Well, that was certainly awesome.
After going down two games to none - and giving themselves something as little as a 15% chance of advancing - the Rays have fought their way back to even odds. The game tonight is going to be one of the most suspenseful, tense games you'll watch all year, so move all your breakable objects out of the room before turning the television on. I've told my wife to lock herself in another room so she won't hear my explosions, but I think she wants to watch the game too - if only to see me freak out.
These games wreak me. Pulse racing the entire time, nerves a-jitter, I'm sitting on the edge of the couch, ready to jump up in uncontrollable excitement, cringe and writhe in pain, and/or loudly express my opinion on whatever is happening at the moment. For all our talk about processes and taking a long view of things, these games can only be experienced fully in the moment. They're horrible for my nerves, but goodness, they make such awesome baseball. I wouldn't trade them for anything.
And so, on to the match-ups today:
We all knew that if we wanted to win this series, odd were we'd have to beat Cliff Lee at least once. We didn't beat him the first time around, so here we are: faced with the talk task of beating one of the best pitchers in baseball to move on to the ALCS. It's a tall task but not impossible; the Rays did beat Cliff Lee a few times this season, but we'll need to have more things break right for us than they did in Game 1.
How did Cliff Lee attack the Rays last time? In short: fastball, fastball, and more fastball.
Last time while facing the Rays, Cliff Lee relied almost exclusively on his two-seam fastball to get the job done, throwing it 72% of the time. He also mixed in an occasional cutter (12%), curveball (7%), four-seam fastball (7%), and change-up (2%), but Lee was so successful with his two-seamer, he didn't need to change it up that often.
When broken down by batter handedness, Lee's game plan becomes pretty clear: two-seamers exclusively to left-handed batters, and mix in more pitches but keep them all outside against right-handed batters. Almost all of Lee's non-two-seam pitches were kept outside: his cutter was used outside and high, his curveball was used outside and low, and his four-seamer was also used outside and low. Also, most of Lee's two-seamers against right-handed batters were outside, meaning that the Rays should not try to pull the ball much today. Look two-seamer, especially if you're Carlos Pena or Carl Crawford, and try to drive the ball the opposite way.
Jason Collette and Tommy Rancel have both taken stabs at answering what line-up Joe Maddon will use tonight, and think the answer is pretty clear for most of the line-up. Maddon will likely roll out a righty heavy line-up similar to what we used against Lee in Game 1: Longo at third, Bartlett at short, Rodriguez at second, Upton in center, Zobrist in right, and Shoppach behind the plate, with the two lefties Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena manning their left and first. The only question is the DH spot: does Maddon use switch-hitter Willy Aybar or lefty Dan Johnson?
Over the course of one game, the difference between the two is very slight and either would be a good option. Here's a brief look at their career splits against left-handed pitchers:
Johnson has performed better than Aybar this season, though, so it depends how good Maddon believes Aybar is right now. Is he as bad as his season .654 OPS suggests, or is he closer to his career average? I'm a fan of Dan Johnson and I believe he's a better player than Willy Aybar right now, so I'm going to give the nod to him.
Price pitched decently in Game One against the Rangers, with his one issue being that he left a couple of fastballs over the heart of the plate. The Rangers were pretty obviously going up to the plate sitting on Price's fastball, so whenever Price missed his location, they were ready to hit it as far as possible. Price relied heavily on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, throwing them 79% of the time, and he mixed in his curveball (14%) and change-up (6%) on occasion. Whether through excitement or according to his game plan, almost everything that Price threw was high in the zone, even his curveballs. It seemed like Price was trying to simply blow the Rangers away with high, hard heat and although it worked for the majority of the game, whenever Price missed a little low and over the plate, it gave the Rangers a great chance to destroy the ball.
If I were Price, I'd try to mix up his locations a bit more to keep the Rangers off-guard. Throwing mainly fastballs is fine, but working high in the zone so consistently made him predictable and easy to sit on mistakes. If I were the Rangers, I'd be going into my at bats looking for high heat, and I'd swing with all my might if I got one I liked. Now it's up to Price to keep the Rangers from being successful with this approach.