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October 12, 2008

On the Beat

Notes on ALCS Game Two

by John Perrotto

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ST. PETERSBURG-Joe Maddon is the man of a million slogans. One of the manager's favorites during the Rays' improbable season has been "Everybody drives the bus"-that everyone has had the chance to be the hero at some point as the Rays transform themselves from perennial doormat to contender.

As Saturday night turned into Sunday morning at Tropicana Field, that was never more evident than when the Rays pulled out a 9-8 victory in 11 innings over the Red Sox to even the American League Championship Series at 1-1. The five-hour and 27-minute game did not end until 1:35 a.m. ET, when rookie pinch-runner Fernando Perez made a mad dash home on B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly to score the winning run. "How about it? Just another crazy night at the Trop," Maddon said with a huge grin. "We've been in those kinds of games often this year. You win a game like that under these circumstances after [losing 2-0 in Game One on Friday night] and it is very special for this group and for the organization."

While Upton ended up being the ultimate hero, there were plenty of stars in the Rays' victory. "It's been like this all year, someone stepping up," rookie third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Even in October there are still different heroes every day. That's the great thing about this team, we can beat you in so many different ways, and everyone is capable of coming through in big situations. This one was a total team effort. There is no other way to put it."

Total team effort may sound a bit trite, but it applies in the Rays' case. In Game Two, many Rays had the chance to get behind the wheel of baseball's Maddon Cruiser. Upton, the dynamic 24-year-old center fielder, wound up driving in the winning run and continued his October coming-out party after having hit a home run in the third inning. Perez used his blazing speed to score the winning run ahead of right fielder J.D. Drew's throw. Longoria had two doubles, a home run, three runs scored, and three RBI after going 0-for-4 with a GIDP in Game One. Cliff Floyd homered as well, while Dan Wheeler worked 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. Left-hander David Price, with all of 14 major league innings on his resume after being the first overall pick in last year's first-year player draft from Vanderbilt, got the final two outs and was credited with the victory.

Upton had a fine season in 2007, when he batted .300/.386/.508 with 24 home runs, but he failed to take the next step up to stardom this year, slipping to .273/.383/.402 with just nine homers while playing through a shoulder injury. But after keying the Rays' win over the White Sox in the American League Division Series with three home runs, he is thriving on the biggest stage of his career and filling the role of October hero quite well. "I'm just keeping the same approach I always do," Upton insisted. "You can't get away from your approach. I've been playing this way all year, but the numbers and the production haven't been there. But this is what the postseason is about. It's time to step up. We're in October, and everybody on the team is doing it."

"With B.J., it's just a matter of time," Maddon said. "He just needs a little more salt and pepper. This young man is a wonderful athlete that's turning into a very good baseball player. I really would like to see him continue to advance in all aspects of the game, and he understands that, but skillfully, he's one of the best out there."

Perez may not have as many skills as Upton, but he does possess outstanding speed, which is why Maddon put him on the Rays' post-season roster, even though he had spent the majority of the season at Triple-A Durham. Maddon inserted Perez as a pinch runner after Dioner Navarro drew a leadoff walk from losing pitcher Mike Timlin to start the bottom of the 11th inning. After Ben Zobrist also walked, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook's inconsistent strike zone drew the ire of Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who was soon ejected. Both runners were moving on a pitch to Jason Bartlett and advanced as he ground out to third. Timlin, the seventh pitcher to take the mound for the Red Sox, then intentionally walked Akinori Iwamura to load the bases. Upton followed with a high pop down the foul line in medium-right field, and Perez never hesitated in tagging up at third base, beating Drew's off-target throw. "As the game went on, I kept sitting in the dugout and thinking I might have a chance to be the winning run at some point," Perez said. "The whole time I was on third base, I kept thinking I was going to go on anything where I had any kind of chance of scoring. The ball wasn't hit that deep, but I was confident I could make it. We've been a team that has erred on the side of aggressiveness all season, and we're not going to stop now." Said Maddon with a smile, "Like I've said before, in a straight-up race, I've got Fernando over Seabiscuit."

It was ironic that speed would factor so heavily in a game whose seven homers had tied the post-season record. The Athletics and Giants hit seven in Game Three of the 1989 World Series, the Marlins and Cubs matched it in Game One of the 2003 National League Championship Series, and the Cardinals and Mets pulled off the feat in Game Four of the 2006 NLCS. In addition to the Rays' three home runs, the Red Sox connected four times, with Dustin Pedroia going deep twice, and Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay hitting back-to-back shots. However, the power display would wind up as a back story, as the final long ball came in the fifth inning. The game then became a matter of the Rays' bullpen outlasting the Red Sox's relief corps, which combined for 5 2/3 scoreless innings before Timlin gave up the game-winning run.

Both starting pitchers had struggled, the Rays' Scott Kazmir gaving up five runs and six hits in 4 1/3 innings, while the Red Sox' Josh Beckett, arguably the best October pitcher of the decade until this year, was rocked for eight runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings. Beckett was pulled during the Rays' three-run fifth inning that put them ahead 8-6. The Red Sox would come back to tie it, with Bay hitting an RBI single in the sixth off of Chad Bradford, and Pedroia scoring on Wheeler's two-out wild pitch in the eighth. The breaking pitch that sailed over the head of catcher Navarro was the only mistake that Wheeler made in his longest outing since a 4 1/3-inning stint for the Mets back in 2004. Maddon went against convention and called on two of his top relievers in the fifth, right-hander Grant Balfour and left-hander J.P. Howell, in an attempt to bail out Kazmir during a three-run inning. After having already used Bradford and left-hander Trever Miller by the eighth, Maddon was forced to extend Wheeler as the game went into extra innings. Wheeler said he was willing to pitch even longer if Maddon had asked. "Hey, it's the playoffs, and you do what you have to do," Wheeler said. "I actually didn't feel tired. I don't know if it was the adrenaline kicking into overdrive, or what, but I still felt good when Joe came to get me."

Wheeler was lifted after walking Jed Lowrie with one out in the 11th, and David Price came on and walked Drew. The rookie escaped the jam by striking out Mark Kotsay and getting Coco Crisp to ground into a fielder's choice. That set the Rays up to win it in the bottom half of the inning. "That's what our bullpen has done all year, and that's why we're still playing in October," Navarro said. "We have a lot of talent out there. You saw the kind of depth we had, and Price did a great job. That's pretty special for a rookie to get big outs in that situation. It was just a great win for us, a great game."

The Red Sox could be excused for not feeling it was much of a classic after they missed an opportunity to take the series home to Fenway Park on Tuesday afternoon with a 2-0 lead. The most troubling aspect for the Red Sox is how much Beckett struggled for the second time in this postseason. He was nearly untouchable last October, leading the Red Sox to their second World Series title in four years, winning all four post-season starts and allowing only four runs in 30 innings. This year hasn't gone as well; he was touched for four runs in five innings in his start against the Angels in the ALDS.

"Josh made some mistakes, and he paid for them," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "When guys get hit around or don't pitch the way they're supposed to, you have a chance to lose the game. All that happened against us early, we still had a chance to win the game, though, and we couldn't pull if off. There was a lot going on in that game. Both starters seemed to have the same problem. Both teams went about it a little differently. They went to their bullpen earlier, and we tried to get Josh through the fifth inning to set up our bullpen a little bit better but couldn't do it. We got to the same place in the end, but when you're on the road in extra innings, there is no margin for error."

Perez understood that when he took off for home plate. "This is the kind of game that is excruciating to lose," Perez said. "When you play this long and this late, both teams have invested an awful lot in the game. You just don't want to lose."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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