ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—The 2008 Red Sox were undone in part by a strategy that nearly sabotaged their 2003 season. The Tampa Bay Rays are advancing to the World Series in part because they were able to lock down four wins in the American League Championship Series without a defined closer manning their ninth innings.
On Opening Day of 2003, the Sox began a faltering first foray into a closer-by-committee experiment at Tropicana Field. The team entered the bottom of the ninth inning of the season opener against the Devil Rays holding a healthy five-run lead.
But the Sox bullpen—which was intended to proceed on a match-up basis, rather than working backwards from a set closer—gave away a 4-1 lead. The Rays roared back for five runs, punctuating the comeback with a three-run walkoff homer by Carl Crawford against Sox reliever Chad Fox. That failure was the first of several that forced the Sox to abandon the strategy.
The 2008 Rays, who advanced to the Fall Classic last night with a 3-1 win over the Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS, employed just such a plan of attack. That represented less a blueprint for success than it did a need-based change of course.
“Believe me, it’s a lot nicer way to go (with a designated closer),” said Rays manager Joe Maddon amidst a champagne celebration. “But if you don’t have that, it’s really nice to have a cache of really talented guys out there.”
The team started the year with closer Troy Percival manning its ninth inning. But the right-hander, who had come out of retirement in the second half of last season, proved unable to remain healthy.
In his absence over the final six weeks of the season, the team turned in several directions, employing relievers such as Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Trevor Miller with its final outs.
Never, however, had the Rays turned to young phenom David Price. The 6-foot-6 left-hander—the top overall pick of the 2007 draft—was clearly a singular talent. But on the eve of Game 1 of the ALCS, the Rays had no idea what they would do with a secret weapon who was just 16 months removed from Vanderbilt University.
“It’s exciting. I just don’t know how it’s going to play out (for Price),” Rays skipper Joe Maddon admitted just prior to the start of the series. “It’s kind of an ambiguous role.”
Price had spent most of his life—including this year, when he wsa the most dominant pitcher in the minors—as a starter. Just over a year ago, he made his first ever relief appearance in his final college game. The results were poor.
“(I) gave up a homerun to end the year,” said Price.
Indeed, Price gave up a game-winning longball in the top of the 10th inning to Alan Oaks, a .188 hitter for Michigan, that denied the Commodores the chance to play in the College World Series. Yet he emerged from that experience unscarred, demonstrating the sort of unshakeable confidence that helped convince the Rays that he could contribute this postseason.
Price blazed through the minors, then made five big-league appearances (including four in relief) in September. He was part of the postseason roster, but remained unused in the first round.
As the ALCS against the Sox progressed, Price’s responsibilities remained ambiguous. He came into the ninth inning of Game 1 to record a single out in his club’s eventual 2-0 loss. Then, after virtually all of the Tampa Bay bullpen had been burned in Game 2, Price returned to the mound with a runner on first and one out for the 11th inning.
He walked J.D. Drew—the hitter whom he was specifically lined up to attack—but retired the next two batters to preserve the tie. When the Rays scored in the bottom of the 11th against Mike Timlin, Price had earned his first big-league win.
Yet he remained unused in the subsequent games of the series, most notably in Game 5, when the Sox wiped out a 7-0 lead against a succession of Rays relievers to win 8-7. And so it seemed fair to wonder whether the Rays would ever use him again.
Yesterday, the answer proved a startling yes. Though the likes of Wheeler, Howell and Grant Balfour helped the Rays to have one of the best bullpens in baseball during the regular season, their manager was worried about what he saw as a spent group entering the winner-take-all Game 7.
“I was basing (the decision) on what happened recently,” said Maddon. “I thought that a lot of emotion had been expended by a lot of guys. I knew that David had a lot of emotional bullets left in him.
“I talked to (Price) before the game. He was fine. He’s not impacted by the situation,” Maddon continued. “I really try to read people’s faces and their reactions. This guy has got an inordinate amount of self-confidence and belief. It has not been tainted, in a sense, by all the stuff around here. He was kind of pure going out there tonight. He’s not supposed to know what he’s supposed to be afraid of.”
And so the Rays felt confident with the idea of using Price towards—or perhaps even at—the end of the game. As the contest unfolded, with Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza dominating into the eighth inning, the Rays plotted their mix-and-match middle innings strategy.
They would leave Garza in to face Alex Cora the first batter of the inning. When Cora reached on an error, the team summoned Wheeler (who saved 13 games in the regular season and another in the ALDS) to face switch-hitter Coco Crisp (single to put runners on first and second) and right-hander Dustin Pedroia (fly to left).
Then the team needed a lefty to face David Ortiz, and so it was on to J.P. Howell. Howell retired Ortiz on a force out at second, placing runners on the corners. Right-handed Chad Bradford was thus summoned to deal with Kevin Youkilis. But the submariner walked Youkilis to load the bases for J.D. Drew.
The easy move at that point would have been to go to left-handed veteran Trever Miller. Instead, Maddon decided to go with Price, the 6-foot-6 left-hander who featured stuff out the wazoo (97 mph fastball, killer slider) but with almost no experience.
“We already talked about it in the fifth inning, the sixth inning, would we be willing to go to (Price) in the ninth?” said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. “We decided then and there, with pretty good conviction, if it came down to it—as a matter of fact, we talked about J.D. Drew—we said, ‘Hell, yeah, we’ll go to him.’”
Price used the opportunity as a debutante party on a national stage. Operating without the wiggle room of an open base, Price jumped ahead 0-2 with a pair of deadly sliders, the first that Drew looked at, the second that he swung through.
The rookie then introduced Drew to a pair of 97 mph heaters away, the first of which was off the plate, the second at which Drew tried and failed (at least according to the home plate umpire) to check his swing to conclude the strikeout.
The last—and best—Red Sox scoring threat of Game 7 had died. Price erupted in an emotional display as he walked off the mound, but regrouped for the ninth. He issued a leadoff walk to Jason Bay, but then blew away both Mark Kotsay (96 mph fastball) and Jason Varitek (87 mph slider).
Finally, with pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie brought to the plate as the game-tying run, Price induced a hard one-hopper to second baseman Aki Iwamura, who ran to second for the unassisted out.
The Rays poured onto the field, with their unlikely Game 7 closer in the middle of the festivities. Price bookended the series with the first win and first save of his major-league career.
“They told me to be ready from the first pitch on to the last pitch of the game,” Price said. “I’m not thinking about anything from my past experience, because nothing compares to this right here…I’ve got 40,000 fans screaming for me to get the last three outs. I’ve definitely got to calm my nerves right there.”
Just over a year removed from his college career, Price did just that, playing a huge role in his team’s World Series entry. In many ways, it was appropriate that such an unexpected turn of events helped the Rays to conclude their triumph.
The team’s journey to the World Series has been nothing if not unexpected, and their techniques—as a $43 million little engine that could, in a division of financial juggernauts—have necessarily defied the template for success.
“How do you beat $150 million billion trillion payroll?” mused Rays owner Stuart Sternberg amidst the home clubhouse celebration. “You don’t know.”
The success could not simply come from sticking with a traditional blueprint. The Rays are in the World Series because they had the young talent to get them there, and because they were unhesitant about putting relatively untested stars in the making in a position to dethrone the defending champions.
“I’m not into symbolism,” said Maddon. “Believe me, I’m not. I really am not. However, symbolically to have (Price) finish it off with this youthful situation, I thought was appropriate.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.