ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Call it October’s cruel recurring irony. The month’s cool breezes offer the perfect climate for sleeping. All the while, its baseball games conspire to keep you awake until the sun rises on a new day and another chance.
“Tomorrow night, we’ll be right here, ready to go,” vowed Red Sox manager John Farrell after the resilient Tampa Bay Rays extended the teams’ American League Division Series to a fourth game with a 5-4 walkoff victory Monday night, and you do believe him.
The Red Sox have proven resilient and relentless in their own right during this remarkable season. Such a reminder probably isn’t even required. Maybe they will get ’em Tuesday. But if and until they do, the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens that were dotted throughout Game 3 will remain on replay in the minds of anyone who had an emotional investment in the game.
No one sleeps off a loss like that — one in which a backup catcher named Jose Lobaton, who hit .219 in the second half and .184 in September, hits a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth walkoff homer off Koji Uehara, the Red Sox closer who went nearly three months without allowing a run and who had not allowed a home run since June 30.
“If you want to look at the probability of it, if you work out [Lobaton’s] abilities versus [Uehara’s] abilities, what’s been going on, you’re going to lose some bucks on [betting on a home run], it’s not normally going to happen,” acknowledged Rays manager Joe Maddon.
If there’s been a more improbable player than Lobaton to sink the Red Sox in a postseason game, his name has long since been pushed to the background by the franchise’s success the past decade.
Still, for those who still like to traffic in omens and harbingers, it should probably be noted that his home run appeared to splash into a tank of live rays.
That tank is pretty far down the list of the goofy and inexplicable of the Tropicana Field game experience. The turf looks like an old rug stained by the various substances in a toddler’s sippy cup. And the roof, featuring a winding catwalk that came into play once Monday, costing the Red Sox an out, looks like a charmless roller coaster got tangled with a football practice bubble.
But while the Rays made sure to emphasize their perceived misfortune at Fenway during the series’ first two games, the Red Sox’ misfortune in the first game at the Trop had little to do with this pinball-machine/ballpark.
Instead, many of the thoughts that keep fan and ballplayer alike up at night were the result of self-inflicted mistakes and decisions that can be debated before and after an outcome is decided. It’s not the catwalk that can leave you catatonic. It’s all the missed opportunities that were left out on that field.
The Red Sox took a 1-0 lead into the first inning, and Clay Buchholz, who did not allow an earned run in two starts and 13 innings against the Rays this season, made it stand up through the first four frames.
The Sox added two more runs in the fifth in part thanks to some aggressive baserunning by Jacoby Ellsbury. But Buchholz could not handle the relative prosperity of three runs, giving up a three-run home run to birthday boy Evan Longoria with two outs.
“Buchholz was pitching his typical game,” said Maddon. “We can’t do anything with him. We’d get some guys on base, he would make a pitch. Then finally Longo got it. Finally Longo got him, and all of a sudden it’s a different world.”
Common sense says no, you don’t put the go-ahead run in the batter’s box. Hindsight says why not?
A few more thoughts that stay with you until the first pitch is delivered in the next game:
Was Maddon’s decision in the seventh inning to move his designated hitter, Matt Joyce, to the outfield when Myers had to leave the game with cramps lucky or smart? As weird as it was to see reliever Jake McGee‘s name penciled into the No. 5 spot on the scoreboard, it’s probably the the latter since … well, since it worked out.
Berry did steal second (though the replay showed he was out, which would have been his first caught stealing in 27 career attempts), but Mike Napoli‘s failure to move him to third was a subtle mistake, one that would haunt the Sox when Jarrod Saltalamacchia whiffed and Stephen Drew, batting against a lefty yet again because of Farrell’s apparent distrust of young Xander Bogaerts, popped out.
It must be noted that Ortiz’s spot in the order did come around again, in the top of ninth and with the go-ahead run in Ellsbury standing on third.
But Mike Carp whiffed looking in that spot, setting the stage for Lobaton’s unlikely heroics in the ninth.
The more you think about the loss, the more you remember all of the lost opportunities, big and small along the way, those laments nagging through the night.
What if Drew and Pedroia hadn’t collided on a groundball in the top of the ninth, a potential double play becoming an infield hit in the inning when the Rays took their first lead? …
What if, what if, what if.
Jake Peavy gets the ball and a chance to wrap up the series Tuesday. Here’s to ending this series and enjoying that October breeze again.