On the brink of elimination, the Rays needed a big start from Alex Cobb to extend their season. They also needed their bats to come alive against Clay Buchholz, a pitcher that has baffled them at times in the past and always pitches them tough. The Rays were obviously disappointed with their first two games of the season but if theres a team that plays their best in elimination games its this one, so it was sure to be an exiting night at Tropicana Field.
The sloppy defense that has plagued the Rays the entire series reared its ugly head again in the first inning. After a Jacoby Ellsbury groundball squirted through the infield, and an amped up Alex Cobb drilled Shane Victorino in the back, Dustin Pedroia shot a tailor-made double play grounder to Longoria at third. Longo didn't have to move at all to field the ball and fired a quick feed to Ben Zobrist. The usually sure-handed second-baseman took the throw and stood in as Victorino slide in hard and late, causing Zobrist's throw to first to elude Loney and skip towards the Rays dugout, sending Victorino scampering home and giving the Red Sox an early and ominous one run lead.
Cobb would escape the inning with no further damage despite a walk to David Ortiz.
In the bottom half of the inning, the Rays answered by putting their own lead off man on when David DeJesus singled on a blooper to shallow left. Just like the Red Sox the inning before, Ben Zobrist grounded into a potential double play with Mike Napoli making a nice throw to second to nail DeJesus. The return throw was not in time to get Zobrist but Evan Longoria and Wil Myers did nothing against the greasy-as-ever Clay Buchholz. The throw by Napoli was tricky but executed perfectly, in direct contrast to Zobrist's, and the difference is a run on the scoreboard for one team and a zero for the other.
Cobb would bounce back in the second, retiring the Red Sox with a strike out of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a flyout from Stephen Drew and a dazzling stop on a dribbler up the third base line from Will Middlebrooks. It looked like a sure-fire infield single for the Red Sox third baseman as Longoria was playing him deep and had no chance to reach the slow roller, but Cobb was quick off the mound getting to the ball near the foul line and fired a bullet to James Loney to end the frame.
Unfortunately for the Rays, they would experience some more tough luck in the bottom half. James Loney led off the inning with a well struck double to left and then Desmond Jennings then hit a hard line drive to the right side that if its two inches to the left ties the game. Instead, it lands in the glove of Napoli, who then fired to second to double up a diving Loney. Matt Joyce, now batting with the bases empty, flied out to a diving Daniel Nava in left field to end the potential rally. A perfect example of the kind of bad luck that has plagued the Rays for the entire series and the good breaks that the Red Sox seem to have no limit of.
Both teams would go quietly in the third inning where a Jose Molina foul ball home run would be the only highlight. Shame they don't count.
As the the fourth inning began, TBS viewers were treated to a replay of David Ortiz's second home run from game 2 and Cobb apparently felt the fear in his heart and walked him for a second time. Napoli continued his great game by lining a change up into right field in front of Myers who bobbled the catch a little but got it back in in time to keep the lumbering Ortiz at second.
After an epic 10-pitch battle with Nava, Cobb finally induced a flyball to deep centerfield where Jennings waited under it and made the catch for the first out. Jennings must have not expected Ortiz to run but the big man tagged up and hustled into third without a throw from Jennings. If you've been watching this series, you already knew that the questionable defense would cost the Rays. However, Cobb had other ideas and struck out Saltalamacchia for a second time before making another great play on a ground ball from Drew to escape the jam.
It wouldn't be a playoff game at Tropicana Field without a little catwalk controversy. In the fourth inning, Zobrist, leading off for the Rays, managed to hit not one, but two catwalks in his eight pitch walk. The first was well out of play down the right field line but the second was directly above home plate on a towering foul pop up that Saltalamacchia caught coming down. The catwalk rules turned the out into a foul ball and Zobrist got another chance, drawing a walk with his second life. The twittersphere exploded with complaints about the Trop, most vocally from the Boston media who already forgot all the fly ball outs to left that their monstrous ballpark turned into doubles in the first two games of this series.
