The Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Cleveland Indians 4-0 on Thursday evening to advance to the American League Division Series where they will take on the Boston Red Sox beginning Friday in Fenway Park.
The Rays were led by Alex Cobb  who embodies the spirit of a Joe Maddon  led baseball team. He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t wilt under pressure, and he trust those around him to do their jobs.
On Wednesday night in front of 43,579 rabid fans who had packed Progressive Field he delivered 6.2 innings of shutout baseball working around 8 hits striking out 5 and walking only 1.
For the Rays was fitting to have Cobb in the center of the diamond.
There was a time earlier this season that his immediate future was unclear. He would have to work through the unknown that come with the return from a concussion.
On June 15th he was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of the Kansas City Royals Eric Hosmer  and he immediately crumpled to the ground as the ball ricochet directly back to catcher Jose Lobaton . He was taken off the field on a stretcher and rushed to a local hospital where it was revealed that he had suffered a mild concussion.
The days that followed were met with uncertainty as a fluid had built up behind his eardrum. There would be no return to baseball activity until this fluid dissipated and the timeline for that to happen was unclear.
As he waited and waited to return to his craft his only activity was taken his dog for the daily walk. He spoke to the press on June 24th and his desire to return was clear saying “I’ve read a few things saying people think that I might not pitch again this year which you know couldn’t be anything further from the truth. I’ll be ready to go as soon as my body tells me I’m 100%.”
He was determined to return to the Rays and be part of something special but had no timeline in mind. He said the rehab is certainly different than a normal injury, “It’s not like when in the past when I had some injuries like ankles, shoulders, whatever it may be to where you can fight through it as a competitor and really just get back out there and handle pain and realize that you’re not going to do any further damage to yourself your just going to have to block out the pain. There’s just no way to do that with this type of injury its with you every second of the day. Whenever you look a certain direction too quickly or even try to lay down and go to bed you’re reminded that you have something serious going on and you’re not going to fight through that until your body tells you its good.”
After clearing all tests he was allowed to return to baseball activities but was slowed down during his rehab by a blister on a finger on his pitching hand. He continued to work and exactly 60 days after he was struck in the head he worked 5 innings against the Seattle Mariners to pick up the win in a Rays 7-1 victory.
His return could not have come at a better time for the Rays as they were beginning to fall behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East race. After a smoking hot July which the team posted a record of 21-5 they were unraveling in early August. When he took the mound against the Mariners the Rays had lost 5 in a row and 7 of the last 9. For Cobb the challenge was in front of him and he was not going to let his teammates down.
The remainder of the season was a series of ups and downs for the Rays but like Cobb during his rehab the team never lost site of who they were. The team continued to be who they were. The clubhouse was never lost, nobody publicly questioned anyone’s commitment, and the team never got tight.
Evidence of this came during the 18 inning affair against the Baltimore Orioles on September 20th. With their lead in the wild card race dwindling the team showed once again their stress free attitude. While Jeremy Hellickson  stood on the mound with all the pressure in the world on him Luke Scott  had donned a Chewbacca mask and Jamey Wright  was wearing Kiss rocker Gene Simmons boots. The Rays eventually won the game on a walk off single by David DeJesus  and then went on to win their next 6 after that.
Even after winning 7 in a row in September the Rays playoff future was in doubt as the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians had each assembled winning streaks of their own.
The Rays were close to accomplishing their goal of playing October baseball but suffered a hiccup losing the first two games against a Toronto Blue Jays squad void of much of their known hitters. They rebounded to eek out a 7-6 victory in the seasons final game to set up a 1-game playoff with the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers had won 7 in a row and were playing at home. David Price  took the mound and tossed a complete game and the Rays were back in to playoff baseball for the fourth time in six seasons.
The Rays had overcome their poor August and early September by winning 14 of their last 19 games and arrived in Cleveland with a rested bullpen and a pitcher in Alex Cobb who relishes big moments on the mound.
