There are people that claim baseball is boring, that the game is too slow and doesn't have enough action. In my opinion, these people are missing the point; they are focusing on the wrong things. Today's baseball game took two hours and 49 minutes and only four runs crossed the plate. It certainly fell short of the most exciting game of the day if we look at the box score. But today's game that began with a 90-mph fastball and ended with an imaginary bow and arrow was not about the runs, the hits or the final score. Today's game was about heroes and villains, about pride and loyalty, about strategy and revenge.
The fireworks started early, as Detroit Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello recorded two quick outs in the bottom of the first inning but then, presumably at the behest of his manager, drilled Ben Zobrist in the shoulder with a fastball. Last night, Tigers Manager Jim Leyland had spewed some pointed comments toward the Rays after Fernando Rodney had the audacity to pitch inside to his star player, Miguel Cabrera, pontificating to the media that such actions would not go unnoticed.
Sunday, Leyland wasted little time flexing his muscle and reminding fans how classless he is, by ordering a hit on the one Rays hitter that is more likely to pray for his opponent than charge him. Both benches were warned by the home plate umpire, creating a ridiculous situation in where the Tigers got a free shot and Jeremy Hellickson was not granted a chance to defend his teammates. Zobrist would be thrown out attempting to steal to end the inning.
Unfortunately for Leyland and his Tigers, villains never win.
Hellickson would stand up for his team in other ways, by retiring the side three straight times while Jose Lobaton gave his team a 1-0 lead with a two-out single in the second inning. Cabrera punched back in the top of the fourth with a monster home run into the Rays Tank in right field, tying the game if only briefly as another Rays rally in the bottom would put the good guys back on top. Three straight singles from Wil Myers, Luke Scott and Kelly Johnson loaded the bases and Lobaton would come through again with a single to right field. Last night's hero, Yunel Escobar walked to force another run home before Matt Joyce lined sharply into a tough luck double play.
Hellickson got himself into trouble in the seventh inning, loading the bases on two hits and a walk without retiring a single Tiger batter. The often maligned Jake McGee entered with the tall order of cleaning up Hellickson's mess and preserving a tenuous Rays lead. McGee proved up to the task with a brilliant three batter sequence: a lazy fly ball to right field, a ground ball to third with the force play made at home, and a center field put out of Torii Hunter to end the inning eliciting an uncanny amount of emotion from an appreciative Hellickson and a barrage of high fives as he returned to the dugout. Well done, Jake.
The drama mounted again in the top of the eighth inning.
With Miguel Cabrera due up to start the frame and setup man Joel Peralta ready in the bullpen, Joe Maddon elected to send Kyle Farnsworth to the mound to face Cabrera. Farnsworth is an imposing figure, towering on the mound at 6'4 and no stranger to a baseball brawl. Everyone in the stadium knew what would come next, including Cabrera who glanced sheepishly towards his dugout before stepping into the box. What came next was a masterful piece of mindgames from Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Farnsworth pitched the leagues best hitter inside, but not egregiously so, three times, with each pitch causing Cabrera to flinch even more than the previous. With a 3-0 count, the tension had reached its peak but Farnsworth threw a strike over the plate and on the next pitch induced an obviously rattled Cabrera to ground out to third base. Maddon immediately turned to Peralta to finish the inning.
By placing Farnsworth into the game, Maddon was telling the world that Cabrera was about to get plunked, but instead he choose to use the fear of that action to get the most dangerous hitter in the league out of his comfort zone. While everyone wanted some revenge for Zobrist's shoulder bruise, ultimately, Joe knew that a win is far more important at the end of the day. Fernando Rodney completed the work by retiring the side in the ninth inning and launching an animated arrow into the Tropicana Field rooftop.
In the end, there was no brawl, no players injured. There will be no suspensions levied or articles written about baseballs self-policing. It may have been anticlimactic but it certainly wasn't boring. Just a series win for a team that desperately needs to start stringing some together, and perhaps that is the best thing we could have asked for: a game about heroes and villains, and the good guys won.