April 2009

I Think We Need a Pep Talk!

 


RRCollections

I am not going to talk about last night’s game in this blog right now. I think I have a more important duty to preform that will be vital to the Tampa Bay Rays 2009 foundation both at the fan base, and at the player’s level. Right now the skies might seem to be darkening and become a bit cloudy as to the direction of this team. But it is moments like this that either you stand up and rally behind your guys, or you look for the exits like some of the so-called fans when we are losing in the eight inning. I am more inclines to align myself with the crowd that would be yelling a Twisted Sister song at the top of my lungs. “We’re Not Going To Take It” should bellow through the Trop. tonight when the Boston Red Sox come to town. For in the next few games, the fate of this team could be revealed by not holding true to four basic mental elements to the Rays 2009 success.

Now I am not talking about tangible physical elements here like situational hitting, or even the fact that the plate is bouncing around on saome of our guys right now. But the mental aspect of the game of baseball can take you to the road to ruin faster than a Stephen Strasburg fastball down the middle. The basic mental elements that need to be rebuilt, or even repaired right now both on and off the field in the stands is faith, confidence, resilience and spirit. Some people will say that all four of these words have the same basic foundation on your psyche, but I think they all play a different role, but work towards the same mutual road of reason. It is for that reason that I decided that since I could not sleep tonight to write this passage as a inspiration blog to those who want to turn their backs on the Rays right now. I want to turn the frown upside down on the fan who sees the loss column and is frustrated and doubtful right now.

I am in the same boat with you on that lake of doubt and frustration, but I also know that the only way to beat it and not let it eat at me is to dwell on the positives, and encourage instead of destroy all the good the team has done in the last 12 months. Come on people, in 2008, Las Vegas had the Tampa Bay Rays odds of winning the World Series at 150-to-1. they had the Boston Red Sox as an early favorite at 9-to-2 odds, and who did we beat to get a spot in that World Series again? Just for giggles, the New York Yankees were 11-to-2 odds of making the Fall Classic, while eventual winner, the Philadelphia Phillies were a 14-to-1 shot to make the big leap. So that brings me to mt first point today. Faith. Everyone says they have it, but only the true believers display it loud and proud. With that in mind let me start with a quotation on Faith and we can roll on from there.

                      


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” It ain’t suppose to make sense; it’s faith. Faith is something that you believe that nobody in their right mind would believe” – Archie Bunker

That is right, I quoted a television personality that was based out of New York. The reason I picked Carroll O’Connor aka Archie Bunker is the plain fact that when I was a kid, my Dad always got a kick out of his Archie-isms. But what is true about this statement is the fact that the 2008 Rays were in that complete boat most of the year. Only the Rays faithful and a bakers dozen of sports figures anointed the Florida team with any chance of achieving in 2008. And even after such a rise to winning as 2008, the 2009 projections for the team bordered on the plus or minus of 10 games over  the .500 mark. Faith right now in this team, by not turning your backs, or even putting on that dusty Red Sox jersey is priority one right now. If we lose one fan to the loss of faith or hope, we lose the fight to convince his friends, family and other that the team is on the way up, and not stuck in the mud at the bottom of the division.  

“Faith sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.”

That last quote was from an anonymous source, but it is so true in the Rays fight for recognition and a place in baseball last year, and again in 2009. This team is not garnered the respect and the fear of the baseball big boys yet. They know of the hunger and the yearning of this team to correct their 2008 mistakes and take that trophy again for themselves. Faith in their abilities is the foundation of that journey. For if the team is to again take to the mountain top, it must first feel the pain and struggle of the climb again and this time relish in it from the first step. This is the moment to put all that dried up emotions of watching them celebrate in September 2008 after securing their first playoff berth. Faith makes you believe in miracles, and wasn’t 2008 billed as the Rays “Magical” season.

                                  


” My theory,is that if you look confident you can pull off anything- even if you have no clue what you are doing. – Jessica Alba

Sorry, I just find her adorable, so I had to include her quote. But she is totally right here. In 2008, the Rays had to boost their air of confidence to new heights and believe some of the hype that was trolling in the Internet ponds as to their potential and their chances. Hey, even though we have hit a snag in the fabric of the season, we still have a 33 percent chance of making the 2009 playoff according to some updated odds. that is a lot better than the 11 percent that the Toronto Blue Jays currently have, and they are leading the American League East standings. I am sorry, but i am not a great cheerleader here. I was the guy out on the field who got to hear the cheers and jeers from a distant. Much like the Rays, I understand that the stadium noise and upheaval can weigh on both benches in a game.

The confidence of us, as fans will show through in our voices and cowbells tonight and duirng the next three games of this series. By us showing that the Trop is still “Our House”, even if we are on the skids right now, we are showing confidence in a reversal of fortunes. And what better time to take on those fortunes than against our biggest rival, and the team we beat for our only series win in 2009. I know we will not have to hype up the players too much for the excitement and drama of the new rivarly between these two teams. But if we slack off at all and let the Boston fans get a voice again in our environment, it might be some times before we again reigh supreme in our own house.

” There is a big difference in confidence and conceit” – Johnny Unitas.

I heard those words from Johnny Unitas on the sidelines back in 1987 when the Indianapolis Colts were about to take on the Cleveland Browns in an NFL playoff game. It is so true that sometimes a team can get so caught up in all the hype and fake confidence reigning down on them from outside sources that they can not play to that level, or even compete as a team. We had that problem that day and ended up getting slaughtered 38-21. There is a limit to the confidence and conceit level that both fans and a team can aspire to in a season. Lofty goals and a over abundance of self confidence can ruin even the best of intentions.

But one of the thing I like best about the 2008 and 2009 Rays team is that there is no “superstars” according to the players. that everyone has a rols on this roster and it is their job to fulfill their potential every game. Some nights that is a huge task, but an honest effort is all that Rays Manager Joe Maddon expects from his troops. If they go out there without an agenda or a mission to fulfill personal goals, then this season can turn around and become positive again. But the confidence needs to also flow down from the stands. If we show the positive vibe, then it will filter into that dugout and they will again regain that “killer instinct” that might have been missing so far in 2009.

                       

      
          Healthleaders.uthouston.edu


” Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Confucius 

How great a quote is that one. It is really a motto that can be adopted by this 2009 squad to lead them towards that common goal again. Seriously here, this season has had its huge pitfalls and traps that could take a lion down for the count. But the resilience of this squad, and their committment to each other and the fan base is superior to the idea of losing again this year. Now by that I mean we know we are going to suffer losses, and sometimes those losses can be either a blow-out, or a last at bat walk-off variety. This past series, we had one of each, and with a sense of resilience, this team can rebound like a rubber band and begin again at home tonight.

My favorite cartoon is still that one of the frog inside the heron’s mouth with his hand thrust outside and holding onto the bird’s throat with the caption: ” Never Give Up!” That is the mentality that this team and the fan have to again take as their personal mantra to reestablish the energy and emotion in Tropicana Field. When Maddon was hired by the Rays in 2006, he wanted to make the Trop. a place where other teams feared coming into and playing, like the New Mexico University Lobo’s Den, which was the first known “Pit”. In 2008, the Rays fans and the team established the Trop as a place where opposing team’s wins come to die. But in 2009, the Rays have almost gotten themselves out of contention to again set the mark by going 2-5 in the first home stand of the year.

“The Bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists” – Japanese Proverb

Through the use of the cowbell and the horns, the Rays fans have annoyed and frustrated oppsoing fans in our house. I have seen some bad behavior from Rays fans, and that will not be tolerated. I will be the first to get in your face if you forget how we got there in 2008. By getting vocal, but staying within respectful boundaries, we can again make this place a destination of defeat. But the crowd has to believe first. The next 6 games might be the true indicator of the possibility of the Rays to adjust and then again take command of their season. Even after 21 games, the team in 2009 is only 2-games off their 2008 pace, but further losses will push that goal to the backside, and the team and the fans do not want that to happen

                             


www.tampabay.com

“While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die- whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness” – Gilda Radner.

That is the essence of this blog today. I do not want the spirit of everything accomplished last season  to die a slow death on the heels of this bad road trip. By redefining our belief in the end goal, by achieving beyond our own expectations, and by yearning to again hear the cheers of gladness from the multitudes, that should be the goal of this short homestand. We have to re-energize the team’s siprit. Reset their barometers to heat up their tempos on the field and in the dugout. This is the time that I miss Jonny Gomes. He was one of the best unoffical cheerleaders on this team in 2008. But it was from his personal belief in the abilities of the 25 guys besides him that he gained that momentum and energy to take on all comers.

That spirit might not been seen right now in the play and actions of this team, but it is still within them. So by getting loud tonight, we can again awaken the dormant juices that make your body quiver and your brain ache. We need to again boost the level to 150 decibels on the noise meter to awaken the fan’s spirit along with the team’s. But most of all, we need the faithful who have been here during the lean years, during the 100 loss seasons, and also some of the newbies who have the desire to support a winner to come out and make some loud noise to awaken the dreams again in each and every person in that stadium. On Thursday night, we need to make Josh Beckett feel uncomfortable on that mound becuase of the distractions around him. We need to make David Ortiz worry about his swing and lose concentration at the plate.

But most of all, we need the noise to be heard as far away as Ferg’s. For this team to rebound and get back on track, it will take more than just the team’s efforts. They need to also feel the vibe and the energy in the stands to recharge their own selves into again believing in the master plan. I, for one will not give up until the end of game number 162. But some are already starting to waiver in their beliefs and desires to follow this team into the darkness knowing that the tunnel will end in the rays of sunshine and light. The 2009 Rays are not one and dones. They are not a one trick ponies, and they are certainly not just “lucky” to have gotten what they secured in 2008.

“The spirit,the will to win and the will to excell are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur.” – Vince Lombardi

The stakes are higher, and the teams around us have rebuilt stronger because of us. For us to falter in our own self worth is the first failure of the 2009 season. This team again has to become united and stand as one for the forces of the league to again take notice and fear the Rays. But it has to also start with us, the fans. For with our voices and our confidence, we can show that this team can count on us for the entire season. By storm or fair weather, the end result of the 2009 could start tonight. I do not know about you, but I would rather lose my voice this weekend fighting the Red Sox cheers than let them have the Trop again as “South Fenway”. So the question is now up to you Rays fans……….It is put up or shut up time? What is your decision, mine is to stand united and voice my support to the heavens for the team that deserves a second chance at the trophy.


“If people do not want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.” – Yogi Berra.

Dramatic Moments Doom Rays

 

                 Twins 4,     Rays 3


Jim Mone / AP

Momentum Swung like a Pendulum

I still can  not believe what I saw last night during that game against the Minnesota Twins. These are the types of games we used to come out on top of in 2008.  For some reason the karma or the magical ingredient is missing so far in this 2009 edition of the Rays. I mean that is a perfect example of the way we won games in 2008. We would fight and claw and produce hits and run scoring opportunities, then magically, a hit or a homer would open the floodgates for home plate celebrations. It is still time for this team to get back into that same groove, but we might have to dig to find it right now.

The person I feel the sorriest for right now is Rays reliever J P Howell. The guy is 0-2 this year after going 6-0 to begin 2008, and he should not have even had to go to the mound last night. How many defensive chances did we have in last nights game that could have turned the tide the Rays direction. Seriously here, there were plays that the usual Rays were adapt at getting, and one that would have secure the win even before Justin Morneau came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. Is this defense the same reproduction of the 2008 model, or is it lacking a bit of intensity right now.

I know a barrel of hard hit balls can get through the holes in the infield, but when you do the “Maddon ” twist and add another infielder to the mix, a sharp hit ball should not take you out of the game. I mean on that special shift in the ninth inning, with the bases juiced, you know the pressure is at its highest level of the game. Morneau hit a screamer that takes a bad hop right in front of Akinora Iwamura and he has to field the ball off his stomach. With the Rays maybe still having a chance to end the inning, and a chance to win it, Aki tosses the ball to second base to get the force out on Brendan Harris. With Harris out, the ball is quickly thrown to Carlos Pena at first base, but not in time and Twin’s catcher Jose Morales hit the plate with the winning run.

The split second that the ball hit Aki in the stomach might have gave the Twins that victory. For if he had been able to cleanly get the ball and toss it to second an instant earlier, the Rays would have been up to bat in the top of the 10th inning. Those plays used to seem routine to the Rays in 2008, but in 2009, they are having to work for every out and run.  Minnesota did what it took to win the game.period. They played the perfect National League scoring card to a “T”. They got Morales on base with a lead-off single. Nick Punto put down a nice bunt to move him over to second base and into scoring position. Denard Span hit a beautiful ball just past the mound for an infield single and put Morales 90 feet from the win. Then the ex-Ray Harris came up to pinch hit for Alexi Casilla and got walked. Then Morneau hit a routine grounder to Aki………..the rest is history.

          
         Jim Mone / AP

Three Key Moments in the Game


I saw three moments in that game last night that seemed to seal the loss for the Rays. If any of these events had gone the other way, that is in the Rays favor, it would have been a Rays win. I know it is speculation that these events could have, or would have been different, but you got to believe they did have a momentum change for the team.  Let’s start with the one that had me on the edge of my chair cursing out a base running blunder.

The first incident happened in the fifth inning, with the Rays down 2-0. Willy Aybar lead off the inning with a one-hopper to the left field wall for a double. With Aybar already in scoring position, it seemed like a easy chance for the Rays to cut into the Twin’s lead. Gabe Kapler hit Aybar over to third with a grounder to second for the first out of the inning. Then Dioner Navarro hit a ball to short that Punto decided to come home with for a force out at the plate on Aybar. Now the thing that got to me here was that Aybar was not moving on the play to the plate, or he would have scored before the throw. Instead he took a late break to the plate that Punto saw and he changed his throw from first to the plate.

