As last season ended, so it began. The Red Sox and Rays, competitors in last year’s American League Championship Series, became reacquainted in a three-game series to commence the 2009 season. And, just as they did last October, the Rays showed that they were capable of taking two out of three games at Fenway Park.
Tampa Bay took the series on the strength of a dominant performance by starter Matt Garza, who allowed four hits and one run in seven innings. Yet the Sox nearly erased Garza’s brilliant effort on Thursday, as the team chipped away for runs in the seventh and ninth innings (the latter on Jason Varitek’s solo homer, the catcher’s second longball in three games) to trim the score to 4-3.
But Rays closer Troy Percival held on for dear life, recording a save when Kevin Youkilis clubbed a ball to the warning track that settled in the glove of former Red Sox and current Tampa Bay centerfielder Gabe Kapler.
If one can extrapolate from a three-game series – always a dangerous undertaking – the Sox and Rays once again both appear formidable and closely matched.
Here are five other lessons from the Red Sox’ 4-3 loss:
1) THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE DAISUKE
Through the first two years of his Major League Baseball career, Daisuke Matsuzaka remained the subject of considerable mystery. The first start of Year Three did little to change that.
In 2008, Matsuzaka became just the second pitcher since 1903 (along with Nolan Ryan) to win 18 or more games with a sub-3.00 ERA in a year when he allowed at least five walks per nine innings. His ability to do so was keyed by a few factors.
The right-hander gave up just 12 homers, thereby limiting the damage done by opponents. For that matter, he did not give up hits, as the .211 batting average to which he held opponents was the lowest of any major-league starter. Perhaps even more impressively, he limited opponents to a .164 average with runners in scoring position, also tops in the majors.
On Thursday against the Rays, the 28-year-old remained a tough nut to crack with runners in scoring position, as the Rays went just 1-for-5 against him in such circumstances. (Matsuzaka, who held opponents hitless in 14 at-bats with the bases loaded last year, escaped his only bases-loaded jam of the afternoon without allowing a hit.) Otherwise, he failed to replicate his formula for success last year, resulting in an outing that was, in some respects, one of the worst of his Red Sox career.
He allowed four runs (all earned) on nine hits, three walks and a hit batter in his 5.1 inning outing. Some markers of his struggle:
--Matsuzaka allowed three homers, just the second time in his MLB career that he had been taken deep that many times, and the first since July 8, 2007.
--He allowed four earned runs, a total that he reached just four times in his 29 regular-season starts in 2008, and required his typical Houdini antics in order to limit the damage to that point.
--In 2008, he didn’t allow more than eight hits in any start. He cleared that total in his first start of the new season.
--In 2008, Matsuzaka allowed just two homers on two-strike counts. One of the three he permitted – a second-inning blast by Matt Joyce that cleared the visitor’s bullpen in right – was on a 1-2 pitch.
As Red Sox manager Terry Francona said before the game, Matsuzaka presents the Sox with a “delicate balance.” He prompts enormous anxiety by navigating into jams, yet maintains his composure so well in those circumstances that he often finds a way out of them.
If Matsuzaka could couple unhittable stuff with more of a penchant for attacking the strike zone, he would be a perennial Cy Young winner. If he remains inefficient and starts giving up more hits, he is bound to produce many days that are nothing more than ordinary.
Which pitcher will he be in 2009? That remains anyone’s guess.
2) RAYS-ING EXPECTATIONS
Offense? Check. The Tampa Bay Rays have an exceptional combination of power and speed. The Rays hit five homers and stole four bases in the season-opening series.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria, who hit two homers in the three-game series, looks capable of emerging as one of the top sluggers in the American League. Carlos Pena remains a formidable cleanup hitter, and Tampa Bay expects that B.J. Upton, following offseason shoulder surgery, could make a habit of providing the sort of pop he exhibited in the American League Championship Series.
Upton, who has 30-30 potential, will be joined at the top of the lineup by Carl Crawford, a threat to swipe 50 bags. At the bottom of the order, the Rays feature Aki Iwamura, both threats to swipe 10-20 bases.
“It’s important you stress out the other team on a lot of different levels,” Rays skipper Joe Maddon said before the game. “There’s more power to this team than people believe…We want to be able to win games in different ways. We have a nice balance.”
