Rays trio key to Playoff Dreams
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.