I'll make no bones about it. Playing the Rangers has not been very much fun recently. They've eliminated the Rays from the playoffs two years running, and they took what felt like a crucial two out of three games the last time the Rays visited Arlington. The reason they're no fun is that they're good at baseball. Both Tampa Bay and Texas have fantastic starting rotations, although, if made to choose, I'd rather have the Rays'. Texas's offense is vastly better. (Although, I'd still take ours, because I'm a Rays fan, so I'd choose the Rays offense -- this is sort of like how little children all over America think people should vote for Obama for president because he's the president, and don't you want the president to be president? Little children are very Confucian.) Both the Rays' and the Rangers' have excellent bullpens, and really, either would do. The one thing I would not exchange with Texas, under any circumstances, is manager.
Jeremy Hellickson pitched will. He lasted six innings, allowing only four hits while walking one and striking out five. The Rangers' only run came on a fifth inning Michael Young solo shot that was the culmination of a ten pitch at bat. In that situation, the pitcher should just tip his cap to a good hitter and keep on doing what he was doing, and Helly did exactly that, coming back to strike out half of the next (and final) six batters he faced. Derek Holland was even better, twirling eight innings of one run ball while allowing only two hits and two walks to go with his 11 strikeouts. Luckily for the Rays, one of those hits was a towering shot to left by Evan Longoria off a low fastball.
This is where things get interesting.
With Hellickson's six being two fewer innings than Hollands eight (as six is wont be), Maddon had the tougher bullpen hand to play, but he played it well. First out of the pen was Kyle Farnsworth, to face righties Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, and Young. He coaxed ground ball outs from all three of them. Next up came Joel Peralta, with his reverse splits, to face the lefties David Murphy and Mitch Moreland, along with the punch-less righty, Luis Martiez. Then, with the top of the Rangers lineup due in the ninth, Maddon didn't hesitate to send out his closer, Fernando Rodney, who sat them down in order.
The Rays didn't score in the bottom of any of these innings, but playing his best relievers first in the tied game was undoubtedly the correct choice for Maddon to make. Wade Davis came in throwing one of the more nasty cutters I've seen him have, and cleaned up the next two innings. Now let's look at what Ron Washington did.
With the game tied and going to the bottom of the ninth inning, Washington sent in Koji Uehara. Uehara might be his fourth best reliever, but he's still really, really good. Whatever the game situation, Koji Uehara is a fine choice. He struck out B.J. Upton, walked Ben Zobrist, and then struck out Longoria on some truly nasty splitters. Uehara doesn't have very much of a career split, but with Carlos Pena on deck, Washington thought it was prudent to bring in Michael Kirkman, the young lefty. I don't know much about Kirkland, so while I suspect he wasn't actually an upgrade over Uehara, he did strike out Pena. I'll give him a pass, and assume he's a guy who will dominate lefties.
This is where things get weird. Kirkman stayed in to face relative lefty mashers Ben Francisco, Ryan Roberts, and Jose Molina. Let me remind you, this is for a team that has the great right handed trio of Mike Adams, Joe Nathan, and Alexi Ogando lounging about, ready to go. Francisco singled, Roberts failed miserably while trying to bunt him over and the struck out looking on a curve, and Molina flared a popup into shallow left for a hit, bringing Elliot Johnson off the bench to pinch hit for Fuld.
With two on and one out, Ron Washington left Kirkman in. He struck EJ out, but that doesn't make it right. Especially because Washington next sent Tanner Scheppers in to pitch against the next batter, Desmond Jennings. Scheppers is a fantastic prospect, but, may I repeat, he is not Mike Adams, Joe Nathan, or Alexi Ogando. And if a situation is of high enough leverage to merit a pitching change, would not the situation one batter previous, in even higher leverage also have merited that change? And if this is a lefty/righty matchups thing, and Washington was dead set against using his holy trinity, wouldn't Scheppers have been the better choice to start the inning? Jennings took a decent swing on an elevated 97 mph fastball, but it was off the end of the bat and had no power, flying out to shallow center.
Finally, thankfully, we reach the end of my attack on another team's manager. In the eleventh inning, Ron Washington sent in Mark Lowe (you know which three relievers Mark Lowe is not, so I won't repeat it). The thing about Lowe is that he's not very good. He's a journeyman with decent stuff and control problems. He's been better against righties over his career by about .40 points of xFIP, but he hasn't been particularly great against anyone. Those control problem showed up immediately when he walked Upton to lead off the inning. Next, he threw two sliders for balls before giving The Zorilla a get-me-over fastball. Done. No-doubter. Game over.
- By fWAR, Zobrist is the best shortstop in baseball, and that's even without WAR calculations giving him credit for being a shortstop. After his shot, Elvis left the building, with Jurickson Profar not far behind. Give me The Zorilla every time.
- Speaking of Elvis, he nearly beat out an infield hit on a chopper to second, and then was pretty upset when the umpire called him out. It seemed like he had a point at first glance, but on second look, the good throw from Ryan Roberts and the good stretch by Jeff Keppinger did beat him. Nice play.
- Jose Molina also had a nice throw in the top of the eleventh, to end the inning and get Murphy trying to steal second. Molina has a quick release, but this might just be the quickest I've seen from him yet, and he had Murphy by a mile.
- I briefly noted it before, but it's worth mentioning Wade Davis's cutter again. It really was nasty. He threw it seven times, getting three whiffs, a defensive foul, and three balls. It sits at 91 mph and gets a bit more than 5 inches of horizontal slide on it, while rising about five inches less than his fastball does. Horizontal movement like that is usually the domain of sliders, not cutters, so when it's amped up into the 90s, that's a pitch batters will struggle with. Wade Davis has a pedestrian fastball in terms of horizontal movement, so I hope his heavy cutter usage will continue if he ever returns to a starting rotation.
- Hellickson was doing something tonight I hadn't seen much of before from him. He was throwing a front door curve. I don't have pitch f/x data yet to show that I'm right (either about him throwing it tonight or not throwing it there before), so take this with a grain of salt, but it's worth monitoring going forward.