Sitting in the small office reserved for Fenway Park's visiting managers late Monday night, Joe Maddon marveled at the performance of Matt Moore, the 24-year-old lefty who'd just pitched his Rays to within half a game of first place by tossing a two-hit shutout against baseball's best offense. And he was wasn't the only one impressed.
"I think," the manager said, "he amazed himself."
Indeed, especially given the circumstances, Moore would later describe the 3-0 win as the best game he's ever thrown. It might also have been the best game thrown by a Red Sox opponent at Fenway this season -- instantly having given Cliff Lee's late-May masterpiece some competition for that title by following the very blueprint previously laid out by the Phillies' ace.
It wasn't that Moore and Lee are both lefties; the Sox had won eight of their last nine, and were 20-11 overall, against southpaws. It wasn't that Moore dialed it up to 97 mph, as Lee never got above 94, and lived at 92. It was that they both pounded the strike zone by commanding their fastballs.
And in doing so, they exposed what might be the Achilles' Heel of a Boston offense that leads baseball in pitches per plate appearance, prides itself on working counts, and typically pounces when its foe is forced to come after it -- but can be susceptible to strike-throwers.
"I think they went in with the intention of making him throw pitches," Maddon said, "but he kept throwing strikes, and he made them swing the bat because of that."
Against a group of Red Sox hitters who have settled into 2-0 counts (15 percent of plate appearances) as often as any team in the American League this year, Moore wasn't as good as Lee when it came to not falling behind. He threw first-pitch strikes to only 15 of 29 batters, and got into five 2-0 counts; Lee, by comparison, opened 19 of 28 hitters with strikes on May 28, and only twice put himself behind 2-0.
But Moore was just as masterful because of the way he commanded his fastball consistently enough to avoid any real trouble. Of his 109 pitches, 79 were fastballs -- and 59 of those were strikes. Back in May, Lee's 95 pitches featured 73 fastballs, and 58 strikes among them.
That can be dangerous against a Boston team that Fangraphs says is the best fastball-hitting team in the majors, though by continually hitting their spots, and by avoiding hitters' counts, Moore and Lee were able to both minimize the risk of challenging the Red Sox in that matter and also force them to take an uncomfortable approach.
Only the Indians swing less often than the Sox. Only the Twins swing less often at strikes. And usually that patience is justified, as only 46 percent of pitches thrown to Boston hitters this season have been in the strike zone. When Moore and Lee both peppered the zone with more than 64 percent of their offerings, though, the Sox' bats went silent.
And the sizzling Rays took the opportunity to pull even in the loss column.
"I think that's the most efficient I've been," Moore said, his assertion supported by pitching coach Jim Hickey saying there were only three "non-competitive" pitches among the 109 he used. "I think that's probably the best game I've ever thrown."
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-4: The leadoff hitter saw a grand total of 10 pitches over his four at-bats, and failed to reach via hit or walk for the fourth time in seven games. The Sox are 5-8 in such games this season.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4: He made good contact on the lineout that ended the game, but the switch-hitter is nevertheless now hitting .209 against left-handed starters this year (and .327 vs. right-handed starters).|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||0-for-3: He got Moore's only 3-0 count of the night in his first trip, but flied to right. He's now 2-for-17 without a walk since the All-Star break -- and since news of his contract negotiations went public.|
|David Ortiz, DH||1-for-3: Ortiz is now 6-for-13 against Moore, and if he'd got another crack at him in the ninth, Moore wouldn't have been given the chance to complete what he started. Maddon said he would've summoned Joel Peralta.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||1-for-3, BB: Napoli reached twice, while the rest of the Red Sox reached once. Another encouraging night for the slugger who has a .927 OPS in July.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-3, K: Moore was particularly aggressive in attacking Gomes. He threw him eight strikes in 10 pitches -- getting a strikeout, a double play, and a foul out.|
|Ryan Lavarnway, C||0-for-3, K: His biggest contribution came behind the plate, lowering the pitching staff's ERA to 3.70 when he's catching. (The team has a 4.13 throwing to Jarrod Saltalamacchia; 3.04 to David Ross.)|
|Brandon Snyder, 3B||0-for-3, K: He got the start for his right-handed bat, and it nearly paid off in the form of a solo home run. Alas, his fly was caught at the foot of the center field wall.|
|Jose Iglesias, SS||0-for-3, K: Not getting the ball out of the infield, he's now 3-for-26 (.115) since the Sox got to Oakland, he hasn't walked since July 6, and his OBP is .279 for July.|
|Brandon Workman, SP||6 IP, 7H, 2ER, 2BB, 4K: "He knows how to ride a fastball," Maddon said of the righty who earned himself another turn, and who may emerge as a bullpen option once -- if? -- Clay Buchholz returns.|
|Jose De La Torre, RP||2.2 IP, 1H, 1ER, 2BB, 3K: He's emerging as a Rays killer. He's allowed Tampa two runs over seven innings this season; his two appearances against others have yielded five runs over 2.2 frames.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.1 IP: Throwing only four pitches before getting Ben Zobrist, he should be available Tuesday.|
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