And he has his own sense and realities to his job as a major league manager. He even has a “fine” bowl in his office where guilty players, who are found guilty by the Kangaroo Court have to purchase a bottle of wine for the skipper with the paper divulging their fine. He is one of the only mangers in the major leagues that I know of who has his own wine rack and wine cooler in his office for post game tastings and special occasions. And you know that cooler got plenty of good use with champagne and fine spirits during the 2008 Postseason celebrations.
Held between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon along with his Rays Coaches and front office staff have personally shopped, cooked and even served special dinners of spaghetti, sausage, pierogies, past and salad for over 1,000 people in the Salvation Army shelters in Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Port Charlotte areas. One of the biggest food hits in this event is the special meatballs Maddon was taught how to make by his mother Beanie back in his home town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania.
The two immediately fostered a great bond emerged during that series between Maddon and Challis. Maddon has since been actively involved in fund raising for the foundation and in November 2008 when he was named winner of the Chuck Tanner Award as major league manager of the year, he had John’s father Scott, accept the award for him in Pittsburgh.
He get to share that honor with four other managers’ who have come one vote shy of perfection. He even gets to share the honor with a personal member of his staff, Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer, who in 1989 while managing the Chicago Cubs came up short while winning the award.
After that walk, Maddon replaced Balfour with reliever Dan Wheeler who got the last out to preserve the win for the Rays. The only other time it has happened in baseball history was on May 23, 1901 when Clark Griffin, then a player/manager for the Chicago White Sox intentionally walked future Hall of Fame member Nap Lajoie with no outs in the ninth inning with a 11-7 lead.
Some people forget he is only starting his fourth season with the club in 2009, and already has the most victories of any manager in Rays history. He passed Rays Inaugural manager Larry Rothchild on August 23,2008 with his 206th win in a game against the Chicago White Sox.
People forget he has had a taste of being a major league manager before he got his first full-time stint in the dugout in Tampa Bay. He first got a taste if it in 1998, when the Los Angeles Angels Manager Terry Collins got an 8-game suspension following a bench clearing brawl in Kansas City. He got an additional turn at the skipper post when Collins resigned on September 3, 1999 and he led the team the rest of the season to a 19-10 record.
But the most unique moment might have been when Maddon was called upon to replace John McNamara in 1996, who was replacing Rene Lachmann who resigned that August as skipper. McNamara had developed a deep vein thrombosis( blood clot) in his right calf. Maddon took the helm for 22 games, finishing with a 8-14 record.
Maddon did get another set of circumstances during his tenure as a Angels Bench Coach when current Angels Manager Mike Scioscia had to leave the team for a short period of time. Maddon lead the Angels to a 33-26 record during his stint with the squad.
As for his biking hobby, he is a very dedicated biker who puts in 60-100 miles every week. An unknown fact about Maddon in his youth is that he was recruited as a shortstop and pitcher for Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He switched positions voluntarily to catcher midway through his freshman year. At Lafayette, he majored in economics and he will also receive an honorary degree this summer from his old Alma Mater.
It will be his second All-Star game. He previously got to attend when Sciocsia was the 2003 AL Manager. Maddon is expected to select two coaches from among the AL Managers, and then bring six of his own coaches, along with Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi to round out his 2009 All-Star coaching staff.
Maddon has only been in Tampa Bay for a short time, but the teams and its fans have united around him to show support for his new ways of thinking about the sport of baseball. Along with the fan base uniting to support the manager with the formulation of the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group three seasons ago.
From speaking engagements to small snippets of chats with fans and media members the Tampa Bay community has gotten to know Maddon deeper and closer than he ever imagined. With the 2008 success and the renewed interest in the team during their recent seven game winning streak, the Rays might be the team to watch in the second half of the season.
Everyone around the game of baseball are starting to realize that the Tampa Bay Rays, who are nursing a 6-game winning streak might be starting hit on all cylinders right now at the right time to make some noise and cruise towards the top of the American League East division. But there is one problem right now with that idea. While the Rays have been one of the best clubs since April 30th (35-21) the division leading Boston Red Sox have also kept pace by going 33-22 during that same span.
And the Rays have not even hit that cursed point from their 2008 season where they lost 7-straight before the All-Star break. That anniversary will not take place until July 7-13th when the Rays began their losing streak with a home stand ending loss to Kansas City and mushroomed into a debacle in Progressive Field in Cleveland where they were beaten in four games by a combined score of 26-6. Even with their late push towards the top of the division, the Rays are still 4 victories short of their 2008 pace, but it is expected that they can pick up that slack during that July 7-13th week.
In that seven day span they will play play a 6-game home series this season against AL East foe Toronto and three against the Oakland A’s before the All-Star break. You can expect the Rays to not have another 7-game fall like 2008 in this series with the Rays also having their annual “Throw Back” night on July 11th against the A’s. On that night, recording artist Smashmouth will also perform during the Rays Saturday Night Concert Series where the team is currently boasting a 11-0 record during concerts. So that bodes well for the team going into the All-Star break with some positive energy to contend the rest of the way in 2009.
But what has been the answer here in 2009? Has the Rays really gotten that better even with some late bloomers not getting into their hitting rhythms until June. Three Rays players have finally found their mojo and have started to produce and show the promise we all knew they had coming into 2009. Some people have speculated that a few of the Rays players might have had outside motives or distractions that have prevented them from achieving great numbers before the month of June. We all know that Pat Burrell was fighting a neck stiffness situation that landed him on the disabled list and even made him take at least two cortisone shots to ease some of the muscle pain at times.
But Burrell did finally come back feeling better and began to show the type of ball player the team was forking out $ 8 million for in 2008. Burrell has gone 7 for 39 with 2 HR, 6 RBI, 8 walks in 15 games since returning from the DL. The Rays did miss his presence in the line-up for those 29 games, and on last Wednesday night he broke a 104 at-bat and 33 games without a home run streak with a nice shot against his former club, Philadelphia during the InterLeague series at Tropicana Field.
Most people have voiced the opinion for the Rays to be a force again in the AL East, Burrell has to be the usually consistent 30 homer 100 RBI machine he has been for the Phillies for the last several years. Gabe Kapler also came to the team with high hopes of posting good numbers as a platoon member in rightfield with Gabe Gross. Before the month of June, Kapler looked more like a shadow of his former self, and some have said that when his family finally arrived in Tampa Bay, he then began to again have total focus towards hitting.
This might be a bit far fetched, but it might have a bit of merit to it too. Kapler has been seen during the last two Rays concerts visually smiling and having a great dad-daughter(s) moment on the turf of the Trop. during the event. He even was escorted up to the front stage area by Rays Security for the Pat Benatar concert and you can be sure that was a special moment for him and his girls. But I can tell you as a father that when you have a secure feeling and know your family is safe, you do have a different view on life. Maybe the girls, including his wife are just his “Good Luck” charms, and if they are, maybe we might want to trade him before school starts again in the Fall.
Seriously though, Kapler in his last 10 appearances has gone 12 for 23 with 4 HR, 14 RBI and has scored 6 runs for the Rays. And going up against left-handed pitchers the righty is hitting .324 this season and has hit a stellar .444 during the month of June. But the amazing part might be his strong InterLeague hitting this year for the Rays as he went .500 for the InterLeague series to pace all major leaguers. He also lead all major leaguers in OPS (.586) and Slugging Percentage ( 1.227) to go along with his 3 homers and 14 RBI during the InterLeague schedule.
But Kapler has been more than just red hot in June. In his last 24 plate appearance he has gone 12 for 20 (.600) with 10 Extra Base hits and a 1.550 Slugging Percentage. During that span he also became only the third Rays player to home in over 4 consecutive games joining Julio Lugo (4) and Jose Canseco (5). And Kapler is riding a 5-game hitting streak right now. So maybe his girls have a great effect on Dad, and if they are truly the reason for his surge, maybe looking into a local school here in Tampa Bay might be a great idea for the Kapler klan in the Fall.
The last of our late bloomers is a guy I always thought just needed some time to adjust and find his stride this season. After having off season shoulder surgery and getting a very late start at Spring Training, I always felt that B J Upton might not blossom or even begin to gel until the end of May. In the first home series this season against the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox from April 13-19th, he had only a .217 average with 9 strikeouts and 4 runs scored in the two series. He did not look like the same guy who lite up the night during the 2008 American League Championship Series by hitting .321 with 4 HR and 11 RBI.
