10/14/08 12:25 AM ET
Chess Match: Rays rolling
Lester's struggles throw wrench into Francona's game plan
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
The Red Sox lined up Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in Games 2 and 3 with a chance to take command of the American League Championship Series, and neither of them lasted through the sixth inning. The Rays put together a game plan to watch out for Lester's cutter, and ended up hitting mistake cutters that wandered over the plate instead of going up and in on Tampa Bay's right-handed hitters.
When a team gets that kind of momentum going, as the Rays did with B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, there isn't much managerial strategy that can overturn it.
Feel the heat, Rays
The situation: Lester enters Monday having tossed 19 2/3 postseason innings without an earned run dating back to last year's World Series, including 14 scoreless innings in the AL Division Series.
The decision: Manager Joe Maddon and hitting coach Steve Henderson push the approach of having their hitters pounce on Lester's fastball, not allowing him to move ahead and set up his nasty movement pitches for strikeouts.
The outcome: The Rays jump on Lester for eight hits over 5 2/3 innings, including home runs from Upton and Longoria in the third. Lester strikes out four batters through the first three innings, but half of the 10 pitches the Rays put in play go for base hits.
The analysis: As the Rays agreed, Lester left pitches over the plate to hit, and they didn't miss them. On the other hand, they didn't swing their way into bad counts and allow Lester to work his way out of trouble. If preparation breeds confidence, the Rays are surging off of it right now.
The explanation: "His cutter is really good. It's his putaway pitch, and he keeps it down and in a lot, and a lot of people swing at it. I think we really didn't bite on it today. We made him throw a couple more balls over the plate that obviously he didn't want to." -- Upton on Lester
Lester lingers on
The situation: Lester recovers from his third-inning damage to hold the Rays scoreless for the rest of his outing. He retires four straight hitters before a four-pitch walk to Rocco Baldelli with two outs in the sixth.
The decision: Manager Terry Francona takes out Lester at 96 pitches and replaces him with Paul Byrd, who warmed up but did not pitch in extra innings in Game 2.
The outcome: Byrd ends the sixth and retires the side in the seventh before Baldelli's three-run homer in the eighth effectively puts the game away.
The analysis: Considering Lester was nearing 100 pitches in a game that wasn't close -- 5-0 at that point -- there was no reason to put more stress on his arm than the Red Sox had to. They could save him for a Game 7 assignment they sure hope comes to fruition and try to hold the lead with someone else.
Garza goes deep into game
The situation: Matt Garza tosses six scoreless innings for the Rays before a leadoff walk to Jason Varitek and an ensuing single from Alex Cora give the Red Sox a potential rally with the top of the order coming up and nobody out.
The decision: Manager Joe Maddon goes out for Garza and brings in J.P. Howell to go lefty-on-lefty against Boston leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, who was 0-for-3 against Garza.
The outcome: Ellsbury drives in Varitek with a sacrifice fly, but Dustin Pedroia hits into an inning-ending double play, maintaining Tampa Bay's lead at 5-1.
The analysis: The more interesting decision for the Rays might well have been to go with the lefty Howell against Pedroia, who hits right-handed and had two singles and a walk at that point. That allowed Howell to stay in for the eighth and retire another left-handed hitter, David Ortiz, before striking out Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay.
The explanation: "The pitch count was manageable. If he's going to pitch again in this series, it's going to be with five full days of rest. So that really wasn't a big factor. The bottom of the lineup, we didn't mind seeing so much. We had somebody ready to face Ellsbury." -- Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.