Rays vs. Athletics, game 1 recap: Rays lose, drop wildcard slot

Yeah Kelly, it was over there. - Thearon W. Henderson

The Rays are no longer in the first wild card spot. They've fallen to  three and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East, and a half game behind Oakland for the first wild card. Baltimore sits four games behind. Of course the wild card positioning doesn't matter—a play in game is a play in game—but this serves as a warning. Rosters expand tomorrow, and September is here. It's time to get back to playing winning baseball.

Last night was something of a pitching duel. Both David Price and Jarrod Parker completed seven innings, and both faced batters in the eighth. Both allowed six hits and three earned runs (some of those were allowed to score by each team's bullpen), but Price struck out five and walked one, while Parker struck out three and walked three. Simply put, the Rays need to do better. Jarrod Parker is a fine pitcher, but Price's turn in the rotation is a chance to hand fine pitchers like Parker a loss, and the Rays' offense, defense, and managing couldn't do that.

The Game

Desmond Jennings took a four pitch walk in the top of the second, and after a long battle with several throw overs to first from Parker, stole second (Kelly Johnson walked a pitch later). He came home when Yunel Escobar jumped on a first pitch breaking ball in the zone and lined it to center field.

Ben Zobrist had played 81 consecutive errorless games at second base, breaking Akinori Iwamura's club record (according to the broadcast). In the fifth inning, that streak came to an end when he fielded a grounder near the second base bag and threw high over the head of James Loney and into the stands. David Price got ahead of Chris Young 1-2, but then lost him, missing on two consecutive backdoor cutters for balls three and four. He pumped fastball after fastball at 95 mph to the overmatched lefty Brandon Moss, until he finally got the strikeout, but against the righty-hitting Kurt Suzuki he would not fair as well.  Price threw a first pitch changeup at the bottom of the zone but over the plate, and Suzuki was ready. He reached down and pulled it over the left field wall for a three-run homer.

Later on in the inning, Josh Donaldson got the same pitch and also hit it hard. Brian Anderson made the point that the Oakland A's seemed to be picking something up about that changeup, and weren't being fooled (they actually whiffed on 5 out of the 20 Price threw, a fine total over all, according to Brooks Baseball, but BA was still right). Price had failed to establish his fastball to Donaldson, either in this at bat or in earlier ones. He has great speed differential between his pitches, but I'm not certain he used it effectively in this case.

The Rays would mount a challenge in the eighth inning, when Parker tried to pitch through the lineup a fourth time. David DeJesus lined a single into left field, and then Ben Zobrist got on base with a five pitch walk. That brought Bob Melvin out of the dugout to make a pitching change, opting for Ryan Cook to face Evan Longoria with two batters aboard and no outs. Longoria hit a perfectly placed high bloop off the end of his bat to right field that Brandon Moss couldn't get to (he was playing Longo deep and slightly to pull).

With the bases loaded and no outs, Matt Joyce knocked a fly ball down the left field line, but DeJesus was able to come home despite Yoenis Cespedes's strong arm, bringing the score within one. James Loney came to the plate and gave a great at bat. He fouled off outside 95 mph fastball after outside 95 mph fastball, and took every pitch it was safe to take. Finally, after 10 pitches, he hit a low liner into center field. Ben Zobrist took off from second, but it was a mistake. Chris Young was playing shallow in center, and he got to a good jump, putting himself in position to make a diving catch. Luckily for Zobrist and the Rays, the ball hit off the heal of Young's glove, and Zobrist scored easily to tie the game.

Cook then overpowered Desmond Jennings, and Kelly Johnson was called out on strikes on a pitch well off the plate. Johnson was extra incensed because earlier in the at bat, a pitch in off the plate had also been called a strike When the pitcher is given extra inches off both of the zone, batters don't have much of a shot. Cook was out of the inning, but I think Melvin deserves some blame here for his bullpen management. Cook is a handful for righties (as apparent in his at bats to Longoria and Jennings), but in a tight game with the bases loaded, does Oakland really want him facing the lefties Joyce and Loney?

Price came back out in the eighth, at 104 pitches, and allowed a single to Coco Crisp, and with Donaldson up (who Price had struggled with all night), Joe Maddon immediately came out to replace his starter with Joel Peralta. Peralta appeared to strike Donaldson out with a fastball at the bottom of the zone, but it was called a ball. He then coaxed a grounder to shortstop, but Crisp was running, and he stayed out of the double play. That proved costly, as Jed Lowrie pulled a double down the line to retake the lead. Peralta finished off the inning. without incident, but the damage was done.

Here's where I think Maddon deserves some blame. If David Price is going to get the hook after allowing one batter to reach, he shouldn't be sent out to start the eighth at all. If you don't think he's the best bet to pitch out of a jam, then he shouldn't be put in a position to create one. That's what the back end of a bullpen is for. Would he have sent Price back out if the Rays were up one? I doubt it. He was trying to coax some more time from his starter in a potential extra innings game. Maddon does a good job of not saving his best relievers for the save in a tie game, but this is a similar situation in which I think Maddon tends to make the wrong choice a bit too often. Play the situation that you're in, worry about extras once you're there.

Then, in the bottom of the ninth, things got weird. Jose Molina was allowed to bat against Grant Balfour. He struck out, predictably. But unpredictably, Yunel Escobar walked. He was then pinch run for by the only marginally faster Sean Rodriguez. That's a fine move, but why is the slight gain in win expectancy that you get by switching out Escobar for Rodriguez is worth doing, but the larger gain from switching Molina with pretty much anyone else in that situation isn't? Anyway, DeJesus grounded out to first (should have been a double play), and Zobrist grounded out to shortstop. Rays lose.

Some other notes:

  • Jarrod Parker has a badly chapped bottom lip. I know this is Oakland, not Hollywood, but the guy's on camera. Can't the A's clubhouse makeup guy do something about that?
  • Josh Donaldson has a had a breakout year in 2013, and has forced himself into the discussion of the best third basemen in the league. Not watching Oakland all that much, I had to wonder whether he was for real or if he was just an okay player on a hot streak. I do know that David Price thinks he's for real. His first two times through the lineup, Price pitched Donaldson differently than he did the other batters around him. The first time it was fastball, changeup, fastball, changeup, and then a third changeup, which Donaldson hooked into left field for a double. The second time, Price attacked Donaldson with fastballs inside to move his feet and with backdoor cutters. The at bat ended with a hard line drive past Price's head, but straight to Ben Zobrist. Neither at bat went particularly well for Price, but in both it seemed that Price was pitching extra carefully. They were signs of respect.
  • The Rays flashed the leather in the top of the fourth. First, David DeJesus tracked down a well hit fly ball in right field. Then, Evan Longoria made a good backhand and throw from the line to get Yoenis Cespedes. Finally, Longoria made the best play of them all when Nate Freiman hit a high chopper his way. He chard the ball and smoothly fielded it off the short hop, making the play the only way possible.
  • Fernando Rodney appeared to get stuck behind one of the doors in the Rays dugout. Stadium personnel arrived with a crow bar to get him out. I hear the Athletics would like a new stadium.

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