August 2009

Something Special seems to be Missing?



Mark O’Meara / AP

Even before the Tampa Bay Rays started their 2007 season I had a gut level reaction that we were within a few years of breaking the “losers” curse and begin a winning tradition. That season I left my job at Pepsi and was anxiously seeking a position somewhere in the Rays organization. Something within me had me thinking that this franchise was about to turn a corner, and I really wanted a front row seat to the show.
 

Maybe the final piece was put into place during Spring Training in 2008, when Rays starter Scott Kazmir spoke of a playoff dream for the Rays that season, and the media snickered to themselves. But what they might not have known was the level of ease and comfort this team had with each other coming into this final season of Spring Training at Rays Namoli complex in St. Petersburg. 

That this team liked spending time with each other both away and at the ballpark. That veterans in the Bullpen wanted to have dinners accompanied by the entire Bullpen, not just small groups filing in when they felt like it. Small groups of leader began to emerge in the clubhouse, each with their own special flair in support of the team. Carlos Pena was the fashion plate who dressed like a million dollars and had a boat load of confidence and inner strength. Cliff Floyd was the new guy who had been to multiple playoff runs and knew what it would take to funnel this team into winners.

And then you had the odd broad-shoulder pairing of Eric Hinske and Jonny Gomes who could reduce the clubhouse into tears of laughter and  showed extreme amount of emotion and passion for the game. Then  you had the Rays rotation, all under 26 years of age who acted 5 years older than their birth certificates listed on any given day. From top to bottom, this team enjoyed each other not only as teammates, but as a sense of brotherhood.  And that can be a powerful tool when you are molding yourself to do something you team has never done before………..Win, and win now!


Steve Nesius/ AP

And we all know how far that confidence and that slight air of arrogance got this team. How dare they trample to pecking order of the American League East and sit on top of the division for most of the season. How dare they take the mighty Red Sox Nation to 7 games, then disregard them like rag dolls on their way to the team’s first World Series appearance. And all throughout this adventure was door and door being broken down by this bunch of Rays. They had changed their logos and uniforms in November 2007, and with that stripped the losing mentality along with the loss of the forest green caps.

The 2008 Rays even on the plane ride home after World Series game 5.5 were not looking forward to leaving each other yet. the bond of this squad was tight, and the general feeling was that to separate would be the end of that karma train. So as the team packed up after the trip home and had their baseball belongings sent from sea-to-shining sea, they hoped that vibe would continue for a a second shot at the title. They wanted that feeling amongst each of them to hibernate and spring to life in late February 2009, but it was never the same.

People have been trying to find multiple reasons for the wild mood swings and the odd chemistry this team seems to have in 2009. Some might say it is a little bit of the leftover World Series experience mixed with a new found respect for how hard it is to repeat in this game. But the meshing of this team out of Spring Training in 2009 did not have the same feeling to it. You could see it on the field. The powerful defense became average for some reason. The power stroke of B J Upton seemed to be stalled by surgery and unforeseen situations.

The all-mighty pitching staff, the saviors in 2008 seemed to be subdued this season. Almost in a calm serenity than in a mix of attitude and daring antics. Gone was  the fire you could see in their eyes and feel in their voices. Not extinguished, but down to embers. The offense still churned to its own beat just like in 2008 finding new heroes every night or so to prop up as examples that 2009 is better than 2008. But other key components of the hitting seemed to be lagging behind and could not adjoin with the rest. This team did not have that fundamental same feeling to it. Something critical was missing.


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And some would say it was a few of the fire-breathers that were no longer here like Jonny Gomes, Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd who inspired by example, and shined through by pure energy and power. You knew that Floyd would take the “father” role and try and nurture some of the guys into becoming better more productive members of the team. Hinske you knew would be fired-up and ready for battle at any time, and he carried that same energy out on the field with him. And Gomes was the ultimate confidence guy.

