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October 12, 2008

Prospectus Today

ALCS Game Two

by Joe Sheehan

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Someone's ruined.

There were 34,904 tickets sold to last night's ALCS Game Two in Tampa Bay, and you just know that somewhere among that throng, someone was seeing their first baseball game. Perhaps someone took a first date, unfamiliar with baseball, because the Rays are the big story in town. A big brother gets sick, so a little brother invites his best friend from school. A client stays an extra day and gets invited to the firm's box, even though he's more a theatre guy.

That person is ruined. They can't go back, because nothing will ever match that first experience. It's the baseball equivalent of losing your virginity to twin cheerleaders. From Sweden.

Someone showed up at the Tropicana Dome last night around 7:30, and was handed a cowbell, and ate a hot dog, and looked around at a stadium that had rarely looked like it did last night, filled with people excited to be there, anticipating, nervous, passionate, loud... maybe more than anything else, loud. They saw history made, as the teams combined for seven home runs, tying a post-season record. They saw a pitcher whose job it is to get three outs do three times that much work. They saw the very best prospect in baseball, someone who's been a major leaguer since about Tuesday, play a critical role for the home team. They saw that most thrilling of baseball moments, a runner scrambling home from third base, a baseball coming from the other direction, a season determined by who wins the race.

The Red Sox and Rays didn't put on the most impressive display of baseball last night. All they did was play one of the most entertaining games of the young century. Back and forth, back and forth over five and a half hours, the two teams packed more thrills into one game than the entire 2007 postseason provided. Whether you wear red or green, you went to bed last night exhausted, having ridden a horsehide roller coaster that epitomized the phrase, "It's a shame one of them had to lose."

In contrast to Game One, the two managers were more aggressive with their personnel. Joe Maddon, in particular, pulled out all the stops. This reflects the greater importance of the game to the Rays, who with a loss last night would have been forced to win four out of five, including at least two of three in Boston, to advance to the World Series. Maddon rescued an ineffective Scott Kazmir in the fifth after the third homer Kazmir allowed, and used both of his best relievers, Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell, just to bring the fifth to an end. Because of this, he would later ask Dan Wheeler, the team's nominal closer in the absence of Troy Percival, to go longer in a game than Wheeler had gone in years; by the time he left, Wheeler had thrown 3 1/3 innings and 48 pitches. He hadn't gone longer than two innings in a game since September 27, 2006, when he threw 46 pitches in three innings. The last time he threw more pitches? June 4 of that year. What Wheeler did last night was help save a season.

Terry Francona could have done with that kind of aggression. His starter, Josh Beckett, went just as long as Kazmir, 4 1/3 innings, but at no point did he look comfortable or effective. Francona's sending his injured hurler back to the mound to start the fifth with a lead was the key mistake of the game. Had he started the inning with Manny Delcarmen, it's entirely possible that the Sox' 6-5 edge would have held up, because on this night, his bullpen was outstanding. His top four relievers combined for 5 2/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits and no walks.

How much of Beckett's performance is due to his strained oblique isn't for me to say. I do know this: Beckett hasn't had a quality start in his last three, and he's given up 18 hits and five home runs in his two post-season starts. That's awful, and when combined with how he looks-he's using more breaking balls than he does when he's at his best, and he's missing velocity-it seems to me, the guy who isn't Will Carroll, that not only should he have been out earlier last night, but that it's not clear whether you want him starting a potential Game Six.

Francona's offense gave him an opportunity to get his pen into the game with a lead, and he went back to Beckett for three more outs. He got one. I get that Beckett had retired three straight to end the fourth, but Cliff Floyd's homer kicked off that inning, and again, he was being hit hard and not appearing comfortable. He should have been gone after the fourth, or at the least, after walking B.J. Upton.

