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Rays 2, Red Sox 1: Thoughts from the cellar door

Games don’t matter, until they do.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to still feel as passionate and involved about a team in the basement. Although cellar door might be the most beautiful phrase in the English language, it’s still not a desirable place to be. Everyone is trying to get out through the cellar door, be you a baseball team in last place or a kidnapped hitchhiker in the bottom floor of a knife-wielding psychopath’s house in a horror movie. No one wants to be there.

And as a result, interest drops. The stakes get far lower. Fangraphs has its leverage index, which is an excellent way of mathematically describing the most significant and important parts of a baseball game. If nothing else, it exists to quantify suspense and tension. But a contending team’s games are always more tense and suspense than those of a last-place team. It’s just the way the world works. No-limit Texas Hold ‘Em seems to draw a bigger crowd than the games of Candyland I play with my little sister, however unfair that is.

But every once in a while, a meaningless game can seem like the most important thing in the world. Basically, that previous sentence can be used to describe all of sports. I’m not gonna wax poetic here on how sports can be a common emotional language we all share, or how baseball can take the cold pain of autumn and winter away. That stuff’s been said already. What I’m saying is far more specific. Sometimes, in a lost season, you’ll get a game that feels like you’re playing in late September, chasing a postseason berth or a division title. Sometimes, you get to strike out a pinch-hitting David Ortiz to end the game.

Big Papi is one of the best hitters in the game, and honestly I like him. Baseball needs more people who can hit long dingers and trot around the bases like they’re walking through tar pits. It’s fun to watch, and he’s certainly a good guy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love to see him fail.

I always feel like games against the Red Sox are like this. Perhaps the feeling is asymmetrical. But I suspect it isn’t. The Red Sox were certainly licking their lips, coming in here and looking to gain some ground on the falling O’s by bashing on a Rays team in a sturdy fifth place. Games like these are winnable for Boston. But instead, the Rays salvage a split of the four-game series, beating Boston 2-1 behind outstanding pitching performances from likely and unlikely sources.

Jake Odorizzi has returned. By that I mean both Jake Odorizzi’s stuff has returned, and the circumstances surrounding Jake Odorizzi’s starts (i.e. his bewildering lack of run support) have returned. This is vintage Odorizzi, and it only makes me happier that the Rays chose not to trade him, instead opting to deal Matt Moore who has struggled a bit in San Fran. Odorizzi worked through the seventh and consistently took advantage of overeager Red Sox hitters. Although he collected only four strikeouts, he managed to get the job done.

As did the defense. Odorizzi’s most stressful inning was the top of the sixth, when he loaded the bases on a couple hits and a walk to lead it off. Mookie Betts drove in a run with a sac fly to score the game’s first run, and Odor walked the next man to load them again. With the speedy Jackie Bradley Jr. batting, it seemed unlikely that the Rays were going to get a ground ball double play to end the inning.

I front porched that play a little bit, but it’s still impressive when you see it. JBJ is a speed demon, but the Forsythe-Duffy combo made turning two look awfully easy. The Rays got some help from the Red Sox once again in the eighth inning. After allowing a leadoff hit, Erasmo Ramirez coaxed another ground ball double play to erase Dustin Pedroia. Betts then dropped a ball into left field and raced for second base, but was thrown out by Mahtook. All in all, Ramirez allowed two hits that inning but was bailed out by equal parts Rays defense and Red Sox miscues.

The ninth inning was particularly tense, despite it all. With Colome unavailable, Kevin Cash called to Tyler Sturdevant to ostensibly close out the game. Sturdy Ant struck out the first two batters he faced, but the Red Sox went to Big Papi for the final out of the game. Unless you skipped the earlier couple of paragraphs, you know how this one ended. Cash went to Enny Romero, and Romero struck him out looking. A satisfying ending to a well-fought series.

  • Mikie Mahtook broke out of his slump in a big way. In addition to cutting down Betts, he stroked the go-ahead (and game-winning RBI) double to center field, scoring a hustling Souza from first. It seemed Chris Young, the Sox left fielder, did not expect Souza to try to score from first, and Souza took advantage of his hesitation to pull ahead.
  • Drew Pomeranz was excellent for the Red Sox tonight. He picked up 11 strikeouts through six innings, and ultimately, the loss. A classic Jake Odorizzi start for Pomeranz.
  • The Rays are 4-3 against the best teams in the AL this past week. That’s pretty neat-o if you ask me.