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There was no query about essentially the most transcendent second of the Rays’ 5–0 win over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS. It was Tampa Bay left fielder Randy Arozarena in a dazzling reprisal of his position as playoff hero—pulling off a straight steal of residence within the seventh inning, the sort of thrilling play that’s made for October, finished with the precision and a focus to element that sometimes characterize the Rays.
But some of the staff’s sharpest work within the shutout got here from a routine attribute that’s far much less horny—its defensive positioning.
The Red Sox made a honest quantity of arduous contact on Friday evening. But a lot of it died within the infield. After the sport, Rays supervisor Kevin Cash ran over the fates of some of the hardest-hit balls, with one snagged by his second baseman Brandon Lowe, one other by shortstop Wander Franco and yet one more by third baseman Yandy Diaz. All had seemed straightforward—informal, even. How? As has been a energy of this staff all 12 months, every of these fielders knew to get arrange in juuust the fitting place.
“If you’re not in the right position,” Cash stated, “you’re not getting to those balls, let alone catching them.”
It’s not that the Rays deploy the shift particularly typically: They’re nearly precisely league-average, actually, with 55.6% of their pitches thrown in entrance of a protection that doesn’t have any variety of official strategic alignment. (The MLB common this 12 months was 56.5%.) But they’re masterful at adjusting the place they stand with out totally shifting their positions. These strikes could be delicate—nearly imperceptible in some instances—however they constantly repay. It doesn’t matter who’s on the plate. Tampa Bay nearly all the time appears to get in the fitting place on the proper time.
“Our guys upstairs, they kind of give us the blueprint of ‘This is where they hit the ball most on these types of pitches and these types of match-ups,’” Cash stated of what the entrance workplace supplies his teaching employees. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got guys that really care, pay attention to every little detail. Any advantage that can help us, we’re going to try to use. And it was fitting that it showed up tonight.”
This positioning on Friday evening was a boon to rookie starter Shane McClanahan. The 24-year-old lefty rose to the event with some flashes of downright nasty stuff. (This was notably true within the first inning, when he bought three swinging strikeouts with three completely different out-pitches, together with a triple-digit heater.) But he nonetheless allowed a honest quantity of arduous contact over the course of the evening—eight hitters recorded an exit velocity of 98 mph or better off McClanahan. Yet that translated to little or no injury. Just two of these hard-hit balls become hits. All the others? The Rays’ gloves had been prepared and ready. (And every of these two hits was a single: Even when Boston might get a ball to drop, Tampa Bay’s fielders had been by no means too far off.) This meant that the Red Sox had a number of good alternatives to get on base versus McClanahan. But the Rays’ exact positioning ensured that nothing got here of any of them.
“As an offense, I thought we did a good job of getting our knocks,” stated Red Sox second baseman Christian Arroyo. “We just didn’t have that gut-punching blow.”
Of course, Tampa Bay’s protection is greater than its positioning. It’s additionally simply plain good: It was second in defensive effectivity within the American League this season solely to Houston, with fewer errors than the league common, and several other gamers who individually topped positional leaderboards. (By comparability, protection is one thing of a shortcoming for Boston, who led the AL in errors with 108.) But the Rays’ positioning makes all of that defensive success attainable—tiny steps that, fairly actually, add up.
This was removed from the flashiest half of the evening. Even earlier than his steal, Arozarena picked up proper the place he left off final October with a solo residence run within the fifth inning. Franco grew to become the youngest participant in historical past to file a number of hits in his postseason debut. (Would you count on the rest from him?) The staff as a entire did a superb job of exploiting Boston’s weaknesses by attending to its lackluster bullpen early. But the plain success of defensive positioning of their first playoff recreation of the 12 months felt like one thing of a harbinger for the Rays: The little stuff can matter fairly a lot in October. And there may not be any staff in baseball that has made such a behavior of nailing the little stuff as has Tampa Bay—even when it means going one step at a time.
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