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Wrong result ... right pitch?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 11, 2008 12:53 AM

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First off, remember that, under normal circumstances, Mike Timlin never would have entered this game. Josh Beckett was on a pitch count and the Red Sox were without closer Jonathan Papelbon, which stripped them of arguably their two best pitchers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Despite a shortened staff, the Red Sox still got to the 14th inning before dropping a 4-2 decision to the unrelenting Tampa Bay Rays.

Now to the proverbial moment of the truth, the three-run home run that Mike Timlin allowed to Carlos Pena that proved to be the decisive blow. Countless major league pitchers have allowed home runs only to stand in front of their lockers and insist that the hitter deserved all of the credit; most of the time, the pitchers are more than a little delusional. One of the most repeated lies in baseball history is the familiar refrain, ''I actually thought it was a good pitch.''

In this case, Timlin might be right.

In retrospect, for Timlin, the bigger mistakes might have come before Pena's at-bat. The bases were empty with two outs before Timlin allowed singles to Akinori Iwamura and Rocco Baldelli, which brought Pena to the plate. Given that the Rays have been decimated by injuries, Pena is currently the only truly dangerous hitter in the Tampa Bay lineup, and the Sox needed to avoid facing him with men on base in any situations of consequence.

Obviously, they failed to do that.

Once Pena came to the plate, the Sox' strategy seemed sound. In many cases, teams will opt to pitch to the biggest parts of the ballpark; in the case of Fenway, that means center and right fields. But with Timlin now lacking the velocity he had two or three years ago, that might have been a huge mistake against Pena, whose best power is to right and right center fields, regardless of where he is playing. (Two years ago, while playing for the Sox, Pena ended a game in which he belted a homer to right field.)

The point? On Pena's homer, Timlin threw a fastball that appeared to be on the outside corner, maybe even a shade outside the strike zone. (The pitch certainly could have been lower, but it was not a horrible offering.) Pena subsequently lofted the ball into the left field seats, an outcome that caught Timlin by surprise.

''I thought it was a popup. Everybody else did, too,'' Timlin said. ''If you look at it, it's a borderline pitch, down and away on the black. It's not a pitch you expect a lefthander to drive, but it happened.''

Said Red Sox manager Terry Francona: ''He didn't miss with that pitch. That was off the plate. I bet that was a couple inches off with some movement. Falling behind to Iwamura ... we didn't want to Pena to hit that inning because of what he can do.''

And because of what he did.

Fortunately for the Sox, they have an off day on Thursday, which gives the pitching staff a day to recover. Still, for a Boston staff that allowed nine runs in the series and lost twice, the challenge isn't going to get any easier. Toronto comes into town tomorrow night for a four-game weekend set -- the teams play a doubleheader on Saturday -- and the Jays have the best pitching staff in the league.

There won't be much margin for error then, either.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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