October 18, 2008
ALCS Game Six
Matchup: Red Sox (95-67) at Rays (97-65), 8:07 p.m. ET, TBS
Besides Drew's ninth-inning walk-off, the two biggest plays by win expectancy added were Coco Crisp's game-tying single in the eighth-which came on the 10th pitch of an at-bat that manager Terry Francona called probably Crisp's best as a Red Sox-and the double-play grounder that Justin Masterson induced from Carlos Pena to end the top of the ninth. While a bit overshadowed by the offensive show staged by Boston's bats, that double play was enormously important, in no small part because it was also somewhat unlikely. Masterson is an extreme sinkerballer who has gotten 18 double-play grounders in less than 100 innings of work this year, but he has struggled against left-handed hitters, who produced an OPS over 200 points higher against him than righties did during the regular season. At the same time, Pena is one of the most extreme fly-ball hitters in the majors: among the 148 batting-title qualifiers this season, he had the fourth-lowest ground-ball/fly-ball ratio (0.63), above only Alfonso Soriano (0.62), Kevin Millar (0.59), and Ryan Ludwick (0.58). Entering Game Five, Pena had grounded into just six double plays in 637 plate appearances, less than Tampa Bay speedsters B.J. Upton (13), Carl Crawford (10), and Jason Bartlett (10).
While Game Five is in the past, the major question it raised has followed the Rays to Tampa Bay: Can the young squad overcome such a traumatic defeat, or is this a case where concepts like chemistry and momentum perhaps enter into the equation? The sparse past playoff results following losses of approximately similar magnitude do not bode well for the AL East Champs. In that '29 Fall Classic, Chicago took a 2-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth in Game Five, but there the Cubs suffered agony once again, because with one out Max Bishop singled and Mule Haas homered to tie it up, before doubles from Al Simmons and Bing Miller plated the series winner for the A's. The Cubs were faced with even greater heartbreak in Game Six of the 2003 NLCS, and again took the lead in the next contest, this time a 5-3 advantage heading into the fifth, before the Marlins stormed back to capture the flag. Moving to Red Sox history, the year 1986 inevitably surfaces. After losing a 5-2 ninth-inning lead and the chance to take the pennant in ALCS Game Five, the Angels struck twice in the first inning of Game Six, but were outscored 18-3 from that point until the end of Game Seven. And in Game Seven of the '86 Series, the Sox actually led 3-0 heading to the bottom of the sixth before the Mets came back once more for an 8-5 win.
Three of those four teams were playing on the road in the game(s) following their wrenching loss, however (the 2003 Cubs being the exception), while the Rays get to do battle in the comfort of their domed home, where Tampa Bay is a combined 60-25 this season, a .706 winning percentage. Perhaps the Rays can also draw confidence from the experience of their sister expansion franchise, the Diamondbacks. In both Game Four and Game Five of the 2001 World Series, Arizona held a two-run lead over New York heading to the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium, with the D'backs' win expectancy having reached 95 percent in each scenario, but Byung-Hyun Kim allowed two game-tying home runs-to Tino Martinez the first time, and Scott Brosius the second-that led to extra-inning losses. It's hard to think of a more momentum-shifting, morale-busting set of back-to-back defeats, yet the Snakes returned home and famously trumped "mystique and aura" by taking the last two games behind the pitching of co-aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
While Shields is not quite a Johnson or a Schilling, he is the Rays' top starter this season, and therefore Tampa Bay is certainly hoping tonight that momentum is indeed only as good as the next game's starter. The Sox, conversely, have little idea how good their starter is at this moment. Beckett has given up 12 runs in 9
Thanks to William Burke and Clay Davenport for research assistance.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.