For the first time in six seasons Wednesday night, a sell-out crowd of red-clad and white-towel waving Cleveland fans welcomed back baseball in October in northeast Ohio.
But it didn’t take long for the fired-up masses to realize that while the 2013 version of the Indians had been a fun and scrappy bunch to watch reel off 10 consecutive games down the stretch in the regular season, this group is far from the ‘07 squad that found itself one win away from a World Series berth.
With just one win needed in Wednesday’s American League wild card game against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays to punch their ticket into the remainder of the post season, the Indians fell flat, being shutout 4-0 by the Rays.
“It hurts,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We didn’t want to go home yet…we knew what we were getting into today and they outplayed us.”
The let down began with a sub par and short outing from rookie starter Danny Salazar, whose strong start which included flashing 100-mph fastballs, quickly disintegrated the second time through Tampa Bay’s lineup.
After needing just 20 pitches combined to quickly mow through the first two innings, Salazar labored through the next two. He threw 39 pitches in the third and fourth innings, giving up three runs along the way before being pulled after just four-plus innings of work.
“He's not a finished product,” Francona warned of Salazar Tuesday, a point that became appearant an evening later in the cool October air. “(But) the finished product is going to be special.”
Rays designated hitter Delmon Young put the visitors on the board by sending Salazar's first offering of the third inning 414-feet deep into the left field bleachers. The homer marked Young’s ninth over the last three postseasons (five of which have come on the first pitch) - the most in the majors over that span.
After striking out fourth-inning leadoff man Wil Myers looking, Salazar gave up back-to-back seeing-eye singles to James Loney and Evan Longoria to get himself in a jam. The young right-hander rebounded to get Ben Zobrist to fly out to right field, but the next batter – centerfielder Desmond Jennings - hit a double up the third base line that bounced around the left field corner long enough to score the pair and push Tampa Bay’s lead to 3-0.
“When he worked ahead in the count, he was tremendous,” Francona said of Salazar. “When he fell behind, that’s when they got their hits – in fastball counts.”
Still, it wasn’t just an off night by Salazar, 23, that cost the Tribe.
Shouldering even more of the blame should be the lack of a clutch hitting, especially once the Indians bullpen was called into service and held the Rays offense to just one more run (an unearned run in the ninth) the rest of the way.
Despite the bottom of the lineup starting to get to Cobb during the right-hander’s second time through the lineup, the Indians table setters at the top of the order failed to produce in the clutch. The top three batters - Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis – went a combined 0-for-12 on the night. Seven-hole hitter Asdrubal Cabrera added an 0-for-4 night of his own, including hitting into the rally-killing double play in the fourth inning.
"We missed some opportunities, it’s as simple as that," Bourn said. "I missed opportunities that I felt like I could have capitalized on. Not trying to do too much, but just trying to get one run in, you know? That’s usually my mindset and I didn’t do it.”
The Indians had the bases loaded with one out in the fourth. They had runners on first and third with no outs in the fifth. They even had two on and no out in the seveneth. But with each opportunity to chase Rays starter Alex Cobb from the game, they came away empty-handed.
“These fans were so amazing tonight,” Swisher said. “It was a packed house and such an amazing atmosphere. We just couldn’t come up with that clucth hit. They popped three runs early and you have to give credit where credit is due - their pitching staff did a great job tonight.”
Whereas Salazar dished up three runs on just four hits in the loss, Cobb scatterd eight hits over 6 2/3 but managed to keep the Tribe off the board to earn the win. In his two starts against the Indians this season, he held the Indians without a run in 14 innings.
When Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was asked after the game why he felt the Indians struggled so much with runners in scoring position, he credited Cobb with keeping them off balance.
“I think more than they did not come through, you’ve got to give (Cobb) credit for making big pitches when he needed to,” Maddon said.
Although he didn’t play, veteran slugger Jason Giambi sensed the Indians were often just one big hit away from making it a game.
“We needed to push one across and I think everybody would have relaxed,” he said. “The pressure starts to mount every time you don’t score. All this team really ever needed was a heartbeat and we kept it all the way down to the end.”