If someone did something amazing, he was one of the first to see you as you came on the bench. Each of the three had a key role in the bench players, the same way Trever Miller and Dan Wheeler did with the Bullpen guys. They always discussed things, always compared notes, and dined together out on the road. You knew that even young ace Scott Kazmir and the other rotation members keyed off each other to try and post a quality start every time out. People on this team genuinely rooted for each other day in, and day out to succeed. 

 

And this season there has seemed to be something missing from the beginning. Even when I went down to Spring Training for the first time in Port Charlotte, you felt a different vibe. Not a negative energy, just something different. Gomes, Hinske, Miller and Floyd, all left for other teams, and the incoming guys did not replace that lost energy or that instant energy levels. There was leadership in this clubhouse, and there was a sign of wanting to again reach the top of the hill, but it did not have any urgency or finality to it.

For some reason this 2009 edition of the Rays had the talents, abilities and the heart to produce a winner, but some of the classic energy and chemistry seemed to be lacking at moments. And those gaps in the system showed up from time to time. Lackluster performances without someone coming over and encouraging you. A more quiet bench than in 2008 when you never knew what would be said or visualized f
rom a distance. Plenty of times in 2008 the bench seemed alive and the 26th player on the team.

But this season that player is missing in action. Maybe he was lost in the charts and the schemes and the general “cool” vibe of the clubhouse. There is still a huge amount of fire in this team, but they have to spread the embers out again and add wood to that fire. As the losses total up the members grow darker and darker this year, with pillows of hot spots peaking out, and the general feeling of extended dread hanging over the game. And the Rays coaches might have sensed this too.


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With traveling parties all dressed in black, dressed in all white and also cowboy wear it is a basic team building exercise to promote from within a pride and a energy among the team. And it has worked at times and had extended into the road trip and on into the next home stand, but the energy seems to dip down again and another action/reaction has to be pulled out of this team. Props and events like this can mold a team, but only if all of them want to mesh as one.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon, knowing the recent stress and daily barrage of expectations went with a “Ring of Fire” Johnny Cash tribute road trip. With this road trip now history and the team heading back to Tampa Bay with a 4-3 record on this trip, was it a success? Or is it going to be an ongoing theme for the rest of the season. Last year the rally cry fell under the guise of a “Rayhawk” with several players even going above and beyond the usual mode of hair. 

But for some reason the black hair sported now by Maddon has been christened the 2009 version of the “Rayhawk”, and again there have been a great response to the visual bonding agent, but it doesn’t feel the same. This team is a little more laid-back than the 2008 version, both in personalities and in outward bursts of energy. Maybe it is time for each of these guys to dig deep and know that for the Rays to again taste that Mumm’s champagne, they all have to crank it up a few notches and leave it all on the field.

I know I do not have a solid answer for this decline in energy and outward excitement. I wish I had the perfect solution, because I would march into the Rays offices with the answer. I would proudly ask to speak with Maddon and present this gift with nothing in return. Some times it is the simple things that get us the most confused. Maybe all the expectations and promises have clouded the goal. Something missing this year has been a long winning streak, a true defining moment that separates this club from all the others in the MLB.


Steve Nesius / AP

We have all seem the signs at different times this season. Players have shown us that even the “Team Meetings” at home plate after Walk-off wins seem more subdued compared to 2008. I know it is not a case of “Been there, done that!”, but it could be a symptom of the problem.  Maybe something as simple as playing like you are 10-years old again and remembering the fun will shakes the cobwebs and give the Rays back their mojo.

Like I said, if I had the right answer, I would bottle it and sell it to everyone else, but the Rays could have it for FREE. For I want to again see the smiles nightly on their faces for no reasons. See the bubble gum bubbles on top of players caps. I want to see the sunflower seed competitions between the Bullpen guys again. Maybe it is just wishing for the past, maybe it is hoping for the future, maybe it is just about something as simple as having fun playing a kids game again.

