Corey Kluber is a good pitcher. His mid-90s sinker is a difficult enough to handle, but contrast that pitch with a 90 mph cutter that has near-slider movement, plus all the other usual secondary pitches, and it's really not fair for the hitters. And today, Kluber brought his A game. For the Rays to have much of a chance, Jake Odorizzi needed to be better than he's been most of the season. He would need to figure out how to pitch the second and third time through the order. He did.
And then the Rays bullpen blew the game.
Odorizzi pitched the first inning the way he's pitched most first innings this season. After a couple splitters down got Michael Bourn looking low, Odorizzi placed his rising four-seam fastball at the top of the zone to strike Bourne out swinging. Nick Swisher worked a nice at bat and eventually was rewarded with a splitter over the middle of the plate that he hit hard for a single. Next, Swish should have been doubled up to end the inning, but Yunel Escobar completely misplayed Michael Brantley's groundball, missing it with his glove entirely and taking it off the thumb on his throwing hand (he left the game for the following inning with a right thumb contusion, bringing Logan Forsythe into the game at second base and shifting Ben Zobrist to shortstop). Odorizzi was up to the challenge, though. Once more he worked the bottom of the zone with both fastballs and splitters before bringing a fastball back up higher and getting it over Carlos Santana's swing. He struck out Daniel Murphy in his more traditional manner -- swinging at a splitter down and away.
Odorizzi collected another two strikeouts in the second inning with a fastball taken down the middle by Lonnie Chisenhall, and with a slider chased off the plate by Mike Aviles. The Aviles at bat was interesting, as Odor teased him with a number of sliders on the outside edge before moving one a bit further out and getting Aviles to chase.
In the top of the third inning, Odorizzi found himself in his first real difficulty of the night. Facing Michael Bourn for the second time, he threw what seemed like a pretty good splitter on the corner down and away, but Bourn hit it hard into the alley for a triple. That's what we've seen all year out of Odorizzi -- an inability to fool batters with his splitter the second time around. What happened next was different, though. He showed his slow curve below the zone to get a whiff out of Swisher, and then put him away with a high fastball. Next, he dropped that curve in for a first-pitch strike to Brantley, overpowered him with a fastball up in the zone, and then punched him out swinging on a curve in the dirt. More mixing of his 69 mph curve and his 90 mph rising fastball produced a popup form Santana to strand the runner at third.
All through the lineup the second time, Odorizzi befuddled the Indians with his slow 12-6 curve, but a funny thing happened when he faced them for a third time: he mixed all of his pitches. Although Swisher tagged a fastball in on his hands for a ground-rule double, Odor came right back and punched out Brantley with a splitter in the dirt. Then, after a walk to Santana, he slammed the door on Murphy with what may have been his best splitter on the night. A ton of movement took it off the plate and under Murphy's swing for Odorizzi's eleventh strikeout.
Odorizzi's final line on the night was 101 pitches over five innings pitched, five hits, two walks, and eleven strikeouts. He threw his fastball 56 times, his splitter 18, his curve 16, and his slider 11 (according to MLBAM classifications on Brooks Baseball). Every bit as important as the even mix, Odor was able to locate his fastball on the corner down and away to the left-handed batters seemingly every time that Ryan Hanigan called for it there. This was the blueprint for how Odorizzi becomes a valuable major-league pitcher. He will need to locate his fastball and move it around the edges of the zone. He will need to mix his pitches, and to play with the verticality of his rising fastball and his falling splitter and curve. And when batters start to have that figured out -- which they will -- he will need to sprinkle in that below-average slider, just to keep batters off balance. He can make his repertoire work (eleven strikeouts make a strong argument for that), but he will need to use all of it., and to use it well.
Five innings qualifies a starting pitcher for the win, but it also leaves an uncomfortable number of outs for the bullpen. The Rays bullpen has been forced to get too many outs recently, and tonight, with the exception of Jake McGee and Josh Lueke, they were a mess.
Protecting a two-run lead, Brad Boxberger, yesterday's hero, immediately gave up a home run to Asdrubal Cabrera. He next gave up a ground ball to Yan Gomes, which found a hole in the infield, and then he hit Lonnie Chisenhall in the ankle. With no outs and men on first and second, Mike Aviles was bunting all the way. When he pulled back on a low ball, Ryan Hanigan fired a snap throw to second base and actually caught Gomes off the bag. The umpires called Gomes safe, but slow-motion replay showed him to be out. Maddon didn't appear to even consider a challenge, though, and Aviles eventually got the bunt off, sacrificing both runners into scoring position.
Having missed the challenge opportunity, Maddon turned the game over to his fireman and best reliever Jake McGee. McGee punched Michael Bourn out with ease, and retired Nick Swisher on a decently hit fly ball to end the inning.
While McGee had delivered the Rays from their current danger, Maddon decided not to bring him back out for a second inning, meaning that Boxberger's inability to finish his frame had put the Rays behind schedule.
Joel Peralta came on to pitch in the seventh, and immediately served Brantley a lame-duck fastball middle-in. Brantley did what one should do with such a pitch, and hit it out, tying the game. Peralta wasn't done, though. He walked Santana, got a bit lucky when Murphy's drive only carried to the warning track, and then he had Cabrera inside-out a pitch against the shift to put runners at the corner. Maddon had seen enough, and he called for Brandon Gomes to come in and face the righty, Yan Gomes.
In the Gomes on Gomes battle, their version won, flipping an outside pitch off the end of his bat to plate one run. Logan Forsythe made a good defensive stop in a drawn-in infield to get the second out of the inning, but Brandon Gomes failed once more against a righty -- this time Mike Aviles -- who he's supposed to be able to shut down. Gomes threw Aviles a 2-2 splitter that hinted at being down, but wasn't actually. Aviles hooked it for a back-breaking three-run homer.
Josh Lueke faced six batters and coaxed ground-outs from all of them. He's had his problems too, though. Right now, Jake McGee is the only reliever I feel confident in, and that means that the Rays are in a tough spot.
There was some offense in this game, if not enough. David DeJesus was a hero, notching four hits with three of them doubles. Logan Forsythe also did well, doubling and singling after being called into the game as an injury replacement for Escobar.
Wil Myers and Brandon Guyer, though, both struck out three times, and Myers looked thoroughly overmatched against Kluber's hard slider.
The Rays loaded the bases to bring the tying run to the plate with two outs in the ninth, in the person of James Loney, who took a few big swings, and worked the count full, but eventually popped up an inside fastball. Once again, too little, too late.
Some other notes:
- Give David DeJesus credit for a nice slide to break up a double play in the top of the first.
- With one out in the top of the first inning, and a full count to James Loney, Zobrist was put in motion from first base in part of what appeared to be a hit and run. Loney, though, took a fastball basically right down the center of the plate in the upper third. It was an easy pitch for catcher Yan Gomes to handle, and Zobrist was thrown out by a mile. After getting up, Zobrist definitely gave Loney an evil look -- one of the more negative expressions I've seen from the good Zorilla.
- The lineup was weird today, apparently because it was chosen by the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the esteemed chamber members far underrate Matt Joyce, who is clearly the Rays best hitter against a righty like Kluber. they batted him sixth. It was also allegedly their decision to play Brandon Guyer today, not Maddon's