May 2009

Classic Rays versus Red Sox Game

 

               Red Sox 4,       Rays 3


Michael Dwyer / AP

This One Did NOT Hurt As Much

Every season you have games that will come down a test of wills at the plate. In last night’s game, Jonathan Papelbon won this first face-off of the season against the Rays. But even if you are a Red Sox or a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you had to enjoy this game for the pure pleasure of it being a ever-changing affair from the first pitch on. There was everything you want in a featured baseball game on ESPN.

You have the tale of the struggling hitter, the emotional pitchers from both teams, the outfielder who replaced a former Fenway legend who is making his own legacy, and you had a scattered amount of hits and runs to keep everyone interested until the last out. Heck, even the ninth inning pinch-hit by Carlos Pena had me at hello. Coming into that at bat, Pena was 1 for 3 against Papelbon with a home run. There was that instant anxiety that Pena, the MLB home run leader could take any pitch yard on him.

And there was the fact that Papelbon is usually at his best in this kind of scenario. Even with the count 3-2, you had to imagine what was going to happen next in this game. The only thing that spoiled it for me was the strikeouts. I know I am being a bit critical here, but I wanted to see the Boston defense step up and show their teeth or their obvious weakness tonight. When Dustin Pedroia left the game with a gimpy hammy, you knew the pressure would fall upon the Red Sox shoulder even harder to win this first series from the troublesome Rays.

But in the end, it was the flamboyant closer thrusting his fists and doing his best Joba Chamberlain impression. I am only hoping that the next time a Ray hits a homer off Papelbon, he gets the same greeting as Joba after Aubrey Huff took him yard on Sunday. This was the Rays 20th game against the American League East opponents , with two more on tap before they finally greet another A L Central opponent at home this next coming weekend. I mean let’s think about the game in a really abbreviated form.

The Red Sox ace, Josh Beckett had given up 25 runs and 44 hits since his Opening Day win over the Rays in Fenway. He had blossomed to a 8.13 ERA. He was ripe for the picking, and the Rays did not take full advantage of a guy who was having trouble with his fastball. But that is the game. You never know where your offense or your pitching will be at any moment.

The game did begin with a classic National League style run production after Carl Crawford got on base with a slap single to Mike Lowell at third base. Pat Burrell hit a nice slow rolling RBI-single to deep left and Crawford did what you have to do when he scored on the play. He bowled over Jason Varitek like we were taught in Little League. It was not a locomotive collision, but it was the classic side punch to get him off the plate and send a message slam. The Rays wanted this game, and even a great catcher was not going to stand in Crawford’s way tonight.


Michael Dwyer / AP

And what was even better, Willy Aybar, who gracefully pushed a catcher in Minnesota and cost the Rays a run in a Rays loss got a front row seat to it. Aybar now can see with his own eyes what playing the Rays way really means. You go all out no matter what…..even into a catcher. You might remember in Spring Training 2008, Elliot Johnson blew Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli to the backstop with a massive slam. Ironic that it was also seen as a catalyst by the Rays of the potential and the power of this teams confidence in 2008.

I hope the message got through to people on that bench. The emotion and the confidence is still within that roster, they just have to physically bring it to the surface, and the win will pile up again for the Rays. I heard a guy last night complain about B J Upton’s lack of aggression at the plate. Well, if he had really seen his last 10 at bat this series, you would see the slow evolution of his swing and that he is not long for a huge game. He needs to outwardly display that confidence, then the team will also respond accordingly.
 

People do not visualize that Upton is a key component in the Rays machine.  Without him 100 percent on-board and showing his abilities, this time is running on 7 cylinders. Great illustration of this was Upton’s blast down toward the leftfield corner in the fifth inning for a double. Then Crawford hit a bloop single in front of Jason Bay for an RBI single. With that RBI, Crawford is now tied with former Rays Aubrey Huff for the team RBI record ( 449). But if Upton needs to have a example of what it takes, he only has to look towards the On-Deck circle to Crawford.

Earlier in the year Crawford was beginning to slump a bit, but now he is one of the hottest hitters in baseball. And to add to that fire is the fact he is also the most feared man on the base paths right now. Of course in Boston they throw a few well phrased adult superlatives with his name, but that comes with success. Considering the fact that there are three players who have not hit their stride yet ( Dioner Navarro,Pat Burrell, Upton), this team is only 3-games below .500 right now. That is only 3-games off last years pace, and we have a harder schedule in 2009.

So we leave the confines of Fenway with out first losing series of the year against the Red Sox.  But this time, even the Red Sox Nation have to agree that this series was one of the best in the history of these two divisional rivals. Not just for the Rays huge win on Sat., but for the close games that could have gone either way with a few breaks. The best thing about this ever growing rivalry is that it is not going to die down anytime soon. Both teams are loaded in the minors, and they both will find incredible ways to beat the other team today, tomorrow and in the immediate future.


Michael Dwyer / AP

De-Fense, De-Fense

For some time, one of the biggest improvement over the Rays in recent years has been their commitment to their defense. Well, you have to give a huge amount of style points to the Rays last night, because their defense kept them in this contest. For one of the first games in recent memory, the Rays did not complete a single double play on the Boston hitters. But then again, the Rays defenders did keep their base runners to a minimum  thanks in part to a former Ray.

Nick Green has been removed from the Rays system for a few years, but he still has a fond place for the Rays. I do not think that was on his mind when he tried to stretch two single into doubles last night, but the Rays will thank him for the outfield assists and the outs. The first one came in the third inning off a hard hit ball bouncing off the Green Monster in leftfield that Crawford took fast and threw hard and true to the base to nab Green for Crawford’s team leading third assist of the year.

But then again in the fourth inning Green again tried to test his former infield teammate Ben Zobrist when he hit an RBI-single in the fourth inning to rightfield, and Zor-illa turned and fired a strike to nab him for the second time tonight to also get his second outfield assist of the season. Bartlett did not have to move an inch to take Zobrist’s throw in and tag Green in time to end the fourth inning on that play. I think the rest of the American League can attest to Upton and Gabe Gross having the rocket arms on this team, but Crawford and Zobrist will get their shots to disprove their own detractors this season. 

But the Rays defense was not perfect tonight either. Crawford almost got the Rays into early trouble when he overthrew to second base on a double by Jason Bay in the second inning. The ball went high and wide from Bartlett and the Rays had to scramble to get it before Bay knew what had happened on the play. But the Rays did have a helper in some of the defensive troubles tonight. The Red Sox secret weapon for years has been the Green Monster.

Several times in the game the wall made its presence known and take simple balls off it and transform them into directional switching ricochets that made the Rays scramble a bit. But every team has that home field advantage, but in Boston, it is a huge green painted wall that grins every time a ball hit it.


www.tbo.com

Pink Cleats almost become Verboten

I actually love the fact that MLB celebrates the holiday of Mother’s Day the way they do every season. I mean I remember a few years ago if you bought a certain dollar amount in the Team Store you got a make-up bag and small pillow embroidered with the pink ribbon and the MLB logo. Well, my  mother had passed in the last year, but I gave the pillow and the case to my daughter’s mother and she loved the thought, but she is a hockey fan. Oh well, such is life.

But the fact that the teams were a sea of pink wristbands and stretchable bands everywhere on their arms and wrists was amazing. And the pink bats were out on force with players suing them throughout baseball on Sunday. And with those bats being collected again and being offered on MLB.com’s auction site will bring in more great amounts of funds for the possible final solution to this  cancer that has taken so many of the people we love and know from our lives. 

Among those who are expected to wear the pink Reebok cleats are twelve players from the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the game’s umpiring crew and the entire Red Sox staff including Manager Terry Francona. Players “getting their pink on” include David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox and Gabe Gross, Grant Balfour and James Shields of the Rays, along with other players from both teams.

But I love the fact that MLB and the MBL Player Union finally let the player where those Reebok cleats with the pink striping in the game yesterday. There might not have been a huge display of the pink shoes, but thanks to Rays reliever Joe Nelson, it might not have even happened if not for his insight and call to the union about the exclusion of the shoes. You see, Nelson doesn’t get a pink bat, and his armbands can not adorn his body and arms on the mound. All he would have had to honor his mother-in-law that day would have been the glue able ribbon on his uniform top.

But after consulting the union and getting a ” we will work it out” response from the union on the Reebok situation, he was able to put on those pink striped cleats and show his support for this awesome cause. The original reason that the cleats were forbidden to be worn on the field was an outside of MLB sanctioned charity getting the proceeds from the future auction of these shoes. By the union and MLB taking into consideration the multiples of players and families that might be effected by exclusion of this display of support and honor, I commend MLB and the Player’s Union for their quick and positive actions.  The charity to be honored with the cleats is the Avon Foundation for women.

Most of the time this kind of decision-making can not be made on the fly. For the league and the union to step up and get a fast resolution and supportive stance will be a huge win-win for them in not only the public’s eye, but in the players too. Way to Go MLB and MLBPA for your insight and gracious admittance of this sign of support for guys who do not get to go to bat, or hit the mound during the game. You know their mother’s love you for it.

Just to let you know, the Florida Marlins also received batting gloves and cleats from Easton this week to wear on Sunday during their game against the Colorado Rockies. These items are also going to be made available in a future auction to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Marlins stars Hanley Ramirez, Luis Gonzalez and Cody Ross, who wear Easton goods during the season will be the highlighted players wearing the pink-hued accessories. It is just a great thing that so many of the games best have taken the time to honor not only their mothers’ today, but a chance to eliminate a horror that plagues women daily all over the world
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Long Day for Red Sox against Rays

 

             Rays 14,       Red Sox 5

          
           Mary Schwalm / AP

Just Wasn’t Their Day

Every once in a while a game comes around that reminds you that nothing is guaranteed in life. Well yesterday, in front of a Fox Television audience, the rest of the country found out what we already knew in the American League East division. Ever game is a battle, and even when you think you can win, you can lose. I really never thought we might have “parity” in baseball the way the NFL has weaned its teams towards. But in the AL East, even with the gigantic payrolls and the talent for days, the division is probably tighter today than it has even been.

There is not clear cut winner or loser anymore, it has been refined and designed down to the simple fact that the team with the highest score will win in the end. And that is the way it should be, it should not be decided by the pencil pushers or even the guys with the microphones protruding out of their faces, it should be decided by those 9 men on the field against that guy at the plate every at bat of the contest.

We are closer to that in the AL East. When you have a team that was predetermined to be a cellar dweller manning the second spot just a click away from the favorite, it is time to believe everyone is equal until the last out. When you have a pitching staff that has been destroyed by injuries but rebuilds itself within its own minor league system to emerge with more victories than you can count on your two hands, it is time to believe in parity. Who care if $ 2 billion dollar stadiums still need fine tuning, these squads within our division are hungry, and the plate is full for them right now.

With the AL East getting center stage in the East of the Mississippi for most viewers, it was a time for either the Rays or the Red Sox to proclaim dominance in the division. Even though Red Sox Nation might be mourning a loss, they should also rejoice in the game gave more validity to the fact we might have the ultimate division in baseball right now. The Rays showed why they can not be taken solely on their record by bashing 17 hits on the day. They also continued their stranglehold on Red Sox starter Jon Lester, who used to handle them like a rag doll.


