Since the Wednesday night thriller in which Dan Johnson hit a game-tying home run with two outs and two strikes in the ninth and Evan Longoria won with a homer in the 12th, Rays fans have come to expect that such an occurrence will happen every night.
I’ve got news for you – in baseball, as in life, it doesn’t work that way. Joe Maddon will sometimes make a move that doesn’t work out.
He made such a move on Monday night in the seventh inning when with the score 2-1 Texas and runners on second and third, Maddon signaled for a left-hander to face Texas slugger Josh Hamilton. We were sure the left-hander would be hard-throwing rookie Jake McGee, but into the game trotted J.P. Howell, an important member of the 2008 American League champions but in 2011 a generally ineffective and aggravating performer. Maddon had buried Howell after he had pitched so poorly, and all of us sitting in the stands were hoping he wouldn’t appear again.
Say this for Joe Maddon: the guy is loyal to his players. Since Howell came back from arm surgery, Joe threw him into game after game, hoping he would return to form.
He should have done his pitching in the minors. Howell walked too many batters, and those he didn’t walk got hits. Whenever he’d come into a game, many of us would cover our eyes, afraid to see what would happen. Too often, runs scored.
And so on Monday night Joe Maddon was the rare person among the sellout crowd of 35,000 who thought Howell could get Hamilton out, and we were right, and he was wrong.
Hamilton singled in two runs, making the score 4-1 Texas, and even though rookie extraordinaire Desmond Jennings smote two home runs, it wasn’t enough to overcome J.P’s lack of success as the Rays fell 4-3.
Though we rued his using Howell, at the same time we had to admire Joe’s ability to stick by his players and give them confidence. David Price is a perfect example of this. Price hadn’t pitched well all month, but Joe started him in the all-important Game 3 against Texas anyway.
Before the game Maddon talked about why he decided to pitch Price, who last year was the Rays’ ace, but who this year has walked too many hitters and has pitched without the same consistency.
“I have so much faith in this guy,” Joe said. “You will see the best of David Price today. He supports us every day in the clubhouse. We need to support David.”
A skeptic might say that Joe was just blowing smoke, but two hours later Price went out and performed just as terrifically as Maddon had predicted he would. In six and two thirds innings he allowed seven hits and three runs. He made one bad pitch, a home run hit by Mike Napoli to give Texas a 2-1 lead.
If you want to know why the Rays have managed to reach the playoffs, look no further than the way Joe Maddon casts his spell of positive energy over this group of no names, rookies, castoffs, and the team’s one true star, Evan Longoria. First he stresses the fundamentals and makes each player buy into his philosophy of self-improvement every day. Then Joe makes sure each of his men knows that he has his back.
Can Kelly Shoppach call a great game? Yes, he can, and Joe lets him know that so long as he calls a great game and can play excellent defense, then it doesn’t matter if Kelly only hits .187. Kelly then goes out and plays his role without driving over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and jumping off every night. Even better, during the last two games of the season Kelly Shoppach hit home runs, and in the opener of the playoff series against Texas, he hit two more.
How in the world did that happen? It happened because Kelly knew that Joe Maddon had his back. I guarantee you that almost any other manager would have buried Shoppach so deep in his doghouse that Shoppach never would have seen another at bat after September 1.
Same with Reid Brignac, he of the dismal batting average, and the same with light-hitting Sean Rodriguez, both who are extraordinary fielders and who are starting to feel more comfortable at bat as they mature into professional ballplayers.
The thing is, we tend to forget how young most of Maddon’s players really are. Take Jeremy Hellickson, who has pitched like a seasoned veteran. The kid is barely 23, though he looks to be 17. Said Maddon, “You look at his face and think, 'He can’t be this good.' But he is. And one reason he’s this good is that the Rays play these guys in the minors until they are sure they are ready for the big leagues, and when they arrive, they not only stick, but they shine. This doesn’t happen on most teams. Kids usually come up to the majors, struggle, and return to the minors.
Take Desmond Jennings. He came up in late July, and Joe inserted him in the lineup as soon as he arrived, and he left him there to play in almost all of the remaining games. All the kid did was lead the team’s resurgence, hitting home runs and stealing bases at a clip that would lead you to believe he’s going to be an All Star for a long time. Carl Crawford? Who’s he? We have Desmond Jennings.
The other trait Maddon has is stubbornness, er, persistence if you will. Joe envisioned that B.J. Upton would be an impact player. The question was when that would happen. But Maddon has been so certain he will be the star he envisions him to be that he put Upton in centerfield and left him there, regardless of how many times he looked at strike three or failed to hustle down to first on a two-hopper to short. And in the last month, Maddon’s patience has borne fruit, as B.J., along with Jennings and a resurgent Evan Longoria, have led the Rays to the wild card spot, edging out the Boston Red Sox, who had a nine-game lead on September 1.
We are still pinching ourselves over the fact that the Rays were able to pass the arrogant Sawks. And when you ask players how that happened, all fingers point to Joe Maddon.
“Joe’s personality rubs off on us,” said Jeremy Hellickson. “He never got down. Even when we were nine games out, he told us to believe. When he’s behind us, it makes everything a lot easier.”
Which doesn’t make him perfect, but except for Don Larsen, you rarely get perfection in this very difficult game. We may have lost tonight, but one should never forgot how we got here. After winning Wednesday night in Game 162 against the Yankees, and after Boston lost to Baltimore to give us the wild card, every game after that becomes a blessing. Regardless of how the playoffs turn out, I won’t forget that for a second, and neither should you.