Maddon stands by bullpen strategy
While daring pick for starter works, late lead squandered
BOSTON -- Joe Maddon put it well hours before the first pitch on Thursday: He's the same manager now that he was before.
"Everything changes because you win," Maddon said.
Maddon guided the Rays in their impossible journey to the brink of the World Series by treating clutch situations like any other. That, he said, was what he was trying to do with his bullpen Thursday night in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
The bullpen strategy, Maddon said, was business as usual for them, even if it was a little unorthodox compared to other clubs. Right-handers Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler had been effective for them against left-handed hitters during the season. With the Rays seven outs away from the Fall Classic, those were their outs.
In the aftermath of an eight-run Red Sox comeback, the questions were for Maddon. His answers were consistent.
"If you've been watching us all year, Grant's been doing a great job in those moments," Maddon said. "Actually, they've both been great in those moments."
It was a wild twist on a night when Maddon's daring decision on his starting pitcher had turned out brilliantly. Maddon's moves showed anything but indecision. He went with what he believed, and he faced the questions afterwards.
The Rays had moved up Scott Kazmir to start Game 5, ironically, to have their full bullpen of relievers available ahead of an off-day to rest them. The idea behind it was protection in case they had to go to the bullpen early. Instead, they went to the bullpen in the seventh with a 7-0 lead.
The starter's choice was the topic of discussion for more than 24 hours leading up to the game, and Kazmir's performance silenced any question. The choice of relievers had never been a passing thought.
Once Jed Lowrie's double and back-to-back singles from Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia broke up the shutout bid, the relievers became the theme of the night.
In stepped David Ortiz, the struggling slugger whom the Rays had held to 1-for-17 for the series to that point. When Maddon was asked before the game about their strategy against Ortiz, Maddon said they'd been a little lucky, that he could do anything on a given night.
Rays' bullpen in Game 5
Part of what made Balfour so effective in the regular season was his ability to retire lefties and righties alike. In fact, his .120 batting average allowed in the regular season to left-handed hitters (10-for-83) was 39 points lower than what he surrendered to right-handed batters (18-for-113).
Balfour hadn't allowed a home run to a left-handed batter in 151 plate appearances since returning to the Majors in 2007. Because of that, although Ortiz was 1-for-9 lifetime against lefty J.P. Howell and 1-for-11 off fellow southpaw Trever Miller, neither was warming up. If things went to plan, neither would be needed.
"I like Grant there," Maddon said. "I like Danny right there. And then you have J.P. and Chad [Bradford] to back them up. I was wanting to see Grant and Danny just finish it up, based on their lineup and their switch-hitters batting left-handed instead of right-handed, the success that those righties have had against lefties. So I was looking to try to get them to finish it off and get the remaining outs."
Ortiz was 1-for-4 lifetime off Balfour, but his 0-1 pitch became Balfour's first big league homer to a left-handed hitter in at least two years. With the lead down to 7-4, it turned a comfortable advantage into a save situation.
Enter Wheeler, who went 3 1/3 innings in his last appearance in Game 2 but had four days of rest since then. Wheeler won a battle with Kevin Youkilis to end the seventh, then came back out for the eighth. He had a chance to finish out the game.
Instead, a four-pitch leadoff walk to Jason Bay set up the Red Sox rally to finish off Tampa Bay's lead.
Unlike Ortiz, Drew had enjoyed some success against the Rays lefties, going 3-for-6 in his career against Howell and Miller. By contrast, he was just 1-for-10 off Wheeler, who held left-handed hitters to a .215 average for the season.
"One thing Joe tries to do is mix and match and play matchups," Wheeler said. "It was just my time. I don't think there's a defined role for any one of us out there. Any one of us can go out there and get that last out. I think he was just trying to use me in that situation."
Drew broke the trend, turning on an 0-1 pitch and sending it deep to right for a two-run shot and a one-run game. Wheeler recovered to retire Lowrie and strike out pinch-hitter Sean Casey, giving hope that he could get through the inning and avoid bringing the Red Sox's lineup back around to the top.
Mark Kotsay kept the inning going with a double to deep center, bringing up switch-hitting leadoff man Crisp. He and Wheeler battled for 10 pitches, including four straight foul balls off full-count fastballs before Crisp got enough of one to keep it fair and line it into right field.
"It was a great battle," Wheeler said. "He saw a lot of pitches. That last one just got out over the plate and was more down than I wanted. He hit it well."
Since Crisp was hung up between first and second for the final out, Wheeler didn't have to face Pedroia. That task fell to Howell, who retired him and struck out Ortiz before Kevin Youkilis' two-out single, Evan Longoria's error, Bay's intentional walk and Drew's single to right rallied the Red Sox to victory.
"It was kind of business as usual tonight," Maddon said. "It just didn't work."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.