Who among you ever thought that the game tonight would have needed Rafael Soriano to slam the door shut by striking out the side once again after watching the team pile up six first inning runs? I know I did not. In fact, I paused the game and came back to it after my kids were put to bed feeling quite good about a big early lead. After all, the last time the Rays played in the Rogers Centre, they were handily swept by the Jays as they hit home run after home run in that series.
Early on tonight, it appeared that the message I’ve drummed loudly all summer long would hold up once again: James Shields throws his best games when Kelly Shoppach is catching him. Just as I was feeling comfortable and IM’ng TPR colleague R.J. Anderson about it, boom went the dynamite. Shields gave up just two home runs, but both were of the two run variety. The first one was hit by Adam Lind on an 0-2 pitch that Shoppach had called for well inside about letter high. Shields delivered the pitch but missed the target by nearly a foot and the fastball drifted out over the plate where Lind crushed it to dead center field. The second home run was surrendered to the presumptive home run champion Jose Bautista on a 2-2 change-up that Shields once again missed his target. Shoppach had called for a change-up on the outside half of the plate and Shields left the pitch up and over the inner half of the plate where Bautista has thrived all season long. Four of the five earned runs that Shields allowed tonight came on those two swings; otherwise he was better than he was in his last outing in the loss at Baltimore but not quite as sharp as he has been in his recent outings when throwing to Shoppach.
The bullpen was a mixed bag of tricks tonight. Randy Choate came in and worked a terrific sixth inning retiring Lyle Overbay while striking out Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. Joe Maddon pulled an unusual move and left Choate out there to start the seventh inning to face John Buck despite the fact Grant Balfour was ready because Maddon wanted Choate to face lefties Travis Snider and Dewayne Wise after Buck. I have harped for weeks now that this club needs Jacob McGee up as a second lefty for situations just like this one. Maddon’s strategy backfired as Choate gave up a home run to Buck, retired Snider, and then walked Dewayne Wise who earned just his third walk in his last 98 plate appearances.
Chad Qualls was brought on to induce an inning-ending double play but Yunel Escobar hit a Baltimore chop that moved Wise over to second bringing up Babe Ruth Bautista. Maddon countered by bringing in Joaquin Benoit who has given up just five home runs in 50 innings coming into tonight. For reasons known only to the team, Benoit threw Bautista back to back fastballs; the first one only got by Bautista as the home plate umpire refused to grant time out. Bautista took the second fastball, which was over the inner half of the plate, and hit it to Newfoundland to tie the ball game up. Coming into tonight, there have been 193 players to hit at least 40 home runs in a season since 1970 and only one, Alex Rodriguez in 1998, was never intentionally walked. Bautista has only been given the free pass twice in 2010 despite his Bonds-like efforts this season.
Earlier this season, we saw Maddon elect not to intentionally walk David Ortiz who made the Rays pay with a go-ahead home run and when that situation presented itself again later in the season, Maddon walked him. Perhaps the next time Bautista comes up in a late inning situation with a chance to tie the game, he will be given the four-finger pass to first base. After all, Maddon once walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded to pitch to the guy behind him so it is too much to ask him to stop pitching to a guy that has hit 56 home runs since September 1st, 2009?
Thanks to the shaky pitching by Kevin Gregg in the ninth and even shakier infield defense by Yunel Escobar, the Rays were able to plate the go-ahead run despite not getting a single base hit that inning allowing Soriano to come in and slam the door shut on a game the Rays once led 6-0.
Offensively, the Rays chased starter Brett Cecil with seven runs and eight hits in just two innings. Carl Crawford got a triple in the score sheet on a ball that Vernon Wells gave a less than stellar effort on. Ben Zobrist finally got his 10th home run of the season and his third of this month and B.J. Upton hit yet another home run that was as far as anything Bautista hit tonight. The problem was that all of that came in the first two innings and the Rays put just five more men on base against six different Jays relievers and that came on one base hit and four walks. Boom or bust has been the common theme this summer with this offense and we saw both personalities of the offense tonight.
Frankly, the Rays were lucky to leave with a win tonight as the team did everything it could to give away another game they should have easily won. Right now, the Rangers and the Yankees are tied in the 9th inning so it is unknown whether the Rays will gain any ground on the Yankees but the Red Sox are losing 5-0 in Oakland. The A’s chased Clay Buchholz after just one inning of work and that loud banging sound you hear is one of the final nails going into the coffin that holds the 2010 Red Sox season within it. A loss by Boston tonight would give the Rays a 7.5 game lead in the wildcard standings with just 22 games left to play. To put that in perspective, Boston would need to go 18-3 in their final 21 games if the Rays went 10-12 in their final 22.