Contrary to the once-popular "Chicks dig the long ball" phrase, true baseball fans love pitching duels. They drool over games dripping with drama. They go ga-ga over nail-biters. And they relish the opportunity to second-guess players and managers when it is all said and done.
There was plenty for true baseball fans to feast on in the Red Sox’ 3-2 loss to the Rays on Saturday night at Tropicana Field.
Terry Francona, Clay Buchholz and J.D. Drew could each be called into question for various decisions late in a game that eventually helped the Rays steal a walk-off win in 10 innings, delivering a damaging blow to Boston’s playoff hopes.
The Red Sox still can claim the series with a win in Sunday’s finale. But regardless of the outcome, they may kick themselves for a handful of iffy calls in this one.
A dominant Buchholz was cruising once again and carried a 1-0 lead into the seventh. With Carlos Pena, who has 23 stolen bases in 10 seasons, taking about a two-foot lead off first base with one out in the inning, the right-hander made a pickoff throw that sailed up the line and bounded all the way into the Tampa Bay bullpen.
Buchholz said the pickoff attempt was called from the dugout, so the decision to keep Pena close falls on the bench. Buchholz simply rushed it. "I screwed it up," he said.
Pena reached third base on the throwing error. He then scored the game’s tying run on questionable decision No. 2, this one made by Drew.
With the infield in and two strikes on Matt Joyce, a .226 hitter, Buchholz got a pop down the line in right. Drew entered the Rays’ bullpen once again, navigating both mounds and sending players scattering to and fro, before reaching out at the last second and making an underhanded grab.
Drew made an amazing catch, but perhaps it was not the right time to do so — there was absolutely no way he could throw a tagging Pena out from there, amid the clutter and with his momentum carrying him into the short wall in foul territory.
"Running over there, I almost stopped running altogether, and for whatever reason, I kept going and how I got up and over the mound and found the ball out of the roof and all of that stuff and it ended up in my glove … I was like, how in the world did I catch that?" Drew said. "Looking back, it could’ve gone either way. Who knows what the next pitch would hold if I don’t catch that."
Well, had Drew let the ball fall, Buchholz would take his two-strike count and continue to go after Joyce. If he gets that out, he faces Dan Johnson, a .140 hitter to start the night and 0-for-2 with a pair of strikeouts in the game. Pretty good bet that Buchholz, who, by the way, had not allowed a run in his previous 26 innings, would have gotten out of the mess.
Still, the Cy Young candidate backed his right fielder’s play.
"You can second-guess if you want to, but maybe the guy gets a hit the next pitch anyway," Buchholz said. "It was a good catch anyway. If he wasn’t so close to the wall, he probably would’ve had a chance to throw him out at home. No, you can’t second-guess plays like that."
Victor Martinez slugged his third home run of the series in the top of the eighth to take away some of the sting of the bottom of the seventh and give the Red Sox a lead. It also set up the third second-guess situation of the night.
Eschewing a proven formula of Daniel Bard in the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth, Francona opted to stick with Buchholz. Bard appeared Friday night but threw only 15 pitches, and the team had a day off Thursday, so he was available in his customary eighth-inning role. Instead, out came Buchholz, choosing to throw a rare curveball on his 109th pitch to leadoff hitter B.J. Upton and paying for it with a game-tying homer.
Upton improved to 4-for-10 with a home run and a double in his career against Buchholz. He is 0-for-2 with two strikeouts vs. Bard.
Still, perhaps Francona could be forgiven for sticking with a guy who leads the American League in ERA and had not allowed an earned run in 30 1/3 innings.
"There wasn’t a whole lot of decision," the skipper said of keeping Buchholz in. "He was fine. His stuff was still good. … He threw a breaking ball that caught too much of the plate."
Francona eventually went to Bard, who got through the ninth to preserve a 2-2 tie, but did not choose to give him a second inning despite the fact that the fireballer had thrown just 10 pitches in the frame. He was removed in favor of Scott Atchison to start the 10th, a decision that backfired in an instant as Johnson led off the inning by crushing a 93-mph fastball over the wall in right to end it.
With 32 games to play, the Red Sox are back to 5 1/2 games behind both the Rays and Yankees in the division and wild-card race. Days are disappearing from the calendar. If the Red Sox miss the playoffs, there will be plenty of time for second-guessing.
Saturday night in St. Petersburg could be on the list.
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