The Red Sox beat the Rays at their own game Tuesday night, hitting doubles, stealing bases, and hustling the defense into making errors. But they were lucky, too. Gomes hit a grounder just beyond the reach of Longoria, and Iglesias’s chopper bounced barely over the third baseman’s head in the ninth. So let’s not get too cocky.
What the Red Sox could learn from Tuesday night is how Wil Myers and Evan Longoria scored the only two runs the Rays managed in a 6-2 loss. They launched the first pitch from John Lester. He was making first-pitch strikes, and they weren’t about to waste a swing at them. Meanwhile every Sox hitter was giving away the first strike, because the Sox are patient. They have the highest number of pitches per plate appearance in Major League baseball, as Jerry Remy was at pains to point out.
Now patience is considered a prime virtue in Red Sox hitters, and they have produced a lot of runs with patience. But Joe Madden, the Tampa Rays manager, also knows that a pitcher who is trying to get ahead of batters will tend to center his first pitch, so his hitters often go up looking for that first one. This way they get a cut at the most hittable pitch in the sequence. Wil Myers took this approach every time he came to the plate, and he whacked the ball hard on three consecutive pitches, the first for a homer, the second for a double, and the third for a solid line out.
What’s good for the Rays is good for the Sox. The Rays’ pitchers will try to get ahead of every Sox hitter, and that first pitch may be the best one to hit in the sequence. At some point, you should not let them get away with a first strike. In the seventh and eighth innings Tuesday night Napoli and Saltalamachia and Drew went up whaling, and they hit the ball solidly. Really they could have done the same earlier in the game, and there might have been more base runners.
And the same for Pedroia and Ortiz, who are the souls of patience. Often their opponents will pitch around them, and there is nothing to do but take the walk. But if they dare to throw a first-pitch strike, Pedey and Papi should make them pay. This will be most important against the best teams, like Tampa Bay and Baltimore and Oakland and Texas. They will assume the Red Sox will take the first pitch and use that to their advantage.
So a good way to get on top of these teams is to get aggressive. Look for the first pitch strike, but don’t watch it. Take a rip. Not enough to be predictable, to allow the pitcher to take advantage of your aggressiveness, but to surprise them and make them shy about getting ahead on the first pitch. It’s the art of aggressiveness, the art of keeping them off balance. It’s what Madden does so well with his team, and it’s how to beat them.