Inside The Rays’ Opening Day Victory

The Tampa Bay Rays defeated the New York Yankees 7-6 in an instant classic on Opening Day 2012. After trailing 4-0 after the first inning, the Yankees mounted a comeback against Rays’ starter James Shields, holding the lead for most of the game. With the best closer in league history – Mariano Rivera – on the mound, Tampa Bay mounted a comeback of their own, walking off winners for the first time in 2012. We all know how they got there, but here are some insider observations:

Welcome back, Carlos Pena. Following a slow spring some were worried about Pena heading into the 2012 season. Conversely, manager Joe Maddon said he loved where his slugger’s swing was at despite the results. “I’ve been talking about it the last couple days but, [Carlos Pena] has his batting stance in order.” Maddon said. “He’s looked good even though he hasn’t been getting base hits.”

It took 73 at-bats before Pena hit his first home run with the Chicago Cubs last season; he needed just one to get on the board with the Rays in 2012. On a 3-2 count with the bases loaded in the first inning, Los yanked a CC Sabathia 94 MPH fastball deep to right field for a grand slam. Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi elected to pitch to Pena after ordering an intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez to load the bases. After the game Girardi said “I felt good about CC getting [Pena] out but it didn’t work”.

Pena owns a .179 batting average against lefties over the last three seasons. That said, 42 of his 79 hits against southpaws have been extra-base hits – including 27 home runs. Not satisfied with one big moment in his return to Tampa Bay, Pena belted a deep walk-off “single” in the ninth off Marino Rivera to cap a perfect comeback. “I am so grateful for a day like today” Pena said. I’m happy to get the win, but to get it in such a way is something that I’ll never forget.”

Maddon’s unconventional lineup worked well against Sabathia. The Rays score five runs on eight hits and three walks against the Yankees’ ace in six innings. The stacked top of the lineup went 6-13 against the lefty, led by Evan Longoria, who went 3-3 with a home run against Sabathia. Surprise cleanup hitter, Jeff Keppinger went 2-3. Ben Zobrist had just one hit, but his game-tying ninth inning triple – following Desmond Jennings’ single – moved the win-expectency more than 60%. In a last minute tweak to the lineup, Maddon switched Pena from the seventh spot up to sixth.

Not every button Maddon pushed worked in his favor. In the fifth inning, with runners on the corners and no out, it appeared as if Sean Rodriguez attempted to pull off a safety squeeze; however, the ball did not travel far enough and ended up as a simple sacrifice. The Rays were put in a similar situation in the seventh inning, and again failed with the squeeze play. This time with runners on the corner and one out, Jose Molina missed a sign, nearly decapitating the hard-charging Rodriguez from third. With two strikes, Molina fouled off another bunt attempt to end the at-bat. The same two-strike play was executed properly in spring training.

In the case of Rodriguez, the better play would have been to let him swing away, especially considering his track record against left-handed pitchers. The Molina squeeze was the right call, but failed execution. Molina is a double-play candidate and arguably the weakest bat in the Rays’ lineup. Luckily for Tampa Bay, Pena made up for the small-ball mistakes with his power stroke.

On the mound, James Shields just didn’t have it. Part of that can be attributed to a talented Yankees’ lineup, but he failed to generate whiffs on pitches other than his changeup and left pitches up-and-over the middle of the plate. Following Shields, six relievers combined to throw four shutout innings, allowing four walks and no hits. Jake McGee was impressive in his one inning of work, routinely hitting the mid-90s with his fastball. In a bases loaded situation in the seventh inning, he threw Derek Jeter five straight fastballs before dropping in an 87-mph slider to induce an inning-ending groundball. J.P. Howell (0.2 innings) and Fernando Rodney (1.0 inning) also looked good in their 2012 debuts.

Speaking about the victory, Maddon said “from the very first inning, it felt like we were in the middle of the season, heading into October—that’s a tribute to both teams right there. We get on top, they come back, what a beautiful first game…I really appreciated that game of baseball played by both sides.”

161 more to go.