The Turning Point: Joe Maddon greenlighted Evan Longoria in the sixth against Dice-K, only to see his third baseman foul out on the fourth pitch.
Later in the game, he did the same for Carlos Pena who was facing a 3-0 count against lefthander Hideki Okajima. Pena's at-bat came with the Rays down 2-0, but also after they put the first two men aboard in the eighth. He flied out to shallow right, and Longoria followed with an inning-ending double play (a lousy at-bat that had started 2-0) against righty Justin Masterson.
The Question: Should the Rays manager, especially in Pena's case, have rolled the dice and green-lighted 3-0 swings?
No way: Conventional wisdom says for a batter to take a 3-0 pitch because he stands a good chance to reach base via a walk. In the 14,040 plate appearances that started 3-0 in 2008, 29.9 percent ended with a ball on the next pitch. Pena swung at a strike, but caught the ball off the end of the bat. Like most lefthanded batters, Pena is much weaker against southpaws; he batted .190 against them with a .352 slugging percentage in 2008. Red light.
Yes, sir: Toss out the phrase "conventional wisdom" to Maddon, and he's liable to toss his cookies. Maddon prides himself on being a maverick (to borrow a phrase) or, putting it a little differently, to do what the other guy doesn't expect. Giving Longoria a 3-0 green light in the sixth, with no one aboard and two outs, made sense. Longoria is the Rays best power source, with Pena probably second or third, considering B.J. Upton. Also, the 257 batters who swung at a 3-0 pitch in '08 hit .370, by far the highest average of any count. What's more, the majors had 16 grand slams on 3-0 counts in '08 and Pena had one of them. Based on the kind of pitch Okajima threw on 3-0 (fat), he wasn't expecting Pena to swing, but lucked out. Green light.
Hindsight is 20/20: Whatever buttons Maddon pushed, the Rays needed to turn the decisions into runs before Boston went to its closer. Jonathan Papelbon needed only 12 pitches to ease through a 1-2-3 ninth and finish off a 2-0 victory in Game 1.
Their say: "He was making pitches," Longoria said of Matsuzuka. "A 3-0 [count], one-run game — I guessed fastball, like I said, I guessed right. I just didn't put a good swing on it."
"It's one of those gambles you take," Pena said. "And Joe knows. He came right up to me and said, 'That's exactly what I wanted you to do. I wanted you to take that swing.' "
"I gave him the green light right there, absolutely. I felt good about it, actually," Maddon said. "It does not matter to him, right- or left-handed pitcher. I've done that often with our guys in certain situations, with certain guys."
Stew Verdict — Bad call, Joe!: It was cool for Longoria to swing away in the sixth, but not Pena in the eighth. The Rays had squandered a similar chance in the seventh after the first two batters reached and Maddon probably got a little jumpy trying to force something before Papelbon. True, Pena did hit a grand slam on a 3-0 count in the regular season, and he's been better against lefties in recent appearances, but he's a much weaker hitter against them overall. He would have been better off working a walk, loading the bases and putting some real pressure on the Red Sox.
What do you think? Did Maddon make the right decision?
- Joe Maddon