Rays stick to script: Pitching, defense wins
Maddon's bunch uses fundamental approach to keep calm, carry on
CLEVELAND -- The thing about the Tampa Bay Rays is that they play such spectacular defense that even the most difficult plays start to seem routine after a while.
"What you saw today is pretty much what I've been watching all year," manager Joe Maddon said.
He'd just watched his team play a textbook baseball game, one built on terrific pitching and slick defense.
And their season moves on.
In defeating the Cleveland Indians, 4-0, Wednesday night in front of 43,579 in the American League Wild Card Game, the Rays advanced to an AL Division Series against the Red Sox, which begins Friday at Fenway Park (3 p.m. ET on TBS).
"We think we can beat anyone right now," Rays reliever Joel Peralta said.
When this one ended, the Rays had another wild clubhouse celebration almost like the one they had in Texas on Monday.
This one came with crates of champagne and cases of Silly String.
Yes, Silly String.
"We like to celebrate, man," Maddon said.
Here's what they've done in a four-day span. They won a must-win game in Toronto on Sunday to force a Monday tiebreaker in Texas for the final AL Wild Card berth.
They flew to Texas and won again. Then they hopped on a plane to Cleveland for another.
Pressure? Child, please.
"I think our guys are really good about breathing in the moment," Maddon said.
"We like playing in front of big crowds," he said. "The American League East is a wonderful training ground for this time of the year."
The Rays long ago established themselves as maybe the smartest, most efficient franchise in their sport.
No team does more with less. To construct four playoff teams in the last six seasons with a bottom-five payroll speaks volumes about the entire organization.
One of their unshakable beliefs is that baseball games can be won by pitching well and making every single routine play. In other words, don't give outs away.
On the first day of Spring Training, Maddon tells his players his two most important mandates are:
• Run hard to first base.
• Play defense.
While that may sound overly simple, virtually everything associated with winning baseball flows from there.
On Wednesday, the Rays followed the blueprint. Starter Alex Cobb overcame a fastball he could never quite control to pitch 6 2/3 shutout innings.
When he departed, Maddon mixed and matched his bullpen, using three relievers to get the final seven outs.
As good as the pitching was, as important as Delmon Young's leadoff home run in the third was in quieting a huge crowd, this one had the Rays defense on display almost from beginning to end.
At times, they're so good they're scary.
For instance, it was a scoreless game in the bottom of the second inning when third baseman Evan Longoria was abruptly shifted to the other side of the infield during a Carlos Santana at-bat.
Want to guess what happened on the very next pitch? Santana bounced a ball right to Longoria, who threw him out at first.
The Rays had Longoria start in his usual position because Santana sometimes bunts for a hit. Once Santana had two strikes in the at-bat, the Rays figured he wouldn't bunt, so Longoria trotted across the diamond and positioned himself close to where the second baseman usually plays.
To make an adjustment like that one during an at-bat says plenty about the Rays' preparation and scouting reports and plenty more.
And that wasn't even the most impressive thing they did.
That moment might have happened in the fourth inning when the Indians, trailing 3-0, had the bases loaded with one out.
That inning opened with second baseman Ben Zobrist robbing Jason Kipnis of a hit. Then with Santana on second base, Zobrist saved a run with a diving stab of a Michael Brantley grounder.
With the bases loaded, Rays first baseman James Loney made the play of the game by moving far to his right and getting to an Asdrubal Cabrera grounder.
He fired to shortstop Yunel Escobar for a force at second, and Escobar fired to first, where Cobb was covering the bag. Double play. End of inning.
"Those infielders, man," Maddon said. "James Loney can throw the baseball. Everybody always talks about fielding. But the thing that this guy does, he throws extremely well, and he's not afraid to throw. There are some first basemen that would not make the throws that he makes."
According to Fangraphs.com, the Rays were the AL's second-best defensive team, trailing only the Orioles. They were ranked first at second base (Zobrist) and shortstop (Escobar) and ranked second at first base (Loney) and third base (Longoria).
"Our infield defense is the best we've ever had," Maddon said. "We're all about defense. Everyone wants to talk about batting average. That's nice. But when we can prevent runs like we do, we benefit from that."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.