Last year, the Red Sox and Rays exchanged volleys throughout the year but spent much of the year incapable of breaking serve. The home team swept the first four series of the year between the two teams until finally, in September, the Rays broke the spell by taking two of three at Fenway.
This year, the back-and-forth started a bit earlier. After the Red Sox claimed a 5-3 victory on Opening Day, Tampa Bay rebounded with an impressive 6-2 win at Fenway Park. (For a recap, click here.)
The matter-of-fact win featured a couple of moments when the Sox had a chance to force their way back into the game, but throughout the latter innings, Tampa stifled the uprisings. In so doing, there was a hint of maturity for the Rays, a suggestion that they will not crumble at the first sign of adversity in Fenway Park.
“It’s nice to get that going,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “It’s more or less turning into another venue as opposed to this really ominous place and that’s a good thing. Our guys are getting more experienced playing here and the Red Sox are always going to be tough here but we’re at the point now where we’re able to accept being able to (win at Fenway) more readily.”
So, the Rays apparently now have a sense of belonging. There will be no repeat of the “Hey, look at me—I’m flying” shock of a year ago.
Here are five other lessons from the Red Sox’ first loss of the 2009 season:
1) THE RAYS ARE JON LESTER’S FENWAY PARK KRYPTONITE
It had been 364 days since Jon Lester’s last regular-season loss at Fenway Park. He had gone 11-0 with a 2.28 ERA in 16 starts since taking an ‘L’ last April 9 against the Tigers.
Of course, the left-hander did get hammered by the Rays in suffering a Game 3 loss in the ALCS. Last night, Lester started brilliantly, striking out five Rays in the first two innings, but after giving up one run through the first four innings, Tampa Bay attacked him from about eight different directions in a four-run fifth.
Lester ended up allowing 10 base runners (8 hits and 2 walks), but his stuff still impressed. Aside from a mistake fastball that Carlos Pena crushed for a homer, he showed a lively fastball, diving curve and even a changeup that induced a double-play by Evan Longoria.
2) MANNY DELCARMEN IS IN AN ODD PLACE
At the beginning of spring training, when Manny Delcarmen met with manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell, he was asked to articulate his goals. Delcarmen didn’t hesitate.
He understands that Jonathan Papelbon is unmovable in the role of The Closer. Delcarmen’s goal, then, was to be the man entrusted with passing the baton to Papelbon by getting through the eighth inning with leads.
Instead, Delcarmen makes his season debut by pitching in the sixth inning of a game in which his team trailed by a 5-1 count. That is the role that had been assigned to pitchers with tenuous holds on major-league spots in recent years.
J.C. Romero and Joel Pineiro occupied that role in 2007 before both were dumped by the Sox that summer (Romero was released; Pineiro traded for a non-prospect). David Aardsma (traded away this offseason) and Mike Timlin did the duties in 2008.
That Delcarmen might become responsible for such a juncture of the game suggests a couple of things:
a) The Red Sox bullpen is very, very deep. Delcarmen, after all, has a 2.81 ERA over the last two seasons, the 22nd-best mark among major-league relievers. Such numbers suggest that he has the ability to be a closer on certain clubs.
For the Sox, Delcarmen enjoyed province over the seventh and eighth innings when his team had the lead for much of the past two seasons for the Red Sox. Now, he may be relegated to “keeping the game where it is” when the Sox are trailing by a couple of runs.
b) Delcarmen, based on his spring training ambitions, might be expected to be less than thrilled with this turn of events. But the reliever suggested that he was anything but dismayed by the fight for premium jobs that has been engendered by the depth of a Sox bullpen that includes Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez, Justin Masterson and Hideki Okajima.
“I love it. Tito has done a great job the last couple of years mixing us all in and giving us opportunity. We have so much more depth this year,” said Delcarmen, who got three quick groundball outs in his inning of work. “Everybody here wants to be the setup guy, to come in and be that guy.
“We’ve got so many power arms,” added Delcarmen. “Everybody can come in and be that guy.”
3) THERE ARE MANY SIDES TO THE RAYS’ ATTACK
Looking to characterize the Rays’ offensive philosophy? Good luck.
Last year, Tampa Bay led the majors in steals (142) but had the fewest sacrifice bunts (23) in baseball. Their offense was a power-and-speed proposition, as the Rays also slugged 180 homers, tied for ninth most in the majors.
Against Jon Lester and the Red Sox in the pivotal fifth inning, they manufactured a four-run rally that featured … well, everything.