The ball was there in enought time for Morales to post up in front of the plate perfectly to keep Aybar from sliding past him. Aybar was straight up when he bashed into Morales and sent him flying backwards, but he had enough time to firmly secure the ball and the aggressive thrust by Aybar was moot. I am sorry, but maybe it is the football player in me, but I used to dig my shoulder into the catcher and drive him off the plate from below to give him a sense of fear from landing on his head, not politely send him reeling backwards like a possum.

Incident number two might be more 50-50 to some people, but every time I saw that replay on television, I think I saw more of a chance to get that ball. In the bottom of the first inning, Rays starter James Shield issued a lead-off walk to Span. These lead-off incidents always come back to haunt you unless you get a quick double play ball out of it. Alexi Casilla then came up and struck out to post the first out of the inning. Morneau then came to the plate with the ability to hit one out on every pitch. Shields tried to go inside on him and the ball caught more of the plate than he expected and Morneau drilled the ball deep into left-center field. 

Carl Crawford was there with a bead on the ball as it began to slowly come out of the air. He jumped high along the 7 foot outfield wall as the ball began to fall rapidly. He made a perfect play on the ball, but it somehow managed to dribble from his glove and Morneau had himself a 2-run homer to start the game. You want to yell Fan Interference, or something when you see a play like that. But there was not a Twins fan near the seat before it hit the concrete beyond the wall. Crawford seemed to  have had the ball, but it slipped out of his grasp and it gave the Twins an early lead. 9 times out of 10, Crawford is coming down with that ball for an ESPN Web Gem, but tonight, it was instead labeled as Morneau’s fifth homer of the season.

Incident number three was not as obvious to a lot of people. 
But it is beginning to destroy offensive chances for the Rays. As of today, Evan Longoria is hitting the cover off the ball at a .365 clip. His power hitting and timely singles have been a major player in the Rays wins. His 10 doubles also are a team high and makes him a scoring threat every time he hit the plate. But there is another Longoria stat that is beginning to rear its ugly head, and it is taking the Rays out of numerous scoring chances this season. The reason I mention this is that every time this has happened recently, it has taken the Rays fastest base runner off the base paths and made Rays rallies more difficult.

It is something everyone does during their year hitting, but so far in 2009, Longoria is making a bad habit of  hitting into these plays day in, and day out. Longoria is currently ranked tied for second in the American League in this category. It is an “offensive” category to me, but not in a good way. So far he has hit  grounded into 6 double plays this season. He is the only member of the Rays with over 2 this season. And in last night’s game in the fourth inning, after Crawford walked to lead-off the inning, Longoria took two pitches to take the Rays scoring chance off the board.  Most people would say, ” So what” to this, but it is a pattern in recent games.

Do I need to go back into the 21 game annuals and show you key moments this has happened? Number 6 is listed above, but how about a few other recent examples. 
Example number 5 .
This past Sunday during the Rays 7-1 loss to the Oakland A’s. In the third inning, with one out and Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford both on base, Longoria hit a ball to second baseman Mark Ellis that he tossed to Orlando Cabrerra, then to Giambi to end the inning and the Rays rally.
Example number 4.
During the Rays last home stand, on Sunday, April 19th in the sixth inning, with again two men on base, Longoria hit into a inning ending double play. That day he had Michel Hernandez on second and Gabe Kapler on first base when he hit a ball to  Alexi Ramirez at short that he flipped to second and on to first base to complete the inning.

I am not trying to throw anyone under the bus here, but this is a habit that the young Longoria can fix before it gets to be a situation for him. Considering the Rays have only hit into 14 double plays all season long shows that Longoria is heads above the rest of the team in that category. In two of the three examples listed, his  action of hitting into a double play might not have changed the course of the contest. But last night, it could have made a monumental change to the game.

          
         
Jim Mone / AP 

Zorilla Needs More Plate Appearances

He was one of those hidden gems on the Rays roster in 2008 when he made 48 starts for the Rays. His bat was just developing into the creature it has further morphed into in 2009. We saw glances of his increased power and his ability during the season. His . 249 average does not jump out at you, but his 10 home runs and 48 RBI’s in limited at bats does make a bold statement about him in 2008. He even put an exclamation point on the last series in Detroit in 2008, by stroking three home runs, including a 420 foot shot to dead center field in that game. His two Grand Slams in 2008, the first against Baltimore on August 29th, then added one against Sidney Ponson in the Rays versus Yankees night cap of the double-header on September 13th.

Now consider he hit all of those in only 193 at bats. that is right, he hit 11 extreme homers in less than 200 plate appearances in the year.  Considering he spent the first 38 games of the season on the disabled list with a left thumb fracture, I guess we can say that Zorilla has made his full transformation into not only the “Super Utility” guy, but also a needed tool for the Rays offense. Yes, I am very high on this guy. Not because he is on my countless Fantasy teams ( Which he is), but because I can see the desire and the drive for several years finally peaking with him gaining more time to show his wares to the Rays coaching staff in 2009. 

Considering he did not come back up to the Rays until August 5th, for his fourth tour of duty with the Rays, what could he have done if he was healthy all season long and not missed a stretch of the year rehabbing and gaining at bats in the minors. But in 2009, he has done nothing to push him onto the bench, or even be considered a secondary player. Right now I truly feel you play your “hot” card. And right now, he is the hottest guy on the Rays roster. Last night is a classic example of his pinch hitting in 2009. He comes up in place of Gabe Kapler in the top of the ninth inning and blasts a shot into the baggie in right-center field to tie the game up for the Rays.

Pressure, what pressure? This season, Zobrist is 2 for 4 as a pinch hitter with 5 RBI’s. Both of those hits have been home runs, including a Grand Slam pinch hit on April 17th. Before this season, in his three prior years with the Rays, he has gone only  0-12 in that role. So the 24-year old is stepping up his game in 2009, trying to gain either a spot in the field every day, or just be a top option off the bench for Rays Manager Joe Maddon. Now let me throw another wild fact at you about Zobrist.  And no, it is not the fact that his wife is an extremely talented singer ( Julianne Zobrist ), but it a Rays career record that might impress you. Zobrist is currently tied with Carlos Pena ( 3 ) for the team franchise record for Grand Slams. Oh, and he has hit all three of those Grand slams in only 86 total at bats. He could run for mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida right now and win by a landslide.

                     
                     
Jim Mone / AP

Tuesday Tidbits

**** In last night’s game, 3 of the Rays 9 hits were doubles off Francisco Lariano.  The Rays have now hit  74 extra base hits this year, which is ranked fifth in the American League. Their stolen base percentage of 87.1 is also fifth in the AL this season. The Rays are also fifth in the AL in homers, with 24 this year. But the team is ranked third in doubles this season with 46 so far.  But on a bad note, they are also ranked third in the AL , with 165 total in strikeouts this season. 


**** 
In last night’s game, the Rays had their best chance of the season to increase their win total against left-handers. As it stands now after the loss, the Rays
are 1-8 against southpaws this season.
The only left-hander the Rays have defeated this year was Boston’s Jon Lester in their second game of the season. In that 7-2 Rays first win of the season, they tacked 8-hits and 5-runs on the young leftie. In the upcoming 4-game series at home against the Red Sox, the Rays will not face Lester again as he is starting the Wednesday night game against the Cleveland Indians to conclude their series in Progressive Field.


**** 
Injured literary Ray Fernando Perez will be adding the title public speaker to his resume tomorrow as he will be the guest reader  at the Rays “Open Doors for Children” event at the law offices of Holland & Knight ( 100 N. Tampa Street ) in downtown Tampa at 10:30 am.  The Columbia University graduate will be reading the popular children’s book, H is for Home Run to about 35 children from ” A Brighter Community” Day Care”, which is one of the oldest day cares in Tampa.

**** Tickets still remain for the Thursday and Friday games of the upcoming Boston Red Sox series.  There are limited numbers of seats for the Sat. and Sunday games, but plenty of variety seats for the first two games of this series. The Rays are currently ranked fourth in home attendance in 2009, even with only 7 home games so far in the season. The average of 28, 986 after the seven games is a 60 percent increase over last year’s attendance figures for the team in 2008. The team will play only 13 of their first 35 in the confines of Tropicana field in 2009.

Rays use Big Bats to beat Twins

                      

              Rays 7,       Twins 1


Jim Mone / AP

Same Score, Different Result.

It was  as Yogi Berra used to say, “Deja Vu all over again ” last night in the Metrodome. It had been a little over 24 hours since the Rays last saw a 7-1 score posted on a scoreboard, and this time they had the lead. Funny how 24 hours can also signal a change in a team in almost every facet of the game. In last night’s win over the Minnesota Twins, the Rays did situational hitting, aggressive baserunning, and waited on their perfect pitch at the plate to overtake the Twins 7-1 in the first game of their last series ever at the Metrodome.The Rays used their  past winning combination of great hitting and aggressive base running to earn their 8th win of the season.

But they did get some help from the shoddy catching performance of Twins catcher Jose Morales, who had to chase numerous balls around the huge backstop in the Metrodome last night. Both of his passed balls played a key role in getting Rays runners into scoring position. In the win, the Rays posted only their 17th win in 29 tries against the Twins at their domed home. But since September 6, 2006, the Rays are now 10-6 against the Twins, and are looking for two more wins in this series to win only their second series of the year before returning home for 6 games. The Rays scattered only 9 hits around the Metrodome,but several extra base hits did the most damage tonight against the Twins.

But the Rays did get some incredible hitting from the big boys in their order tonight as Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and Pat Burrell went a combined 5 for 11 on the night with 5 RBI’s and 4 run scored for the Rays. This is the type of offense that the Rays envisioned when they signed Burrell in the off season. It had shades of the old “Hit Show” from the Rays past, but these guys can hit, unlike some of those hitters of that past era. The potential of these three in this lineup is off the charts in projections, but only the power hitting of Longoria and Pena had shown themselves before tonight. If the Rays do seem to harness this collective energy from the trio, it could be an early sign of things to come in the summer months for the Rays. But then again, the emergance of this trio might just be the thing the team needs to gain more confidence during their long first few months of consecutive games.


Jim Mone / AP

J. B. Stands for “Just Bashing”

I have to say I am liking this trade between the Minnesota Twins and the Rays more and more since the 2007 off season. In that trade, it seemed like Jason Bartlett might have been a last minute throw-in, or maybe even a secondary character in that trade, but since the beginning of 2008, he has been the heart and soul of the Rays middle infield. The guy is playing above his pojections in every sense of the word. He was said to have only adequate defensive skills, but he has paced this Rays defense into one of the American Leagues best defensive units since that trade. He  was aaid to have no speed and a limited bat according to scouting reports. Little did they know of his potential growing after his arrival in St. Petersburg, Florida.

He has only turned that into one of those pesky guys who you hate to have come play your team with his timely hits and aggressive base manners. He has easily become the best shortstop the Rays have ever had in their franchise history, and that current .371 batting average is not too shabby by any measures of the word. Heck, he is even above his 2008 home run pace by 200 percent after he hit his third homer into the first row of seats in left field in the top of the ninth inning. I am beginning to think he feels great in his Rays skin, and is beginning to assert himself accordingly. His offensive and defensive rise might just get him  a few glances come All-Star ballot time, and he totally deserves the shot at the event this year. I know he is my shortstop selection on all 25 of my entries.

Here is a nice kicker to the story on Bartlett and his former team. Since he came over to the Rays,he is hitting .391 against his former team. Last night, Bartlett again posted a 2 for 4 night with 2 runs scored and 2 RBIs. With his average now up to .371, he is tied for 10th in the American League in hitting with team mate Evan Longoria. Both hitters still have a shot at having the best month ever by a Rays player to start the season if they can maintain their averages above .366. In last night game, his RBI single to center field in the fifth inning scored Dioner Navarro, who also singled to lead-off the inning for the Rays.

Bartlett might be hitting number 9 in the Rays lineup, but he is surely an extra lead-off man at the bottom of the order. Where ever the team has seemed to hit him, at the top spot, number 8 or in the 9-hole, he has responded this season with timely hits and being a  real pest on the base paths. And here he was not even the spotlight player on his November 28,2007 trade to the Rays. Bartlett has done nothing but shine bright ever since that time, and makes you now think he was the gem the Rays wanted all along.

             
              Jim Mone / AP

Niemann Again Impresses Us

I am again wondering why I was drinking the media’s kool ade on Jeff Niemann this year. Maybe it was the past minor league situation where his health and his pitching never seemed to synch correctly for the Rays. Maybe I have lingering night mares of those first five batter in Baltimore, or maybe I have put the 6 foot nine inch guy under the microscope so hard, I can see into his birthmarks. I have to say that I am beginning to think the Rays were totally correct in keeping the giant and letting Jason Hammel find greener pastures in Colorado.

Niemann did look good in Spring Training, but sometimes the spring can be a bad time to evaluate a pitcher’s future. Since that five-man wrecking crew episode, the guy has donned a stellar 2.53 ERA over his starts, and has looked great out of the wind-up. With that said, he has seemed to be in trouble when he does have someone on base. With that in mind, maybe he should do all his Bullpen session and side work from now on in the stretch instead. That would give him more of a comfort zone when he is pitching out of that mode with guys on base, and maybe he could even find a fast way to the plate to avoid base runners teasing him on the base paths.

Now I know that a guy 6 foot 9 inches takes a ling time to get the ball to the plate, but there are solutions to this. Too bad we do not have a Inter-League series against the San Francisco Giants this season. I think if he talked on the side with Randy Johnson, one of the original “giraffes” in the present rotations, he would and could feel more secure and confident on the mound. I am not even going to try and put myself in his place. First I might get a nosebleed from the height ( just kidding, maybe), but I have never been a pitcher.

