Thursday, 3 July 2008

So much more than just another Sox sweep

You know something? You just can't not watch this team. You can't stop, you can't look away, not even for one second.

Because every pitch, every swing of the bat, every bit of glovework could be the one. It could win the game. Even a game that looked out of reach. And maybe even a series against the World Champions.

At 3AM last night (UK time, obviously!), the Rays were 4-1 down. Kaz had lasted only 5 innings with an elevated pitch count, and through 6 innings the hitters had picked up only 3 hits between them. I had to be up for work at 8. I was only watching live at all because well, lets face it, Kaz v Dice-K, Rays going for the sweep, how can you not watch live? And as Jonny Gomes struck out, leaving a man aboard to end the 6th, going to bed looked a pretty good option.

However, before I get to my good decision, and those last 3 innings, lets have a quick recap of games 1 and 2.

Boston Red Sox 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

A solid start from James Shields (6 1/3 IP, 5 hits, 2 ER, 5 Ks) was backed up nicely by some timely hitting - a BJ Upton homerun on the first pitch of the game was complimented by a two-run shot from Gabe Gross in the fourth. RBIs from Carlos Pena, and a hustling Jonny moved the lead to 5-2 heading for the ninth. Then things got interesting. In came Troy Percival. And back came the Sox. Three hits, including a double off one of the catwalks in right, and things were looking shaky. One run scored, and then another on a sacrifice fly to right. As the throw came back to the infield, Perci ran to back up third. Or rather, he limped to back up third. He did not look good at all. Out came trainer Ron Porterfield and Joe Maddon.

The discussion was, shall we say, lively - Perci understandably didn't want to come out, but Joe was looking at the bigger picture, stuck to his guns, and called for Mr Clutch the Reliever - aka JP Howell. Quite a situation for the erstwhile inconsistant starter - one run game, a man on, two out and Julio Lugo at the plate. But fear not. JP did what JP has been doing best all season long. He made the big pitch at the big moment, and got the soft liner to short to end the game and earn his second save of the year.

Boston Red Sox 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 3

Game 1, I had watched knowing the score already. Game 2, I watched yesterday evening, with no clue what had happened. Its more exciting that way - though knowing that the outcome has already been decided doesn't make it any less nerve-wracking!

And when the Rays face Tim Wakefield, it is doubly so. Well, the 1998-2007 versions of the Rays at least. For Tampa Bay v2008 are something else. They've got the battle. And the hustle. And the will to win. A run on a wild-pitch got us on the board. And when the Sox tied it in the 4th, we got right back on it again, with the first of two super-clutch RBI-singles from Dioner Navarro, who must be in with a real shout of making the All-Star team.

Pitching wise, we got 7 outstanding innings from Matt Garza, who allowed just one unearned run on 5 hits, and moved his record to 7-4. JP Howell got a couple of outs in the eighth, and Grant Balfour got the final four to record his second save of the year - including 3 strikeouts in the ninth.

The big play though was, as has been the case so many times already this year, made down at the hot corner with the Rays on defense. Alex Cora came up with 2 outs in the seventh, and slapped an offering from Garza hard down the third base line. Surefire double, and a major threat, right? Not so fast. Are you forgetting that Evan Longoria is the guy with the glove down there? Not me. He dived full-stretch to somehow make the stop on the line, got to his knees, and threw a one-hopper across the diamond for Carlos Pena to expertly dig out and stop the potential threat in its tracks. If it hasn't already, then the Evan for a Gold Glove campaign starts here.

All of which brings us back to last night's game, which when we left it was unpromisingly poised at 4-1 Sox heading for the top of the seventh. It wouldn't finish that way though. Oh no...

Boston Red Sox 6 - Tampa Bay Rays 7

Let's be honest. On the face of it my decision not to go to bed at that point was an odd one. Work in the morning, already looking at less that 5 hours sleep, and no sign of any comeback.

But this is the 2008 Rays, remember. The never-give-up Rays. The best-in-baseball Rays. How sweet that sounds.