Mary Schwalm / AP


The bevy of teams in the MLB also have this passion and skill, but still lack that personal challenge stage that besets every Red Sox vs Rays battle lines. Both teams know that to win this division, you have to conquer the elite first. The Rays have yet to even play their first contest against the Toronto Blue Jays, and some say that is why they are off to their big start in 2009.  The Rays do not play their first game against the Blue Jays until June 29th. Here we are in one of the most closely competitive divisions in baseball, and the defending divisional champs do not play one of their first games of the season against their nemesis divisional foe until almost the All-Star break.

Not to be outdone is the fact that the Blue Jays also are coming to Boston on May 19th for their first run at the Red Sox in 2009. So as you can see, even if we do have the division right now, the aspects and the smoke-and mirrors designed by the MLB schedulers make the division look a bit more one-sided than it truly is right now. The Blue Jays only played the Baltimore Orioles from our division in the first month of games. They have been set up against mostly A L Central and West divisional foes before finally taking on the Orioles in the beginning of May. Even though they did sweep the three-game series against Baltimore, they do not go against another divisional foe until this week when they play a mid-week series at home against the New York Yankees.

So even though the Red Sox might be currently sitting in the catbird’s seat, they also know that their work is just beginning in 2009. With every Red Sox loss to the Rays, they give a valuable key to the division to their southern brethren. And since the Rays have now won 5 out of the first 8 contests, giving them an early leg-up, but it is a long season. Today’s game was an abnormality in these two teams game over the long haul. Every year their is a small segment of games that show a huge disparity of scoring, but so far in 2009, neither team has set a dominance in that category against each other.  The only other game this year that featured any type of dominance by either team was the Rays 13-0 shutout the last time Matt Garza met the Red Sox.
 

For the first time in their divisional match ups, these two teams come in with defined roles, and lofty expectations. No matter what happens tonight, the game will be have a national audience so that the rest of the country can see what all the fuss is about in the A L East. From shore-to-shore, baseball fans will again see the rivalry that some say only exists in our own minds. That these two teams just hate each other and that nothing but a win will do for either team’s skipper. That might be true, but if the Rays do take the game tonight, it will be their seventh straight series they have defeated the Red Sox, both home and in Fenway Park.

That will not sit well with Red Sox Nation. They are accustomed to winning these games, and not settling for the Rays to gain any momentum towards the top of the division this early in the season. People have talked about the dismal start of the Rays as if they were 25-5 at this point last season. After 32 games, they are only minus two wins from their 17-15 record last season at this time. So much has been written, and so much has been anticipated of either team in 2009. For both of these squads to be within 4 games of each other after their collective starts is amazing on its own…but what else would you expect in the A L East. 


Mary Schwalm / AP

Rays put on a Hit Show

Coming into the game the Rays were t
he fifth best hitting team in the American League with a .274 team average.  Considering they were taking on the second best team in the AL in the Boston Red Sox, it might seem like a tall task. But the Rays have made their living the last two seasons out of beating the odds and winning the game people think they should lose on paper. So coming into yesterday’s game against the Red Sox leftie Jon Lester, the consensus might be a Red Sox victory. This is the first game that Lester will have thrown against the Rays in 2009.

I am not going to dive into the inning by inning blows of this game, but might just pick up on some of the highlights of this contest. We all know the score by now, and that Lester had an early dominance on the Rays before their bats awoke in a big way. Every hitter in the Rays lineup got a hit in yesterday;s game but Gabe Gross, who was on deck for his first at bat of the game when Evan Longoria flied out to left field to end the top of the ninth inning.  Five members of the Rays had multiple hits in the game. Carl Crawford led all Rays batters by going 3 for 4, with a walk in the game. 

But the biggest winner of the afternoon had to be B J Upton, who went 2 for 5 and had two nice hits during the game. Considering that Upton came into the game with a .156 average, which was the lowest average in the MLB for a starter, the game was a huge success at the plate. For if he is about to breakout and contribute to the Rays offense like he did in 2008, the sky is truly the limit for this team. We have seen a lot of frustration out of Upton at the plate, maybe trying to do too much at times, but his defensive plays have shown he is mentally on his game, and he only needed some plate confidence to get rolling this season.


Mary Schwalm / AP

Kazmir finds his Groove

A lot has been written lately on the good and bad side of Scott Kazmir’s 2009 season. He has always seems a bit out of sorts and fighting something within himself on the mound. It might be a small adjustment to his release point, or maybe a different grip on his slider, but he has always looked a bit off on the mound.  During todays game, he finally had a sense of confidence and mound presence we have come to know from Kazmir. His day might not have started on the right foot, but his first inning looked more productive and more controlled then usual.

Even his second inning lead-off slider that Rocco Baldelli put out of the ballpark for his first Red Sox homer was put in a nice spot, but Baldelli made a great swing to take it yard. But there was a small thing I did notice on the mound with Kazmir. He made a effort to look down and always check his footing after releasing the pitch. If you noticed on the television screen, after every pitch he glanced down to see where his landing point was on the mound. Maybe that was the small mechanical point he spoke of after his last outing. He voiced a displeasure in a level of his mechanics in his last post-game interview, and maybe they figured it out and he was just trying to maintain that level of consistency in the start.

But for whatever reason, Kazmir did look good today. He showed composure and also a sense of dominance we have seen missing from him this year. Oh, he has had great starts in 2009, but this one felt different for some reason. He seemed to be watching himself more, testing his stuff and throwing like he did in 2007 with more sliders and that wicked change-up that compliments his fast ball so well. He only threw 5 innings in the game, and only 100 pitches, but he did display a great work ethic today. His strikeout ratio have gone down since his huge numbers a few years, but maybe he is becoming a more complete pitcher who doesn’t have to win every game anymore by extreme measures.

           
            Mary Schwalm / AP

Sunday’s Smatterings of Thoughts 

**** Yesterday’s Fox broadcast of the Rays versus Red Sox game seemed to be riddled with some mis-guided  comments and observation by the broadcast team. I have always liked Tim McCarver and Dick Stockton as a duo, but yesterday they did make some very smartsy comments that I hope other people also heard during the broadcast.
1) Dick Stockton called Red Sox Jon Lester a “rightie” at one point when discussing the pitcher’s performance in the top of the second inning.
2)Tim McCarver in the top of the third inning said that Boston was the only team that had a winning record against the Rays in 2009. Well, Baltimore currently has a 4-1 record against the Rays in 2009 after winning their first series against the Rays, and splitting the last series against the team.
3) McCarver called Jason Bartlett “Evan Longoria” in the bottom of the sixth inning after he scored on Akinora Iwamura’s sacrifice fly.


**** 
The Rays are now 7-3 in their last 10 games and have scored 65 runs (6.5 runs per game average). They have combined for 304 hits this year and scored a total of 166 runs. They have also now hit 76 doubles this season, only trailing the Toronto Blue Jays by a single double for the A L lead.  On the negative side, they have also now struck out as a team 258 times in 2009 to lead the American League in that category.

**** Jason Bartlett is currently leading all MLB shortstops in batting average (.355) and only one AL shortstop has less errors than Bartlett’s two ( Marco Scutaro , 0 errors). He is also hitting 69 points higher than any other AL shortstop right now.  Combined, Bartlett and Longoria are hitting . 359 this season. That is the highest combined average for the left-side of an infield in the majors this season. 

**** You might notice a small blurp in the box score today in which the Rays Lance Cormier received a save during his 3.2 innings of work in Saturdays 13-5 win. Even though there was not a threat of him losing the lead, the aspect that he pitched three innings and did not give up a run constitutes a save in the MLB rule book. This is his first save with the Rays for the former University of Alabama closer.  in the MLB Rule book under section 10.19, the offcial scorer can give the relief pitcher a “save” if he complete three innings of work on the mound.

Red Sox Post “7” on Rays in Win for Dom

 

  Red Sox 7,     Rays 3

         
          Charles Krupa / AP

Emotions Ruled the Game

From even before the first pitch tonight, the Boston Red Sox had a distinctive bonus in the game.  The emotion and the air held a faint bit of Dom DiMaggio in it. Here was a guy who was the lesser famous of the three center fielders who graced the name DiMaggio, but he played his entire career in Boston from 1940-1953.  the Red Sox paid homage to their fallen comrade in the several ways in this game, but it was the emotions of the night that carried this team to their 7-3 win.

Red Sox Head Grounds keeper Dave Mellor even put his own touches on the pitch for the contest. Out in centerfield, he had cut into the green grass of Fenway Park and “7” surrounded by a circle to commemorate the passing of this Red Sox legend. Also there was a awesome huge black and white reproduction picture of Dom DiMaggio that was attached high above the Green Monster in leftfield to show respect for one of their own. And this night from the first guest into the park until the last security guard left tonight, the magic of the night was not wasted by the Red Sox on the field.

When they had their stellar sixth inning rally, for the second night in a row, even the Rays bench had to know that invisible powers were upon them tonight. For no matter what Rays starter James Shields could have done at that point, the emotions of the night were beginning to overtake this game. The Red Sox did not hit that magical seventh run in that sixth inning, but the five runs scored in that inning only set up the additional two scored in the bottom of the eighth inning to cement the 7 runs needed to win the game.

But the Rays can take solace that they did not stand a chance against the spirits tonight. That even as I watched at home I knew the outcome of the game from that sixth inning on. It had everything to do with the vast history of the franchise, and the love of one of their heroes. DiMaggio did not have the celebrity wife, or play for the World Champs in pinstripes, but what he did have was a great career where he hit .300 four times in his career and his 1338 games in centerfield for Boston ranked eighth all-time in the American League annuals. How and he also had a hitting streak of his own, which spanned 34 games, and is still  a record to be broken in Boston lore. Even hitting streaks seemed to run in the DiMaggio families bloodlines.


Charles Krupa / AP

Crawford Hits for the Cycle ( In a Way)


One of the best ways to illustrate the current events of Carl Crawford is to look at his last at bat in the Yankee game on Thursday night, and his first three during last night Red Sox contest. Match those four at bats together, and C.C. has a cycle. I know it is a bit far fetched, and it is not going to be recognized as such in the newspapers or any online account, but the guy is beginning to feel like a new hitter at the plate. 

The cycle babble just shows that right now Crawford is seeing balls at the plate like beach balls.  In his last 19 games, Crawford is 17 for 42, or a .285 average. In those last 10 games, only once has he not gotten a single hit in a contest, and that was in  Monday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field ( He went 0-4). With his stealing of second base in the first inning, he is currently 23 for 23 this season, which is a Rays club record, and he is only one away from the current longest active major league mark currently held by  Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth (24).

And that is not the only thing going for Crawford right now. He also leads the majors in infield hits with 11 this season. He only had 7 in 2008.  In his last 16 games, he is currently hitting . 397, with 17 stolen bases and 11 walks. He has a total of 10 steals against just the Red Sox in 2009.  His career stolen base percentage of 83.4 ranks first in  active players, first in the American League, and is third in MLB history behind Tim Raines ( 84.7 %) and Eric Davis ( 84.4 %). To say we are not witnessing history on the part of Crawford would be insane. The guy is doing everything asked of him by Rays Manager Joe Maddon and his staff in 2009.


Charles Krupa / AP

Shields Just Not on Tonight

Some night you just seem to have your magical stuff on the mound, and some night it just disappears as fast as it shows up for you. Last night Jame Shield was taking the mound for his 11th career start against the Red Sox.  Coming into the contest, it seemed that the Red Sox had his number in Fenway Park. For his career he is now 0-5 in this historic park in his five starts.  He seemed to be on early in the night by giving up only three hits in the first three innings, but started to pay the price in the fourth inning when the Red Sox torched him for two straight singles. Neither of those runners scored and he cruised until the bottom of the sixth inning with no real problems.

