Update: Maddon confirmed he was using Shoppach as a bluff.
Mike Scioscia is a bit like the Mike Holmgren of baseball. Scioscia’s coaching tree grows by the offseason (just look in the Tampa Bay or Milwaukee or San Diego dugouts) and the dude has a good reputation regardless of what the results are. Today, though, he earned the platitudes and superlatives as he outmaneuvered his old bench coach.
Scott Downs is a brilliant left-handed reliever who came off the disabled list on Friday. The former Jay is usually restricted to the latter stages of games because of his paycheck and role, but Scioscia opted to place him into the fifth inning of this afternoon’s game. After B.J. Upton doubled, Scioscia had Tyler Chatwood pitch around Matt Joyce—setting up a first and second with no outs situation. Downs came in and got Ben Zobrist to hit into a fielder’s choice, leaving Casey Kotchman at the plate.
Kotchman, a left-handed groundball hitter, versus Downs, a left-handed groundball pitcher, in a double play situation is about as horrible a matchup as you can find for the Rays. Yet, Maddon kept Kotchman in—sure enough, he would hit a bouncer, although the Angels could not convert a double play. As Felipe Lopez came to the plate, the camera panned to the on-deck circle where Kelly Shoppach was warming.
The inning ended before Shoppach could step to the plate (or be announced) and Maddon elected to let John Jaso and Reid Brignac bat against Downs. Shoppach’s presence means Maddon was either toying with Scioscia or that he intended to insert his lefty mashing catcher given the situation. If that’s the case, then why didn’t Maddon insert Dan Johnson for Kotchman? Consider that Kotchman has a lower career OPS against lefties than Shoppach against righties.
Perhaps Maddon was playing to keep the Rays lefties in against the rest of the Angels bullpen, but in that situation, I think you go for the gusto. The Angels pen looks a lot better than it did weeks ago—they actually rank top five in pen earned run average nowadays—and the Angels still had Hisanori Takahashi roaming, although he would not appear. Of course, if that was Maddon’s plan then it still doesn’t explain why he felt compelled to send Shoppach out, but if you pretend that’s the plan, then you have to do an intricate analysis on whether it’s worth going for it then or holding on just in case.
The latter is a little too loss averse for my present tastes.
The winning run scored on an unusual play that could have showed cleverness on either end. Credit Vernon Wells for not running into a tag and stringing the play out just long enough so that A) Ben Zobrist had to throw to first base and B) allowing Torii Hunter to score. By throwing to first, the Rays eliminated the force play at second base and the run counted. Of course, had Zobrist applied the tag, then it’s a smart play on his end too—one toss to first is safer than a throw to second and a throw back to first, even with a catcher running.
As for Alex Cobb, who made his big league debut today, he lost the strike zone at times, but there were encouraging signs here. It’s easy to see why minor league batters have issues hitting him. The descriptions about Cobb’s changeup dying are accurate. The curve also appears like a weapon, but he had trouble throwing it for strikes today—same with his fastball, which had a strike rate around 50 percent, not good. Ostensibly, Cobb’s control wasn’t at its finest today, and that’s okay. It happens. One positive to take away from the game is that he changes speeds—even between fastballs, as his four-seamer ran up to 94 miles per hour.
Cobb has a big league future; nothing today alters that too much.