But in the last 35 games he has gone .319 to raise his average from a paltry .177 he set in his first 34 games of 2009. During that time he garnered a AL Player of the Week honor. And he was simply magical during the InterLeague schedule this year hitting for a .364 average with 3HR,15 RBI and 11 stolen bas
es. His stolen base mark lead all MLB players, and he ranked second in total hits (28). Upton has hit safely in 13 of his last 16 games boosting his average to his current .248 mark. He also has 12 stolen bases in his last 18 games, and his 29 stolen bases is ranked third in the American League behind teammate Carl Crawford (40) and Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury (31).
Upton is finding his stride at the right time at the top of the order for the Rays. Combined with the speedy Crawford, they have posted over 69 steals so far in 2009. And Upton’s home run on Sunday capped the cheery on top as the Rays can boast to have the quickest march to 100 HR and 100 SB before the All-Star break in their 77th game. The shattered the previous record of the 1995 Cincinnati Reds who did it in their 80th game. At their current pace, the Rays are on course for 210 HR and 248 SB, which would be only the second time a team has hit that mark in MLB history.
With these three players beginning to hit their peaks in 2009, the Rays can count on more runs and scoring chances the rest of the season. With already consistent years from Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena, the team is beginning to get their engines churning for a post All-Star run at both the team’s second over .500 season and another playoff push. The Rays have a huge bit of momentum right now coming into the All-Star break, but they need to take that time to recharge and refocus their energies on the fact they will play their AL East foes in 46 of their final 84 games of the season starting tonight.
It might seem as a huge goal to have to play 46 games against the likes of Boston ( 8 games), New York ( 10 games), Toronto ( 17 games) and Baltimore (11 games) before the season ends. But most amazing is the fact that in the entire month of September to October 4th, all but 8 games will be against the AL East teams (23 games). A 2-game series against the Seattle Mariners at home,3-game road series against the Texas Rangers and another 3-game home series against the Detroit Tigers are the only non-AL East contests in that entire month to end the regular season.
So it is not only time to begin the quest for their second playoff spot, but also the time to begin the rise to the top to try and stake their claim to a second straight A L East crown. The road is going to be long and hard right after the All-Star break, and the Rays are going to need some help from their other divisional teams to pull off another championship. During that same month of September, the Red Sox play only 17 games against divisional foes. The Rays might need some added help from the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Angels who play a combined 10 games against them that month.
With the Yankees currently only 1.5 games ahead of them the Rays have set their sights for the second spot in the division. This is not meaning that the Yankees will not just let the Rays have the division, but they also know that the hard charging Rays might just be the team between them and getting back to the playoffs in 2009. The Yankees also play 21 of their final 31 games inside their division, which includes a day/night doubleheader against the Rays on Labor Day, September 7, 2009.
Today I am thinking a million things and my mind is running a mile a minute. Every once in a while it seems like there is so much going on that I can not even think of getting even 50 percent of it out to people since my little Acer net book went down in a pile of flaming programming errors. That is right, my new little toy decided it did not want to be in the media world and committed cyber-suicide by shutting down the operating system and playing dead for me.
I was lucky enough to have this happen within the 90-day warranty time and they are in the waiting process of sending me a spanking new unit that they have check out prior to them sending it to me. Put that little adventure along with my room mate now getting into blog talk radio and I have limited time on my own home computer. Imagine that, I have to schedule time on my own computer now. Guess living in the laundry room no longer has its perks. lol
Seriously, I get most of the day and some night time hours that I squeeze in by force, not by kindness. But it could be worse, could still have that refrigerator box on the three skateboards moving the box to different locales every third night for ambiance. So let’s get to some Tampa Bay Rays news that the local media might not know, or want to tell you right now.
Fly Like an Eagle
I have to admit, the idea was amazing the pageantry of the event was spectacular and even the first glimpse of that majestic bird leaving the arm of the cute handler was a sight to be seen. It brought a great wave of positive emotions while I stood there during the National Anthem and watched that beautiful creature do several laps around the Rays outfield before finally deciding to rest.
The birds motions while flying around the outfield were so fluid and amazing to me. I have seen eagles fly in the wild while staying in Washington state with relative for the summers, but watching one in your favorite ballpark was truly a memory for the ages.
But the place this majestic bird decided to roost for about an inning was not the planned ending spot for the event. The bird, maybe by divine intervention, or maybe just for a bird’s eye view decided to finally come to rest on the letter “S” in Rays that is painted on the slanted roof of the Batter’s Eye Restaurant in Tropicana Field. We know it was not a planned event because of the sheer facial expression on the trainers face as she stood in the middle of the Rays outfield looking up that the bald eagle sitting boldly and triumphantly on the roof.
Of course they did finally get him to move towards the trainer up on the roof, but not after a good 10 minutes of him just sitting there checking out the crowd like the proud symbol he represents. It was only by accident that he picked that spot on the roof, but it made for a classic Rays moment, and hopefully an good luck omen for the team the rest of the season. I hope we can again see this awesome bird fly at Tropicana Field and you too can see the effortless flight and beauty up close of this great bird.
C C Does it Again
The have been tons of amazing feats and plays by Carl Crawford in his Rays career. The guy has been a huge part of this franchise since he first came up from the minors in 2002. It is hard to imagine this Rays team without him on their roster. But among all the spectacular events and game play during Saturday nights game was lost some huge moments for Carl Crawford as a Rays player.
Crawford on Saturday night played in his 1,000th Rays game, and according to the Elias Bureau, the Rays are the last of the 30 current MLB clubs to reach that 1,000 game plateau in their careers. During that time, Crawford has amassed 87 triples and 341 stolen bases for the Rays.
What is more amazing is that he is the only player aside from Ty Cobb who has amassed as many triples and stolen bases through his first 1,000 games. Crawford is already the Rays All-Time leader in a multitude of categories like triples, stolen bases, hits, RBI, runs and at-bats. With his next double, he will also take over the current doubles title currently held by former Ray Aubrey Huff at 172 doubles.
Crawford is also one stolen base shy of his 6th season of 40+ steals in a year. What is truly amazing is that his 39 current steals are the most by Crawford before the All-Star break. And right now he is ahead of his career high when he stole 59 bases in 2004.
Every team in the major league baseball knows of the traditions of the noise that can rock Tropicana Field during Rays home games. The traditions of the cowbells and that the Trop’s roof become a orange beacon that can be seen from the Howard Franklin bridge in the horizon as you come back into Pinellas county from Tampa on winning nights. But how many fans have noticed that the team since May 15th have gone 19-5 for a .792 winning percentage.
And we have only had two concert series where we are currently 11-0 when the crowd swells to over 30,000. So it was no surprise to most of the Rays faithful when we set down the Florida Marlins on Sat. night before the Lady of Rock and Roll, Pat Benatar took the stage to celebrate the win with us.
So here we are with a current 4-1 record during the home stand with one game to play against the Marlins in the Citrus Series. With the yearly bragging rights already secured by the Rays in the Citrus series, it is the Rays fifth Citrus series win in the last eight seasons, including back-to-back series triumphs since last season.
Also included in all this great karma is the fact the Rays have won seven out of the last nine at home against the Marlins. They will look to Sunday’s game for a chance to take three of the last four series at home against the South Florida based Marlins. But what is even more amazing is the fact that during the 2009 InterLeague schedule, the Rays are currently 12-5 in mixed league play and will go for their 13th win tomorrow.
Their 12-5 record is currently tied for the third best record in the MLB this season. The best InterLeague win total for the Rays was 15 victories set in 2004. They are currently averaging 6.4 runs per game, and are hitting over .300 as a team, both marks are the best in the MLB this season. Also based on winning percentages, Rays Manager Joe Maddon has the third best winning percentage in InterLeague play right now with a 42-29 record for a .592 winning percentage.
Paul J Berewill / AP
I do not envy Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman or Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s job this weekend. They will have to brainstorm and continue to formulate a plan to set two people either on a plane to the minor leagues, or find another alternative for one before the team gets on the plane to head to Toronto at the beginning of the week. One player ( Winston Abreu) probably already knows his days are numbered and is just going to enjoy what time he has left before he is heading back to Triple-A this season.
