ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Joe Maddon had a plan in his back pocket, but he made sure not to tell Game 4 starter Jeremy Hellickson.
“I didn’t want to put anything in his head,” Maddon said. “I just wanted him to go out there and play.”
It wasn’t a secret that Hellickson was struggling.
In August, he gave up 21 runs over five starts, going 0-4.
When Hellickson found out he was going to start Game 4, even he was surprised.
Maddon figured he would keep Hellickson’s leash short.
“Originally, I thought or had hoped for Helly getting through the lineup maybe one time, maybe through [Dustin Pedroia] Pedroia and then turning it over at that point,” he said.
But with the Rays facing elimination for the fifth time in 10 days, Maddon couldn’t risk Hellickson struggling.
After getting through the first with no issues, Hellickson quickly unraveled, throwing eight straight balls to David Ortiz and Mike Napoli and loading the bases on a Daniel Nava single.
Maddon had to break the emergency glass.
“If he had got off really good and stayed good, I would have let him go on farther,” Maddon said. “But I really thought looking at it, just trying to game plan.”
From there, everything about the 3-1 American League Championship Series Game 4 loss that ended the Rays season was on-the-fly, survival-mode decision-making.
“That was the game plan,” Maddon said. “But that kind of got blown up.”
By the end of the night, Maddon was all out of contingency plans.
He had burned through nine pitchers, including Game 1 starter Matt Moore, somehow sewing together enough arms to take a temporary one-run lead, only to fall behind the Red Sox by two insurmountable runs in the seventh.
Maddon desperately tried to put together pieces in his bullpen to keep a Rays team that had been gasping for air for nearly two weeks alive.
“The plan was that Helly, we’d have gone longer than just three outs and then after that, we were just going to try to piece it together based on handedness and their lineup and etc.,” Maddon said.
With Hellickson falling apart, Maddon called on Jamey Wright to try clean up the bases-loaded mess in the second inning. This was the same same Jamey Wright who gave up four runs in the eighth inning in Game 1 in his postseason debut.
It was a dice roll. And with Wright on the mound, Maddon still had Game 1 starter Matt Moore warm up in the pen.
That Wright got the Rays out of the inning was a minor miracle. He caught Jarrod Saltalamachia staring at curveball that just caught the outside of the plate.
Then Stephen Drew shot a rope down the line — the kind that stops hearts — but James Loney — all 6 feet, 3 inches of him — stretched to make the grab, tried to tag Nava at first but couldn’t, then had the presence of mind to make the throw to double off Napoli at second.
The next inning, he made an even more surprising decision to go with Moore, who lasted just 4.1 innings and gave up seven runs in Game 1.
Before the game, Maddon made it clear Moore was available but only in a certain situation.
After getting two scoreless innings from Moore and two more from Alex Torres, Maddon started believing in his backup plan.
“It was there,” he said. “It was all there.”
When the Rays took a 1-0 lead in the sixth, on David Dejesus’s RBI single, it seemed like they would pull it off.
Maddon still had Chris Archer prepared to do some long work and even though he had thrown 28 pitches the night before, Maddon used Jake McGee as well.
“I really thought we could do 1-0,” Maddon said. “I really thought it was in our abilities.”
Five pitchers managed to sew together 6⅔ scoreless innings and put the Rays in position to grab a slim lead, but the house of cards crashed in seventh.
After McGee walked pinch hitter Xander Bogaerts and gave up a single to Jacoby Ellsbury, Maddon didn’t want things to get out of hand.
But he could sense it slipping away.
“The tipping point might have been the walk to Bogaerts,” Maddon said. “That’s pretty much how that thing began to roll.”
He called on Joel Peralta to face Shane Victorino with two on and two outs.
The first pitch Peralta threw went wild on him, bouncing by catcher Jose Lobaton to the backstop, allowing Bogaerts to score the tying run and Ellsbury, who was already on the move for a steal of second, to race to third.
It was a matter of moments before Ellsbury would score the run that sealed the Rays’ fate on Victorino’s infield single.
The Sox finally kicked the Rays last leg from under them.
“They were really good,” Maddon said. “They didn’t make any mistakes. You could see their grit. From spring training on, I think they’ve really promoted the character of their ground and they’re just gamers. They’ve got a bunch of gamers over there.”
With his team’s season slipping away, Maddon was trying to figure out what desperate measures were still left.
He had already exhausted every ounce of his baseball intelligence, every shred of luck and nearly every pitcher in his bullpen.
If it came down to it, he figured, he would use David Price, even though he was planning on saving him for Game 5.
“I don’t even have any idea who would have started that [game],” Maddon said. “It didn’t really matter because without winning a Game 4, there is no Game 5.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.