Entering the day just one ill-timed loss away from irrelevancy, Saturday's game did not get off to a roaring start. Jeff Niemann was on the mound, working on a full seven days rest, and right from the beginning it was obvious that he didn't have his best stuff. After falling behind the first two hitters he faced -- and walking one of them -- he left a 91-MPH, please-hit-me fastball over the inside part of the plate to Jose Bautista. A mere 0.00005 seconds later, the Rays were down 2-0.
Niemann just barely managed to sneak his way out of the first without allowing any more runs, stranding runners on second and third, but Joe Maddon had already seen enough. To start the second inning, Maddon called in Alex Torres from the 'pen, later clarifying that he didn't remove Niemann because he was injured; he pulled Niemann because he was pitching like crap.
The Rays had managed to tie the game in the bottom of the first, scoring courtesy of a throwing error by Mike McCoy and a double from Johnny Damon. But the Rays weren't exactly hitting laser beams off Ricky Romero -- if not for that error, the Rays would have been blanked in the first -- meaning further offense was likely to be hard to come by. So no pressure, Torres -- you simply have to keep the game close, or the Rays' season is effectively over.
Keep the game close indeed. Alex Torres shut the Blue Jays down in order in the second, and he went on to toss five scoreless innings. He struck out five Jays while only allowing three hits and one walk, and it was easily his most impressive performance in the majors to date. He primarily worked off his fastball and changeup, mixing in a handful of sliders, and holy cow, his changeup can be quite devastating.
Torres threw his change nearly as often as his fastball, and while Brooks Baseball only shows him getting one swing and miss with it, I swear he had more. He was unafraid to throw his changeup in any count, including six on the first pitch, and the pitch had an unusual amount of movement. Changeups normally break like a fastball with more sink, but Torres's change was dancing out there:
It was a real pretty pitch to watch. Moore has stolen the spotlight this season, but it's worth remembering that Torres is a highly ranked pitching prospect and has quite a bit of upside as well. And his first major league win couldn't have come at a better time.
With Torres shutting down the Jays, the Rays were able to tack runs on the board at their leisure. Ben Zobrist hit his18th homer of the season to give the Rays a 3-2 lead, and then Johnny Damon tacked on some runs in the eighth with a three-run blast. Johnn...erm, Brandon Gomes, Joel Peralta, and Kyle Farnsworth slammed the door closed for the win, and the Rays pulled themselves within 1.5 games of Boston.
Yes, that's right - at 1.5 games back, the Rays could theoretically be tied with Boston by the end of tomorrow, assuming the Rays win their game and Boston loses both games of their doubleheader. Unlikely? Sure. But Tim Wakefield and John Lackey are pitching for Boston, so holy hell, I'm excited.