Even though J.A. Happ throws with his left-hand, you could make the argument that Matthew Joyce was still one of the best hitters available for Joe Maddon to play on Sunday. That said, Joyce did not get the start against Happ and he was not the first option off the bench either. In fact, he was not the second, third, or even the fourth reserve player used by Maddon on Sunday. Perhaps the plan all along was to save the best for last because in the situation with the highest leverage – and the Astros holding a 70% chance of winning with just four outs remaining – it was Matt Joyce who changed the game.
On an afternoon that saw 24 runs scored and 33 hits – including 18 extra-bases, it would seem tough to pick just one play as a game-changer. There were plenty of options – several provided by Evan Longoria who was the best player; however, none of the moved the needle quite like Joyce did in arguably the toughest spot of the game.
After a see-saw battle through the first seven innings, the Rays entered the eighth inning down 8-7. Following singles by Johnny Damon and Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton walked to load the bases with two outs. With Mark Melancon – one of the better right-handed relief pitchers in all of baseball – on the mound, Sean Rodriguez’s spot in the lineup was due.
To this point, Maddon had already used Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano, and John Jaso as pinch-hitters. Reid Brignac earlier entered the game as defensive replacement. Still, Maddon’s lone card to be played was arguably his best. With Rodriguez’s struggles against right-handed pitchers, he was lifted for Matt Joyce – Tampa Bay’s best threat against righties.
Melancon stayed with the hard stuff against Joyce, throwing him nothing but fastballs. After falling behind 2-0, the Astros’ righty battled back to even the count at 2-2 on two swing and misses from Joyce. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, and one pitch away from ending the inning, Melancon hung a cut-fastball that Joyce ripped down the right field line. Joyce barely missed a grand slam, but settled for a two-run double that put the Rays ahead for good.
Considering the situation – bases loaded of a one-run game with two outs in the eighth inning – the leverage index was through the roof for this confrontation. Usually, a high-leverage situation reads around 2.0 on the index. The LI in this particular at bat was 7.17! As mentioned, the Astros held a 70.5% chance of winning as Joyce as announced. Following his double, their chances of winning dropped down to 22.3%; a difference of 48.2%.
In a game filled with big spots and big blasts, none of them were quite as big as the sweet-swingin double off the bat of Matt Joyce.