With a man on first and Longoria up the Rays now had a chance to make some noise. Frustratingly, Longoria worked a long at bat before striking out on a change up right down the middle that left the face of the Rays franchise frozen with bat on shoulder. Buchholz made at least three mistake pitches to Longoria, who failed to capitalize on any of them. With one out, Wil Myers got a shot and hit the Rays' second foul home run of the night--A laser down the right field line that no doubt would have been fair around the Pesky Pole if this game were being played in Fenway. But those damn catwalks, right?!
With two outs now, the Rays hottest hitter in Loney stepped to the plate and promptly lined a single into right field bringing Jennings to the plate with two on. Jennings showed some great patience and worked a walk from Buchholz to load up the bases for the struggling Matt Joyce. The sold out Tropicana Field crowd rose to their feet and a "Let's go, Rays" chant resounded through the catwalks.
Joyce struck out on three pitches. Of course.
The bad breaks continued for Tampa Bay in the next frame.
Cobb struck out Middlebrooks for the first out of the fifth, but Ellsbury doubled on a ground ball that deflected off the glove of a diving Loney. Victorino then chopped a ball to short and Escobar had to range far to to his right to make a play. After a bobble he flipped the ball to Longoria who tagged out Ellsbury as he stepped on third. Ellsbury was out, the umpire didn't agree. Next year, instant replay might get the call reversed, but this year he was safe. A wild pitch to the next batter brought him sliding home and with it a 2-0 lead and after groundout from Pedroia, an opposite field single through the shift by Ortiz scored another.
The Boston Red Sox, wrought with power and beards like bikers, had been reduced to a meek-contact, ground ball machine--exactly the way Cobb drew it up--yet they led 3-0. Baseball.
These are the Tampa Bay Rays thought. The cardiac kids. The game-162'ers, the game-163'ers. The team that waits until you absolutely can't help but count them out before coming alive. The team that won three straight elimination games just to be here. And they weren't done.
Opening the bottom of the fifth, Yunel Escobar legged out an infield single beating a throw from Drew with some nice hustle. Jose Molina flied out to right but David DeJesus, making his first postseason appearance this year then doubled to right field wall, putting runners on second and third with one out against a tiring Buchholz. Zobrist, mired in a tough series, stepped to the plate with a great chance to chip away a the Red Sox lead but was unable to capitalize as Buchholz forced him to pop out to shortstop. Now with two outs, Longoria would get another crack at Buccholz.
This time, he did not freeze.
Longoria launched a down and in, 0-1 change up deep into the left field stands, erupting the cheers from the Tropicana faithful and tying the ball game at three a piece. Not a bad birthday gift for Longo who always seems to have a flair for the dramatic longball.
Buchholz issued a walk to Myers and Loney singled yet again to continue the rally but Jennings popped out to left to end any further threat. Through five tense innings, neither team was any closer to winning this game than they were when they started it.
The sixth inning did little to change the outcome. Alex Torres relieved Cobb and worked a scoreless frame, bookended by strike outs of Nava and Middlebrooks and Buchholz returned to the mound and posted a 1-2-3 inning, getting Joyce, Escobar and Molina to all pop out. Cobb's final line of 5 IP, 94 pitches, and 3 runs was not stellar but the change up artist did a great job of keeping his team in the game while trailing for the entire time he was in there. An unearned run and some sloppy defense bellied his strong outing but his effort was surely appreciated by his teammates. Buchholz was able to work one inning deeper than Cobb, but surrendered an equal three runs on seven hits while throwing 104 pitches.
