Wednesday, 15 October 2008

ALCS game 4 - Wow, just wow

Tampa Bay Rays 13 - Boston Red Sox 4

I just don't know how we are doing this. I mean, I know this Rays team is good - very, very good - but still, this is the first ever postseason for most of them, and they're playing at Fenway against the been there, done that, got the t-shirt Red Sox. The defending World Champion Red Sox.

But man, are we playing some good baseball. And while the Sox are most definitely not out of it yet - their ALCS comebacks of recent years are still fresh in the memory - if we can carry on pitching, hitting and fielding like we have in the last few games, then there is no reason why the first pitch of the World Series couldn't be thrown at Tropicana Field. We need one win in the next three games to get there. That is a scary thought.

Now I am stupidly tired this morning (game finished at 4.18AM, I went to bed and set my alarm for 8AM...), but I don't care. Last night's game was totally worth it. Three hours and seven minutes of pure Rays-world joy.

It started in the top of the first. BJ Upton walked (and stole second), and Carlos Pena - who had homered in the ninth to round out game 3 - carried on where he had left off by drilling a Tim Wakefield floater the other way and into the Monster seats. That brought up the Rays' own monster, Evan Longoria, who promptly followed suit, relocating another pitch high above left field. The third consecutive game that Evan has homered in, and the fifth of his postseason. Setting a new record for a rookie. Have I mentioned before that Evan is quite good?

The Rays couldn't add any more in the first (although there was still time for Carl Crawford to double and steal third before Wakefield got out of it), but they didn't let their 2008 dominance of their (former!) nemesis end there. With 2 outs in the third, CC reached on an infield single, stole second, and then was able to jog home as Willy Aybar connected for his second homerun of the year off of Wakefield - again batting righthanded, and depositing the ball over the Monster and into the Boston night. That was all she wrote for Wakefield, and after allowing Dioner Navarro to single, his day was done - 2 2/3 innings, 3 HR, 5 runs.

Kevin Cash pulled a run back for Boston in the bottom of the inning with a solo homer, but the Rays just had to wait for the dynamic duo of Crawford and Aybar to come back to the plate to get that 5-run advantage back. That happened in the fifth, as Crawford drilled his second double of the night and was then singled home by Aybar.

One inning later, and the 5-run lead became a 10-run lead. Fernando Perez made the first and last outs of the inning, but everything in between turned to gold. Jason Bartlett tripled. Aki Iwamura walked. BJ Upton singled home Bartlett. Carlos Pena walked. Evan Longoria walked in Aki. Carl Crawford singled in Upton. Willy Aybar singled in Pena. And Dioner Navarro grounded, out scoring Longo. That's the way things have gone these first two games at Fenway. Blink and you risk missing a whole bunch of Rays runs. This team is (as are most) at its most dangerous when stringing good at-bats together. And boy have they done that in games 3 and 4.

The Rays scoring was completed in the eighth, by - guess who - Crawford and Aybar. After Pena walked to lead off the inning, CC tripled to right - his fifth hit of an extraordinary night. Considering that he missed the last month and a half on the regular season, and indeed prior to game 1 of the ALDS had not swung a bat in anger since early August, Carl has been nothing short of amazing. For the postseason, he is hitting .429 with 3 extra-base hits, 6 RBI and 5 steals. This is the Carl Crawford that is the envy of General Managers across the league. When CC is on, he makes things happen.

While CC's night may have been more running-intensive, Willy Aybar quietly put together a superb show of his own. He rounded out things with an RBI-single to score Crawford, taking his line for the night to 4-5, HR, 5 RBI. I think along with other Rays fans I can't say enough about Willy. I guess we were all quietly pleased when he got injured in early April, as it meant Evan arrived sooner than possibly expected, but since his return Aybar has been a key piece of this club. The super-sub extraordinaire. What a great (and unheralded) pick-up he was last winter. Just one in an ever-growing list by Andrew Friedman and the Rays' front office.

While the hitting spectacular was going on in the tops of the innings, in the bottoms Andy Sonnanstine was doing what he does best - winning. He pretty much coasted through the game. His final line was blotted by a couple of excuse-me runs late on when the game was already effectively over, but even so it is not to be sniffed at - 7 1/3 IP, 6 H, 4 R (3 ER), 1 BB, 2 K. And the big W. Trever Miller and Edwin Jackson got the final five outs, and that was that. I actually feel I should right more about Sonny, because he was excellent, but really there's not that much that you can say about him. He's just so understated, but so good with it. Through 6 innings (by which time the Rays had scored 11), he had given up just 2 hits, and had retired 12 straight. That's 12 straight Sox. Ok, so they're not hitting well at the moment, but that is impressive in any context.

Also impressive was the Rays defense. We actually committed three errors (the first of the entire postseason), but they were all excusable - Longoria was charged with two on a play he was trying to make whilst avoiding a flying piece of Jason Bay's bat, and BJ with one when he overran a ball late on. Upton was the star of the show in the field though, chasing down fly balls with ridiculous ease. You often hear commentators talking about his gliding stride, and sometimes it is hard to believe that he is moving fast. But watching him cover the ground in deep left-centre at Fenway, and you'd find it hard to believe that there is a better centrefielder anywhere in baseball. It was remarkable. And he topped it all off with a frankly un-human throw from against the wall in the triangle, all the way to Carlos Pena at first base as Jason Bay returned there following a deep fly out. It was amazing. Seriously, I have seen clean-up hitters hit line drives that aren't as straight, hard and true as that throw was.

So, that makes it 3 games to 1 in favour of Tampa Bay. One win needed with possibly three more to play. The feelings that I mentioned in anticipation of that first ever postseason game are back with avengance. Nervousness, impatience and excitement. I've got to believe that we can do it, that we can get to the World Series, but at the same time I know that the Red Sox have come back from here before. I know they could do it, I've just got to try and convince myself that we won't let them do it. It is not going to be easy.

Game 5 at Fenway is on Thursday night, and the Rays will be facing Dice-K again. A big improvement over game 1's hitting performance will be needed if we are to get a result. James Shields is scheduled to take the mound for Tampa Bay, but I have heard some reports that Joe Maddon may be tempted to go with Scott Kazmir instead. Kaz has a better track record than Shields at Fenway, and Shields would then be free to go in a potential game 6 at the Trop, where he frequently dominates. It'll be an interesting decision, but either way I know that they will be desperate to get the win. How sweet it would be to clinch the pennant at Fenway... But I'm not getting ahead of myself just yet.

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