Rays play small ball to even Series

The spunky Rays scored two of their runs on groundouts and another on a safety squeeze.
The spunky Rays scored two of their runs on groundouts and another on a safety squeeze.

Posted by Rachel Leigh email

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - It was fun while it lasted for the Rays, all those home runs, all those high-scoring games, those laughers. But the Rays, we should know by now, are not the team that laid waste to Boston pitching for 3 ½ games in the middle of the ALCS. No, the real Rays are more like the team we saw in Game 2 of the World Series, a team that scrapes together runs however it can, pulls a surprise or two along the way, holds its opponents down with good pitching and decent defense and, in the end, usually wins.

If that's not exciting enough for you, if that doesn't meet your expectations of what a World Series champion ought to be ... well, that's the way the Rays are going to try to do it. And they're offering up no apologies. "I think those games up there [in the ALCS], honestly, were a fluke," said B.J. Upton, the Rays' center fielder. "We have to play like tonight to win this thing."

The Rays held off the Phillies in Game 2 of the Series on Thursday night, 4-2, evening the best-of-seven series at a game apiece in a small-ball lover's dream. Tampa Bay scored its first two runs in the first inning on groundouts. The Rays scored their third run in the second inning with a single up the middle, a walk, an infield single and a two-out hit to shallow right field by Upton.

And they saved their best for their last run, in the fourth, when manager Joe Maddon instructed his No. 9 hitter, shortstop Jason Bartlett, to lay down a safety squeeze with leaden-legged Cliff Floyd on third base. That might have been a surprising call to a lot of people. It certainly got the attention of some Rays in the dugout. "When I saw the sign," first baseman Carlos Pena recalled with a laugh, "I said, 'Please, Cliff, do this right.'"

But, in a lot of ways, it was typical Tampa Bay baseball, bold and unconventional, a kind of go-for-broke madness based in solid fundamentals. "It kind of gives us some momentum right there," Bartlett said. "The way Joe teaches it, anybody on third can score, if it's done correctly."

Even Floyd, though, a 230-pound 35-year-old with a history of leg problems? A guy who admits it takes a while to get those old bones started, a guy who Bartlett swears he can hear coming down the line?

"Well, you know, he's not the fastest guy in the world," Thursday's starter, James Shields, said. "But when he needs to run, he can run."

Floyd, nothing if not the consummate pro, pulled off his part of the play without a problem. He watched Bartlett push the bunt toward the right side of the infield -- it was an eye-high pitch from starter Brett Myers, too -- broke for the plate when he was sure the ball was on the ground and easily scored without a throw. Team officials estimated the Rays have tried that play only two or three times this season. And Floyd said he had never been on that end of it.

But playing for that kind of run is a lot more typical of this Tampa Bay team than three or four home runs a game. "You're not always gonna hit home runs," Maddon said. "When you're facing better pitching, when you get an opportunity to score a run, you better take advantage of it. And if there's less than two outs, it doesn't have to be a hit."

The reversion to small ball was enough to support the starting pitching of Shields, who wasn't exactly "Big Game" James in his first Series start. But he was big enough, going 5 2/3 innings without giving up a run. The Rays' bullpen then did its job, for the most part. Dan Wheeler pitched a scoreless inning, and though rookie David Price gave up two runs in 2 1/3 innings and 42 pitches, he got through the meatiest part of the Phillies' lineup a couple of times, ending the game by getting Ryan Howard to ground out.

So now the Series moves to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Saturday, with the Rays getting back to being the Rays. And that spells trouble for Philly.

In Game 3, the Rays are scheduled to start 24-year-old Matt Garza, arguably their best pitcher, against right-hander Jamie Moyer, who turns 46 in less than a month. Garza was just named MVP of the ALCS with two wins, including a clutch performance in the clinching Game 7. Moyer won 16 games this year, but he was waylaid in his last start, giving up six runs in just 1 1/3 innings against the Dodgers in the NLCS on Oct. 12.

And if the Phillies' pitching is a concern, it's no moreso than the offense. Howard had a couple of hits Thursday, but Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins are still looking for their first hits of the Series, and the team as a whole has been abysmal hitting when it counts. The Phils ended an 0-for-19 string with runners in scoring position in Game 2, but they're now just 1-for-28 in that category. And the one hit they have didn't even score a run. The two runs they've tallied with runners in scoring position in the first two games have come on a groundout and an error.

Shaky starting pitching, an offense struggling and a Rays team that is getting back to its roots all suggest a Series that has shifted noticeably Tampa Bay's way, even as it shifts to Philadelphia and rowdy Citizens Bank Park.

And it all started in Game 2 by doing the little things.

"Big things happen," Pena said afterward, "when you focus on the smallest of things."