But Brian Anderson, the Rays Assistant Pitching Coach and Television Commentator told story last night about future Hall-of-Famer Gregg Maddox and how he used to always do any of his  weekly off the mound pitching work out of the stretch to make himself more comfortable in this type of pitching. That might be an easy answer to Niemann’s problem. He might not feel as comfortable and confident not letting his wingspan flow out as he does when he releases the ball in the classic wind-up motion. This might just be a small adjustment to you and me, but a guy of giant height, it might be a huge change in motion and mechanics.

The end result is that Niemann right now is throwing the ball better than most of the Rays staff. His ERA has quickly come down from a lofty 10.13 ERA after that April 11th contest in Baltimore to a more  impressive 4.43 ERA after tonight’s win, his second in a row for the Rays. And do not forget, during his last start, Niemann was no-hitting the Mariners through 4 innings, one of his best pitching performances as a professional. Confidence and becoming more secure in his “Rays” skin might be coming for the tall rght-hander. His emergance on the mound will be a great addition to the Rays staff in 2009.

           
                  Jim Mone / AP 

Monday Mumblings and Muses

****  Carlos Pena is currently leading the majors in home runs this season with 9. His  2-run shot last night in Minnesota was never in doubt once he took his swing from a lazy knuckleball from Twins reliever R A Dickey. Pena is now only two homers short of Jonny Gomes 2006 record for April for the Rays. And Pena only need one more to tie Jose Canseco’s 10 home run mark set in 1999.  This is the thrid time in his career that he has had at least 9 homers in a month as a player. He did it first with 13 homers in September 2007, and then again with 9 in August 2008.

****  Former Rays Jason Hammel took the mound for his first start for the Colorado Rockies. He ended up getting rocked early as he only went 3 innings last night and gave up 7-hits and 5-runs in the start. He only survived 78 pitches, but the Rockies did bust through and take a 12-7 win from the San Diego Padres. Hammel left with the score 4-2 in favor of the Padres, but in the bottom of the third and fourth inning, the Rockies plated 4 runs in each frame to secure their second stragith win, and their seventh of the season.

****  It is time for the 2009 Rays to begin to start some streaks of their own. Prior to the start of this season, the Rays won their first season opening series for the first time since 2002. From that point they have struggled and never secured another series win. This current streak of not winnig five straight series is their worst stretch since the summer of 2007 when they did not win a series from June 25 to July 15th.  In 2008, the Rays never lost more than two consecutive series the entire year.  

**** With the Rays beginning the year playing 22 of their first 35 on the road, it is important that the team improves upon their almost .500 mark on the road from 2008. Also weighting heavy on the Rays minds is the fact they are playing 40 of their next 41 games in a row for the first time in franchise history. In 2008, the Rays played only 17 of their first 51 games away from Tropicana Field. So in order for the Rays to again take their place at the top of the American League East, they will have to become extreme road warriors in 2009.

 

Rays get Failing Grade against the A’s

 

                   Athletics 7,    Rays 1

          
           
Gail Burton / AP 

C C Express Still Rolling On

One of the handful of Rays players who have shown up recently with their offense is Carl Crawford. He has not dominated the base paths so far in 2009, but that just might be a matter of time before he gets that part of his game also revving up at top speed. What has been impressive is the fact he got into am early funk, and has been the only player to show signs of remotely trying to regain his form so far for the Rays. In the last 4 games Crawford has gone 8 for 16 to raise his average from .244 to .295 in that short span. He got 4 hits in on Wed in Seattle, which marks the 18th time in his career he has had 4 hits in a contest. 

He also currently leads the major leagues with 8 infield hits, and also leads the Rays with 56 stolen bases. His increase in infield hits is based on the fact that Rays Manager Joe Maddon wants to see Crawford put the ball on the ground more in 2009. This is in part to his tremendous speed and acceleration out of the left-side of the batters box. So far in 2009, that has seemed to be key for his offensive explosion.   Also on the horizon for Crawford is the Rays franchise RBI record, which is currently 449 RBIs. He is only 4 RBI’s short of Aubrey Huff’s record. Crawford already hold the Rays all time marks in hits, stolen bases, triples, at bats, games played and runs scored in his career.

Since playing in only 108 games in 2008, he is the only Rays to play every game so far in 2009. In Sundays finale in Oakland, Crawford again got two hits during the Rays 7-1 loss.  Crawford’s first hit of the day was a beautiful over Jason Giambi head at first base for the Rays third hit of the day off A’s starter Dana Eveland.  Crawford also got the last hit of the day off Eveland to lead-off the sixth inning when he hit a single to center field. Crawford has been one of the guys on this Rays squad that have tried to make a difference this season. It is that veteran presence and also his work ethic that makes him a team stand-out this year.  Crawford is also one of the Rays leader in hitting with men in scoring position, going 7 for 19 this year for a .364 average. For the roadtrip, Crawford is currently 8 for 30 with 2 stolen bases and 2 RBIs.

      
      
Ted S. Warren / AP

Sonny is Looking Kind of Cloudy

Now the first thing people are going to read into that  title is the fact I think that something is going on criminally  wrong with Sonnanstine right now.  I am not trying to drum up thoughts of wrong doing, or hidden motives here, but his stuff is letting him down right now. Our usual “Volvo” of pitching is showing some of the rust in his armor, and that is not good for him. It is criminal that he is not getting that great breaking ball to do what he wants right now. When that pitch is on, it is one of the best on the team.  But for some reason it has been absent in several of his starts this year.

And even worse, he has now lost his last 5 starts since September 5, 2008 in Toronto. But in his most recent start in Seattle earlier in this roadtrip, he worked 7 innings and got 7 strikeouts against the Mariners, but also gave up 6-hits and 4-runs to take the loss against Seattle.  But it is not for lack of effort that he has either loss those contests or even been given a no-decision in them. Take a recent 2009 start against the New York Yankees at home in which he was opposite lefite Andy Pettitte. He only worked a total of 5 innings, but left with a 4-3 lead and a possible win. But the Rays Bullpen had a bit of a meltdown and they eventually lost that game .

His first start in 2009 was in Baltimore on April 10th during the Rays first road trip of the season. He lost a 5-4 decision in that contest after going 4.2 innings ans surrendering 8-hits and 5-runs in the game.  In that game, it was the first time in his major league career he had walked more than three batters in a game.  This is not the first time he has taken the mound opposite Dana Eveland. they were both on the mound during the  May 1, 2008 game in Oakland that the A’s defeated the Rays 9-1.  But Sonnanstine did not start this game with any indication of problems. He pitched a perfect first inning, even getting Orlando Cabrerra, who was batting .400 against Sonnanstine to strikeout.


Ben Margot / AP


But in the second inning, the A’s got to him early as Matt Holliday lead-off the inning with a walk. Jack Cust then hit a single to right field just over the head of Ben Zobrist, who was in the shift for the Rays. Nomar Garciaparra then hit a ball over Jason Bartlett’s outstretched arms for a RBI single. Kurt Suzuki then came up and delivered the body blow to Sonnanstine on a breaking ball left up in the strikezone for a one-hooper to the left-center field wall. The A’s scored twice on the play.  Sonnanstine then got Travis Buck to hit a ball to Zobrist for the first out of the inning. Mark Ellis then hit a RBI single to left field past Bartlett to stake the A’s to a 4-1 lead.

Coming into today’s game ,Suzuki was hitting . 625 lifetime against Sonnastine.  The from that moment on until the sixth inning, Sonnanstine seemed to find his groove and again got help by the Rays defense to keep the A’s in check. But in the fifth inning, he gave up a lead-off double off the scoreboard in right field to Ryan Sweeney. Cabrerra then followed that with an RBI-double to the right-center field gap. Then for the second time today, an A’s batter h
it through the Rays shift as Giambi stroked a ball to right field just out of the reach of the Rays defenders. Holliday then hit a bloop single to center field just in front of a charging B J Upton. 

After that play, Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out and got Sonnanstine and his day was over. For the contest, he ended up going   4 innings and givcing up 10-hits and all seven runs. The outing boosted his ERA to 7.78 for the year as he only survived 79 pitches today. I am not sure what is going wrong with Sonnanstine. It might just be a small mechanical adjustment, or maybe he is not getting the bite on his breaking pitches in 2009 that he had in 2008. But what is known so far in 2009 is the fact that the team’s most reliable guy on the mound is having a few issues right now. Hopefully by the time we get home to Tropicana Field, Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey can find a solution to Sonnanstine’s recent problems.


Elaine Thompson / AP

Offensive Numbers

Over the 12 losses this year for the Rays, they have scored a total of 24 runs. that is an anemic  2 runs a contest. Considering that most of the teams in the American League are scoring at least 3-4 runs a game, the Rays are sitting in the bottom their looking up right now in the American League East. But it is not for lack of effort. The team is getting their hits, but they are not coming with extended at bats or even extended rallies that could produce more runs.

Consider Sundays game as a great example. In the game the Rays got multiple base runners only twice in the game. In the second inning, Pat Burrell, who has been a walking machine in recent games got on base with a lead-off walk.  Then Willy Aybar, who has seen minimal at bats this year so far got a single to left field to put two men on base with no outs. Ben Zobrist then moved Burrell to third, but Aybar was out on a force out and second base. That put men on the corners with one out. Dioner Navarro then put down a great bunt
to score Burrell down the first baseline. Navarro put the ball in front of Jason Giambi, who had to come in and take the ball, and finally threw to Mark Ellis covering first for the out.

That produced the Rays only run of the game. But that was not for lack of effort that the Rays did not plate another un. In the third inning, Jason Bartlett battled with Eveland for nine pitches before finally singling to center field. He then moved to third on Carl Crawford’s single, but was stranded there after Evan Longoria hit into a double play to end the inning.   Then in the sixth inning, Carl Crawford singled to center to give the Rays their third man on base to lead-off an inning in the contest. 

Longoria then walked to put two men on base, but a double play by Burrell left only Crawford an third base with two outs. Aybar the hit a foul ball out to third baseman Nomar Garciaparra to end the inning. From that point on, the A’s relievers shut down the Rays. The A’s Bullpen retired the next 9 men in a row to send the Rays to their 11th loss.

         
                          www.tradewindsresort.com


 Trade Winds Resort Rays Watch Parties for 2009


The Trade Winds Island Grand, the Offical Beach Reosrt of the Tampa Bay Rays are inviting all baseball fans out for a fun-filled, family-friendly event to watch our Rays while basking in the glow of the bautiful Florida sunshine. I went out for yesterday’s event, but I did not take my camera because it was the first time I had been to the reposrt in 10 years and did not know if the hotel had accomodations to secure it while I was frolicking on the beach. I did however get my traditional first sunburn of the season, but it is not a birght red lobster color, but a mild case of me forgetting to use sunscreen on my legs and stomach again.

Speaking of stomach, the Resort did a first class job of having snacks and ample food selections for the hungry Rays fans. There was a wide array of food options from burgers and grilled chicken, to wings and bratwurst with hot sauerkraut for purchase at the event. As many of the kids went to the three-story inflatable waterslide( me too), the adults took their spots in front of the huge viewing screen to get an early spot for the Rays broadcast. 

The game was broadcast right there on the beach so you could enjoy sun, sand and the Rays all in one small area. The Rays Radio Network, including Rich Herrera did the pre game and post game shows live on WDAE 620 during the event.  The event also featured giveaways from both the Rays and the resort. One sought after prize was the gift certificate for stays at the Resort in the future. I have to say it was an awesome event, with a great turnout and will not be the last one this year for either the Rays or the Trade Winds. Here is a list of future Rays Watch parties in case you want to place them on your calendar:


Thursday, May 7 – 7:05 p.m. – vs. New York Yankees

Sunday, June 7 – 1:05 p.m. – vs. New York Yankees


Sunday, July 19 – 2:10 p.m. – vs. Kansas City Royals


Sunday, August 30 – 1:05 p.m. – vs. Detroit Tigers


Sunday, September 13 – 1:35 p.m. – vs. Boston Red Sox


These events are open to the public, and the Resort will be giving complimentary parking to Rays fans until the lots are full. I was a blast spending the day at the bach along with fellow Rays fans and employees. Hidden in the crowd were members of the Rays front office and staff enjoying this great weather outside watching their favorite team take on the Oakland A’s.   So be sure to mark those calendars to come on out and participate in future Rays Watch parties here at the Trade Winds Resort on St. Petersburg Beach. Only thing better would have been a Rays victory.


Sundays Semiconscious Thoughts

**** To illustrate the importance of Jason Bartlett since the 2008 All-Star break, he is  the highest hitting shortstop in the majors since that time hitting  for a .340 average. In 2009, Bartlett is currently hitting . 364, which includes his 1 for 3 effort Sunday. Bartlett  trailed only Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees in 2008, with a .286 average.  On Friday he had his 6th career day of gathering 4 hits when he went 4 for 5 in the Rays win over the A’s.  He is also hitting .409 this season against right handers going into Sunday game.

**** After today’s loss, the Rays are now 1-7 against left-handers in 2009. 
        They have now lost their last five series since taking 2 out of 3 in Boston to begin the season.
        The Rays are now 7-12, which equals their start in 2000 and also 2004. From 2006 to 2008, the Rays were 8-11 after 19 games. And are currently one game off of their 2008 pace. 
       

**** Evan Longoria ( .375 ) and Jason Bartlett ( .365 ) are neck and neck in their pursuit of the best April in Rays history. Longoria currently hold the top spot with former Ray Rocco Baldelli ( .366 ) holding the second spot with his great start in 2003.
          The Rays lead the majors in infield hits with 25. Carl Crawford has8 of those hits, and Bartlett has the 7 to be currently first and second in the MLB in that category.
         

Oakland Walk to a Win over the Rays

 

             Athletics 5,      Rays 2


Ben Margot / AP

Frustrations Mounting Fast

The worst part of the last couple of games is that the Rays have had their chances to mount sustained drives and have come away either empty-handed, or shot themselves in the foot on multiple occassions.  Some whispers in and outside of the Internet have hinted that it might be due to the large number of strikeouts by the Rays, and the number of walks given up by the pitching staff. I decided to do a little snooping around and see just what might be true or false with those statements.   First I decided to see how the Rays as a team are stacking up against the rest of the American League in those categories before trying to put any scientific or opinionated facts out there.

