Additions of Escobar, Loney helped complement excellent pitching staff
BOSTON -- Yunel Escobar made the play look so easy.
Dustin Pedroia drove a ball through the middle during the Rays-Red Sox contest on July 24 at Fenway Park. Escobar ranged to his left, fielded the ball with his outreached glove then -- without transferring the ball from his glove -- the Rays shortstop whipped the ball around his back like LeBron James hitting Dwyane Wade in the open court, except Ben Zobrist was the guy taking it to the rack, or second base. Zobrist caught the ball with his bare hand and made a successful relay to first to complete the unlikely double play.
Few plays made in baseball this season could match that one for flash, but the flash is not what the Rays cashed in on this season. While their defense is capable of making the flashy plays in the field, much of the team's success has been decided by what they do on the routine plays.
Simply check out the numbers. Rays fielders had 6,044 total chances and made just 59 errors. Eye-popping results good for a .990 fielding percentage, which ranked second in baseball behind the Orioles, who finished with a .991 percentage.
"We pitch well, we play defense well," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Any time you can pitch and play defense, you have a shot in a short series. There's no other way around it."
If any one area showed the most improvement for the Rays this season, the work they have done in the field would be it. Sometimes a step back is needed to recognize the absence of something important. The Rays got that opportunity during the 2012 season when their defense lapsed from a the previous year's lofty .988 fielding percentage, when the team committed just 73 errors, to a .981 percentage after committing 114 errors.
"That was not our DNA," Maddon said. "We're built for pitching and defense. We need to defend."
In that spirit, the Rays went out in the offseason and acquired Escobar in a trade with the Marlins and they signed James Loney to play first base.
While other teams might view first base as a position to hide a guy who can hit 30 home runs, the Rays have a different outlook. Yes, they want their first baseman to hit, but he better bring some leather, too.
Loney followed a long line of quality fielding Rays first basemen that has included Travis Lee, Carlos Pena, and Casey Kotchman. He more than holds his own. Maddon believes Loney makes a throw to second base better than any first baseman he's had, and Evan Longoria went a step farther.
"He's probably the best [first baseman] I've played with as far as total package," Longoria said. "Carlos and Kotch, both great defenders, and both, obviously at times, showed how good of hitters they could be. But I think [Loney's] calming influence, the way he plays the game, the way he cares about the game, just everything in general, to take nothing away from those other guys, but he is probably the best total package I've played with over there at first."
Having Loney and Escobar in place solidified this year's infield, which has a Gold Glove flavor with the two-time American League Gold Glove Award winner Longoria and a potential Gold Glove second baseman in Zobrist, who quit moving around as much in 2013 and settled in at second base. Zobrist made just four errors in 554 chances at second.
Balancing the infield defense is a speedy, athletic outfield led by center fielder Desmond Jennings. In essence, the Rays' defense has become a place where opposing hits go to die. That complements the team's pitching, which feels comfortable letting opposing teams make contact given the high level of play by the defense.
"Our defense is a big part of how good our pitching is," Maddon said.
In addition to the physical element of the Rays' defense, there is the tactical part, which comes from the Rays' study of opposing hitters through scouting reports, various metrics and other factors the Rays are as closed mouthed when discussing as Kentucky Fried Chicken when asked about Colonel Sanders' secret recipe. What's yielded from those results is an uncanny ability to place fielders in the right position to make a play.
At times that positioning equates to radical shifts, such as the one in Wednesday night's Wild Card Game against the Indians when Longoria shifted to the other side of second base when the count reached two strikes on Carlos Santana. And, bingo, Santana grounded directly to Longoria for an out.
Looking at fielders arranged all over the diamond when one steps into the batter's box can get into a hitter's head.
"You don't want to change your swing," Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks said. "As soon as you start trying to hit a ball differently than normal, it just screws you up. So you just want to stick with what you do and hope it finds a hole."
Now comes the ultimate test in the AL Division Series when the Rays' pitching and defense goes up against the AL's second-best offensive club in the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
"I think we've got pop up and down the lineup," Middlebrooks said. " ... Fenway's a hard place to play. You can put up three runs in an inning quick if you don't field right."