I tip my cap to you, sir. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Sometimes I wonder about Joe Maddon. I usually maintain that he's the best manager in baseball, but sometimes I doubt myself. I question his decisions. I think him soft, sentimental, and illogical. I want him to be the humanized arm of our cybernetic front office, but at times I worry that he's not.
Today was a tour de force. He did everything right. Don't get me wrong, he had help. It helps when your starting pitcher answers all the questions about whether or not he's an ace. Shields did exactly that tonight. He pitched 7.2 innings, and as Dewayne Statts pointed out, allowed the cycle -- one single to Dustin Ackley, one double to Casper Wells, one triple to Ichiro Suzuki, and a home run to Carlos Peguero. It's impressive for a hitter, it's not impressive for a team. Shields also walked two, and struck out 10.
Unfortunately, the Rays didn't do very much more against Hisashi Iwakuma and the Mariners. They mustered six hits in Iwakuma's six innings, but only one walk, while striking out seven times. After scratching across three runs in seven innings, to tie the Mariner's three, the Rays placed the game in Joe Maddon's hands. And he delivered.
- In the eight inning, Shields got two outs, then he walked John Jaso on five pitches. Maddon could have continued with Shields. After all, he's a good pitcher, he had two outs already, and the risk was already small. But no, Maddon took decisive action. Figuring that after several times through the order Shields was getting by with smoke and mirrors, he chose to turn the game over to his well-rested fireman Joel Peralta at the first sign of trouble. Peralta came in and induced a popup after three pitches.
- The Rays didn't score in the top of the ninth. Many managers would have sent Peralta back out there, but Maddon did not. He recognized, that a tie game is a high leverage situation, and that he might not have another chance to use his best pitcher. He sent Fernando Rodney out for the bottom of the ninth. Kyle Seager reached on an S-Rod error, but Rodney struck out the next two batters, and Jose Molina ended the inning by throwing out Seager as he tried to steal second.
- Rodney had thrown 14 pitches in the ninth inning. Many managers would have lifted their closers after only one inning, but Maddon decided that Rodney had more left in the tank. He sent him out for the tenth, and Rodney repaid him with two popups and a groundout.
- The Rays threatened in the bottom of the tenth inning, loading the bases with two outs and the newly hot Luke Scott up. But Scott apparently picked up a back injury and Maddon was forced to pinch hit with the less than hot Hideki Matsui. Matsui did not come through. Oh well. Not many options for Maddon.
- With two righties and a lefty without power (Jaso) coming up, Maddon went to his next best right handed option in Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth pitched a one-two-three inning.
- With two lefties and a switch hitter up, Maddon went to his left handed specialist in J.P. Howell. Howell pitched a one-two-three inning.
- Howell had thrown 10 pitches in the twelfth inning. With two lefties and a one righty up, Maddon sent him back out for the thirteenth. Howell pitched a one-two-three inning.
- For the fourteenth inning, with two righties and a lefty without power (Jaso) coming up, Maddon dipped back into his right handed bullpen, bringing out situational reliever Burke Badenhop (with long-relief righty Wade Davis held in reserve). Badenhop struck out Casper Wells, but then allowed Jaso to single and walked Jesus Montero. With the leverage climbing and a lefty up, Maddon went to his best remaining pitcher, the lefty Jake McGee. McGee struck out Kyle Seager and got the switch hitter Justin Smoak to fly out harmlessly to right field to end the inning.
- Most likely, Maddon would have gone back to McGee in the fifteenth inning before turning the game completely over to Wade Davis, a former starter. But that's not how it worked out. Carlos Pena singled against Mariner's closer Todd Wilhelmsen in his second inning of work, and then Ben Zobrist hit a double down the right field line. Pena, hustling all the way slid home just barely in front of the tag and ended the game. It was an example of how the Rays pick up advantages on the margins (Pena is a relatively good baserunner for a first baseman), but it was also a culmination of fantastic bullpen management. The Rays had an opportunity to walk off because, without fail, Maddon put each of his relievers in positions to succeed, and they responded by succeeding.