Pat Burrell, James Shields Lead Rays in Romping of Red Sox

If you weren't watching baseball last night, you missed out big-time. Not only were both the Rays-Red Sox games close and exciting, Ubaldo Jiminez threw the first no-hitter in Colorado history and the Mets and Cardinals battled through a 6-hour, 20 inning affair that was as comical as it was horrifying. Seriously, the Mets only scored two runs (both on sacrifice flies) over three innings with Cardinal position players on the mound? And don't get me started on the managing.

All in all, though, it was one of my favorite nights of baseball in my life, in no small part because the Rays won twice against the Red Sox - and won in heart-crushing, soul-snapping fashion. The Rays stole the first game 3-1 after Cormier snuck out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the bottom of the 11th and Pat Burrell hit a game-winning 2-run home run in the top of the 12th. In the second game, the Rays jumped out to an early 4-0 lead with the help of a dropped catch by Mike "Run Prevention" Cameron and a three-run double by (again) Pat Burrell. The Sox kept the game close and nearly tied the game in the 7th inning, but Evan Longoria's monster solo shot in the top of the 7th inning helped the Rays hang on and win it. Rafael Soriano picked up two saves on the day, passing his first test at Fenway Park with flying colors.

The Rays are currently 8-3, tied for first with the Yankees and four games up on the 4-7 Red Sox. It's still very early, but any time you can have a four game lead over the Sox is a good time. Not a bad way to start off a road trip, huh?

There are so many things to mention from this game and a half, I barely know where to begin. Let's start with what seemed to be the biggest controversy from the night: James Shields and Joe Maddon.

Shields pitched a good game last night, better than his final line makes it look. Going into the 7th inning, Shields had thrown 105 pitches while posting a really impressive performance: 6 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K. If you're Maddon in this situation, do you leave Shields in or take him out? Shields had been roughed up a bit in the fifth inning (letting up a home run and a long double), but he'd retired the Sox easily in the sixth inning. We know that things didn't go so well from this point on for Shields, but imagine that we're in the moment, trying to make the same decision. What would you do?

First we need to know the situation. Coming up to the plate were Mike Cameron (righty), Jeremy Hermida (lefty), Marco Scutaro (righty), and Dustin Pedroia (righty). That's a preponderance of righties and Hermida is a weak hitter, meaning we'd want a righty to face this section of the line-up. Here's who Maddon had in the pen:

Rafael Soriano

Threw 17 pitches earlier. Possibly available to close.

Dan Wheeler

Available

Grant Balfour

Threw 43 pitches the night before - Unavailable

Lance Cormier

Threw 47 pitches earlier that night - Unavailable

Andy Sonnanstine

Available

Mike Ekstrom

Available

Randy Choate

Available

Looking at Marc Topkin's post-game report, Maddon didn't know that Soriano would be available to pitch in the second game until right before the ninth inning. Without knowing for sure how Soriano felt, the Rays' bullpen was down to four pitchers: Wheeler, Sonnanstine, Ekstrom, and Choate. You don't want Ekstrom entering into a meaningful game situation and you don't want Choate facing a righty, so you're left with Wheeler and Sonnanstine as potential Shields replacements.

That's a really shallow bullpen so instead of calling to them, Maddon opted to work Shields more. Shields performed great too: he recorded the first two outs of the inning on only five pitches. Now there's one out to go and Shields is at 110 pitches, a barrier he hasn't crossed many times in his career. In retrospect, this would have been a good time for Maddon to take Shields out, but it's a tough decision to make in the heat of the moment. Maddon has been trying to stretch his starters recently, making Price and Garza work deeper into games even if it means higher pitch counts than they're used to. Maybe he figured he could stretch Shields; maybe he figured, "Hey, it's only one more out, we're up by five, and Shields is cruising." Either way, he left Shields in.

A single later, we have Scutaro on first and Dustin Pedroia up at the plate. Shields is at 113 pitches and if Maddon trusted him to get Scutaro, he could just as easily trust him to get Pedroia. Also, consider that this is still a relatively low-leverage situation. There is only one runner on, there are two outs, it's the seventh inning, and the Rays are up by five. Do you bring in your best available reliever (Wheeler) in this situation? No, you save him for later. Sonnanstine would be the only option right here, and Maddon apparently didn't want to dip into the bullpen yet. He let Shields pitch, he let up a home run, and now Victor Martinez is coming to the plate with the score at 6-3.

Do you have Shields pitch to Victor Martinez or do you bring in Sonnanstine? Again, this is a relatively low-leverage situation and wouldn't warrant your relief ace yet, so I imagine Maddon was hoping Shields could get the out with the bases empty. Martinez gets a hit and Shields is now up to 121 pitches, so Maddon decides that's enough and brings in his only real option, Sonny. Sonnanstine gets torched for the home run and then everyone starts second-guessing Maddon.

Personally, I think Maddon made really good decisions here. You can make an argument that Shields should have been taken out after Pedroia's home run, but that's the only decision of his that I might tweak. Maddon made some great decisions yesterday - the positioning of his five infielders in the 11th inning of the first game was perfect - and so I have a hard time holding anything here against him.

Other Notes from the Game:

  • There's no Pitch f/x data available for the resumed game so we can't see exactly how masterful Cormier was, but his final line says plenty: 3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1K, 7:1 GB:FB. He did get into trouble in the 11th when the Red Sox loaded the bases against him, but his groundball-inducing tendencies helped him get out of the jam. He's no Chad Bradford, but he's not half bad.
  • I suppose I need to issue an apology to Pat Burrell after his performance in both games last night. This was one of those nights where I thought Pat looked in control up at the plate, ripping hits and fouling off pitches with an aggressive swing. Heck, his bases-clearing double in the second game came off of a 95 MPH fastball high in the zone; who says his swing has slowed down? Of course, he also struck out two times on called third strikes, so...well, I can't be negative about Burrell tonight of all nights. He looked good and won us those two games, so I say let him bask in his moment of glory.
  • For all the hullabaloo that's been made about Boston's defense, the Rays have been out-playing the Sox with the gloves in this series. Ben Zobrist in particular looked like a gold glove winner out in right field, catching one ball far in the corner that looked like it might have been a home run (or at least a run-scoring double).
  • John Jaso had a great day both at bat and behind the plate. Jaso's defense has always been a question mark but today he appeared to be at least passable, making some nice stops on balls in the dirt. Also, Jason went 2-3 at the plate with two doubles, an RBI, and a walk. Don't expect this kind of production to continue, but it was a nice first start of the season for Jaso. Considering the uncertainty regarding Kelly Shoppach's knee, we may need to get used to having him around.
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