In that inning, the Red Sox began to exert some damage on Shields first by  a hit back towards Shields by Dustin Pedroia that he deflected to the left of second base man Akinora Iwamura for a lead-off infield hit. Then David Ortiz walked on 7-pitches.  Then Shields left up a curveball to Jason Bay that he deposited over the Green Monster for a 3-run shot to tie the score at 3-all.  You could see that Shields was visually shaken by the bad pitch to Bay as he was screaming at the ground and pounding the resin bag as Bay rounded the bases. But that would not be the end of the horror for Shields tonight.

Mike Lowell then got a double off the facing of the Green Monster to extend the pain for Shields. Then J D Drew hit a first pitch 2-run home run to right into the Rays Bullpen to stake the Red Sox to a 5-3 lead in the game. It was the first time all night that the Red Sox had any offensive power against Shields. Masking the event was the eerie feeling of Deja Vu after the Red Sox scored 12 runs the night be
fore against the Cleveland Indians before posting the first out of the inning. Luckily for Shields and the Rays, the next batter, Jeff Bailey struck out. Shields then retired 3 of the next four batters to get out of the inning.

But the damage was done for the night. Shields did not come back out for the seventh inning as Rays Manager Joe Maddon instead brought in Rays reliever Grant Balfour. For the night, Shields threw 106 pitches in his 6 innings of work. He gave up a total of ten hits and 5 runs to boost his ERA to 4.02 this year. Coming into the game Shields wanted to buck his recent history against the Red Sox and get a win tonight. It was not in the cards for Shields, and he will have to wait another day to avenge this loss, his third of the season.

Nothing is terribly wrong with Shields right now, he is just not getting the quality pitches he needs to defeat his arch nemesis wearing those Red Sox jerseys. He is not out of control and issuing an odd number of walks or even not getting strikeouts against the Red Sox. But they are hitting timely and consecutive hits off him that lead to runs. This is just a mild roadblock for Shields, and he will find a way to finally take down the Red Sox in Fenway. But for right now, the Red Sox have been feasting on him and only Shields can change that outcome, hopefully sometime between September 11-13th, when the Rays again come into Fenway to play Boston.


Charles Krupa / AP

Saturday Scribbles

**** Prior to the game, the Rays recieved some bad news as Shawn Riggans, who is with the Montgomery Biscuits for a rehab assignment felt some discomfort in his throwing shoulder and will go to see Dr. James Andrews in nearby Birmingham, Alabama on Monday to see if he might have re injured himself. The Rays picking up Michel Hernandez late last season from the Pittsburgh Pirates is looking more and more like a steal as Riggans has been on and off the injured list since the last part of 2008 until this recent setback.  During that time, Hernandez has come in and hit .333 for the Rays and been a great asset behind the plate for the team.

**** There were several trade made during the day concerning both current and former Rays that could effect the Rays down the road. The first was the swap by the Chicago Cubs and the Baltimore Orioles in ex-Rays Joey Gathright and Ryan Freel. The players were swapped evenly with the Orioles maybe getting the better end of the deal. Gathright has tremendous speed and is a great utility outfielder. We will get our first chance to again see Gathright play later this week when the Rays go to Baltimore for two games on May 12 and 13th.

**** Another trade involved a play currently playing at the Ray Triple-A team the Durham Bulls. Highly liked infielder Adam Kennedy was traded to the Oakland A’s for a player to be named later. This is a huge plus for the A’s right now as they are experiencing a huge rash of infield injuries to Nomar Garciaparra, Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis. Kennedy will quickly have to adjust to his new team mates as he might be in the lineup right off the plane. The A’s are currently in Oakland with a series against the Toronto Blue Jays. It is reported that Kennedy will be in the lineup for the 1:05 pm game today.

**** In their last 8 games, the Rays offensive outburst has had some awesome results both in the standing and improving the Rays scoring punch. they have gone from averaging 4.5 runs a game to a more robust 6.5 runs per game. In that span the team has gone 6-2, with 13 home runs, 19 stolen bases and 19 doubles. the offensive explosion is coming at the right time as the Rays could move towards the .500 mark during this road trip.

Rays Homer past Yankees

 

UPDATE:

 

Sorry I have not posted in a few days. There has been a bit of a rodent-related sucide here at my house, and he decided to take our electrical box with him. I am not one to ever try and figure out the suicidal or normal tendencies of the squirrel family, but this guy had a death wish and took about 5 breakers with him. The result was a $ 2,000 bill for the repair of the rodent-related suicide attempt. I never did ask if he fried, or was just tail-less now running amonst the many oka tree surround the house. Be case scenario, he is basking in the tree with a breeze upon his hairy chest snickering about how he got the humans to feel the heat.

 

It is fun to be pushed back into pre-electricity Florida lifestyle for three days and forget how lovely the hot water heater, air conditioning, and the televised games from Yankee Stadium can be an everyday luxury. I have been told to remember what it was like to go camping as a kid as the electricians were fixing the problem for the last three days. Finally at 3:45 pm I felt the cool breeze come out of the vents and could again vast in the daily writing of my blog, and also take a great shower for 20 minutes. 

    Rays 8, Yankees 6


Bill Kostroun / AP

Wild Night in the Old Bronx

When you first turned on this game last night you might be hearing all the negative how Yankee starter Andy Pettitte owns the third best record against the Rays lifetime with 15 wins, and that he once had a consecutive streak of 12- wins in 17 starts against the old Rays from 9/25/98 to 7/22/2007. And according to Elias Bureau, that is Pettittes longest streak, and it tied the Rays opponents streak he would share with Boston pitcher Tim Wakefield. So it almost was a forecast of doom and gloom even before the first pitch landed in Jose Molina’s glove.

But there is a strange thing about baseball. It never judges what you have done in the past to anything in the future. Just because you were the king one day doesn’t mean you can not play the pauper tonight. And that would be a great way to segway into this game. Before the first pitch of the game, the Rays hit a iffy .230 against Pettitte in their first meeting of the year in Tropicana Field. And that contest ended up becoming a 4-3 Yankees win and got them the series. But a lot has happened to both team since that day, and tonight would be a fair evaluation of the direction of both teams right now.

The Rays took an early lead off of Pettitte when Jason Bartlett lead-off with a solo shot to right-center field to start the contest. That might have been a great indication of the type of night that Pettitte was about to experience off the Rays. In the game, the Rays hit a combined .333 against Pettitte and hit 4 home runs off him in the game. The only previous home run this year was hit by Carlos Pena in the Rays 4-3 loss to the Yankees at Tropicana Field in April. But in this contest, the game would go back and forth until finally the Rays would take advantage of a guy they usually have a bad game against in the ninth inning. 

The game went back and forth in classic fashion until the Rays took the final stand in the top of the ninth inning and chased Mariano Rivera from the contest. Coming into tonight’s game, Revira is 51 of 52 lifetime in save opportunities against the Rays, including a 20-for-20 mark at the original Yankee Stadium. He had converted his last 18 saves against them since his last blown save on 8/16/2005 at Tropicana Field. In that contest, Eduardo Perez hit the only home run given up by Rivera in 82.1 innings pitched against the Rays.

So how big was the ninth inning to the Rays? It made them post their biggest surge against the future Hall-of-Famer by stroking back-to-back homers against the closer. Carl Crawford even took a 9-pitch selection before finally hitting his next offering to rightfield. Evan Longoria then took his fifth pitch and deposited in in the left field stands for the final run of the ballgame.


Bill Kostroun / AP

Longo Love the Long Ball

I was chatting with a few Rays fans during the last game of the home stand about if we had seen the best of Longoria yet this year. It seems like the guy is sometimes just putting on a hitting clinic during games. Even if he is hitting too many double plays balls for my taste (7 this season), he is hitting with a style and grace that is way beyond his young age. I mean he is hitting like a 5-to7 year player picking up the adjustments of the pitcher and drilling them for hits. His current pace has him leading the American League in doubles ( 14), RBI ( 38) and Slugging Percentage ( .754).

But what is especially amazing is his .358 batting average after a short mini slump to end April. He is currently on a 11-game hitting streak into tonight’s Boston game. Carlos Pena has the Rays highest streak last year with 12-games. Longoria is hitting .382 during the streak with RBIs in 9 of the 11 games. He also has 20 RBI in the last 9 games. He is currently only one of five players since 1954 to have 38+ RBI in the first 30 games ( he missed two game dues to a family emergency in April). With numbers like this, it might be a good indicator that he might be in the top tier when the All-Star balloting position are announced for third base.

       
       
Bill Kostroun / AP

Niemann is Becoming an Enigma

This is the game you wanted the right-hander to come out and just be explosive on the mound for the Rays. To show that he is ready for all challenges and can be the man if needed for the team.  But sometimes you just look at the guy and you see just a tall giraffe of a pitcher who is tossing the ball into a spot instead of trusting his tuff and launching into the catcher’s mitt.  He did hold his own deep into the bottom of the fourth inning before getting into trouble with the Yankee hitters.  But I do have a question on why he was taken out with the only trouble-some situation of the night for him?

Seriously here, did anyone else question the reasoning to take the big guy out after two Yankee base runners. I mean Melky Cabrera did walk on five pitches, and Ramiro Pena did hit a nice single after battling back from an 0-2 count against Niemann. But up to that point, he had  only given up 3 hits all night long to go with a hit batsman and a wild pitch. I do not think he would have done any worse that Rays Reliever Lance Cormier, who let Jose Molina double on the second pitch and then after striking out Derek Jeter, give up another RBI-double to Johnny Damon to plate the first two Yankee runs. 

But I do think the big guy could and should have been given the opportunity to get out of the inning on his own since he was only at 78 pitches at that moment. To pull him this early with the threat of a scoring chance can be damaging to Niemann. I know he is viewed more as a rental player right now by some on the Rays, but you do not ruin a kid’s confidence like that. If you let him face those three batters and the same thing happens to him, then it is a building opportunity for him. He was going to get hit with those two runs anyways, you might as let him earn them instead of sit on the bench and watch them score from the dugout.

But that is where maybe myself and the Rays pitching conglomerate differ at times. I remember past years and game where they have let the guy take a few licks and then get him out of there before he destroys himself. But this year they seem to be babying the big guy a bit too much. I know he can handle it, he is by and far the becoming a better pitcher each ti
me out this year, and he had adjusted pretty well considering he is thrown into the mix.  I mean coming into this game, he has won his last two road starts, which is a big thing for a Rays pitcher. Plus he his 16 strikeouts coming into this game are tied for fourth among rookies. 

The guy has been tasked with manning the fifth spot in this rotation, but it seems at times that the Rays have put more emphasis in their controlling of his progress than in letting him take the highs and lows of being a major league pitcher. The guy got lite up in his first start and rebounded to retire the next 15 out of sixteen in that Orioles contest.  Niemann actually threw a no-no for the first four innings against the Seattle Mariners on the road for his first win of the season.. His ERA has come down from a lofty 10.13 ERA to a more respectable 5.65 ERA after tonight game. 