Gary Glover held the Sox scoreless in the top of the seventh, just as Trever Miller had done in the sixth. Manny Delcarmen comes in to pitch for Boston, and leading off for the Rays is Jason Bartlett. Jason came over from the Twins in the Delmon Young trade in the winter. And while Garza was the prized piece of the trade from the Rays perspective, Bartlett has shown himself to be far, far more than just a make-weight. He has become a key contributer with his magnificent range at short, and a pesky hitter who, in his own way, has been just as big a sparkplug for our offense as anyone else in the lineup. And you will find no better demonstration of that than last night.

Facing the new pitcher, Bartlett raps a double down the rightfield line. That was all the Trop (the filled-to-capacity-with-more-Rays-than-Red-Sox-fans Trop) needed to come to life. But not satisfied, Bartlett did that little bit more. Aki up, JB takes off for third. He makes it safely - his 8th swipe of third base (18th total) this year. He has got it down to a tee. I can give no greater praise than that which Joe Magrane and Dewayne Staats heaped on him at the time - "If you were holding a seminar on how to steal third, you would want him as the keynote speaker". Coming from a couple of guys who watch BJ Upton and Carl Crawford run the bases everyday, that is a compliment indeed.

And oh, what a stolen base can do for an offense! With Bartlett just 90 feet away, Aki grounds one to first. JB motors home, while Aki takes off down the line, flying past the slow-to-break Delcarmen, and beating out the infield single. Game on.

Next up CC, and he knocks a single to right-centre. Runners on first and third, no outs, game over for Delcarmen. Calling Craig Hansen, come and take your shot. BJ Upton up next, and he draws the walk. Bases loaded, nobody out, Carlos Pena stepping in. Balls one, two, three and four followed. Aki strolls home. 4-3 game, bases still loaded, no one out, Evan Longoria at the plate. As if there was any doubt he would deliver. Having already knocked a run home in the first, Evan waited for a pitch he liked, and then laced it into right centre. CC scores, BJ scores, Carlos to third, a stand-up 2-RBI double for the boy wonder. His 49th and 50th RBI of the year - just the third rookie in the last 50 years to have 15 homers, 50 RBI and 20 doubles before the all-star break. And he didn't get called up until a couple of weeks into the season. If it hasn't already, then the Evan for Rookie of the Year campaign starts here.

5-4, and the new pitcher is David Aardsma. He finally gets Boston an out - Willy Aybar - but then walks Dioner Navarro. Step forward Javier Lopez, the fourth BoSox pitcher of the frame. He strikes out pinch-hitter Gabe Gross. So its bases loaded, 2 outs, and a 1-run Rays lead. Guess who's back at the plate. Jason Bartlett. Swing. Massive hit. 2-run single, 7-4 Rays lead. Believe MLB, believe in the Rays.

Still things aren't over, not against Boston, and not with the Rays depleted bullpen. Glover gets two outs in the eighth, but gives up a run. 7-5 Rays. In comes Dan Wheeler who along with JP Howell has been the relief star all season long. He gets the 24th out. The Rays can't add anything in the bottom of the frame, so its Wheeler back to the hill, the 25th, 26th and 27th outs all down to him, with a 2-run lead to work with. Manny reaches on an error to lead it off. Mike Lowell singles, moving Manny to third. Danger signs are looming large.

But this is the 2008 Rays, right? Someone will come up big, won't they?

Too right they will.

Kevin Youkilis launches a shot, deep to straight-away centre. Upton is running back, still running back, looking over the shoulder, and making the unbelieveable basket catch. Manny scores, but thats a big, big, big out. And its still a Rays lead. Up comes Jason Varitek, mired in a huge slump and 0-3 so far on the evening. Terry Francona is so desparate to help him, he puts on the hit and run. Only one problem. Varitek can't hit. But Navvy can certainly throw, coming up with as perfect a toss to second as you could wish for, nailing Lowell by a good five feet or more. Nobody on, two out, 7-6 Rays. Wheels deals, Varitek looks, strike three called, see you later Boston, thanks for playing.


3 1/2 games ahead of Boston.

20 games over .500 for the first time ever.

The best record in the whole of Major League Baseball.

All-in-all, a pretty successful series.

And, just in case you haven't noticed it yet, a pretty good team...


Michael Norton said...

I must say, pretty damn impressive. The Rays could be the story of the 2008 baseball season. Luck you!

Michael Norton
Apropos En Passant

Johnny said...

I'm certainly enjoying all the attention that the Rays have been getting... not to mention the success.

I could certainly get used to winning!