What We are Fighting For…Remembering Sept. 20,2008

 

 

Introduction:

 

Because the Rays have seemed to lose a bit of the fight in them the last few days, I decided to revisit my favorite moment from 2008 and try and get some of the “Playoff Fever” rhythm back again in the Rays House. I do not have all the answers, believe me, I want to have the answers to get this team back into that fighting and hungry mode again. There is a different vibe on this team this year, and it doesn’t have the same feel to it. So I am revisiting this moment that is etched deep within me in hope that the team, the fans, and the community can again remember what 2008 really meant to all of us.

 

RRCollections 

 

Everyone remembers the magic of your first time. The first time you had a bubbly ice cold soda, or your first adult beverage. Or maybe it was the first time you finally go the courage and finally decided to try that scary ride at the fair that has terrified you to death your entire life. The fascination and excitement of trying something, or achieving something for the first time can be a rush that can not be beat. There is a burst of  energy that you can never have again. And last, but not least, a sense of accomplishment for finally hitting the finish line with gusto and pride. You always remember your ” first” anything, but this one will stay with me until the day I meet St. Peter at the pearly gates and he asks what I am most proud of in my life. My answer will be pretty simple, my answer will be unexpected to most people. My honest answer is my All-Time favorite” first” was when my home town team finally got to go to “the Show.”

 

 

 

It is for that reason that I feel I have to revisit my “Top Moment for 2008″ one more time.  As I said before, we always remember our first time entering the ballpark, checking out the sounds, smells and the atmosphere of this game that excites us from the television screen or in-person . You still think about the first Batting  Practice or your first foul ball catch. And how special was getting your first autograph, and didn’t that player become a favorite of yours instantly. And who could ever forget the taste of that first stadium hot dog. I know all of these are still fresh in my mind, and it has been over 40 years since my first game at Al Lang Field watching the St. Petersburg Cardinals. And the bag of peanuts in front of me still taste better at the ballpark.

 

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So it is with great pleasure that I re-introduce to the MLB community my number one memory of 2008. The realization of the 2008 playoff finally came to light on September 20, 2008 with 36,048 other  “9 = 8″ believers in the stands who had spent most of the game jumping up and down like maniacs. It was a time for celebration and rejoicing. It was a time to  remember all the things we loved about the 2008 Rays. Not only did the team play a hard fought 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, but the team secured its first EVER playoff berth. And that moment seems have been buried lately because this group of players want to make their own memories, which is fine, but sometimes you have to embrace the past to secure your future.

 

 

 

Considering the 2008 Rays squad pushed the envelope from the first Spring Training game and fought long and hard to finally get this team over that “wins hump” that has kept prior teams from achieving this goal. This was a team before 2008 who had NEVER won more than 71 games a year, and for  the first time in this franchises history, they fought and sweated daily to keep themselves in the top spot in the American League East. September 20,2008 was a blessed moment of celebration for the fans both inside Tropicana Field or at home, plus it was a perfect moment for the players to salute a great season, and a unique event for both sides to celebrate together. This moment was so personal to me. I got to celebrate with a few baseball buddies both with hugs and fist bumps to swigs of champagne and cheers of excitement as the entire team wandered and cheered around the stadium.

 

 

I made sure to remind a select few of them that the journey has just began and they made sure I knew that it was us, the fans that drove this bus to the playoffs as much as the players. And I got to drink from the champagne bottles and taste that sweet nectar that went down like cool rainwater and tasted like spun honey. It was one of the biggest moments for me as a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays…………….and hopefully you got to enjoy it too that day…………….

 

 

 

 


It might have looked like a mob scene out of your favorite sports movie, but believe me, the energy in that place on that September afternoon was so severe that it sometimes seemed to choke you from the intensity in the air. From the energy and the explosion of emotion in the stadium atmosphere, this game seemed to have been in the cards even before the Rays stepped  on the turf. There was a wild feeling in the air that day. Most of that might have been nervous energy knowing they were within a whisker of franchise first and an event that would explode throughout the Tampa Bay community. 