The guy is showing massive improvement and a few steps back every outing, but the Rays seem to be more concerned with their own endeavors than in Niemann’s right now. By not letting this guy grow on the mound, they are going to need him in a game and he will not be in tune with the music the Rays want to hear. He already has people calling for him to be replaced along with Andy Sonnanstine, and the Rays have not come out hard in his defense. I think that is a crime. As long as he is in a Rays uniform, the Rays coaching staff should be defending this guy to the hill and back. But instead we get mumble jumble about looking tired or showing anxiety. Give me a break, every batter would make me a bit anxious on the mound. To be Niemann is standing tall among the rubble at times.


Bill Kostroun / AP

Friday’s Factoids

*** Do not forget that the Rays Radio network will be holding a Rays Watch party at the Hooter’s Restaurant on West Hillsborough Avenue tomorrow starting at 3 pm. The afternoon contest will be featured on Fox Television, but the Rays will have Rich Herrera out there for the pre game and post game show and they will feature drink and food specials during the game. 

*** During last night’s game, Carl Crawford’s consecutive stolen base streak ended at 9 games. But do not fret, since 1954, he is one of four players to accomplish that feat. With his major league leading 20 steals, CC also is in royal company as he is tied with Neon Deion Sanders for the most stolen bases after 29 games since Sanders did it in 1997 with the Cincinnati Reds. 


***
The Rays also currently have the major league lead in steals with 45, that is the most since the Florida Marlins started off with 48 steals in the 2003. It is also the most by an AL team since the Yankees stole 46 bases in 29 games to begin the 1998 season. 


*** 
The Rays are currently in a stretch where they will play 9 games against the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in 11 days. They are 5-1 so far in that endeavor. By the end of the weekend, they would have played them both 15 times so far this season ( out of 34 games) The Rays are 8-4 so far this season against the pair.

*** Pena and Longoria are the first teammates to reach 30 RBI in 30 games since Alex Rodriguez (31) and Edgar Martinez (30) with Seattle in 2000. They are also the fifth set of teammmate to hit that feat since 1954. They are also the first set of team mate to have 10+ home runs since Eric Chavez and Nick Swisher for the Oakland A’s in 2006.

Cinco De Mayo Fuzzy Memories

 

I have to admit that I am not of Latin heritage, or even have any substance of Hispanic bloodline within my body that I know of right now. But the Cinco De Mayo celebration has always had a special meaning to me. It is not because my second favorite beer seems to be Corona, but because of the  nature of the celebration being so close to my birthday. I use it as a substitute to have a reason to go out and have a wild day/night because of the 9 day grace period in my mind to celebrate my birthday.

And combine that with the fact that my ex-employer seemed to be more tolerant of me celebrating on that day, then on my birthday, it makes a perfect reason to have a few Dos Equixs and a smattering of Patron shots. But this season the celebration also took part during the Rays home stand and featured an afternoon contest against the Baltimore Orioles. So I got there as usual and proceeded up to the Power Alley Deck to begin my birthday/Cinco celebration. The Rays had just concluded their Batting Practice  and were jogging off the field as I came out of the Batter’s Eye Restaurant in centerfield at Tropicana field and descended into the Power Decks party atmosphere.

The only problem at that moment is that I was the first thirsty soul to glide out onto the deck and was the guy who got to tap the Dos Equix keg that day. I am not usually a huge drinker during the game, I have been of the mind to do my partying after the game at other locations and not let drinking interfere with my baseball. But today I made an exception to the rule and bought my first 20 ounce beer for a mild 3 dollars. Considering that the stadium beers were going for about 9 dollars a pop, the elixir was golden down my throat today. Here I could have three beers for that same price, and also have a trio of strumming singers surrounding me in Cinco excellence.

So I went down to the lower level of the Deck and yelled out to a friend, Danys Baez who played for the Orioles. Here I was about 200 feet above the playing surface and we chatted a bit about his family and how he was doing. You know, the usual bar/ballpark banter. About that time the second patron of the day came down with a frothy beverage and we had the makings of a great party. I only stayed up there until after the Orioles B P because I wanted to take in the game in my usual seat. I made sure to stop by the Tortilla Junction concession stand and get a massive plate load of nachos that was a good 2 feet above the plate with Guacamole, Sour Cream and a huge avalanche of cheese, both in cold and hot form.

I was in heaven as I started down the aisle to my seat. But wouldn’t you know it, some fool banged into my arm and I almost lost the plate. But I popped it into a seat back to keep 95 percent of the food of the gods on the plate. Unfortunately the Jalapenos and a top level of cheese were dropped to the floor in a salute to my amigos. But hey, that happens in a ballpark. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I also brought with me a cup of that ambrosia of beer to help bring an authentic flavor to the nacho meal.

So there I was eating my nachos and preparing myself for the game when Scott Cursi, the Rays Bullpen Catcher came over and was laughing at the extreme nacho invasion on my plate. He remarked “It must be good to know people in the food courts.” I have to agree with him. I am not saying they do it, but I have seen a bit of different food portions towards my selections in recent years, but I just tacked that up to me being here every night and they just needed to fatten me up a bit.

So as the game went on, and the nachos and beer seem to glide into oblivion, I was amazed at the level of celebration being shown in the stands. We had all cultures taking to the Mexican celebration today, and even had a blue-haired participant in the daily events. But it was not until after the game that the party really seemed to jump into hyper space. you see I rambled on over to the Budweiser Brewhouse in Centerfield Street and was getting ready to listen to Rich Herrera do his post-game show when a beautiful blond in a slinky outfit gave me another fine Dos Equix product for my palate.

 

Now I am far from the type of guy to ever refuse beer or even food from a cute woman, so I thanked her and began to listen to Rich do his post game show.  As I stood there I again had a feisty Asian woman  thrust another cool beverage my way, and being the celebration kind of guy I am, I took to full revel mode.  As I was standing there Rich also called for “Beers for all my friends” and another round somehow found itself into my mitts.

Now I am not a huge drinker at all anymore. I was in my college Fraternity Days (Theta Chi), but now I am one of those pedestrian beer-drinkers who stop at two or three and head home before the end of the night, or show. But today I stayed to the last moment and got  rewarded with gifts ( bottle openers, t-shirts and a serving tray) by the Beer vendor. I also got to cheer Happy Birthday to one of the Rays 10+ year employees on his birthday. Mike Yodis was in the house, and I can tell you he was certainly celebrating with the rest of us.

It was a great day at the ballpark. We had another Rays win in the bag, plus I had multiple beverages handed to me by beautiful woman who were not behind a huge mahogany bar (plus they were free). I have to make a mention that I was eating all during this time, and that I was not driving to the ballpark today. I enlisted a friend to be the Designated Driver and kept him full of soda and munchies the entire day. I will be his Designated Driver at another time. I felt compelled to mention this so it doesn’t seem like I want to take an irresponsible stand with the celebrations.

It was an awesome afternoon at the ballpark, and coupled with the meets and greets of some old friend I have not seen in a while, and the new friends that day, it was a rousing success for Cinco De Mayo for me. the picture might not be the best in the world, but it is visual celebration and the festive aura of the event that appeals to me. Oh, and Rich Herrera mentioned that Sean, the Intern never gets any press or will featured in a newspaper article for fixing the speakers so the crowd could enjoy Rich’s post game show. Well, Rich, I am more than willing to give the ex-Gator student a plug, and if you ever need to give him some more attention, feel free to let me know!

Rays Sing Flat against the Orioles

 

                     Orioles 8,      Rays 4

      
     
Chris O’Meara / AP

Kazmir Doesn’t Set the Tone

If last nights game would have been an audition for American Idol , the Rays would have been eliminated for lack of harmony and pitchy performance. Simon Cowell would have directed his most venom-filled tirade towards Rays starter Scott Kazmir who did not seem to have any type of rhythm, or a even a sense of direction in the game. Rays Manager Joe Maddon has a favorite saying that” “Pitching sets the tone of the game”. If that is truly the case, then last nights game was played by a group of tone-deaf athletes who seemed to be boring and very karaoke on the field.

I know that seems a bit harsh, but the fact of the matter is that the team just got over a huge emotional series against the Boston Red Sox, and they did not need to take even a one-game vacation now against the team we are fighting to stay out of the American League East cellar. It is not like the Orioles are a bad team. Quite the contrary, they have been our biggest pest for several seasons taking wins that used to fall our way. But last night’s contest was in doubt from the first pitch from the mound.

Kazmir threw the first pitch to lead-off man Brian Roberts behind him, and both Roberts and Home Plate Umpire Tim McClelland looked at each other in utter amazement.  It would have been great if from that moment on we did not have the feeling we were watching “Nuke” Laloosh from “Bull Durham” fame throw balls everywhere but over the plate. But we had the leftie that used to dominate the plate and send a chill down your spine with that great slider of his. Tonight the only thing scary about Kazmir was where the ball was going on every pitch. Control was not in his forte last night.

But then maybe I am being a bit too critical?  Maybe, but if you walk the first two batters in a game on 9 pitches, doesn’t it open the opinion door wide open. Even the fact that the first two guys basically only had to have their bats on their shoulders to enjoy a short stroll down to first was not the major issue here. It was the 1-1 count and the hanging slider that Nick Markakis decided needed to go into the right field stands for a 3-run homer that peaked my concern. That gave the visiting birds a 3-0 lead after only three batters.

But the Rays have been great at digging out of holes this year?  That is true, but usually those holes do not find themselves dug as early or as deep as this one in only the first inning. To Kazmir’s credit, he did get the next three Oriole batters in a row to get out of the inning with only the 3-0 damage inflicted on the Rays. Now we all know that Kazmir has been difficult his entire career early in his outings, and maybe this one is a prime example of his woes. But I know the Rays have tried various solutions to try and combat that early wildness on the mound.

They have tried to get him to throw his pre-game warm-up session like a simulated game to maybe get rid of the cobwebs faster and warm him up to game situations. But that had mixed reviews. They have even tried to get him to do more stretching and mental imaging before the game to stimulate his mind towards the actions of the first three batters. If he did do a pre-game simulation or visualization on the bench, thank goodness someone bothered him before he got down deep into the order yesterday.

In his post game comments, Kazmir eluded to the fact he did not” feel right tonight. Some thing was off mechanically.” I have to agree with you there Scott. Something did look a little off. When you were on the side throwing before the game you looked rushed and a bit flustered. But that has sometimes led to great things, so I do not read too much into it anymore. But you are right, something is off a bit with your delivery. Or maybe you are trying to bite on the plate corners too much and the umpires are not giving it to you based on your lack of control most of the game.

Whatever the reason, we need to get our leftie asset back under control before Kazmir get into his own head and begins to doubt himself or his purpose to this team. People forget that this guy is still only 24, and will not even hit 25 until August. Just because he is the longest tenured pitcher, and hold numerous Tampa Bay Rays records, he is still a guy who is growing as a pitcher every start.  There is no doubt in my mind that he is a star on this team. But his recent problems have casted a shadow on him that might be deserved at times.

But remember, there are a huge amount of pitchers this year who are also having sub-par years in the both leagues. From New York to Los Angeles, young pitchers are getting rocked and having their control situations. I know most people will just say that is the other team’s problem, but maybe we are hitting a mental or mechanic pandemic that is effecting our young pitchers right now. The only cure to such a virus is to study film, check location placement and maybe even do some side work to try and pinpoint the problem. Usually it is something simple that can ruin a pitching outing. Hopefully for Kazmir it is a simple case of maybe his foot placement on the rubber. But then again, I will leave that to the experts.


