Cora’s Gambit Made Irrelevant by Boston’s Offensive Woes as Red Sox Fall to Rays in Game 1

Any team down 1-0 in a five-game series has problems. That’s where the Boston Red Sox find themselves after losing Game 1 of their American League Division Series tilt against the Tampa Bay Rays 5-0 in St. Petersburg on Thursday night. But before this series began, the Red Sox already had plenty of issues, and while Alex Cora did his best to mitigate them with some unexpected decisions concerning his pitching staff, he was left helpless thanks to a moribund Boston offense.

Problem No. 1: The Red Sox are all but forced to lean on left-handed starters against a team that crushes them

The Red Sox had to use Nathan Eovaldi just to get to this point. Unfortunately, the understandable decision to have their right-handed ace start the AL Wild Card game means that Tampa will likely face a left-handed starter in at least three games should the ALDS go the full five. That’s a problem when squaring off against the Rays, whose offense finished second in the AL only to the Houston Astros in terms of runs scored and features one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball against southpaws. Here’s Tampa’s Game 1 lineup, with their 2021 performance against lefties:

Rays Game One Lineup vs. LHP (2021)
Player PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Randy Arozarena 233 .302 .386 .535 153
Wander Franco 110 .357 .418 .602 181
Brandon Lowe 188 .198 .261 .401 83
Nelson Cruz 194 .316 .375 .538 142
Yandy Díaz 218 .288 .367 .445 126
Jordan Luplow 109 .167 .312 .378 96
Manuel Margot 209 .273 .346 .406 112
Mike Zunino 129 .342 .419 .868 242
Kevin Kiermaier 122 .268 .328 .348 94

Brandon Lowe in the three-hole is curious, but sometimes comfort and stability are more important than batting order. All-in-all, a scary lineup gets exceptionally scarier with a left-hander like Eduardo Rodriguez on the mound, as the Rays only feature two players (Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier) who historically have hit worse against lefties. Jordan Luplow’s 2021 numbers might fail to impress, but it’s a small sample and he has a career slugging percentage over .500 on that side of the platoon; he was added to the ALDS roster at the expense of late-inning option Brett Phillips for just this purpose.

It didn’t take long for the Rays’ ability to obliterate those who throw from the sinister side to become readily apparent. In fact, it took just two batters, with Rodriguez contributing to the problem with some loose command in the first inning. A leadoff walk to Randy Arozarena was followed by a hard hit double by Wander Franco that Enrique Hernández bobbled just long enough to allow Arozarena to come all the way around to score.

Problem No. 2: Boston isn’t a very good defensive team

Following the Franco double, the spirits of randomness decided to play some games, as the hardest-hit ball of the frame, a 111-mph screamer from Lowe, was hit right at Hunter Renfroe, while the lightest hit ball of the inning, a sub-60 mph dribbler off the bat of Yandy Díaz, was just slow enough to prevent Rafael Devers from making a play and allowed Franco to score. Though it might be the other way around and Rafael Devers was just slow enough to not complete the play, as a better defensive third baseman probably turns that ball into an out.

Problem No. 3: The Red Sox bullpen just isn’t built to get 22 outs in a playoff game

The next inning, Alex Cora made the somewhat surprising decision that once through the lineup was enough for Rodriguez. Mike Zunino just missed leaving the park, and after striking out Keirmaier on a left-on-left changeup, the Red Sox turned to Garrett Richards.

Now, Cora knows the strengths (which are still considerable) and weaknesses of this team better than anyone. Understanding that the Red Sox are outmatched in several ways, he opted to try to outmaneuver the Rays instead. Rodriguez wasn’t especially good during his 41 pitches and five outs recorded, but getting pulled after going once through the order wasn’t based entirely on how he pitched, if it was at all. This became apparent when Cora used Richards to get one out — and one out only — in order to hand a clean third inning to erstwhile starter Nick Pivetta, a right-hander who suddenly had a bit of an extra edge facing a lineup still stuffed with platoon pieces like Luplow and Díaz who are best deployed against a lefty. Using traditional left-handed starters in traditional ways is a recipe for disaster for Boston this series. Cora’s only alternative is to try to mix and match his way to the end of the game, and hope for some runs and a lead to hand to Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck for anywhere from six to 12 outs. It might not be a strategy that works, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s the strategy with the best chance to work.

Pivetta, he of the plus-plus big league stuff and frustrating outcomes due to Triple-A-quality command, was exceptionally Pivetta-esque. If you only watched his first at-bat, in which he finished off Franco with a hard, tight 86 mph slider, you’d think this guy was amongst the best pitchers in the game. Eight batters later, he grooved a 95 mph arrow-straight heater down the pipe to Arozerana, who knows what do with pitches like that when the calendar flips to October. That, combined with a silly Tropicana Field-fueled home run by Nelson Cruz, stretched a 2-0 lead to 4-0, and the Rays cruised from there, adding a fifth run on an Arozarena straight steal of home that should be credited to his speed, attention, and a Rays advance staff that surely noted how Josh Taylor can just flat out forget about runners at times.

As for the Rays pitchers, much has been made of Tampa’s rookie-centric playoff rotation, but this isn’t Shane McClanahan’s first rodeo, as he pitched in the 2020 postseason and made 25 regular season starts in 2021. He has multiple weapons and all of them were on display in the top of the first inning. While he gave up a what-can-you-do infield single to Kyle Schwarber, he wrapped a strikeout of Hernández on an 82 mph back foot curveball and a whiff of Xander Bogaerts on a 90 mph slider (that velocity isn’t a typo) around it before ending the frame by blowing Devers away with 100 mph at the top of the zone. Surprisingly, those were the only strikeouts on the night for McClanahan, who settled into pitch efficiency mode once he had the lead, trusting his weapons in the zone and frequently generating early, and weak, contact. He finished the night with five shutout innings.

From there it was the usual mish-mash of Rays relievers. Kevin Cash knows exactly who he’s going to use in any given inning based on the sequence of hitters scheduled to approach the plate, and tonight, the bingo balls came up for J.T. Chargois, David Robertson, and J.P. Feyereisen. All in all, the four moundsmen combined to limit Boston, sans J.D. Martinez, to nine scattered singles without allowing a walk. Other than a bases-loaded situation in the eighth that ended up being fruitless, the Red Sox never really threatened to make the game interesting, at least in terms of the score. Ultimately, it was the offense that prevented the team from having a chance to execute on the final innings of an unexpected game plan.

Alex Cora managed Game 1 in an unexpected way, and his gambit was arguably the one that would have given the Red Sox the best shot at stealing an initial win in Tampa. But in the end, any pitcher usage strategy, be it traditional, progressive or even experimental, needs runs on the scoreboard to succeed. Using their own tried-and-true arm usage approach, one that has guided them to three straight postseason appearances — a short but effective start and four good innings from any number of relievers — the Rays ensured that whatever Cora had in mind simply wasn’t going to work.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Connor Grey
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Connor Grey

I’m sure you know Cruz’ homer was crushed and would’ve been out anywhere but reading “silly Tropicana Field fueled homer by Nelson Cruz” makes it sound like it wouldn’t have been a homer had it not hit the ring. Judging from what I was seeing on Twitter, people seemed to think that was the case.

Statcast said he hit it 406 feet with a 39° LA. He crushed it, it just looked ridiculous when it hit the ring and came back on the field, but it was a legitimate home run.

MikeD
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MikeD

True. I think the words “silly Tropicana Field” are always appropriate, but more simply as a general description. That ball was crushed.

Thomas Myers
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Thomas Myers

i was going to write something just like this Connor. Thank you. It was crushed, its gone in most parks.