ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — These are two good managers and two good coaching staffs.
Ideas, numbers, opinions are flying everywhere. The shifts alone are mind-imploding; the Rays prevented the most runs (16) with their shifting in the majors this year, according to Bill James’s configurations, while the Red Sox were second with 15.
But the teams played a chess match — a game within a game — Monday night in Tampa Bay’s dramatic 5-4 walkoff win over the Red Sox at Tropicana Field.
Joe Maddon admitted that he played “not to lose” in the top of the ninth. Sean Rodriguez was switched from left field to first base. Jose Lobaton came in to catch and replaced pitcher Jake McGee in the four hole in the batting order (Maddon gave up his DH on an earlier injury-related switch). Matt Joyce, who started as the DH and took over in right field, moved to left.
Fernando Rodney walked Will Middlebrooks to start the ninth and Red Sox manager John Farrell called on Xander Bogaerts to run for him. Jacoby Ellsbury dumped a single into shallow left and, after Shane Victorino bunted the runners over, Maddon elected to pitch to Dustin Pedroia with first base open and keep his infield playing back.
The Rays were down, 2-0, in a best-of-five series. They held a 4-3 lead and could have played the infield in to keep the tying run at third. But Maddon also was concerned with Ellsbury, who represented the go-ahead run. Pedroia hit a hard ground ball to shortstop Yunel Escobar, who threw to first, conceding the tying run, when he had a potential play at the plate.
Maddon’s decision was bold, certainly a head-scratcher, while Escobar’s decision to go to first was also questionable, for sure.
Maddon said he didn’t know whether Escobar had a play at the plate, but his decision to not play the infield in signaled to Escobar to go with the safe out.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on that moment,” Maddon explained. “If you walk Pedroia, you have the bases loaded. [Mike] Carp was going to hit for [Quintin] Berry. All of that stuff was nasty stuff. For me it was about not losing the lead. At least if we got a tie, we have a shot.
“That was a difficult choice right there [for Escobar]. Normally we side on the side of aggressiveness and boldness. I thought right there under those circumstances, it was best to concede one run and live for the bottom of the ninth inning.”
Given how poorly the Rays had performed offensively, Maddon was thinking very optimistically, especially considering he knew Koji Uehara would be pitching the bottom of the ninth.
Because cleanup hitter Wil Myers left in the eighth with leg cramping, Maddon had a pitcher in the lineup, and due to bat in the ninth inning. Maddon fixed that by inserting Lobaton as a defensive substitution in the top of the ninth, and Lobaton took Uehara deep with two outs to win it.
Farrell also made an interesting decision, running for David Ortiz in the eighth inning of a tie game. Ortiz had walked to lead off the inning and Farrell called on Berry, his fastest reserve. Berry stole second (though replays showed he was out), but couldn’t score as McGee snuffed out the threat.
Farrell admitted to feeling some angst over removing Ortiz but “in that situation in the eighth inning, feeling that’s — not knowing if his spot is going to come back around, didn’t want to miss an opportunity. Berry does his job, gets the stolen base, unfortunately we got a man in scoring position with one out, a strikeout and pop-up against McGee. But no, I don’t second-guess that pinch-run move there.”
Ortiz’s spot in the order did come up again, and Carp struck out to end the ninth, stranding Ellsbury at third.
Maddon said “basically we went National League. Once Myers came out, we put the DH in the [field]. And we had to start moving the spot around to prevent the pitcher from having to hit. That was purely all National League right there. We could have popped Sam [Fuld] in that spot. Had we done that, we would have locked Sam into the spot and I didn’t want to lock us into one guy.
“With Delmon [Young] hitting in the No. 9 hole, then I can move the catcher [Lobaton] into the No. 4 hole. So again, it’s total National League. That was the interesting part of that game. But we chose to delay the decision by putting the DH in the game and the pitcher in the No. 4 hole.”
Young hit for catcher Jose Molina in the eighth with two men in scoring position and put the Rays on top, 4-3, when his grounder to first was temporarily mishandled by Mike Napoli, who was unable to attempt at play at the plate.
In the fifth, Farrell could have walked Evan Longoria intentionally (or unintentionally) with two men on, first base open, and two outs. But Farrell elected to have Clay Buchholz pitch to Longoria, who blasted a three-run homer.
“No, we didn’t want to bring the go-ahead run to the plate,” Farrell reasoned. “Clay had struck him out, popped him up on two other changeups and got to 0-1. The changeup was near the spot he tried to throw one down and in on him. But no, no consideration to walking him.”
In the bottom of the eighth, after the Rays put the first two men on, Maddon had Joyce attempt to sacrifice the runners along. Joyce has been a disaster offensively. He popped his bunt up backward and Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrific play near the backstop.
But most of Maddon’s moves worked out, and perhaps Farrell’s decision to run for Ortiz ended up backfiring since Berry didn’t score and the Sox didn’t have Ortiz batting in the ninth with the go-ahead run at third base.
Suffice to say, the managerial wheels were turning in an interesting game within a game.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.