With two outs in the top of the seventh, Shane Victorino showed bunt, Jacoby Ellsbury took off running from first base, and Joel Peralta's pitch was a curveball in the dirt. Not the type of pitch in the dirt that typifies a pitcher without control; just the type that happens occasionally when a catcher calls for the low curve in an important spot. Jose Lobaton knew it was coming, and as the better of the Rays' two backstops at blocking pitches, he was the right man for the job. And yet it got past him. Xander Bogaerts scampered home to tie the game while Ellsbury motored to third.
Two pitches later, Victorino's bat broke, and he sent a slow dribbler toward Yunel Escobar, the Rays gold-glove caliber shortstop. The play unfolded excruciatingly slowly. It was clear almost immediately that the ball was hit too poorly, and that with Victorino's speed, Escobar had no play. Still, as he charged the grounder, one could be forgiven for imagining Escobar scooping and finding something special for the throw, for imagining the type of throw that would make James Loney switch his glove before taking the field in the next inning on account of torn seams. In reality, Escobar's throw was merely ordinary, and Victorino beat it there by at least a full step. That's all it took to end the Rays' season.
The rest of this game reads like a curtain call. I'll recap. You applaud or not as you feel appropriate.
In the game’s very first at bat, we got a look at what Hellickson looks like when he’s holding nothing back. First pitch fastball low in the zone taken for a strike. Curve in the dirt (blocked by Lobaton). Changeup below the zone for a whiff. With the first three pitches, Hellickson showed everything he had. I bet that for a moment you thought that the decision to start the one-time rookie of the year for a few innings was going to work out.
He eventually got a flyout to right from Ellsbury, and then popped both Victorino and Pedroia out on high fastballs (a welcome sight for those who can still remember "FIP-beater Hellickson").
As good as Hellickson looked in the first inning, bad Helly reared his head in inning number two. First he walked David Ortiz on four straight fastballs, but that’s understandable. He should pitch carefully to Ortiz. But then he walked Mike Napoli on four fastballs as well. Jim Hickey immediately jumped on the phone, Jamey Wright started warming up, and Evan Longoria had an animated discussion with Hellickson before Hickey trotted out to have a discussion of his own (and use some time). The next batter, Daniel Nava flipped a curve into right field to load the bases, and Hellickson’s night was done almost before it began.
Jamey Wright (with Loney and Escobar)
Enter Jamey Wright. With the bases loaded, no outs, and the pressure of an elimination game hanging heavy from the Tropicana Field catwalks, the moment was not too big for the 18-year major league veteran. He missed low with a backdoor curve in a 1-2 count, and then came right back with that big, sweeping curve, placing it on the black for a strikeout looking of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Then he got some help. Stephen Drew lined a curve hard toward first, but James Loney leapt to make the catch. He started racing to first but it was soon clear that Nava was going to beat him there. Loney noticed, though, that Napoli was napping. As Escobar raced to the bag, Loney dipped his shoulder and fired to second where Escobar executed a beautiful scoop to complete the double play and get out of the inning. I have never before seen a 3-6 double play quite like that before.
Matt Moore (Zobrist, Loney, and Escobar)
Jamey Wright stayed on to face the righty Will Middlebrooks, but gave up a walk to the Sox' number nine hitter. At the start of the inning, Maddon had both Matt Moore and Wesley Wright warming up in the 'pen. I can only assume that if J. Wright had gotten the out it would have been a lower leverage situation and Maddon would have brought in the lesser arm of his two lefties, W. Wright. But with the runner on he took no chances and called for Moore.
The first pitch was a bouncer to second baseman Ben Zobrist, who stopped Middlebrooks in the basepath and started to force him back, waiting until the last moment to throw Ellsbury out at first and making sure that Loney had plenty of time to complete the rundown double play at second. It was another unusual and timely double play. Moore struck out Victorino with a low curve to end the inning. Moore stayed around for a second inning, which would tie him for longest Rays pitching appearance on the night.
Alex Torres was once a decent starting pitching prospect, but he may have found a home in the Rays' bullpen. Still, his ability to go multiple innings appeared to be coming up big for the Rays. Torres came on to pitch the fifth inning, and had to face five batters since Middlebrooks slapped a grounder through the infield and Victorino crowded the plate and took a pitch in the arm. Still, Torres kept his head and worked his way out of the jam with enough left in the tank to be sent back out for the sixth inning with the job of connecting Hellickson's mess with the back of the Rays bullpen (McGee, Peralta, and Rodney) in innings seven, eight, and nine.
After the shift took away a hit from David Ortiz, Torres fell behind Mike Napoli 3-0. He grooved a fastball, and was rewarded with a deep flyball, but Jim Hickey was concerned. After Torres missed on his first pitch to Daniel Nava, Hickey trotted out for a quick conference. Whatever he said made Torres laugh, and also seemed to do the trick, as Torres eventually struck out Nava on a low changeup to end the inning.
