ST. PETERSBURG — Swing patterns, the man said.
Joe Maddon, the guy at the head of the class, was in full professor mode again, and for the moment, it felt as if you were back in algebra class. One minute he was talking about his batting order, and the next he was peering through his glasses and talking about swing patterns and paths and flat-swingers vs. upper-cutters and the break of the ball against right-handers vs. left-handers. If you were listening, you could not help but wonder if he was going to assign homework.
Shortly thereafter, Willy Aybar was circling the bases, and you were reminded of an underlying truth about the year's most important lesson:
Gee, Maddon is either smarter than most, luckier than most or a guy who is having the combination platter.
Maddon, the Rays' manager, had all the answers Wednesday night as his club beat the Red Sox 10-3 to strengthen its grip on the AL East. He was insightful early, and he was bold later, and by the time the night was over, the Rays looked ready for the playoffs and Maddon looked ready for Final Jeopardy.
It was not the first time Maddon has gone all Mensa on us, but this time his IQ might have shattered the radar gun. These days Maddon makes out a lineup, and suddenly it resembles the blackboard in Good Will Hunting. Other managers may talk about magic numbers; this season, at least, Maddon seems to know the square root of them.
This might have been his best night, however. For instance, what was Aybar doing in the game anyway? And as a switch-hitter, why was he batting right-handed against right-handed Tim Wakefield? And, come to think of it, what exactly is a swing pattern?
"He has incredible instincts for the game," Carlos Pena said of Maddon. "He goes with his gut. Sometimes he comes up with some off-the-wall stuff, and it's worked."
Consider the lineup for Wednesday. Given the importance of the game, given that Wakefield has always gone Phil Niekro on the Rays, you might have thought a manager would load the lineup with the biggest bats he could find, and if they happened to hit left-handed, well, bully for them.
Instead, Maddon used Aybar as the DH and played Justin Ruggiano in leftfield against the knuckleballer. He left Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske on the bench.
"I know it's one pitch, but the guy standing in the box may present something different," Maddon said. "Looking at Willie's swing pattern and swing path, I think it may be conducive to hitting a knuckleball."
At this point, Yogi Berra would say "What?" Casey Stengel would say "Who?" And Leo Durocher would shout "First base!"
By now, you know how it turned out. Aybar knocked the second pitch he saw out of the park for a two-run homer, erasing any early momentum the Red Sox had taken with their two-run first.
This is the way the season has gone for the Rays, and for Maddon. Every time he walks past a phone booth, you expect it to start spewing quarters at him. Every move works. Every thought makes sense.
He is the guy who walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded … and it worked. He is the guy who instructed his switch-hitters to bat right-handed against right-handed Mike Mussina … and it worked. He is the guy who moved Ruggiano to left … just in time to make a game-cinching catch.
If the decision to put Aybar in didn't impress you, then perhaps the decision to pull Matt Garza out did.
After all, Garza was pitching on three days' rest (another Maddon move), and he needed only one out to qualify for the win. But David Ortiz, who had homered twice, was coming up with two men on. So Maddon pulled him. And that worked out, too.
"It isn't about Garza's won-loss record," Maddon said. "It's about the Rays' won-loss record."
He has been patient, and he has been tough. He has gone with his gut, and he has won with his mind. He has gone against the book, and he has thought outside the box.
How many managers would have played Aybar because of his swing path? How many would have pulled Garza? Most important, how many would have been the right manager at the right time for the Rays?
By the way, a big series is coming up against the Twins.
Don't you wonder what Maddon will think of next?