Baseball? This was a chess match between two grand masters.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, forced to dip into his bullpen before the game's seventh batter because of the ineffectiveness of starter Jeremy Hellickson, used eight relievers in a desperate attempt to keep his team's season alive. Red Sox manager John Farrell played mix-and-match with both his bench and his bullpen as he tried to get his team into the American League Championship Series.
And in the end, it was Farrell's moves that paid off. The Red Sox came back from a 1-0 deficit with two runs in the seventh and one in the ninth and eliminated the Rays, 3-1, in Game 4 of the ALDS.
The Sox open the ALCS at Fenway Park on Saturday against the winner of Thursday's Tigers-A's game.
"They're just good, man. They're good," said an admiring Maddon. "They're the reason we're sitting here not winning right now. They beat us all season (12-7 edge in the regular season). They beat us in a five‑game series. I've got to give them credit.
"I should take this moment to say I want to give them a lot of credit, John [Farrell] and the entire Red Sox organization what they've done this year . . . [They] deserve to advance. I commend them."
Maddon's bullpen machinations had paid off brilliantly for six innings. Despite getting eight baserunners -- three hits, four walks, a hit batter -- the Sox came up empty, thanks in large part to two double plays. The Rays, meanwhile, pushed across a run in the bottom of the sixth and had things set up with their three best relievers (Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney) to protect that 1-0 lead for nine outs.
"This is a very unique game," said Farrell. "We faced nine different pitchers. And early on, through the first five innings, we had to remain patient with not making wholesale changes to our lineup, not knowing who they might go to next . . . It was more testing our patience early on."
But once the seventh inning arrived, Farrell's patience wore out.
His first gambit came up empty: Jonny Gomes, pinch-hitting for Saltalamacchia (0-for-2, 2 strikeouts, 5 runners stranded) against the left-handed McGee, flied out to center leading off the inning.
His second one -- one that he didn't make Monday -- worked. He sent Xander Bogaerts up to hit for Stephen Drew and Bogaerts walked, putting the tying run on base.
McGee won an eight-pitch battle with Will Middlebrooks, striking him out for the second out. But Jacoby Ellsbury dropped a single to center and the alert Bogaerts raced to third, putting him 90 feet away.
With Shane Victorino -- now strictly a right-handed batter because of a rib injury -- due up, Maddon summoned the right-handed Peralta. Ellsbury broke for second on the first pitch, a curveball that Peralta bounced in the dirt. Jose Lobaton was unable to block it, it caromed off to the first-base batter's box, and Bogaerts raced home with the tying run. Ellsbury, meanwhile, raced to third.
And from there he scored the go-ahead run when Victorino beat out a broken-bat grounder to shortstop for an infield hit.
Farrell had already made his first move prior to the two-run rally, calling on Craig Breslow to relieve Jake Peavy with two outs and a man on first in the sixth and the Rays leading, 1-0. Breslow retired the first five batters he faced -- the first four by strikeout -- until surrendering a one-out single to Yunel Escobar (3-for-3) in the eighth. Farrell brought in Junichi Tazawa, who struck out pinch-hitter Matt Joyce for the second out. Then he went back to his closer, Koji Uehara, with the top of the order due and -- one night after Uehara's first failure in more than three months -- asked him for a four-out save.
After Uehara struck out the final batter of the eighth, his team gave him an insurance run in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Dustin Pedroia; it came after a spate of wildness by closer Fernando Rodney, who walked two batters and hit a third. He went back out and retired the side in order in the bottom of the ninth, clinching his team's three-games-to-one victory.
This night turned strange early. After a rocking-chair, 1-2-3 first inning, Hellickson opened the second by walking David Ortiz and Mike Napoli and allowing a sharp single to right by Daniel Nava, loading the bases with no out.
Afraid the game would get away even at that early stage, Maddon used the hook and called on veteran Jamey Wright. Wright struck out Saltamacchia looking -- the first of the two strikeouts for Salty that would eventually cause Farrell to pinch-hit for him -- and then got lucky. Drew scorched a screaming line drive that appeared headed for the right-field corner and could conceivably have cleared the bases. But first baseman James Loney reached up and snared it for the second out, and doubled Napoli off second for the double play that ended the inning with no runs scoring.
"When we lined into the double play," said Farrell, "it felt like that took the air out of our sails a little bit."
None was as bad as coming up empty out of a bases-loaded/no-out jam, but there were be many other wasted opportunities for the Red Sox through the first six innings:
-- Middlebrooks led off the third with a walk, but was erased when Ellsbury hit into a double play.
-- A one-out single by Ortiz and a two-out walk to Nava in the fourth were wasted when Saltalamacchia again took a called third strike, this time on a 3-and-2 pitch.
-- The Sox again had runners at first and second with two out in the fifth -- this time when Middlebrooks singled with one out and Victorino was hit by a pitch with two gone -- but Pedroia ended the inning by grounding out to second.
The Rays weathered the storm and finally broke through against Peavy, who had stifled them for the first five innings, in the bottom of the sixth. Escobar led off with a double off the left-field fence, missing a home run by just a few feet. Jose Lobaton advanced him to third with a grounder to the right side, forcing the Sox to bring the infield in. And David DeJesus took advantage by lacing a line drive to right -- a line drive that Napoli might have caught at first base had he been playing back -- to score Escobar and give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.
It was a lead the Rays were able to hold for exactly five batters.