Rays’ piecemeal pitching plan comes up short vs. Red Sox

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As the final seconds of the Tampa Bay Rays’ season passed, David Price warmed up in the bullpen. This was the bottom of the ninth inning, with little chance that the ace left-hander would be used in extra innings because Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara was closing in on his second save of this American League Division Series. Still, the image was more evidence of how strained, how strange, the Rays’ pitching situation became in Game 4.

The final night of Tampa Bay’s season turned into an extemporaneous pitching display. Struggling right-hander Jeremy Hellickson received the start, but he was pulled after facing only six batters.

What followed in the Rays’ 3-1 loss to the Red Sox at Tropicana Field served as a roll call of the options at manager Joe Maddon’s disposal: Jamey Wright (three batters faced), Matt Moore (seven), Alex Torres (eight), Jake McGee (four), Joel Peralta (six), Fernando Rodney (four), Chris Archer (one) and Wesley Wright (one).

When the final second of this winding season had expired, with Price crouching over slightly when Evan Longoria struck out, the result was sealed: The Red Sox had clinched this best-of-5 series three games to one, advancing to play in the AL Championship Series against either the Oakland Athletics or Detroit Tigers.

Near the mound, Boston players met and celebrated. The Rays, meanwhile, left the field in silence, their season behind them.

This patchwork pitching approach didn’t go according to plan, of course. Maddon envisioned Hellickson, even with losses in seven of his past eight decisions, going through the Red Sox’s lineup one time. But after early signs of wear — Hellickson walked David Ortiz and Mike Napoli on eight consecutive pitches, then loaded the bases when Daniel Nava singled to right field — Maddon had seen enough. The adventure had begun.

“Originally I thought, or had hoped for Hellie getting through the lineup one time and maybe through (Dustin) Pedroia and then turning it over at that point,” Maddon said. “The way it was working at the beginning there, I could see it was just not going to work, and we had to do something differently. We became a little bit more extemporaneous at that point.”

“I did not plan on David either,” he continued, referring to Price. “Fernando was struggling so much in the ninth there, and I didn’t want them to get anymore runs because of Uehara.”

The Rays’ pitching platoon made some history. They set a postseason record by using nine pitchers in a nine-inning game. (The nine pitchers also were the most in a nine-inning game in franchise history.) Meanwhile, the Rays issued eight walks, their second-most ever in a postseason game, behind only the 10 allowed in Game 2 of the 2008 ALCS against Boston.

From the start, this felt like a high-wire act on the mound. Hellickson was given the start because of his history against the Red Sox: A 4-2 record with a 4.21 ERA in 13 career appearances, including a 1-0 record with a 3.44 ERA in three starts against them this year.

The first inning was a drama-free, 12-pitch effort. But then familiar command problems that plagued him in recent months bothered him in the second.

Maddon said Hellickson was unaware of the piecemeal game plan. A similar strategy would have been used had the Rays forced a Game 5, Maddon said. But the Red Sox had plans of their own.

“I didn’t want to put anything in his head,” Maddon said of Hellickson. “If he got off really good and stayed good, I would have let him go on farther. But I really thought looking at it — just try the game plan. One time through plus through Pedroia, I thought that would be 12 batters, then here comes Ortiz, who has given him some problems. I thought at that point it would have been good to get back to Alex Torres. That was the game plan. But that got blown up.”

For a while, however, the audible seemed to work until the Red Sox broke through for two runs against Peralta in the decisive seventh inning. Jamey Wright’s work to escape a bases-loaded jam in the second, with a terrific assist from James Loney to end the inning, was impressive. Moore and Torres were effective as well.

But the strategy split when a curveball from Peralta to Shane Victorino bounced in front of Jose Lobaton and escaped the catcher’s block attempt. Xander Bogaerts scored from third base, and Jacoby Ellsbury advanced from first to third. The next batter, Pedroia, poked a single to right field, scoring Ellsbury. (Both runs were charged to McGee.)

“I feel like I can block that ball,” Lobaton said. “The bottom of the bat blinded my eyes. I wasn’t able to see the ball. But it’s something I can block.”

Peralta, as expected, was forgiving.

“In any other situation,” he said, “I’m sure he blocks that pitch.”

The mistake was part of an imperfect strategy that collapsed under the weight of its own pressure. The Red Sox were too good, and the Rays didn’t produce enough. Boston outscored Tampa Bay 26-12 in this series, and consequently, the Red Sox reveled in the sensation of advancing as blue duffle bags were scattered across the carpet in a quiet Rays’ clubhouse, not bound for Fenway Park again.

“We did our job pretty well, especially with Hellie going one inning and having Jamey come in and get those big outs in the second inning,” McGee said.

“We carried that through the game.”

But an imperfect plan wasn’t enough to carry them to another day, another game.