Moore latest to reap Maddon's magic

BY foxsports • September 30, 2011

The starting pitcher, Matt Moore, was a 22-year-old rookie who had thrown fewer than 10 innings in the major leagues.

The offensive star, Kelly Shoppach, had a .176 batting average during the regular season.

The leadoff man, Sean Rodriguez, filled that role precisely three times this year.

In fact, the Tampa Bay Rays utilized a batting order in Game 1 of the American League Division Series that had never been seen before.

They won 9-0.

And when the day was done, after the iPod in the manager’s office had cycled through a number of postgame pump-up standards, the architect of it all offered an appropriate assessment.

“Rock ‘n’ roll,” Joe Maddon said with a grin.

If there is a more free-wheeling, fun-loving enterprise in professional sports, I have yet to happen upon it. Less than 48 hours after scripting the most dramatic postseason entrance in a half-century, the Rays were at it again – humbling the defending AL champion Texas Rangers, displaying an easy confidence after their epic pantsing of the Boston Red Sox, and announcing to the rest of baseball that they are fully capable of ruining someone else’s season, too.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we did what we did,” said Evan Longoria, who went 2-for-5 in his first appearance since Wednesday’s legend-making heroics.

“We’ve been coming to the ballpark for the better part of the year, not knowing what the lineup was going to be. It’s changed almost every day.

“The one thing that has been consistent is the starters. Other than being on the DL or a little banged up, those guys have been consistent. To have Matt in there was the real change. But I didn’t have less confidence in him going out there. I was excited.”

The Rangers, apparently, were not.

Moore made history when he stepped on the mound, becoming the only pitcher to start his team’s postseason opener with just one career start on his resume. His first pitch of the afternoon was a called strike to Ian Kinsler at 95 mph. There were more where that came from. Moore’s 98th and final pitch was a firm 95 mph, too. Yorvit Torrealba tapped that one to shortstop for the last out of the seventh inning.

In between, the Rangers managed two hits — both by reigning MVP Josh Hamilton, who later capitulated by trying to bunt his way on base. The Rangers scored more runs this year than every team in baseball other than the Red Sox and Yankees, but Moore simply overwhelmed them. He allowed one runner to advance past second base.

It wasn’t that long ago that Shoppach saw Moore’s nameplate and thought his first name was Adam, not Matt.

“Nobody,” Shoppach said after Friday’s game, “will forget his name now.”

This, mind you, was a rookie who made his major league debut two weeks ago, who muses openly that he’d like his facial hair to start coming in a little thicker, who learned of his Game 1 assignment around 6:30 p.m. the day before – prompting his father, Marty, to make the 11-hour drive from New Mexico to see it.

Shoppach, who improbably homered twice in Game 1, quipped that Moore might not be old enough to appreciate how intimidating the Rangers are supposed to be in their hitter-friendly home ballpark. And he probably was right.

On the dais, in front of all the reporters and cameras, Moore was asked where he was at this time last year. He smiled.

“I was watching these postgame interviews,” he said.

But that is how the Rays operate: They draft the right players. They develop them intelligently. And when they are ready, they are really ready. It doesn’t matter if – as in the case of Moore – you didn’t pitch above Class A until earlier this year. David Price was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2007. One year later, he came out of the bullpen to clinch the pennant.

And here’s the crazy thing about that: Moore might be better at 22 than fellow southpaw Price was at 23, when he helped the '08 Rays reach the World Series.

I actually have a good source on that.

“He’s pretty good,” Price said, smiling. “I think he’s above where I was, at the same time, with his changeup and breaking ball. He has easier gas than I do. That’s the easiest 97, 98 I’ve ever seen. It never looks like he overthrows. You can’t teach that.”

There may not be another organization in baseball that would deploy a young pitcher in the manner that the Rays did with Moore this season – a crawl to warp speed.

And only with the Rays would it be sensible to ask, after a performance such as this, whether the organization will permit Moore to pitch again during the postseason, given his projected innings limit. (The answer is yes, sources say, provided he gets enough rest between now and then.)

The Rays’ financial reality – modest revenues, small payroll, brutal AL East competition – dictates such conservative management of their top prospects. But once Maddon gets them, and trusts them, he is bold about affording them opportunities to impact the biggest games at the most important moments.

Maddon is more creative and communicative than just about any other manager in baseball. Those are his gifts, and he is great because of them.

There are times when Maddon’s lineup scrabble is more head-scratching than awe-inspiring – such as last year’s ALDS meeting with the Rangers, when Rocco Baldelli went from the designated hitter in Game 1 to effectively retiring before Game 2. But when Maddon is at his best, the results are downright inspiring, as the Red Sox and their fans know all too well.

And now that the Rays are in the tournament, they are a threat to win it all. James Shields, a much more confident pitcher than the one Texas throttled last postseason, is scheduled to start Game 2. Jeremy Hellickson – absent from last year’s series due to innings-limit considerations, much to the Rangers’ delight – is in line to pitch after that, followed by Price.

Remember, too, that Longoria was basically playing on one leg last October because of a severe hamstring injury. Suffice it to say, he looks healthy now.

“I really liked coming in here after the game and seeing everybody kind of just milling around like it was another day, like we were supposed to do this,” Longoria said. “Nobody really looked surprised. There wasn’t a whole lot of hoo-rah going on. It’s a good thing to see, guys expecting to win.”

They’ve done that for the past three weeks. I don’t know if they’re going to stop anytime soon.

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