But the second player that will needed to be plucked from the rotation and either sent down to the minors, traded, or maybe even relegated to the Bullpen might be the toughest decision for the Rays this season. And I do not envy those two men at all for the deepest cut this year for the team. We all know that Rays starter Scott Kazmir is rumored to be starting one of the games this weekend, and with that becoming a reality, it means one of the two other starters this weekend either Jeff Neimann or David Price might be sitting on the hot seat.
But then again, did Andy Sonnanstine do enough to even secure his job last night. We all know he got roughed up in the first inning then completely solidified and became the starter we needed last night. Sonnanstine has the mental ability to start in the league without question. The only problem is that now we have a three headed monster to contend with here, and which head is the one to be chopped off. All three have merits to be here another day in the rotation, but someone has to give way again by Monday when the Rays have anticipated that Rays reliever Chad Bradford would be ready for duty.
That throws another gallon of gasoline in the fire because with his promotion back onto the Rays roster, one of the big three will have to give way. I want to play shadow General Manager here for a moment and try and decide, convince or maybe even throw some personal opinion into the barrel with the rest of Maddon and Friedman’s thoughts. We all know that Bradford is further along in his rehab that initially anticipated and could even be restored to the roster by the weekend.
But my logical, or maybe biased view might be to use the obvious choice of sending down Abreu today or tomorrow to make that first roster space ready for Kazmir if he indeed is given a start this weekend in place of Price or Niemann. And with that happening, just move the current rotation down 1 to keep a rightie( Shields), leftie( Kazmir), rightie (Garza), leftie (Price), rightie (Niemann) match-up. Okay you are quickly noticing my second part of the rotation here with the absence of a name.
I am over a barrel here because I love the spunk of Sonnanstine and actually think he is turning the corner. His mental make-up is the thing I wish both Niemann and Price have right now. That is what makes this more of a toss-up than a sure thing. I can make excuses for either Sonnanstine or Price going down, but in reality, if we send down Price right now we might send the wrong message to him too. As I have mentioned before, in 2003 when Kazmir first made his Rays debut, he went 2-3 and showed impressive results in strikeouts and movement on his pitches, but you knew 2004 was going to be his year.
Price has been basically anointed by the media to be a darling since his playoff heroics of 2008, but that doesn’t give you the leg up to assume or take a roster spot in the major leagues. He did need that additional seasoning in the minors, and maybe it might not have been the right time to bring him up, but it is history now and if you send him back it might put him behind in his development. For some reason now I am of the mindset that for him to go back to Durham would revert his development a bit.
Kazmir and James Shields had to learn to adjust at this level and turned out fine for the Rays. Matt Garza took huge steps in 2008 to prove he was a top tier pitcher in the league. That Texas tussle might have actually been the best moment of his career because it got him to see a problem outside of just pitching that was taking his mind off the business on the mound. Heck, even if Price got lite up a bit on Tuesday night in that first inning the fact he threw 30 strikes on 40 pitches in itself is pretty amazing.
So here is the rub. You got three guys who deserve the spots, but only two slots to fill. How do you decide who is the odd man out?
1st contender…………….Jeff Niemann
You got a former First Round draft pick that you have invested both time and money into who is finally coming into his own on the mound after only 16 career starts. He is currently tied with James Shields for the team lead in wins with 6, and is second among American League rookie pitcher this season in wins.
Not only that, he has matured and developed quickly since his first start of the season where he got shell shocked by the Baltimore Orioles and his six victories puts him 4 behind Rolando Arrojo’s current Rays rookie record. The team has won 8 of his last 9 starts and are 10-4 overall when he has taken the mound in 2009. This statistic is the best among the five starters on the Rays staff this season.
He is getting 8.17 runs per 9 innings, the second best support in the AL after Boston’s Tim Wakefield. The Rays have scored 40 runs in his last 4 starts and have scored 8 runs or more in 10 of his 14 starts. He has not allowed a home run in 26.1 innings or since May 23rd at Florida (Uggla). Niemann also has the only complete game shutout by a rookie pitcher this season in the majors. He threw only 100 pitches in that shut out, with between 9-14 pitches each inning of that contest.
The one really bad side to maybe even considering taking Niemann out of the rotation might be the effect it would have on his starting ability in the rest of the season. Being a major league reliever is a different mindset since you have to be ready every day to pitch. That is a totally different mental preparation for a game than studying two days in advance of your next start to get totally invested in the opposition’s hitting patterns. Relievers tend to learn on the fly at times, which might stunt his growth as a starter.
2nd Contender……………….Andy Sonnanstine.
I have to say I re
ally like the way he handled that adversity last night, but for some reason it did feel like more of the same from him this season. He has gotten in deep dodo before in 2009 and fought log and hard to resurface with confidence and a renewed vigor to pitch, and I respect that in him. But the reality is that even though he is now tied with Neimann and Shields with six wins,he has had to endure more stress and rocky starts than the other two starters.
But he is a sure thing at home this season, I will give him that. In 2009 he is 5-0 in six home starts this season. Compare that to his road record and he is night and day this season. On the road he is 1-7 with a 8.22 ERA. But on top of some of those great home numbers is a few statistics that might frighten the daylights out of you. He had allowed a home run in 8 straight starts before he blanked the Philadelphia Phillies last night. During that span he has allowed 14 dingers. But that is not the only warning signal to boast a red flag for Sonnanstine.
His 6.61 ERA is the highest among major league qualifying starting pitchers this season. He currently leads the American League in runs allowed with 60 runs, and .307 Opponents Batting Average is second in the AL. But a big plus on his side to maybe stay until at least Monday is the fact he gives Maddon another left-handed bat on the bench for the Inter League series. He has been impressive with his hitting in 2009, and has proven to be a bona fide hitter for the Rays.
But even if the plus and minus side match up, he is also eligible to be sent down to the minors without having to be placed on waivers at all. He still has two minor league options that the Rays can use with him. I am not pre-determining anything here, but that fact along with the red flags on homers and Opponents Batting Average might be a determining factor in the future decision.
3rd Contender……………David Price.
Here is where it gets really interesting. If you send down the Rookie do you send the right message to him that his time is coming and that this is just a postponement of his major league education? As I have stated before, I think he was not ready to come up right after Kazmir went on the disabled list. But he has gotten the same kind of training Kazmir got in 2003 when he went 2-3 and got thrown into the Rays rotation. Maybe this experience taught him something and if he did go back down a fire would be burning in his belly to get back up here as soon as possible.
But the reality is that the guy is here now and he could learn just as well up here as in Durham now. And the added fact of a second leftie in your starting rotation is nothing to sneeze at in the major leagues. But he is also a work in progress up here right now getting hit around at times, but always acting like a rubber band and pulling himself back into shape to adjust and get his game back into order. And that has not gone unnoticed in the stands either.
Let’s look at his stats before the Tuesdays game to get a better look at what he has done so far in the majors. Before that game he had made a total of 7 career starts for the Rays. If he had enough innings to qualify, he would be second in ERA and third in Opponents Batting Average for rookies in the AL this season. He has also allowed two earned runs or less in 4 out of his 5 starts this season. He is the guy with the least amount of innings this season, but might have the biggest up-side to remaining with the team past this weekend.
I am not going to beat around the bush here and throw more stats out about Price. We all know he has star potential and can be a huge cog in the Rays future. But the biggest thing that needs to be addressed is the simple fact he can also still be sent down without any cause for alarm. I think he is the most unlikely of the three right now to be optioned back to Durham, but this team has surprised me before with logical-illogical thinking.
Basically it is going to be a huge decision whoever the Rays decide to swap out of the rotation for Kazmir and Bradford’s returns. The most logical and practical options is to send Abreu down first, then make the needed arrangements or even a trade to make the second decision a no-brainer for the team. Niemann looks to be safe for a roster spot right now. That is not to mean he might be popped into the Bullpen like during the 2008 playoffs, but I think that might be a premature thing to do with the tall Texan.
Also I am thinking more and more that Price might have done all he can do down in Durham and learning on the fly up here might be his best option now. But a short turn back in Durham also working more on that change-up and learning a bit more on the constantly moving major league strike zone might also be in order. There is a 50-50 split on if he goes back to the Triple-A Bulls. But in the end, my head tells me he is here for the rest of the year baring injury or a major meltdown.
