This game was dominated by defense, both good and bad, and by pitching. The pitching was pretty fantastic all the way around, although it became apparent as the game wore on that David Price was simply better than Henderson Alvarez – which of course is supposed to happen when a true ace and Cy Young award contender goes up against a 22 year old with minimal time in the majors and no time in AAA.
Don’t take this as a knock on Alvarez. The kid has a fantastic sinking fastball that sits in the mid 90s and a slider that should be good enough to get out major league hitters if they’re sitting fastball. I’m less sold on his changeup, which has disturbingly little velocity separation from the fastball. He’s a pitcher I’ll look forward to seeing in the future, but for the life of me, I don’t know why he’s in the majors right now (and as he’s striking out less than three batters per nine innings I’d be surprised if he stays up much longer). Nevertheless, he nearly stole one from Price and the Rays tonight.
In the top of the first inning, after Zobrist put together a good at bat but flew out to left field, BJ knocked a foul ball towards the first row of seats near first base. Edwin Encarnacion, not known for his defensive prowess, got over, found the wall, and dove into the stands to make a nice play. It made me wonder about park adjustments that call The Trop a pitcher’s park though, as there are no former NBA centers to contend with at the Rogers Center.
One batter later, Joyce bunted against the shift, and Alvarez, trying to make an utterly hopeless but heroic play (seriously, send the poor guy to AAA), sailed an off-balance throw nearly right back into the stands, allowing Joyce to go to second, and bringing the Jays to one good defensive play and one bad defensive play (Jays: 1, 1; Rays: 0, 0).
In the bottom of the inning, Price came out pumping fastballs to Kelly Johnson, who eventually singled. I immediately started to worry – not because of anything about Price’s pitches, but because of how he looked. He was really uncomfortable, constantly wiping his eyes between pitches, squinting, grimacing, and taking huge breaths. I don’t know what it was (Contact lens problems? Allergies? Sickness?), but something was wrong.
After Johnson’s single, Yunel Escobar hit a liner into short right field. Zobrist charged, but wasn’t quite able to get there. It was close enough that Johnson had stayed in the middle, and Zobrist was able to beat him to second with his throw for the force out. It was a tremendous heads up play on Zobrist’s part (Jays: 1, 1; Rays: 1, 0). Price easily handled Jose Bautista and Encarnacion, and then walked off the field still rubbing his eyes.
Bullets, continued tallying of defensive plays, and a fun ejection below the jump.
- To start the bottom of the second inning, Price got Ben Francisco (Why was he batting fifth?) to ground to Elliot Johnson at shortstop. Johnson’s throw was in plenty of time but slightly offline. Pena was able to pivot to the home plate side of first across the path of Francisco to make the catch (Jays: 1, 1; Rays: 2, 0). Price continued to blink and grimace, but also to pitch well.
- In the top of the third inning, Zobrist hammered a fastball over Bautista’s head in right field and then hustled into second just in front of a good throw. On the next pitch, B.J. Upton lined to Rajai Davis in left. Foley decided to test Davis’s arm, but Davis charged well and threw a perfect strike to Jeff Mathis, beating Zobrist by about two paces. It wouldn’t have mattered if Zobrist had gotten there two paces before the ball, though. Mathis blocked the plate so completely that Zobrist never had a chance of reaching it. I’ve said this before, but in my mind, a catcher blocking the plate is both dangerous and ridiculous. If I wanted to watch grown men play king of the hill, I’d dig up old episodes of American Gladiators. Anyway, a good defensive play by Toronto (Jays: 2, 1; Rays: 2, 0).
- The third inning stayed interesting, when Rajai Davis bounced a grounder to EJ slightly in the hole. Elliot fielded with enough time for a good throw to get the speedy Davis, but he rushed the footwork and sailed his throw well over Pena for an E6 (Jays: 2, 1; Rays 2, 1). Two easy outs later, Price jammed Bautista with an inside fastball, but somehow the ball squirted softly through the middle for an RBI single, scoring the run that shouldn’t have been on base. Next, Price made his only mistake of the night when he threw a fastball right down the middle that Encarnacion crushed to center field to go up 3-0. Defensive miscues hurt, but defensive miscues in front of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hurt worse. Price was mad, so after a few blinks, he sat down Ben Francisco (still batting fifth, strangely enough) with a 97 mph outside fastball called strike three.
- In the top of the fourth inning, the Jays got caught in an interesting shift. With Scott up, Lawrie played in short right field, except that it wasn’t short right field. He was positioned like an outfielder playing shallow rather than like an infielder in a shift. Scott hit a grounder right to him, but with how far out he was, Lawrie panicked and threw a bad ball to first for a very strange E5 (Jays: 2, 2; Rays 2, 1). S-Rod grounded out though, and nothing came of it.
