Jose Lobaton (center) saved Tampa Bay with a walkoff homer in the ninth off Boston's Koji Uehara. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Red Sox closer Koji Uehara's splitter is so deceptive that an opposing manager once called it "an invisiball." During an intrasquad scrimmage last week, several Boston players wanted to watch the pitch from the batter's box. Baseball Analytics called it "unhittable" and argued that it might be "the nastiest pitch in the game." It's the pitch that keyed a late-summer streak in which Uehara retired 37 consecutive batters.
Rays backup catcher Jose Lobaton had homered once in his last 28 games, and had hit only nine homers in 499 career regular-season and playoff at bats. In his only two prior plate appearances in the cleanup spot, he had struck out both times. Lobaton had entered Monday's game in the ninth inning only because starter Jose Molina had been pinch-hit for in the eighth. Uehara hadn't allowed a home run since June 30.
So of course a game in which both teams replaced their starting designated hitters, pinch-ran for guys who had reached base in all four at-bats and used four of their five reserve position players -- a nine-inning game that lasted just shy of four-and-a-half hours, and which included lead-changes in each of the last three half-innings -- would end in improbable fashion, with Lobaton launching a Uehara splitter for a solo walk-off home run into a center-field tank full of live rays.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said the other day that he has emphasized all season the importance of "winning the seven-inning game" given how dominant the back ends of most bullpens have become. Yet so much of the fun in this game -- with the Rays cutting the Red Sox' ALDS lead to 2-1 -- began in the eighth. Boston's Quinton Berry, pinch-running for David Ortiz, stole second on a close play in the top of the eighth, prompting a vehement protest from Tampa Bay. The game teetered back and forth on a pair of run-scoring groundouts in the bottom of the eighth and the top of the ninth, before Lobaton's blast ended the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
It was a game of myriad miscues and managerial machinations. A run scored on a wild pitch. Feared sluggers were not intentionally walked with first-base open. There was a bad call on a tag at third base. There was an up-the-middle collision of diving infielders.
Among the other quirks was the Rays sporting a lineup in which both their No. 3 hitter (Evan Longoria) and their starting pitcher (Alex Cobb) were celebrating birthdays -- 28 for Longoria, 26 for Cobb. Longoria's gift to Cobb was his game-tying, three-run homer in the fifth, which took the pitcher off the hook and helped him salvage a no-decision.
Tampa Bay has now won four straight games when facing elimination, all played over the last nine days in four different ballparks, two time zones and two countries -- and with three different starting pitchers on the mound. In order to advance to the next round, they'll need another pitcher (the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson starts Tuesday against the Red Sox' Jake Peavy) and visit another ballpark (a Game 5 would be back at Fenway Park on Thursday). And if Monday's game is any indication, expect to see a cycle, a balk, an inside-the-park home run, the infield fly rule and catcher's interference all play a role, too.