I'm going to give you the good news first. Everybody in the American League East lost tonight, so the Rays are still tied in first place. In addition to this game, Washington beat the Yankees 3-2, Texas beat the Sox 2-1, Anaheim beat the Blue Jays 4-3, and Seattle beat Baltimore 4-2.
Now let's get to the bad/frustrating/maddening/same-old-same-old-Jake-Odorizzi-never-gets-run-support news.
The Rays jumped on young starter Williams Perez early. He came out throwing nothing but sinkers at the bottom of the zone, and they weren't all strikes. Kevin Kiermaier worked into a 3-1 count but then reached a bit at the fifth pitch and grounded out. Steven Souza Jr. got the same treatment, but was able to look for his sinker and hit it back up the middle.
That brought Evan Longoria to the plate, and oddly, aggressively, the Braves pitched out in a 1-1 count. Souza wasn't going anywhere, and the extra ball put the youngster Perez, who doesn't have great stuff, in a situation where he needed to come into the zone against Longoria. The result was a hard line drive into left field, and some good baserunning by Souza left runners on the corners for James Loney in the cleanup spot. Loney gave it a ride to center, and nearly got it over Cameron Maybin's head, but Maybin made a good running catch to steal a double. Souza still scored from third.
Logan Forsythe grounded out, after reaching for a pitch, to end the inning.
That inning basically summed up Perez as a pitcher. He throws three pitches: a low-90s sinker that won't miss many bats but can get groundballs when low in the zone, a changeup with good drop, and a curve that doesn't drop much, but sweeps across the plate. It's obvious how he'll attack a lineup. He wants to throw his sinker at the bottom of the zone (sometimes just above it for a strike; sometimes just below it) while also working the outside boundary in much the same way. If he's behind in the count and the hitter knows what's coming and where, Perez is in trouble. When he can get them to reach, though, the contact will usually be weak. If he can consistently work ahead in the count, those two secondary pitches can each be effective in certain situations, and he appeared to understand what those situations were.
Perez can probably be a decent reliever or a sub-optimal fifth starter. With Jake Odorizzi pitching, this was a game where the Rays were clear favorites.
For his part, Odorizzi cruised through the first two innings on only 14 pitches, but the Braves were able to pull a run back in the bottom of the third. Andrelton Simmons led off and slapped an elevated pitch hard down the first base line and through a diving Loney for a double. Maybin went after a changeup within the zone but grounded it to shortstop, and the runner could not advance. Perez, the pitcher, grounded softly to short, pushing Simmons to third with two outs, and setting up the Jace Peterson for most excruciatingly tense plate appearance of the game.
The first pitch was a splitter in the dirt blocked by Rene Rivera. The next pitch was another splitter below the zone, but whiffed at by Peterson. Next came another splitter in the dirt, also blocked. Pitch four? Also the split, also whiffed. The fifth splitter of the plate appearance was high enough but veered off the outside edge of the plate to bring the count full, and that's when Peterson really got started. Splitter inside–foul. Fastball in the zone–foul. Splitter inside–foul. The ninth pitch was a split at the bottom of the zone. Peterson's body was way out in front of it, but somehow he managed to keep the bat back just enough to get a sliver and knock it down foul. And after missing the strikeout by a quarter of an inch on the ninth pitch, Odorizzi lost the battle, missing just high and away with the tenth.
Odorizzi and Rivera paused to exhale and collect themselves, and then promptly gave up an Alberto Callaspo liner back up the middle that tied the game and put runners at the corners once more. With the dangerous Freddie Freeman up, Odorizzi went back to the the approach he had used on Peterson, throwing five straight changeups. This time it worked, and he struck Freeman out looking to end the inning.
Missed Opportunities in the Midgame
In the fourth inning, the Rays loaded the bases with one out on a walk from Loney and singles from Logan Forsythe and David DeJesus. Asdrubal Cabrera got ahead in the count 2-0 before hitting into a 3-6-1 double play.
In the fifth inning, Rene Rivera lead off and hit a Fenway Park home run that unfortunately only goes down as a foul in Atlanta. He lined the next pitch into right-center for a single. Jake Odorizzi was unable to get a bunt down, and eventually bunted foul with two strikes. I guess the bunt strikeout avoids the double play and turns the lineup over? Leadoff-hitting Kiermaier slapped a grounder past third base and into foul territory that probably would have been a hustle double if not for Rivera already being on base and having no chance to advance to third on the hit to short left field. None of the baserunning would matter, though, as both Souza and Longoria struck out badly on curves down and off the plate away to end the inning.
