Rays Raise the Banner and the Roof
I thought I would never, ever even consider using that phrase to describe Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett in my life. But you know what, the guy is delivering at the right time. He is battling Longoria for the top batting average, and also pacing himself for a banner year on the home run front. Bartlett saved his lone home run in 2008 until he faced his old team, the Minnesota Twins in September 2008. He did greet the playoffs with one dinger, but that was on a pitch that just was begging to be hit out of the park by him that night.
But here we are in 2009, and the guy has already improved on that 100 percent by slamming his second homer of the season, and it also was not a shot that would be considered weak by any means of the word. He is making the Tampa Bay Media members look like Mensa candidates by selecting him as the team MVP in 2008. And in 2009 so far, it is the Longo and Bartlett show. After last night’s game he was hitting .444 for the young season. He ended up last night going 3 for 4, with a lone RBI, but also scored two runs. This is what is expected out of the leaders on a team, to provide the energy and the presence of greatness. Bartlett might not be the first name you consider when you think power, but the way he is playing right now, he is surely electric in the batter’s box and on the bases.
Welcome Back B J
Isn’t it grand to know that for the first time in the Rays short history, they have been anticipating and yearning for tonight ever since Spring Training began. It has been one of the most talked about and wrote about situation concerning the Rays this year. And now, here we are sitting here just waiting for it to happen. No, I am not talking about the banner ceremony, or even the introduction of the Rays players during this Home Opener. I am talking about our speedy outfield weapon, B J Upton. Ever since his off-season shoulder surgery to repair a problem that popped up in a late season Baltimore game on the road, the fans and media have been yearning for this day.
For some reason, the pulse and blood flow of this squad in the outfield has moved a bit away from left field and is now centered squarely on Upton and his second campaign in his learning process about one of the hardest positions in baseball. I heard a quote one time that the best center fielders are not made, they are born that way. Well, Upton might not have done a huge amount of time in the minors , or even outside of the infield in his life, but now his life’s blood is warming up the center field blue star on the turf. The guy is one of the games new exciting players to watch both in the field and on the bases. His potential could be a 40-40 man, but could the sky really be his limit?
Every newspaper and website was excited to report that he would be back today, just in time for a trip into Tropicana Field by the Yankees. but what is so amazing, is the fact that Upton might not even be 100 percent, and he is still better than our current options in center. And he did nothing to discredit that in his first time back on the field with the Rays. His first inning bunt down the third baseline was textbook, and started the Rays rally against Chien-Ming Wang. He lead off the inning with that bunt, but he might as well just hit it into the corner and stood on third base because the minute he was on first, he had Wang’s attention, and it truly effected the right-hander.
He kept Upton in his sights before releasing the ball, but the preoccupation with him cost Wang as Upton first stole second, then completed a double steal with Carl Crawford in the same inning to put both of them in scoring position for Pena. For the night, Upton only went 1-3, with that bunt, but his three walks did most of the damage as he ended up scoring 2 times tonight. For a bit, everyone questioned the idea of Upton in the lead-off role because it might hurt his power production and RBI capacity. Well, if you really do feel that way, then you did not pay any attention to last night’s game.
With Akinora Iwamura and Jason Bartlett going to be swapping the 8 and 9 slots during the year, if either of them are on base when Upton comes to the plate, he has the potential to score one or both of them in one swing. Think about this for a moment. the Rays now have power and speed at the 1 and 2 spots, and can use either of them in multiple situations besides just stealing bases. then you have the possibility of Iwamura and Bartlett to also be speed demons on the base paths and set up RBI situations for Upton and Crawford. That to me is a well-balanced offense with another slot of power coming in the middle of the lineup.
