There are few things in baseball as elegant and exciting as a pitcher’s duel. Instead of battling with the foppy epee or inelegant pistol, though, duels in baseball are settled in only one manner: endurance, focus, and sustained excellence. Who will be the first person to blink? So much rides on each pitch; the tension grows with each out recorded.
Monday night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers was exactly that: a pitcher’s duel. It was a somewhat unexpected development, as both starters Alex Cobb and Phil Coke are young hurlers that are still getting their feet under them, but there’s no arguing with the results. Cobb and Coke dueled back and forth for the first six innings of play, with only Cobb showing a small chink in his armor.
Cobb allowed 8 hits and walked 2, which meant he had a few jams to escape out of, but he also struck out 7 betters, a new high for him in the majors. He showed real poise on the mound, and Joe Maddon praised him after the game, saying his changeup was “extraordinary” and he’s a pitcher cut from the same emotional-cloth as Jeremy Hellickson. But as the game crept into the late innings, the Tigers had a narrow one-run lead thanks to an RBI single from Victor Martinez in the fourth inning.
The Tigers got into trouble in the seventh inning, though, as Justin Ruggiano led off the inning with a single and B.J. Upton reached base on an error. With runners at second and third and one out, the Tigers walked Matt Joyce, bringing Casey Kotchman to the plate with a chance to break the game open for the Rays. Kotchman hit a flyball to rightfield, Ruggiano tagged at third base, and Magglio Ordonez’s throw to the plate was right on line; it looked like it was going to be a close play at the plate.
Ruggiano made an awkward slide, missing homeplate at first as he slid to avoid Avila’s tag, but he clearly got his foot back in there and touched home plate before being tagged. While home plate umpire John Tumpane initially called Ruggiano out, Joe Maddon challenged the play and the call was overruled as the video replays were clearly indisputable. The Rays later scored the go-ahead run in the eighth inning on a sacrifice fly by Ruggiano, making him the Rays’ MVP for the game.
“Tonight’s one of those days I’m really glad we have instant replay in the game finally,” said Tumpane after the game, “I’d absolutely hate to have taken any attention away from the great action on the field tonight with a bad call — those pitchers deserved to have their performances talked about, not me. Instant replay has helped me do my job better, and for that, I’m thankful.”
Rays’ manager Joe Maddon also chimed in after the game, saying, “Having that pay overturned for us in the seventh — you simply can’t understate how important that is. We’re fighting for every win we can get here in the AL East, and we’re going to have our work cut out for us against the Red Sox tomorrow, so every win is especially important to us. You never know how close things may be at the end of the year, and you don’t want division races being decided by missed calls. You just don’t.”
As if to drive the point home, Maddon pointed to tonight’s AL East standings, noting that the Rays currently stand only 3.5 games behind the Red Sox and only one game behind the second-place Yankees. Without that call being overturned, the Rays would instead have been 4.5 games behind the Sox and two games behind the Yankees — quite the difference, even though it’s so early in the season.
“This is one of the best things about instant replay: it adds legitimacy to every game,” said Maddon, “If we were still in the pre-replay days and the umps hadn’t overturned that call, how would you expect fans to feel? They would have invested multiple hours of their evening in watching this game, but then final result would have turned out to be a sham. That’s not good for the teams involved, it’s not good for the fans, and it’s not good for baseball.”
Thank you a thousand times, MLB — you sure got this one right.
NOTE: This was written with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, in case you missed that. The Rays lost the game 2-1, as Ruggiano was called out on the play and the Rays let the Tigers score in the bottom of the 10th inning. Frustrating, to say the least.