As of today, the Rays have a total of 151 strikeouts, which puts them third in the American League at this moment, but they are within striking range of again manning the top spot. That position right now is held with only 158 K’s by the Texas Rangers, who also was in the top 3 at the end of 2008. In comparison, the Rays pitching staff is ranked seventh in the AL in walks with 71 this season.  What that shows is that some of the people commenting that the Rays have been giving up too many walks is not completely accurate. But it is more to the fact that the Rays pitchers have been giving up too many walks in a condensed period of time.

Let me use today’s game as a good example. In the fourth inning, Rays starter Matt Garza gave up a lead-off walk to Orlando Cabrerra, then issued a second walk to Jason Giambi. Those kind of beginnings to an inning never seem to work out to the pitchers’ advantage. But after Matt Holliday hit a fly ball out to center field for the first out, it seemed he might have a chance to redeem himself. But he walked the next batter, Jack Cust to load the bases. That led to Nomar Garciaparra’s 3-run double to the left-center field wall on the first pitch he saw from Garza.  That instantly put the A’s up 4-0 on the Rays.

Situational pitching is an artform. Some pitchers seems to come by it naturally, while others struggle with it their entire careers. But what is killing the Rays right now is the fact that the squad is issuing some walks at the wrong moments in the game, and it is costing them dearly in the end. In their games this season, the Rays have issued 71 walks in 17 games, that is good enough for  over 4 walks a game. In two contests the team has issued over 6 walks a game and have gone 1-1 in those contests. The only win was during the Home Opener against the New York Yankees on April 13th.

But the Rays have not done themselves any favors in the offensive numbers either attached to strikeouts. in 6 of their losses, they have struck out over 9 times in a contest. the highest was actually during their Opening Day loss in Boston when they posted 14 strikeouts.  But that is not the only time they have suffered over 10 this season. They also posted 10 strikeouts in their second game agianst the Yankees at home on April 14th, 9 against the Chicago White Sox in a 12-2 loss to close out their last home stand, and 10 strikeouts the first game in Seattle to start this road trip.  In only one game have the Rays won when posting over 10 strikeouts. It was their lone win in Baltimore during their second series when they posted 10 K’s on the day.

Even during this series so far, the team has posted 12 strikeouts in two games. That figure might be lower than their average, which is sitting at 8.3 strikeouts per game right now. With that in mind, the Rays have topped the 8 strikeout mark in 10 of their 17 games, and have won only one of those games. The first thing to try tear apart here is the Hitting Coach. I do not think it is what Steve Henderson wants to see his club do on a nightly basis. I think he would not disagree that the burden here lies on the players for not taking intelligent swings at times. For a short period of time there, it almost seemed like Carl Crawford was just swinging into the air, not even expecting to hit anything.

       
        Ben Margot / AP

It is going to be a big test of Henderson’s patience and his expertise to again get this team to put their frustrations aside and begin to rebuild themselves from the ground up. But these guys are professional hitters’, it should not take long for them to discover and correct some of their flaws in the batters box. I mentioned Crawford above as a guy who seemed to be free-swinging a lot more than usual. This was true, but recently he has begun to see the ball better and is hitting it  as if it was a beach ball. But then you have guys like B J Upton, who have added pressure of being the lead-off man right now for the Rays and is mired in a bad slump.

His average has sunk to .171 this season, with no end in sight of the dismal beginning. His recent game in Oakland came down as an 0-4 with a single strikeout, but after the at bat, he took his bat and cracked it over his knee in visual frustration over the lack of power by himself and the team right now. In that game, Upton did get on base once via a walk in the sixth inning, but he was stranded at third base after a Rays rally was stopped cold by Oakland starter Dallas Braden.  Upton hit the ball three times in this game, but they were at people. 

The frustration level on this team is at an all time high, and it is only going to get worse until the Rays bats begin to strike some fear into opposing pitching staffs. Right now, there is not a staff in the American League that fears the Rays hitters besides maybe Carlos Pena, who is on a homer run tear right now. Over their last two series, the Rays are hitting .243 as a team with 22 total runs and 42 strikeouts. Over the past six games, that puts them 12th in the AL during that time. Only the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s are underneath them, and Oakland is beginning to get hot.

      
       Ben Margot / AP

Is Matt Garza Getting Frustrated?

I am not sure if it is only Matt Garza that is starting to shoe outward frustration right now for the Rays. the enitre team seems to be in a dander, and not their usual confident and energetic selves on the field and at the plate. But Garza is a player who holds his emotion up close to his kin, and in yesterday’s fourth inning he seemed to almost bubble over on the mound. Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey did come out to the mound and seemd to make the right words cool the fires within Garza. He ended up getting back under control after Garciaparra’s RBI double and again pitch like a champion. After giving up that double, Garza retired the five of the next six batters  before getting into trouble in the sixth inning.

But the day did not start like that for him. He got two 1-2-3 innings before giving up a lead-off homer to Travis Buck in the thrid inning. Even after Buck’s shot, he retired the next three in a row to hold Oakland to a single run. Then came that fourth inning when 3 runs were given up by Garza on one hit. He had basically walked the bases full before Garciaparra’s drive to left-center.  Garza is one of this teams pitchers that needs to again regain some of the magic of 2008.  His 5.2 innings of work today yielded 4 runs on 4 hits, with 6 strikeuots. But his 4 walks did make the most damge today as three of those walks came around to score for the A’s.

           
            
Ben Margot  / AP

Aki is the Man

Since he left the lead-of
f spot this season for the Rays, Akinora Iwamura has been kind of quietly having a great season. Including today’s game, Aki is hitting .302 for the year, and has been one of the three consistent hitters on the team so far in 2009. His numbers might not jump out at you, but he has been doing great thing under the surface for the team. His 7 doubles are only one of the AL lead, and he is 5 for 5 in stolen bases this year.  He is 4 for 12 in his last 3 games with 2 doubles.

But since moving down to the bottom of the lineup for the Rays, Aki has not forgotten to be offensively motivated this season. Some players might view it as a bad omen to be figured into the bottom slots in the lineup, but Rays Manager Joe Maddon looks at it more like a “second” lead-off man, or a speedy option in the middle of a lineup. Iwamura has seemed to adopted well to the new spot, and is showing it with his bat. He was the first Rays to get on base today when he hit a single into right field in the third inning. In the fifth
inning, Aki again made his presence known when he stroked a RBI single to center field to begin the Rays coring on the day.

Aki might have cooled down a bit during the game, but his ninth inning at bat will be a controversial play for the rest of the season. With A’s closer Brad Ziegler on the mound, Aki hit a hard ball down the first baseline to Giambi.  the ball hit off of Giambi’s glove and he finally picked it up and tried to race Aki to the bag for the out.  First Base Umpire Mark Wegner called Iwamura out, but replays showed he had made the base in a stride before Giambi made it to the bag. After that play, the Rays went down in order the rest of the inning and lost their first game in Oakland this season.


Ben Margot / AP

Saturday Scrambles

****  The Rays on Saturday tried to win their second game in a row for only the second time in 2009. The only other time they have won two in a row was in their first series of the season against the Boston Red Sox. Up to today, that is also the only series the Rays have won this season.  Speaking of streaks, during their start to 2009, the Rays have now had two 3-game losing streaks and two 2-game losing streaks on the year.

**** With their current record of 7-10, the Rays have also  been at this mark 6 times in the franchise history, with the same record at this point in the season for the last  the past  4 out of 5 seasons. the lone exception since 2004, is the 2006 season, when they were 8-6 at this juncture in the season. Also of importance is the fact that at this point, the team has been in fifth place in the AL East each year, and have been from 3.5 to 5.5 games back of the division leader. The 2009 squad  however has the least amount of runs and errors after 17 games. The team does have their highest amount of stolen bases ( 24 ) in the franchise history at this point.

**** Carlos Pena’s two home runs last night have vaulted him into the major league lead this season.  The only other Rays player to lead the majors in home runs was Jose Canseco, who lead the majors as late as June 26,1999 with 28 homers.  Pena did lead the majors briefly early last season, when he had 6 homers on April 15th.  The 8 are currently tied for third-best in club history for April, and is onl three shy of the team record. Pena now has 14 homers over the past two Aprils, which is one shy of the tops in the majors held by Phillies second baseman Chase Utley.


****
The Rays currently lead the majors with 21 infield hits.
          They also have 24 stolen bases at this time, which leads the majors and are the most since the 1998 New York Yankees swiped 30 early in the year.
          They are currently fifth in the majors with 23 homers, which is their best output ever after 17 games.  

 

Rays Hungry in Win in Oakland

 

              Rays 8,     Athletics 2


Ben Margot / AP

Dr. Devilrays and Mr. Ray

The beginning to the 2009 season began another chapter last night as the  Tampa Bay Rays evened their road record in 2009 to 5-5 with a wild shootout in O-town. Now in the past, a game like this would not be possible with the dominance the last few years of the Oakland A’s pitching staffs. But this is not the same pitching staff your older brother was salivating over in his Fantasy Draft. It has come on a few seasons of wheeling and dealing as the A’s are going through a self-imposed rebuilding of their staff. But in this game, even the Barry Zito’s or even the Dan Haren’s might have been hard pressed to keep this Rays team under their thumbs.

In their usual Dr. D-Ray and Mr Ray fashion the Rays took control of the game from the onset and did not let up the entire contest. This is the type of game we hoped and prayed for during their 2-5 home stand last week. They did have a few minor base running mishaps, but the overall ability of the offense to take control of a struggling pitcher was a thing to be seen with your eyes. The team did what you are suppose to do when a pitcher is having control and command issues. they sat waiting on their prized pitch and drove it endlessly into the California skies to post their seventh victory of the year. 

The fact that Mother Nature was also working in the Rays favor to begin the game was not lost on just the players. Rays Television Commentator Todd Kalas was quick to alert the fans at home to the 31-40 mph winds that were swirling in and around the stadium at game time. This just added to the Rays offense as they  went on in the contest. But considering they were facing  Oakland rookie Trevor Cahill today, the 21-year old, who was drafted by the A’s in the 2006 Player Draft, got his first look at Tampa Bay in his career. In his fourth start of the year, Cahill might have wished he had missed it after the Rays took an early 1-0 lead after B J Upton scored on a Carl Crawford RBI-double to start the game.

To put the Rays offense emergence into perspective, they put their lead-off man on base in five of the nine innings tonight, and in three of those innings, the lead-off man scored for the Rays. Gabe Gross and Carlos Pena lead-off two of those innings with solo home runs to pace the Rays offense tonight.  In all, the Rays hit 4 doubles and 3 homers against the A’s, and only Upton and Pat Burrell did not have hits in the Rays 13-hit explosion. This is the type of Rays confidence that was so familiar with them in 2008. The Rays were hitting the long balls, but also concentrating on extending rallies tonight.

In their first inning, they strung together three straight base runners to put early pressure on Cahill. Then in their  5-run third inning, they got two early base runners before Pena hit a 3-run shot over 388 feet for his first homer of the night.  After Burrell hit a fly ball to Mark Ellis for an easy out at second base, they again strung together  5 straight base runners before Crawford hit a sharp fly to Matt holliday in left field for the final out. But by that time they had exposed the young right-hander and paced to a 7-0 lead.  In the fifth, the Rays again tired to mount an extended rally, with Akinora Iwamura getting a lead-off single into the gap in right-center field, then Jason Bartlett hitting a ball to Eric Chavez at third base that he beat for an infield single.  But Upton hit into a 6-4-3 double play to prematurely take the Rally down.

From that inning on, the Rays only extended one inning to multipule base runners. In the eighth inning, both Burrell and Gabe Gross got walked by A’s reliever Maichael Wuertz, but were stranded on base after a Dioner Navarro fly out to center field ended the inning. At that point it was 8-0, with the Rays in control of the contest. For the night, the Rays got 13 hits, 8 of them off the Oakland starter and also  gathered  8 total walks on the night.  The Rays did leave 7 runners in scoring position, which is still the Achillie’s heel of this team. If not for the A’s starter getting into early trouble tonight, the Rays only sustained two rallies all night long after Cahill left the game, and both of those were off of reliever Dan Giese, who Oakland got on waivers after the New york Yankees released him.


Ben Margot/ AP

El Presidente Issues a Statement

Carlos Pena has been the vocal leader of this Rays team now for several years. He is one of the first people to speak up for the Players Only meeting the other day in Seattle, that lead to a Rays victory, and tonight he let his lumber do the talking. It is great to see a Raya slugger let his bat do the talking in this contest. But Pena has always been someone who will “walk the walk, and talk the talk.” It is one of the reason the Rays took a chance on him several years ago and signed him to a Minor League contract. He did nothing more than surprise and rise this team by hitting the daylights out of the ball and make his love for this young team know.

The Rays made their committment to him by signing him to a multi-year contract, and since that day, he done more and more to take and portray a leadership role on and off the turf for the Rays. Tonight he took two pitches and made his statement in this game.  In the third inning, he took a letter high ball and deposited it deep into center field to send the Rays in front 5-0 at the time.  Then  in the the sixth inning off Giese, he took a 3-1 pitch and drilled it into the first row into right field, about 333 feet from home to provide the last run of the game for the Rays. His two homers tonight puts him into the American League HR catbird seat with one more than Carlos Quentin of the Chicago White Sox.

