No matter how beat up they are, the Red Sox never disappoint. The first two games in this series were incredible to watch - baseball at its finest - and last night was no different. Going into the night, despite the Red Sox being down 5.5 games in the division, it felt like a playoff game. Tension was in the air, emotions were running high, and all eyes were on Tampa vs. Boston. These are the games that I live to watch.
With expectations set high, the Red Sox and Rays didn't disappoint. Both Lackey and Shields cruised through the first three frames, only allowing a handful of hits while striking out multiple batters, but then ran into some trouble during the next three innings. Carlos Pena drove in the first run of the night with a solo homerun to rightfield in the fourth, and then the Red Sox put two runs across in the fifth inning by stringing together a double, walk, and two singles. The Rays went back ahead in the sixth inning, tying the game with a two-run homerun by Carl Crawford and then taking the lead with a single from Dan "The Sox Killer" Johnson. That was all the offense the Rays would need, but they tacked on an insurance run in the seventh on an Evan Longoria single, scoring John Jaso from second base.
Despite the final number of earned runs he allowed (three), James Shields had a great start last night. Six and two-thirds innings pitched, one walk, eight strikeouts, and only seven hits allowed...none of which were homeruns. In fact, Shields has only allowed one homerun in his last 24.2 innings pitched, his longest streak of the season of allowing one or fewer homeruns. He kept the ball low in the zone tonight, working down and on the outside corner of the plate (for righties) for the most part. He also generated a lot of swinging strikes, getting batters to whiff at 9.3% of his total pitches and 30% (!!!) of the curveballs he threw. Shields's curveball had great movement last night and he used it heavily in the later portion of his start, keeping the Red Sox off-balance their second time through the order.
Normally Shields's change-up is nice money pitch, but last night he used his curveball almost as often as his change-up and got even better results with it. Shields also generated some swinging strikes with his fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cutter), something that doesn't happen too frequently. If he keeps throwing this well, he's going to quickly work himself back into the discussion for the Rays' first postseason starter.
- Rafael Soriano may have gotten the save last night, but Joaquin Benoit's performance in the eighth inning may have been even more important. Benoit got Victor Martinez and David Ortiz to ground out, and then got Adrian Beltre to fly out to center. Once the heart of the order was done, Soriano had an easy job in the ninth.
- BJ Upton made a great catch out in left-center in the ninth to save a hit from dropping in. He didn't have to dive and he didn't make it look especially difficult, but he covered a huge swath of the outfield just to get to the ball. Impressive.
- ESPN really needed to stop harping on the attendance last night. If you want to have a discussion about why the game only drew 23,400 fans, at least make it an honest discussion and include all the contributing variables - stadium location, local recession, time of the game, market size, etc. To harp on attendance without discussing these variables gives the disingenuous impression that the Tampa-St. Pete area is a bad baseball town. Please, that debate is so 2008.
- On this date in 1951, Bobby Thompson's New York Giants were 6 games back of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In their remaining 29 games, the Giants went 22-7 (.759 W%) and the Dodgers went 16-15 (.516 W%). Similarly, if the Rays were to go 16-16 over their remaining games, Boston would need to go 22-9 (.709 W%) to tie. It's mathematically possible for the Sox to come back, but it'd be damn historic.