Last night, the Tampa Bay Rays nailed down their first win of the season, beating the Orioles 8-7 in a wild game. The two biggest plays of the game were home runs- a huge game-tying 3-run shot by Shelley Duncan in the 6th and a walk-off homer by Matthew Joyce in the 9th. But the Rays’ win still would not have been possible without a 7th inning rally that was something to be remembered.
There was 1 out in the inning, Pedro Strop on the mound for Baltimore, and the Rays down a run when Joyce stepped to the plate and the Orioles shifted against him, putting three infielders on the right side and moving third baseman Manny Machado over to shortstop. Looking at Joyce’s spray chart courtesy of Texas Leaguers, it seems pretty clear why they would do that.
We see from this chart that a considerable majority of Joyce’s outs on the infield (which were mostly groundouts) came on the right side, and Joyce also did not hit a single home run to the oppositie field so even if he tried to go the other way, he could not do so with much power. Joyce’s tendency to pull the ball is something known throughout baseball and we’ve seen the shift put on him quite a bit. But in this case, with the Rays down only a run, Joyce’s power didn’t matter as much and what Joyce really had to do was make his way on base. He took advantage of the shift to do just that, delivering a good bunt down the third base line that was fielded by the pitcher Strop but not in a position where Strop could even attempt a throw to first base.
With 1 out and a runner on first base now for the Rays, Kelly Johnson dug into the batter’s box and the Orioles shifted once again. They also had three infielders on the right side this time, but instead of moving Machado to shortstop, they kept him at third base, leaving a gap at the shortstop position. The Orioles’ shift once again seemed to be backed up by Johnson’s spray chart.
Johnson definitely appears to be more willing to go to left and center than Joyce, but that appears to be mostly on the balls he hit to the outfield and not on his groundballs. When Johnson hit the ball on the ground, a clear majority went to the right side of the infield. Where the Orioles were mistaken, though, was that Johnson hit many more groundballs towards shortstop than he did towards third base, showing that he was certainly capable of hitting a groundball there. Johnson had the power to hit another home run to give the Rays the lead, but when the Orioles gave him an easy opportunity for a hit in a place where he hits the ball a decent amount of the time, he took advantage, hitting a groundball to the shortstop hole for a single
Johnson didn’t hit the ball very hard- if the shortstop J.J. Hardy was playing his regular position, the groundball Johnson hit would have been a routine play- but for some reason, maybe out of surprise, Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones was a little late getting to the ball in left-center and Joyce made him pay, going 1st-to-3rd on the play and putting the tying run in the game just 90 feet away. That immediately paid dividends for the Rays as Strop threw a wild pitch to tie the game at 5.
The Rays capped their rally with two more vintage Rays plays. Only the Rays would sign a first baseman like James Loney who is more of a gap-to-gap hitter than a power guy, but Loney performed his craft perfectly on Wednesday, giving the Rays the lead with a double down the left field line. Then there was Ben Zobrist, one of the Rays’ best hitters, being the fourth player in the inning to not sell out for power and simply take what the Orioles gave him, and in Zobrist’s case he did something pretty special. As you can see in this video, Zobrist saw the centerfielder Jones playing deep and instead of doing his full swing, Zobrist did a half-swing taking a bloop into centerfield, and it dropped in front of Jones to give the Rays a 7-5 lead.
In one inning, four different Rays were willing to be unselfish and do whatever it took to get on base and help the team win. It’s always great to get the home runs, and when the Rays saw mistake pitches in this one, they took advantage with the Duncan and Joyce longballs, but it’s just as important for the Rays to seize whatever opportunity they can to push runs across, and when Joyce, Johnson, and Zobrist saw chances through the Orioles’ defensive shifts, they did not hesitate to give up on any thoughts of being the hero in the game and get the ball right where Baltimore gave them openings. The home runs won’t always come and at times the Rays’ offense will stagnate. However, if they can get creative like they did in the 7th inning on Wednesday, they will be just fine scoring runs and opposing teams will head off the field wondering what hit them.