KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Manager Joe Maddon had his reasons for starting Willy Aybar on Saturday.
Some he could explain, such as wanting to keep Aybar fresh for his primary duties as the Rays' top pinch-hitter. And some Maddon couldn't, and wouldn't, derived from extensive research and data analysis by the Rays front office staff that deduced Aybar would be a prime weapon against Royals ace Zack Greinke.
Whatever the double-secret data showed, the results looked pretty good by the end of the Rays' 4-2 victory, even with Scott Kazmir leaving after six innings due to forearm cramps that shouldn't keep him from his next start.
Aybar rapped three hits off Greinke then a career-high-matching fourth in doubling in the go-ahead run during a three-run eighth as the Rays rallied late for the second straight night.
"Free Willy," Maddon said. "This is something we do back at the office, and we really crunch numbers, just so many different things. And Willy came out on top vs. Greinke, so we had to throw him out there."
The research is based on what Maddon called "an esoteric system" and had to be thorough and complex because Aybar had never faced Greinke. And it went beyond the more visual "swing planes" they have discussed before in arranging matchups.
It is also proprietary, Maddon said, joking that revealing it would carry the potential penalty of banishment to semipro ball back in eastern Pennsylvania.
"I would probably end up managing the Japan-Jeddo Stars," he said.
He is doing pretty well with the Rays (50-41) right now, who not only scored a second straight come-from-behind, tight win on the road, but actually gained ground on the Red Sox, moving to 5½ games out of first in the AL East.
"I like the way our players are right now," Maddon said. "I believe that our guys know it's time and we can't let opportunities slip away. We turned up the dial a bit right there."
"Hopefully we're starting to do that," said DH Pat Burrell, who continued his warming trend with another big hit as well. "You've got to get wins like this."
For much of the cool night, the game was a crisp duel between Greinke, the Apopka High kid who turned around his life and his career, and Kazmir, the lefty who looks to have his mechanics straightened out. Each pitched extremely well, allowing only a lone second-inning run.
Maddon tried to combat that by starting Aybar at second, figuring the drop off in defense from Ben Zobrist (who moved to right) wouldn't hurt because Kazmir was primarily a fly ball pitcher. That didn't work out so well as Kazmir got 14 outs on grounders in his six innings and one on a line drive. And in the next inning, Aybar made an error, albeit a tough one, on a grounder as the Royals took a 2-1 lead.
But Aybar, making just his second start since June 30, didn't let it bother him. He came up in the eighth, after Burrell doubled in the tying run, and, having faced reliever Juan Cruz in winter ball, sat on a changeup and got what he wanted, lashing a double to right that scored pinch-runner Joe Dillon. The Rays added another, and relievers Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell took it from there.
Aybar said he didn't know until Saturday afternoon he would be in the lineup and said he was determined to take advantage.
"I'm a strong-minded guy," Aybar said with bullpen coach Bobby Ramos translating. "Whenever I get an opportunity, I'm going to do the best I can. I'm not going to waste at-bats. I just wanted to help the club."
For whatever reason.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.