In the sixth inning, the Braves swapped out Perez for Luis Avilan, who is, oddly enough, a nearly identical pitcher to Perez, but coming from the left side (sinker, changeup with sink, curve with sweep but not much depth). Loney took an outside pitch the other way for a leadoff double. The first two pitches to Forsythe were sinkers in the zone that, were they thrown by Perez whose delivery he'd had a chance to time up, would have probably been hit hard. But Forsythe did not have Avilan figured, and he missed them both. This is why you switch out your marginal starters early.
David DeJesus hit a line drive, but a soft one that Maybin had no trouble tracking down, and after two balls to Asdrubal Cabrera, the Braves decided to give Cabby the next two for free, and bring in a righty (Brandon Cunniff) to pitch to Rene Rivera. Cash countered Cunniff with pinch-hitter Nick Franklin, who took a sweeping slider that came back into the zone for a strike, and then swung at another sweeping slider that came in on his hands, shattered his bat, and ended the inning with a groundout.
The Go-Ahead Run
The theme for informed Rays fans so far this season has been the concept of "overexposure." It's the idea that as pitchers go deeper into the game and as the opposing hitters see them multiple times they become less effective. The definitive recent work on the subject was done by MGL (who is more or less the best), and while it's a bit mathy, I highly recommend anyone who hasn't yet and who is interested in the evidence and the details to go read part one, part two, and part three.
The upshot is that if you have quality relievers available, it's a good idea to pull your starter earlier than you might think, even if it looks like he's pitching well, and especially if he's not actually very good. Jake Odorizzi is very good and it did appear like he was pitching well, but he was also extremely reliant on his splitter this game. He'd shown it a ton, and mostly befuddled the Braves with it, but it was all he had. Over the course of the game, Odorizzi threw more splitters (39) than he did fastballs (35). The MLBAM algorithm only classified eight pitches as cutters, and Odor only threw one curve. That's a more one-dimensional pitcher than we usually see on Odor's days.
We know that Cash was thinking about making a change, as he had started Xavier Cedeno warming during the top of the sixth, but when the pitcher's spot didn't come up to bat in that half-inning he stuck with Odorizzi. The Rays got the first out, but then Odor hung a splitter, and Freddie Freeman drove it to the wall in center for a ground-rule double. Nick Markakis was presented with a split that had better location, but he had the measure of it and he was able to stay back and flip it into left to put runners on the corners.
That was it. That was the chink in the armor. It opened for just a moment, and then it closed again. But with a runner at third there is no room for error, and not even room for certain types of success. Cunningham pounded a fastball into the ground that gave Cabrera no chance to throw the runner out at home, and no chance to start a double play. He barely had time to get the out at first base, and the Braves took the lead for good.
I'm not second-guessing Cash here. I don't think that'd be correct. I've been working for a few weeks on a comprehensive look at when the early hook is appropriate for this Rays team and when it's not, and I'm not there yet. It's a very complicated question Cash and the front office are working with, and this particular game looks like a tossup. So let's leave the questions of right and wrong for a situation that's cut and dry, and instead simply appreciate the shifting probabilities at play tonight.
Jake Odorizzi threw six innings of two-run baseball, allowing four hits, and two walks while only striking out two batters. It's not the most amazing line, but he gave the Rays a really good chance to win, and the Rays offense was unable to take advantage despite getting eleven men on base to Atlanta's eight. Unfortunately, it's the column third from the right in a box score that counts, not second from the right.
Some other notes:
- The first ball put in play against the Rays was a low fly ball into the left-center alley. Both David DeJesus and Kevin Kiermaier got there in plenty of time, and really, either could have fielded it, but DeJesus made the play and Kiermaier veered off to back him up. That's beautiful range in the Rays outfield.
- In the third inning, Jake Odorizzi grounded back up the middle, but Perez was able to knock it down and throw him out. I'm not sure Odor was running his hardest. Maybe Cash should bench him.
- Emily Austin interviewed Kelley O'Hara (U.S. women's national soccer team) during the fourth inning. That was unexpected, but U-S-A!
- To answer the web Wednesday question about why is Jake McGee so unhittable, first discard the notion that it's "not 100+ or anything." It's pretty much the hardest fastball in the game. Also, it's not straight. It has plenty of run for a four-seamer, and a bunch of rise. And he commands it well. The Jeff Long article that Brian Anderson referenced is good, so read it if you missed it. This offseason, Jared, inspired by that article, compared McGee's approach to some other fastball-heavy guys. You can read that here.
- Jace Peterson was a huge pest. In addition to his third-inning heroics he worked another ten pitch walk against Steve Geltz with a man on third and two outs, but this time Geltz was able to strike out Callaspo to end the inning.
- Kevin Kiermaier made a pretty fantastic play in the fifth. You can watch it here.
- Rays pitchers were not able to completely shackle the Freeman in this game. Now they'll need to get out the Vogt.
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