Almost two years ago, Dan Johnson made contact with a 2-2 pitch from Jonathan Papelbon for what was arguably the biggest hit of the 2008 season. At that time, the Rays had never won a series in Boston and were on the ropes to drop yet another series in Fenway and would have surrendered their lead in the AL East with a loss in that contest. That series was a huge momentum swinger in the season giving the Rays the confidence to close out the 2008 season and win the division and go into Fenway that post-season without the fear that had accompanied them each time the franchise had gone there before.
With a .140/.367/.233 slash line coming into tonight, it could be argued that Johnson had done next to nothing to help the Rays this season. Yes, he had twice as many walks as strikeouts coming into tonight but he had just two extra base hits in 43 at bats after coming up from AAA with 30 homers. Johnson just needed a break and his .100 BABIP coming into the game screamed that something was going to go his way at some point. After a frustrating night of two strikeouts and a ground out, one late inning swing of the bat sent his popularity rating with Rays fans soaring up the chart as Johnson once again hits a momentum-swinging home run in late innings against Boston.
Coming into tonight, the team that struck first won eighteen straight contests and Boston struck first in the fourth inning on a sacrifice fly in a situation that could have been much worse than it was. Boston had two on and none out but only plated one run rather than the 2.5 runs the run expectancy chart tells us teams produce in that situation. It only got more frustrating for Rays fans as Clay Buchholz stymied the offense for nearly the entire night. Buchholz came into this game as one of the hottest pitchers in baseball on a 20+ inning scoreless streak and the Rays did not plate a run until the seventh inning when he threw away a pick-off attempt that put Pena into scoring position. Pena then scored when J.D. Drew inexplicably caught a rather deep fly ball into the Rays bullpen and fell into the wall allowing Pena, bad foot and all, to easily come home. The smarter play there would have been to let that ball go foul and the fact Joyce struck out on the very next pitch hammers that point home. The only other run Buchholz surrendered was a home run by B.J. Upton on a hanging curveball. If not for Peter Bourjos, Upton would have five home runs this week as he is hitting the ball with a lot of authority in the second half of this season.
The difference in this series so far has been found by examining the middle of the lineup for each team.
- Red Sox: 14 for 32, 4 RBI, 5 runs, 3 strikeouts
- Rays: 4 for 27, 0 RBI, 1 run, 10 strikeouts, caught stealing, 3 double plays
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are very good pitchers, but so are David Price and Matt Garza. In fact, Garza has pitched some of his best baseball this year since his no-hitter despite the fact he can’t get many wins. The simple fact of the matter is the Red Sox money makers are doing what they are paid to do while the middle of the Rays lineup has done next to nothing productive. For the series, the Rays’ offense is just 9 for 58 with 21 strikeouts and two of the four runs have been gifted to them on Red Sox defensive miscues while the other two have come on solo homers. That is not the type of game plan that has long-term success for any offense and the club has to do better tomorrow night against John Lackey. Historically, Lackey has done quite well against the Rays but not since joining the Red Sox. Lackey has already faced the Rays three times in 2010 and is 2-1 with a 5.94 ERA and has given up 32 baserunners in 16.2 IP while striking out just seven.
Garza was very effective again tonight on 101 pitches, 63 of which he threw for strikes. Five singles and one extra base is a good effort, even against a diluted Red Sox lineup. Joaquin Benoit game in for the eighth and gave up a demoralizing home run to the red hot Victor Martinez who has been impossible to retire. Martinez came up again later in the game with a tremendous acting job drawing a foul ball call on a ball that never touched his foot as the umpire said it did. Kudos to Joe Maddon for bringing Rafael Soriano in for a non-save situation which Soriano handled beautifully on just seven pitches but Maddon raised eyebrows bringing in the very inconsistent Chad Qualls for the tenth but once again, Maddon shows he knows what he is doing as Qualls and Randy Choate get the job done setting up Dan Johnson for his heroics.
The Rays are now 9-5 against the Red Sox with four more game left to play after tonight. The momentum swing created by Johnson’s home run cannot be understated as the Rays reclaim their 5.5 game lead against the Red Sox and stop the huge momentum the Red Sox have essentially owned for 17 of the 19 innings played in this series heading into tomorrow night’s game on ESPN. The Yankees won again so the Rays failed to gain any ground on the division lead but they pushed back the Red Sox advance in the wild card race another game and a win tomorrow night would be a body blow to the Red Sox playoff chances. With that said, Terry Francona needs more attention from the national media for Manager of the Year because despite losing so many key players this season, the Red Sox continue to be a gigantic pain in the ass that refuses to give up in this playoff race like so many teams before them.