There's been a pretty clearly defined script for hot the Rays lose Erasmo Ramirez games: give up a huge amount of runs in a small number of innings, and then nothing else matters. Well, today baseball decided to remind us that maybe we shouldn't write a player off completely after two games.
It started off poorly enough. With one out, Ramirez threw his second consecutive high fastball to the red-hot Devon Travis, who drove it the warning track in right field. Steven Souza might have been able to get there, but his initial read was bad and he took a half-step in. The ball was well-hit, and that misstep was all it needed to get over his head for a double. The very next batter, Josh Donaldson took another high fastball and flied it into the gap to plate the run.
Then a funny thing happened. Against Edwin Encarnacion, one of the most-feared sluggers in baseball, Ramirez dropped in a front-door slider. Cheeky. 0-1. Then he found the bottom of the zone with a sinker. 0-2. The next pitch was a changeup that barely missed down and away, but it was still a competitive pitch, and it set up the next one: fastball on the upper inside corner of the zone, popped up in foul territory.
Then he struck out Justin Smoak to end the inning. From the Smoak at bat, I want to highlight one combination of pitches, because it was repeated over and over in this game, and it's pretty much the only thing that has worked for Ramirez in his disastrous start to this season.
Here's Ramirez vs. Smoak:
- The first pitch was a sinker located in the bottom portion of the zone. This is crucial. Ramirez has a great changeup, but he basically only throws it low, and hitters know it's coming so they're able to hold up. The pitch works much better when Ramirez is able to fix in the hitter's mind the threat of the low fastball. In at bats where he's able to locate his sinker, he nearly always follows it up with the changeup, and he does so with success. When he can't locate his sinker? Bad things happen no matter what he does next.
- As I alluded to, the next pitch (and this is a very common pattern for Ramirez) is a changeup below the zone for a whiff.
- A changeup that misses in the dirt.
- A high fastball that's far enough outside to be relatively safe, but close enough to potentially change the hitter's eye level.
- Another changeup at the bottom of the zone, that once again Smoak cannot handle.
This at bat was emblematic of how Ramirez found some limited success this game. When he could establish the bottom of the zone with his fastball -- and he couldn't always do so -- he was able to overwhelm the batters with his changeup. At other times, he was less successful. Luckily, in his third inning of work, when the Blue Jays hit the ball well three times in a row, the third was a sharp grounder straight to Evan Longoria, who started a double play. In total, Ramirez lasted four innings while only giving up the one run. He allowed four hits and walked one batter while striking out two. It's not an amazing line. But it's much better.
The Rays Answer and Then Fall Silent
With one out in the bottom of the first, Souza walked on six pitches. An Asdrubal Cabrera groundout brought Longoria to the plate with two outs. He hit a high fly ball the other way, and started to put his head down in frustration at missing a decent fastball to hit and flying it out harmlessly, until he realized that there were actually no Toronto fielders in the area (it was too deep for Smoak to get to from first base and the Jays were playing him back in the outfield and to pull. Eventually the ball came down directly on the foul line and then spun away from the fielders and into foul territory.
That scored Souza to tie the game, but in a bizarre turn, after not running hard initially, Longo tried to go for a triple, and was thrown out somewhat easily to end the inning.
And that was it. No more scoring against young starter Daniel Norris. Not much hitting, either. Over seven innings he allowed only five hits and three walks, while striking out a Tampa Bay batter seven times.
Start by giving him credit. He's young, and sometimes he gets wild, but Daniel Norris's stuff is not in question. And as the game wore on, he got sharper with both his slider and his big curve, mixing them well and keeping the Rays off balance.
Also, both lineups were hurt by an inconsistent strike zone that occasionally called pitches as strikes despite their being well below the zone (but called other similarly-low pitches balls).
Brandon Guyer, particularly, got a raw deal with a few of these calls.
Still though, this game felt like it was destined to be just another one of the familiar times when the Rays pitching kept them in the game but the offense let said pitching down.
The Bullpens Tussle
The Rays bullpen had more innings to cover tonight, and while they weren't perfect, they did best their Toronto counterparts. Brandon Gomes came on to begin the fifth, and after an easy inning where he kept the Toronto hitters guessing and produced weak contact three time (one of which was a soft fly ball caught by Souza on a great diving effort), he was given the sixth inning as well. He got out unscathed thanks to two strikeouts and this gem of a defensive play from Cabrera and Forsythe.
Steve Geltz was up next to pitch the seventh inning, and although he's been very dependable so far this year, he allowed the first batter he faced, Russell Martin, to break the tie via an opposite field home run. Brian Anderson hit the nail on the head when he described why that home run happened. Geltz's best weapon is probably the way the extreme vertical rise on his fastball keeps batters from squaring it up and helps him work high in the zone, but the pitch that Martin took out was the third elevated fastball Geltz had showed him in the at bat. The first one Martin whiffed at. The second one he merely watched, and the third one he took out of the park. Just like Erasmo Ramirez can't survive throwing nothing but low changeups, Steve Geltz has to be careful about going to the well too often without using his slider and splitter (or other fastball locations) to keep batters off-balance.
