Baseball in the AL East gets a bad rap. The length of Red Sox-Yankees games, which results from a confluence of factors both worthy (both teams take long at bats, look to draw walks and put pressure on the pitching staffs) and smarmy (unnaturally long commercial breaks as TV people milk the matchup), has become the unfortunate symbol of a set of games that might be unrivaled for its intensity, quality and entertainment value.
My favorite teams to watch lock horns lately are the Orioles and Rays. Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon are occasionally guilty of overmanaging games, but in general, they put on the best kind of show.
Each roster has fantastic depth. On Wednesday night, Maddon sent up three consecutive pinch-hitters in the top of the ninth inning. To counteract that as best he could, Showalter used three different pitchers to get the final three outs, going through the meat of the Rays’ lineup and getting out of a jam when, with runners at the corners and two away, Matt Wieters gunned down Matt Joyce, who was trying to reach scoring position as the tying run.
For a while there, the Rays and Rangers were my favorite matchup. Now that Baltimore is a legitimate contender, though, the joy of seeing a manager who can play chess right along with Maddon overwhelms the fun base-running bravado and defensive sparkle that Texas offers.
Over the last two years, these two teams have played 33 games. The Rays have a 17-16 edge. Eighteen of the 33 have been decided by two runs or fewer, and five more by three runs. They’ve played three extra-inning games, one of which doesn’t even overlap with the games enumerated above, since it ended up being a four-run game.
Wednesday’s finish was fun, but Tuesday’s might have been better. The Rays took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh, but the Orioles put their first three batters on base (walk-single-walk) against Tampa starter Alex Cobb.
According to the win-expectancy framework, the Rays had a 78-percent chance of winning the game when that half-inning began. With the bases loaded and nobody out, though, those chances slumped all the way to 47 percent; the Orioles were now more likely to win, despite trailing by two.
Maddon went to his bullpen, and lefty Alex Torres. That’s been the best club in his bullpen bag most of the year. A promising (if erratic) starting pitching prospect just a year ago, Torres has been a revelation in relief. The same problems that followed him up the minor-league ladder—command problems, mostly—have kept him from becoming the new Jonny Venters, but he still has 52 strikeouts (against 17 walks) in 160 batters faced, and a 1.28 ERA on the season. Five of the six earned runs he has allowed came in two consecutive outings earlier this month; he had a shot at teammate Fernando Rodney’s ERA record until then.
Torres faced Brian Roberts, batting at the bottom of the Baltimore order. Credit goes to both Roberts and Showalter for the fact that this is happening. It’s clear Roberts is past his prime now, his career undone by injuries from which he has (mostly) recovered, but which had already stolen his latter prime.
In too many cases, though, a player of Roberts’ organizational stature—he’s beloved by the fans, has been a good soldier forever, is one of a mere handful of players in the league right now who have worn just one uniform in over 10 years in the big leagues—would get special treatment. Derek Jeter never moved to the bottom of the Yankees’ lineup, even though it’s clear he should have at times over the past three years. Todd Helton still plays whenever he can piece himself together, and the Rockies too often hit him right in the middle of the order.
Showalter is too smart, and too impolitic, to do that. Roberts is smart, too, and understands where he fits into this team picture.
At any rate, it was Torres against Roberts with the bases loaded, and no one out, and remember, the Orioles are now on the better side of a coin flip to win the game.
Then Roberts grounded into a double play, started by Evan Longoria at third base. The run from third scored, but even so, that was a huge play, the biggest of the game. When Longoria stepped on third and threw on to second base to get both lead runners, the Rays got 22 percent of a win back. They now had a 69-percent chance of winning. Torres then got Nate McLouth, looking, on the ninth pitch of the at bat, to escape the inning with the lead. The Rays now had a 75-percent chance to win.
Games between good teams are and ought to be fraught with moments like those. Although the headline of the game turned out to be an action-packed slugfest of a ninth inning, wherein the Rays scored four in the top of the frame and fended off a two-run rally by the Orioles to win, it was that seventh inning that captivated me. The sharp changes in fortune, the decisions made on each side (especially Longoria’s particular set when he received Robert’s weak grounder; he might have been able to get his man at home plate, either with an immediate throw for the force or by stepping on third and firing home to hope for a tag. That he elected a double play that minimized the inning’s potential going forward reflected Tampa’s confidence in its ability to dominate these situations, and this time, at least, it paid off.), everything about that sequence had the blend of strategy, fundamental play and sheer talent lining up against talent that makes pennant-race baseball great.
There are, alas, just four games left between these contenders this season, a four-game wrap-around weekend set in Baltimore beginning September 20. They should be fun, though, especially if Baltimore plays well enough to ensure that at least a Wild Card Game berth is on the table for whomever comes out better off. I’m thoroughly looking forward to that series.Next post: Alex Wood Might Be the Braves’ Best Trick Yet
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