Rays Fall to King Felix via Rare Feat
Mariners 1, Rays 0
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.
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.
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.