 


Seriously folks, after that celebration in the stands and on the field, I felt so drained emotionally and mentally just a wreck. I was literally crawling out on my hands and knees, but I had a huge Cheshire Cat grin when I finally exited the Trop around 9 P.M. after celebrating in the stands, near the clubhouse with a few friends, and in the Budweiser Brew house having a few brews with the old crew from the last 11 years. This was a night where everyone in Tampa Bay would have a peaceful nights sleep more induced by exhaustion than by excitement. But that was fine, because that night we all dreamed the moment again and again and finally awoke knowing OUR team finally had a date to play in the postseason.

 

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This was an entire weekend that will sit up there with the best memories I have involving sports in my life. I have been to a few wild celebrations, like the Baltimore Ravens victory party in Ybor City after they won the Super Bowl in Tampa, or even a late night cocktail party at Reign after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a few ex-Rays players.  I was so spent that next morning from sheer excitement and celebration that I did not even feel I was walking on the turf when I arrived at the Trop for the annual  Season Ticket holder Picture Day with the players. Well, the ones who are awake at 10 am. and did not have that emotional and physical body and mind hangover from all the celebrations.

 

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TWO more times these guys  got to pay as much attention to their team partying as they do out with us, the fans.  From interview to interview that night, the Rays players to a “T”, talked about the Tampa Bay Rays fans. And to show their respect to those fans, they included all of us in their celebrations. There were wild scenes of players like Akinora Iwamura and Carl Crawford getting up on the dugout and spraying the masses with champagne and beer. Throwing 9=8 playoff hats and T-shirts to outstretched hands, and basking in a moment that will live in this franchises history books  and our collective memories forever.

 

 

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The picture above means so much more to me now that all three have moved onto other opportunities away from this Rays team. All three of them had a unique personality that helped this squad in different ways to achieve this goal in 2008. It was also was the first time all three of these old teammates got to celebrate something like this in a Rays uniform. You know they will always remember their first time. You remember where you were, Who you were standing with, and what you were doing at that exact moment. When the guys came running down towards the Bull Pen Cafe area , I was standing on the railing waiting for them. I can not remember how many of those guys came by there and how many times I slapped their hands and gave them a fist bump.

 

 

 

But the memories that are really were the energy that produced Hugs from J P Howell, Jonny Gomes, Chad Orvella and Scott Kazmir.  I have chatted almost daily with  a lot of these guys on their way to the Bullpen, or back in the right field area, and they are some of the best guys you will ever want to meet. But that night on and off the field I got to know and see other sides to these guys that only their teammates get to see daily. And that is a moment that was not lost in my mind.  Even today as I remember that September afternoon, the images are still crystal clear and the emotions still swirl within me. It was a time I again want to feel in 2009. It will be another awesome moment for this second generation of Rays. This years squad do not have the “jokers” and some of the big personalities that the 2008 squad had, but they are still the reigning AL Champs.



 ww.tbo.com


Some of these guys have been transformed by the moment. And success can do that to a player. It gives them a vital self realization that they are winners. Take J P Howell for instance. He used to be one of the quiet guys on this team. When he was a starter, he was a bit moody and never seemed to want to talk with anyone near the field level.  But now  he has been transformed since he has found his calling in the bullpen He now one of the friendliest people I have ever encountered on the Rays. Dan Wheeler is not known to smile a lot, but he does when we chat back and forth during the games. There is a unique bond there between the Bullpen and the fans here that I have never seen before in my life. But then again, they are living the dream in 2008.

 

 

 

From the first champagne bottle out of the clubhouse that day, to the two champagne bottles Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos had ordered for himself and the close fans down there near the Bullpen, it was a magical night. The parade around the Trop outer perimeter was a show of the love and respect these guys have for the fan base. I have been lucky enough to know a few of these guys off the turf in private. And I have to tell you this in total confidence, not one time this year did any of these guys take this responsibility to the fans or to the community as a  job or work.