 
Chris O’Meara / AP 

Navarro is Doing Some Great Things

For the past few days I have heard a few grumbles and rants from the stands about the Rays current option at catcher. Dioner Navarro has had a history of starting slow before, but people still point towards last season as the barometer for his hitting. They do not take into consideration that we might have seen his best season last year, and this is an example of a average season for him. Catching has never been a position that a team look towards for a huge offensive outburst of power and average.

Usually a .240 hitter with power outbursts is what you find in the catching realms. What they are on the roster for is their defensive excellence and their ability to control their pitching staff. But with Rays current back-up Michel Hernandez having a career night this past weekend, it put the grandstand prognosticators on high alert. They are calling for a change, and there is not current Rays solution. The Rays normal back-up catcher, Sha
wn Riggans is getting ready to head out to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits for his rehab assignment and might not be back for a week to ten days.

But why are people calling for a change when Navarro is still acting like an All-Star catcher behind the plate? The voices seems to bring up the fact he is increasingly getting more and more prone to not putting his glove to the ground for balls that skip before or on the plate. This has lead to numerous passed balls and wild pitches in the last two weeks. Some of them have been costly to the team in moving up runners into scoring position, but some of that also has to be put on the pitcher’s shoulders. Navarro is not the one throwing the ball in the dirt, but is the one chasing them around the backstop.

But I do see the rationale here for that thinking. It does at times seem like he is giving 75 percent, but he might also be looking back runners at the corners and also trying to do too much at one time behind the plate. He has grown by leaps and bounds behind the plate as a team leader and the controller of multi-personalities that hit the mound. You have to think it might be difficult to pull in a emotional pitcher like Grant Balfour at times, or even try and figure out a character like JP Howell when he cool, calm and collected out there with the bases loaded and no outs.

But considering that in the recent games, Navarro has gunned down Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and  he got the Orioles Adam Jones at third base last night. For the year he is 4 for 19 this year throwing runners out. That 21 percent might not be lights out, but it shows he is trying to get them, and that speaks volumes. When a player is showing up defensively on the field, his hitting is considered a slump, not a lack of confidence. Navarro will be back on track again.  He got to the 2008 All-Star game based on the entire package behind the plate.

He had great coaches who used to catch like Maddon and Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos to guide and watch his mechanics. Navarro will again be stroking the ball hard for the Rays. The entire team has had a few pieces that have been slow to rise to the top this year. That happens some times, but why is it he is single out right now as the problem? Sometimes when you dip below that Mendoza line people doubt your offensive abilities.

He hit .295 last season and set numerous personal highs. The guy can hit, and we have seen it. But let’s give the guy a bit of a break because the Rays do not have huge options to even consider replacing him right now. “Stay the course and the ship will right itself” is an old nautical saying. It is Navarro’s time to sink or swim. Let’s give him the opportunity to rebound before we throw a great talent away for instant success.



Chris O’Meara / AP

Longo and El Presidente


Where would the Rays be this year without these two tearing up the base paths? You have to think of the possibilities of where we would be if not for their offensive thumping so far in 2009.  Based on his past weeks heroics, Evan Longoria again garnished the American League Player of the Week honors. Longo hit .379 with an A L  best 14 RBI during the past 7 days and  21 total bases. His 2 homers and 4 doubles were included in his 9 runs scored and  a .724 Slugging Percentage. This is his third overall Player of the Week honor, and his second this season.

Carlos Pena (28) and Longoria (31) are the first teammates since Duke Snider (31) and Roy Campanella ( 28)  with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 to have 28+ RBI through the first 26 games of the year.   Longoria and Pena are also the current MLB home run duo with Longoria (8) and Pena ( 11) combining for 19 homers this season.  There 58 combined RBI also have them number one in the MLB right now, 8 RBI ahead of their nearest competitors, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick of St. Louis who have 50 RBI.


Chris O’Meara / AP 

Tuesday Tidbits

**** As everyone knows, the Cowbell Kid will be making his annual road trip this week up for the New York Yankee two-game series and into Boston and Baltimore during the next road trip. He has even compiled a little didy entitled, ” The Cowbell Kid is coming to Town” that plays upon that Christmas classic, “Santa Claus is Coming to town.” He has even gotten  a few sound bytes from members of the Rays Bullpen that will be included in the video file he intends to sen to the media members in all three cities of the next road trip. Let’s hope the blue-haired one takes heed in Boston and remains calm when things come flying towards his Marge Simpson hair.

**** Again last night a mysterious orange ball came out of the right field stands after the home run by Nick Markakis in the first inning. People know my opinion on this trend. I know of the old tradition started by the 142 Crew where everything but the kitchen sink used to come out of the stands into the small right field corner, but this orange ball incident might bring about an odd group of copycats that will prolong the game.  The 142 Crew did their actions with the Bullpen knowing that the actions would happen and they used to send the ball boy out there to collect the balls and foreign items in a timely manner. To just throw countless balls back onto the field is a time-wasting effort and might be looked upon by the Rays as an insult, not as a fan energy booster.

**** Do not forget that today is Cinco De Mayo. The Rays plan on having their own celebration in the Power Alley Pub above centerfield today before and during the Rays afternoon game. I expect to see a multitude of sombrero’s and festive outerwear throughout the stadium. I will try and get a few photos of the festivities and post them tomorrow.  I am expecting to see at least a few Rays fans in ponchos and selective Corona-based wear in the stadium.

Rays Steal Series from Red Sox

 

              Rays 5,     Red Sox 3


Mike Carlson / AP

The C.C. Show

How else could you describe the event more than just stating it was the Carl Crawford Show. For the Rays two-time All-Star did everything but sell peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the stands before the game. If you are a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you know the speed and the ability of this great athlete. And you have to remember, he is an athlete as well as a pretty good baseball player. But the simple fact that Crawford picked baseball over all the other sports that he loved as a kid is a telling tale all its own.

Here is a guy who could have gone into two other sports, and might have even reached the professional level in them too, but he stuck with the sport that he had the greenest talent in……….baseball. And the end result is that he is starting to get that National recognition for the things we have seen him do consistently since 2002. But does it really seem like 7 years ago that this skinny speedster came on board with the Rays? It seriously feels like he has always been here, because he is the face of this franchise in so many ways.

He has been here during the lean years when wins were as consistent as gas prices, and fans were still here cheering for the Rays, but the blue seats outnumbered the moving parts in the stadium. But now that the team is beginning to defend their first winning season, and their 2008 American League Pennant, Crawford is beginning to get his own personal engine revving up. The season did not start out particularly well for the team, and Crawford also had a few bumps in the road, like his team, but he stayed motivated and fought through the small slump.

He had gone a combined 2 for 10 in the last series before coming home against the Twins, and had to be at his best for this Boston series for the Rays to again establish dominance at home. During this series, he went  8 for 16 for a .500 average to boost his batting average to above .300 for only the second time since April 12th. In the early stages of this season his base stealing expertise was absent as he was held at bay by the opposing pitchers most game, only stealing a total of 9 bases in April. But in the last three games against Boston, he has emerged again as the front runner to again take the stolen base crown in the American League.


Mike Carlson / AP

He stole a total of 8 bases, only one of his previous months total in this one series. But he saved his best for last on the series finale on Sunday. Coming into the bottom of the eighth inning against the Red Sox, he had victimized Jason Varitek all day by stealing 5 bases before he again got on base with an infield single to shortstop. With Evan Longoria at the plate, Crawford again stole his sixth base of the day, and he did not look like he was finished there.

I know I was one of the people in the crowd wondering if he might attempt to also take third base in this at bat, but Longoria quickly struck out to make the chance moot and end the inning for the Rays.  You wanted him to go on the first pitch to Longoria after he had stolen second, but it was not meant to be today. Every pitch from that moment on hung in the air for awhile as you waited for Crawford to lunge off second and sprint towards that third base bag. But it was not meant to be today.

What Crawford did was amazing in its own right. He personally demoralized the Red Sox that day by being the man. Sorry, but it is true, he stole not only 6 bases, but the show that day. Oh, did I fail to mention he also went 4 for 4 with 2 runs scored and an RBI ? The feat had only been attempted by 4 men since 1900. One player, Eddie Collins also did it twice. Could that be the next goal for Crawford, match Collins. Also getting 6 stolen bases in a modern day baseball game were former Colorado Rockie and ESPN host Eric Young and former Brave Otis Nixon.
 

The pure fact that Crawford is in the company of these great base thieves is an honor all its own. So now Crawford is hitting for an .583 average so far in May, and the Rays are winning, you might have to keep your eye on Crawford because I can see a AL Player of the Week honor coming his way for his efforts. His base burglary has also now put him 4 stolen bases in front of early front runner Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox. These guys will battle for the crown the entire season, but you can bet the guy who gets the most steals in this Boston/Tampa Bay series this year will walk away with the title in October.


Mike Carlson / AP


Rays Take Series

What is amazing to me is the fact that the only two series the Rays have won up to this point in the season is against their biggest rival in the AL East. They took 2 out of 3 in Boston to start the year, then went through 7 series without a win before coming home and taking 3 of 4 from Boston in Tropicana Field.  That is a total of 5 of 7 games in the series in 2009.  Considering these team have played each other more in the past 12 months than anyone else, there has to be a huge volume scouting report on both these teams that must weigh at least 200 pounds. But the win this season have been gutsy come-from-behind wins in most of the wins.

None of the games except for Boston’s victory on  Opening Day have had significant runs scored in the eighth inning or beyond this year. Most of the Rays and Red Sox’s win have been predetermined before the dramatic ending innings. But that doesn’t mean that this will hold true in the future contests. As these teams both heat up a bit at the plate, the dramatic endings and the luck of the past will again flow freely and we might see some of those classic Rays vs. Red Sox games real soon. Maybe even next weekend when the Rays come to Fenway Park again for three games.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Defense Wins Ballgames

You have to admit that this series did not always look like a defensive struggle for either team. Considering in this four-game series, both teams committed 4 errors in the series. The Red Sox did not commit their first error in the series until Nick Green’s errant throw to first in Sat night contest.  But the Rays did have a couple of errors in the second inning of the game by  Akinora Iwamura and Gabe Kapler. Iwamura was the first to commit an error on  a hard hit ball by Ellsbury to him and he bumbled the ball and Ellsbury made it to first in time. Kapler made his error a few plays later on a throw trying to nab Ellsbury at the plate. The ball was up the line and bit and went by Dioner Navarro.  

In Sundays game, the only error was made in the early stages on the game on a toss by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who was trying to catch Crawford stealing his first base of the day.  The ball ended up going into centerfield and Crawford moved to third on the errant throw.  But the series did have their exciting moments when Ellsbury was caught stealing by Navarro on Sunday, and the comical stolen base attempt by Green on Sat. night. Kottaras also got into the act by catching both B J Upton and Gabe Gross on Sat. night. Upton was trying to make his second steal of the inning and was nabbed at third base by a great throw, and Gross got caught stealing late in the game by going straight towards the bag at second.

But the big defensive moments were the 5 double plays made by the Rays in this series. Not to down play any of the great defensive plays by the outfield or infield, but the double plays helped prevent scoring opportunities and get short innings out of the Red Sox. By keeping the Red Sox bats on the bench, the Rays made their best defensive plays of the game. But not to down play the awesome play by both teams defensively this series, but the Rays seemed to have more of them go their ways. Diving catches by Upton saved runs and  Jason Bartlett made play after play to save runs and prevent more scoring opportunities by the Red Sox.


