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October 20, 2008

Prospectus Today

First Light from a New Ray

by Joe Sheehan

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The Rays are going to the World Series instead of the Red Sox for one reason: they beat Jon Lester twice. We can talk about the homers they hit, the relief pitching they got, the post-season classic they won, the 7-0 lead they blew, the guy who's gone from the Florida State League to closing a pennant-clinching game in five months, but when you look at this series, what stands out is 2-0 against Lester. Those were supposed to be Sox wins, and if either of the two games had been, they and not the Rays would be AL champs today.

Lester was supposed to be the Sox's biggest edge. He was the third-best starter in the AL this year, the great lefty against a team with a platoon split problem, the pitcher who had shut down the Angels twice. The Rays scored five and three runs against Lester in a week's time; Lester had allowed more than one run just once in his eight starts coming into the ALCS. Beating him in Game Three took back home-field advantage and swung the series in their favor; beating him in Game Seven put them in the World Series. They beat him the way they had to, by hitting the ball a long way: three doubles and three homers were responsible for seven of the eight runs the Rays scored off of him.

If not for their ability to hit for power off of Lester, Matt Garza's work might have gone for naught. When he gave up a first-inning homer to Dustin Pedroia yesterday, it looked as if the Sox might do exactly what they needed to beat him: take him deep. Two hours later, that was the only hit the Sox had. Relying heavily on his fastball, Garza made the Sox hitters look old and tired, striking out nine of the 27 batters he faced, blowing away David Ortiz in a critical sixth-inning at-bat, and whiffing Jason Varitek with two on in the seventh. Whether he or B.J. Upton was the more deserving series MVP is debatable, but Garza was clearly worthy of the honor.

By the time the night was over, however, a new hero had emerged. David Price, about a year and change removed from his days as Vanderbilt's ace, with all of 123 2/3 professional innings under his belt, just 14 of those in the majors, was called on to get the last four outs for the Rays. Even in a bullpen not over-burdened with experience, Price is callow. Joe Maddon, however, chose his relievers last night not based on anything but who he believed could get outs in this ballgame. (Note the absence of Grant Balfour from the proceedings.) Price got J.D. Drew looking to end the eighth, and after a walk to start the ninth he blew away the bottom of the Sox lineup to put his team into the World Series.

Even Francisco Rodriguez's ascension wasn't quite this rapid. Price had made all of four relief appearances in September, and just one of those was in a remotely game-relevant situation. He didn't pitch in the ALDS and had thrown to one batter in Game One of the ALCS. As nearly the last man left, he pitched the Rays out of a jam in the 11th inning of Game Two. Then, last night, in the biggest moment in franchise history, when it had taken four of his teammates to get two outs in the eighth inning, he came in with his 95 mph heat and nasty breaking stuff, and suddenly no one cared about the size of his signing bonus.

Given that the Rays are about to take on a team with a ton of left-handed power, it's not entirely ridiculous to suggest that Price has become their most important relief pitcher, a week after being comfortably ensconced in a small box with a view of "YCNEGREME FO ESAC NI." Things move fast around here.

Credit Maddon for putting in Price in that situation. In fact, credit Maddon for his entire approach last night. I spent much of the evening taking notes and sending text messages criticizing his decisions, questioning leaving Garza in too long, or choosing Dan Wheeler in the eighth, or leaving Balfour in the pen. Looking back, I had it wrong, and Maddon knew what he wanted to do last night. He had a better feel for how the Sox were struggling with Garza, and he knew, perhaps all along, that David Price was going to be available at the end, so he could go batter-by-batter in getting to him.

Even now that they're out this year, the Red Sox aren't done, not by any means. They have talent, resources, a great front office, and a deep farm system. Last night, though, the age and depth of the current roster really showed. Ortiz and Varitek looked overmatched in key situations. Varitek's homer Saturday probably earned him an at-bat in the seventh on Sunday, but it was one that should have been taken by Sean Casey, Jacoby Ellsbury, or Jed Lowrie. Mark Kotsay had to bat against Price in the ninth, a matchup missed by television viewers with conservative V-chip settings. Poor Sox defense in the outfield corners contributed to two Rays runs. Drew made a brutal throw on Evan Longoria's third-inning double, which helped Carlos Pena and his piano score from first. In the fourth, Jason Bay was playing somewhere in the Gulf when Rocco Baldelli singled to left, and the distance he had to come to charge the ball allowed Willy Aybar-who expected to be held at third base-to score the lead run.

Last week, after the Red Sox came back from a 7-0 deficit in an elimination game to keep the series going, I mused about the role of soft factors, intangibles, and what have you in that type of occurrence, and what it might mean going forward. I still don't have an answer for how much of that comeback should be assigned to the Sox's experience or fortitude, although I do appreciate the extensive discussion on the site that followed the piece. As far as momentum goes, I think we got a pretty good answer as to the impact any one game, even an extremely thrilling or disappointing one, has on the next. The Rays led early in Game Six, came back to tie once passed, and played a competitive game throughout. In Game Seven, they fell behind early and came back to win, getting through difficult situations late to lock it up. Any argument for game-to-game momentum, the idea that the outcome yesterday carries through to tomorrow, is hard to make in the face of how the Rays played this weekend.

The post facto nature of these arguments will be in play over the next few days. You can expect the results of Game One of the World Series to be framed in two ways: if the Phillies win, the Rays will have been worn out by their emotional seven-game ALCS victory; if they lose, it will be because the seven-day layoff between games made them rusty.

Baseball's harder than that. Even if David Price makes it look easy.

  • Maybe it was the wrist. If you're a Sox fan or executive, you hope it was the wrist. But the way in which Garza put Ortiz away in the third and sixth had to be a little troubling. Ortiz not only couldn't catch up with Garza's fastball, but he was going out of his zone to try and catch it. The 3-2 pitch on which Ortiz struck out in the sixth… I don't think he offers at that ball a year ago. At $12.5 million a year for the next two seasons, with no ability to play the field (which complicates roster management), Ortiz has to be one of the better hitters in the game or he's a liability.
  • Longoria has tremendous raw talent and his defensive numbers this year were off the charts. Twice in three games, however, he showed a tendency to lose his mechanics on throws, opening up his body and drifting towards the plate when charging instead of planting his leg and getting off a good throw. Thursday's error proved costly, and while last night he wasn't charged with one, the same problem was evident on a fourth-inning grounder off the bat of Kevin Youkilis. It's just something to watch.
  • Price was the story in the late innings, and I don't want to take away from that. However, you can't write about this game and not at least acknowledge that the decision pitches to Drew and Kotsay were both outside. Not on the black or the corner or any place else; they were outside. Until and unless we get a strike zone that is 17 inches wide all the time, shaped like a rectangle all the time, and located in the same place all the time, baseball will always be a little less than it should be.

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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