 

              www.tbo.com          

 

 

On that September afternoon these guys actually enjoyed interacting with the fans. From the time they walked out at the Spring Training complex in mid-Feb. to now has been a long and rewarding journey. There have been injuries to key members of this pitching staff early in the year, but the team bent like a rubber band and did not break. This season players have come and gone from the roster, but the core of this team has been strong, mentally tough and been an inspiration to the fans. Not many groups have a tie to the fans that these guys have. The Rays community can honestly say the have the team’s back at any moment.

 

 

The funny thing about that celebration is that about 50 percent of it was outside the locker room on the same field where these guys have toiled and struggled and left themselves bleeding and wounded some nights. To say this battle towards a playoff spot did not end with a fairy tale ending is totally inaccurate. I really need to hit the sack for a few hours before I fall down, but the adrenaline is still pumping hard in me right now and I have tossed and turned for about 5 hours since I got home.

 

 

 

 I am a emotional wreck right now, but I would do it again in a New York moment. If you have never been to one of these defining moments, you know how the Rays Republic is now feeling. If you have not, I truly wish it upon yourself and your team sometime in the future. It is a roller coaster ride fitted with some great ups and downs that is not even over yet.

 

                                

 

 

I just want to repurchase my “E” ticket so I can climb aboard the coaster again and roll through another three of these celebrations with the Rays and this truly spectacular group of guys.  I actually now know what other team’s fans have talked about when the y remark about the feelings and the intensity of the moment. I can see why New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans yearn and seek thin moment in their lives yearly. But I have to almost admit, I do not want to share it with them anytime soon.

 

 

So As I finally slink out of the stadium, and check out that bright orange roof, I am reminded of all the glory and the sweat and tears that have blanketed this great dome in the past 10 years. But tonight they all seem like a distant memory as we have a new found tradition of winning and are celebrating the success of our boys’ tonight. I can’t wait to get back into my seat tomorrow and see how much of the energy is still trapped in this building…………….9 am is coming fast to me tonight.




 

Kazmir Deal has me Dazed and Confused


Steve Nesius / AP

Not sure why last nights often delayed finalization of the eventual announcement of the Rays sending Scott Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim effected me so much. like this. We all had a gut reaction that the team finally made a decision based on business and not talent. But why is my head still buzzing with questions and a gut feeling of fan betrayal by my franchise? Why is it I have a silly instinct we do not know all the facts yet, and that the real reasoning will anger me more down the road?

When the Rays traded away Fred McGriff to the Chicago Cubs, or even when my baseball buddy Toby Hall to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it did not get to the pit of my stomach. Maybe this time it is the stark realization that we all knew was coming, someday,some time. But this trade came right out of leftfield for all of us.

Heck, I personally was thinking that maybe in early January the Rays would have to revisit the thought of life without our fireballing leftie, but last night’s actions were not completed with ease or grace and it tore through the Rays Republic like a dull knife into a fine steak. Tearing roughly at our hearts and digging deep into our ever swirling thoughts and adverse reasoning for such a move now at this pressure moment in the season.


Eliane Thompson / AP

And the final realization that he was going to play the rest of the season out with an American League division leader and playoff contender seems to throw even more gasoline on the campfire. Logical thinking was missing in the reports and the final conclusion to the trade. Think about this for a second Rays fans. If we do garner an eventual spot in the playoffs, we could face Kazmir wearing that red and white jersey Angels gear as early as mid- October. And if he dominated us that day, I would chalk it all up to instant karma getting some revenge on the Rays front office.

I really still a bit numb and the constant waves from anger to understanding is not helping matters at all right now. The whole trade make-up at this point in the playoff drive is mass confusion to me and it still rolls around in my mind like a clump of tapioca pudding blocking the funnel points within my mind. My current Rays thought process has been reduced to a puddle of odd muck.

Screaming in my mind is the thoughts of “was this truly a salary dump?”, and thoughts of a conspiracy theory of if this had a level of motivation from the Pitching Coach that maybe Kazmir could not conform to “his” system? But I will hold that anger for another blog. This is  a Irish wake for the loss of a young ace who might just flourish under his former Pitching coach, and make all of us regret this move. And deep within the recesses of my mind, I hope he gets us right between the eyes.