Mike Carlson / AP

Mondays Moments

**** Jason Bartlett has continued his hot bat into May as he again went 3 for 4 in the game to raise his average to .368 for the season. That currently puts him with the fifth in the American League.  Ever since the 2008 end of the regular season, Bartlett has been on a tear at the plate. Considering he ended the month of April with a .358 average, which is now the third best April start for a Rays hitter.  But this season, he has kept his best games for the Boston Red Sox. In the Opening Series in Fenway, he went a combined 4 for 10, with 2 runs scored to lead the Rays, and in this last four-game series he went 4 for 11, with an identical 2 runs scored in the just completed series.

****  The Rays have only had 11 home games so far in 2009, but they have seated 317,533 fans, which comes out to a 28,866 average so far this season. The figure puts them currently fourth in the American league. Those figures might go considerably smaller in the next two games as the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles in a two-game series, with the last game an afternoon contest on Tuesday at 4:08 pm. Historically, the Orioles series is not a great seller for the team.

**** Dioner Navarro will appear at Coachman Fundemental  Middle School in Clearwater, Florida from 11:45 to 12:45 as a part of the Rays and Raytheon’s “Math Moves U” program.  The event will be a one-hour pep rally and instructional speech about the exciting possibilities of math.  

**** Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena are the fourth set of teammates since 1954 to record at least 27 RBI through the first 25 games of the season. They currently lead all major league teammates in HR and RBI. Pena is also the Rays second quickest player to notch 11 homers in 25 games. Pena missed the Rays record currently held by Jonny Gomes, who hit 11 homers in 24 games in 2006.

**** Longoria currently leads the majors with 30 RBI, 19 extra-base hits. He shares the top spot with Alberto Callaspro of the Kansas City Royals in double with 12, plus is  currently second in total base hits in the majors with 67 this season.   

Rays take first loss to Red Sox at Home




 
Red Sox 10, Rays 6


Steve Nesius / AP

Butterfly Balls and Odd Plays

To Say that last night’s game had an odd feel to it might seem like I am making excuses for the type of play. But come on people, when is the last time you saw a guy trying to steal second base and basically takes himself out half way to the base? I felt bad for former Ray Nick Green for about 20 seconds on that play before I was rolling in the aisle about it. I mean the poor guy was trying to steal second base off Dioner Navarro, which is hard enough, but he seemed to stumble out of the gate and finally came face first into the soft clay of the Trop’s infield before trying to save some face and get back to first to keep from making an out.

I know the throw from Rays catcher Navarro did get there a few seconds later, but got to admit he was probably laughing so hard he almost forgot to throw the ball. That bit of impromptu comedy was only a small slice of some of the antics last night. Besides the usual Boston showers going on in the stands ( beer throwing), the game had an interesting feel to it. You know that bringing in a pitcher like knuckleballer Tim Wakefield can put a crimp in almost anyone’s game. The way that ball flutters and dances at times, it can even make a .368 hitter look a bit foolish. But thank goodness no one was spinning in their shoes and falling down trying to catch up to the multi-directional pitch.

But then their was the throw in by Carl Crawford later in the game as Dustin Pedroia tagged up at second base. Crawford, who is not always known for his swift and accurate throwing ability somehow threaded the needle and got a nice hard throw to Evan Longoria to try and get Pedroia at third base. The odd part to it is that the throw did not make it into Longoria’s mitt, but got deposited right into the cup region of Pedroia, who was visibly shaken by the throw. We know it was not an intentional thing, but the odd timing of this play on the Red Sox team crybaby was a bit humorous at the time. And for that reason, it is always great to wear a cup if you play baseball. Another incident that caught me laughing was the fact that Tim Wakefield hit Dioner Navarro in the fifth inning with a knuckleball. You could see Navarro at the plate break a huge smile knowing that it is not only odd, but pretty funny to have a butterfly ball peg you. Thank goodness it was not a 76 mph curve or a 86 mph fastball, but a 46 mph flutter ball.  But that was not the only hit batter in the game that made you wonder.

In the seventh inning, with two men on base, Rays reliever Brian Shouse was trying to get David Ortiz with the count 3-2 on him and Shouse plucked the big guy with a pitch in the hip region. I mean if we are going to just walk the guy, let’s intentionally walk him like we did the previous batter Pedroia before Ortiz came to the plate. So basically the Rays used 6 pitches to walk Ortiz. But the wild part is that Shouse had him 0-2 before he issued 3 straight balls outside the strike zone. Last night had a wild vibe all around the Trop., but these events really made you wonder at times.  But there were also wild things going on in the stands last night. One spectator was watching a foul ball come towards him and did not even put his hands up to ward off the ball. Instead, he got plucked right in the cheek and it opened a good 10 inch gash on his cheek that might need stitches to close the wound.

             
               Steve Nesius / AP

Rays Bats  Went Silent


If Boston Manager Terry Francona was trying to slow down the Rays offense last night, he used the perfect weapon to get the Rays to take some time to adjust and then begin to again get hits off his starting pitching. Tim Wakefield, with his flutterball, effectively shut down the Rays offense for bits and pieces of this game without letting them string together any scoring opportunities like they had the previous two games.  Tampa Bay was able to pop a run across the plate after Evan Longoria hit a ball to the opposite field in right that fell only two feet from becoming his next home run. the ball hit on the green top to the outfield wall and bounced back into the playing area for a double.

Carlos Pena then hit a RBI single to right-center field that scored Longoria, and it almost looked like Francona’s idea was about to back-fire on him. But the Rays bats went silent after that moment and between the rest of the first inning until the fourth, the Rays only came away with a Carl Crawford single to right. Crawford then moved up on a stolen base to put himself into scoring position.  Leading off the top of the fourth inning, Pena got a hold of one of Wakefield’s mistakes and deposited it just inside the right field foul pole for his 11th home run. But that was the last hint of offense the Rays would have in the fourth inning.

In the fifth inning, when Wakefield had gone through the order a few times, the rays began to make some moves towards evening the score. After Gabe Kapler struck out,  Navarro got hit by a pitch after going 3-2 against Wakefield.  B J Upton then got three straight balls and finally gained a walk  to put two men on with one out in the inning.  Then Boston catcher George Kottaras had his first passed ball of the night to put both men in scoring position. Longoria then hit a liner down the left field line into the corner and both Navarro and Upton came in to score for the Rays.  Pena then got on base after four straight balls and put two men on base again for the Rays with two outs in the inning.  Pat Burrell then hit a double to left that scored Longoria and moved Pena to third base.  Ben Zobrist then struck out to end the inning with the Rays trailing by one, 6-5.

That would be the end of the Rays offensive strikes until the bottom of the ninth inning with the team behind 10-5 at the moment. Hedecki Okajima had relieved Wakefield after five innings and 101 pitches on the night. He immediately gave up two hits to Akinora Iwamura and Kapler. After Navarro hit a sacrifice bunt to move both men into scoring position, they got stranded there after the Rays made
two quick outs to get Okajima out of the inning. But the Rays did get more chances in the seventh inning when Pena walked and  Zorbrist got an infield single to put Pena into scoring position.  Pena went to third base on a throwing error by Nick Green, but got stranded after Iwamura struck out swinging to end the inning.

]In the bottom of the ninth inning, Takahashi Saito came in for the Red Sox to close out the game. After a 12 pitch at bat, Crawford singled into  center to lead-off the final inning. After Longoria struck out, Crawford moved over to second base on defensive indifference and then took third base on Pena’s grounder up the first base line. On the third pitch, Burrell hit a RBI single to right-center to score Crawford and make the score 10-6. But then Zobrist struck out swinging to end the Rays rally and give the Red Sox their first win of the home series. In tonight’s game, Wakefield got the victory, which was also his 20th win in his career against the Rays. He is the all-time opponent record holder, with Mike Mussina formerly of the Yankees in second with 15 victories.

       
       
Steve Nesius / AP

Red Sox Bats were wild tonight

Rays starter Jeff Niemann came into the game  after several impressive outing since his first start debacle in Baltimore. There was hope that he could hold the Red Sox hitters at bay enough to let the team get a few early runs and set the tone tonight. But from the first batter on tonight, it did not seem to be Niemann’s night. The  tall rightie gave up an early walk to Dustin Pedroia, and then Hit Kevin Youkilis with the first pitch of the at bat. That gave the Red Sox two early base runners in the inning.  J D Drew then hit a strong double to right to score both Pedroia and Youkilis and stake the Red Sox to a 2-0 lead.

Mike Lowell lead-off the second inning with a single to center, and Kottaras then hit an RBI double to  Nick Green then hit an infield single to Iwamura that plated both Lowell and Kottaras and give the Red Sox a 4-1 lead.  Jacoby Ellsbury then hit a ball to Iwamura that he tried to get the speedy runner, but threw the ball past Pena for an error. Pedroia then hit an RBI single to right that scored Ellsbury, and moved to second on Kapler’s bad throw.  That put the Red Sox up 5-1 at the time. Then in the third inning, Jason Bay got an infield single to Jason Bartlett that was deep in the shortstop hole and he could not get Bay in time for the out.  Bay then stole second base, and moved over on Niemann’s wild pitch to put himself in scoring position at third base. Green then hit an RBI single to center to plate Bay and increase the Red Sox lead to 6-1.

The Red Sox bast went silent a bit until the fifth inning when Grant Balfour relieved Niemann at the beginning of the inning.  After Green struck out, Ellsbury reached on a infield single to third base that was put down between Balfour and Longoria, and he could not make the play and get the speedy Red Sox outfielder.  Ellsbury the stole both second and third, and Balfour ended up walking Pedroia. After David Ortiz ended up walking after a 10-pitch at bat, Brian Shouse came in to relieve Balfour in the game. Youkilis ended up with an RBI double to left that scored Ellsbury and Pedroia and raise the Red Sox lead to 8-5.

In the seventh inning, Lowell ended up hitting a solo shot on the third pitch from Shouse to up the score to 9-5 Boston. Green then doubled to deep right field and moved to third on Ellsbury bouncer to Shouse.  The Rays then Intentionally Walked Pedroia to set up a leftie-leftie situation with Ortiz. After getting him to a 3-2 count, Shouse hit him in the right hip with a pitch to load the bases. Youkilis then got another walk to score a run without even taking the bat off his shoulder and put the Rays in a 10-5 hole.  Jeff Nelson then came in to relieve Shouse and got Drew to pop-out to end the inning. That ended the Red Sox offense for the night as the Rays sent down the Red Sox 1-2-3 in the next two innings.

 

 

For the game, Neimann did not seem to be able to handle the Red Sox base runners and they stole their bases at will while the tall righties was trying to adjust and get a faster delivery to the plate. This is one of the thing that a pitcher has to learn to become more adapt at during their first few starts in the league. Teams get a flow and ebb from them and can time their deliveries to the plate and make their base stealing calls accordingly. Niemann is very uncomfortable out of the stretch, and it shows in his on-the-mound mannerisms. For him to be able to go to the next level, he is going to have to incorporate some side-steps and practice more effective moves to first and third base to begin to stop the base runners from taking advantage of him. When he makes these adjustments and a few guys get caught  stealing by Navarro, then teams will have to re-evaluate their  signals and come up with another alternative.