Neither team could score in the seventh as Joel Peralta worked through the heart of the Red Sox order without allowing a baserunner. In between innings, Julianna Zobrist (Ben's wife) belted out a fine version of God Bless America and in the bottom half, her husband singled with one out and got to second after a first pitch wild pitch from Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa. With another big spot for Longoria, electric violins stirred the crowd but Longo popped out to third base leaving a go-ahead run in the hands of embattled Wil Myers. Myers struck out swinging on a nasty change up to end the inning but the cost was higher than just an out and missed opportunity. Myers appeared to pull something on his two-strike swing and had to leave the game after his at bat, forcing Joe Maddon to move his DH, Joyce, to right field and surrender the DH--National League baseball in St. Petersburg.
The top of the eighth would see some unnecessary drama unfold after Ortiz walked to lead off the inning and was replaced by pinch runner Quintin Berry. The speedster, Berry, is on the Red Sox roster simply for his baserunning and wasted little time attempting to swipe second on Jake McGee. Unfortunately for Berry, Molina had him dead to rights with a perfect throw to a Zobrist, who applied the tag to Berry's back before his hand touched second. The umpire however, decided that one blown call was not enough and called Berry safe. Replay confirmed the real-time suspicions that Berry was out and Joe Maddon trotted out to argue the call to no avail.
McGee got Napolit to ground out to short and Escobar held Berry at second before firing to first. The Rays then elected to intentionally walk pinch hitter Jonny Gomes, preferring instead to challenge Saltalamacchia from the right side. The move paid off as McGee overpowered the Red Sox catcher with heat and struck him out and finished the inning with a pop up from Drew. It was a relief to not have the human element lead to another run but a situation that the Rays should never have had to deal with in the first place.
With the momentum swinging back their way, the Rays looked to go ahead in the bottom of the eighth and found themselves in good shape right away as the already 3 for 3 James Loney drew a lead off walk. Maddon elected to pinch run with Sam Fuld despite his dwindling outfield depth and Jennings stepped to the plate with the Rays fans standing. Jennings laid down a perfect bunt up the first base line that all of the Napoli, Pedroia and pitcher trio converging on it and leaving no one covering firstbase and allowing Jennings to be safe. With two on and no outs, Joyce entered the batters box in a perfect sacrifice bunt situation but whiffed on his first attempt and fouled out on the second. Escobar would pick Joyce up however, as he hit a slow grounder over the mound that both Drew and Pedroia dove for but couldn't come up with in time to get any outs--bases loaded.
Enter Delmon Young.
Did you know that Young has the game winning RBI for his team in their last 5 postseason wins? True facts. Well Young wanted to make it six and swung away first pitch, crushing a ground ball down to firstbase that Napoli managed to stop with a dive. Napoli popped up quickly but had no play at home as Sam Fuld was speeding down the line. The Rays never had a ball leave the infield in the inning but they had their first lead of the night at 4-3 and Delmon Young was yet again the playoff magician.
So we would go to the ninth, and there would be nothing to worry about as the Rays had the ever reliable Fernando Rodney warming up... Ooops.
Rodney immediately came out wild, missing the zone by quite a large margin and walking the number nine hitter on just five pitches. Ellsbury followed up with a bloop single to left that put two runners on. Victorino did exactly what Joyce could not do an inning earlier and put down a sacrifice bunt moving both runners up. For some bizarre reason Maddon decided to let Rodney pitch to Pedroia despite first base open and Ortiz removed from the game earlier, and the move did not end well as Pedroia grounded out to shortstop but forced a run home to tie the game at four. Rodney, the rollercoaster closer all season, could not make this easy for Rays fans and picked the biggest stage to have his biggest meltdown. Mercifully, Rodney was able to retire Mike Carp on strikes to end the frame and keep the Rays tied.
But hey, walk offs are more fun, right? (This is called foreshadowing)
With Boston's "unhittable" closer coming in the ninth, the Rays were looking for some magic. Zobrist grounded out on the first pitch, and Longoria lined out two pitches later. The last chance in the ninth for the Rays would be backup catcher Jose Lobaton who entered the game on a double switch in the previous inning. What happened next was unbelievable.
Swing and a drive.
Deep right field.
A walk-off home run into the Rays tank, and we will see you tomorrow night. God, I love baseball.