The Tampa Bay Rays had to win on Saturday night. Trailing 1-0 in the American League Championship Series, they were faced with the possibility of heading to Fenway Park down two games to zilch, with one of the best starters in baseball, lefty Jon Lester, waiting to pitch in Game 3 for the Boston Red Sox.
But, in a marathon, back-and-forth thriller, those pesky Rays found a way to get it done, beating the Red Sox in yet another one-run contest between the two clubs.
The game, though, started off more like a home run derby than anything else.
Scott Kazmir continued to struggle in the first inning, throwing 38 pitches before getting to make the walk back to the dugout for the first time—similar to his 37-pitch first against the Chicago White Sox in the Division Series.
Unlike his performance in the ALDS, however, the rest of the outing did not go as well for Kazmir, who surrendered three jacks and gave up five earned runs in 4.1 innings.
When he was taken out of the game in the fifth, though, little did he know that he was still hours away from having to speak to reporters.
The reason: the other supposed ace, Josh Beckett—best postseason pitcher of this generation, as many people like to call him—was equally as unimpressive. Beckett did not have his normal punch on his heater, and also struggled with his command, giving up eight earned runs on nine hits while also failing to make it out of the fifth.
Evan Longoria, the shoe-in for AL Rookie of the Year, was able to work his way out of a rough playoff slump off the big right-hander from Texas. Longoria homered in the bottom half of the first—to bring the score to a 2-all tie, as Boston scraped across two during the nightmare of a first by the fellow Texan, Kazmir—to start the Cowbell parade and homer frenzy at Tropicana Field.
Dustin Pedroia then went yard in the top of the third, answering right back to the Longoria blast.
Then B.J. Upton hit a bomb, making it a possibility that he will leave the yard more times in the postseason than he did during the regular season—four to nine, if you are scoring at home. Upton has now hit safely in five postseason games since going 0-for-5 in the first game of the ALDS.
Shortly after that, Carl Crawford singled in Longoria, who doubled in his second at-bat, to give the Rays a 4-3 lead.
Add in a bunch more home runs—Cliff Floyd, Pedroia (again), Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay—while each starter was out on the mound.
But after the Rays chased Beckett and put up three runs to take an 8-6 lead in the fifth, the game changed completely, from a slugfest to a relief pitching duel.
Joe Maddon was forced to get creative with his bullpen, knowing that this was essentially a must-win ballgame for his club. Maddon, the unconventional thinker and perhaps the favorite to be named top skipper in the AL, brought in one of his best late-inning guys, Grant Balfour, in the fifth. Balfour, however, was not himself, walking two while giving up a bomb.
While many people were ready to criticize this choice—as Balfour could have been used later—if the Rays had lost, lefty J.P. Howell bailed out his teammate by continuing to put up zeroes. Howell, an underrated force in the Rays' bullpen all year, lasted 1.1 innings, getting some pretty big outs.
The Red Sox bullpen was also able to shut down the Rays’ offense, as everyone from Manny Delcarmen to closer Jonathan Papelbon put up zeroes until Mike Timlin entered the game in its final frame.
Dan Wheeler, despite allowing Pedroia to score from third base after an ugly 2-0 wild pitch, was huge. Wheeler threw 48 pitches, a season high, in 3.1 huge innings with Maddon's bullpen nearly tapped out.
But that ended when Timlin walked the bases loaded, albeit one an intentional free pass, in the eleventh. The best player in the majors with a Columbia degree, the speedy Fernando Perez, was then able to score on a sacrifice fly from Upton, whose one-out flyball to right field was just deep enough to give the Rays the win in extras to tie the ALCS at one game apiece.
Oh, some guy named David Price got the win.
Inside the Box Score
Add this one to the ESPN Classic library, because the two best teams in baseball provided a game to remember, and I only hope that the series will remain this exciting throughout.
A few thoughts on the game that popped into my head.
• Going into Fenway, the Rays have much better chances now. This win was huge. But can the Rays rely on Kazmir to come back in game six? He has not been efficient with his pitches, seemingly laboring through five innings in nearly every outing lately. And, is his elbow still bothering him? It is telling that he is hardly using his slider, once an X factor for him.
• Ditto for Beckett. Is he fully healthy right now, and can he come back strong in game six?
• Longoria picked the right time to get back on track. Whether it was running into Beckett at the right time or because of Maddon’s pre-game talk with him, he had a day, finishing 3-for-5, with a homer, three runs scored and three RBIs. He was mired in a 0-for-13 slump entering the game. Pedroia seems like his back on track, too.
• Floyd hit a bomb, though many people may have forgot about that since he was removed in place of Willy Aybar so early in the game.
• Jason Varitek put up another 0-for-the day. He really just cannot hit anymore. I know he handles pitchers well, is the captain and has all the “intangibles,” but, if I were a GM, I would stay away when he hits free agency following the postseason. He hit .220/.313/.359 in 131 games over the year, and is now 3-for-21 in the playoffs.
• Youkilis, on the other hand, continues to impress. He finished the night 3-for-6, with another homer, and is now batting .357/.400/.571 in six playoff games. He truly is a stud offensive player. All those scouts could not have been any more wrong about him. Not a lot of people may realize it, but Youk finished sixth in the AL in batting average (.312), sixth in on-base percentage (.390), fourth in OPS (.958), third in slugging (.569) and fourth in RBI (115).
• The game took five hours and 27 minutes. Now, that is a lot of cowbell.
• Price recorded two outs in the 11th frame after walking J.D. Drew, earning the win. The former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt now has more playoffs wins than CC Sabathia. After dominating the minors in his first professional campaign, the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year has allowed only three earned runs in 15.0 innings pitched with the Rays, including this series, since getting called up on September 13. And, though it is a bit premature, he seems ready to overtake Kazmir as the lefty “ace” on the Tampa Bay staff.
• Jason Bay has three home runs, nine RBIs and a line of .440/.517/.920, with a ridiculous 1.437 OPS, in six playoff games, all without any Jason-Being-Jason antics grabbing the headlines. Sure, losing Manny was huge, but the Red Sox seem to be doing just fine without him.
One more thing: Ben Zobrist's walk, when he was attempting to sacrifice bunt, was a tremendous at-bat and totally changed the dynamic of the inning. Zobrist essentially got the same result of a sacrifice, moving up the runner, but did not pay the oh-so-costly price of making an out.
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