Does pitching win championships? The Rays sure hope so. They’re a team built around pitching and defense who knows that there will be a few too many days when runs are hard to come by. At the same time, though, the Rays have to be an opportunistic offense, taking advantage of runners in scoring position and opposing pitchers making mistakes- even if pitching is the OK, you can’t win if you don’t score any runs. And when you can make your chances count, you can come away with wins even in games when your pitching doesn’t do the job. The Rays played a very un-Rays like game on Wednesday, allowing 7 runs as their pitching faltered at times, but a series of clutch hits made all the difference as the Rays won 8-7.
Jeremy Hellickson got off to a rough start for the Rays in this one, allowing a 3-run home run to Chris Davis in the first inning to give Baltimore a 3-0 lead. Hellickson was able to hit a groove after that, allowing just one hit, a double by Davis, but then Davis came through yet again in the 6th inning, delivering an RBI single to put the Rays down 4-0. Hellickson did not finish his outing with very good numbers, going 6.1 innings allowing 5 runs on 8 hits, striking out 2 while walking 1. But as Hellickson’s outing came to an end, everything changed for the Rays against Wei-Yin Chen.
The Rays entered the 6th inning down 4-0 as Chen had bent but did not break, allowing a baserunner in every inning but the 4th but keeping the Rays off the board. Then in the 6th, Chen allowed a double to Desmond Jennings but found himself one out away from escaping unscathed once again as Ben Zobrist stepped up to the plate. But Zobrist was finally able to make something happen, lining a single down the left field line to put the Rays down 4-1. Luis Ayala came in for the Orioles but Evan Longoria extended the inning with another single. At that point, the tying run was coming to the plate but the Orioles were getting a break- they had gotten past the heart of the Rays order and inferior hitters were coming up, beginning with Shelley Duncan. But while Duncan may not be the greatest hitter, he does have power, and when Ayala hanged a breaking ball, Duncan capitalized, drilling a 3-run homer to tie the game at 4.
When they were down 4-1, the Rays came up with a classic American League comeback, a 3-run home run. But after Baltimore went ahead 5-4 in the 7th, the Rays responded with Rays baseball at its finest. With 1 out in the 7th and Pedro Strop on the mound, Matt Joyce pinch-hit for Jose Lobaton and took advantage as the Red Sox shifted for him to pull, bunting down the third base line for a single. Then Kelly Johnson stepped up to the plate and the Red Sox shifted on him as well, having three infielders on the right side with the third baseman Middlebrooks at third. Once again, the Rays beat the shift as Johnson punched a groundball into the vacant shortstop spot, with Joyce alertly taking third on the play. That baserunning by Joyce, which he described as “Rays baseball” following the game, immediately paid dividends as he scored on a wild pitch. Two batters later, James Loney pinch-hit and finally made his presence felt in a Rays uniform, giving the Rays the lead on an opposite-field double. Ben Zobrist capped the rally with a bloop single as the Rays took a 7-5 lead.
For the second straight game, the Rays’ bullpen could not do the job, with Joel Peralta allowing a run in the 8th and Fernando Rodney allowing the Orioles to tie the game in the 9th, although he did leave Brian Roberts, who had tied the game with a double, stranded at third base. But none of that mattered as the Rays offense was looking as good as we’ve seen it in quite a while. With the game tied at 7 entering the bottom of the 9th, Matt Joyce, who had emerged as the hero in the 7th with all the little things he did, drilled a walk-off home run on a 3-1 pitch from Tommy Hunter as the Rays won the game 8-7.
Hellickson was not at his best and neither was the rest of the Rays’ pitchers, although Kyle Farnsworth did get a huge double play in the 7th. Hellickson gets credit in this game, though, for being economical, throwing just 94 pitches, and although he didn’t have his best stuff (he went to his curveball like we discussed earlier but it did not look very good), he was able to work into the 7th whereas he would have been out after 5 innings the way he was pitching a year ago. Rays pitching had a terrible night, but the offense was able to pick them up in a big way, with Duncan and Joyce slamming huge home runs and several players coming up in the clutch, and the Rays stole a game that it seems like they never could have won last season. In 2012, the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games. Now they’re 0-1. In 2012, the Rays won just two games where they allowed 7 runs or more. They already have half that total now. It was ugly and exceedingly far from the crisp pitchers’ duels we’re used to seeing when the Rays win. However, he Rays made all their chances count as they came up with 8 runs on offense, and that made all the difference as the Rays came away with a crazy win but a satisfying one as well. The Rays look to take their series versus the Orioles at 3:10 PM on Thursday afternoon, with Roberto Hernandez making his Rays debut going up against Miguel Gonzalez.