Yunel Escobar, Jose Lobaton, and David DeJesus
You may notice that I've not said a word about the Rays offense so far. That's because there was no Rays offense so far. Jake Peavy looked sharp, and showed few signs of tiring, until the eight, nine, and one hitter managed a small rally against him in the bottom of the sixth. Escobar started things off with a well hit line drive double off the top of the left-field wall, just to the right of the Crawford Cutout. This got the Boston bullpen warming. Lobaton grounded to the right side of the bullpen to move Escobar to third for the top of the order.
Peavy threw David DeJesus three high fastballs in a row, and on the third one DeJesus was able to pull his hands up and through the zone and hit a sharp line drive through the left side of the infield to score the run. Anecdotaly, it seems to me like high fastballs are the wrong way to pitch to DDJ. He doesn't appear to have much trouble getting on top of balls, and the results have lately been line drives more often than not.
McGee took over in the seventh inning, and Rays fans probably felt pretty good about their team when he got Jonny Gomes to pop out to short right center. But when Xander Bogaerts pinch hit for Stephen Drew, McGee lost the zone. It looked to me like Bogaerts decided after swinging and missing on his third pitch that he couldn't hit McGee's fastball and he was going to stop trying. McGee obliged him by throwing three straight balls to send him to first base. Next Wil Middlebrooks came to the plate and battled McGee in an eight pitch at bat that ended with Middlebrooks waving ineffectually at a 97 mph fastball. Ellsbury managed to single Bogaerts over to third, and Maddon elected to call on Joel Peralta to face the righty Victorino, setting the stage for the events at he top of the page.
Longoria lead off the bottom of the seventh against Breslow, but home plate umpire Paul Emmel quickly distorted what might have been a more interesting at bat. After calling the first pitch, a fastball away, a ball, Emmel called the second one a strike despite the fact that it was very clearly also outside (and not particularly close). Longoria chased the next pitch, also outside, because of the previous call, and then struck out on a check swing on a backdoor cutter.
Up next, Ben Zobrist struck out (fairly) when he tried and failed to check his swing. He was upset, though, that Emmel had made the call himself rather than appealing to Mike Winters at first base (he had not appealed on Longoria's check swing either). Zobrist said something as he walked away which caused Emmel to yell back at him and follow him, confrontationally. This is a problem. I'm not claiming that Emmel made the wrong call, but in my opinion, baseball cannot allow it's umpires to sink to the level of an emotional response akin to that of the competitors, for basic psychological reasons of maintaining impartiality.
He had no control tonight, and while he did strike out Middlebrooks (it seemed like everyone struck out Middlebrooks tonight), he walked Bogaerts and Ellsbury, and then plunked Victorino in the ribs. With the bases loaded and the score still 2-1, Maddon made another pitching change.
Archer's appearance was absurd. Down by one run, with the bases loaded, the regular-season starter and rookie of the year candidate faced exactly one batter, Dustin Pedroia, who flew out to right field to sac in an insurance run. With Ortiz up, though, Archer was lifted, despite there being literally only one pitcher left in the bullpen.
While Wright faced Ortiz, David Price apparently jogged to the bullpen to start warming up. If the Rays had been able to tie the game, it would have likely been turned over to Price. Wright did his job and got Ortiz to ground into the shift, but the Rays offense was unable to get their ace to the field either tonight or on Friday. There will be many questions about David Price's role with the team next year. Fewer people will care about Wesley Wright's role, but I believe he will be a significant part of rebuilding the bullpen in 2014.
Some other notes:
- In the bottom of the third, David DeJesus hit a foul ball toward the Red Sox bullpen. It was going to be a tough play for the ball boy, so he did the right thing—he pulled a Myers and stepped forward, letting it sail straight at the bench.
- Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and Delmon Young were all used as pinch hitters, although Rodriguez did not hit (neither did Joyce or Young, really).
- In the fifth inning, Alex Torres threw a high inside fastball. It was very close to being a strike, but Shane Victorino was batting and he crowds the plate. He didn't get out of the way at all, and it hit him in the back arm. I just want to point out that unlike earlier in the series when John Lackey hit David DeJesus, there was no macho bullshit. Alex Torres did not stare down Victorino, or yell. He just grimace, took a few steps forward to chat with his catcher and got on with the game. This is what almost every organization does, and the reverse (aggressive bravado of the Boston pitchers) is one reason why the Red Sox are so easy to dislike.
Craig Breslow was impressive tonight (pitching 1.2 innings and striking out four) and throughout the whole series. FanGraphs tells me that he's struck out only 4.98 batters per nine innings this year, but I do not believe it
- Announcers are funny. After Daniel Nava was thrown out at second base because David Ross whiffed on a hit and run, the TBS crew talked about how the hit and run was such a good play there, and if it had been executed, would have resulted in runners at first and third.
- I don't mean to call out my people, my people, but in the top of the ninth, only down by one run in possibly the last game of the season, there were rather too many getting up to leave and rather too many empty seats.
- Go Oakland. Go Detroit. Go National League.