Quite often you'll hear an announcer refer to a play or an at-bat as a momentum shifter or a game changer. Normally, this is just an announcer doing his job and trying to make his broadcast as entertaining as possible, but last night there really was an AB that stood out in my mind as the turning point of the game.
For those of you who missed the game or don't remember this particular at-bat, allow me to set the scene. The Rays were leading 2-1 heading into the top of the fourth inning. After a Carlos Pena strikeout, Pat Burrell singled up the middle for his second hit of the game (Regression!). Ben Zobrist then crushed a ball to left field that died in the Safeco air, but still was hit hard enough to give Benzo a standup double and move the Bat to third base.
According to fangraphs win-expectancy, the Rays had a 71% chance of winning at this point. They were already up one with two men in scoring position and just one out. A simple base hit puts the team up by three and who knows what happens after that. However, nothing has come simple for the Rays over the last week.
Dioner Navarro would be the man in the spotlight during the "game changing" AB. Navarro was one of the players I highlighted as being "unlucky", but part of his slump is due to his poor plate discipline. Like Carl Crawford, Navi has all but eliminated the walk from his game this season and his K's are to an all time high. However, last night in this AB, Navi actually worked the count in his favor and was up 2-0. Now, I know a base hit is golden at this juncture, but a walk is still valuable. You load the bases and force the pitcher to throw strikes to the next batter; that was not going to happen in this case.
Navarro would foul an outside fastball off for the first strike pushing the count to 2-1. The next pitch was almost exactly the same as the previous one; an outside fastball at 89 mph. It's wasn't a bad pitch to hit, but again not the pitch your looking for in a 2-1 count. Also, instead of going with the pitch and pushing it in right field, Navi tried to pull the ball which ended the AB with a weak ground ball to the mound. No runners advanced, no run scored and the Rays win expectancy dropped nine percent down to 62%. Gabe Kapler and Aki Iwamura had chances behind Navarro, but two out hitting is a lot different that coming to the plate with one out. The pitcher is in much more control of the situation because any out gets him out of the jam.
The Mariners would jump on Andy Sonnanstine in the bottom fourth inning and the Rays would never pose a serious threat from there on out. I don't want this to seem like I'm blaming Navarro for the loss because there was plenty of wasted opportunities and mistakes made by a multiple players. However, when everything seems to be going wrong, this could've been not just a game changer, but maybe that little jumpstart the team needed to get going. Instead the Rays now find them in a familiar place as the Devil Rays; last in the American League.
The climb out of the cellar begins tonight.