Kevin Millwood was in trouble all night long tonight, but never gave in. Neither did Stephen Pryor when Jeff Keppinger hit that leadoff double off him in the ninth.
If Keppinger scores there, it’s a whole different bottom of the ninth and the Mariners likely don’t go on to win 3-2 with two runs in the bottom of the frame. Actually, if anyone from the Rays had scored during the multitude of chances they had off Millwood in any of innings three-though-seven off him that ninth goes differently.
If the score is 3-1 or 4-1 in the ninth, you wouldn’t have Chone Figgins bunting with Kyle Seager on first and none out. You also wouldn’t have Carlos Pena undergo a bit of a rare mental lapse at first base in which he fielded the routine bunt and thought of trying for the lead runner at second.
In anything but a one-run game, Pena would never do that. He’d concede the base and take the automatic out. But he failed to do that and admitted to reporters aftewards that he was so focused on getting the lead runner that when he abandoned that plan and looked to first base, he was all messed up about what to do next.
Pena had time since Sean Rodriguez was standing on the bag to take the throw. Instead of making a straightforward throw, Pena pumped one towards the bag, then made one of those overhand soft-tosses that almost never results in anything good.
Sure enough, the throw sailed over Rodriguez’s head and away went Tampa Bay’s winning streak with it. The M’s had runners at second and third with none out and Justin Smoak tied it with a sac fly that sent Figgins to third.
“Pena makes that play 100 out of 100 times,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “I guess that was the 101st.”
The Mariners almost botched the chance when Miguel Olivo struck out against closer Fernando Rodney. But then Eric Thames, after falling behind 0-2, took a ball and then lined another pitch over Rodriguez’s head for the walk-off winner.
“After that first fastball, I knew he was going to come all splits,” Thames said of Rodney. “I’d faced him a lot with Toronto, so I knew he was going to throw low and away, so I just sat in that zone and tried to hit through it. I got a piece of it and got enough of it to get it over Rodriguez.”
Why did manager Eric Wedge stick with Olivo instead of going to John Jaso in that situation?
“If I put Jaso up there, they’d just walk him and that puts them in a better situation,” Wedge said. “Now, they’d have a double-play situatuon, so it just gives them another option, another opportunity to get out of the inning. If I hit him for anybody — unless we get to the point in time where there are bases loaded — they’re just going to walk him. What you’re trying to do is eliminate multiple options for them.”
Wedge said he could have pinch-hit Jaso for Brendan Ryan had Thames walked, forcing the Ryas to choose between pitching to Jaso or walking the bases full for Dustin Ackley. In any event, that was his thinking behind the strategy.
As I often feel in games like this, the at-bats that decided the game weren’t necessarily the ones in the ninth. Instead, they were the ones taken earlier by the Rays in which Millwood shut them down.
Believe me, the Rays — in a playoff race — will be going to bed tonight thinking about all those missed opportunities off Millwood, then Pryor.
For me, two key at-bats were those involving Evan Longoria in the fifth and Desmond Jennings in the seventh.
There were two on with one out in the fifth and the middle of the order coming up. Millwood managed to strike out Matt Joyce, then fell behind 3-0 to Longoria before fanning him as well.
“I wasn’t staying back,” Millwood said. “I was rushing towards the plate and getting balls up. I knew I was doing it, I just had to fix it. And I guess I fixed it.”
Then, after the first two guys singled off Millwood in the seventh, Desmond Jennings — 3-for-3 to that point — came up next. But Millwood got him to hit a hard chopper right at third baseman Kyle Seager.
If Jesus Montero was running, the M’s might have had a triple-play chance, but the M’s gladly settled for a 5-4 twin-killing at third and second before Dustin Ackley threw way late to first in a try for the speedy Jennings. But that was a huge at-bat right there where Tampa Bay could have broken the game open.
“It seemed like every inning, something would happen and I’d get guys on,” Millwood said. “It felt like I’d never have an easy inning and that tends to wear on you as the game moves along. If all you’re looking at is results, it’s pretty good. But to get to those results wasn’t very easy.”
No, it wasn’t. But it worked. And that’s why it pays never to give in.
Wedge has long said that Millwood is one of the best pitchers he knows who is skilled at minimizing damage.
“The bottom line is, you put your team in a chance to win ballgames and that’s what he does,” Wedge said.
Justin Smoak did that from the offensive side in his first game back from Class AAA. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t see anything bad in any of Smoak’s plate appearances tonight, especially the way Matt Moore was dominating the Mariners.
Smoak hit a double in his first at-bat. I asked him whether that helped him relax a bit.
“Yeah, it did,” he said. “That’s where I’m at right now, I’m trying to relax up there. That’s what I’ve got to do. That’s one thing I’ve been working on a lot. Trying not to do too much. And I felt I was in a good place.”
Later, he drew a walk against Moore. Then, in the sixth, he just missed hitting a tying home to left-center on another of those Safeco Field fly balls that seemed to die at the warning track.
“He’s got a sneaky fastball, 94, 95 or 96 (mph),” Smoak said. “So, you just try to get a good fastball to hit. You’re going to see a fastball and the first at-bat I got one middle, middle-in and I got the double, then the one I flew out on was a change-up I felt I just missed.”
Then came the sacrifice fly to center, which tied the game and put the winning run at third with one out.
“I was trying to get a changeup or a pitch up,” Smoak said. “I laid off the first one, then got a pitch to hit and got it in the air.”
But seriously, none of this happens if the Mariners don’t shut the Rays down after the first inning. This one goes to the pitchers.