His 4 RBI’s tonight also puts him at 21 for the year, which also puts him currently  2 RBI’s ahead of Nick Markakis of the Orioles for the American League lead. Pena went 2 for 5 in the game, and moved his average up to .254 tonight. For the Rays to be successful in 2009, they need their big hitter to remain consistent and producing.  In their 1
0 loses this season, Pena is a combined 7 for 36, or a .194 average with 13 strikeouts. He has a total of 21 strikeouts so far in 2009, which is good enough for second in the American League. But the Rays seem to feed off his energy, and his success has been key to the team rebounding and rebuilding their oen confidence this season. El Presidente is a leader, and the young Rays seem to play better and with more consitent nature when their leader is setting the example on the field and at the plate.

 

Ben Margot / AP

Kazmir Adjusts Mid-game for Great Start

Rays starter Scott Kazmir did not start the game in great fashion he again seemed to be a bit off the mark, but adjusted correctly and posted one of the most impressive night of the year for him. He did not use his fastball to set-up hitters, but used a greatly improving slider and change-up to keep them guessing at the plate. When the game first started, you would not have thought he was going to go 6 innings and thrown only 96 pitches in the game.  But coming into this game, he has always been extremely good against the A’s. He was a combined 6-2 against them with a 2.70 ERa in 11 starts.

During tonight’s first two innings, you did not see the dominating Kazmir stuff, but it was showing itself throughout those innings and gaining momentum. Kazmir did not start out the night in impressive fashion as he walked lead-off man Ryan Sweeney with four pitches. He neded up throwing 22 pitches just in that first inning. In the second inning, he surrendered  a quick single to Jack cust to lead-off the inning and then walked Kurt Suzuki before taking control of the inning and sending the next 3 hitters down in order to strand both men on base. In that inning he threw 26 pitches. It looked like another early night for Kazmir.

Then in the third inning he again gave up a lead-off walk to Sweeney, his second of the night. At this point, Kazmir has given the lead-off hitter a chance in all three innings. But then he ended up getting Orlando Caberra to hit into a double play to erase Sweeney after a difficult 10-pitch at bat. At this point it seemed that Kazmir regained his command and ended up striking out Nomar Garciaparra to end the inning after 21 pitches. Up to this point, Kazmir had thrown 72 pitches in the contest and was heading for another early night.

But between the innings he discovered his small mechanical error and then took the mound in the fourth inning and went right after the A’s hitters. He only threw 7 pitches in that inning, getting Matt Holliday, Cust and Suzuki in order for his first 1-2-3 inning.  In the fifth inning, he again took control and sent the A’s down 1-2-3 for the second inning, but this time threw only 15 pitches. He was beginnig to take full control of the game. In his last inning, the sixth, he again got the A’s down in order 1-2-3 to put an exclamation point on his night. In that inning, he had retired 11 straight hitters and did his last inning on 6 total pitches. For the night he had given up only two hits, and had held the A’s hitless from the second inning on tonight.


Ben Margot / AP


Gross Doesn’t Waste Opportunity

Gabe Gross did not get an opportunity in the last few games to contribute anything to the Rays. He had not been in the field since the Rays 4-2 loss to open the series in Seattle at on Tuesday night. and in that contest, he only came on to pinch-hit for Gabe Kapler in the ninth inning and popped out in that appearance. His .130 average was cause for concern among the Rays faithful. People had been calling for Ben Zobrist to get more time since the left-handed Gross was struggling at the plate. But tonight he got a start against the A’s right-hander and did not waste his chances. He not only made a mark at the plate, but made sure the Rays did not forget what he brings to the table as a defensive expert.


In the bottom of the first inning when Holliday hit a hard ball to right field and Sweeney tagged up at third base to try the arm of Gross, he quickly got his feet set before the ball reached him and threw a missile to Dioner Navarro in front of the plate for an easy tag-out and to end the A’s rally and inning. But he did not let the momentum end there. He then was the lad-off hitter in the top of the second inning and blasted a 0-2 pitch into deep center field for his first home run of the year.  Gross rode the energy to again in the third innig when he hit a double to the left-center field wall to start another Rays rally after Pena’s three-run shot. 

He ended up crossing the plate in that inning to then put the Rays up 6-0 at the time. He again got on base in the fourth inning on a  5-pitch walk to put two men on base for the Rays. He did not get an opportunity to put anymore runs up for the Rays in that inning, but his offensive struggles seemed to be behind him. After a hard hit ball to center field for an out in the sixth inning, he again got on base in the eighth inning after a 5-pitch walk by A’s reliever Michael Wuertz.  That was his last time on base for the game, but his 2-3 performance had made his average take a positive turn to end up at .192 for the night.

Some people have commented it seems like I do not like Gross. It is not that at all here. It is the fact I know the team is struggling right now, and when you are in a hole, you go with your best horses. At that time Zobrist was the hot bat, and also deserves some playing time considering his early season successes at the plate and in the field. Both guys have a single outfield assist this year, but Gabe Kapler is leading the Rays with two so far in 2009. I like the way Gross played in 2008. Maybe I got spoiled by his banner year and he is showing his more stable hitting average. No matter what, I think the Rays should ride the hot bats this year in right field. If that means Zobrist and Gross get the bulk of the turns, then so be it.

        

www.tradewinds
resort.com

 

Rays Watch Parties with Rich Herrera

Coming up in the next few days will be two Rays watch parties, with Rays Radio pre game and post game announcer Rich Herrera hosting the events in two great local locations. Both of these locales are not foreign to Rays fans as they have already hosted past events and will again be awash in the Rays blue and white and loud with the cheers and excitement of the Rays Revolution members.

The first will be held on Sunday, April 26th at the Tradewinds Resort on beautiful St. Petersburg Beach, Florida.  The resort is a key spot on the Gulf of Mexico and fans are invited to come out early and enjoy the beach and the resort before the Rays afternoon contest against the Oakland A’s. Your usual Rays host,Rich Herrera will be broadcasting the pre- and post game shows live and on location starting at 3:30 p.m., with the first pitch at 4:05 p.m.

Before and during the game, be sure to stop by and register for your chance to win an autographed baseball, tickets to a future Rays game, TradeWinds merchandise, and much more! The Rays  energetic Street Team will also be in attendance, passing out prizes and giveaways. So come on by the TradeWinds Island Resorts, soak up the sun, enjoy the beach, and watch your Rays on Sunday, April 26! The resort is located at: 5600 Gulf Boulevard, and you can get  more directions on their website www.tradewindsresort.com.

 


The second Rays Watch Party will be held in a location that Upper Pinellas County fans know well for their outstanding food and open dining areas. The Rays will again be holding another event at the Clearwater location of Smokey Bones located at 2693 Gulf-toBay Blvd in Clearwater, located in the north section of the Clearwater Mall complex. So if you are a extreme Rays fan like the “Maddon’s Maniacs”, or just a casual Rays fan who loves great BBQ ribs, we invite you to come watch the Rays play the Twins in Minnesota on Monday, April 27, from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill in Clearwater!

Come out and watch the game with fellow Rays fans and enjoy  great drink specials.  Rays Radio pre game and post game guru Rich Herrera will  again be live as the Rays play in the Metrodome. We hope to see you there, and GO RAYS!

Saturday Scattered Thoughts

**** Former Rays reliever Jason Hammel, who was traded just prior to the beginning of the 2009 season has been moved into the Colorado Rockies rotation. So far in 2009, Hammel has appeared in 3 games for a total of 6.2 innings with an 2.70 ERA and 5 strikeouts on the season.

The Rockies obtained Hammel thinking he could be effective as a starter or a reliever. Starts haven’t been available, so he’s made three relief appearances. All Colorado knows is that if he pitches the way he has in his last two outings, there is a place for him — possibly a prominent one.

**** Rays Commentator Brian Anderson has been a trip so far in the broadcast booth for this west coast road trip. Anderson who also doubles as the Rays Assistant Pitching coach has been a breath of fresh air in the booth in relation to the  finer pitching aspects of the game.  He has shown awesome insight and also techniques that a pitcher might use that have been missing since former Rays commentator Joe Magrane left for the MLB Network in the off season. 

Also a great aditon is the use of his own key phrase he like “cookie” to demonstrate a pitch that is just eaten up by the hitter. I was afraid the Rays commentary might be a bit dry and stale for the first season with Kevin Kennedy. But both Kennedy and Anderson have injected a different viewpoint into the every day workings of this team. Kennedy shows a perspective from the catching side of the game, while anderson is focusing on his expertise……..pitching. The Rays hit a blast with the occasional pairing of Anderson with award winning Dwayne Staats in the booth. I can hardly wait for Todd Kalas to get his turn in the booth and see what magic can happen.

**** I can imagine the grumbling and the grunts from the Rays as they entered the Visitor’s Clubhouse yesterday to no food choices in the clubhouse before the game. I could see Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland on the phone scrambling to get something, even a bag of pretzels into the clubhouse at that moment.  But even more entertaining in my mind would be the sight of the Rays getting back on the busses and maybe going ala minor league style to a local restaurant and having Westy and maybe Traveling Secretary Jeff Ziegler tossing bags of food up through the windows to the hungry Rays.

Maybe that was the motivation of the team in last night’s contest. They were hungry in more ways than one prior to the game. But you know that they did finally get some neded calories in their stomaches, but that would have been a sight of them trolling into maybe In-and-Out Burger with 35 chicken sandwiches and healthy wrap meals, with a small prize in the sack for their kids. Ahhhhhhhh, that would have made them cherish their old minor league roots.

  
 

Rays Fall to King Felix via Rare Feat

 

  
      Mariners 1,        Rays 0


Elaine Thompson / AP

Still the Royalty of King County


Most of us Floridians do not know that Seattle is located in King County, and if yesterday afternoon is any indication, we know who rules with a multi-directional fastball and a beautiful change-up. But the young King is  truly going to be one of the leagues premier superstars once the east coast of the country get a good scouting report on the guy. Felix Hernandez is hyped to the roof top by the Mariners, and for good reason. He has only been on their major league roster since 2005, when he appeared in only 12 games and furnished a 4-4 record.

But the sea-faring fans of the Mariner’s have been waiting for the day that the rest of the league catches on to this hard-throwing Venezuelan product.  Funny, but in that short period of time he has stacked up 42 wins and over  620 strikeouts and still is mostly an unknown outside of the shadow of Mt. Rainer and the west coast. People have said that the Mariners lucked out by having another Venezuelan product on their roster back in 2002. Freddie Garcia was  a childhood idol of  Hernandez, and  it was the fact he trusted and loved the Seattle area and team that finally convinced the young Hernandez to sign with the Emerald City team. In 2002, he then went to play for Aquirre in the Venezuelan Summer League.

From that point on up through the Minor League rosters he has done nothing but impress and persuade the team that he is their next home grown star. Very rarely do pitchers seem to grow up in a team’s minor league system anymore. Most are packaged or brought in via trades  to compete in the minors for a shot in the majors. But Hernandez did his time working up from Class-A Everett to Triple-A Tacoma, then finally to the clay of Safeco Field.  But what is more amazing is the future that this series will hold for him and the budding Rays stars. We all know that Carl Crawford and B J Upton have dealt with him for years, but Evan Longoria and Pat Burrell got their first official look at the man locals have dubbed the “King”.

And of this series is any indication of their fights and battles, we are going to have a fun time watching  the Seattle ace take on the Rays for the next 10 years. Henandez might have won battle number one with a clear margin, but the game seemed like a different story after he left the mound yesterday. Before that, the Rays did manage to claw and fight to get  4 hits off of him in the game. Crawford had the most impact gaining two hits off of him, including  a ball hit to shortstop in the thrid inning that handcuffed him severely into committing a throwing error on the play. Burrell made his presence know early in the second inning by popping the first hit of the night off Hernandez to right field.

Then  in an error-filled play ( 2 errors, one by first baseman Jaimie Burke and the second on catcher Rob Johnson) by the Mariner’s team on Ben Zobrist’s fielders choice, it put a tying score less than 60 feet from Mariner’s catcher Rob Johnson. But the Seattle defense and Hernandez stiffened and  Hernandez got the next two batter retired to save his shutout.  In the fourth inning, after two walks to Burrell and Zobrist, the Rays again eventually had men at first and thrid with two-outs, but the Rays again failed to convert anything to get the run home to tie the contest.

Then in the fifth inning, with Crawford up for the third time tonight, he hit a screamer back towards the mound that Hernandez tried to bare-hand with his pitching hand and throw to first base. He ended up doing a spin and dump to the turf instead of getting balance and throwing the ball towards first base. But with Crawford’s speed, it might have been a blessing that he did not wing the ball towards Burke at first base. Burke was only playing the position for the first time in his career because of injuries to Mike Sweeney ( back) and Russell Branyan ( back ). Plus usual fill-in Jose Lopez could not switch over to first base since his sub, Ronny Cedeno had a bad hamstring from the previous night’s game. Dioner Navarro did get a worm killer single to left field in the seventh inning, but a rally-killing double play by Jason Bartlett ended the Rays chances.

The Rays did fight and claw back all night long with Burrell making the most trouble for the Mariners and Hernandez. For the afternoon, he went 1 for 1 with three walks and always seemed to get into scoring position for the Rays. But the Rays usual lack of hitting with men in scoring position doomed their day. The Rays ended up leaving 15 men on base, and also struck out 7 times against Hernandez. They had their chances against the Mariners, but let every one of them slip away. The Rays did not lose this game for lack of effort to get on base, but lost it for lack to the killer instinct needed at key time in this contest.  But the Rays came into this series wanting to set the tone, they did in the middle game of the series, but got out-played, and out-hit in both their losses in Seattle.

           
           
Elaine Thompson / AP

Shields Make only One Mistake

The  oddity of throwing your second pitch of a baseball game and it landing into the right field stands and becoming the winning margin in a game is rare, but not unknown in baseball annuals.  Ichiro usually gets his two hits a game no matter who is pitching, but those who have seen the Japanese product take Batting Practice know he has the power and the ability to take a bad pitch and deposit it into the stands at any point in the game. Ichiro’s lead-off home run accounted for the game’s only run. He’s the second player in Mariners history to hit a lead-off homer in a 1-0 game. Greg Briley did it in 1992 with a home run off the Twins’ Kevin Tapani.

