The sudden retirement of Manny Ramirez stole the headlines; however, there was a game to be played this evening. After the first few innings, it looked like more of the same for the Rays’ offense. In fact, the squad set the major league record for most innings without a lead to start a season since 1900. But then things changed.
For the first time in 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays looked like the Tampa Bay Rays we have become accustomed to watching. They hit, got a few breaks, make some nice defensive plays, and more importantly scored runs. After pushing just eight runs across the plate in the first six games, nine Rays crossed home plate in this one.
Without Ramirez and Evan Longoria, the Rays were able to go with their left-handed alignment against John Danks in the highly anticipated Danks Theory matchup (at least for me). Early in the game Danks enjoyed success against batters of hands, but as the lineup turned around, the lefties started to get to him a bit. Starting with Johnny Damon’s solo home run in the sixth inning, five straight lefties reached safety against the Danks. Dan Johnson and Reid Brignac were able to get base hits to right field while Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce worked their way on via walks.
In spirit, the theory is designed to limit the best weapon of the opposition – or in Danks’ case – the changeup. For his career, Danks has thrown the changeup just under 20% of the time. Tonight, he was actually above that with 23%; however, the bulk of those were thrown to the right-handed batters in the lineup. Of the 24 changeups seen by Rays’ hitters, just seven of them were to lefties. In total, Tampa Bay scored four runs on six hits and four walks off the White Sox southpaw. It’s not saying much, but that’s the most success they’ve had off any starter this season.
On the flip side, James Shields was less effective for the Rays. After a strong first outing of the season, the home run issues that plagued him a season ago returned. Pitching in the league’s most homerific park from a season ago, he allowed three solo home runs and five runs overall in six innings. Shields walked just one batter, and for only the third time in his career did not register a strike out. In fact, no Rays’ pitcher would get one. Back to Shields, he induced only four whiffs on the evening and just two on 26 changeups.
In the first two frames, Shields was missing with his two-seam fastball low in the zone. Missing the strike zone is never got a good thing, but if you are going to miss, this is where you want to do it. As you can see he was just nibbling around the bottom of the zone.
Brian Anderson almost went out of his way to mention Shields struggling with his delivery and mechanics after the second inning. He must have been on to something because Shields began elevating the ball and the Sox hitters started to tee-off on the righty. As he departed, the bullpen was faced with one of the few high-leverage situations of the season.
With runners at the corner and no outs in the seventh inning, Joe Maddon called upon Joel Peralta. After a weird wild pitch that turned into an out – and caused Kelly Shoppach to leave with right knee soreness – Peralta did was he does best and that is get right-handed batters out on flyballs. It was a nice piece of work by Peralta, who used all three of his pitches to get strikes in the inning and escape without allowing a run.
The same could not be said for his second inning of work as well as the job by Cesar Ramos relieving him. After back to back hard hit balls by Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin, Peralta was lifted with a runner on second and one out. Ramos would face Mark Teahen in a lefty-lefty matchup with two on and two out. He allowed a two-run single on a belt-high fastball to give the White Sox a 7-4 lead.
Things looked bleak for the Rays heading into the night inning down three runs against White Sox relief ace Matt Thornton. Facing 0-7, the team sent nine men to the plate and scored five runs to give themselves their first lead of the season. Tampa Bay got some fortunate bounces with errors by Alexei Ramirez and Juan Pierre which set up the stage for Dan Johnson to do Dan Johnson things. Maddon used all of his position players and changed six defensive positions throughout the game, using everything he had to get the W.
The question of who closes the Rays first game was finally answered. With the first lead of the season in hand, Kyle Farnsworth showed the vaunted “closer’s mentality” and retired the top of the White Sox lineup in order. It’s one win, but it feels fantastic. Let’s try it again tomorrow.