Still scratching your head over some of Joe Maddon’s moves? Ye of little faith! In the end, the Rays’ manager put all of his pieces in the right places, producing a jaw-dropping, electrifying result.
A walk-off homer by backup catcher Jose Lobaton into the tank beyond right-center field, where no Rays player had ever gone deep at Tropicana Field? Of course! That was the plan all along!
The moment, one of the most memorable in the franchise’s 16-year history, gave the Rays a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox on Monday night in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
The Rays still trail, 2 games to 1, but a victory in Game 4 on Tuesday night will enable them to start everyone’s favorite tweeter, ace left-hander David Price, in Game 5 at Fenway Park.
And to think, the stunning shot by Lobaton became possible only because Maddon had chosen to lose his designated hitter in the top of the eighth inning, forcing the pitcher into his lineup.
The move seemed unnecessary at the time — Maddon could have substituted a backup outfielder, Sam Fuld, for right fielder Wil Myers, who had left with cramps in both legs. But Maddon said later that he wanted to retain flexibility, wanted to go “National League,” something he also does on occasion during the regular season.
So, the Rays’ DH, Matt Joyce, ran out to right field. The pitcher’s spot was eight spots away. Maddon would worry about it later.
One inning later, as it turned out.
In the top of the ninth, with the Rays leading by one run, Maddon made a double-switch, inserting Lobaton to bat in the pitcher’s spot (fourth) and closer Fernando Rodney to bat in the spot of catcher Jose Molina (ninth).
Rodney proceeded to blow the save — and Maddon made quite an interesting decision in that inning, too, pitching to Dustin Pedroia with a base open yet playing his infield back with one out. Naturally, Pedroia hit an RBI groundout to short, tying the score 4-4.
Maddon said later that he didn’t want to walk Pedroia to load the bases and face pinch-hitter Mike Carp. And he said that while he normally prefers to be aggressive and bold, he was willing to concede the run by playing the infield back, and “live for” the bottom of the ninth.
Lobaton batted third that inning, with two outs and none on. He figured to have little chance against Sox closer Koji Uehara, who to that point had worked a combined 12-1/3 innings against the Rays in the regular and postseason — and given up a grand total of two hits. The last home run Uehara had allowed? June 30.
Uehara threw his trademark splitter on the first pitch. Lobaton swung through it.
“I was trying to hit the ball hard, that’s it,” Lobaton said. “But after that first pitch, I said, ‘You know what? I gotta guess now. I gotta guess.”
He guessed. He swung. And, with his third walk-off hit of the season, he enabled the Rays to survive their fourth elimination game in the past nine days.
The Rays, since the opening of the tank in 2007, had pledged a $10,000 donation for any home run one of their players hit into the 35-foot, 10,000 gallon container — $5,000 to the Florida Aquarium, which operates the tank, and $5,000 to a charity of the player’s choice.
They never had to pay off. Until now.
“What an interesting, wonderful game to stay solvent with,” Maddon said.
The Rays are solvent, all right. Some would even call them money.