But how rare is it really in baseball? Does an early mistake happen as much as we think, or is it just a twist of fate that doomed the Rays early in this contest? Well, according to Stats Inc.,it was just the third time since 1994 – most recently by the Cubs on May 9, 2007, against the Pirates ( Alfonso Soriano homered ) and before that by the Mets on
May 12, 2004, over Arizona ( on Kaz Matsui’s homer ).  A rare feat, but also a rare omen for the Rays. It had been 12 days since they suffered their last shutout, and the team had ample time to get back that elusive run because of the pitching of James Shields. His one mistake should not have been the margin of victory today.

Shields did everything in his power to keep the score close and also crush any potential Seattle rallies throughout the game. After Ichiro’s blast, Shields and the Rays defense  sat down the next 7 hitters until Endy Chavez hit a single to center field to lead-off the fourth inning. But the Rays quickly erased that threat by getting Lopez to hit into a 6-4-3 double play to again empty the bases. Even in the fifth inning, after Shields walked Johnson, a hard hit ball to Longoria by  Yuniesky Bentancourt provided the 5-3 putout to end the inning.  But in the sixth inning, the Rays defense reared its ugly head and put its mark on the game. The only blemish was a bloop single over Bartlett by Ichiro, who now had two of Seattle’s 4 hits in the game.

Shields did  pitch deep into the game finally giving up the ball after throwing 102 pitches in 7.1 innings of work. His lines score would usually show a victory, but in tonight’s wild and unusual battle he was given the loss after only surrendering 4 hits himself and giving up the lone run. Tho his efforts were valiant, he did give up only one walk to Johnson in the fifth inning and posted 4 strike outs on the day. His pitching matched Hernandez’s pitch-for-pitch. And except for that lone one pitch that he might have known would spell doom the minute it left his hand, he was to suffer his second loss of the year to even his record to 2-2 on the season.

Twice this year Shields has been opposite a “hot” pitcher when he took the mound. Even if Shields was as effective in this contest as he was for the Opening Day game in which Red Sox starter Josh Beckett pitched a masterpiece, it is the underlying problem of pitching in the number one slot. You always face the premier pitcher of the opposing staff, and even if you are on your game, situation can take it from you. But Shields has the inner confidence and the stamina to know that karma and things can change in an instant and go for the Rays. Tonight it was just one swing of the bat that took the wind out of the Rays sails. Just less than 16 hours from one of their best road wins of the young season. Games can shift one one pitch or moment, and unfortunately Shields know that all too well tonight.


Elaine Thompson / AP

Pat Burrell is Heating Up

Burrell is in a weird situation for the first time in his career. He is having to take a crash course in the American League hitters and also the tedencies of the leagues infields to get a firm grounding in the batter’s box this season. Consider how hard it is to not only adjust to the fact you are no longer in the flow of the game by being out in the field, but now you have to sit a majority of the time on the bench and observe your team taking their defensive licks, and you can do nothing but cheer and clap for them. I think that would be the biggest adjustment he has to make since signing with the Rays this off season. Jonny Gomes found it difficult  the last few seasons, and it might have cost him his spot. Cliff Floyd was a great addition to the clubhouse in leadership and mentoring young players, but his bat did not surface to save him either.

It is as if the Rays Designated Hitter spot is the place where hitters have gone to die or retire for a long time. I am not even going to get into the Greg Vaughn or even the Jose Canceso days as a DH, because the formula has changed since their times. Now the DH has to be a run producer and a cheerleader second. Burrell also had the second horrific duty of having to digest and memorize the pitch selections and tendencies of every pitcher in the AL in a compressed manner. No longer can he just go up there and take his swings like in the Spring, but now he has to adjust and compensate for tailing breaking pitches on the fly, and catching up to fireballs coming in at his hands. 

It has been a tough first few weeks for Burrell evident by his average, but the last week of game have also given a sign he might be  gaining on the AL pitching staffs and being more selective at the plate. In yesterday’s game he was only 1-1, but his 3 walks showed he is seeing the ball and making great judgments at the plate for the Rays. In the entire three-game series, he went 4 for 9 , with 4 walks and 2 RBI’s to raise his average to .265 this year. He is beginning to come to terms with the American League. Some hitters who have spent their entire careers in the National League do not adjust fast, but Burrell  is hitting even better on the road ( .276 ) than at home  ( .250 ) this season and he knows that for the Rays to be successful again in 2009, he has to be on his game. It might have taken a bit longer than either he or we wanted for him to adjust and come to terms with the different hitting in the AL, but in the next few months, it is the Rays that will benefit from it all.


Elaine Thompson/ AP

Navi needs to Trust Hitting on the Ground

Dioner Navarro is beginning to heat up a bit at the plate. In the last three games he has gone 2-13, but the true fact is that in the last two series he has garnered only two hits a series. I am not about to cast him under the  ships rudder, because his two hits recently have been down a bit and not the usual rocket fly balls that have plagued his average this season. the last few days, Rays Manager Joe Maddon has been stressing the fact of ground hit balls might be the ticket for this team to survive right now. And for Navarro, that might be the right ticket. He is not going to beat a ball hit in the infield 9 out of 10 times, but the lone time could make for a scoring opportunity.

Not since the Baltimore and Yankees home series has Navarro had two hits in a single game.  Navarro hit 6 fly ball outs in this series and 3 ground outs in addition to his two singles to right field. But in yesterdays game, he  hit two long fly balls out to center field with men in scoring position. He did get Burrell to tag up and go to third base on his fly out in the fourth inning, but his fly out with Gabe Kapler on second in the ninth inning finished the Rays in that contest. Navarro seems to be the lone holdout still hitting the ball primarily into the sky for outs for the team. Because of his defensive abilities, it would be a down grade to sit him right now. He is calling a great game behind the plate, and is getting into a groove with his throws to second base on steal attempts. His peg of Ichiro in this series will be a the highlight of the year for him.


Cursi Magic Runs Out

My buddy Scott Cursi
is one of the best people you will ever meet in the Rays organization.  It has been a thrill for me to see him get some extra recognition that last few days in taking out the line-up card and also doing double duty as the “Jobu” of the Rays. Cursi has been the Bullpen Coach pro tempre before, and also been know to celebrate with the best of them during the Rays run in 2008. By Maddon picking Scott to have the honor again last night of handing out the line-up cards shows that Maddon respect streaks and anything that can make them roll on for another game. I hope he again get a chance to redeem his karma tonight when the team hits the field  in Oakland at 10:07 pm.

During last night game, the line-up card that Cursi presented to Home Plate Umpire Sam Holbrook had a Chinese Proverb written on it by Maddon. I am unclear if this is the exact verse, but this is the only one I could find with that phrasing in an old Chinese Proverb quotation book at the library. It might have said, ” Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.”   The saying has been found in two references, one in Chinese lore and the other in Native American. Which ever is the true origin of the proverb, it might be a unique key to the Rays success this season.

  

Extra Pre-game work bring Rays a Win

    Rays 9,  Mariners 3


Elaine Thompson / AP  

C C Comes Alive 

To say that Tampa Bay Rays fans have been waiting for Carl Crawford to warm up at the plate might be a bit of a lost moment in time. The slugger had been mired in a bit of a slump where he seemed to be just swinging kind of flat to just make contact with the ball. It has been a increasingly difficult time to see our Second guy in the order struggle like this when the team really needed his bat to come alive. But he finally did come out of that slump and he did it with gusto going 4 for 5 last night, while crossing the plate 3 times for the Rays. It looked like the Crawford of 2008, when he used to use his speed and the playing surface to get hits based on his speed and played upon the agility and performances of the opponent’s infield players.

He started showing his renewal early by hitting a ball straight at Seattle first baseman Mike Sweeney, but the ball was hit so hard and also took a nice hop right before it got to Sweeney and it handcuffed him to give Crawford his first hit of the night.  Crawford ended scoring on Carlos Pena’s 2-run double to the wall to help the Rays take an early lead in the game. Crawford again got a chance in the second inning on a slpa single to left field, but he was overly aggressive and Mariner outfielder Endy Chavez was able to cut him down trying to advance to second on the throw. I understand the aggressive nature of the team, but sometimes it just runs your team out of a potential rally.

Then in the fourth inning Crawford put his speed again to the test as he hit a ball hopping over the mound after hitting right in front of the plate and  second baseman Ronny Cedeno had no play at first base to give him his second single of the night. Crawford again came around to score on Evan Longoria’s double to right-center field gap. That would be his second plated run of the night. In the sixth inning the Mariner’s went to the Bullpen and Crawford got a walk out of reliever Roy Corcoran to lead-off the inning. That marked the fourth time tonight he was on base.  Longoria again hit a screamer into the right-center field gap and crawford scored from first base to score his third run of the night.

The Mariners finally got Crawford off the base paths in the seventh inning when he struck out against Seattle reliever Miguel Bastista to end the inning. His final chance came in the ninth inning when Seattle brought in reliever Mark Lowe to finish out the game. With two-men on base at second and third, Crawford hit another single up the middle to get his only RBI of the night when Jason Bartlett crossed the plate.  The inning ended two batters later when Pena hit a ball to Ichiro in right field, but you want to think that Crawford looked skyward and loved his night at the plate. Sometimes a slump at the plate can follow you into the field and it gets into your head when making plays in the outfield.

I truly think this did happen to him during the Chicago White Sox series and during a few fly balls in this series. In the White Sox series he seemed to give up on balls hit in front of him a few times, including at least three on Sunday afternoon. But when you confidence is growing, you will stride faster and take a few more chances on balls. Crawford’s night at the plate saw his average rise from  a suspect .224  to a more .270. All that in one night. Crawford might have been one of those guys that Rays Manager Joe Maddon worked with before the game with extra B P  today trying to instutue more ground balls and using their team speed and abilities to test a defense. It paid huge dividends for crawford and the Rays last night as they broke out of their slump of scoring and putting their aggressive nature to the test against the Mariners last night.


Elaine Thompson / AP

Evan Oh Mighty!

Who would have thought more than 135 games ago when Evan Longoria finally made his Major League debut we would be talking about this feat at such an early juncture in his career. But the pure fact is this guy has risen above expectations and is now moving at his own speed towards the top to be spoken in the same sentences as some of the greats who have played third base in the majors. Considering this guy makes it look so easy only compounds the fact he might just become a true force on the Rays for many years.  First off, only two other players have stroked the ball like Longoria to post their 100th RBI earlier than him. And neither of those guys even plays on the same side of the field as him.

Cardinal Superman Albert Pujols and Brewers Home Run wonder Ryan Braun are the only players to reach this feat faster than the Rays hot corner guy. Not let’s just take a peak at this a bit here. He is in the company of Pujols, who was the 2008 National League Most Valuable Player, and a true superstar in the making  with his fellow State Farm Home Run Derby participant Braun. No predictions or forecasting here, but the future is so bright, he better wear shades. And all of this is coming in a time when the media and writers are forecasting a sophomore slump for the slugger. But Longoria is also taking a shot at putting his name up there for early consideration for his second All-Star bid with a some impressive offensive numbers.

Coming into tonight’s 6:30 start, after a great 3 for 4 night , with 3 RBIs, he is currently sitting in the number 3 spot in hitting with a .415 average. But that is not his only posting in the League Leaders right now.  His 3 RBI’s last night put him in a 3-way dogfight in third for the RBI’s with 16.  Of course he is trailing team mate Pena, who is sitting in the two spot with 17 this season, But that puts a total of 33 RBI’s into the thrid and fourth slot of the Rays lineup. That is impressive because with Longoria getting on base, it increases the chances for Pena to be able to produce runs and get the Rays into the Wins column.  And his record 100th RBI in the fourth inning came off his 7th double of the year. Oh, and by the way, he is tied for the lead in that category too.

Longoria might have thought last season was the magical one, but so far in 2009, he is exceeding expectations and also seeming to just be letting us all go along and enjoy the ride. I am not saying the Rays should hitch their wagons to this star, but you always ride the hot hand, and right now Longoria
is as hot as the sun.  And if all the above was not enough, he is still the top dog in Slugging Percentage, hitting a robust .830 right now with hard hitting Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler right behind him. How much of a compliment is that, Kinsler is a hitting machine and is trailing Longo. I do not know about any of you, but I am truly enjoying watching this guy hit, field and also wreck havoc on the base paths this year. I  compared him to Mongo last year played by Alex Karras in “Blazing Saddles”. Not for the character’s brain power,or lack of it, but for the brute force and ability he showed.  Longo is making all of us rethink third base, and maybe even that sophomore slump idea.


Gail Burton / AP

Navi reverting to Old Habits?

I really like Dioner Navarro. The guy has been a force behind the plate for the Rays for several years, but his current hitting struggles make you again question what is going on with him. Granted it has been almost two years since he started off like this, but if you remember back at the All-Star break in 2007 when he was  hitting an anemic .177 for the Rays.  I am seeing some of the same swings and desperate slices at the ball hoping for contact again this year. He is currently not at that mark, but after last night contest his average has dipped to .184. But what is more upsetting is this might creep into his defensive work soon, and the Rays do not need that to happen. 

Last night was not his night in several ways. First he is the only Rays hitter to not get on base last night going 0-5. A good sign id that none of those 5 at bats resulted in a strikeout, so maybe his salvation is only a stroke away. But his night was hampered by another play that he should not have been pegged with an error last night. In the fifth inning, Seattle catcher Rob Johnson hit a ball high into the sky underneath the roof of Safeco field and Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann was pointing it out to Navarro, who came from behind the plate and was camped under the ball for the easy out.

