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Rays 5, Boston 7; Hellickson Is Good, But Inefficient

It's football season at Davis Wade Stadium, and it's almost football season in Tampa Bay, too. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden–US PRESSWIRE
It's football season at Davis Wade Stadium, and it's almost football season in Tampa Bay, too. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden–US PRESSWIRE

It's hard to figure how to write a recap when you are in day five of disappointment. I've entered every recent game with complete confidence that the magical run was about to start, and for a full workweek, it hasn't. I'm sure some of you are angry, but anger at my own team just doesn't come naturally to me. If you've come here looking for someone to excoriate the Rays for their poor fielding, for their bullpen lapses, for their lack of hitting, I'm truly sorry. It may be appropriate, but I can't pull it off. With that being said, the following is a recap that differs very little from how it would appear were this to be a mid-season game. Baseball is pretty cool, and while I'd prefer more, I'll take the slightly over two weeks that we have left.

Andrew Friedman’s big moves didn’t work, the team did not come through in the clutch, and in what was once a season full of high expectations, the Rays might be on the verge of meekly sliding out of contention. But don’t try to tell that to Jeremy Hellickson. He’s just here to play some catch.

Ever since he first appeared in the majors two years ago, Helly’s steadiness under pressure has been one of his most noticeable assets. If a set of loaded bases with no outs doesn’t phase him, why should a must-win game like tonight be any different? I suppose this is an attitude that should be expected from someone who’s best pitch is a straight changeup. That’s a pitch where you set your hand so as to hold the ball less securely, rear back, and throw for all you’re worth. To throw that pitch, you need to have faith in your grip and you need to have faith that your arm speed will fool the batter. You need to be 100% committed to the pitch, each and every time you throw it. Without faith, it’s batting practice. With faith, it’s Jeremy Hellickson.

I don’t mean to make it sound like Hellickson was great. He wasn’t. He got too fine, ran his counts too long, walked too many nine-hole hitters (one), and in the end it caught up to him. But tonight was at least the dominant kind of short, three run outing, not the impotent kind. Hellickson struck out seven batters and walked two in his four innings of work. He allowed five hits, and as mentioned, ran long counts all game. He did have all of his pitches working today. He threw his changeup 27 times with a nearly 20% whiff rate. his fastball was also effective, generating a whiff nearly 8% of the time (pretty good for a fastball). He only threw 12 curves, but they were deadly, striking out batters looking, both frontdoor and back. This is the type of outing that while not what I want to see from Jeremy right now, keeps me convinced that he has a future as a very good pitcher in this league.

The Rays lineup, stacked with righties, first touched Felix Doubront in the bottom of the third inning. After getting the ever gettable Chris Gimenez, Doubront brought the count full against Sean Rodriguez before walking him. With the speedy Rodriguez on, however, Doubront seemed to fall apart. He waited an eternity between pitches, threw to first incessantly, and when he did throw home, it was usually for a ball. Red Sox fans will know better than I, but if this is how Doubront looks with men on base, his paltry 69.2% career strand rate (and accompanying high ERA) becomes understandable. He walked Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton to load the bases for Ben Zobrist. The first pitch Zobrist saw was a fastball right down the middle which, he lined into the gap in right center to score two. Evan Longoria followed up by hitting a fly ball to short left field. Usually, a run would not score on this type of fly, but the combination of Upton’s legs and Scott Podsednik’s arm made for an easy RBI for Longo.

The Red Sox, well-committed to their role as spoiler, soon began to chip away at the lead. They scored one run in the fourth inning off of a Cody Ross double followed by a James Loney single. That’s okay. Unfavorable sequencing happens. The next inning was worse, though. Hellickson started by walking Jose Iglesias, the ninth hitter. Pedro Ciriaco singled up the middle, sending Iglesias to third. Jacoby Ellsbury singled Iglesias home and sent Ciriaco to third. With the position precarious, Maddon brought in the left handed strikeout artist, Jake McGee.