 

 

 

Longo goes Long-O

 

                 Rays 6,       Red Sox 2


Chris O’Meara / AP

Red Sox Amnesia

Is it me, or did it seem like the Boston Red Sox came into this series forgetting about the recent history between these two polar opposite record teams. Did the mighty Red Sox forget that before coming in on Monday, the last time they stood in Tropicana Field was to watch the Rays celebrate their advancement to the World Series. It close but no cigar for the Red Sox. So as Red Sox Nation is now throwing their hands up in the air wondering what is wrong with their team, the answer is quite simple and easy to digest. These two teams have scouted each other to the point they know what breakfast cereal to have in the clubhouse. They might even know the collective birthdays and anniversaries of every one on the two teams staffs too.

This is becoming a vital rivalry. It is not to the level of the dreaded Red Sox versus Yankees yet, but it can be if they let it grow and mature. Right now the Red Sox faithful treat this series only like a bump in the road, not a legitimate contender. Sure there is the wordspeak that they do not take the Rays lightly, but do their actions match their words……Not yet. This series had all the drama and the suspense of their other 7 series this season, including one where this unknown squad from St. Petersburg dared to come into Fenway Park and win two out of three games. Boston is beginning to believe in the rumors and the half-truths about this team.

They know the Rays can play baseball, they just have to believe it is at their level right now. For some reason they seemed to be thinking it is 2000 or earlier, and this is still a bunch of rag tag second-tier players seeking that last chance to play professional baseball outside of the minor league system. The Rays have grown, just like David Ortiz’s waistline to become more of a burden to these guys from Beantown. But lest we forget, after tonight, not only have the Rays now beaten the Red Sox in 4 of the 5 games this year, but here in the gentle burg, they have lost 12 out of the last 14 games. Make more sense that they would want a case of simple amnesia when they hit the tarmac at St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Rays are being Pests Again

I was amused last night when a Red Sox fan behind me was jawing about the Rays and their base runners annoying the Boston starter Justin Masterson. I find it really humorous that he was sitting their complaining that our guys were trying to steal bases and not just take what the defense is giving them at the plate. I wanted to turn around and just give it to him by stating that it is an aggressive style of baseball that your own Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedoria love to play, but they have to be on base to get steals. Instead I just glanced up at the scoreboard and saw that beautiful 6-2 score shining bright.

But that is something that the Rays have done the entire year. They have been aggressive some times to the point of running themselves out of innings and scoring opportunities. How many times have Rays fans looked at that TV screen or the base paths at the Trop., and cursed a play or two because of the lack of concentration by a base runner. But that is going to be the style that we are either going to sink or swim with in 2009. It has had its moments of failures, like when B J Upton or even Carlos Pena get caught in “no-mans land” between the bases and have to almost concede an out. But then you have moments like during the last home stand against the Chicago White Sox where Akinora Iwamura was also caught between bases and some how got his hand into second base ahead of the toss to steal the moment and keep the White Sox from getting that easy out.


The aggressive style will either help or hinder you, but so far in 2009, the arrow is pointing more into the help column. Coming into tonight’s game, the Rays have a combined 189 stolen bases. That is currently tops in the American League, but there are teams nipping at their heels like the Texas Rangers ( 187 ) and the Cleveland Indians ( 184 ). The rays aggressive system has caught the eyes of other teams too now, and they are adapting their own set of parameters to their own offensive battle plans. Even the Florida Marlins, who are tied with the Rays for the MLB lead with 189 stolen base have adjusted their game to include aggressive base policies. This is the style of play that is evolving in baseball. Small ball is back in a big way, and the Rays are the leader of the pack.


Consider in the last two nights, both starting pitchers have been taking extra time and slowed their wind-ups and throws to the plate hoping to catch the speedy Rays out of position and get some easy outs and erase base runners. For the most part, it is not working, but they are getting their chances. In Thursday nights game, only once did the Rays attempt to steal a base of Josh Beckett. Carl Crawford, the Rays head theft took third base off of Beckett and back-up catcher George Kottaras in the bottom of the fourth inning. It was all made possible by a double by Crawford. The aggressive nature of the Rays is not going away, and teams are beginning to experiment with ways to combat these pests on the base paths.

All in all, the Rays have been caught stealing six times in 2009, which is pretty middle of the pack. The only team that has a lopsided stolen base to caught stealing ratio right now is the Toronto Blue Jays, who have stolen 11 and been caught only once. Take last night’s game into consideration. Masterson also began to make slower movements on the mound and also threw a few sidesteps to combat the Rays base runners. It had its moments, but the Rays still attempted their steals.  Crawford and B J Upton both got steals of second last night, but the Rays also got caught twice last night.
In their game of base larceny, you do get caught some times.

Gabe Gross got pegged at third base by Kottaras in the sixth inning. Upton got nailed at third base also, but in the bottom of the first inning. Even when they know the Rays are going to attempt steals it doesn’t matter to this young aggressive squad. They do not do it for the sake of the larceny, they do it for the pure fact that it disrupts the pitcher and can cause havoc in the mind. And that is a pure Joe Maddon trademark….The mind can win or lose games for you.

   
    
Chris O’Meara / AP

Does Tim Tebow Wear Longoria Underwear?

I found it funny the first time I heard that line that superman wears Tim Tebow underwear. The Florida Gator quarterback seems to be able to do what ever he feels like it in a game. I am getting the same vibe about Evan Longoria this season. He has just finished the fourth best April batting average by a second year player who won the Rookie of the Year award by belting a grand slam off the Boston Red Sox to send Red Sox fans either to the beer stand, or home. But people seem to forget that Boston put him in that position. If Masterson has been able to get the inning over with quickly, there would be no “Longo” chants bellowing in the Trop. Heck, if he had been able to do his job, there would not be a “6” spot on the scoreboard. But the second year player is quickly putting himself up there with some great names to be considered again for dominance at the plate and in the field.

Sure the guy did not have a killer night at the plate, only going 1 for 3, but that one made the difference in this ball game. That one hit puts him solely into the lead for the American League RBI race with 28 for the season. And coming up behind him is team mate Carlos Pena with 25 RBIs. But that is not the only category right now that Longo is showing dominance. He is also the current Slugging Percentage leader ( .736 ) and also the doubles leader ( 10 ). The kid is beginning to get a cult following around the league, and no more chants of “Eva” have been filtering down from the stands. Maybe that is because Eva could never have a year like this.

And if you think about it, the Rays third baseman is in a perfect position right now. He has Crawford and Upton in front of him to help in RBI’s, and he has Pena and Pat Burrell behind him to force pitchers to pitch to him. He is sitting in a great spot to explode with number unseen in a while for a second year player. And with this emergence, he should get more than his share of votes for the All-Star game in St. Louis this season.  With Longoria and Pena setting up the first Rays duo to ever produce at this level consistently for an entire season. The potential of this duo is off the charts, the reality is that the Rays will go as far as these two can take them in 2009.


 
Chris O’Meara / AP

Sonny is not Sure Money

Last year at this time Andy Sonnanstine was sitting pretty with a 3-1 record and a 5.28 ERA. He had begun the season as the number three starter and was making his sixth start of the year on April 30, 2008. He would win that contest and become the first Rays pitcher to even win four games in April, plus tie the mark for the best record of any month by a Rays pitcher. Life was looking grand for Sonny.  But what a difference a year can make in a pitchers’ life. It is not that he is throwing the ball any different, or even is off the mark by a wide margin. small little things have seem to plague him this season.

His breaking balls is not producing the awesome bite or even plus or minus it had in 2009. This is not for lack of him throwing it in the same manner. He is still throwing it with good mechanics, maybe the league has caught up to him. He is never going to win your teams pitch speed record, or even make a run at a 10 strikeout night, but he has been so consistent for so long with the team that if there is a problem, it is amplified beyond the mound. This year is just an off season for him. He is losing the count he used to get easily with his breaking balls. Not for lack of it hitting the plate, but for people hitting him better this year.  

Take last night game for example, He went out there and did the basic Sonny routine of getting balls hit at people. You know nice easily routine ground outs and great fly balls that can be caught without episode. But for some reason, this season that formula has been broken at times and he has been subject to big innings. In the third inning last night it was single by Pedroia and a double by Kevin Youkilis that set up trouble for him. He ended up issuing a walk to J D Drew on 4 pitches. He then did the same for Jason Bay to plate the first run for the Red Sox. In the past, with two outs in the inning, he would have served up a nice ground ball to get the Rays out of the inning. But maybe hitters are wise to him now and are waiting him out at the plate.

Whatever the reason, the one run third inning for the Red Sox did not break the bank for him tonight. Mostly because two pitches later Mike Lowell grounded out to get him out of the inning.  But that with standing, this is a different Sonny on the mound this season. Maybe he traded in the “Volvo” mentality for a sporty new compact model, but it is not working for him right now. But I do not have fear in me about this. Sometimes a pitcher has to rediscover his stuff at points in the season. Maybe in 2009, he is having to do it a bit earlier than anticipated. Whatever the reason, Sonny has to regain that killer instinct that served him so well in the beginning of 2008. This team is going to need every pitcher to go out there and think they have a win every night. If that doesn’t happen, they might see themselves sitting in the Bullpen, or worse this year.

Rays Gain back the Trop in Win

 

             Rays 13,     Red Sox 0



Chris O’Meara / AP

Josh Beckett: You Got Served!

I have to admit, I was a Josh Beckett fan when he was on the staff of the fellow Florida squad, the Marlins. I was excited to see him raise his arms in victory as his squad fought for the World title. At that time I knew this guy was going to be a great pitcher, but I had no idea I would have to begin to hate the little thing that he does on the mound. Last night though, the Tampa Bay Rays manhandled the Boston ace within an inch of his collective life. They did everything to get under Beckett’s skin but flirt with his girlfriend. The Rays did an extremely effective job of taking his rhythm away from him and stepping out of the box and collectively just getting him off his game.


And the local Rays crowd, which numbered only 20,340, did everything in their power to chant,harass and try to also become a factor in his bad night. Beckett tried to do his stall tactics on the mound, but the Rays did not play that game with him for the most part all night long. A few times the Rays did toy with him by calling for “time” late in the pitch, or even just staring Beckett down instead of concentrating on the pitch coming into the plate. And it did take effect on the right-hander. Several times in the game he seemed to be physically bugged by the Rays tactics, which is a kudo to the Rays coaching staff to point the small ways to get Beckett a bit uneasy on the mound.

But the best part is that the Rays also manhandled him with their bats. They did not settle for the walks, or the singles, they wanted to make a statement to both Boston and Beckett that they are still the team of piranhas’ here even if they think they are the Great White in the division right now. But be that as it may, a school of sharp toothed piranha can take a shark any day of the week, and both Boston and Beckett got served that notice loud and clear last night. Beckett lasted 4.2 innings, and threw 113 pitches, but his night was over in his head about the third inning when the Rays got two straight infield hits to start the inning off.

That is right, Jason Bartlett and B J Upton got two straight nibblers to the third base side of the mound. Bartlett hit a good shot towards Mike Lowell at third, but he could not get a great throw off, and he was safe by a country mile. Upton then hit a short grounder off the end of his bat that Beckett finally got to, but could not get Upton at first base. Beckett then seemed to be a bit unnerved and gave up a walk to Carl Crawford on 5 pitches to load the bases for the Rays. What came next seemed to unravel him a bit on the mound for the next few batters.