Gabe Kapler led off with a walk, and advanced to third on a run-and-hit single to left (through the vacated shortstop hole) by Akinori Iwamura. Though it seemed like a perfect hit-and-run, with Iwamura trying to take advantage of the repositioned defense, Kapler was actually trying to steal the base outright.
Jason Bartlett then followed with a safety squeeze, dumping the ball just a few feet in front of the plate. Lester fielded it and helplessly flipped home, long after Kapler had crossed the dish to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead.
“We just try to create things based on what we see on the field,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “You just have to be able to do that and you just can’t go through (the year) consistently trying to hit the ball over the wall.”
The Rays, however, are capable of doing just that, as they demonstrated later in the inning. Lester nearly escaped by giving up just one more run on a double-play grounder. But with a runner on third and two outs, cleanup hitter Carlos Pena crushed a mistake (“Middle-middle,” grimaced Lester) into the bleachers in straightaway centerfield for two more runs.
“They’re a well-rounded team,” said catcher Jason Varitek.
4) THE TRAINING WHEELS ARE OFF OF JED LOWRIE
Balfour posed an interesting test for the first man he faced, Jed Lowrie. Lowrie, of course, was benched against hard-throwing righties during the playoffs last year, the non-displaced fracture in his left wrist rendering the switch-hitter unable to generate enough bat speed to catch up to a good, firm fastball.
This spring, Lowrie had seen signs of a reversal, pulling fastballs foul against the likes of hard-throwing Orioles reliever Chris Ray in exhibition games.
But in his first such test of the 2009 regular season, Lowrie — who represented the tying run — was overmatched. Balfour threw six pitches, all 94-95 mph fastballs. Lowrie swung late as the last one zinged over the outside part of the plate, and the Rays escaped the inning with their four-run advantage intact.
His success – or lack thereof – in a pivotal situation last night notwithstanding, the fact that Lowrie was at the plate was in itself revealing. Though J.D. Drew was available as a pinch-hitting option, manager Terry Francona said that there was no consideration given to replacing Lowrie in that situation.
“Lowrie was probably our best hitter (in spring training),” said Francona. “(He would) not (pinch-hit for him) in the second game of the season.”
5) VARITEK SWINGS, BUT DOES NOT MISS
Jason Varitek’s night might have seemed uneventful. He went 0-for-4, with a pop to second, a scorched line-out to deep center, a fly to center and a groundout to second.
Yet between the lines, there was a noteworthy event in that Varitek went a second straight game without a strikeout. That may not sound like much, but there were only 11 times last year when Varitek went more than one game without whiffing. His season-long in 2008 was a three-game streak without a strikeout. So though a .125 average isn’t something to write home about, there are signs that he feels good at the plate.
BONUS LESSON: IT IS WHAT IT IS
Jason Bay does not like to say “it is what it is,” even apologizing after uttering the phrase “it is what it is.” But somehow, the stoic mantra, which signifies a mixture of resignation and acceptance of an outcome that is out of one’s control, is appropriate for Bay, who wastes little gray matter on things he cannot influence.
And so, Bay cringed after the game when he tried to describe the strike zone of home-plate umpire Bob Davidson by twice saying, “It is what it is.” That measured reaction, however, stood in contrast to his in-game sentiments.
Bay engaged in an outburst unlike any previously seen in his Red Sox career after he was called out on strikes – on a pitch that replays suggested was clearly off the plate – on a full-count offering by Scott Kazmir. Bay grabbed his bat by the barrel and nearly threw it on the ground while shouting.
He thought better of chucking the stick, but the cause of his complaint was clear enough. Had the pitch been called a ball, the Sox would have had a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity to cut into a 5-1 deficit. Instead, Bay was punched out, and the two-on, two-out rally quickly ended.
“It was a tough pitch. I obviously thought it was a ball,” said Bay. “Such is life. There’s not much you can do about it, but I thought that I battled, got myself in a good position and a close pitch didn’t go my way.”
Bay suggested that Davidson’s strike zone was consistently large, a notion seconded by manager Terry Francona. But, with the game concluded, the outfielder shrugged off the impact, noting that both sides had to deal with Davidson’s liberal interpretation of strikes.
Bay was joined by the typically mild-mannered Jed Lowrie in fuming about the strike zone. Dustin Pedroia, called out for failing his check swing, also expressed his disgruntlement with Davidson, shouting a string of unprintables.
“Wow,” David Ortiz said of the strike zone. “That’s all I got to say. Wow.”