I’m usually a pretty big Maddon supporter, but I think this is a situation worth examining with the critical eye. Hellickson is vastly better against righties than he is against lefties, and Ellsbury, as both a left handed hitter and a very good hitter, was the biggest threat to him in this depleted Boston lineup. If Maddon intended to bring in McGee if Helly let Ellsbury on, would it not have made more sense to just have McGee face Ellsbury himself? Maybe McGee wasn’t ready yet. Maybe he should have been.

Regardless, McGee got Pedroia to hit a sac fly into very short right field that a better arm than Ben Francisco’s would have turned into a double play, before getting a strikeout and a groundout to end the inning with the game tied. McGee stayed on for the next inning to face the switch hitter Saltalamacchia before ceding to Kyle Farnsworth, who went on to give up the go ahead run in a very Farnsworthian way – namely, two groundball singles, a groundball that would have been a double play had it been hit any harder, and another soft ground ball that Sean Rodriguez threw wide of first for a run-scoring error.

The seventh inning is when things really got out of hand. Wade Davis was called on to start it off, and he got the first two outs easily (Ellsbury and Pedroia, the two biggest threats in the Boston lineup), and was by all appearances in control. But then he walked both Ross and Loney. Salty, the catcher of the present, and Ryan Lavarnway, the catcher of the future singled and doubled, respectively, scoring three runs to run the lead to four.

Although the Rays were now fairly deeply down, they were not yet out, and they answered in the bottom of the inning. With two outs, Carlos Pena (pinch hitting for Rodriguez) took a pitch in the ribs, and Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton followed him onto the bases with walks. Junichi Tazawa came on to face Zobrist, but it didn’t matter, and Zobrist lined a single into center to score two, bringing Evan Longoria into the game as the go-ahead run. Longoria took two mighty swings on the first two pitches, but missed on both. He took the next three pitches for balls before fouling off the sixth pitch of the at bat. The seventh pitch was a fastball right down the middle. If we were a team of destiny, that pitch would have landed ten rows back in the left field stands, but apparently we are not. Evan got just a bit on top of the pitch, and bounced it to third to end the threat, and effectively the game.

A few notes:

  • There was a Boston fan, audible on the Sun Sports broadcast, complaining about the umpire’s strike zone. That is unacceptable. Rays fans, please drown him out; broadcast tech crew, edit him out or move the microphone; Tropicana Field ushers, find a way to move his seats, or better yet, give him free booze until he gives you an excuse to kick him out of the stadium. Just DO NOT MAKE ME LISTEN TO HIM.
  • The Sean Rodriguez error in the sixth is worth explaining. Ciriaco hit a ground ball to third that Rodriguez fielded cleanly, but his throw to first was in the dirt, and Keppinger couldn’t scoop it, allowing the run to score. Another run (Podsednik) would have scored easily, if not for the fact that Rodriguez’s throw hit the Boston first base coach on the foot and ricocheted neatly back to Keppinger. Keppinger picked it up and threw Podsednik out at home. To make things worse for Podsednik, the home plate umpire was somewhat inexplicably in his way (was it not clear he would be coming home?), and tripped him as he crossed the plate.
  • In the top of the ninth inning, Maddon brought Fernando Rodney on to relieve Joel Peralta and face Saltalamacchia. This is a little funny, as Peralta, with his reverse splits, is perfectly equipped to face a switch hitter like Salty. After Rodney gloved Salty's comebacker and nonchalantly threw him out, he started pointing at someone, perhaps in the crowd, and had a giant smile across his face. The whole dugout congratulated him. Seems like there's a backstory here, and I have to wonder if it has to do with Saltalamacchia's earlier season game winning home run off of Rodney.
  • Felix Doubront, like many Boston pitchers, works painfully slowly.
  • Ben Zobrist is doing his part. When the story of this season is told, it will not say that the Rays lacked a shortstop.