Rays take First Game of Spring on the Chin
Today was the Opening Day for the Tampa Bay Rays at their new ballpark in Port Charlotte, Florida. There was the usually sightings of the owner Stuart Sternberg in his yellow polo shirt, and also a short glimpse at former owner Vince Namoli with his wife and her sister in the grandstands. Funny thing was, Namoli was wearing an older style Rays cap that still echoed the times of green and black in the teams ” TB” with the rays flying under it. Guess it is true what they say that some people love to keep the past in their present.
What was also amazing about today was the pre-game ceremonies and the traffic jams trying to even get into the stadium. When the game started, the stands were not looking like a sold-out crowd, but you could see the glint of windshields still coming into the parking lots for the 1:05 game. I truly hope that something can be done before the Friday afternoon match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Rays here at Charlotte Sports Park. I will be in no mood to argue with a sweaty, drunk Boston fan about staying in a traffic jam for the first 4 innings of the game. In all reality, you know that the team saw that situation, and with all due course, they will get in contact with local law enforcement and see what changes can be made to make it a more fluid drive both in and out of the ball park from today until the end of Spring Training.
As I strolled around the stadium, there was an air of newness and fascination with the huge murals on the side of the team’s offices and the boardwalk’s kids area was full of smiling and laughing kids trying to tackle Raymond to the ground. I walked around the entire outfield section of the stadium and chatted with fans who had not been down to this complex yet this year and found it to be a better trip down than expected. But some did complain about the traffic within a mile of the stadium as early as 10 am today. Again, this issue came up, but it will be resolved, trust me.
I wandered down to the visitor’s dugout and yelled for former Rays Jonny Gomes. He came on over and we chatted for a bit about his off season workout where he seems to slim down a bit, and about his bachelor party out in California before he got married in the off season. He was miling and telling me he might have a real shot at playing every day. He just has to show the gusto and the power that kept him in the Rays uniform for so long. About this time I thought it might be a great idea if I wandered over to the Tiki bar and got my first drink of the young season. I am not a big drinker at the ball park, but with a new year and a new location for games………..It was time to christen the gullet with a frosty beverage. I had brought my laptop and logged on to see Mark Newman beginning his “Live Blog” on MLBlogs.com.
I wrote a paragraph or two and then closed it up as the team was being introduced and I knew the National Anthem would be soon. I already had to smack my first fan as a guy was sleeping on his bar stool during the Anthem, and it was my duty to wake him up so more fans would not kill him. The Rays even made a replica American League Pennant flag to raise up the flagpole in the stadium before the 6,028 fans who came out for the game. I sat out in the Tiki Bar watching former Astros pitcher Carlos Hernandez pitch a perfect first two innings. This was the first time in three years he had faced live hitters, and he did a fantastic job. Carl Crawford came up in the bottom of the first and got the Rays first hit at the new stadium on a single to left field.
Hernandez might be one of those guys who comes into the spring with something to prove, and ends up with a job in a rotation. He will get more shots to put even more positive things into Rays Manager Joe Maddons mind about keeping this guy on the roster. The next Rays pitcher to take the mound is also trying to keep firmly on Maddons mind for a shot with the team either as a starter or as a long reliever. Jason Hammel had a great third inning getting two strikeouts and a fly out. In the 4th inning, Hammel got into trouble when he gave up three straight singles. on one of those singles up the middle to Jay Bruce, the Rays center fielder Fernando Perez quickly got the ball back into catcher Shawn Riggans and they caught Joey Votto at the plate to prevent the Reds from scoring on the play.
In the fifth inning the Rays sent reliever Randy Choate to the mound to replace Hammel. Choate got into trouble fast and finally put the Red on the board when one of his breaking pitches did not drop and hung in the zone. Jerry Hairston Jr then took the pitch to left center field for a grand slam and gave the Reds an early 4-0 lead. In the beginning of the inning, the Rays also inserted Chris Novak at third base. This led to the fifth run by the Red after Novak committed an error at third. I kind of lost track of the innings since I was logging on and off of MLBlogs.com and leaving a few notes here and there for Mark and the other bloggers writing in on the first day of baseball again.
Anyways, I looked up and it was already the seventh inning and the Rays had sent J P Howell out to replace Lance Cormier, who had a good 6th inning only giving up a single hit to the Reds. Howell was being used today because next week he will be reporting to the Team USA training facility in Clearwater, Florida to begin preparations for the 2009 World Baseball classic. Howell completed his one inning without incident and then gave the ball to Neal Frontz, who finished off a perfect 8th inning for the Rays. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Justin Ruggiano hit a beautiful double to right center, but the Rays could not capitalize on it as Jon Weber popped out to end the inning. Then Mitch Talbot came on in the ninth inning for the Rays. Talbot is another guy who is fighting for a chance to take the fifth rotation spot for 2009. He did not do anything to help his cause as he ended up giving up a 2-run shot to Red second baseman Adam Rosales to put the game totally out of reach at 7-0. Rays prospect Chris Richards tried to start a rally by doubling in the bottom of the ninth, but the Rays could not ca
ptalize and were shut out today in the game.
The Rays did not seem to be in tune today as they only got three total hits during the game. Besides the single by Crawford and the Double by Ruggiano, the only other two Rays to hit safely today were minor league first baseman Chris Richards and Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, who also was in the lead-off spot for today’s contest. This might be an interesting experiment by Maddon since his usual lead-off man is currently with Team Japan awaiting the start of the WBC. With Akinora Iwamura out until defending WBC champ Japan is ousted out of the tourney, or wins for the second time, he can be imaginative with his lineup cards and try a few different variations. What did seem absent today was the usual Rays bat patience as they racked up 9 strikeouts on the day and only got 2 walks in the ball game.
Being bat savvy at the plate was one of the key components to the Rays getting to the playoffs in 2008. It is only the first game, so I might be a bit tight on the guys right now. Willy Aybar also got time at first base today before leaving next week to play for the Dominican Republic team in the WBC. Earlier in the off season he was not on the WBC roster for the Dominican Republic, but because both St Louis Cardinal Albert Pujols and the Rays Carlos Pena were taken off the roster because of either their injury time on the Disabled list in 2008, or in Pena’s case, an off season surgery to repair an abdominal tear.
The Rays will travel to George Steinbrenner Field tomorrow for an afternoon contest. Rays Triple-A pitcher Wade Davis will get the start for the Rays. The Yankees will counter with Phil Hughes on the mound for the 1:05 start.
Photo credits for this blog are: www.tampatribune.com and RRCollections.