Godzilla does not begin his eras with whimpers. No, when Godzilla arrives, from that radiation-swept island in central North Carolina that he calls home, he arrives with a bang. In his first at bat, Hideki Matsui was a little bit late on a fastball, looping it lazily into left field (or so it seemed to me). But then the ball carried to the warning track showing that the aged monster still has some power in his bat. His next time up, Matsui stomped his feet and breathed his fire and turned on a first pitch fastball, driving it deep into the stands in right.
The rest of the game did not go as well.
I can remember the moment when I first believed in the Rays. I was caught up in the great start of the 2008 season. I told any of my friends who would listen about the 88 wins PECOTA had forecast that offseason. I didn’t know much about baseball, but I knew that Crawford and Kazmir were talented. Still, I didn’t believe.
The Rays started their second series of the year against the Chicago White Sox with a majors leading record of 32-22. The White Sox were next with a record of 30-24. They featured a stacked lineup that included Jermaine Dye and Carlos Quentin back when they were still good, Nick Swisher masquerading as an average hitter for the year, and the ageless Paul Konerko. If we were going to be unmasked as pretenders, it was going to happen then. The Rays quickly lost the first game of the four game series. In the next two games, Cliff Floyd provided all the offense they needed, hitting homers in each (one of them a walkoff). Starting the last game of the series, Andy Sonnanstine couldn’t get through five innings, but Grant Balfour came in to get him out of a jam and struck out three Chicago batters in an inning and a third of work. Al Reyes delivered a scoreless inning, and J.P. Howell gave us two, preserving a tie at three runs apiece as the game entered extra innings.
Gabe Gross, who for some odd reason was starting against the lefty Mark Buehrle, was allowed to face the even tougher lefty Matt Thornton to lead off the tenth. I was home at the time, washing the family cars with my dad while listening to the game on the radio. I should have said something to the effect of, "What in the world is Maddon doing? Gabe Gross needs to be platooned, and he doesn’t stand a chance against Thornton." But I was young and foolish then, and instead I said to my dad, "Gabe Gross is a clutch player. I think we’re going to win it here." I believed those words as I said them, and after Gross lined a 97 mph fastball over the right field wall, I had no doubt that the Rays were a team of destiny.
This series reminded me of 2008, except that the roles are reversed. The Rays are the steamroller that other teams measure themselves against (what, did your mother not draw lines above your head on steamroller wheels as you grew?), and most fans thought the White Sox would be in a rebuilding year. I sort of hope there’s a baseball neophyte somewhere in Chicago’s South Side who’s just starting to believe in his or her team this year. If he or she is reading this, here are some words of wisdom: Paul Konerko is playing way above his head and is nowhere near as good as you think he is, Dayan Viciedo will be out of baseball in a few years, and Philip Humber is just Andy Sonnanstine with a perfect game in his hat. Now scram!
Now for something about this game:
- Shields didn't have a very good day but he wasn't horrible, either. He did strike out the red-hot Paul Konerko three times.The line between a dominant outing and a bad one is wafer thin.
- In the top of the second inning, A.J. Pierzynski was on first base when Viciedo dribbled a groundball to the left side. It wasn't hit quite hard enough to be a double play, but it was close. Pierzynski slid over the base and planted his studs firmly on Ben Zobrist's ankle. It wasn't necessarily a dirty play, but by the way Zobrist stared down at Pierzynski afterward, you could tell the Zorilla was angry. A less classy team would have escalated the situation by hitting Pierzynski the next time he came to bat, but instead, Shields struck him out. I would like to see numbers on how batters do when they think they might be beaned. I have a feeling they're significantly worse.
- In the top of the third, Alejandro De Aza, who looks to be a pretty nice player to have around, lined a single up the middle. He didn't take a very big lead at first base, but Shields still almost picked him off. As he got back up, his face screamed "That was scary close! That's a scary pickoff move! I'm scared!" On the next pitch, though, he cheekily tried to steal second. Lobaton's throw would have had him, but it fell out of Johnson's glove as he made the tag.
- In the bottom of the third, Elliot Johnson put down a nice bunt between the pitcher and the third baseman for a base hit. I know everyone is saying how EJ worked on his bunting and he's better now, but reports out of Durham were that he was a pretty good bunter back in the minors. To me, the lesson is that bunting, just like everything else, is a skill that should not be evaluated in a small sample size.
- In the top of the fifth, Viciedo singled, and Shields also tried to pick him off. His throw was wild though, and Pena had a long way to go to track the ball down in the Rays' bullpen, so Viciedo was able to advance to third. He would score the White Sox' first run.
- In the bottom of the fifth, Sutton took a high fastball and showed good hands on a real short swing as he lined it into right field. My question is this: How many 6'3", 210 pound, solid defensive middle infielders are there in the world? How many of them seem to have quick hands? How many of them are quad-A players? There's likely something wrong with Sutton. He strikes out too much for someone without real power, and he's probably not a great shortstop given that we haven't played him there (although he's looked pretty good at second and third), but he looks like a legitimate major leaguer to me.
- The real damage came in the top of the sixth inning. Adam Dunn worked a walk on five pitches, Konerko struck out, and Rios hit a single, moving Dunn to second. Next, Pierzynski singled on a ground ball to right field, scoring Dunn to tie the game and sending Rios to third. With the double play in order, the Rays were still playing their infield back, but Shields threw a pitch in the dirt that, even though Lobaton blocked it, rebounded far enough in front of him that Pierzynski was able to advance to second with a good read on the play. This was huge, because Maddon now moved the infield in and Viciedo hit a ground ball past the diving Elliot Johnson that would probably have been an inning ending double play had it come one pitch sooner. Chicago would eventually put up five runs in the inning.
- Shields left after throwing only 96 pitches, but they came in high stress situations, and the Rays draw a clear distinction between high leverage and low leverage pitch counts.
- Cesar Ramos pitched two innings to close out the loss for the Rays, and while he did give up a home run, he looked sharp and struck out two. Ramos doesn't have any standout pitches, but he does have a deep repertoire. I'm really warming to him. For a low leverage guy, the Rays could do worse.
- I do not believe there was a ball hit in the air to Hideki Matsui (playing left field) all game.