I seem to remember something Kazmir said around the time of the Trade Deadline that “if he wanted to go somewhere else, he would not have signed that contract extension in 2008″.  How did someone who held 8 individual player bio pages in the Rays 2009 Media Guide all of a sudden become expendable?  And he was in the first season of his recently signed 3-year contract, it is not like he was going into his option years, or facing Free Agency in 2010.


Sharon Ellman / AP

I was incredibly excited when in 2008, on my birthday, Kazmir signed his 3-year contract extension covering 2009-2011, with a club option for 2012. And it still puzzles me deeply that a guy who is the Rays All-Time leader in wins (55), strikeouts (874) and  quality starts (62)  can just be tossed away for prospects?

The Rays return of  low tier players in this deal is not so wildly impressive that it merited a fast and furious trade. Those same minor league players that might have been in the same proposal the Angels dangled in front of the Rays noses before the Trade Deadline. Hopefully the player to be named later announced after the end of this season will be the keystone to this move. If not, the Rays gave up too much for so little in this deal.


I have seen Kazmir sweat, bleed and endure heartaches in the Rays colors since he got here from the New York Mets.  So to say I am not happy right now would be a true understatement. Kazmir has been as special to the Rays community as he was on the mound. Fans used to flock to events with Kazmir because of his ever-growing smile and pure joy to chat with the fans. I know i will miss the head nods and the small chatter with him before a start.


Steve Nesius / AP

Also moving onto Anaheim with Kazmir will go the Scott Kazmir Foundation, which held annual poker tourneys and helped the Children’s Dream Fund in this area. Gone will be his swagger when he walked in for charity events for the local Edwards Family Foundation he co-founded with ex-Ray Bobby Seay and boxers Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy. And gone will be those extra set of hands he supplied for the Rays Field Renovation Program, which he did in conjunction with the Rays Foundation.

More and more this is smelling like a Risk Management decision that an ex-Wall street guy like Andrew Friedman could see from a mile away. Was Kazmir a failing commodity to the Rays? Was there a downward skills spiral coming that none of us could see beyond his recent resurging numbers? Could there be a plausible action/reaction here that would make us understand the move?

As of right now, the answers are just dust in the wind. The Kazmir decision has been made on a purely unemotional level and have been claimed to be a “business decision”. And that is the clincher to all of this. For everything Kazmir has been, or could have done for this team, the ultimate decision might have come down to a few numbers and letters on a report or a email.

But truth be told, if we face Kazmir in the postseason either in the relief role or as a starter, I will clap for him. I am still swirling in the sea of information and gut reactions to this trade. But I am taking it more on the level of a guy is now gone that I trusted with my team, a player I knew would do it “The Rays Way” no matter what. I am dealing with a huge explosion of emotion and will be for some time.


Steve Nesius / AP

Trades are never fun, and when they make no sense they send you into a turmoil of unexpected actions and reactions. This is a decision by this new ownership group that has me befuddled and confused and we all deserve answers to our questions. Screw the business aspect of it all for a moment. Is this going to be the Rays “company line” from now on? Use our personnel to the
ir height of trade value, then pluck them from the Rays tree and moved onto another bush to ripen.

Is theRays front office trading of our favorite players going to revolve into something this impersonal and cold? Are the Rays going to just use business sense from now on and not reward or value playing hurt or extra effort? If the Rays do go this route, maybe it is better they do it like they did to Kazmir. Maybe it is better to clip their wings and send them away before we grow attached to them. Pawns in a business plan played out on the greens grass of the MLB.

Your Attendance is Requested

 


Chris O’Meara/ AP

Why can’t 2009 be as easy for us as 2008? Why is it that this season we have seemed to struggle, grind and pull ourselves out of holes instead of just lounging out at the top of the division like last season? Why is it that we can not  at least seem better than 2008? Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s slogan  during Spring Training for the year was “9 > 8″, or have we all forgotten that “roll off your tongue” gem in this rumble towards the playoffs?