But at the last moment, Rays first baseman Pena came in and bumped into Navarro causing him to lose focus and the ball fell to the grass. Luckily for the Rays, Home Plate Umpire  Larry Vanover called the ball foul, or it would have been Johnson standing on second base after the play.  Navarro was given an error on the play, which I do not agree with, but he did seem to have a clear shot at the put out, and for that fact he should have been given the error. But here is the place that the official scorekeeper can also have given the error to Pena for his interference in the play.

It did not work to the Rays disadvantage, but was an example of the piling on right now of Navarro’s woes. He did however have a bright moment in the sixth inning when he mowed down Ichiro, who was trying to steal second base. Niemann, becuase of his large size can be a bit slow to the plate, but Navarro got the ball and sprung up throwing and got the tag perfectly online so that Bartlett could apply the tag to his left shin for the out. That might just be the one thing that could spark confidence in him and he could again begin to rebuild his hitting, just like in the last part of 2007 when he went .289, or in 2008 when his .295 average showed everyone he had the abilty to hit and play great defensive catching for the Rays.

                    

                     Elaine Thompson / AP

Niemann looked Golden in Victory

Rays starter  Jeff Niemann must have thought he was in a dream before the beginning of the fifth inning. He was sitting on a chance to put an exclamation point on the reason he should be the fifth starter for the entire year. He had been able to work out of the wind-up the entire game and did not have any worries about base runners. Since those first five batters he faced in 2009 in Baltimore, Niemann has ressurected his season by posting a 2.61 ERA in the last 10.1 innings for the Rays.  But coming into the fifthth inning, he was facing a blank slate in hits and runs, but that soon would change for the 6 foot 9 inch right-hander.

In the matter of a few batters his night would completely change dispite an impressive and entusiastic outing in Seattle.  In the fifth inning he seems to begin to show signs of maybe second guessing himself and the fatigue of the night.  The inning started off with Adrian Beltre hitting a hard ball deep into the hole to  Jason Bartlett at short, but Bartlett was high with his throw and Pena could not come down with the tag in time to get Beltre on the play. It went in the books as an E-6 on the play saving Niemann’s bid for the moment.

But the next hitter, Ronny Cendeno, who had come in after Mike Sweeney went down with a back strain, gave Seattle only their second base runner of the night when he walked on 4 pitches. Niemann was beginning to show signs of letting this game get away from him when Jose Lopez came to the plate. Lopez had hit 18 home runs in 2008 and had the ability to ruin Niemann’s bid in one stroke. After working the count to 0-1, with a called strike, Niemann tried to put a ball on the insdie corner that Lopez turned on and hit into the Mariners’ Bullpen in left field for a 3-run homer. 

After the inning, the scoreboard showed only one-hit on the night for Niemann, but the three runs put the Mariner’s in striking range 7-3 at the time. Niemann ended the night in the sixth inning when Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out and got him after going 5.1 innings and giving up 3 hits and 3 runs on the night. Niemann’s effort lowered his ERA to a more respectable 5.40 this season, which is the same ERA as Scott Kazmir this season. That might put some emphasis to just how far he has come in his last few starts on the mound. He has a better ERA than Andy Sonnanstine and is equal with Kazmir. If you take away those first five batter, he might even be the most productive pitcher this season for the Rays. Not bad for a guy who was fighting for a chance not less than three weeks ago to even be on this team’s roster.


Elaine Thompson / AP 

Hump Day Happenings

I thought it was great that the Rays let Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi take out the official line-up card to the umpires before last night’s game. The guy has been one of the hardest working people on this Rays staff for years. The guy does a hard job with a smile and it was a great sight seeing Scottie at the plate before the game. With that in mind, do you again send him to the plate with the line-up card tonight? Do you toy with the Baseball gods and break from superstition, or do you ride the karma of Cursi and his aura of professionalism to the bottom of the wave. I hope he again gets shot, because you might remeber that he did it also during the 2008 season and team also won that contest. Cursi is 2-0 in that position, can we go for 3-0 Joe?

Another Rays blog, the Rays Index came up with this gem that current Rays DL candidate Fernando Perez is doing a column for the New York Times.  As many Rays fans know, Perez is a graduate of Columbia University and is a well-versed guy on the bench right now rehabbing his wrist injury. You can still see him before the Rays games doing his running in the field with his light blue foam cast hoping the days come fast that it can be removed and he can resume baseball activities.  Here is a link to that column for those interested: http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/fernando-perez-rays-fandom-up-close/. You will not be disappointed in his style or impressions of life as a Ray. I look forward to more of his writings this year for the publication.

I still think it is funny when something goes wrong with a uniform or a team plays a joke on a player with mis-spellings or an alteration on their jerseys. I remember when the Rays put only “Rocco” on Rocco Baldelli’s jersey a few years ago to play a joke on the center fielder that he should be like Ichiro and have only his first name ob his jersey. Baldelli actually played an inning before it was pointed out to him by an umpire at second base as he was running into the dugout. I could see guys falling off the top seat rail in the dugout and it was a priceless moment in Rays history. 

But I do have to say that the recent embarrassing moment for Majestic, who make all of the  formula game issued jerseys for MLB really did show a huge vulnerable situation in their Quality Control department when two Washington Natinals players were spotted with grammarical errors on their jerseys during a game. I can see it getting by the QC department and getting shipped to the team, but the teams put their own names and numbers on the jerseys in-house, so the blame has to also go with the Washington Clubhouse staff. I would think you would double-check your work before you hang it up in a professional player’s locker for game use.

I know the job is some times bang, bang in the Clubhouse, but to let something like that get to the field is a major problem. I mean,there have been names wrong on jerseys before, and even patches upside down or even wrong. But to put a jersey out on the field that displays your teams name wrong is a huge insult to the organization. I bet from now on there is going to be a huge amount of double-checks and balances in place to keep this from happening again in Washington. And by the way, Majestic should not have issued  such a huge apology, it should have been caught before it hit the player s back, or at least before the beginning of the first inning.

Defense Bends, but the Rays break in Loss

 

 

Mariners 4, Rays 2

 

Ted S Warren / AP

 

Joe’s 500th Moment

 

It did not feel like a celebration, but come on, does it really feel like we have seen Rays Manager Joe Maddon out there 500 times in a Rays uniform? It feels like it was just yesterday that we were introduced to this guy who looked more like your Logic or Statistics class professor than a baseball manager. But little did we know that the “statistics” label would still seem fresh today. It is so refreshing to see him still have the same type of managerial style that he displayed on the first day. When the Rays first manager, Larry Rothschild hit his third year, you could not even recognize his style, much less his smile.

 

But here we have the bold glasses of Maddon still gracing the dugout steps with grace and confidence in his team and their chances. How refreshing is it to know that the guy who took the Rays reins in 2006 made his debut on April 3rd in Baltimore. It took him two more days to celebrate his first win, a 2-0 victory thrown by Mark Hendrickson. But who would have guessed this guy would still be here when he first was introduced. We have seen it before in Tampa Bay, first Larry Rothschild the mastermind behind the Florida Marlins pitching staff during their first World Series victory was hired to build the franchise in the image of the Marlins.  This team has chewed up and spit out managers like a guy eating conch fritters at Frenchy’s on Clearwater Beach, Florida.

 

But why is it that Maddon has lasted so long? Could it be that he actually has a master plan, and has been able to implement it without stress and the front office blocking his thoughts and ideas. That is the great thing about his hiring and the team getting a new ownership at the same time. Both came in as blank pages to the Rays fans. Both had huge upside and confidence in them was sky high. I think even with the recent downward offensive woes, the energy and the chemistry on this team is high this season. You can see in the game that certain breaks have not gone our way that fell into our laps in 2008.

 

But I believe Maddon has the ability to steer the team’s thoughts towards recognizing these game changing moments and will turn them into positive events soon. But who would have guessed it when he got his 125th victory on  September 23rd against the Boston Red Sox at home. Here he was 25 percent of the way to his 500th game and he had been pushed by defeat and success.  He missed hitting the .500 mark in 2006 in his first season by one win. But even with the 61 victories, you could feel the tide changing in Tropicana Field. You knew this guy understood what was needed to hit the next level.

 

So here we are today at Safeco Field in Seattle with the Rays playing a late game start against the Mariners. Funny how last year these teams were headed in different directions, but now they have reverse mirror-image records, with the Rays fighting to get out of the American League East basement with a 5-9 record and the Mariners on top of the American League West division with a 9-5 mark. But there was Maddon like  a proud general leaning on the rail and watching his team go to battle against the Mariners. He has currently posted 229 wins in those 500 contests. That is amazing considering this is a franchise that did not win before he stepped into the head job. 

 

Who would remember that in his first year he finished 36 games back of the AL East winner, and in two years he would be the one on top looking down at everyone else. I was checking out some old Maddon quotes, and this one from the Tampa Tribune caught my eyes,” “The fourth manager in ( Devil ) Rays history is a book you can’t put down. A concert you rock to, a story that begins in a mining town and ends in a baseball dugout, sometimes cruising with the girlfriend to an L.A. beach, Springsteen blasting from the convertible, for a glass of red wine at sunset. Something for everyone.”  Wow, that was written the day he was hired by the Rays on November 14, 2005. People forget, we could have lost him to the Boston Red Sox in 2004, but they decided to hire Terry Francona for their managers position.  We need to celebrate Maddon. Not for what he has done for this franchise, but for what is going to do this year and in the future. I look forward to again celebrate his 1000th game on the 28th game of the 2012 season.

 

               

                Ted S Warren / AP 

 
Same Bat Channel, Same Bat Station

 

Watching the first inning of last night;s game I got excited that maybe this road trip might be the right thing to get our bats again stroking the ball and producing a few more runs than the opponent. Little did I know that the walk and those two hits in the first inning would be the highlight of the Rays night. There was excitement knowing that lead-off man Jason Bartlett was 5-8 lifetime against Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. And when he lead off the game with a walk, you knew something was about to happen. After Carl Crawford hit a flutter ball to short for a quick out, the Rays began to flex a little muscle.

 

 Evan Longoria kept his bat going by stroking a nice RBI-double into the left field corner that Endy Chavez had trouble with as it bounced oddly off the wall.  Pat Burrell, who had been hitting at a .357 clip in his last 4 starts, hit a ball up the middle to score Longoria and put the Rays up early 2-0.  But after that, the Rays again fell into their recent funk of going down 1-2-3 both in the second and third innings. Burrell did again try and get something started in the fourth inning when he hit another ball up the middle for a single, but after a Ben Zobrist hard blast that landed just at the bottom of the left field wall, both men ended up stranded on base for the Rays. 

 

It is not frustrating that Zobrist hit that laser beam to left, but it did get there too fast, or the Rays might have had a chance to get Burrell home. It was one of those moments where a great hit hindered the end result. And that has been one of the foundation points to the Rays not getting some of their needed runs this year. Either we are popping the ball with mustard, or we are not stringing them along to make a sustainable rally to win. Scattered hits and walks will not win games, but they are showing that the ability is there and the formula can work. That is what is so unnerving about the slow start to the 2009 season. The team is doing the right things and getting hits, but not in a consistent manner by stringing them together and posting rallies of any duration.

 

Feast or fathom is the word for their offense so far in 2009. And Maddon is confident that the team will shake this and be fine this year. It is early, and we know this is a better team in 2009 than the AL Pennant-winning club of 2008, but getting into the AL East cellar early might not play well in the long run. From that fourth inning on, the Rays had 4 base runners the rest of the night.  Longoria walked in the fifth inning, Gabe Kapler hit a awesome double, his fourth of the year in the seventh inning, and Carlos Pena finally got on base with a walk after three straight strikeouts. And in a last ditch effort to get a victory, Dioner Navarro lead-off the ninth inning with a single to center field, but was left stranded after two quick fly outs and Bartlett being called out on strikes to end the game.

 

Ted S. Warren / AP

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

 

You know that quote had to come from a military leader, because a baseball manager would love the essence of that quote, but hate the result. But the Rays again showed some tremendous defensive effort, which included some nifty and classic Longoria moments. At least three times in the game, the Mariners were testing the Rays third baseman. This included two times just by Ichiro, but he completed the outs all three times gunning down even the speedy Ichiro.

 

But one bunt did go a bit  wrong in the first inning. Ken Griffey Jr., who has been known for knee problems put a ball down in front of the mound and was speeding to first as Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine picked the ball up and threw off line a bit to give the Mariner’s their second base runner of the game. Sonnanstine did get an error on the throw, but the play did not end up coming back to haunt him tonight.  But in the third inning, Akinora Iwamura made one of the best plays of the night when he took a ball hit by Adrian Beltre up the middle and went deep into the hole just on the outfield grass and gloved the ball and threw blindly to first to just get Beltre and retired the Mariners 1-2-3 for the first time tonight.

 

But the play of the night came from the outfield. Gabe Kapler got the start tonight in place of B J Upton, who is still rehabbing a slight quad pull. Kapler did not begin his fourth inning in a great way, but he did end it in classic style. After Mike Sweeney started off the inning on base after Sonny got him with a breaking pitch in the back hand, Jose Lopez hit a single to left to give the Mariners two quick base runners. But Seattle catcher Rob Johnson had a surprise for Kapler as he hit a long fly ball over Kapler’s head and to the wall for a RBI-triple. 

 

But a testament to the Rays defense was shown  when Johnson did not try and score off of Franklin Guttierrez’s fly ball to right field. Seattle Third Base Coach Bruce Hines held up Johnson not wanting to test Zobrist’s arm. Zobrist did end up throwing the ball into the plate with a strong straight throw that  surely would have pegged Johnson. Yuniesky Bentancourt then hit another drive over Kapler’s head that one-hopped to the wall and gave the Mariners a 4-2 lead in the game. After Ichiro tried to again test Longoria for the second time tonight, Endy Chavez hit a long and curving ball to left-center field. On the play, Kapler had a great read on the ball and got to it just as it was about to dip away from him. Leaving his feet he caught the ball in stride going horizontal for the final out of the inning. The play ended up being the number 1 Web Gems last night on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight.

