Chess Match: Rays' relief shines
Tampa Bay bullpen rebounds in a big way to shut down Sox
ST. PETERSBURG -- Perhaps it was fitting that the American League Championship Series, which went the distance in large part thanks to Boston's eight-run comeback off Tampa Bay's bullpen in Game 5, hinged on how that same bullpen performed in the eighth inning of Game 7 Sunday night. This time, it performed beautifully.
Batter to batter, Rays manager Joe Maddon tried to set up the matchups that he felt gave his relievers the best chance to succeed. That meant Dan Wheeler going up against Dustin Pedroia, who was 0-for-7 off of him. In the case of David Ortiz, it meant going back to J.P. Howell, who had success against Big Papi despite Saturday's RBI single. Eventually, it meant putting rookie left-hander David Price against J.D. Drew, who had hit just about every other reliever the Rays had available at that point.
Price ended up striking out Drew and stranded the potential tying run at first base, then overcoming a leadoff walk to retire the side in the ninth for the save. Tampa Bay ended up with its first trip to the World Series after outplaying the Red Sox for much of the ALCS. And the Rays ended up with redemption for the historic Red Sox comeback in Game 5 that prevented them from clinching in Boston.
Pena propels home
The situation: Carlos Pena reaches first base on a fielder's choice in the fourth inning ahead of Evan Longoria's double into the right-field corner.
The decision: Third-base coach Tom Foley sends Pena home as right fielder Drew hits second baseman Pedroia on the relay to home.
The outcome: Pedroia fires home in time for a potential play, but the ball carries catcher Jason Varitek up the third-base line as Pena slides by for the Rays' first run.
The analysis: Pena was being waved home long before he got to third base, so there was no hesitation in the decision. It took an accurate throw to Pedroia and a quick fire home to have any chance for a play at the plate. It goes back to forcing a play, and Tampa Bay's baserunning was aggressive towards that throughout the series.
Trapped in the hole
The situation: Willy Aybar's leadoff double in the fifth inning puts the potential go-ahead run in scoring position for Dioner Navarro.
The decision: Red Sox manager Terry Francona shades shortstop Alex Cora and second baseman Pedroia toward the middle against Navarro.
The outcome: Navarro hits a ground ball into the hole at short that Cora runs down, but not in time to make a throw. Aybar stays at second and scores on Rocco Baldelli's RBI single.
The analysis: Even if Cora could've gotten the out at first, Baldelli would've been able to single in Aybar anyway. Navarro has hit more fly balls and popups than ground balls, but most of his grounders in the postseason have gone to short or second.
Hit-and-run breaks down with Big Papi
The situation: Pedroia's one-out walk in the sixth inning puts the potential go-ahead run on base for Boston with Ortiz up.
The decision: Once Ortiz works the count full, Pedroia takes off on a hit-and-run play.
The outcome: Ortiz swings and misses at a high fastball, leaving Navarro in prime position to throw out Pedroia trying to take second.
The analysis: At that point, the Red Sox were trying what they could to spark a rally, and an Ortiz hit would've done that, at the very least with runners at the corners and one out for Kevin Youkilis. The problem Sunday, as it was virtually all series, was Ortiz's struggles at the plate, and he ended up going outside his strike zone for what would've been ball four.
The explanation: "We have a chance to go first to third. There wasn't a whole lot of opportunities during the inning to run. That was one where I thought it was in our favor, and it didn't work." -- Francona
The situation: A Jason Bartlett error and a Coco Crisp single put two Red Sox runners on, including the tying run, with nobody out in the eighth inning for Pedroia and the middle of Boston's order after him.
The decision: Maddon, criticized for his bullpen usage in Game 5, goes batter to batter with his relievers to try to get out of the jam.
The outcome: Wheeler stays in to get a Pedroia fly ball, Howell enters to get a fielder's choice grounder from Ortiz. Chad Bradford walks his only hitter, Youkilis, before Price enters to strike out Drew.
The analysis: This was the definition of an all-hands-on-deck bullpen for Game 7, and Maddon used it beautifully. He also showed some faith in going back to Howell one night after Ortiz lined an RBI single against him.
The explanation: "The other night I went with the guys all the way through, because of history, and then tonight I went the other way because of more recent history. I felt really good about David tonight. ... So it was just important to get through that murderer's row that they have there and then eventually turn it over to him. That was my thought." -- Maddon
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.