That leaves us with Sonnanstine. He has posted some of the biggest wins in the last two years for the team, but he has fallen down a notch or two in control and consistency. But as we all know Cleveland’s Cliff Lee is not the most consistent pitcher overall, but has gotten the wins when needed in his career. And Sonnanstine mirrors him in this respect. Sonny knows what needs to be done and will strive to do it at all costs, but is his clock winding down with the Rays.
Of the three pitchers mentioned in this blog, he is the one who might even garner the most attention on the trade front. We all know that the San Diego Padres are anxious to find more starting pitching, but could Sonnanstine be the right fit for that squad. Before the season a few teams were linked to Sonnanstine. Could any of these teams still be interested in the righthander?
The Rays might still keep him for pitching depth and send him to the minors or even put him in the Bullpen. But the stark reality is that he could go down and redefine himself at Durham and come up blazing and ready to reclaim a rotation spot. Nothing make a pitcher hungrier than knowing they can still produce at this level and being optioned down to the minors. But Sonny has done it before. He has gone from an unknown to a 14-game winner last season. I really do not envy those two men in the Ray clubhouse for this series of decisions. But even if they have to play a aggressive rendition of “Rock,Paper. Scissors” this will be done this weekend. Hopefully they can come to a consensus before the Wine Pong game comes out.
I am besides myself right now. I do not know what to do. I mean I have seen a sea of blue seats in the Trop. before and it has not even bothered me in the least. But for some reason I am hearing the theme from “Jaws” in the back of my mind during this personally anticipated World Series rematch with the Philadelphia Phillies. I wanted to folks here in the Tampa Bay area to show the Phillies if we got back here for game 6 or 7, it was going to be a different story, just like the American League Championship series.
I wanted to see and hear the Rays Republic loud and proud and show the civic pride and reason we have a MLB team here in the first place. I really thought we could send a personal message to the Baseball Gods and show them that 12 years ago when we first threw that ball on March 31, 1998, they made a great decision to expand to Tampa Bay. But the crowds that last two nights combined do not even meet the old attendance figures for a World Series rematch. But I guess the added bonus of Rays Bingo and Rays Fantasy Baseball do not have the power of Dora the Explorer.
Yes, I went there. I mentioned the big-headed one, and only because she helped our Triple-A partner the Durham Bulls recently set both single game and 3-game series attendance records during their series against the Pawtucket Red Sox. It beckons me to a comment made by a member of the Rays Experience staff after the first concert series in 2009 when he joked that we should have 81 concerts a year to get a better home record.
But in reality, without seeming a bit cynical and tainted, if the team playing us do not have accents, we tend to not come here without eye candy on stage. The Rays have been undefeated during their concert series games. And to even throw another firecracker into the fire, they have gotten at least 30,000+ for everyone of those events. Besides the Red Sox and Yankees series, it seems that only during the last home stand of the year (Fandemonium) and the Opening Day do we ever have a chance at filling the Upper Deck and the TBT Deck with regularity.
And that is a pity. People, you told the team via numerous polls that if they put a winning product on the field you would support the Rays. Well single game attendance ( announced) has been increased this season, but only on the special events days or days that scores of local Little League teams are dragging their parents to the Trop have wee seen the noise and the crowds in 2009. It is not like we play in the American League West and do not have local supporters here of the Phillies.
They do their Spring Training not even 3 miles from my house and their local class-A team seems to get more people for their after the game fireworks demonstrations than we do for an Oakland Athletics game. People we have to again remember that this baseball game is a business. We would love to know we have an owner that is supporting the team as a hobby like owning his own set of “live” Topps baseball cards, but he is a businessman who has a passion for baseball.
And to even give any indication of indifference is to send the wrong message to the ownership group. I know we live in Florida where there is a huge gambit of entertainment choices during the weekends, but this is during the week and at night. I can understand if a family of four wants to head out on the boat to Fort De Soto and spend the day cruising and swimming and might miss a game or two. But the true fact is that on that day where you could do that, they Rays have their biggest attendance numbers.
After the first game of this important series the Rays upper management gurus sent out a feeler to see if Tampa Bay would respond, and they did. The Rays were curious on how only 19,608 people could be there for a classic World Series rematch at home. You know if this game was held at Citizen’s Bank Park, it would have scalpers outside with dollar bills falling out of their pockets for even Upper Deck or Standing Room Only spots.
But alas, the Tampa Bay Rays community responded to the Rays management outcries and woes with a signal by even a lower attendance at 18,862 at the game on Wednesday night with a premier pitching match-up. The Rays had an anticipated mark of 24,000 for the game. Which is still way below the previous low mark for a World Series match up set by the Houston Astros when 37,700 fans showed up for a rematch game against the Chicago White Sox game in Chi-town. But the overall attendance average for the series was 46,868 for the three games.
Those comments should scare a few of us long time Rays Season Ticket holders. I is coming down to the point where the Rays officials up on the third floor are going to have to reevaluate things not just on the marketing and sales end of the equation, but on the essence of support in this community.
It was a Tuesday and Wednesday night people. We were outdrawn by game in cities that have a bevy of support problems last night. PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which is fighting for fans this season has 20,162 people enter the stadium. That puts them at 52.6 percent of their capacity with their game against the Cleveland Indians. Combined these two teams have won 62 games this season and the outdrew a World Series match-up. Pathetic.
Sorry, I have sat in my seat for 12 years and seen worse attendances in the Trop., but this one is really getting under my skin. In comparison let’s look at the Red Sox at Washington actual attendance numbers. Hmm, for a non-regional match-up they had a paltry 41.530 people in the seats. Wow, I wondering if Red Sox Nation is questioning their own road ambitions that they only helped fill 99.1 percent of Nationals Park on Wednesday night. I really do want to rant and rave here. Throw a pity party and explain the relocation rules set by MLB to the area, but I will digress.
I should not take it so personal, but this is my home team people. This is the reason I stay here and have not gone to other pastures to live and work. I have supported this team through failures, the attack of the blue-seat people and been subjected to one too many ESPN based attendance jokes and prat lines. It is almost put up or shut up time already in 2009. I truly expect that there will be more people in the stand for Friday night’s game against the Florida Marlins than in any of the three here against the Phillies and that is churning my stomach.
I was truly pissed when I learned that South Florida got a team before we did in the Expansion process, but maybe MLB did know something we did not about the area’s demographics. Maybe they did see potential, but not the end payout of placing a good team in a apathetic community. I am ashamed of you Tampa Bay. Truly ashamed of you. This was our time to show pride and community unity to other parts of the country and we dropped the ball. We truly dropped the ball and even if we got 30,000 tonight, which I doubt would happen unless we have a concert afterwards, it would still be a disaster series.
We may gone on to win a spot in the Playoff again in 2009, but I am not letting you on the Rays bandwagon without a 2007 ticket stub this time. Continued support and a renewed sense of pride is what is needed before announcements are made about stadiums and relocation options. And do not think for one second that Las Vegas, Charlotte, or even Portland is not eager and willing to mortgage their futures for a shot at the big time.
And we all know that already. Teams have been wined and dined by prospective cities for years, with none of them even setting the table for a move. Years ago when contraction rumors ran among the cord at the Trop. I was basically viewed as a non brainer we were safe and secure. But right now the only security I truly feel right now is that for the next 41 games I will have my nameplate on my seat. I know things do not move that fast in the MLB, but with money and potential, things can get greased and rolling faster than you think.
So think Tampa Bay real hard for the next 41 games. Think what you want to do with your sumer night and weekends without a professional team in town. And do not think they will move it to Tampa or even Brandon if they can not get attendance here. The region is being tested not just the Pinellas county and St. Petersburg region. If the 5-county area can not show support, why would they even consider an alternative site in the same region.
They say a fool and his money are soon parted. Well, people the guys in the suits in the front office did not make their money being fools, and they are masters at risk management. There is a fine line between profits and community ties. Both have merits that equal each other, and both have pitfalls that can make each a unsound business investment. Right now the Rays are showing a break-even or loss potential based on the atendance, but we can change the demographics and the charts will again show an upward trend.
