Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Dubious decisions led to Rays' win in Game 3
Three games into the American League Division Series between the Rays and the Red Sox, the pitchers pinned with losses have been Matt Moore, who went 17-4 during the regular season; David Price, who won the American League Cy Young Award last season; and Koji Uehara, who was enjoying one of the best seasons a reliever has ever had.
They are three of the game's elite, each a significant factor in getting his team to this point in the postseason, yet so far in these playoffs each justly has been held responsible for a defeat. It defies the expectations set by logical analysis. It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.
But, then, neither did much of what the Rays did after the seventh inning on Monday night – and still they staved off elimination by beating the Red Sox, 5-4, on a walk-off blast from backup catcher Jose Lobaton that moved Tampa Bay within 2-1 in the best-of-five series.
Game 4 is Tuesday at 8:37 p.m., sleep be damned.
Now, Boston's John Farrell and Co. weren't flawless in their decision-making Monday night, either. The Sox' choice to pitch to Evan Longoria with two aboard in the fifth cost them what was a 3-0 lead prior to his home run to left. Then the manager's decision to pinch run for David Ortiz in the eighth meant the club's most dangerous bat was out of the game when his spot in the lineup came up with the go-ahead run standing 90 feet from the plate in the ninth.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon's choices were more questionable, more unconventional than those – yet somehow, someway, in the end they all seemed to intertwine in some crazy way, and they worked out.
The decisions began when rookie right fielder Wil Myers incurred a calf cramp while making the last out of the seventh inning and was forced to leave the game. At that point, Maddon had two outfielders on his bench. There was Delmon Young, who he was saving for a pinch-hitting situation. And there was New Hampshire's own Sam Fuld, who throughout the season has been used mostly as a defensive replacement or pinch runner.
Because Myers had made the final out in the previous inning, Maddon could have inserted Fuld into right and not had to worry about the .199 hitter coming to the plate for another nine batters. But instead, he took Matt Joyce out of the designated hitter slot and put him in right. That meant Tampa Bay's pitchers would be slotted into the cleanup spot in the batting order, right behind Longoria.
So instead of using Fuld there, Maddon was saving the speedster for a running situation. And, as it turned out, he got one after the Sox squandered a two-on, one-out threat in the top of the eighth.
Fuld was sent in to run after James Loney led off the bottom of that frame with a walk, and after the Sox botched their coverage on Desmond Jennings' bunt then couldn't make a play on Yunel Escobar's infield chopper up the middle, Fuld was at third when Tampa loaded the bases with one out.
If it had still been Loney there, maybe Mike Napoli would have tried throwing home when he gloved Young's grounder while moving to his left – but with Fuld going full blast on contact, Napoli instead decided he had no play at the plate, opting to hold on to the ball and dejectedly trudging toward first to take the out there.
Fuld's speed playing much more a factor than his glove would have, the Rays had a 4-3 lead.
They took that to the top of the ninth, which heart-attack closer Fernando Rodney started with a walk and a single. He ultimately had with the tying run on third, and the lead run on second with one out after Shane Victorino's sacrifice bunt. And that meant his manager had a couple of decisions to make.
With Ortiz out of the game, the safest probably would have been walking Dustin Pedroia with first base empty. That would have put Rodney against pinch-hitter Mike Carp, making his series debut, with the double play in order. Rather, Maddon decided to pitch to Pedroia, and furthermore, he decided to do so while keeping the left side of the infield back at regular depth despite the tying run standing at third.
Presented with that opportunity, Pedroia ripped a grounder right at the shortstop, and pinch-runner Xander Bogaerts scooted home from third. Suddenly the game was tied. But Maddon was OK with that.
"For me, it was just not about not losing the lead. At least if it's a tie, we've got a shot," the manager said. "That was a difficult choice right there, but I chose — normally we side on the side of aggressiveness or boldness. I thought right there under those circumstances, it was best to concede one run and live for the bottom of the ninth inning."
It was a decision he made knowing that awaiting his hitters in that frame would be Uehara – the Sox closer who retired 37 straight hitters at one point this season and came within a Myers foul tip of striking out the side on nine pitches Saturday night. The righty quickly took care of Ben Zobrist. Then Longoria.
But he couldn't do the same with Lobaton, who was sitting on "something soft," went down in the zone to get it, and golfed a 419-foot drive that landed in the stingray tank beyond right-center field. And, wouldn't you know it, he did that hitting out of the very cleanup spot into which Maddon had quizzically injected his pitcher by putting his DH into the field earlier.
Had Maddon instead gone to Fuld in the top of the eighth, maybe the Rays don't score the tying run without Fuld's New Hampshire-bred wheels. Maybe Lobaton doesn't get a chance to face Uehara. Maybe the Red Sox wind up showering in champagne Monday night while the Rays ready for winter.
Maybe Maddon's moves would have made more sense. But in October, being logical matters far less than ultimately being right.
(Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)