Ernesto Frieri pitched the top of the eighth inning, and while he did give up one foul-ball home run, those don't go in the box score, and other than that he was impressive, striking out the side on the strength of a live slider.
After Martin broke the tie against Geltz, Daniel Norris pitched one more scoreless inning before Jays manager John Gibbons turned things over to his bullpen. He called for Roberto Osuna a 20-year-old Mexican coming back from Tommy John surgery. That sounds like a weird thing for Gibbons to do, but it doesn't take long to see why Osuna has allowed no runs so far this season while striking out 28.6% of the batters he's faced. He's totally filthy.
His fastball sits in the mid-90s with Geltzian rise. His changeup, with good movement down and away, is 12 mph slower. And that slider? It hangs out in the mid-80s, but hit 89 mph with real slider movement on occasion.
Osuna dominated Souza and Cabrera, and got Longoria to hit one off the end of his bat. Fortunately for the Rays, Longo's bloop fly ball once more found the hole between fielders near the right field line, so the Rays got another chance with two outs.
Let me emphasize once more just how dominating Osuna had looked so far. So what does Gibbons do? With David DeJesus up he pulls him for a lefty in Brett Cecil. It's a fine move, actually. DeJesus is a pretty good hitter against righties, and a bad one against lefties, and the Rays have no worthwhile righties on their bench. Brett Cecil is one of the better lefty-on-lefty specialists out there. It made some sense. But DeJesus followed a low pitch down and put the ball in play, and his grounder found a hole in the infield to put two runners on with two outs.
And now Gibbons has a problem, because while Cecil is excellent against lefties, he's very bad against righties (my projections have him 9% worse than the average left-handed pitcher against right-handed batters), and Logan Forsythe's whole job is to hit lefties like Cecil. So Gibbons switches pitchers again and calls for his closer, Miguel Castro.
Castro, like Osuna, is another 20-year old with no experience in the upper minors. I assume he's decent for the Blue Jays to be using him as their closer, but it is odd for someone with so little experience to be thrust into that role. Anyway, Castro is a righty, which is helpful for the potential matchup against Logan Forsythe, but James Loney (back early from his disabled list stay) was sitting on the Rays bench, and Cash immediately swapped him in for Forsythe. The first pitch was a fastball on the inside portion of the plate that Loney jumped on and lined to the wall to score Longoria from second base and tie the game.
And that brought Tim Beckham to the plate. The first three pitches were balls. With a 3-0 count, against a tough righty, one might think that a manager would tell his rookie middle infielder to leave the bat on his shoulder. Kevin Cash did not (perhaps because a walk would have left things up to Jake Elmore).
The fourth pitch was a 94 mph fastball up. That's a difficult pitch to catch up to. But . . .
It wasn't a home run. I don't care. Who says that Tyrannosaurus Bex can't extend his arms?
Some other notes:
- Today was the first time that three Canadian-born players (Russel Martin, Dalton Pompey, and Michael Saunders) were in the starting lineup together, according to the Sun Sports Broadcast. Yay, history.
- Bobby Wilson gets a gold star for some excellent work behind the plate in the sixth inning. First off, Gomes was struggling with his splitter in his second inning of work, and that meant balls in the dirt (including with a man on third base). Wilson blocked all of them expertly. Secondly, when Donaldson stole second, it was on a low splitter, which is a very good pitch to steal on. Still, Wilson got off a strong, accurate throw that actually beat the runner to second, and was only foiled by a good slide that eluded Jake Elmore's tag. I won't pretend that I know all of the backup catchers in this league, so I can't make a real comparison, but Rene Rivera and Bobby Wilson are surely among the best defensive duos out there.
- Logan Forsythe also gets a gold star for some good defensive work at first base. He had two good stretches, and he also flashed some unusual (if unnecessary) range when he glided to and snagged a Michael Saunders grounder in the fourth inning that would have been easily playable for Jake Elmore shifted deep at second base.
- After he came into the game, as a pinch hitter, James Loney pulled off a very fine stretch and scoop, as if to make sure people didn't get too excited about Forsythe's fielding at first base.
- Good #TWSS moment with Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson featuring the Desmond Jennings children's batting gloves as "scoring gloves." It was silly but I laughed. Then, of course, DJ's bat immediately flew out of his hands as he struck out in the at bat following this conversation.
- Brian Anderson went through a discussion about how great James Loney is. It's true that he's a good hitter against righties and an excellent fielder, but with apologies to BA, it is simply not true that he is a good hitter against lefties. I'm going to have an article exploring the question much more fully on Monday, so I don't want to get into it here, but I'm very pleased to see Cash using Forsythe and even Beckham against Daniel Norris rather than Loney and Kevin Kiermaier. I draw the line, though, at Jake Elmore. Was it really necessary to get Elmore's right-handed bat into the lineup at the expense of either Loney's or KK's defense?
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