The Indians had flame throwing Danny Salazar  on the mound whose electric right arm will touch 100 mph on the radar gar with an effortless delivery. The sold out crowd was energized as Salazar got Wil Myers  and James Loney  to strike out swinging to end the first. The crowd was loud and on their feet as Cobb took the mound but he didn’t seem to notice the distracting white towels waving or the roar of the crowd as he quietly retired the Tribe in order.
The game remained tied until Delmon Young  led off the top of the 3rd with a solo homer giving the Rays an early 1-0 lead. The Rays added 2-run in the top of the 4th on a 2-out 2-RBI Desmond Jennings  double. With a 3-0 lead Alex Cobb went to work to keep the Tribe off the board.
One advantage a road team can have in baseball is if they are built with pitching and defense because both of those skills travel well. Alex Cobb brought his A game to the park and had confidence in his defense behind him to make plays.
The Indians offense brought the crowd back to a feverish pitch in the bottom of the 4th inning. It looked as if they were going to come back and slice in to the Rays lead and maybe knock Alex Cobb out of the game as Jamey Wright was warming in the pen. The Indians had the bases loaded and only 1-out with Asdrubal Cabrera  at the plate.
Cabrera sent a hard grounder to James Loney at 1st base who fired to shortstop Yunel Escobar  covering 2nd base who used his cannon arm to send a bullet back to Alex Cobb who was covering first base for the 3-6-1 inning ending double play which immediately de-energized the crowd. It wasn’t just another double play ball as the normally mild mannered Cobb pumped his arms and yelled as he walked off the field.
The Indians continued to pressure him in the bottom of the 5th inning. Yan Gomes  led off the inning with a double and moved to third on a line drive single off the bat of Lonnie Chisenhall . The Indians were back in business with runners at the corner and nobody out. The runners on the bases did not seem to bother Cobb as he struck out Michael Bourn  for the first out and then retired Nick Swisher  on a ground out to first baseman James Loney.
With 2-outs the Indians had runners at 2nd and 3rd and were 1-hit away from cutting the Rays lead to a single run and Jason Kipnis  was at the plate. Cobb retired him on a ground ball to Ben Zobrist  to end the inning keeping the game a 3-0 Rays lead.
The Indians mounted a final rally against him in the 7th inning. With 1-out the Indians got back to back single from Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall to put runners at 1st and 2nd. Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey  went to the mound for a visit and shortly after Cobb retired Michael Bourn on a fly ball to center field. That would be Cobb’s last batter he’d face but he had done his job departing with the Rays holding a 3-0 lead.
Joe Maddon has said on numerous occasions that in order for the Rays to be World Champions in 2013 they were going to get there with Joel Peralta , Jake McGee , and Fernando Rodney  leading the bullpen.
Against the Indians it was Joel Peralta who got first crack at doing his part and came in and struck out Nick Swisher to end the Indians threat. He’d remain in the game into the 8th inning and departed the game with a Carlos Santana  on first and 2-out for Jake McGee.
It seemed an odd move by Joe Maddon as Ryan Raburn  hits left handed pitching well and Jake McGee is left handed but Maddon must have known something as McGee poured fastballs by Raburn eventually striking him out to end the 8th.
The Rays added a single run in the top of the 9th on a Yunel Escobar RBI single and turned the ball over to Fernando Rodney with a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the 9th.
Rodney retired the Indians in order striking out two including Lonnie Chisenhall to end the game. Rodney turned and shot his arrow into the air as is his custom. This arrow is targeted to land in Fenway Park on Friday afternoon as David Price takes the mound to be opposed by Jon Lester .
In the loss the Cleveland Indians played a very good game. They pitched well, they continued to put runners on base, and they defended well. The Rays simply played better. Their pitching was better, their hitting was more timely, and their defense made the big plays to thwart potential big innings.
Alex Cobb continued to prove why he is the true bulldog of the Rays pitching staff. The bright lights, an energized crowd, or the pressure moments that come up in a big game will deter him from his goal of giving the Rays their best chance to win.