Evan Longoria then came up and took a 2-1 count breaking ball to the gap in right-center field for a 3-run double. Longo basically took Beckett’s night in that one swing. Because at that point, it put the Red Sox down 3-0 in a game that Rays pitcher Matt Garza had total control over from his first pitch. After Carlos Pena struck out, Pat Burrell did the last surgical strike on Beckett in the inning when he hit the first pitch from Beckett to right field to score Longoria. But what might have really ruined the night for Beckett was the fact that the Red Sox went down 1-2-3 in the top of the fourth inning, and he got sent back out there already reeling from the top of the third inning.
 

This served the Rays purpose perfectly. They knew they had him on the ropes and with a fast half an inning, they could still inflict more pain on Beckett before he got adequate time to adjust and cool down. After Bartlett started off the inning with a sharp shot to Julio Lugo on the second pitch of the inning, Michel Hernandez then came up and deposited his first career home run to left-center field to stake the Rays to a 5-0 lead in the game.  the the Rays began to truly twist the knife into Beckett as both Upton and Crawford hit back-to-back doubles to put Beckett on the ropes early in the inning. And the Boston Bullpen was still silent at this time. No one up throwing or even stretching out at all. It was Beckett only for this inning.

Beckett did get out of the inning with only Upton scoring after Hernandez’s blast to keep the score respectable for the moment. But in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Rays decided to inflict one more wound onto Beckett’s night. After another fast 1-2-3 inning by Garza, in which he only threw 19 pitches, it was Beckett’s turn to again get within the Rays sights.  After a lead-off 6-pitch at bat by Gabe Gross that saw four foul balls Beckett thought he had a grip on the game for the first time since the second inning. But Akinora Iwamura hit a double off the second pitch he saw and gave the Rays an early scoring opportunity.

After Bartlett struck out to give Beckett some breathing room, Henandez then came up and hit an RBI single to left field to put the final run up against Beckett on the night.  Red Sox Manager Terry Francona then came out and brought in Red Sox reliever  Hunter Jones to finish out the inning. For the night, Beckett ended up giving up 10-hits and 7-runs, plus 3 walks against the Rays. It was a great performance by the Rays bats to take the Boston ace out early in their 4-game series. Now for the next three games all Beckett can do is sit on the bench and reflect on what he could of, or would have done differently in that contest. But the fact remains, that in this second test between him and the Rays in 2009, this round goes to the Rays by a  bloody knockout.

          
                
Chris O’Meara / AP

 Michel Hernandez Has Banner Night

The post-game shaving cream pie by Rays starting catcher Dioner Navarro could not keep that Cheshire cat grin off his face. Even with a mountain of white suds dripping off his face Michel Hernandez was having the time of his life during his Rays Radio Interview on the field. And I can think of no one better to feel like he had a huge part in this contest than Hernandez. Not only did the Rays current back-up catcher have a fantastic night by going 4-5 with 3 RBI’s, but Rays Radio call-in comments were calling for Rays Manager Joe Maddon to play the “hot hand” behind the plate right now instead of Dioner Navarro, who has seen some offensive up and downs this season.

Hernandez also is the second Rays back-up catcher in two seasons to catch a Garza one-hitter. Shawn Riggans caught the other in Miami last season against the Marlins. But if you are not a Rays fan, you might not have ever heard about this fine catcher.The guy has been in the minors for the past 11 years. Going from club to club getting consistent results and reviews, but not finding a home for his talents. The 3-year old catcher was also an add-on to another great Rays moment when he was the second player called up in 2008 to get to Boston in time for the Rays game against the Red Sox. His flight companion that day, Dan Johnson, ended up being the Rays hero in that game when he hit a solo shot off Red Sox closer Johnathan Papelbon.

Hernandez got his first major league home run in the fourth inning and really did not even know it had gone out before turning at first and seeing it on the Rays Jumbotron. You could see his toothy grin the rest of the way around the bases, and the mob scene on the Rays dugout stairs were a testament to this guy’s heart and abilities. But that was not the end of the night for Hernandez, he ended up going 4 for 5 on the night also collecting his first double and RBI. Before this game, he had a total of six major league hits. But all this would not have been made possible if he had not made a huge decision as an 18-year old.

You see at that time he was playing for the Havana Industriales of the Cuban  National League on his current road trip brought him to the Yucatan Peninsula. That night, along with a few fellow team mates he made his marl for freedom and his chance to play baseball in the US. He ended up hiding out for almost two months as his wife Marta, who was in Venezuela at the time worked on his visa paper and his eventual freedom. Hernandez now lives in the Tampa Bay area, and with his new prize that first home run ball coming home with him  last night, finally might feel like he achieved that dream he envisioned 12 years ago while lying in Mexico. But you know the first person to see that ball in the morning will be his son, Michael who also enjoys playing baseball.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Garza Gets a Bit of Deja Vu

Rays starter Matt Garza had been there before. He had felt that burning in the pit of his stomach as the pitch was hit by the bat, and it was not that long ago. the last time he ad heard that sound during a pitching performance like this it was on a balmy June 26, 2008 day in which Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez hit a blistering home run in the 7th inning to take his no-hit bid away, and also post the only run given up by Garza on that day. Even though he had struck out 10 Marlins that day, that sound of the bat crack is all he remembered of that day. So we flash forward to last night game and we again see that Garza is pulling off a miracle by blanking the Red Sox through six innings. 

With the Rays comfortably with a 8-0 lead at the time, Garza is on cruise control right now just following the flow of this tidal wave waiting for it to break onto the beach. The game really did have a great feel and pace to it with Garza getting the ball and setting up fast to want to just go at the Red Sox. Through his previous six innings, he had a masterpiece on his hands and did not do anything out of character to play with the mojo that was happening on the mound. He had just gotten the ball and fired the previous six inning, and this one was no different.   

He faced Jacoby Ellsbury first in the top of the seventh inning and had not even granted a walk at this time in the ballgame. He was working on a perfetc game before the speedy outfielder put a softly hit swibbler just past Garza’s right ear to finally get something going for the Red Sox. The ball had taken a soft path towards Garza, and he could not adjust in time to grab the ball before it fell to the turf. Bartlett came in quickly from short and tried to scoop and fire the ball to first, but Ellsbury had already touched the base before Pena gripped the ball in his mitt.

The frustration was immedidate on Graza’s face. He quickly asked for another ball and got back to his routine by then getting Dustin Pedroia to ground into a double play to end Ellsbury’s time on the base paths. Without any base runners, Garza then returned to the mound, but you could see that the hit had effected him. He quickly gave up his only walk of the night to David Ortiz, but rebounded with a great inside pitch to Jeff Bailey that got him to hit a ground ball to Evan Longoria and get out of the inning. In the past, Garza might have gotten into his head a bit and maybe ruined hids great pitching performance with frustrated throws and maybe a visual meltdown in his head on the mound.

Garza went out again to the mound in the top of the eight inning to complete his night. After striking out Jonathan Van Every, Garza had given the Rays faithful a free Papa John’s pizza, but he gave us better thing to remember on this night from his pitching performance. He only pitched to Van Every in the eighth inning before Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out and brought in Grant Balfour to close out the masterpiece. Even as Maddon was heading to the mound, the Trop crowd, even Red Sox fans were on their feet to applaude the effort of the Rays rightie tonight. He had also fanned a duplicate 10 Red Sox tonight as he did in that June 26, 2008 game, but tonight he did it in front of the home crowd, which made sure he knew how much they needed and loved the effort. It was a thunderous clapping of hands and cowbells way until he was gone from the playing field.

But tonight, I think we saw the right hander take the right path and readjusted himself  on the mound and stood he tall and gained inner growth that will do wonder for him in his future starts. Last night’s performance was a true masterpiece. It is another great point in Garza’s maturation process and personal growth beyond the baseball diamond. To night he might have lost his perfect game and hos no-hitter, but in his development to be more consistent and mentally up for the challenge, Garza threw nothing but strikes all night long.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Longo and JB Fight for the  April Record

Coming into tonight contest, Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett were battling to become the next Rays hitters to get recognition as the Best hitters in the month of April for the team. Bartlett came up in the bottom of the eighth inning with a chance to overcome Rocco Baldelli for second on the list, but his pop out to third base ended his chances at the spot and he settled for a final .358 average for the month. Now I have to say that a .358 average is not too shabby at all, and he should take great pride in that mark, but I also know he wanted that top spot and was eager in tonight’s game to hit. He ended up going 1 for 5 tonight, which is one of the first times in recent games that he has hit less than tweo hits in a contest. 

Longoria went 3 for 5 on the night, which included his sixth homer of the season and also 3 runs to go with his 4 RBI’s. The night helped him boost his average up to .369 for the month. This was enough to top Baldelli’s previous .366 record he set in 2003. How fitting was it also that the guy currently sitting in the top spot for an April average was also sitting in the Visitor’s dugout for the game. When Longo hit  a single in the bottom of the eighth, you could see Baldelli’s huge smile for the guy. That was a great sight to see. For these two guys not only have a great respect for each other, but they both share the fact that they both were the faces of this franchise in different times. Congrats Longo, with your .369 average you have also posted the fourth best April by a reigning ROY candidate. Now it is on to May’s mark for both of them.



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Friday’s Funky Findings 

**** In tonight’s game, we will see the debut of the Rays Alternate jersey. And who better to show you the new uniform than tonight’s starter, Andy Sonnastine. Tne new additon features a navy blue button-down with RAYS outlined in white trim with a light blue shadow across the chest.  Light blue piping surrounds the sleeve and collar and extends down the front of the jersey. The usual “sunburst”  emanating from the “R” is 40 percent larger than the team’s ususal home and road jerseys.

****  I was talking with Shawn Riggans during the game about his up-coming rehab assignment and found out that he will be heading to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits to begin his trek back to the Rays roster. He is putting a hopeful target of May 10th, which could be one of Matt Garza’s starts for his return to the Rays. Riggans had been out with shoulder tendinitis and was put on the disabled list on April 13th.

**** Rays starter Jeff Niemann was awarded the Al Lopez award before the game. This is the Rays award to the best rookie during the Rays Spring Training. During the 2009 Spring Training Grapefruit League season, Niemann  had a 2-1 record with a 6.32 ERA. He appeared in 6 games and started in 3 while throwing 15.2 innings of work.  Niemann also was in the fight the enitre Spring Training for the Rays fifth rotation spot, finally garnering that spot on the last day of Spring Training.

**** Throwing out the First Pitch tonight will be a local baseball star who recently got exposure on ESPN and numerous publications for his pitching. Patrick Schuster, a senior at New Port Richey’s Mitchell High School will throw out the first pitch tonight before the game. He recently set a Florida State High School record with his fourth  consecutive no-hitter. Schuster lost his bid for five straight no-hitters in a recent game against  Tampa Gaither. Schuster, who is off to the University of Florida to play college ball,ended his year with a 9-4 loss to Gaither in the Class 6-A District 7 semifinals. Schuster had thrown 26 consecutive hitless innings coming into the game.

**** Is this a growing trend against the Rays? If you go down by 10 runs, you bring in your right fielder to toss an inning of work. The Red Sox brought in right field Jonathan Van Every to throw the last 2/3rds of the game last night. Is this a growing trend? For his efforts, Van Every did his best to re-produce a “Nick Swisher” moment on the mound, but was tagged by one hit in his fifteen pitches to finish the bottom of the eight inning. you might rem
ember that the Yankees inserted Swisher to pitch against the Rays in their season opener and the leftie blanked the Rays, also getting Gabe Kapler to strike out in that inning.

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