And why is it we do not see any of those classic ” 9 > 8 ” classic t-shirts in any store in Tampa Bay?  I have been to Champs, Sports Authority and a few select pro-Rays stores that in 2008 went buckwild on anything Rays related, but this year the picking have been only classic Rays attire. Has this area remained that emotionally guarded in respect to the anticipation or rewards that could still come in 2009? Or are the store just being retail savvy in waiting for the Rays playoff explosion late in the season?

Retail sales of the Rays gear might not have died down to a whisper yet, but this area is so fickle when it comes to their sports teams that a single game loss can bring out the same old pessimistic lines and attitudes. Has this area not bought in to this next generation of Maddon’s slick slogans, or are the fans being overly cautious and taking a “wait and see” attitude because of the Yankees perch in the standing?  And since when have the Rays ever let their local marketing targets get dictated by the Pinstripers?

Has the outside realm of the Rays marketing machine not been convinced about this team yet? Or do they need a 7-game winning streak to get on board and again crank out the celebration T-shirts and products. Last season even before the Rays had secured a playoff berth there were T-shirts already in the backrooms of stores ready to be put out on the sales floor celebrating a playoff run and an eventual title. Heck, even the minute after we secured that Game 7 ALCS win the Rays Team Store had bushels and Bushels or celebration T-shirts already on hanger ready for the Rays masses. 


RRCollection

Is that same excitement brewing under the surface now, or is it business as usual until the Rays get even  with either the Red Sox or Rangers in the American League Wild Cards race. Will there be T-shirts proclaiming the Rays are the “Aces in the Wild Card race”, or maybe “The Jokers on You!” T-shirts to celebrate a possible late season run on the Wild Card.

Creative marketing and promotion is so very important to a team, but the cottage “Rays” community outside of the team realm can also get rich fast with T-shirts and the selling of well-timed merchandise. Anything “Rays-related last seaon was selling like hotcakes from street side vendors to the Team Store. Everyone loves a winner, and the Rays produced that and more for the fans in 2008. But what is so different in this season that the same excitement and passion is missing right now.

I know of at least a group of 10,000 fans who come religiously to the games and stand tall behind the team, but some of the other 24,000+ seats at the Trop. can go unused some nights, and are vacant during critical series this season. And that same response flows down to the people who do the outside merchandising and purchasing of the teams wares. I do not see the posturing of the chain stores, or even the Independent silk screen shops going late into the night printing or designing an innovative Rays T-shirt or slogan-based product for this postseason run.

And is this a sign that the Rays fan-dom has not bought totally into the program yet?  Or could this just be a sophomore lull in the excitement because our hearts have been broken before by the collections of other sports franchises in this area promising results and falling flat on their faces. Come on people,the only thing broken here is the stream of confidence and  exciting expectations that this team is still in the hunt this season.


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We had a playoff type atmosphere in Tropicana Field during the last home stand where the Rays took all three series by a 2-1 margin. The Trop. was not sold out on any of those nights, but the energy levels and the corwd noise swelled way above the 18,000+ fans who came to the games. And why is it that the Rays fans still did not flock to the ticket booths? We had extra inning games, unexpected pitcher’s duels and a concert post-game by one of the biggest duos in Country Music Big & Rich, and we got less than 30,000 fans in the seats?

This is our time to put up or shut up! Not the team, but the fans. This coming Tuesday through Thursday might be the best chance to thrust ourselves into the Wild Card with authority! The dreaded Red Sox come into the Trop, and they are looking to break some Rays fan’s hearts and cowbells. By letting the Red Sox fans again outnumber us in the stands and try to take control once again of our home sends a message to the team that the level of support is not there yet in Tampa Bay.

And I totally disagree with that statement. It is here, and it is time to shine bright and sound off loud and drown out the Boston chatter this next week. By transforming the Trop into that noisy combustive “Pit” as Maddon wants to call it, we show a solidarity of support, an aire of confidence and a level of team based commitment to the Rays drive for the postseason. Tampa Bay is home to two major sports World Championships.

