CLEVELAND — An emotional Indians manager Terry Francona addressed his team shortly after being eliminated in the one-game AL wild-card playoff against Tampa Bay, 4-0, while the Rays celebrated on the field and then in the clubhouse where for the second consecutive day champagne flowed.
Francona told his team how proud he was of the 92-win season and the 10 straight victories to win the top wild-card spot. He told his club that the season ended all too soon. The dreamy matchup with Francona returning to Boston for the Division Series would not happen. Maybe next year.
“I told them that as much as it will sting tonight — and it will, it hurts, we don’t want to go home yet — that once we get past that, for however long that takes, I want them to remember how much for me and the staff it was an honor to go through the season with them and how much we care about them. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything,” Francona said.
Francona, the former Red Sox manager who led the team to two World Series titles in eight seasons, but whose tenure ended with a September 2011 collapse, won 92 games in his first season in Cleveland, but he couldn’t win one more to make the much-anticipated reunion take place.
The Rays, who went 7-12 against the Red Sox in the regular season, were scheduled to leave for Boston after last night’s celebration, where they will play the first two games of the best-of-five Division Series against the Red Sox at Fenway starting Friday with Jon Lester facing Matt Moore. The Rays played in three cities over a four-day stretch, and now Boston.
“We were fine from the very first pitch,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “There was nothing going except focus, and let’s go and a lot of life, man. It was outstanding to watch. As a manager to watch your team go at it like that, you have to be very proud.”
The Rays, behind starter and Boston-born Alex Cobb, managed to squash three major Indians’ scoring chances in the fourth, fifth, and seventh innings when they stranded two runners each time. The top three hitters in the Indians’ lineup went 0 for 12 and Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis never hit the ball out of the infield. Cobb, who allowed eight hits in 6⅔ innings, was relieved in the seventh with two runners on and two outs by Joel Peralta, who struck out the dangerous Swisher.
“I had no changeup to speak of, my fastball was all over the place. I thought Jose [Molina] did a great job being creative back there,” said Cobb. “He had me throwing my curveball when I normally don’t throw it. He tried his best to get me going in the right direction.”
The Indians had two more chances in the eighth and ninth but Peralta, Jake McGee, and Fernando Rodney took care of the rest after the Rays tacked on a ninth-inning run on Yunel Escobar’s RBI single.
Some believed Francona took a chance going with 23-year-old Danny Salazar in a wild-card game. For two days Francona answered questions about his flame-thrower, who had been very impressive in his first 10 major league starts with a 2-3 record and a 3.12 ERA.
“When he worked ahead on the count he was tremendous,” Francona said. “When he fell behind they got their hits in fastball counts. He tried to throw a fastball away to [Desmond] Jennings but it ran over the plate. That was a two-run double. He threw a fastball to Delmon Young [for a home run] and that’s what he’s been doing with those.”
In the first two innings Salazar, likely feeling the adrenaline of screaming fans who hadn’t seen a playoff game here since 2007, retired all six batters he faced and struck out three with 98-m.p.h. heat. Electric stuff.
But in the third inning, the rejuvenated Young ended the young man’s dream of being the Cleveland hero. Young took him deep to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. Salazar got out of the rest of the inning showing the poise that earned him the start.
But in the fourth, after striking out Wil Myers with some well-placed heat, the Rays’ veteran hitters got a second look. James Loney, who had struck out his first time up, singled to right field. Evan Longoria, who had also struck out in his first at-bat, singled to left field.
Jennings, who has been battling a hamstring injury, doubled with two outs past a diving third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall down the line, scoring both runs. It was 3-0 after three innings on a night when Cobb, making his first postseason appearance, pitched his usual solid game. He had allowed a two-out double to left-center by Ryan Raburn and a single to Chisenhall over three innings.
Cobb, who went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA, missed two months while recovering from a concussion. He had a 72.6 percent ground-ball percentage which would have led the majors had he qualified with enough innings pitched. And that stat was never more relevant than in the fourth inning when he loaded the bases after walking Raburn. Asdrubal Cabrera knocked into a 3-6-1 double play as Loney made a nice stab of the ball to his left, made an accurate throw to second base and Escobar turned it flawlessly with a strong throw to Cobb covering first.
Cobb put two on in the fifth — first and third. Cobb again derailed the Indians. He struck out Bourn. He got Swisher to ground out unassisted to Loney at first base. Loney didn’t think he had a play at second base, but threw home where Yan Gomes was caught between third and home. But there was nobody covering third base with the Rays were shifting, so Gomes got back.
The dangerous Kipnis had the count 3-0 before Cobb threw him a strike. On 3-1, Kipnis tapped back to Cobb for the final frustrating out.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.