What's interesting is that while we might remember this game for the home runs, all of them were hit in the first 4 innings, and after that, the bullpens took over. Healthy pitchers can do that. The Red Sox chipped away with single runs in the sixth (Jason Bay singling off of Chad Bradford, no mean feat) and the eighth (when Wheeler made his only mistake, throwing a ball to the backstop that allowed Dustin Pedroia to score the tying run). That's another reason why this game was so special-it showed such a range of what baseball is. Half the game was a slugfest, and half a pitchers' duel.

Those bullpens set up the finish, which capped the event for our new fans: a walk-off win by the home team, the winning run scoring in a cloud of dust as his teammates rush from the dugout screaming wildly. For veteran fans though, the 11th inning was more than just its last moment. You had Joe Maddon bringing in David Price, who 16 months ago was the first pick in the draft, and who made his major league debut four weeks ago, to make what were arguably the most important pitches in franchise history. The Rays' season was unquestionably on the line last night, given the difficulty of taking four of five from the Red Sox, of beating Jon Lester at least once, or of winning at least two games at Fenway Park. Maddon, poetically perhaps, called on the pitcher who is expected to be the ace of winning Rays teams to come to rescue this one, this overachieving, surprising one. Price was supposed to be in the Arizona Fall League in October of 2008, not the ALCS, but the early-arriving Rays changed that plan.

Price, perhaps nervous, perhaps just a 23-year-old pitcher, walked J.D. Drew, then got Mark Kotsay on a 2-2 pitch that was called a strike in the face of the available evidence, and retired Coco Crisp on a grounder to short.

Having exhausted his supply of reliable relievers, Francona went to Mike Timlin in the bottom of the 11th. Timlin walked Dioner Navarro on a 3-2 pitch that certainly looked like a strike, and the pitch tracker that TBS uses showed it to be, at worst, a little bit better than the pitch that sat down Kotsay. When a 1-0 pitch to Ben Zobrist was inexplicably ruled a ball, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell got himself ejected, giving our sleepy first-time fans something to wake them up-the sight of a manager and a coach coming out to fight with an umpire.

The sequence of events that led to Farrell's ejection was unfortunate, but it highlighted a weakness in our game for the new fans: the calling of balls and strikes. The more you watch, the more you realize that pitches on the margins are essentially called at random. I don't think home-plate umpires are flipping mental coins; I do, however, believe that the job of judging the specific location of a ball moving at 85-100 miles per hour is beyond the scope of human eyes. I say the same for the judgment of whether a batter committed to or didn't commit to a pitch, a call that should always be referred to a base umpire, or preferably, video. Sam Holbrook did a poor job in a key sequence last night, and while some will call that the "human element," I call it a failure that has effects in the millions of dollars.

The end result of the controversial calls put runners on first and second with no one out. Jason Bartlett failed to get a bunt down-MVPs shouldn't bunt, anyway-but another future Ray, Fernando Perez, used his speed to save the situation. With Perez trying to steal third, Bartlett grounded a ball up the third-base line; if not for Perez breaking, Kevin Youkilis might have been able to stay back and get the lead runner. With Perez nearing third, however, Youkilis had to charge and take the out at first base. Like Price, Perez was supposed to be somewhere else this fall, working on his skills in preparation for his role in the Rays' bright future. Instead, he found himself as the winning run, 90 feet from home, as B.J. Upton came to the plate.

Timlin got ahead 0-2, and given that Upton can be prone to the strikeout, it looked for the moment that the veteran hurler might get out of the jam. But Upton, who emphasized repeatedly in the aftermath that he was up there to make contact, fought off the next pitch and then, on the fourth, popped a ball down the right-field line, shallow. There was no question that it was deep enough for Perez, with great speed, to attempt to score. When Drew did a poor job of setting up for a throw, then uncorked a two-hopper up the third-base line that had no chance of getting the runner, 1:38 a.m. on October 12 felt a little bit like midnight on January 1.

Walking out of the stadium, maybe a bit confused, maybe a bit overtired, maybe with a ringing in their ears, someone who had never seen a baseball game turned to their host and asked, "So they do this every night?"

They're so ruined.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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