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Red Sox-Rays ALDS Game One: The Defense Rests

Going into today’s Red Sox-Rays game, plate discipline and the strike zone figured to play prominent roles. They did, to a certain degree. Defense — or lack thereof — played a bigger one.

As FanGraphs readers know, Red Sox and Rays hitters are patient at the plate. No team in either league swung at a lower percentage of pitches out of the strike zone than Tampa Bay. Their 0-swing% was just 27.1. The Red Sox were third-lowest at 28.2.

The Rays were more aggressive in the strike zone. The Red Sox swung at 62.4 percent of strikes, the lowest in baseball. Tampa Bay’s 64.8 z-swing% placed them closer to the middle of the pack.

What would that mean for today’s ALDS Game One match-up? Red Sox starter Lester walked 2.83 batters per nine innings this year, but has been known to work long counts and build up high pitch counts. Tampa Bay starter Moore walked 4.59 and has been described as effectively wild.

Before the game, manager Joe Maddon said of Moore, “When he’s kind of like this controlled wildness, they don’t get hits. He may walk a couple of guys, but they don’t hit him. And sometimes he’ll get over the plate, which you’d perceive to be better command, and he gets hit. That’s the problem. He walks this different kind of tightrope.”

As it turned out, Moore — despite pitching better than his line score — walked the gangplank. Early on, it was Lester who was getting a sinking feeling. Not surprisingly, plate discipline and the strike zone came into play.

With two out in the bottom of the second inning, Lester threw a 2-2 changeup to Sean Rodriguez that dotted the bottom of strike zone. Rodriguez, who has a 66.8 o-zone% and the second lowest walk rate in today‘s Rays lineup, watched it go by. The home plate umpire called it a ball, and Rodriguez proceeded to homer on the next pitch.

Two innings later, Ben Zobrist made Lester pay for falling behind in the count. He hit a 3-1 pitch over the Green Monster to put the Rays up 2-0.

In the bottom half of the fourth, John Farrell became a prophet. In yesterday‘s workout-day press conference, the Red Sox manager said “There’s going to be a play, a defensive play inside of a game, that will be a swing moment.” He was referring to the above-average ability of both teams to turn batted balls into outs, but that isn‘t what happened.

In very un-Rays-like fashion, Joe Maddon’s club turned catchable balls into a five-run inning. Right fielder Wil Myers allowed a deep-but-seemingly-harmless drive by David Ortiz to fall untouched on the warning track. Following a game-tying two-run double by Jonny Gomes — the first postseason hit of his career — Moore and James Loney failed to convert a Stephen Drew roller into a third out. A hustling Gomes scored all the way from second base. Will Middlebrooks then drove a line drive off the Monster that should have put runners on the corners. Left fielder Rodriguez botched the carom and Drew scored all the way from first. The Red Sox led 5-2.

For all intents and purposes, that was the game. The Red Sox tallied seven more runs — the final was 12-2 — but they were merely icing on the cake. In full command outside of the two gophers, Jon Lester wasn’t about give up the lead. He worked into the eighth inning, allowing just three hits.

Myers, meanwhile, needed a hole to hide in. Not only did his misplay open up the floodgates, it led to a serenade of “My-ers, My-ers” from the Fenway Faithful.

To his credit, the talented rookie offered no excuses. He told reporters he saw centerfielder Desmond out of the corner of his eye and simply failed to make the play.

Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino saw it this way: “One mistake led to a big inning. I’ve been on that other end, where you make a mistake and the next thing you know, a whole bunch of runs score. It happens, and it’s not fun. He looked comfortable and was under it, so I don’t know what happened for him to pull away from that ball. But I’m not going to worry about it or feel bad for him. It led to a big inning for us; we capitalized. Hey, he’s a young kid and he’s going to be fine.”

Evan Longoria had a similar perspective from the losing clubhouse.

“He’s going to be able to continue to play the game and stay focused. Everybody kind of made it a point to go up to him and let him know we all make mistakes. Zo [Ben Zobrist] was telling him that on the bench. And all of us kind of reiterated that he’s never going to hear the end of it. Tomorrow he’s going to hear it, and if we come back here, they’re going to remember. These are good baseball fans and they understood the importance of that play and how it changed the course of the game. Hopefully he’s able to turn the page.”

According to Maddon, that’s exactly what the Rays plan to do.

“We’ll be back tomorrow. I promise you. We’ll be ready to play. We will not be affected mentally by today’s game. We’ll be ready to play.”