|SCOTT KAZMIRLikely on a short leash (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
They can hit 97-mile-per-hour fastballs. They can hit fluttering knuckleballs. Some, such as designated hitter Willy Aybar, can even hit bottle caps in a game of stick ball. Blindfolded. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, the part about hitting blindfolded, but not about the bottle caps.
If the last three games of the American League Championship Series have proven anything, it's that the Tampa Bay Rays are capable of hitting anything from anyone and causing a game to spontaneously combust at any moment.
With one swing of the bat.
Consider: After being no-hit by Daisuke Matsuzaka, tonight's Game 5 starter, through the first six innings and losing Game 1, the Rays have gone on to win three in a row by erupting for 31 runs on 39 hits, including 10 home runs, three by rookie sensation Evan Longoria.
"All year, you look at our group, and you believe that, you know there's a lot of offensive talent," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose team assaulted the Sox for 14 hits (five by Carl Crawford) and three home runs to score a 13-4 victory in Game 4 Tuesday night. "If you look at our overall offensive numbers, there's some areas we've achieved better and some that we have achieved less.
"Furthermore, you look at the fact that we were hurting," Maddon added, "I mean, all of August you're missing [Longoria and Crawford]. Those are two huge components to an offense."
Crawford, who had two singles, two doubles, and a triple in Game 4, spent 43 days on the disabled list and didn't return until Sept. 26 after undergoing surgery to repair a subluxation of a tendon in his right middle finger. Longoria missed 30 games down the stretch while recovering from a fractured right wrist, and didn't return until Sept. 6.
"I thought we are capable, were capable of doing things like this, and all of a sudden it's showing up right now," Maddon said. "We have talent throughout the entire batting order, and what I'm saying primarily, and I said it [Monday after a 9-1 triumph in Game 3], I believe we're working better at-bats, we're staying within our strike zone, we're not expanding [it], and I like that."
Close watchGiven Scott Kazmir's struggles in the first inning of his last two postseason starts - he threw 37 pitches in the first inning of his Division Series start against the White Sox; 38 in his Game 2 ALCS start against the Red Sox - Maddon said he would likely keep his 24-year-old lefthander on a short leash tonight.
"It's all about fastball command, for me," Maddon said. "If he's throwing the ball over the plate, [and] he's making them swing the bat, I'll be happy. Obviously, if walks start popping up, that's the indicator; when we start getting outside the strike zone."
But Maddon does not intend to let the Sox get to Kazmir early as they did in Game 2, when they scored two runs off him in the first inning.
"Having a full complement within the bullpen, there's other things you can do early in the game in order to prevent different moments," Maddon said. "So, I'll probably be less tolerant [tonight] than I would have been at any other point."