The last inning and a half of Wednesday night’s game against the Boston Red Sox were the most exciting stretch of the 2015 season for the Tampa Bay Rays. They have had more explosive offense or dominant pitching, but it was everything from the impressive to the agonizing that made the end of the contest so thrilling.
The bottom of the eighth inning began in disastrous fashion for Kevin Jepsen. He got behind Mookie Betts 2-0 before leaving a fastball waist-high and right down the middle that Betts drilled over the Green Monster for a home run. That made the game 4-3 in favor of the Rays. He rebounded to get Dustin Pedroia on a groundout, but he got behind David Ortiz 2-0 and wound up walking him as well. Up came Mike Napoli for the most frustrating at-bat of the season for Tampa Bay Rays fans.
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Jepsen got ahead of Napoli 0-2 with a pair of fastballs, and then he placed a curveball perfectly at the bottom of the zone on the inside part of the plate. It was called a ball. The next pitch was even better, another curveball at the bottom of the zone that caught plenty of plate before ending up mid-out. Once again, the umpire failed to ring Napoli up. Both pitches were clearly strikes, and the umpire (whose name I’ll omit) was calling those pitches all game. Unfortunately for Jepsen and the Rays, his perception of the strike zone differed at that critical juncture.
Three fastballs later, Napoli hit a line drive towards left field. Joey Butler charged it and dived as he appeared to make a great catch, but he could not come up with the ball. Luckily for the Rays, the ball bounced off his right arm and didn’t get past him for extra bases. The Red Sox had two runners on and pinch-ran Luis Jimenez for Ortiz at second base. Jepsen then walked Pablo Sandoval on five pitches, and the Red Sox had the bases loaded with one out.
Jepsen would have been pitied had he failed. He didn’t have his best stuff and he was absolutely robbed against Napoli. But it speaks to the type of determination that Jepsen has that he refused to give up and kept attacking the Red Sox’ hitters. Jepsen got pinch-hitter Mike Napoli to hit a groundball to first base, and James Loney fired home for the force to prevent the tying run from scoring. A fact that we sometimes forget: Loney has a terrific arm. Another first baseman might have missed that throw, but when the ball went to Loney, there was reason to be confident.
Brock Holt was the next hitter, and he hit a groundball to first base on the third consecutive curveball he saw. Loney fielded it a ways from the bag and it was clear that Jepsen was not going to be there in time to cover. Was Holt going to beat out an infield single and make Jepsen’s efforts go for nought? The answer was no as Loney stepped on the first base bag just before Holt reached it to finally get Jepsen out of the inning. Jepsen’s line: 1 inning, 1 run, 2 hits, 2 walks, no strikeouts, and improbably a job well done.
Evan Longoria then stepped up to the plate in the top of the ninth and drilled a long home run off Alexi Ogando that went out of Fenway Park. It was his second homer of the game as he broke a career-long steak of 26 games without a homer in resounding fashion. Longoria did a nice job getting on base and racking up some hits even with his power stroke absent, but it is great to see him look more like the player we expect him to be. That second blast was especially satisfying after the way Jepsen persevered to make it through the bottom of the eighth.
Brad Boxberger then made the bottom of the ninth a little bit too interesting. The Tampa Bay Rays began the frame with a 5-3 lead, but Xander Bogaerts reached on an infield single to bring the tying run to the plate. A wild pitch moved Bogaerts to second base, and after Blake Swihart popped out, Mookie Betts drew a walk following two foul home runs on changeups. Up came Dustin Pedroia, and after Boxberger missed badly up in the zone on a 1-2 fastball that was supposed to be down, his 2-2 heater was up and over the swing of Pedroia for strike three.
That was the hard part–Luis Jimenez was the easy part. Jimenez had pinch-ran for Ortiz, so instead of facing one of the most feared hitters in baseball, Boxberger got to oppose a hitter who had gone 1 for 15 in his time with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2015. Jimenez hit a tapper in front of the mound that Rene Rivera fielded and fired to Loney for the out to complete the Rays win.
Before that bottom of the eighth, Butler had delivered a key two-run single in the fifth inning while Logan Forsythe managed a two-out RBI base hit in the third. Those two and Longoria combined for all five Tampa Bay Rays runs batted in as the team left 11 men on base and went 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position. It is great that they scored 5 runs, but they could have put this game away and never did. That being said, if Longoria can continue harnessing his power and the Rays get a few other key hits, this offense could be just fine.
Back to the pitching, Alex Colome had a nice outing, going 5+ innings allowing 2 runs on 4 hits, striking out 4 while walking none. Especially impressive was that Colome put up those numbers while never quite finding himself all game. He was replaced by Xavier Cedeno when Ortiz came up the sixth inning, and Cedeno certainly did his job as he induced a weak tapper from Ortiz for a groundout. Steve Geltz also had a great game, going 1.2 innings allowing just a walk to provide the bridge to Jepsen and Boxberger.
This game was far from perfect, but it is the type of contest that this Rays team needs to grind out if it is going to contend this season. The Rays finish their series at Fenway Park having taken 2 of 3 from the Red Sox and will return home to take on the Texas Rangers at 7:10 PM on Thursday night. It will be a matchup of two of the ERA leaders in the American League as Chris Archer takes on Nick Martinez.