Tuesday, 14 October 2008

ALCS game 3 - You ain't never going to keep them down

Tampa Bay Rays 9 - Boston Red Sox 1

I'm not even sure why I still get surprised at games like last night's. I mean, this is just what the 2008 Rays do. They take a situation where they're supposed to fold, supposed to be overwhelmed, and they come right out swinging their bats, making their pitches, and generally taking the game right to the opposition. And they keep winning. Its a crazy, crazy thing that these Rays have got going on.

With Jon Lester making the start for the Sox, the prospects for a Rays win weren't exactly promising. Not only had Lester not been beaten at Fenway since April, but he had never lost to the Rays (indeed, Boston had never lost a game to the Rays in which he pitched) and he was working on an impressive 20+ inning streak of postseason baseball without allowing an earned run.

But its the Rays. The 2008 Rays. So you can throw all that out the window.

It all started fairly innocuously. After a first inning that Lester sailed through 1-2-3, Evan Longoria led off the second with a walk. After CC struck out, Willy Aybar singled up the middle. Dioner Navarro stepped up, and watched as Jason Varitek failed to handle a fastball, allowing the runners to move up on the passed ball. Navvi then fought off a grounder to second, allowing Longoria, going on contact, to trot home without a throw. And just like that the Rays were on the board.

And an inning later, they were even more on the board. Jason Bartlett led off with a single (continuing his impressive hitting year against leftys), and Aki Iwamura followed with a double of the Green Monster. Runners on second and third, nobody out, BJ Upton comes to the plate. I think it would be fair to say that BJ has found his power swing. He connected in a big way, launching the ball clear over the Monster, over the seats, and into the car park across the road. Another postseason homerun - his fifth in seven games. When BJ is hitting well, he is as good as just about anyone.

Of course when you are looking for super-talented youngsters to compare Upton with, you should make sure you don't overlook his teammates. One of them in particular. Evan Longoria. And just to make sure that you don't, one out later Evan connected with a Jon Lester pitch of his own. It wasn't quite as mammoth a shot as Upton's, but it was still a no-doubter. Not only that, but it was perfectly placed, making a bee-line right into the hands of perhaps the only Rays fan sitting in the Monster seats. Ok, so he dropped it, but it was pretty good aim nonetheless. That makes it four playoff homers for Longo, tying Miguel Cabrera's rookie mark. Impressive.

Meanwhile, Matt Garza was quietly pitching beautifully for the Rays as he sailed through six scoreless innings. The biggest threat came in the second, when the Sox got runners on second and third with one out. Garza didn't get fazed, and came back, getting Varitek out on a perfectly placed called third strike, before retiring Cora on a fly out to Upton.

The score was still 5-0 Rays when Garza came out to start the seventh. Already at over 100 pitches, he allowed a walk and a single, finally leaving after 6+ innings, having given up 6 hits while striking out 5. JP Howell (Mr Clutch the Reliever) came in with the runners on first and third and nobody out. He gave up a sacrifice fly to right to Jacoby Ellsbury, but ended the threat right there, thanks to a beautiful double play ball against the dangerous Pedroia. Evan Longoria showed off just why he's going to win plenty of Gold Gloves in his career, making a running scoop and perfect throw to Aki at second, who then turned it as perfectly as ever.

Then the Rays, not content with what had become a four run lead, did what they do best. They came back again and kept on hitting. With Paul Byrd on in relief, Crawford and Aybar led off with back-to-back singles. Navvi followed with another grounder to second, but this time the throw came home and despite CC's best efforts Varitek held on to the ball and made the first out. Still, never mind, it merely set the stage for the feel-good moment of the entire postseason.

With two on and one out, up stepped Rocco Baldelli. A New Englander (he's from Rhode Island) and a Sox fan growing up, appearing in a playoff game at Fenway would have been huge enough. But having comeback from his myriad of injuries and illness, to even have a chance at being there is a testament to Rocco's unbelievable perserverence and dedication to playing the game. And he got his reward for all his hard-work in the biggest possible way. He turned on a pitch inside from Byrd and mashed it high above the Monster for a 3-run homer. Even Sox fans had to feel a little bit pleased for him. As for me, I couldn't be more delighted.

That made it 8-1, and in the top of the ninth Carlos Pena, probably feeling a little left out at all the homerun hitting, joined in the party himself. He went the other way, to deep left-centre, hitting his first longball of the postseason. After hitting 30-odd in the regular season, he must almost be wondering whats going on - he's trailing in the wake of Upton's 5 homers, despite the fact that BJ hit only 9 during the whole regular season. On the other hand, Pena put down a perfect bunt single in the fifth, and proceeded to steal second - his third swipe of the playoffs, putting him comfortably ahead of speedster BJ.

That blast rounded off the scoring for the Rays, while JP Howell coasted through the eighth and Edwin Jackson made his playoff debut with a scoreless ninth to wrap up the win, and edge the Rays ahead for the first time in the series, 2-1.

Game four is tonight, and has intrigue written all over it. Starting for the Rays will be Andy Sonnanstine, fresh off a quality effort in the ALDS clincher. He pitched fantastically against the Sox this year, so no doubt will be looking for similar results tonight. Going for Boston will be long-time Rays' nemesis Tim Wakefield. He's actually 0-2 against Tampa Bay this year, but still 19-5 for his career. I hope we can continue our recent success against him, but he's one of those guys (ie a knuckleballer!) who you just don't ever know what sort of form he's going to be in. Expect to see another funky lineup from Maddon, probably righty-heavy, and very possibly with our switch-hitters batting righty as well. Unusual maybe, but it worked last time out. Lets hope it does again.

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