ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In their 2-0 loss to the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS, the Rays made two outs while swinging at 3-0 pitches. One of them was among the biggest outs of the game, a Carlos Pena fly ball with two on and nobody out in the eighth.
So did manager Joe Maddon err by green-lighting Pena and, before that, Evan Longoria (who flied out to end the sixth)?
Fans tend to say yes. Fans tend to complain when hitters swing at 3-0 pitches, just as they tend to complain when hitters swing at the first pitch.
But the stats say most middle-of-the-order hitters become unbelievable hitters when they put the first pitch in play. Pena is 3-for-6 in his regular-season career on 3-0, with two home runs and a double (including a grand slam off Dan Haren this year). David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau, among others, all hit .500 or better when they put a 3-0 pitch in play (all stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com).
OK, but wouldn't they have just as good a chance at 3-1 or 3-2?
Not necessarily. When Pena doesn't put the 3-0 pitch in play, he becomes a .190 hitter.
"It's something we've done all year," Maddon said today. "With Pena, taking everything into consideration, I felt pretty good about it actually. If he doesn't top-spin that ball, it might have hit the back wall."
Pena said Friday night that Maddon spoke to him after the eighth-inning at-bat, telling him he had taken exactly the right approach.
By the way, the stats also show that some hitters won't swing 3-0 even when given a green light. Neither J.D. Drew nor Kevin Youkilis has ever put a 3-0 pitch in play, and Wade Boggs did it just seven times in his entire career -- going 2-for-7.
While Maddon didn't second-guess his decision to let Pena swing 3-0, he also didn't dispute Ortiz's contention that the Rays had a different look in their faces Friday from what he saw in the regular season.
"I agree, and I did see it," Maddon said. "That's why I thought it primarily manifested itself in the pitches we swung at. However, (the Red Sox) had kind of the same look themselves."