You may have been wondering how Chris Archer would react to pitching with his first major league contract. He's an emotional guy, so you might have worried that he'd be a bit too pumped; that he'd lose track of his release point, yank pitches, and generally display the downside he showed at times in the minors. Let's go ahead and put that story line to rest now. Archer may never be a control artist, and he did walk two batters over six innings (striking out seven), but he was perfectly composed from start to finish. What's more, he used his two plus-plus pitches, that mid-90s fastball with elite run and that super-hard, biting slider like a ten-year veteran, moving them around the strikezone, in and out, up and down, with either pitch available in any count. It was the type of performance that can make a fan believe in two option years.
The Rays got on the board first when, with two outs in the bottom of the second inning, Matt Joyce pulled a Brandon Morrow slider over the shift and into the right-field corner for a double. Ryan Hanigan quickly got down 0-2, but displayed his solid plate discipline by holding up on the next three balls to pull the count full. He was rewarded with an elevated fastball that he grounded up the middle. Joyce ran hard and scored easily.
In the top of the third, Archer got into a little bit of trouble when his fastball caught too much of the plate against the leadoff man, Cesar Izturis, and Izturis lined it back up the middle hard for a single. The Jays then proceeded to win the small-ball battle, with Izturis stealing second (Hanigan’s throw had just a bit too much of a hop for Yunel Escobar to be able to apply a quick tag).
The Rays now pulled their infield in, and while the move paid off, it was very close to costing them. Melky Cabrera hit a ground ball just to the left of second base. Escobar only had time to take one step to his left and dive, snagging the ball cleanly. He looked Izturis back to third and threw Cabrera out. It was a sure out with the infield normally positioned, but a brilliant one with the shortstop pulled in. Archer finished off the inning by taking Colby Rasmus to school with four 95+ mph fastballs on the outside corner, and then a slider on the inside. With that setup, and with that slider, as soon as Archer executed the pitch, Rasmus had no chance.
The Rays offense took off in the bottom of the third. David DeJesus, playing in the designated hitter slot because of his bruised foot, hit a fly ball to right field. Jose Bautista made a very poor read, first staying put, and then trying to charge and slide for it as it fell, but the ball got past him and rolled to the wall. DeJesus was clearly hurting as he rounded second, but he chugged along to third. On the first pitch of the next at bat, Desmond Jennings hit a chopper over third base and just out of reach of the shortstop. DeJesus scored easily, and Jennings was extremely aggressive, heading for second with the ball in short left field. He might have been thrown out, but for another nifty slide. He started his slide reaching for the bag with both hands, but seeing that the tag going for his left side, he pulled his left arm back, and reached around Izturis’s mitt with his right. This is what it looks like when baseball succeeds in attracting world-class athletes to the diamond.
The aggressive baserunning paid off, as Ben Zobrist pulled a grounder through the infield, and Jennings scored from first on the single. Evan Longoria also grounded into right field, and Zobrist was able to advance to third, from where he scored on a double play to make it a three-run inning.
The Blue Jays finally got to Archer in the top of the fourth inning. Bautista drew a walk (he was pitched pretty carefully), and then advanced to third when a fliner off the bat of Adam Lind got under the glove of a diving Desmond Jennings and rolled to the wall. Bautista really should have scored on the play, but he made it home anyway when Dionner Navarro hit a fly ball to middle center field. Jennings made the smart play with his unimpressive arm and held Lind at second.
With two outs, it seemed like Archer might escape and allow only one run when Brett Lawrie hit a groundball back up the middle; Escobar was positioned well and had a chance to make a good play as he ranged to his left, but he didn’t get a clean transfer, and the bobble took away any chance of a play at first base. Yunel didn’t notice Lind rounding third, though, until it was too late, and his hurried throw home wasn’t accurate enough to give Hanigan a chance for the tag. To Archer’s credit, he stayed composed while it seemed like his defense was coming apart around him, and he struck out Maicer Izturis to end the inning.
Brandon Gomes came on to relieve Archer in the seventh inning, and quickly produced a soft ground ball to second base for the first out from righty Brett Lawrie. Against the lefty Izturis, though, Gomes left one of his shiny new cutters up, and saw it lined into left field. He got down in the count 3-1 against the ninth-hitting lefty Goins before Hanigan smartly decided to simplify the at bat, abandoning the cutter and the splitter, calling for fastball after fastball at the bottom of the zone. Gomes was able to locate, and eventually he got one past Goins for the strikeout. But with the Jays’ better lefties at the top of their order coming up, Joe Maddon switched out Gomes for the better fastball/splitter model of Joel Peralta. Two perfectly placed fastballs from Peralta ended the danger with a groundball straight to Loney at first base.
Peralta also handled the meat of the Jays’ lineup in the eighth inning, but by that time, Evan Longoria had taken the game out of the balance.
Some other notes:
- As alluded to above, in the bottom of seventh inning, Evan Longoria hit a three-run homer left field. It was the first Rays homer of 2014, and it tied Longoria with Carlos Pena for the most career home runs in Rays history.
- There was an interesting sequence in the second inning, with Edwin Encarnacion at first base and Adam Lind at the plate with a full count. EE went in motion, but Lind fouled the pitch away. The broadcast cut to Jim Hickey clearing his stopwatch and shaking his head as if to say, "He's not fast enough to the plate." On the next pitch, Encarnacion ran again, and this time Lind swung and missed at a low slider. Hanigan received it well and got off a good throw, but Encarnacion beat it.
- One more note on the same play, it actually looked like Encarnacion's hand was blocked by Escobar's foot, but it Joe Maddon didn't appear to even consider a challenge.
- In the fourth inning, Escobar hit a fly ball to just over the low foul wall in right field. Bautista was running hard, and when he hit the wall, he flipped over into a hand stand. There was a Tropicana Field security guard standing nearby watching the crowd. He didn't flinch. He just stood there motionless at his post for a good three seconds while Bautista stood on his hands, before finally turning around to help the Blue Jays' slugger up. Tropicana security is well disciplined.
- In the fourth inning, Brandon Morrow balked by stepping forward rather than back as his catcher asked to go through the signs again. The umps caught it, but someone loud in the crowd caught it first, and was clearly audible on the broadcast yelling, "It's a balk." Nice job, balk-man. If that was you at the park, know that Tampa Bay heard you.
- The lefty Rasmus just had a ton of trouble with Archer's slider tonight, striking out three times. A slider is generally better against same-handed hitters, but Archer's is good enough that it can wipe out anyone when he puts it in the right spot.
- Chris Archer threw no changeups today. I thought I saw one (fifth inning against Ryan Goins), but upon checking over at Brooks Baseball, I see that no, it was just a weird, slow slider.
- Sean Rodriguez went on paternity leave. Vince Belnome arrived today during the game.
- Really nice play by Brett Lawrie in the seventh inning to charge a chopper and get Escobar at first by half a step. Lawrie also got down the first base line very quickly on a few plays. You can say what you want about Lawrie and his outbursts, but he does play hard, and at times well.