Of course credit goes to the players on the field, but there are games where we should also give a nod to the coaches and players in the meeting rooms, and at the video-study monitors. We all knew going in to the game that Kyle Gibson was going to work the bottom and the outside of the zone, and that the trick would be to force him to come in over the plate rather than staying off it. But it's one thing to know that and quite another to work your plan on the diamond. Today, the Rays lineup worked their plan to perfection.
Bottom of the First
In the first inning, Ben Zobrist took a sinker at the bottom of the zone (where he wouldn't have been able to do anything with it) for a strike, but then jumped on a hanging changeup that stayed up and in the zone, pulling it for a line drive base hit. Desmond Jennings reached for a sinker on the outer third of the plate and chopped it on the ground to make the first out.
Now here's the point where luck came into play, as it so often does in any baseball rally. Matt Joyce attacked a fastball and popped it up high into the dome, where the Twins infield lost sight of it. It fell for an undeserved base hit, and brought Evan Longoria up to bat with two men on.
Longoria whiffed at a slider away off the plate. It was a good pitch. Then he grounded a sinker foul. Also a good pitch. He fouled off another low sinker on the inside corner, before taking a slider a bit off the plate for a ball. At this point I couldn't help but think that Gibson had shown the slider too early. After that first ugly whiff, Longo had the measure of it. The next pitch was a sinker just off the plate that Longoria took, and then he spat on a slider in the dirt to bring the count full. After fouling another fastball off, Longoria would accept his walk by taking another outside slider to load the bases.
What are batters supposed to do with pitchers who pound the outside of the zone? Hit a line drive the other way. What does James Loney do all the time? Hit line drives the other way. Predictable input, predictable result. Line drive to left field, two runs score.
Wil Myers's eyes did their job and he won a walk, loading the bases once more, for David DeJesus. Someone pointed out here within the past week that DeJesus almost never swings when he's ahead in the count. He actually did here. The first elevated pitch he saw was a 3-1 fastball on the inner third of the plate, and he let it rip, but pulled the ball foul. Two pitches later, he got an even tastier fastball, though, and this time he didn't miss. DDJ knocked it off the bottom of the wall, and it was only some poor reads on the bases that kept more than one run from scoring.
Bottom of the Third
The first pitch was a fastball up, which was just what Longoria was looking for (if it had been down, I'm sure he'd have been taking). He grounded it back up the middle for a single. That brought James Loney up to the plate once more, and Loney showed very definitively that he was looking for a ball on the outside third of the plate and looking to go the other way. Three pitches in, Gibson threw him an elevated changeup on the far edge, but Loney stayed back on it and lined it into the gap for a double.
Next, Wil Myers -- who had showed such good plate discipline in his first at bat -- expanded his zone and struck out, but DeJesus was able to repeat his earlier heroics. He too was presented with an elevated changeup on the outer third, which he lined into right field to score both runners.
Top of the Fourth
It can be tempting to think, in games like this, that David Price is invincible. He's not. He pounds the zone and that means that sometimes he gets hurt. Brian Dozier connected with a fastball on the outer edge and managed to hook it for a home run. The next batter, Joe Mauer, lined the ball back at Price, and appeared to come quite close to damaging Price's reproductive capabilities. Price was shaken up enough that he didn't make a play, and Mauer had himself a single. Price turned out to be fine and laughed it off to a concerned gathering of his teammates on the infield.
After striking out Trevor Plouffe, though, Price leaked a backdoor cutter way too far back over the plate to Chris Colabello, to give up his second home run of the inning. Those three runs were the only ones he would cede all game.
Bottom of the Fourth
With the lead narrowed to two runs, Zobrist got on base again in the bottom of the fourth inning, which made the Minnesota bullpen start warming. It was clear that Gardenhire didn't want Gibson to face the heart of the Rays order, who seemed to have him quite measured by this point, for the third time with men on base. Gibson checked on Zobrist incessantly to delay and give Samuel Deduno some time to prepare himself. Eventually, after trying unsuccessfully to bunt, Jennings took a hanging frontdoor slider into center field for a single.
That brought in the reliever Deduno against Matt Joyce, which has to be some kind of special occasion. How often this season has a right-handed reliever been brought in to face Joyce? The result on the box score was predictable (Joyce wins the matchup), but the way he did it was not. Deduno fed him a steady diet of cutters, but the 3-1 pitch leaked back over the plate much the way Price's cutter to Colabello had. Rather than pull the ball, which was still on the outer third, Joyce lined it the other way into the gap. If you think that adopting more of an opposite-field approach will make Joyce a better player, then I'm sure that at bat made you happy.
While I've focused so far on the three runs he gave up, make no mistake, Price was sublime. He owned both sides of the plate against this Minnesota offense. He worked efficiently, throwing a strike nearly 70% of the time, and finishing out the game on only his 104th pitch. The final statline rested at nine innings, six hits, one walk, and twelve strikeouts. It is performances like this from the top of the rotation that will give Joe Maddon an opportunity to piece together a competitive game on the Cesar Ramos/Erik Bedard nights.
When I see Price give up home runs and hard hit balls off his cutter, I sometimes wonder if he shouldn't throw that pitch less. Well, yes, Dozier's homer was on a poorly executed cutter, but I think Price, Jose Molina, and Jim Hickey know what they're doing. Outside of that one pitch, Price's cutter was dominant. He threw it 23 times (his most common pitch after his two-seam fastball), and it counted as a strike 21 of those times. Seven times it was a swinging strike. The movement on the pitch appeared bigger than usual today, but I'll have to check the data before I can say for sure. Whatever he did, though, it was working.
One other note:
- Something bizarre happened in the fifth inning. Yunel Escobar was batting with a 2-1 count, when Kurt Suzuki had a high pitch flip out of his glove. Admittedly, the play looked weird, and I understand why it was confusing. I thought, at the time, that the pitch was a check swing foul ball. The umpires got it right, though, and called it a ball. The count was 3-1. One called strike later, the count was 3-2. The next pitch was a ball high, and upon Escobar's inquiry as to what was up, the umpires went to a video review, and New York decided to make it a full count, rather than a walk. Completely incorrect. Escobar struck out on the next pitch in a 4-2 count.
- Two times this game, Rays hitters (Longoria and Zobrist) hit ground balls up the middle for singles that would have been outs against the Yankees. Joe Girardi placed his shortstop over second with those two at the plate. I'm curious what Twins fans think, but I wonder if Ron Gardenhire should perhaps be a little bit more new-school with his defensive positioning.
- Here's an interesting win probability visualization that @statlasco tweeted at me during the game. I can't quite decide if it's useful or not, yet, but it is pretty.