Jonny Gomes (left), Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino (right) combined for 5 RBIs in the win. (Charles Krupa/AP)
BOSTON -- David Ortiz launched a deep, but routine, fourth-inning flyball to the rightfield warning track, where the Rays’ Wil Myers was camping at its destination with gloved hand elevated and right arm extended to ward off centerfielder Desmond Jennings.
Fenway Park’s mid-afternoon sun can be notoriously treacherous in right field, yet at that moment it mostly seemed to be hidden behind the clouds. The ballpark was loud, but Myers didn’t hear anything specific under the general crowd commotion. He stood in front of the Red Sox’ bullpen but would say its occupants didn’t shout at him.
All that separated a can-of-corn from a game-changing gaffe was Myers seeing Jennings in his peripheral vision and showing unsolicited deference to his center fielder. Myers stepped forward onto the outfield grass as Ortiz’s ball ricocheted off the warning track and into the bullpen for a ground-rule double.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Myers would say. “I just saw Des out of the corner of my eye and backed off.”
The postseason can be prone to hyperbole, given the raised stakes in the shortened time frame, but there’s no understating the magnitude of Myers’ misplay on momentum and strategy as the Red Sox would pounce for five runs in that inning -- and explode in two later scoring binges -- on their way to a 12-2 victory in ALDS Game 1, as Boston starter Jon Lester allowed just two runs on three hits in 7 2/3 innings.
Tampa Bay held a 2-0 lead at the time of Ortiz’s gift of a hit (video below) and, instead of the Sox having a runner on first base with two outs, they suddenly had men on second and third with only one out. The next batter, Jonny Gomes, clearly altered his approach to exaggerate his natural upper cut in hopes of soaring a sacrifice fly into the air. He fouled off his first attempt and then succeeded in lifting a ball high to left field, where it had just enough distance to scrape the Green Monster on its descent for a two-run double, all thanks to his concerted effort to punch the ball in the air.
[mlbvideo id="31081213" width="600" height="336" /]
“Yeah absolutely,” Gomes said. “Sac fly is best-case scenario. A home run is icing on the cake. You do have to change your swing [regarding] the situation. I was definitely looking to elevate the ball.”
Had Ortiz’s ball been caught, Gomes would have handled his at bat differently and, if he had still doubled, it only would have scored one run rather than two. Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out after Gomes, which would have been the third out of the inning of what at worst for the Rays would have still been a 2-1 lead, rather than what would become a 5-2 deficit.
Boston would add three more runs in the fifth inning and four more in the eighth, but the game was irrevocably changed by the fourth. Rays starter Matt Moore threw at least 17 more pitches that inning (counting after Saltalamacchia’s strikeout for the would-have-been third out), and the lineup rotated five more slots.
The strength of the Red Sox lineup isn’t its slugging but its patience, its plate discipline and the pressure it puts on opponents, all of which made it perfectly equipped to capitalize on an opportunity. All nine Sox starters had both a hit and a run, the first time since 1936 that any team has done that in the postseason.
That’s a neat reminder of the depth of this offense, which had above-average production at eight of the nine lineup slots this season on its way to leading the majors in runs by 57. Boston scored its 12 runs Friday without the use of a home run.
“Playoff baseball is about doing the little things,” said right fielder Shane Victorino, who went 3-for-4 with three singles and a hit-by-pitch. “We are an American League team and we are a team that can thump, but we can also do the little things -- getting guys over, getting runs in.”
The Red Sox’ lineup works on an even more microscopic scale than just moving runners over with productive outs. It saps the starting pitcher through attrition. Moore threw 21 pitches in each of the first two innings and had a no-hitter through three, yet Boston had still accomplished something.
“The first time around the lineup, everybody pretty much had a real good at-bat,” Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said. “We didn’t have anything to show for it [on the scoreboard], but the guys were seeing pitches, taking good swings, hitting the ball at people and hitting the ball hard. They weren’t chasing. They were making a conscious effort to keep him in the zone.”
That manifested in the fourth inning -- once granted the opportunity to extend their at-bat, the Sox pounced as they have done so often this year. They led the AL with 21 innings in which they scored five or more runs, some 60 percent more than the league average of 13.
The Red Sox’ first playoff game since 2009 came a year to the day after the club dismissed manager Bobby Valentine after last season’s disastrous 93-loss campaign. Even though only six players remain from the ’09 playoff team, general manager Ben Cherington added six veteran free agents this offseason. Each of those six has been in the postseason with other clubs, and eight of Boston’s 10 starters on Friday had previously appeared in the postseason at an average of 31 playoff games per man.
Inexperience seemed to play a role in the game-changing misplay by the Rays’ rookie, Myers, who admitted afterward, “I should have just taken control and caught the ball.” By failing to do so, he fulfilled a prophetic comment from Boston manager John Farrell, who on Thursday predicted, “There's going to be a play, a defensive play, inside of a game that will be a swing moment.”
Chants of “Myyyy-errrs, Myyyy-errrs” dogged the right fielder the rest of the game, save for an appreciative ovation rooted in sarcasm the next time he batted, much like the one Yankees closer Mariano Rivera received on Opening Day in 2005 after blowing a couple clinching saves in the previous year’s ALCS.
Fenway will now have a doubly important role in Myers’ life -- it’s where he made his big league debut four months ago and it’s where he made an unfortunate venture into the register of playoff gaffes, sure to be re-shown in blooper reels and summations of the recent Rays-Red Sox rivalry.
To his credit, Myers handled the situation with equanimity, answering dozens of questions about his mistake after the game, refusing to blame anyone else and pledging, “It’s something we’re going to brush off and look to tomorrow.”
Tampa Bay, after all, has shown unprecedented resiliency in winning three straight elimination games, all on the road and in three different cities over a span of five days. The Rays will count on that fortitude -- and ace David Price -- for a Game 2 rebound.