I made an impulse buy at lunchtime yesterday to purchase a single seat and make the trek over from Orlando for the game and I am very glad I did so. Even though I am functioning on four hours of sleep, it was definitely worth the $16 plus fees I spent for a ticket on Stubhub about 20 rows back of home plate last night. I certainly got my money’s worth and then some and the same could be said for the 19,843 that sounded like 39,843 by the end of the game last night.
The game matched the expectations set for by the match-up on paper as the pre-season staff aces James Shields and Justin Verlander squared off. Verlander has played the part of staff ace extremely well this season while Shields has had a rather frustrating season of excessive home runs and big innings that derail otherwise solid outings but last night the two went toe to toe on the rubber to give fans a very entertaining pitching duel. Verlander gave up three runs on the night and two of those came on a two-run home run that followed what looked to be a very intentional walk to Longoria on four fastballs well off the plate. The home run was a surprise as Verlander is one of the ten toughest starting pitchers in the American League to take deep and Pena nearly did it twice last night. After the home run, Verlander permitted just a walk to Aybar and a single to Bartlett through the next four innings until the Rays were able to scratch the winning across in the sixth inning with a Crawford single, two steals, and Matt Joyce coming through against his former team once again. Joyce’s double was key because the only other hit would come on a bunt single by Ben Zobrist. Speaking of Zobrist, he swiped his 20th base of the season last night; the home runs are certainly missed but he is more than making up for it by getting on base and getting into scoring position as much as possible. Verlander was saddled with a loss despite allowing just eight baserunners in a complete game on 113 pitches, 72 of which were strikes.
Shields had arguably his most complete outing in quite some time. On the evening, he permitted ten baserunners while striking out seven in 6.2 innings but most importantly, did not allow any home runs. It was only the second time in his last twelve starts that Shields has kept the opposition in the park and that was a big reason why he was able to gain his ninth win last night as he pitched out of some very tough situations. The Tigers were just 2 of 13 with runners in scoring position last night and left eleven men on base including having runners on second and third with less than two outs in both the fourth and ninth innings and failing to plate any of them. I have mentioned in the past how crucial it was for Shields to mix up his pitches early in the count and not become so predictable and he certainly did that last night. According to Brooksbaseball.net, Shields threw 21 curveballs last night compared to 16 change-ups and got a total of eight swings and misses last night. Maddon made a comment in the post-game interview that he felt it was Shields’ best effort of the season as far as using all of his pitches and locating them in good spots and I wholeheartedly agree. Yes, Shields gave up more hits than innings pitched last night but half of those hits were balls that B.J. Upton catches if he is in centerfield last night for the whole game or were just some “excuse me” type hits. In summary, it was very encouraging to see Shields bounce back like that after losing the game in New York and pitching poorly in a win against Baltimore last week.
Speaking of Upton, his injury looked a lot worse as the play happened but it appears he will only be out a few days with a sprained ankle. This same thing happened last season and he missed seven games with the ankle so the Rays may make a roster move more quickly this time given the fact each game is more precious this season than it was last as the club was not truly in a contending status. Say what you want about Upton’s overall play in 2010 but he is, by far, the best centerfielder on this team and the team defense suffers when he is not out there. That was very evident last night on at least three different balls in play that Zobrist did not get to that, to quote the other Jason, “BJ builds a campfire under.”
The bullpen trio of Balfour, Benoit, and Soriano were amazing last night, albeit in completely different styles. Balfour came in the 7th with bases loaded after Randy Choate could not retire Johnny Damon and three blazing fastball later, the inning was over. A few minutes later, I saw 620 WDAE host Steve Duemig tweet that Benoit’s acronym should be MFISUO (MFer, I struck you out), and I love it! Benoit entered the game in the eighth inning and mowed down Raburn, Avila, and Sizemore on strikeouts needing just fourteen pitches. Soriano came in to make the ninth extremely interesting. After retiring Santiago, he gave up a ground-rule double to Jackson that was either millimeters fair or foul depending on replay angle and a single by Rhymes (one of the balls Upton catches) put second and third with one out. Soriano then walked Damon after a lengthy at bat setting up Miguel Cabrera to save the day for the Tigers. Cabrera had already scalded two doubles to the gap in this game and Soriano was already over 32 pitches for the inning but he induced a ground ball that took a perfect peg from Longoria to Brignac and then an unbelievable pivot and throw from Brignac to Pena to win the game.
The icing on the cake last night was the fact rookie hurler Josh Tomlin shut the Yankees down for seven innings and the Indians’ pen held off disaster in the ninth to defeat the Yankees and allow the Rays to move within two games of the defending champs. Both the Yankees and Rays have two games left against their current opponents as they prepare for the huge showdown this weekend at Tropicana Field but Rays fans should feel good that the club has already beaten the two best pitchers the Tigers have to offer while Niemann and Price are on the mound to finish out this series.
- FoxSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi says he feels the Rays need to add another lefty reliever. I would agree, but I would also argue they have a very effective solution, in house, for free and I’ve been saying this since the end of June. Swindle had his first ineffective outing in quite some time in AAA last night but got a win as Winston Abreu slammed the door shut Benoit-style. Speaking of Abreu, he continues to dominate in AAA and could very well find himself on this roster in September if the Rays can clear a spot on the 40 man for him.
- Some BIG news related to this blog will be forthcoming later this week. I’m very excited about it and you will be too once you hear about it.
- If you are not yet reading TheProcessReport.com, you should be. R.J. Anderson started it and he is handing out some invites to certain people to participate in the process and I was lucky enough to receive one of those golden tickets. How popular is it? It got over 1,000 page views on the first day of the site just by word of mouth, or tweet if you will.
23 games above .500, only two games behind the Yankees, and the club has won eight of its last nine home games after going just 20-19 in the first 39 home games. Every game is big the rest of the way if the Rays want more than just a chance at the wildcard, but the rest of this week is about as pressure-packed as they come. The chance to sweep the Tigers is on the table and the Rays absolutely have to take the series against the Yankees after failing in their last two attempts if they have any desire to hang another American League East banner from the catwalks.