I know I have rambled on and on here today, but it is for a good reason. My heart and soul is invested in this team. I have been here from even the first $ 20 dollar deposit for Season Tickets to the 7-1 victory last night. I have seen a comedy of errors on the field that resembled more Ringling Brothers than baseball.
But then again I got to hug and share a taste of that sweet playoff champagne with players and fans last September too. Highs and lows, ins and outs. This is not the Hokey Pokey people, but attendance and support for this team is what it is all about ( throw your hands up).
Chris O’Meara / AP
I found it kind of funny last night. The way some of the Rays fans in the crowd at Tropicana Field began to slowly turn against David Price. It was odd the way they were beginning to cross that hypocritical line that you invade when you think you might have duped by someone or something. They were in that zone I like to call, the See-Saw Zone. And it is not like have never been that way before here in sunny Florida. As fans of a team that has only celebrated one winning season, we can be totally critcial of anything at anytime within the sport.
We have done it before to all of our local favorite teams, the Tampa Bay Bucs have gotten it ever since they stopped making the playoffs. And the one year absence of hockey in Tampa Bay made a huge legion of fans forget about the Lightning on the ice even if they did win the top prize,the Stanley Cup before the strike put them on the shelf for a season. And now it seems that the Tampa Bay Rays fan are starting to do it to the best pitching prospect to come through our minor league system. The catcalls in Rightfield after the third inning irritated me to the bone. People seem to have ADD anymore about the positive accomplishments of any athlete, much less one of their own.
Another adage I sometimes use to show this kind of behavior is the old Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me Lately?”. It is actually that sense of entitlement and self ownership that the crowd gets to show their pleasure and displeasure at their own discretion towards a bevy of things Rays related. So did it bother me that people began to actually say David Price’s name out loud that maybe we plucked the cherry tree too soon and he was not ripe. Nope.
Did it bother me that they are now questioning their own sense of baseball as self-taught scouts. Who knows if they are right or wrong about the southpaw that seemed to hold the franchise together last season at key moments. He did not start a game, but his presence on the mound in the end of the game left an impression of superiority to the masses. But what really got my goat is the inflated expectations by the Rays that they threw upon this young pitcher the moment his name was chatted on the radio or typed into a computer. The kid pitched a combined 12-1 in the Rays Minor League system in 2008. But all some of the Rays fans remember is a short stint in the Bullpen where he looked like the second coming of fellow southpaw Scott Kazmir to the team.
People forgot the reality that he jumped from Class-A to the bench in the major leagues in less than a full season. That is usually not the case with a young pitcher you are counting on for your future. MLB Scouts commonly say that you never really get a true evaluation and potential of a young pitcher until he has thrown about 200 innings. Well, if you combine his 2008 totals (109.2 innings), plus his Rays 2008 totals (14 innings) you still do not get a good 200 innings out of the guy as a young professional pitcher. And in that scenario, you have to admit to yourself he will be a work in progress at the major league level.
Sure he as the explosive stuff on the mound and the awesome ability to pitch above his head at times, but he is also trying to parlay a new pitch (change-up) into his arsenal that needs time to mature and develop fully to be effective. So far in 2009, with his number from Durham ( 34.1 innings) and the Rays ( 30.1 ) he is still 26 innings short of that basic measuring point in his development ( 174 innings). And is one of the key elements that bothered me when they first brought him up this season. Sure his placement and velocity of his slider and his fastball might be above average, but his change-up is a work in progress and is improving daily. But such a pitch can be used as a glaring weak spot for teams to be patient and sit on pitches waiting on Price to throw them early in the game.
And that might be a perfect explanation of what happened last night when the crowd and the Philadelphia Phillies dissected him like a frog in Biology class. They basically poked and prodded the young pitcher fouling off his fastball and slider and were giddy when he finally offered up his breaking stuff. The Phillies 6 runs and 4 hits along with a costly error by Evan Longoria was the example of in-depth scouting and having the Phillies hitter wait for Price to make a pitching mistake.
And he did make a few in the first inning, but it was not all his doing. Even thought the team behind him was in an odd defensive funk, he did finally get it all under control after the first inning before again stumbling in the fourth inning. And when the Phillies again took him apart for 4 runs. That is when I started to hear the voices behind me question if we brought him up too early ,or if he was over-rated as a pitcher. These were the same souls who cheered his first win, and also shouted encouragement to him as he was warming up by the Bullpen this same night.
Have we all gotten that fickle now in Tampa Bay by one short season of Price showing he has the right stuff. There is going to be ups and down with Price this year just as we have seen with Jeff Niemann. And people really do have to be a bit patient with both of them. Price is starting to figure it out at this level, but some people in the stands want instant gratification and do not have the precious time to wait for an improvement or knowing that better things are coming for the Rays starters.
But I think Price so far has been given the same luxuries that Scott Kazmir was given in 2004 when the Rays brought him up to learn the art of pitching at the major league level. Last night was not pretty, but then again, the Rays starters this season have been as up and down as the new Manta roller coaster at Sea World in Orlando. There have been numerous twists and turns by everyone on the staff, even James Shields and Matt Garza. But this is also a series where the two teams have ample and extended scouting on all phases of the game. You to guess the Phillies have not only done their homework on the Rays, but know this is a series based on a lot of pride for the Rays. This series could turn into a defining moment in the 2009 season.
Maybe the Rays were a bit hasty when they began the Price dog-and-pony show the day he was drafted. Price has been hyped since day 1 when he first signed his contract on August 15, 2007 with quotes telling us he will be here fast and to expect him to be with the team soon than later. “We ar
e thrilled to add a player of David’s caliber to our organization,” said Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman told MLB.com. “Not only was he the most outstanding amateur player in the country this year, we see him as one of the best pitching prospects to come out of the draft in some time. In addition to his remarkable talent, David’s character is exemplary. He is an important building block and a potential upper-echelon starting pitcher for many years.” Can you say pressure cooker on high heat!
But then Price when he was interviewed right after being selected by the Rays with the top pick in 2007 showed some of his maturity and frank honestly on the acceleration process through the Rays farm system. “The difference between Major League hitters and college hitters, there is not even a comparison,” Price said during a conference call with Bill Chastian, who is the Rays correspondent for MLB.com. “Being able to pitch in the Major Leagues, you really have to have something about you. To go from college and breeze through the Minor Leagues is a rarity. You have to be careful with that.”
Most people cheered when the Rays finally promoted pitcher David Price to the major leagues later than expected in 2009 knowing that the future of the Rays organization was right on their doorstep. I am one of those people who thought he might be the wrong guy at the wrong time. For the record, I was more into thinking Wade Davis deserved a chance to flaunt his stuff and was more developed at the time, but that is why I am not a Rays scout. I am not against Price in any way, I just feel he needed more time to gel his pitch selection and control in the minor leagues before he got thrown into the MLB melting pot.
I was hoping for a post All-Star promotion for Price to give him more time to refine his craft and also show he had done everything he could at the Triple-A level. That has been the knock on him that he is a great pitcher who throws strikes, but can be picked apart by extending at bats until a mistake crosses the plate. But that is also the tale of hundreds of young pitchers in the league. If you are patient to wait for a mistake, you will be rewarded. And that same evaluation was apparent last night. He truly got picked apart by the Phillies hitters.
It might have been easier for Rays catcher Dioner Navarro to yell out the signals because the hitters were looking for a certain type of pitch (breaking ball) every time they went to the plate, and they were patient for all 4.1 innings of Price’s night. But when he did finally come off the mound and was replaced by Rays reliever Winston Abreu, most of the crowd did not stand and cheer for him. Instead most sat on their hands beyond the eyesight of the dugout. They guy did his best that night, but the wishy-washy crowd would not have any of it. Rays fans need to understand that art of patience again, or they might accidentally ruin this young pitcher by sending the wrong message to him.
It might have been the shock and awe of Price getting beaten around like this from a team coming in with a 6-game losing streak that unsettled the crowd. But lost within the stadium was the fact the Phillies are a monster on the road with a current 24-9 mark, which is best in the MLB this season. It is not often a team has a better road record than a home record and is still over .500. Price might have been more a victim of an aggressive team hungry for a win,but the Phillies did their best impersonation of a Sharks feeding frenzy when they tore into the young pitcher time and time again in the first inning. Price did threw 40 pitches in that inning, and 30 of them went for strikes by because of the score, any effectiveness went out the window.
