Unheralded defense helping Rays win
Upton proof that glovework has been key to ALCS success
BOSTON -- No question, this 2008 Rays crew is young, athletic and willing to tackle every aspect of a baseball game with ferocity.
In Tuesday's 13-4 win over the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the younger, less experienced Rays out-everythinged the defending world champions. They scored relentlessly, ran the bases and pitched according to game plan.
Yes, there were three errors in the box score, but they were the first miscues this team committed all postseason -- a span of eight games.
Two of them came on a play where Evan Longoria tried to field and throw a ball as Jason Bay's broken bat sailed at the third baseman's head, and another came as B.J. Upton overran a ground ball in center field with the score already 13-3 in the eighth.
"I thought it [was going to hit me]," Longoria said after the game. "I wasn't even unhappy about the error. I was just happy I got underneath the bat."
Even with Longoria's mishaps, the Rays relied on keen defense to get out of that second inning without allowing a run. Coco Crisp grounded into double play neatly turned by second baseman Akinori Iwamura to shortstop Jason Bartlett and over to first.
That was only the beginning.
In the third, Iwamura snatched up another grounder and threw a ball to first that Carlos Pena stretched to make the play. In the fifth, Bartlett nabbed a Crisp grounder and hurled it to Pena with ease, proving his ability to make the necessary plays and then some at short.
It was the work of a poised group of infielders working together and yielding strong results.
Even the typical shift to defend David Ortiz's pull-hitting worked perfectly. Iwamura, playing in the right-field grass in the first inning, ended the frame and sent the Rays' bats back to work.
"We have Aki at second base, Bartlett at shortstop, Longoria at third," Pena said. "These guys can pick it. The next thing you know we have a solid infield and we're incredibly solid up the middle."
It's been a trend of Tampa Bay's all season long. The Rays were sixth in the American League with a .985 fielding percentage in 2008, and they yielded the fourth-fewest errors in the AL with 90.
"It was one of our more complete games tonight, I thought, in regard to all facets," manager Joe Maddon said. "I thought we made some really good defensive plays."
When looking for a highlight reel of exceedingly difficult catches that look simple, search no further than Upton in center.
The 23-year-old holds a certain amount of deceptive speed in his 6-foot-3 frame, using his legs to track down balls all over the grass in center without necessarily having to air out. His speed takes him to the spot almost effortlessly.
"He plays stellar center field," Pena said. "He makes it look so easy. The reason why it looks so easy is he has such long legs -- you think he's just jogging out there. But if you clock him he's going probably 40 miles per hour out there."
Fenway Park has one of the larger, more unconventional center fields in the Majors. With the irregular triangle that is 420 feet away from home plate at its deepest point, there's a lot of room to roam when tracking down fly balls.
Yet Upton did it five times on Tuesday. Not only did he make the catches, but he showed off his arm in the process.
In the seventh, with Bay at first, Upton retreated to snag a long fly ball by Mark Kotsay to the warning track, then fired a laser back to first keep Bay from advancing. It was the type of play that makes onlookers think the young talent has the makings of a Gold Glove Award-winning future.
"I was in awe, because he threw a ball from the wall all the way to first base and I was like, 'Are you kidding me? How can you do that?'" Pena said. "That's far. But that's how much talent that kid has. He can do it all.
"It got to me with force."
His manager, equally impressed, singled that seemingly meaningless play in the midst of a blowout contest as a defining moment for the defense.
"B.J. in center really roamed well, and you got to see his arm strength when he threw that ball to first base," Maddon said.
It might be the least talked about aspect of the Rays' success this postseason, but it certainly isn't undervalued by the team itself. Even with mistakes, everyone relies on each other to keep doing their jobs.
With Tampa Bay just one win in Thursday's Game 5 away from the first World Series trip in team history, it will again be the hitting and pitching that gets the headlines.
But take a moment to watch this unit field balls throughout the diamond. This defense, young and athletic, has the ability to yield plays as breathtaking as a shot over the Green Monster.
"Defense is important," Pena said. "You look at today. We didn't need that many runs, because of pitching and defense."
Mark Remme is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.