Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Game 25: Playoff Race

Rays 4, Yankees 3

We saw a big game at Tropicana Field on Monday. Probably the biggest game of the trip so far.

The visiting Yankees came into town with their ever-shrinking lead in the AL East down to 2 games over Baltimore, and just 3.5 over Tampa Bay. The series had the potential to determine the fate of the tightest division in baseball. The stakes were high. The Rays could smell blood, and the Yankees could see their once-easy road to the playoffs vanishing. One game might be the difference between a favorable first-round series and an anything-could-happen Wild Card playoff game.

With so few games remaining in the season, and so much left to be decided, I could feel the import of every moment in Monday afternoon's game. Consider the following turn of events, taken from the eighth inning alone:

It's the top of the eighth, and the score is 3-3. Both starters, James Shields and C.C. Sabathia, have recovered from early struggles and remain in the game. They are pitching like the workhorses they are. James Shields is nearing 120 pitches, and facing Nick Swisher, after walking the leadoff man. He gets ahead 1-2 in the count. The crowd tenses in anticipation of the next pitch. He throws a slider down and in. It cuts out of the strike zone just before it arrives. With two strikes, Swisher has to pull the trigger, and the late break gets under his bat. He makes contact, but it's a ground ball to first. Not his fault, on a pitch like that. The first baseman picks it up, throws to second, and it comes back to first in time for the double play. And the Yankees' momentum is dead. All because of the impossibility of that inside slider with two strikes. Every pitch counts.

Robinson Cano is the next batter. He is a career .415 hitter against James Shields, who appears to have very little left in the tank. Rays relievers have been warming up for the last inning or so. They have six relievers with ERAs under 3.00, an absurd luxury. Rays fans look to the bullpen, then to the dugout, waiting for movement. If Shields blows the game, Cano is the guy who he would do it against. If Shields stays in and gets the last out, and Maddon holds back on using a reliever, the Rays are much better prepared for the potential extra innings, as well as for the rest of the series. Maddon elects to keep Shields in the game, riding him an extra batter despite the odds. If Cano gets home, Maddon will face scrutiny for his inaction. Every decision counts.

Cano brings the count to 3-2. On the payoff pitch, He lines the ball sharply toward third. The third baseman, Elliot Johnson, has just replaced Evan Longoria, and he misplays the sinking line drive, allowing it to bounce off his glove and in front of him. It is too late for Cano to take advantage of the misplay, though, because instead of running off of contact, he stayed standing in the batter's box, watching what he thought would be an out. Johnson recovers and the throw beats the now-running Cano by a step. If he hadn't watched, he would have reached base, and if he had reached base, he would have kept the inning alive, and forced Maddon to bring in his eighth inning reliever. Instead, the inning is over for the Yankees. Every step counts.

It is now the bottom of the inning, David Robertson is in to relieve Sabathia, there is a man on first with no outs, and the game is still tied. The runner breaks on a pitchout, and appears to have a great jump, but the play is close thanks to a good throw and tag. From our perspective, the runner looks safe. The umpire calls him out. Now, instead of having a man in scoring position and no outs, the Rays have one out and nobody on. Joe Maddon jumps out of the dugout, irate with the call. He starts arguing and doesn't stop until he is thrown out of the game, which appeared to be his intent. You can make that call in the second inning in July, but not in the eighth inning in September. That runner would have become a fairly easy run, and that run would have put the game firmly in the Rays' control. Every call counts.

The Rays, perhaps energized by Maddon's tirade, have now returned a man to second, still with one out. On a 3-1 count, Chris Jimenez hits a grounder to Robinson Cano's left at second. Cano ranges backwards, and is within a body's reach of the ball. Instead of diving in front of it, he lunges only his arms, allowing the ball to go through into right field. On the passage of the ball through the infield, the runner scores easily from second, and the Rays take the lead. If Cano had dove to stop the ball, that run would not have scored. Everybody watching knows it. Cano decided it wasn't worth it. The Rays would end up winning the game because of that run. The 3.5 game lead is down to 2.5. Every ounce of devotion counts.

These are the little instances that decide divisions, and decide the fate of MLB seasons. In games like the one we saw in Tampa Bay, they are incredibly apparent. The crowd is zeroed in on them, and so are the players and coaches. Every moment feels like it might be a moment the team looks back on when the book is closed on this season. That is the big game feeling.

Games seen: 25
Games to go: 5
Thuuz score: 82
Stadium design: The Trop is generally considered the worst ballpark in the major leagues. There are good reasons for this, as the outside is ugly, the dome roof and lights come too far down and look awkward, and the field itself is splotchy AstroTurf. That said, it appears to have had a recent redesign, likely since the team strut out its new look (going from "Devil Rays" to "Rays", going dark blue/light blue instead of green/blue, and also becoming good at baseball). The redesign was as good as it could have been: most of the interior of the stadium (scoreboards, walls, signs, etc) looked new, and there was brick wallpaper in the concourses which was actually a pretty nice touch.
Fan atmosphere: There were a lot of fans there and they were into the game, but it should have been better. There were still a lot of empty seats (and some sections remained covered), for this, one of the biggest games of the year, with two high-caliber starters on the mound.
Tim Kurkjian award: With Raul Ibanez on 3rd base and 1 out, Russell Martin hit a hard ground ball that ricocheted off of Shields and toward first base. The first baseman hesitated to look back Ibanez at third, then saw that Shields was not covering first. He sprinted toward first and dove headfirst, at the same time that Martin dove headfirst. It's a bang-bang play, and the umpire calls Martin safe. In the meantime, Ibanez has darted for home and scored easily.
Concessions: Note to all ballparks: provide Ken's honey mustard and ranch dipping cups with your chicken tenders. That's what they did at the Trop, and that alone won me over big time. The tenders themselves were quite good as well.
Stat of the day: With his home run Monday, B.J. Upton now has 3 in the five Rays games in which we have seen. He is almost certainly going to end up with the most of anybody on our trip. And while we have only seen 4% of the Rays games this season, we have seen 17.6% of Upton's home runs.
Miles driven: 12,650
Miles to next game: 460 (Rockies @ Braves, September 5, 7:05pm)

More pictures will be uploaded soon.

1 comment:

  1. Everyone in the world needs to know that Ken's honey mustard is the only honey mustard. It's a sad truth for humanity that we have been wasting our time with inferior honey mustard.
    I would vote a Keynesian into office if it meant uniform Ken's honey mustard in the restaurants and ballparks. That is all, Jeff.