(USA Today) CLEVELAND - The city changes almost daily but the Tampa Bay Rays are playing the same game everywhere, one that establishes them as a legitimate threat to the American League's three division winners in this year's playoffs.
BOX SCORE: Rays 4, Indians 0
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Next stop Boston, after the Rays used their trademark pitching and defense to stifle the Cleveland Indians and another raucous, hostile playoff crowd 4-0 in Wednesday's wild-card game.
"We pitch well, we play defense well," says Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Anytime you can pitch and play defense, you have a shot in a short series. There's no other way around it."
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What the Rays must get around next as they make their way around the country is the best team in the AL, the Red Sox squad that finished 5 ½ games in front of Tampa Bay in the AL East. That best-of-five series starts Friday at Fenway Park.
Playing in their third city in four days -and their second winner-take-all game in three days after a one-game play-in Monday at Texas - the Rays got a couple of key hits against fireballing Cleveland rookie Danny Salazar, Delmon Young's leadoff homer in the third and Desmond Jennings' two-out, two-run double in the fourth.
But offense is almost secondary. It there's a Rays Way, it's what we're seeing this week.
Alex Cobb wasn't nearly as eye-popping as Salazar, just better. The act he really was trying to follow was David Price, the Tampa Bay ace whose complete game eliminated Texas.
"We try to one-up each other, make it hard to one-up each other." Cobb says of the Rays starting pitchers.
Price is the unquestioned leader of the staff as the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. But Cobb led them with a 2.76 earned run average despite missing two months after taking a line drive off his head in June. He's been even better since the injury, a 2.17 ERA including his 6 2/3 shutout innings Wednesday.
Next up for the first game at Boston is Matt Moore, the lefty whose 17 victories led Tampa Bay.
Pick your poison.
What's really lethal to opponents is the defense. First baseman James Loney started a difficult double play that required Cobb to cover first to escape a bases-loaded jam in the fourth, the same inning second baseman Ben Zobrist made a diving stop to save a run.
"Our defense is a big part of how good our pitching is," Maddon says.
There was Loney again, snaring a hot smash to help get out of another tight spot in fifth, a difficult running catch by left fielder David DeJesus, a couple more easy outs because of the Rays' defensive shifts - including once when third baseman Evan Longoria moved to the other side of second base with two strikes and Carlos Santana hit a ground ball right at him.
That's no accident, thanks to the Rays' reliance on any and every scouting report and advance metric they can find or invent. No more than it's an accident Tampa Bay gets a shot at the more storied franchise it beat in seven games to reach the 2008 World Series and put its brand of baseball on the map.
But this is a made-over Boston team that ran over the AL East after finishing last a year ago. They beat the Rays 12 out of 19 times and never lost more than three consecutive games to anyone.