Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Boston in command
BOSTON - A few hours before his team took the field for the second game of its best-of-five American League Division Series with the Rays, a reporter asked John Farrell what has impressed him most about his team over the course of this unexpectedly successful season.
He spoke about his club's relentlessness, and its ability to be opportunistic. But by the third inning of Saturday night's game, it was the answer he gave in between those adjectives that resonated the most.
"Our guys," the Red Sox manager said, "love the attention to detail."
Indeed, it has been a characteristic of Farrell's club all season, regularly showing up in the way the Sox have prepared themselves for series (they won 33 of those), for games (they won 97 of those), for every pitch (they finished with Boston's lowest earned run average in 11 years), and for every plate appearance (they scored the most runs in baseball). Throughout the year they've thrived by collecting information, applying it to their approach, and then executing.
Which is exactly what they did Saturday night to rough up Rays' ace David Price - and take a commanding series lead courtesy of a 7-4 triumph that sends the Sox into Monday night with a chance to sweep.
An afternoon earlier, against the more-erratic Matt Moore, the order of the day was patience. The Tampa Bay lefty kept the Sox hitless and scoreless into the fourth inning, but by then they'd forced him to use 53 pitches. The strategy was to force Moore to come into the zone and come at them.
But all super-talented southpaws are not created equal. So, accordingly, the Sox adapted their plan of attack based.
Price is never easy to hit, as the Red Sox could attest to after the reigning Cy Young Award winner registered a 2.48 ERA against them over five starts during the regular season. But Price is even more difficult to reach when he's able to pitch with the count in his favor.
With two strikes this season, opponents hit just .183 against the lefty, with a .495 on-base plus slugging. When he was ahead in the count regardless of the number of strikes, batters posted a .212 average and a .546 OPS. The tone tended to be set early in at-bats, too, with the opposition reaching base just 26.8 percent of the time if Price was allowed to get ahead 0-and-1.
The Red Sox knew all this. Without blatantly divulging their game plan, Farrell alluded to it in those same pregame remarks: "We know we're going to get a lot of power stuff thrown at us, and a lot of strikes. So whether or not responding to the way he establishes his strike zone early on, if that causes us to maybe swing the bat a little earlier in the count, we'll see."
In fact, it didn't take long to see that that's what the Sox would do. Of the first 17 men they sent to the plate, six swung at the first pitch they saw, and 12 swung at one of the first two pitches of his at-bat.
That might've seemed like foreign territory for a team that has prided itself on patience, and grinding, and making pitchers work. But Price is too talented to sit back and let him dictate how an at-bat is going to go. Let him gain the advantage and his stuff is too good. He'll win the battle almost every time.
But don't give him that chance, and he becomes much more hittable. Opponents hit .287 this season when they put the first pitch in play. They hit .277 in even counts. And they hit .283 when batting with the count in their favor. Those aren't the situations on which Price established his credentials as one of the best pitchers in the game - though they were the ones in which the Red Sox feasted in Game 2.
Jacoby Ellsbury hit Price's second pitch of the night for a single, then got to third on a stolen base and a throwing error. Dustin Pedroia brought him in on a first-pitch sacrifice fly. David Ortiz then hit the second pitch he saw for a home run to right.
That gave the Sox a quick, 2-0 lead, then, after the Rays scored one in rebuttal, the Sox stretched it to 3-1 when Ellsbury blooped a first-pitch double to left in the third. When that frame was over Price had still thrown fewer pitches than Moore had thrown before the end of the second inning of Friday, but the Boston lead was up to 4-1.
Price eventually lasted into the eighth inning because his pitch count was still pretty low, and because he'd settled in as his teammates made a game of things. But his night came to a crashing halt when Ortiz launched his second of the night to lead off the eighth - on, naturally, the second pitch of his at-bat.
"I thought we had a very good approach against him," Farrell said. "Anytime you get seven runs off of David Price, you've had a good night."
And it's an especially good night when it puts you in position to put away this series in Tampa. After the Sox won Game 1, the talk was about how the Sox had done what they had to do in order to ensure a split of the first two games. Many had assumed that with Price opposed by John Lackey, the Rays were well positioned to even the series Saturday.
As usual, though, the relentless, opportunistic, prepared Red Sox made sure they were positioned even better.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.