Nick Swisher was the Yankee “Ace” last night
I am not going to sit here and blow smoke about the state of the Yankee pitching last night. It was a bottomless pit for a few innings. I am not going to throw Wang under the bus too much, but what is up with the gifted right-hander. He did not even seem to have the mental ability to throw strikes last night. Is he still hurt and afraid of saying something for fear of the retaliation of the New York media circus? The guy was a rock for the team in the past, but now just looked confused and down right awful. I mean the poor guy did not even last more than 1 inning tonight. He gave up as many hits ( 6 ) and runs ( 8 ) in that one inning that used to take over 8 innings of his past pitching skills. His ERA at the beginning of the game was a robust 17.18, but that was very kind considering he left in the first inning of tonight’s contest with an inflated 28.93 ERA.
I thought I was seeing a pitcher totally implode into himself tonight, and unlike a recent Rays game, this pitcher did not salvage anything good after the initial inning. But the guy behind him were not any better for this game. It was not until the bottom of the eighth inning when Nick Swisher took off his first baseman’s mitt and got his outfield glove that the Yankees seemed to have a pitcher who could mow people down. Now I am not sure of Swisher’s credentials as a reliever, but he did impress me a bit last night. Not for the fact he made the Rays Gabe Kapler look foolish by striking out, but by his control.
He was an upgrade on a bad night. Yankee Manager Joe Giardi might have done an extremely difficult thing to some people, but it was a pretty good situational idea to me. He knew this was going to be a long series, and he needed all his relievers intact for possible long innings, or even short stints. By him placing Swisher out there, it might have sent the signal of surrender to some people, but it actually saved his Bullpen arms for another day. Sometimes managers have to leave a struggling pitcher out there because he can not sacrifice his Bullpen arms to save the guy. This was just that same kind of night.
With no true long-reliever on this staff, he had to anoint inning by inning the way be wanted this to play out. He knew after the third inning that he was not going to score 11 runs on a hot pitcher like Scott Kazmir tonight. So he cut his losses a bit and used an alternative to burning another Bullpen arm. For his credit, Swisher threw 22 pitches, with 12 of them for strikes. His basic sidearm delivery did seem to catch the Rays hitters off guard. Think about it, when was the last time someone scouted Swisher on the mound? High School maybe. He did give up a hit and a walk, but considering that the Yankees pitched a total of 239 pitches in that game, his 22 might have been the best of the night.
A-Rod and Tex take in the Game
I was asking this to fans about the second inning of the game last night. What do you get when you place A-Rod and Mark Teixeira on the bench at the same time? You get the entire payroll of the 2008 American League Champions payroll. That is right, the Yankees sat down the almost to the dollar amount of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays entire season payroll. $ 46 million dollars sat on the bench last night and took in the debacle. I know A-Rod was not happy seeing Cody Ransom blunder at the plate ( 1-4 ) and in the field. His misplays and mishaps might have cost at least three of the Rays runs just by himself. His error in not calling an infield fly ball cost his team a sure out, but also gave a error to Robinson Cano that he caused by almost backing into him before he misplayed the ball with his glove.
Swisher did great for Teixeira, going 1-3 with a huge home run and also playing the relief pitcher role with grace. I think when the Yankees traded for Swisher this off season, it was for his bat and his defense, not his reliever skills. But sometimes you have to take one on the chin to get up and fight again. Even though it might have been the biggest defeat of 2009 for the Yankees this year, I am a bit concerned about tomorrow night game. Usually when a score get to this type of blow-out, the team bus on the way back to the hotel can be a lonely place where everyone questions their ability and their roles.
It can make or break a team, and with the talent and the experience that the Bronx Bombers have, it might just be the opening of a can of whoop *** tomorrow. But then again, sometimes an emotional night and a huge explosion on offense can also be met with a false sense of security by the other team. Since it is the first meeting of the season for both teams, I would be afraid of that rubber band effect. You know what I mean here, you stretch and stretch that rubber band until it is tight and ready to go, but then when you think you have a fraction more of power and ability, it snaps and gets you right dead center of your own head. If I was the Rays, tomorrow I would wear a batting helmet all day long.
Photo Credits: 1) RRCollections
2) Steve Nesius / AP
3) Steve Nesius / AP
4) Steve Nesius / AP
5) Steve Nesius / AP
6) Steve Nesius / AP