You hear it all the time, baseball is a game of inches. The difference between a ball and a strike. A ball hit toward the gap in the outfield just out of reach from your center fielder. A grounder up the middle or a line drive down the left field line. All these situations can be turning points in a game. If the inch is in your favor-it will give the joy of a victory. But if it's against you, it's leads to the heartache of a defeat. Unfortunately for the Rays, not one, but instances of the "Game of Inches" came into play tonight that led to the 4-3 defeat.
It's pretty rare to have two plays where an inch or so makes a huge impact. One is generally enough to decide a game. In the case of this game, if one or the other goes the Rays way, they have a really good chance to win the game, but unfortunately, neither play did. The first was in the top of the 6th. The Rays had just taken a 3-1 lead on an Evan Longoria home run(it's nice to see him drive the ball again). That's the 2nd one of the night for the Rays and given the tough conditions to hit it out of Oakland, and off Cahill, that's a good start for the offense. Then Pena hits a sharp line drive back up the middle, his 2nd hard hit of the day in addition to his 2-run home run, looked like the Rays had something going just like the last week or so for the offense. Now if a runner at first for Joyce, it was looking up, especially after he drilled a fly ball to deep center. It seemed for sure it was gone, especially given the way Joyce swings that bat, that the Rays were about to go up to a comfortable margin of 5-1. But the game of inches struck as Coco Crisp raced back to the wall and was able to get set to rob Joyce of the home run. It was a deflating feeling to see a 410ft fly ball go from home run to out and Joyce looked disappointed on the bench afterwards. Couple more inches in his favor and it's a no doubter. Unfortunately, after that, the Rays offense wasn't able to muster much more as Cahill was able to go 8 innings limiting the Rays to 7 hits and 14 ground balls total. It's easy to see why he's doing so well. He's got great movement on his pitches with good control and are tough to get into the air.
On the other hand, Rays pitching tonight struggles with control for much of the earlier innings. Giving up 4 walks and 6 hits while only striking out 3. Now Andy Sonnanstine is not going to be confused with David Price, but one of the things that's always been a strength for him is the ability to throw many pitches for strikes, but that wasn't the case tonight. He was only able to throw about 61% for strikes, but when you can't get swings and misses, that sometimes isn't enough. He generally threw his cutter, his main pitch about half the time, 47 of 91 times with 30 being strikes. His next most used pitch was his curve ball for 23 times, 15 strikes and 3 swinging strikes overall. Although Sonnanstine was handling most of the night well until the 6th, it seemed sometimes that he struggles to hit his spots, whether they were out of the strikezone or missing over the plate, resulting in hard hit pitches or walks. All seemed well until the 6th inning. A lead-off walk to Kurt Suzuki and a single to Cust, things weren't looking good. Fortunately, he was able to get Ellis to flyout and then Maddon came to get Sonny from the game. Hard to argue with the timing. He was already running a high pitch count in the inning and his stuff was not very effective. That's why you have a bullpen. Going to Wheeler felt like the best option, since he was the best reliever to go to in this situation with a righty up next. Unfortunately this happened.
This is what Dan Wheeler's specialty is. A righty that is effective against RHH who can throw strikes and get strikeouts. But not throwing strikes defeats yourself. A ball in play more times than not is an out, but there is no defense for a walk. That loaded the bases with 1 out. He was then able to coax a groundout from Rajai Davis and throw him out at first. It's tough to turn a double play on Davis, but why not go home when the opposing team's catcher is less than half way down the line when you have the ball fielded doesn't seem to be the best decision. I would've gone home, prevent the run from scoring and go on. But he chose the out at first and with runners on second and third, Cliff Pennington, established Ray killer, lines a double into the corner. You wanna talk about inches, it didn't hit the line or the wall, it essentially hit the little cement indentation below the wall so rather than a foul ball by 2 inches and another shot at an out, it's a 2-run double and that's all the scoring that occurred in the end.
Tonight before the game starts that seemed like a tough game to win since the A's had the advantage in terms of the starting pitcher and that held true, but it ended up not being decided by a starting pitcher for the Rays.
Notes from the game:
- This is probably Sonnanstine's last start for the season unless the season essentially ends early enough to give him spot starts. He did his job mostly, filling in, helping the Rays hold steady until Niemann and Davis are once again healthy again. What Sonny's future holds when he's a member of the Rays can two ways. Since he's been surpassed officially by Davis and Hellickson this year, he's at best the 7th starter
- Speaking of Niemann and Davis, since all reports are positive, it sounds as though they'll be back into the rotation in a few days. That's good to get them back into the rotation and help us down the stretch run. With their return, 2 corresponding roster moves will have to be made. It makes the most sense to see Ekstrom sent back down to AAA Durham. Who the second victim is up for debate. It is unlikely to be an "injury", unless they have something ready or someone is going to be sent back down. It's probably going to be Hellickson or Brignac. While Hellickson makes sense to give him work in AAA, the roster expansion is soon and the Rays needs some help in middle relief right now while Brignac is getting little playing time and has not helped his case for now, it might be best for him to play everyday.
- Speaking of middle relief help, this has not been a good week for them so far. In the last go through of the rotation, the starting pitcher has left having given up 1, 0, 0, 2, 1 runs. Those games ended with the opposing offenses scoring 2, 4, 1, 6, 4. Some of those runs have been low-leverage situations, some haven't. Most of the troubles have been their own doing, allowing too many baserunners. In addition to allowing 4 runs to score charge to the starting pitcher, the middle relief(not Benoit/Soriano) has a line of 10.2IP 10H 9R 9ER 6BB 4K 2HR. It'll be a welcome addition to have Balfour and Hellickson helping out in the 6-7th inning.
- After tonight, Dan Johnson is hitting .114/.360/.200. I like the ability to draw walks and get on base, but with Pena's return and strong play of Joyce since the All-Star Break, there's little places for him to get chances to play. Unless he starts to hit soon, he's not going to see much playing time this year or even next.