 

           

            Ted S. Warren / AP

 

Tuesday Tidbits

 

I found it kind of interesting that the Mariner’s adjusted their rotation to get Rays-killer Jerrod Washburn on the mound last night. For his career, he was 11-3 against the Rays, with a 2.60 ERA coming into the game. It was a bold move by the Seattle coaching staff, but it did work out for them as they got their 9th win of the year. Washburn was in control of the game from the second inning on, and posted 9 strikeouts on the night.  He mixed his fastball and his breaking pitches well last night.  The victory put him at 3-0 on the season. The loss was only the second in the last 8 games against Seattle at Safeco Field.

 

Todd Kalas is the Man

 
I have always had a lot of respect for Todd Kalas and his broadcasting abilities. Last night was the first time we have seen the strapping-young lad since his father passed away last week. Todd came on before the game and thanked the many fans, players and broadcasters who have expressed their feeling to him in the previous week. He spoke of the great memories of working with his dad in the past, made sure everyone know how sincere he firmly felt their notes and messages to him and his family. But, the last comment by him really got to me. In his last words he expressed, ” Dad, pop the top on a cold one, it is time for the game!”  Classic moment from a classy guy.

 

Happy  Early B’day Safeco Field

 

We already know how I feel about this monument to baseball in the Pacific Northwest, but I forgot that it was entering it tenth year this season. I might have to go out for a series this year because I remember being at Jacob’s Field during their tenth year also and it was quite a environment. It doesn’t seem like July  15,1999 when they  played the first game in this stadium.  From its ground-breaking in March 1994, to the first pitch by former Mariner Jamie Moyer at 7:15 pm ( called strike), this stadium has been a centerpiece of the Seattle skyline.

 

From the time in September 1996, when they decided on this location just south of the old Kingdome, this stadium had been on the forefront to be a regional landmark. The first plans for the stadium did not include the retractable roof. But after a study showed that over 50 percent of the ballpark visitors came from beyond local King county, the commission formed to watch over and also manage the project asked local architect’s NBBJ about the roof options.  More than 30,000 fans came out on March 8, 1997 as fan favorite Ken Griffey Jr. shoveled out the first dirt on the stadium project.  Then on July 15, 1999 over 47,000 fans greeted the new digs during the Inaugural game against the San Diego Padres.

 

Bites and Nibbles

 

Carlos Pena ended his 12-game hitting steak just two shy of his personal best 14 games by going 0-3, with three strikeouts.  Pena is currently tied for second in the AL in strikeouts with  the Indians Grady Sizemore with 17 for the season. Dioner Navarro and Akinora Iwamura are tied for 13th with 13 strikeouts each so far in 2009.

 

Evan Longoria slipped to 11th in hits in the American League. He has 19 so far this year. He is however still tied for the second spot with 6 other AL batters in doubles with 6 this year. Longoria is also in a 5-way tie with 5 homers this season, and is in a 4-way tie with 13 RBI’s so far this year for the Rays. He is also second in Slugging Percentage hitting for a .816 average, only .090 below the Ranger’s Ian Kinsler who leads the AL. So far in 2009, a sophomore slump has not been bothering the young third baseman.

 

Jason Bartlett is currently rocking to fifth spot in overall AL batting average with a .391 this season. He is also currently 20th in the AL in runs with 20 for the Rays. He is also tied with Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury for fourth place in stolen bases in the AL with 5 so far in 2009. Carl Crawford also is tied for second in triples with twenty-seven other hitters in the AL right now.

 

David Price had his best performance of 2009 in his latest game for the Durham Bulls. Last night Price threw 71 pitches and gave up 2 hits and two earned runs in the 7-3 Bulls win. Two of those runs were given up on a homer by the Gwinnett Brave’s Reid Gorecki in the third inning. After Gorecki’s homer, Price did not give up another hit in his five innings.  It was his first victory in 2009. The Rays still have the future star on a 75-pitch count at Triple-A to conserve his arm.

 

 

 

Can Zorilla Overtake the Gabe connection?

 

 

Chris O’Meara / AP
 

Wow, No Tampa Bay Rays baseball until 10 pm tonight. I am not sure what I am going to do with myself because the shows I want to watch also come on at 10 pm. Maybe a split screen will work, but then I might get confused and think that Tommy Gavin ( Denis Leary ) is playing DH for the Rays. Sorry, I am not going to get confused by that, but there are some thing that recently have hit the papers, internet and also the radio waves that have me scratching my head a bit. They might not matter to 3/4’s of the country, but they matter to us down here in Rays-ville. 

 

 
 
I mean we have a few questions, and I am thinking of putting on my special World Series game used Rays cap and try and figure out some of the possible answers. I think I am going to play on my mind’s thought right now and throw out a few examples and also maybe a suggestion as to our outfield situation and see what bubbles up to the surface here. So I am about to pop the old World Series cap given to me off the head of a Rays back-up and see what transpires, or even communicates itself to my little mind. They say that objects like this can store up energy and  stored thoughts, hopefully they have garnered some baseball thoughts that can help me evolve this problem into a solution,or at least a wishful thought.
 
 

 
Let’s get into the meat of this right field outfield quagmire. We might have a  more of a problem if B J Upton’s bum quad does need more down time. But hopefully we will not have to again do the Curly Shuffle to put the Two Gabes’ out there at the same time. I want to go on record as telling everyone that the Two Gabe’s can not play in the field at the same time. I think they both have ample ability to play in an MLB outfield, but with them both out there it opens a huge gaping wound in the Rays speed and agility in the  center field and right side of the stadium. If Upton is down for any length of time, this three-headed monster will have to adjust and put a member of it into center field for awhile. But which one of the three Amigos would make the best fit if this situation rears its ugly head?
 

 
 
 If you even saw an inning of the game on Sunday, you saw the massive drop off of even closing range speed on hard hit fly balls even into the shallow gaps in the outfield.  Combine that with neither of them wanting to shout out, or even call balls in the air, and you get both of them falling to the turf ala Rays 1999-style. The good thing in all of that is that Gabe Kapler did catch the ball and it did not dribble to the wall or fall from his mitt after the collision. But can we forget the base running mishaps by both of the Gabes’ this year that have cost this team runs. I know we are going to be super aggressive as a team this year, but to openly show your lack of concentration in plays in scoring position actually puts you in a bad light. They were moves that defied logic, but they will end up on someone’s Rays gag reel this season.

 


Gail Burton / AP

Both Gabe has their positives. Kapler brings an energy and a leadership that will spark the Rays they way Eric Hinske did in 2008. But he has lost a step or two from the Kapler that used to fling his body everywhere in the Boston outfield years ago in the Trop. But his bat might be waking up, and that would be a huge up-side for the Rays. I will never question his commitment to this team, but he has to also finally admit to himself he is not the same player and has limitations now.  But he is a good outfielder, but his arm and his closing speed on fly balls had dropped off in the last few years. He is not a liability as long as his average is creeping towards the Mendoza Line and above.
 

 
 
Now on to Gabe Gross. There is no question in my mind that he can, and will make a difference in this right field. The problem right now is that he seems to be a bit confused as to his role. He knows he is the swing guy on this platoon, but he also seems to be looking over his shoulder for Ben Zobrist to maybe steal his thunder and job soon. That might actually happen at some point this season. For the last year Gross has been the rocket arm for the Rays getting outfield assists because the American League questioned his true arm strength, but after posting some impressing plays to gun down people like Ichiro at third base, his arm is a true asset to the Rays. But is his offensive number going to compare this year?
 

 
 
That is s huge question. Last season he matched the Rays single season record for Walk-off RBIs, with 3 for the year, including his first home run off a leftie ( Matt Thorton / Chicago White Sox). For him to remain a vital part of this Rays team he has to again spark that second set of the lineup and get his average going northbound. Fans are already calling for Matt Joyce from Triple-A to supplant one of the two Gabes’ in this offense. That day will come. I can see one of them either being DFA’d or even traded after June 1st, but the Rays have to stay with their choice for now. But unlike some teams, they also have another option in the outfield.


Mike Carlson / AP
 

Joe Maddon is crazy about Ben Zobrist as a player, person and as a plug-in anywhere in the field for the team. He has grown so much in the last year in the organization’s eyes as a utility player. But he is also beginning to grow out of that role and might make it difficult for the team to leave him off the field in 2009. Take for example his playing time early on here in 2009. He had made play after play in right field, including an outfield assist in his start in Baltimore. He is growing more confident and secure in the outfield for the Rays, even in center field. I would not be surprised if he get the starting nod tonight in Seattle if the team decides to rest Upton for another day or two.  But it is not like Zobirst is a one-hit wonder, he has been building himself and his playing time up in the last two years because of his versatility and abilities.

 
 

He is the one guy on this squad, which includes the hidden talents of Willy Aybar that has gone unnoticed as a limited role player for the Rays. But no matter what you think of his playing talents on the field, his hitting ability has gone through the roof since his 2007 days for the Rays. In that season he hit .158 in   less than 100 at bats for the team. And in that time he only hit 3 extra base hits, which included a single home run. But after an injury in Spring Training in 2008, it seemed that Zobrist finally came into himself since we got him in that trade in Houston that also brought us pitcher Mitch Talbot, and jettisoned Aubrey Huff to the Astros.  We forget he spent only 18 games in Triple-A before the Rays brought him up in 2006. But between then and now he has grown leaps and bounds, especially at the plate.
 

 
If you take 2008 as his break-out year in the eyes of the Rays, you might be correct. He had been high on their radar for several years, but showed an extra gear in 2008 when he finally came up for good and hit .252 for the season in 62 games. But that is not the stat that impressed and also endeared him to Rays Manager Joe Maddon. Before 2008, he was basically only thought about in the infield situation and roles, but in that year he blossomed out into the grasses of the outfield and made his mark bigger on the team. He might have only had one outfield assist compared to Gross’s five, but it was the quality of play that inspired Maddon and his staff to give him more time out there. But if it was not his extreme improvement in his outfield play, his bat might have been the deciding factor.
 

 
 
In 2008, his bat came alive. His .253 average might not show this fact, but his extra power and also ability to cause some chaos on the base paths did not go unnoticed by the team.  He made 13 starts in the outfield in 2008, which was on surpassed by his 32 games at shortstop during Jason Bartlett’s injury. He had made his name a force in the outfield discussions for the Rays. His bat came out of nowhere this year and stuck in the minds of Rays fans and coaches. He hit two Grand Slams, the first in Baltimore on August 29th and another in Yankee Stadium on September 13th in the nightcap of a doubleheader. And add on his 12 homers in 2008 came on only 198 plate appearances. 
 


The Rays had found a bench power option who could also play every day in the outfield.  But Zobrist put the finishing touches on 2008 by hitting three homers in the season ending series in Detroit.  So let’s just pop out his finishing numbers for a second here, 12 homers, 30 RBI’s and 25 walks in less than 200 plate appearances. Tampa Bay had finally found their hidden gem, and their outfield ” can do” guy.



Chris O’Meara / AP

And his 2008 is beginning to look like another added chapter to this great story. We have only played in 13 games, but already Zobrist has appeared in 9 contests and gone to the plate 26 times for the Rays. He is boasting a .308 average with 5 extra base hits, three of them for homers. His 9 RBI’s is currently tied for 26th in the American League, and he is a back-up player. So you can probably read my mind here on the future of Zobrist with the Rays. My only concern right now is if we do move him into a more constant role in the outfield, will be leave the infield vulnerable to injury or even understaffed.  ( Hint: We currently have Adam Kennedy at Triple-A )
 

 
Why not play Zobrist in any spot where you need a bat and an able player. Seriously, players have made great careers having the versatility and abilities of Zobrist’s style.  He is grounded, confident and totally committed to doing things “The Rays Way.” If you ever see the camera panning the dugout, he is always up near the coaches probably easedropping on their conversations to learn more and more about the way they want this team to run on all its cylinders. I am thinking he might just be that extra gear, or even the NO2 that could move this team upward this year. So you have to ask yourself if he could fit into this platoon method that the team is trying to institute in right field this year. 
 


I actually think he is a huge upgrade over the current right field players, and could supplant either of them in a heartbeat. He has shown the effort and the stamina to dive for balls, make the difficult play, and proved himself at the plate. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention above that he hit his third Grand Slam last week against the White Sox as a pinch-hitter. You want to talk about pressure situation……there is your kettle banging moment. But in the end, it is not my decision or any other bloggers as to the future of Zobrist. But here is something most people have forgotten about him. 
 

 
He is totally inter-changeable wit
h either Gross or Kapler. He can play, and has proven it in 2009. Oh, and forget all that rightie-leftie match-up garbage with him. He is a switch hitter who is plowing the ball  at a .400 clip from the left side this season, with an .800 Slugging Percentage so far this year.  Right field was a main concern of the Rays before Spring Training. They gave Joyce every chance to change their minds, and also saw some great things for the future  in his 5 games with the team before getting moved to Triple-A. But my choice for an everyday right fielder is no secret. I will give either of the Gabe connection some more time to show their want and desire to stay here, but a decision will be made at some point this year concerning them, why not make it early so they can hook onto another team.

 

 
 
Gail Burton / AP

Joyce might be the future, but Zobrist is making a huge play to be the present guy to bring this team some needed wins and offensive moments based on his offensive tear in 2008. Can Gross’s .136 average with no extra bases and a lone RBI be the key  to the team’s ultimate decision. Or could Kapler’s .173, with only 3 doubles be his ticket to the bench. The Rays are in a pickle offensively right now. They are hitting .266 as a team with a league leading 109 strikeouts. Could the injection of some positive Zobrist energy and play be the ticket, or will the current tandem, who went 2 for 13 in the recent White Sox series, with no RBI’s or runs scored for the Rays. Oh, by the way, Zobrist went 4 for 6 , with 6 RBI’s in that series. Can the choice be any easier right now?
 
 

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