That proves he was hitting some of the spots that Navarro set up for him behind the plate, but the Phillies also stayed patient knowing the young southpaw would make a mistake. Rays fans had better get used to roller coaster rides by the young pitcher. t is common to have a topsy turvy time of it your first season. But for some reason it felt in the stands last night that people were looking at him throwing on the mound like the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year without even throwing 50 innings yet this season.
Scott Kazmir went through the same learning curve and has become the Rays winningest pitcher (51 wins). Kazmir also has thrown over 818 strikeouts in his 768.2 innings as a Rays starter . Jame Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine have all been battered and bruised before on the mound. But with them, the Rays faithful have given them time and space to grow into the pitching styles. Price not only deserves the same time and space, but he has proven he can win, and that he can pitch at this level. The big question is how long until they either join him or cast him off as a used relic.
It is sure to be a rough 2009 for Price, but if it was so easy, all of us might have had a professional career. The art of pitching at this level is one of the hardest things to master in sports. There are too many variables to account for on every pitch to bring about perfection or even a chance to try to achieve perfection. There is a reason we celebrate Perfect Games and No-hitter with such zeal. They are not given moments to people who settle or do not give total effort, but are classic examples of learning the craft and putting it all out there every time on the mound.
Price will be fine. He will begin to get it and become a great star in this lineup if we just give him the needed time to gel. The guy is only in his rookie year and people were calling for the Bullpen in the first inning. What was especially upsetting was watching a young fan tear up a sign with Price’s name on it in the sixth inning. He looked frustrated and upset his guy did not get it done tonight. But also adding to the problem was his parents bickering and complaining about Price. It was not the right example to show to the kid first off, but it was not right to throw Price under the bus for great scouting and preparation.
Price might still get a chance to be selected for the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year that most people in the sport anointed him with in Spring Training. But even if he doesn’t the guy is giving his all and doing a job most of us would trade almost anything for to try every 5 days. I have to admit, the first inning took a lot of the air out of me last night too, but I also know that this team can do anything if they motivate themselves. Price is going to be around for a long time here in Tampa Bay. We should show more positive crowd reactions to the guy, not chant for the Bullpen after the first inning. Maybe in five days when he is again on the mound against the Florida Marlins the fans will give him the chance to again prove he is here for good.
People have always looked to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the ulitimate symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection. I mean the guy has the endorsement looks, the slick glove and a energized bat that always seems to hum at, or above the .300 clip every single season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.”
And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the name recognition that even part-time fans notice. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted All-Star spot?
I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game in St Louis. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more fufutre All-Star selections in the future.
When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins, they knew what he could do on the field with a glove against a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player as maybe the hidden gem of that trade, and wanted him to be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their Rays defense. He was going to be that energy cell, or extreme excitement they needed to shore up a ever improving defense that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot.
That is the mark of a truly great up-and-coming professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team. And they did bond into a unit that could convert the pivot on a double play with great percision, and was always in position to take a Dioner Navarro throw on a steal attempt. He made Navarro’s catching efficiency number go sky high with great tags and positioning.
His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the cold hard facts and the defensive upgrades and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you could see the game flowed through the 6-hole.
After the Rays were defeated in the 2008 World Series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
Steve Nesius / AP
He started the season pretty much under the radar as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during the season. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of May that skyrocketed him to a lofty .373 mark. That mark was leading the Major Leagues in hitting at the time. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.
But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. He is beginning to hit the ball for power, which was a component absent from his hitting earlier in his career. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.
But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs.
So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from his second spot currently behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter.
So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2008, what do you think?
He has appeared in 50 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 23 double plays. Bartlett has put the ball in play 210 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors. His .981 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now. In close comparison, Jeter has 248 total chances and 3 errors and 32 double plays for a .988 Fielding Average.
Reinhold Matay / AP
So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League? I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league without question. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is showing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.
The only killer to this right now is his ankle injury he suffered during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins in game. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle.
But with him out of the lineup, you saw a completely different feel to the Rays defense. It didn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and afraid to make errors and seems a bit timid compared to when Bartlett played in the field. The Rays missed its field general, the guy who always pumped up the infielders and makes the defensive calls for the infield.
And even since he has come back off of the shelf after that ankle injury, he hit the ground running as currently has a 16-game hitting streak, second only to the Cub’s Derrick Lee’s 17-game streak earlier in the season. And if you want to talk average, his current .373 batting avaerage is the highest by a shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra’s .391 mark with Boston in 2000.
He missed a total of 19 games for the Rays during his left ankle sprain, and his presence was surely missed in the lineup and on the field for the Rays. He has hit safely in all 6 games since he came back into the lineup, plus he hit safely in all three of his rehab games before coming back to the Rays. He is hitting .386 during his current streak, and he currently leads all shortstops in RBI ( 31) and stolen bases ( 14). His hitting would lead the league, but he is currently 18 appearances short of qualifying again for that top spot.
But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.
“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon said. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.” So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?
I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the American League with great flair and confidence.
Bartlett’s selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.
The more I see Rays reliever J P Howell pitching and finding success in the late innings, the more I am reminded of another young Rays closer that once threw just like Howell without blinding speed to the plate, but used his pitch selection and deception in pitch speed to make his pitches dance around the plate. And maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon has taken a page out of the Rays not so distant past and is using past reasonings to again thinking of applying an off-speed pitcher into the closer role.
It has worked before, and with great results. If you have been a Rays fan for some time you might remember Rays reliever Lance Carter and his off-speed arsenal that propelled him to his only All-Star appearance in 2003 when he had 15 saves at the All-Star Break. He did not get to play in that All-Star game at US Cellular Field in the south side of Chicago, but you can bet that experience changed him. Maybe Maddon in all his cerebral wisdom is again coming to the understanding that control and not a 95+ fastball might be the answer right now for the Rays.
It is not like the Rays have a reliever right now thrusting himself to the forefront to take the 9th inning reins and lead the club to wins. When Carter was the Rays closer in 2003, he went 7-5, with a 4.33 ERA. The ERA is kind of high, but the results spoke for themselves. He was involved in 51.6 percent of the Rays wins (62) that season. Even more incredible is his year end total of 25 saves in his rookie season put him in the top 5 rookie performances of all time at that moment. He made over 61 appearances in 2003, which is incredible in its own right. He converted 25 out of 32 save opportunities for the Rays that year. All by a pitcher who used his off-speed stuff to accent his high 80′s fastball.
Carter’s 25 saves shattered the Rays rookie save mark of 5 that was held by Travis Phelps set in 2001. At the time he represented the Rays in the All-Star game, he was the oldest rookies at 28 years, 6 months and 29 days to be selected to play in the classic. Carter ended up back setting up closer Danys Baez in 2004 when the Rays signed the former Cleveland Indians closer. Carter did spend another two years with the club until he was dealt along with Danys Baez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young pitcher Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany on January 14, 2006.
In comparison, J P Howell’s climb to the Bullpen came out more of a change of direction for the young pitcher after some trouble starting games for the Rays in 2006 and 2007 hen he made 18 starts for the Rays and went a combined 2-9, but did show promise in getting 82 strikeouts in 93.1 innings of work. So when the Rays came to Spring Training in 2008, his main concern was to learn th fine art of successful relieving to try and save his career. His ERA in 2007 was a high 7.59, but who would have ever thought that the young pitcher would take to relieving with such zeal and success.
In 2008, he appeared in 64 games and finished the year with a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA. He also almost threw more innings (89.1) in one season as a reliever than he had in the last two ( 93.1) for the Rays. He also began to set a consistent mark of striking out opponents with his fastball that sinks and tails and sometimes even cuts away from hitters. His fastball, just like Carter’s comes in a lot slower (84-88 mph) than his body makes it look coming out of his left hand.
Combine that with a change-up he often overthrows that is only about 5 mph slower than his fastball, but it dives quickly as it approaches the plate. And his curve ball, also like Carter’s can be the perfect out pitch because if its great last minute break. All three of his fundamental pitches tend to stay below the 90 mph range, and usually sit within the low to mid 80′s at any time. Combine that with a hard breaking and reliable 12-6 breaking curveball and both pitchers tend to look like photo negatives of each other on the mound. It is classic deception pitching at its best.
