Sunday, 20 July 2008

Not the answer you might expect

The question? You have two pitching duels, AJ Burnett against James Shields, and Roy Halladay against Matt Garza. Who is going to come out on top?

I'm betting most people would pick the Jays' hurlers to get the better of things nine times out of ten. Well, not this week. This week, two out of two have gone to the Rays.

Toronto Blue Jays 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

Friday night, it was James Shields on the hill, looking to end our 7-game losing skid, and get the second half off to a good start. And boy did he ever do it. He allowed a third inning homer to Adam Lind, but that was it, going seven innings while giving up only four hits and that solitary run. Having thrown 105 pitches, those seven were his lot, and as he sat down he was facing the possibility of a super-hard luck loss.

But, fear not, because as was the story so often in the first half, an unlikely hero with the bat picked up a starter's great effort. In the bottom of the seventh, Eric Hinske worked a one-out walk to bring Ben Zobrist to the plate. Now, much as we have missed Jason Bartlett (and we have missed him a lot), Zobrist has done a solid job filling in for him. And he continued on with that solid job, taking the first pitch from Burnett and depositing it over the fence in rightfield for his fourth homer of the season.

JP Howell and Grant Balfour got the final six outs without allowing a hit, and just like that the streak was over and the Rays were back on top of the East.

Toronto Blue Jays 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 6

And if the performance that had moved us there was good, the one that stretched the lead to 1 1/2 games was simply awesome.

I think most people are agreed that Roy Halladay is a very impressive pitcher. Well yesterday he was simply outpitched by Matt Garza.

Garza was completely dominant, pitching 7 2/3 innings, striking out 6 and giving up only 2 singles. Toronto simply didn't have a chance.

Not that the Rays had much to show off of Halladay. Until the sixth inning, that is, when we pieced together one of the more unusual rallies that you will see - but then thats what you need to do sometimes against a top class pitcher. The inning started with Friday's hero Ben Zobrist giving a perfect demonstration of the classic Baltimore Chop, as he made contact and cut the ball almost straight into the dirt in front of home plate, from where it leapt over the dispairing jump of Scott Rolen at third. Aki Iwamura followed with as perfect a bunt as you will ever see, not only moving Zobrist up to second, but beating out the throw as well.

Next up was Carl Crawford, who made a terrible attempt to bunt, before eventually sending a slow dribbler along the first base line. He was easily going to beat out any effort to field it, so Roy Halladay watched as it trickled along the line, and, when he thought it had momentarily drifted into foul territory, he picked it up, only for the umpire to rule it fair. He was not happy. Now, I have two points here - 1) even I know that balls hit along the lines at the Trop tend to roll fair; and 2) Halladay may have been almost 4000 miles closer to the ball than me, but it looked as though it was just touching the line when he grabbed it. It was a tough call to be sure, but the umps had already made several great close calls during the came, so I am (obviously) more than happy to back them on this.

So, that was three hits that had travelled about 150 feet combined, as Carlos Pena stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out. And he continued the scrappiness by blooping a single barely over the head of the Toronto second baseman, scoring Zobrist to put the Rays on the board. Eric Hinske tried to add some more, but struck out swinging.

Step forward Evan Longoria. As if he needed to do anything more to impress, well, everybody really. What followed was a great battling at bat in which he worked the count full, fouled two balls painfully off of his ankle, and finally belted the 10th pitch he saw over the fence in left-centre for his first career grand slam. Off of Roy Halladay. That is the sort of spectacular thing that has just become par for the course watching Evan. I think one of the Toronto commentators summed it up perfectly a little later in the inning when he said, somewhat unconnected to what the rest of the conversation was about, "Evan Longoria is special". I couldn't have put it better myself.

That inning chased Halladay from the game, and in the eighth, Cliff Floyd added a sixth run for the Rays with a homer off the first pitch from Brandon League to straight-away centre. It should have been a pretty meaningless run, but come the top of the ninth, it looked pretty vital. Trever Miller came out and, unusually for him, gave up hits to two straight leftys. That brought in Al Reyes, fresh of the DL, he managed to get an out, but gave up a couple of hits himself and generally looked pretty ineffective. What should have been a coast to victory was suddenly getting tense. Step in Dan Wheeler. He actually allowed a hit, and Reyes' two runners to score, but came back to get the last two outs and preserve Garza's well deserved win.

This afternoon, Edwin Jackson is on the hill as the Rays look for the sweep. He'll be up against John Parrish.

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