But over the past decade, baseball has become something of an afterthought here. The 43,579 who showed up Wednesday represented the Indians’ third sellout of the year.
“I wish we could have given them a better game,” Francona said.
Cobb provided the game in need. His fastball sits at 93 mph and his wicked change-up, upon which he relies heavily, can make hitters buckle, but how he is constituted mentally might matter more — particularly because he said Wednesday night his location and command were both off. After sailing through the first two months of the season with a 2.39 ERA, he looked ready to make the all-star team. But on June 15, he took a line drive to the head off the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer. The concern, as he lay on the ground, wasn’t for his next start or his next month. It was for his career and his well-being.
But Cobb, who suffered a concussion, returned two months later.
“It’s been a blur,” Cobb said. “I don’t know if that’s because of the concussion.”
He smiled, in part because of the moment, but also because he was the Rays’ best pitcher down the stretch. There was no way either of these teams could have lined up their pitchers for a one-and-done game, because both had to finish with a furious flurry just to be here. The Indians, a playoff afterthought a month ago, closed with 10 straight wins to earn the right to host a postseason game for the first time since 2007; they used ace Ubaldo Jimenez to nail down the 162nd game. The Rays won eight of their final 10, and that only earned them the right to play the tiebreaker Monday, when ace David Price beat Texas in game No. 163.
“Our guys were fine from the very first pitch,” Maddon said. “There was nothing going on except focus and, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
So Cobb went. Through three innings, he was scarcely tested, but what Cleveland fans will remember into a long, cold winter are the ensuing chances. In the fourth, they loaded the bases with one out. Cobb was in trouble — and the Cleveland crowd sensed it.
Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera followed by pulling a ball toward first, one handled deftly by Rays first baseman James Loney, who fired to second. “He’s not afraid to throw,” Maddon said. Cobb then did his job covering the bag, accepted the relay to complete the double play, and Progressive Field sagged. Rally, dead.
In the fifth, the Indians put runners on the corners with no one out. Cobb’s response: a strikeout of Michael Bourn, a hard groundout to first from Nick Swisher, and a dribbler back to the mound from all-star second baseman Jason Kipnis. Rally, dead.
And in the seventh, another killer. Cobb allowed two singles, got the second out, and Maddon emerged from the dugout. The Rays’ infield converged on Cobb, congratulations all around. And when reliever Joel Peralta arrived to face Swisher, the most emphatic silence awaited. Peralta dissected Swisher first with a curveball (swing and miss), then with a split-finger fastball (swing and miss), and finally with a 93-mph fastball (swing and miss).
As Swisher, disgusted, removed his arm guard and helmet and dropped his bat — a pile at the plate — Progressive Field fell silent again. These fans, this stadium, this city, wanted badly to make noise deep into October, and the Rays just covered their mouths and shut them up.
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