Thursday, October 3, 2013

For One Night Only, pt. 2: The End of Ohio and the Art of Hesitation

Sunday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays played a must-win game in Toronto. Monday night, they played another must-win in Arlington. Wednesday, the Rays played yet one more in Cleveland. Even for a team accustomed to late-season pressure, the idea of winning three straight road games against increasingly tougher opponents seemed a bit daunting. Yet by the end of the night, they had won all three, and booked a date with the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series on Friday night.

Much as it was in Pittsburgh the night before, the scene in Cleveland was fantastic. A more than packed house, ready for their Indians to host the should-be road-weary Rays in the American League Wild Card game. On the mound for Cleveland was twenty-three year old rookie Danny Salazar. His counterpart for Tampa Bay would be the twenty-five year old Alex Cobb. Two teams, vying for a chance at the Red Sox, laying all of the pressure in the world upon the arms of relative youngsters. Both would make a stellar impression on the national stage, but it was Salazar's hanging fastball to Delmon Young that would seal his fate.

Young, the 2012 American League Championship Series most valuable player and 2013 Philadelphia Phillies cast off, seemed to fit perfectly into the Rays' roster. He was originally drafted first overall in the 2003 draft by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. With that almost always comes with the pressure to perform at a level that is often unattainable. Young rode the lightning, breaking back and forth between stellar prospect and under-performing bust. Then following his breakout performance with the Tigers in last year's playoffs, he was primed to finally live up to the expectation. He signed with the Phillies for a measly $750,000. This all seems like a script that landed on Joe Maddon's desk, was read, and promptly sold to the platinum-coiffed manager in central Florida. So as it seems to go for the low-budget Rays, Delmon Young connected on that Danny Salazar fastball and gave the Rays and Alex Cobb the only run they would need. For a team that rarely trades and almost never signs mammoth, multi-year contracts, the move was simply another example of why the Rays have gone from laughing stock to being one of the most respected franchises in baseball.

At sixty feet, six inches from home, the timing of a pitch is everything. Having a slow or awkward delivery can throw off a batter to the point he is unable to focus past that quirk. For Alex Cobb, the trick is hesitation. While in his wind up, Cobb lifts his front leg, pauses, then begins delivery. It is in that pause where batters lose their minds. Evidenced by the lack of production from the Indians lineup last night, Cobb's moment of stillness is a deadly weapon in the one-on-one mental battle that is the battery. But that hesitation got me thinking last night about how the Rays run their team. They seldom make moves and build from within, yet seem to consistently put a playoff-caliber roster together. It is as if their hesitation is a moment of clarity that they do not need to make the quick judgment calls that other teams make during an offseason (I'm looking your way, Los Angeles). In their efforts to maintain payroll and still win, they sign players who just know how to win. Much like the Moneyball-inspiring Oakland Athletics of the early 2000's, the Tampa Bay Rays of the last five years have been a refreshing spell of intelligence and craft rather than just another blank check. Alex Cobb's pitching mechanics are left to flourish. The weird quirk is free to hang and puzzle batters to its heart's content. In a sense, that is what makes the Rays so special.

Tuesday night saw the demise of Cincinnati and Wednesday was the reckoning of Cleveland. For the state of Ohio, baseball season is over. The swell of Indians pride that tore into the October sky before the game last night was quickly brought to chatter and mumbling following Young's home run. The Rays soon tacked on a few more runs, but the damage was done. Cleveland had hoped to replicate the home field advantage we had all witnessed last night in Pittsburgh, but in the end grew just as quiet as the other now twenty-two stadiums left vacant to baseball until spring. The Indians completed a mighty turnaround in 2013, but they fell victim to the brilliance and tact of the stalwarts of economic brilliance, the Tampa Bay Rays.

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