- In the bottom of the fourth, Lawrie was hit right on the knee by Price’s 96 mph fastball. The sound of ball hitting bone was audible over the broadcast, and quite cringe-worthy. Lawrie was fine, however, and sprinted to first. Maddon seems to have thought the impetuous young Toronto third baseman would try to pull a Bryce Harper and steal just to show he was a big boy, so Price threw to first and then pitched out, but Lawrie wasn’t going. On the next pitch, however, he did head for second, possibly staying out of a double play by doing so.
- To start off the fifth inning, Will Rhymes lined a ball to right for a single. He went in motion with Molina batting, and in so doing stayed out of a double play himself. After EJ grounded to first, advancing the runner, Zobrist came to the plate. Zobrist looked very good his first two at bats. He was all over Alvarez’s fastball, he wasn’t fooled by anything out of the strike zone, and he hit the ball hard both times. Now I know that you can’t tell if a hitter is locked in by his previous couple at bats, but all of the many studies that prove this look at results of at bats. Metrics like wOBA take hundreds of PAs to become meaningful, but per-pitch stats are meaningful much more quickly, and when we observe the process of an at bat, we’re really looking at it on a pitch by pitch basis. This is the little argument that went on between the sabremetric angel on my right shoulder and the emotional fan devil on my left (switch shoulders and divine/hellish nature if you prefer). Zobrist failed to settle the dispute when he hit a bloop single into center that fell just in front of a charging Rasmus to score Rhymes. Great result, less than dominant process. That’s baseball.
- In the bottom of the sixth, Lawrie scorched a ground ball that Sean Rodriguez fielded moving to his left. He let the ball travel past his body, backhanded it, gracefully pirouetted as if being moved by the momentum of the grounder, and threw the speedy Lawrie out at first. It was a fantastic play that really showed how good a shortstop playing third base can be (Jays: 2, 2; Rays: 3, 1).
- The seventh inning is when things really began to pick up for the Rays, and the differences between Price and Alvarez started to assert themselves. As the game wore on and the Jays lineup faced Price for a second and third time, he just mixed his pitches and stayed in command of the situation. Alvarez, however, doesn’t have the experience or the depth of pitches to face a lineup over and over. You could see Rays batters starting to time up the plus fastball, and to recognize the below average secondary offerings. S-Rod started the inning off with a great homer to right center field. He does have legitimate power in his bat, and not just for a middle infielder.
- Rhymes then lined a single the other way to keep the pressure on Alvarez. Molina hit a one-hopper to short that should have been a double play, but Escobar bobbled the play and everyone was safe (Jays: 2, 3; Rays: 3, 1). Next, Elliot lined a single into left field. Rajai Davis, who had cut down Zobrist so well earlier in the game, bobbled his pickup, and while the Rays wouldn’t have even tested his arm had he fielded it cleanly, Rhymes alertly seized his opportunity to tie the game. Great heads up baserunning, another bad defensive play by the Jays (Jays: 2, 4; Rays: 3, 1). In the next at bat, Zobrist lined a ball HARD off the glove of Kelly Johnson, and everyone was safe. It was a tough play to make, so I’m not going to count it against the Jays, but it was a missed opportunity to make a great play (and another well-hit ball by Zobrist – the left, devil shoulder is winning). With the bases loaded, Upton hit into a double play, but with no outs Molina was able to score the go ahead run from third.
- Price finished out the seventh inning without much difficulty, (whatever had been bothering him in the first half of the game just vanished somewhere around the fourth inning) and Peralta worked the eighth without much difficulty. The only other bit of real excitement came with one out in the ninth, Fernando Rodney on the hill, and Brett Lawrie at bat. Rodney got behind 3-1, and then this happened:
Pitch #5 was a fastball, pitch #6 was a changeup. Probably both of them should have been called balls (I think five was a ball, and six was a strike), but keep in mind that Rodney's fastball has great run which would take it into the strikezone, and his changeup has great sink that would also take it into the zone. And keep in mind that Jose Molina is a pitch framing master.
After each pitch, Lawrie thought he had drawn a walk and sprinted a third of the way up the line to first base before being called back. When he was called out, he completely lost his cool, throwing his helmet into the ground so that it bounced into the ump and then getting into the umps face before being tossed and restrained by his manager (who was soon also tossed). Similar to the Cody Ross at bat against Rodney, Lawrie has a case. Those pitches might have been balls (although the Jays got a call even further off the plate). Also, similar to the Cody Ross at bat, Lawrie has no one to blame but himself, for (a) not recognizing Rodney's excellent movement and (b) sprinting up the line before the ball was made in such a way as to draw the umps ire.