When you’ve got an offense fresh off shellacking the likes of Jered Weaver and Zack Greinke, there’s no better way to shut them down than to confront them with a 5.28 career ERA. Luke Hochevar, selected first overall in the same draft as Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, and Tim Lincecum (plus a bunch of second-tier stars), does have some tantalizing pitches. His sinker deserves its pitch type name, his slider has serious bite, and his curve ends up in a different horizontal zip code than his other offerings. But his pedestrian fastball is the stuff that legendary line drives are made of, and he’s never even posted good peripherals above AA.
And yet along come the Rays with their eyes full of playoffs (that’s similar to pus – they should get it drained), and in eighth innings against Hochevar only manage one hit (a Luke Scott double – welcome back Luke) and three walks while striking out 10 times. Price did his part, as expected, to match Hochevar and keep the score tied at zero, but the Rays bats’ impotence ensured that any small slipup from either the pitching or the defense would decide the game. Fernando Rodney pitched a scoreless, dominant, ninth, hitting 100 mph on the gun, and Joel Peralta was sent out for the top of the tenth.
There are some earlier substitutions that helped set the stage for the slipup in the tenth. In the top of the eighth inning, it was decided (I don’t know if this was for precautionary medical or defensive reasons), that Evan Longoria’s day at third base was done. Elliot Johnson came in to play shortstop, Ben Zobrist moved from short to second, and Ryan Roberts headed over to Longoria’s place at third. One inning and a half later, though, Matt Joyce singled with two outs, bringing the newly substituted EJ to the plate with a chance to win the game. But Joe Maddon didn’t give him that chance. Instead he sent in Jeff Keppinger.
I’m not a fan of this move. Usually I come around to Maddon’s "mistakes" after the fact, so I’m not ruling out a flip flop, but right now, I hate it. Kepp has been having a pretty great year, but he’s also probably been playing a bit over his head. My splits calculator, which gives him credit for his breakout (ZIPS RoS), shows Kepp at a 0.298 wOBA and EJ at a 0.289 against a right handed pitcher like Kelvin Herrera. If you factor in the pinch hit penalty (and yes, arguably that should be applied to Johnson as well in this case, I don’t know), they’re just about identical. Herrera, for his part, is a very tough righty, with a pretty wide split, and if you believe that pitchers with big splits are extra tough on hitters with big splits (as Maddon’s handling of Joyce this season might suggest that he does), it becomes an even worse situation for Keppinger. When Keppinger failed to bring the runner home, as he was always likely to do, the Rays needed to shift out of their best defensive infield arrangement to a markedly inferior one with Keppinger at third, Zobrist back at shortstop, and Roberts returning to second.
Peralta got Salvador Perez to fly out softly to center field, and then struck out Mike Moustakas on three pitches. With two outs, Jeff Francoeur placed a grounder deep in the hole between Zobrist and Keppinger. It wasn’t hard hit, and Zobrist was able to field it, but the throw was always going to be a challenge for the recently anointed starting shortstop. He skipped it in, a bit down the line. Pena came off the bag to field it, but perhaps distracted by the possibly impending collision with the onrushing Francoeur (he had scholarship offers for football, too, don’t you know), Pena let it get under his mitt, and the always-alert Francoeur advanced to second. Peralta fooled Giavotella on the next pitch, inducing weak contact off the end of the bat, that nonetheless ended up as a run-scoring bloop single in short center field.
Zobrist and Pena both batted in the bottom of the inning, with a chance to make up for their mistake (it was ruled a hit, with the runner advancing on a throwing error), and while they both hit the ball hard, they didn’t hit it hard enough to shift the narrative off their fielding blunder.
- Eventually, I will run out of things to say about David Price. He is so good, and so uniformly good, that he’s become predictable. Not to opposing hitters, of course. Price commands his high 90s fastball to both sides of the plate with such ease, he could probably throw no secondary pitches whatsoever and still be an average starting pitcher. But he does throw secondary pitches. After his last start, I was whining about how he never throws his good changeup anymore (so was Rancel). I’m going to assume that Price heard me, and figured he should go ahead and work it back in – not because he needs to, but because it’s unbecoming for a pitcher of his caliber to allow his fans to perceive him to have any weakness. The changeup was Price's must commonly used pitch after the fastball. He threw it 18 times for 14 strikes and five whiffs.
- The one thing I will say about Price is that he’s always working ahead in the count, and it’s because he’s become so good at getting strikes with his fastball. He works the pitch on the outside half of the plate with the understanding that only rarely will a batter be able to catch up with his velocity. If the batter swings, the result is usually a foul the other way; if he takes it, it’s a called strike. Once he gets to two strikes, he uses his deep repertoire and moxie to put the batter away, but his approach before that point is often more straightforward, and it allows him to seemingly start the at bat up 0-2 or 1-2.
- Salvador Perez picked Matt Joyce off first with a snap throw from the plate. I’d like to fault Joyce, but Perez is an assassin, pure and simple. He’s a pleasure to watch.
- Longoria made a couple nice plays at third base, and seemed to be moving okay. In the first inning he made a good leaping grab on an absolutely scorched line drive, and later on in the game he looked smooth moving to his left (if not very far).
- Luke Scott did not look especially smooth running into second, but he was challenging Francoeur’s arm, and he made it in time, so I assume he’s feeling fine. It really will be nice to have him back. This game may have been a letdown, but we’re unequivocally a better lineup with him in than we are with him on the DL.