And who knows maybe Maddon has also asked Howell to view some of Carter’s old game videos to get some confidence and show the young reliever he too can have success with moderate stuff on the mound. Howell has his age as the best advantage here on Carter because he is still the youngest member of the Bullpen and is still learning the art of late inning heroics. But both men have a calm and cool exterior that tends to deflect attention and brings a calming effect on team mate when they throw, which lends itself to great success in the late innings.
But most people remember Howell as the eventual loser in the World Series Game 5 who was actually sick as a dog on the mound, but wanted the ball. And there is that second characteristic that tends to bond both of them as mirror image relievers. With the game on the line, both pitchers want the ball to give their team a chance at a win, and secure the victory. That kind of confidence or cockiness can not be taught, or even duplicated. Either you have that inside you or you do not…period.
Howell might have had a 2008 that defies most logical answers. At the time he was the only Rays reliever on the staff under 30 years old. But he quickly did not let his young age keep him off the mound for the Rays. He only got 3 saves in 2008, but in his last save of the year, he went 2.1 innings to preserve the win for the Rays. His 89.1 innings lead all MLB relievers, and his 92 strikeouts was also a MLB high for relievers in 2008. Even as he was learning the craft of relieving, he lead all MLB reliever also in only letting 11.8 percent of his inherited runners to score in the game.
And he only turned it on more for September as he owned a 0.00 ERA for the month spanning 15 innings. Howell also broke the Rays club record with his 89.1 innings previously held by Doug Creek ( 62.2 innings). Both left-handers (.188) and right-handers (.197) hit under .200 against him in 2008. Howell was developing into a severe late inning weapon for the Rays as they headed to the 2008 playoffs.
But Howell’s solid start to this year also shows that the things he learned las
t season and during the playoffs has made him better equipped for the 2009 season. Howell has become more secure and ready to take on all comers for the Rays. Sure the ex-starter might just be in his second year in the Bullpen, but Carter also found his success in his second stint in the Rays Bullpen.
Maddon might be drawing great comparisons to the two relievers and giving Howell the opportunity to show he can handle the ninth inning stress and responsibilities. So far this season Howell has been up to the test. Howell entered the 2008 season with only two prior relief appearances at Rookie-level ball at Idaho Falls in 2004. But he is turning into a polished gem for the Rays this season, posting in even better numbers than in his remarkable 2008 season.
This year Howell has appeared in 35 games, which ties him for the American League lead. He currently has a 2-2 record with 4 saves. He has thrown for 34.2 innings and has 42 strikeouts so far. His last 13 appearances have been scoreless, and he is second in the AL in strikeouts.
But the biggest confidence to his year might be the time he spent in the Team USA Bullpen during the World Baseball Classic this spring. In the WBC, he appeared 3 times for Team USA and held opponents scoreless. He did not figure into the last innings for any of those appearances, but got great advice and training playing along side some of the best closers in the game.
One downside to Howell is his five blown saves so far in 2009. But that is some of the learning curve that he will have to endure if he wants to make the transition into the late inning guy for the Rays. But just like Carter, Howell is still throwing his style of game and not adjusting or tinkering with his pitches so far this year. His 4 saves already this year is only second only to Troy Percival.
Maybe this “blast from the past” is exactly what the Rays need right now to again gain their 2008 edge. Reverting to a time where the closer threw slower and with control compared to the starting pitchers might be a godsend to Howell in his quest to gain the spot. But you know he has a great believer in his corner in his manager. Maddon is probably one of the biggest Howell supporters, an it just might get him another honor in the next few weeks.
Even if Howell is not determined to be the answer as a Rays closer, the job he has done in the past ans so far this season puts him in a small group of relievers in Rays history. In the end, the guy who could have his pitches timed by a hourglass might be the best solution to the Rays closing problem this season. And who knows, maybe he just might evolve into the perfect guy for the job with his “on-the-job” training this season.
How can you not think of this clip when the notion of Father’s Day comes up every year in baseball. It is one of the classic baseball movies of all time, and this scene in particular makes it all worthwhile to watch again and again every year. How many of us, as young boys got that same opportunity with our fathers to enjoy a simple game of catch on a cool spring night, or a balmy summers eve. It was a basic bonding moment that was forever etched in your mind and memories for all the right reasons.
It is one of the most cherished moment of my younger life. My father was a boxer in the Navy before and during World War II. He also dabbled playing semi-professional baseball with my uncle Johnny, who did get to play a bit with the New York Giants in their Philadelphia neighborhood before my father joined the Merchant Marines in 1941, right before the United States involvement in the world conflict.
He always loved the game of baseball and settled in St. Petersburg, Florida after the war just for the purpose of raising a family and watching summer minor league baseball in the warm balmy Southern nights under the swaying palm trees. That same love for the game was instilled in my blood early in life as each Christmas and birthday baseball goods were the first thing I usually opened either at the table or under the tree.
I had the same bug he had, I loved baseball with a such a forgiving passion, my glove slept right next to me on the bedpost every night. I was always playing some sort of sandlot baseball before dinner on the vacant lot right next to our house on Central Avenue. And you could always see me at the mini golf batting cages in South Pasadena across from the hospital from the time I was 8 years old.
While my mom and sister did their 18 holes of golf, my dad and I would take turns in the cages with him giving me instruction and fine tuning my young swing into a more precision stroke. It was a special time for us, that bonding moment where you knew the two of you enjoyed something with the same passion and the same love for this simple game.
When business was slow at my dad’s gas station at Pasadena Avenue and Central during the weekends, we would pop out the back door and throw in the alley behind the station for hours. He tinkering with my throws to try and develop some sort of new pitch that would set me apart from the other kids in the Little League.
That pitch never came, but my dad always taught me to strive harder and dig deeper if you really want it, and that instilled a hearty appetite for always wanting to be the best. I used to sit in the station when I was working for him oiling up my mitt and even brought a bat to work to practice my swing and even improve by hitting a tennis ball dangling off one of the car lifts.
We had a concrete block storage shed on the side of the station that I painted a strikezone and I would always spend at least an hour a day, mostly during my lunch time throwing towards it dreaming of that ninth inning save, or striking out Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. And we both looked forward to going down to Al Lang Field and watch the Florida State League St. Petersburg Cardinals play every summer.
Loved watching some of the games future stars play on this simple stage amongst the twilight of a Florida summers eve. It was poetry in motion to watch these guys doing their orchestrated baseball ballet, and I learned the essence of the game watching players like a young Tito Landrum and Gary Templeton play while the team won 88 games in 1975. And even seeing a young prospect named Cam Bonifay play back in 1974 as a 22-year old before his days in the suites as an executive in baseball.
But those times before my own baseball games, or the ones down by the St. Petersburg waterfront, we always took a few minutes to throw to each other before I ever headed to the field to warm-up with my team, or go to our seats in the stadium. It was my time to put the emphasis on our bond, to throw a few with the old man and try and mess him up with a quirky slider or curveball.
But he never seemed to miss the ball on purpose, but a few times did it to show his vulnerability to me. He passed away trying to get to one of my High School baseball games at a friend’s gas station getting ready to head over to the Dixie Hollins field to watch me play.
I knew the minute he was not there something was wrong, but a friend of the family came over the threw with me on the side of the dugout to keep with my superstitious nature. But about 5 minutes into the game without anyone telling me, I want to say there was a warm calming feeling going through me, but it was more of a stark reality that I would never throw with him again.
On Father’s Day I always say a prayer to that great man. Not because he threw a ball with me or taught me to truly love this game, but because moments like that are not just for movies and dramatic television. I was truly one of those things in my young life that made me who I am today. I have tried to pass that same tradition on to my daughter’s, but they are not at all into the game.
I will credit my daughter Tracey with throwing with me for a few years, but she did not have that passion for the game my father and I shared. She was the cheerleader type, and not the jockette. But she has gone to games with me and actually enjoys watching the Rays play baseball. But she is not hooked on it, or even mildly interested like her Old Man.
So on days like today it hurts a bit. Not because he did not see me after my 16th birthday flourish, or even see my first college game, but because I miss those solitary moments of throwing with him. Most people tend to bawl like babies when Bambi is killed in the Disney movie. For me it is that scene of Ray and his dad finally throwing on that Field of Dreams.
