Game 2 now a must-win for Rays
The Rays had the Red Sox right where they wanted them, but didn't deliver
The Rays did what they have done all year long -- except win.
Game 2 of the ALCS now becomes the Rays' biggest game of the year
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Rays were down 1-0, they didn't have a hit and they were finding it harder and harder to get a runner anywhere near first base. Yet they were getting into the late innings, they were at home at Tropicana Field in front of a sellout crowd and their ace was pitching his butt off.
In short, the Rays had the Red Sox right where they wanted them in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night.
The problem was, for one of the rare times in this magical season of theirs, things didn't work out for the Rays quite like they should have. Scoring opportunities were botched, early and late. The defense faltered a little. The bullpen hiccupped. And so the Rays lost the game, 2-0 -- and their hard-gained homefield advantage with it -- making Game 2 of the ALCS here Saturday night the biggest game of their season. Maybe the biggest game in the Rays' once-tortured history.
Lose at the Trop again Saturday and go down 0-2 with the best-of-seven series heading up to a hostile Fenway Park for Game 3 on Monday?
Nobody in the Rays' clubhouse late Friday night wanted to even admit the possibility.
"A game's a game, whether we're at Fenway or here," said James Shields, the Rays' ace who pitched brilliantly but was outdueled by Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 1. "It was a tough loss, but it was the first one in, and we have plenty left to go."
Said veteran Cliff Floyd: "Who cares where it is? We got to win. Bottom line."
The Rays played their game Friday night, played it like they have all year, but this time it just wasn't enough. Shields pitched 7 1/3 innings, gave up just six hits, the two runs and struck out six. The Rays had legitimate chances to score in the first inning, the seventh and the eighth. In the top half of the eighth, they unleashed their bullpen, maybe the strength of their team.
But the Red Sox, no strangers to gutting out wins, did what it took to scrabble together just enough, moving a leadoff walk in the fifth around the bases with a bloop opposite-field double and scoring it on a sacrifice fly. They added their other run when Kevin Youkilis hit a J.P. Howell curve to left that glanced off of Carl Crawford's glove. And that was all it took.
Now, the Rays will be forced to win at least one game at Fenway Park, where they went just 2-7 this year, finally winning their last two games of the year there (Sept. 9-10). But winning in Boston, as Floyd pointed out, is getting ahead of ourselves a little.
"We've proven that we can win there. I don't think there's any doubt that we can," said third baseman Evan Longoria. "But the first priority is [Saturday]. Then we can worry about going on the road."
The Rays would have been a lot more worried about Friday's loss if their starter had been blasted, or their bullpen ravaged, or if their defense had fallen apart. Yes, Howell allowed the sinking liner to Youkilis that the usually sure-gloved Crawford, maybe, should have caught.
But for the most, the Rays did what they have done all year long. Except win.
"Our whole thing is, when our pitchers keep us in games, we win," said Floyd.
"I thought it was a well-played game, a well-pitched game. Again, we've lost games in the recent past where we've played well and lost," said the Rays' manager, Joe Maddon. "I'm good with that."
If there's one criticism that could be made -- and maybe something that should be avoided in Game 2 and the rest of the series -- it was the decision Friday to let two of the Rays' hitters swing on 3-0 counts. The first time it was Longoria, who popped up to right field for the last out of the sixth inning. The second came from first baseman Carlos Pena, who swung at a 3-0 pitch from reliever Hideki Okajima with runners at first and second with nobody out in the eighth and popped up to short right field.
Maddon said he gave Pena the green light, looking for a three-run homer that would have put the Rays ahead. And Longoria, in the sixth, was looking for a single swing that would tie the score. "I guessed fastball. I guessed right," he said. "I just didn't put a good swing on it."
Sooner or later, the Rays are going to have to hit at least a little if they're to get past the Sox and into the World Series. And they would make things a lot easier on themselves if they started that Saturday in Game 2. "We're going to try to buckle down and get this one game under our belts," said Floyd.
If not, the Rays could be buckling under sooner than anyone would have imagined.