As a longtime A’s fan I’ve seen that no lead is ever safe against Boston at Fenway Park and that proved to be the case last night when the Red Sox scored more runs three innings than the A’s score in a week.
The TBS broadcasters have called Joe Maddon “unorthodox” in this series as often as John McCain calls himself a “maverick” and in the bottom of the ninth inning Maddon did go against the grain and may have shot himself in the foot.
On the surface, walking Jason Bay with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to set up a lefty-on-lefty matchup between Rays relief pitcher J.P. Howell and Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew seems to make sense because left-handed hitters typically post weaker numbers against left-handed pitchers.
But in this case, Drew came to the plate with strong career numbers against Howell and a .284 batting average against left-handed pitchers this season versus .279 against right handers. Bay came into the game hitting just .252 against left handers versus .296 against right handers this season.
If Maddon really wanted to be unconventional he could have followed up the ill-advised walk to Bay with strict instructions to catcher Dionner Navarro and Howell to basically pitch around Drew, force him to get himself out without giving him anything good to hit.
Then Maddon could have turned around and put the pressure on Boston’s rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie by going to right-hander Chad Bradford to try and exploit Lowrie’s inexperience and .222 average against right handers.
Even if Boston manager Terry Francona countered with Alex Cora the Rays would still end up facing someone who only hit right handers for a .266 average this season.
Forcing light-hitting infielders with weak split stats to beat you seems like a better choice than spitting in the face of the numbers Drew has posted against Howell and left-handed pitchers in general this season.
Despite all that, I’m sticking by the Rays to finish off the Red Sox in Florida this weekend. The Rays played tight in Game 1 but settled down after that to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
The Rays bullpen did the same thing last night, choking in its first chance to close out the Red Sox, but I’m betting they can shake it off over the next couple of games especially if starters James Shields and Matt Garza can work into the seventh or eighth inning.
Another thing working in the Rays’ favor is that Boston hit .292 with an .840 OPS at home this season but just .268/.772 on the road where they don’t have the magic of Fenway Park to give them an edge.
If Tampa Bay can wrap up the ALCS they better hope closer Troy Percival is healthy enough to be added back to the roster for the World Series. If last night proved anything it’s that the Rays need someone who can pitch with everything on the line without collapsing under the pressure.
All the Rays need are four good innings out of Percival against the Phillies if they can get that far and they’ll be able to being a World Series trophy back to Tampa Bay.