Devil Rays at Athletics (McClung vs. Zito)

On Friday night the A’s stranded 15 runners and only managed to scratch out one run against the improved, but still lowly, Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The offense was similarly inept on Saturday, with a sac-fly by Bobby Crosby and RBI single by Mark Kotsay accounting for the Athletics’ two runs through eight innings. Although Barry Zito ran deep counts regularly, he allowed only 6 baserunners (5 H, 1 BB) in 7 innings, three of whom were erased on double plays. His only major mistake was a HR to Russ Branyan. Justin Duchscherer pitched the eighth and made one mistake of his own, serving up a HR ball to pinch-hitter Greg Norton. Joe Kennedy recovered from near meltdown, and worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth. He earned the win as Oakland got some help from Aubrey Huff to eek out a 3-2 victory.

[Update: The A’s left another 12 runners on base today and lost to Tampa again, 3-2.]

What I would like to focus on are three weird plays involving Jay Payton: Three weird plays involving Jay Payton:

  • In the bottom of the fourth, Payton was at the plate with Adam Melhuse on second and Bobby Crosby on third and no outs, Payton lifted a fly ball to relatively shallow center field. Crosby got ready to tag up at third, and CF Joey Gathright set himself up for a throw to the plate. But after the outfielder made the catch, Crosby started and stopped toward the plate. Gathright held the ball an few seconds, and then Crosby dashed for the plate. Only then did he get the ball back to the infield, but not in time to prevent the A’s from taking a 1-0 lead. The moral of the story: get the ball back to the infield!
  • In the bottom of the second, the A’s had Jay Payton on first with Dan Johnson at the plate. The count went to 2-1, but apparently the scoreboard read 3-1. So when the next pitch was a ball, Johnson tossed his bat toward the dugout, and Payton trotted to second. After a moment, the mistake was realized, and Johnson was called back to the plate, but Payton was safely on second, credited with a stolen base. It turned out that Johnson walked on the next pitch anyway, but it was a strange scene.
  • With no outs in the bottom of the ninth, the A’s had Johnson on first, Payton on second, and Marco Scutaro at the plate. Scutaro hit a soft little liner toward short. It was definitely catchable, so the runners had to hold, but Rays SS Julio Lugo let the ball fall. Now the runners are in trouble, because they’re forced to advance. Lugo tosses to second, forcing Johnson out. 2b Ty Wigginton then threw to third ahead of Payton, who headed back toward second. Meanwhile, Scutaro is motoring around first base, trying to at least keep a runner in scoring position. 3b Aubrey Huff tried to cut off the retreating Payton by throwing to Lugo, who was between second and third, but he got by unscathed, and Lugo tossed back to Wigginton covering second as both Payton and Scutaro arrived. Payton dove in safely, but since a base can only be occupied by one runner at a time, Wigginton just turned around and tagged Scutaro. So the result of the play, scored a 6-4-5-6-4 double play, was that the A’s had a runner (Payton) on second with two outs and Jason Kendall coming to the plate. The A’s won the game as a grounder off the bat of Kendall went through Huff’s legs, scoring Payton, and sending the fans home happy.

  • The play in the ninth inning is the type that you (I) could talk about all day. Scutaro’s at-bat leading up to the double play was interesting in its own right. The game was tied, so the A’s were clearly playing for one run. With two runners on base, this was one of the rare situations where the A’s will (and should) consider a sacrifice bunt. Scutaro is a good bunter and stood at the plate squared to bunt. With runners at first and second, teams will often use the wheel play to defend the bunt. This sends the 2b to cover first (the easiest out) and SS to cover third (the lead runner), while the corner infielders charge the ball. On the first pitch of the at-bat, as the Tampa infield used the wheel, Scutaro pulled the bat back and swung away. He fouled it back, but it was a great idea to try to just knock it through the vacated infield. It also put additional pressure on the defense to decide how to play the bunt. I think the D-Rays stuck with the wheel, but I would have been awfully hesitant to use it with the winning run on second base. In the end, it was a moot point since Scutaro didn’t swing at or bunt the next two pitches, and the count ran to 1-2.

    On the ball Scutaro put in play, Lugo made a very smart decision to let the ball fall. It was an infield-fly type situation, except that the ball didn’t get high enough for the umps to enforce the rule. Letting the ball fall hung up the runners. He also did the right thing by throwing to second, not third to get the lead runner, Payton. If he throws to third, they might only get one out. The play at second assured of them of getting two outs, (1) the force out on Johnson at second and (2) either tagging Payton in a rundown between second and third or Scutaro on a force out at first. At this point Wigginton made the correct decision to throw to third. This is a rare case where the easiest out is not at first, despite the fact that it’s a force play and it usually takes longer for the batter to reach first than for any other runner to advance one base. The decision was quite easy for Wigginton, since he doesn’t want to allow a runner on third and that was the direction he was facing after receiving the throw from Lugo. This is also an unusual situation since Payton had to stop and wait near second to see if the ball would be caught, while Scutaro was running on contact. So I’m not sure Wigginton could have turned the more conventional 6-4-3 double play anyway.

    So that covers the defense’s strategy. What are the runners supposed to be doing? Payton is now in a run down between second and third. His primary responsibility is to stay in the rundown as long as possible to ensure that Scutaro can advance to second. He did not really accomplish that. When the ball was thrown to Huff at third, he turned back toward second. Huff then threw to Lugo, and Payton was very lucky to get by him. If the ball would have been thrown directly to second, he probably would have extended the rundown long enough to let Scutaro make it to second. The way it turned out, the ball was arriving at second with him, so there was no turn around toward third. He did get under Wigginton’s tag, but this left Scutaro hung out to dry. In hindsight, if Scutaro would have stayed at first, then the A’s would have two on with only one out, a much better scenario than a runner at second with two out, which is how the play ended. But Scutaro had to assume that Payton would be tagged out in the rundown at some point, so his responsibility is to make sure there’s a runner in scoring position at the end of the play. Fundamentally sound as usual for Marco.

    One more thing then. Special thanks to Jim Dandy for the official MLB rulebook that told me how to charge relief pitchers when pitching changes are made in the middle of an at-bat [Rule 10.18(h)].

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