Defense? Check. Maddon told his club during spring training that he had a goal of having his team win a Gold Glove at every position. Over the three games, they played like a team intent on fulfilling that mandate.
On Thursday, Carl Crawford showcased his extraordinary range in left, covering an enormous plot spanning from the foul line almost to center field and making two huge catches. Evan Longoria robbed Dustin Pedroia of a hit in the ninth with a great play on a tough hop of a smashed grounder. Jason Bartlett intercepted a J.D. Drew liner to stifle a first-inning rally.
Pitching? Check. Matt Garza demonstrated on Thursday that his performance in the ALCS was no fluke, once again dominating the Sox while allowing one run on four hits. He has a career 3.04 ERA against the A.L. East, the best mark of any pitcher with at least 20 starts against the toughest division in baseball. Scott Kazmir underscored his ability to take control of Fenway. David Price lurks in the minors, armed with some of the best stuff in baseball.
Anyone who doubted the legitimacy of the Rays’ accomplishments a year ago is misguided. Prior to last year, after all, the Sox (and the rest of the baseball world) anticipated that the Rays would achieve a breakout season in 2009. Given what Tampa Bay accomplished in 2008, that notion is, at the least, intriguing.
3) KEVIN YOUKILIS STILL RANKS AMONG THE BEST HITTERS IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
Three games does not a season make. Nonetheless, Youkilis had a season-opening series to underscore his status as one of the best hitters in the game.
On Thursday Youkilis reached base four times in his five at-bats, collecting a walk, two singles and a double. His only out was on the last pitch of the game, when he drove a pitch from Rays closer Troy Percival to the warming track in centerfield for the game’s final out.
Youkilis finished the series with eight hits in 12 at-bats, good for a .667 average. Most of those came against pitchers with elite stuff, such as Garza, Kazmir and James Shields.
Remember: Youkilis was awarded the Hank Aaron Award as the top hitter in the American League last year. His first three games of 2009 have done nothing to dispel the validity of the title.
4) SIGNS OF PROMISE FOR MIKE LOWELL’S RECOVERY
Naturally, there were questions about Mike Lowell’s defensive agility. Coming off of surgery to repair his torn hip labrum last offseason, the third baseman is still working to regain his speed (not that there was much to begin with). As a result, it seemed natural to anticipate a loss of defensive range.
But judging by the play he made in the top of the eighth, his first-step quickness and instincts did not suffer from the surgery. With one out, Jason Bartlett ripped a ball down the third-base line. Lowell, who was playing shallow, leapt to his right and speared the ball before tumbling to the ground.
Lowell, who also went 1-for-4 with an RBI double, was playing in his third straight game. The Sox had told him after Wednesday’s game that he should call if there was any sign of soreness that might limit his availability for the final game of the series against the Rays. No call proved necessary, another sign about the state of Lowell’s recovery.
5) RAMON RAMIREZ HAS GOT SKILLS
On a day when Coco Crisp hit a game-winning homer for the Royals, the Red Sox received their second reminder in as many days that they may have gotten legitimate return on their former centerfielder.
Reliever Ramon Ramirez, acquired from Kansas City for Crisp, entered Thursday’s game in the top of the eighth inning. The Sox, trailing 4-1, were trying to mount a comeback, but faced the potential for the game to get out of hand.
Ramirez was brought in with runners on the corners (courtesy of a pair of Manny Delcarmen walks) and one out. Somewhat surprisingly, he was summoned to face left-hander Gabe Gross, despite the fact that Delcarmen held lefties to a .190 average and .275 OBP in 2008, compared to marks of .300 and .370 against Ramirez.
But Ramirez made the strategy work, getting Gross to hit a comebacker that turned into an inning-ending double play. Ramirez then stayed on the hill for the eighth, concluding his outing with a strike out of Aki Iwamura with a nasty 90 mph slider (incorrectly deemed a fastball on the stadium board).
He needed just 13 pitches to record five outs. In his two games, he has recorded eight outs without allowing a baserunner. His pitch mix – a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider and change (both “off-speed” pitches register at about 90 mph) – is formidable.
“He’s so durable. He likes to pitch. He’s had success,” said Francona. “It’s going to be fun to watch this kid get better.”