Rays fans just knew their team was in for it. Indians starter Danny Salazar came to the mound and was undeniably electrifying, retiring the Rays in order in each of the first two innings with a fastball touching 100 MPH with nasty two-seam movement away from left-handed batters. He looked unhittable and it seemed like there was no chance the Rays would ever get to him. But then suddenly they did. Delmon Young drilled a first-pitch fastball from Salazar into the left field seats for a solo home run to lead off the third inning. Then over the final 1.1 innings of his outing, the Rays got 3 hits and 2 walks against Salazar, scoring twice on Desmond Jennings‘ two-run double. How did things change so drastically from his first two innings to his final two? The Rays made an adjustment, and the way they adapted won them the game.
Salazar was dominant for the first two innings, retiring six in a row and striking out three. But even as he put the Rays down, there was something wrong: his command. Watching games, we can get so caught up in the results that we forget the processes that make them happen. Salazar was pitching great, but this Brooks Baseball plot of where his pitches ended up in those first two innings foretold the problems he would encounter later in the game.
Salazar had his high-octane fastball and also a slider and splitter, but the plot shows just how bad his command was. There were only a couple fastballs that Salazar got remotely down and that was even more of a concern for his slider, which was hung two out of the three times he threw it. Wait a second–isn’t that totally irrelevant because Salazar’s fastball was moving so well and his slider was effective because of the velocity difference from his fastball? Over the first two innings that was the case. Even when Salazar’s fastball ended up right down the middle, its horizontal movement combined with its high-90’s velocity made it impossible for the Rays to make contact with any authority. And because the Rays had to constantly worry about the fastball, Salazar was able to get away with placing his slider just about anywhere he wanted. As soon as the third and fourth innings, though, that was no longer the case as the Rays pounced.
Delmon Young’s solo home run had an element of luck to it–he guessed fastball and got it. However, after seeing Salazar work against the first six batters in the Rays lineup, Young knew that in all probability, Salazar’s fastball was going to be up in the zone, and he was able to gear up for it right there and take advantage. Then by the secondtime through the order in the fourth inning, the Rays had Salazar figured out. They started recognizing his slider and splitter and taking them out of the zone to make Salazar rely heavily on his fastball. Between Wil Myers‘ groundout to begin the inning and Salazar’s intentional walk of Young, Salazar threw three secondary pitches, all of which the Rays took out of the zone for balls. Then when Salazar threw his fastball, he still was getting good movement on it but the Rays knew what to expect. They realized that when Salazar threw his fastball, they were going to have to account for a certain amount of movement towards righty batters. On Jennings’ RBI double, Salazar’s fastball started away, but after seeing him for three and a half innings, Jennings knew that it would come back over the plate and managed to put a good swing on it. Salazar’s fastball is dominant pitch in a vacuum. But with the Rays able to recognize Salazar’s secondary pitches and account for how his fastball was going to move, they were right on Salazar’s fastball whenever he didn’t locate it well and were able to get the three runs against him that were the difference in the game.
The Rays’ offense this season was arguably the best in franchise history for a large portion of the season. Against the Indians in the Wild Card Game, they showcased why. They have hitters who are not just talented but have the ability to adapt their approaches as the game goes on and beat even the most dominant pitchers when they make mistakes. Joe Maddon calls this a “swarming offense”–they find a flaw and then they aggresively exploit it. Every game will not go as smoothly as Wednesday’s contest. Howver, if the Rays can show the adaptive ability that they showed against Danny Salazar in this game, their offense will give their pitchers the run support they need and their team is going to be awfully hard to beat.