I miss you Dad. Every time I throw the ball. Every time I sit and watch the Rays. But mostly I miss you loving the game with me. I know where you are they have a helluva baseball team, but we do too. And it is a true shame I can not enjoy it with you every game.
When we were younger most of us knew kids who used to sneak a glance or look directly at classmates tests for a quick word recognition for a test question. We did expose them as “cheating” but we did remain silent and for some reason accepted their actions. It did not dawn on us the moral consequences of getting caught because in our minds we just thought it was a one time thing by them. But how can we not have the same mindset when it comes to cheating in baseball. Some people see it for what it really is, a well rehearsed and orchestrated event that goes on nightly in our ballparks, while other cry out at the first sign of an improper move.
I am not condoning cheating here, but it is a bit more widespread than we give it credit for most days. Some people believe in he old saying, “If you are not cheating, you are not trying.” But then again, it is not cheating unless you get caught. So why is it that we show such huge amount of emotion and outcry when one of our athletes gets caught in a sport that wants you to steal, and sometimes you even get caught in the act. I know the general belief is that cheaters never prosper, but in reality they do get away with it more than you will ever imagine in baseball.
I mean is the sport of baseball actually harboring a belief that the act f cheating is somehow part of the under fiber of the game and is accepted as a mode of behavior by its players and teams. You only have to look at some of the rituals and action within the game itself to see that cheating, in some form is right in front of your eyes all the time. I mean if a player does a slide outside the base path to break up a double play and either rolls into a infielder or brings his spikes up, is that an accepted form of cheating? Or maybe the simple act of leaving some saliva on your finger or even putting a small slip of sandpaper attached to the back of your belt giving you a huge advantage in the game.
Steroids have become a huge polarizing point in the sport in recent years, and while I do not condone them because of the lasting side effects they will have on the human body, I can understand the need and want to be the best in the sport. And is that really some of the reason most people do get caught using an illegal substance. They are trying to find the top of the limit they can use something to give them an edge without it becoming an obvious part of their game. Trying to be the best at what they do can sometime make a aging veteran make a bad decision, or a rookie fighting for survival above the minor leagues.
People forget that even in the cool and groovy 1970′s teams used to have amphetamines as general drugs in the MLB clubhouses before they were finally outlawed by the league for their damaging effects on the body. People have used everything in the pharmacy to find an edge or an advantage in this game, so why is today’s generation any different. Mostly they are different because they are getting caught and maybe going above and beyond the accepted levels and usage of any drugs or cheating device.
I would love to be able to have a packet of those red dots people use on files to walk through the Baseball Hall of Fame to just put on the plagues and the displays of people enshrined or even their gear in the walls and galleries of the famed building of people who have either cheated, or have a huge public perception of some kind of non-conducive act in the game. I think that most of the early day pitchers had their moments. We know of plenty who have been known to doctor the ball, or even outright do it in front of the crowds without their knowledge.
The biggest pitching name to admit to some sort of doctoring is Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. I mean a simple wipe of the brow of his cap, or even adjusting his pants by grabbing the belt could produce a small quantity of vasoline that could be used to send the ball in a different flight pattern to the plate. We all know he has been suspended in his career for his antics on the mound, but one of his best might be the act of seeming to doctor the ball and it be as clean as a whistle. Then we have Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer who was caught once and suspended for 10 games for his acts of cheating.
Niekro’s weapon of choice was an emery board which could be used to put a indentation in the ball to get a better flight pattern for his butterfly ball. Considering he already threw a pitch that had its own mind, the added aerodynamic of the scuffed ball just gave him an additional edge in the game. Even greats like Whitey Ford and Don Sutton have come under the microscope, but still enjoy huge fan support. Most pitchers of that era had their own ways of adding some sort of substance to the ball to get some more action on it, but was it considered a part of the game, or was it a rationalization on cheating by saying “everybody does it”‘
The biggest form of cheating is the action done by Coaching staff and players in the dugout during games by watching the Third Base Coach and the opposing dugout especially during the games. Act of stealing signs is an accepted form of cheating in the rules of the game. It is hard to prove that another team is doing it, but it is also an accepted norm of the game at the same time. Former major leaguer Eduardo Perez was one of the best at doing recon work on stealing sign from the opposing team.
When he was with the Tampa Bay Rays he used to sit in the dugout and call out a play or pitch right before the play happened. Of course he might be wrong more time than right, the action of even trying to interpret the signals could be viewed as a form of cheating. But what about if a team is doing it with audio signals to their bench in hopes to get an advantage to the game. This happened during the 1951 baseball season when the New York Giants were able to get some revenge against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Recent discoveries and accounts have linked the actions to be true, but Bobby Thompson, who hit the “Shot Heard Around the World” has never admitted he got a tip-off on the pitch he hit for immortality. It is said that
Giants coach Herman Franks would sit in the dugout, just out of view of the Polo Grounds in the centerfield clubhouse and relay the catcher’s signals and send via a bell/buzzer signal to the dugout, then the dugout would relay the signal to the hitter at the plate.
And baseball accepted this practice at the time because if one team went down for the action, all of them would have to cease their own forms of cheating to get pitching signs and signals from the base Coaches. But there is another form of this signal cheating that is more out in the open for everyone to see. It is when your teams has a man on second base. They are direct contact with the catcher’s signals to the pitcher and can relay the pitch with a body signal or gesture during the game. But a new form of cheating I am beginning to pick up on is the altering of the radar guns in the stadiums.
Do you really think some of these guys are throwing 98 mph, or maybe the slight alteration to the gun prior to a certain reliever coming into the game could change a hitter outlook on them after seeing multiple 90+ reading most of the year, then an 89 mph heater take them out for a critical out. I could go on for days on the other types of accepted cheating and alterations and redefinition of the rules of the game. I have not even gotten into the groundskeepers role in all of this magic yet. We all know that the home field advantage is significant to the team getting some runs ans hits on their own turf during games.
I also stayed away from the topic of corked bats and illegal dimensions like shaved handles to add a slight hint of bat speed to the hitters. But now we have a new foe hitting the cheating format of the game and it is a silent weapon until drug testing or even a eye contact with the product can make a player’s life miserable, and a team searching for answers. The new addition of the anabolic steroid to the annuals of cheating in baseball is accepted by some as the evolution of the game. But then others see it for what it really is, personal cheating done on an individual basis to get an edge in the game.
For some reason you want to admit you like that a player wants to be the best they can be in their sport, but you also find it disturbing they will put a chemical in their own bodies that might hurt themselves in the long run for short term gain. I think that is one of the reason some guys do it, not for greed or for money, but for the adulation of the fans and to get that extra step up on the competition. But for all the good it does to that player and his team, the long range effects on the young fans and the essence of the game take a huge hit on the purity and quality of some of the game’s best and greatest.
Everyday players find a new way to cheat the edges of the game with new found techniques and actions that stay within the rules of the game, but flirt with the gray areas of rules and regulations. And most of these actions are accepted by fans and player alike as individual adjustments or improvements to their game. One issue I have skirted today is the action of using illegal substances in the body as a form of accepted cheating. You could do a 5-part series on the chemical uses and advantages of players actions both today and in the past and still not get down to the root of it all.
Cheating within the game is an accepted mode of playing it to the fullest. Finding advantages and sidesteps to the rules and bending them to the point of breaking them is an accepted action by every team. Teams do seek out advantages against their opposition for every game. If we did not want to get the upper hand on our opponent there would not be a need for advanced scouting or even a scouting report on the opposing pitcher. Knowledge can be the best form of delving into the truth and falsehood of the game. But do we also reward the act of cheating in baseball?
Let’s say tomorrow we find out a MLB team has doctored their “mudd” application to game balls with a new dry chemical that when mixed with a special resin mixture used on the mound would produce a slippery substance on the ball that will aid the pitching staff and will be entirely absorbed and all traces removed from the surface of the ball in its flight to the plate. Would we be amazed at the development, or ashamed that our team got the edge on the competition?
That is a personal decision for each of us to consider the next time a infraction to the code of the game is revealed. Is it a competitive edge or an act of cheating if a team gets the upperhand on another team? I guess that depends on who is winning the game at the time!