Well actually closer to a dozen Championships if you count the NASL title won by the Rowdies both indoor and outdoors. and the multiple titles of the AFL’s Tampa Bay Storm. Heck, this area is a classic sports community, but sometimes acts more like a sleepy Florida town where they roll up the sidewalks at nightfall. And that is why this region doesn’t get the hype and the respect it deserves. By sitting on our hands and not being vocal or show community pride, the “talking heads” of the world can riddicule this region and get away with it.


RRCollections

Do you think our fan counterpar
ts in Boston and New York would give up until the last out of the last inning to believe their teams had a shot at a playoff berth? Could you see Fenway Park not bing sold out when a playoff contender comes to town to take on the Red Sox?  Would their fan bae abandon them if they fell from grace, or even imploded in the next two weeks? The Boston faithful would still be there trying to push the team upward with their cheers and collective energy.

The Rays fans are beginning to get into that culture of fandom, but we are not there yet. Hence the dreaded cowbells.  They were intorduced as a loud crowd alternative to the Red Sox/Yankees chants when  the team was beginning to establish a solid fanbase. The cowbells will some day dim  and fade away, but not before our fanbase can be just as loud and as proud as the teams from the Northeast, then the cowbells will slowly disappear. If anyone has noticed this season, I do not carry a large Latin Percussion cowbell and multiple drumstricks this season.

I have reduced my support to a smaller version bell because I can hear the tide turning in the stadium. No longer do we need to be so forcefully noisy with a over-sized cowbell to get our point across. Now the Rays fans cheer loud without the help of our metallic friend. And that is a huge change in this teams fan culture. Sure there are still legions of large cowbell worshipping Rays fans, and that is okay too. But the legions have become more refined and more secluded to small groups within the stadium.

The “10th Man” as Maddon calls him is alive and well within the confines of Tropicana Field. And do not believe that the wives’ homecooking is the reason the Rays have one of the best home records in the entire league. The teams feeds off the enrgy of the crowd, and vice versa.
For both to feel success they need each other for support.  When the teams needs that extra energy, they turn their ears to the crowd for that extra push, that extra amount of strength, and that sudden burst of emotional solidarity that comes from knowing the crowd is behind you in your fight.

Visiting teams coming into the Trop. have been very adamant that they hate the noise level of this dome. Not just the cowbells, but the music and the extra theatrical events going on all the time around them bombard their senses. Even Zack Greinke, the ace of the Kansas City Royals went as far as to complain to USA Today on the noise factor of this place.  Little did he know that it was Park & Recreation Day and even kid in attendance got a pair of Thunderstix to clap during the game.


http://www.tbo.com

The 18,000+ fans in attendance that day did feel more like 40,000 with those kids energy levels banging those air-filled drums constantly during Greinke’s outing. And that is the home field advantge we need. We have to make this place a miserable experience for every team to even come out of the visitor’s clubhouse to the field.
They have to know that when they enter this building their senses will be in constant combat with sounds and sights that will influence the game.

But if the Rays fans do not attend the upcoming games in numbers, the point is really moot. If during this upcoming Boston/Tampa Bay series the Red Sox faithful  can again get off a loud and clear “Let’s Go Red Sox” chant, it effects everyone from the fans to the Rays players. To not counter it, or even ignore it is to give them strength, which could make the cheer louder the next time until it encircles the stadium bowl. And that is not an option anymore within Tropicana Field.

Starting this Tuesday, we need to get out to the Trop. and show this team we have  all of their backs during this quest for another shot at a ring. The Rays faithful have to come out in numbers and in high vocal spirit to chant, sing and even dance if needed, to get some important wins during this home stand. It is now up to us in the Tampa Bay area to show the team and ourselves, we are  firmly behind this team. If not, the Boston and Yankees fans will again take over the Trop., and that is something none of us want to happen again………Ever!

Hardest Job in Baseball

 


TBN/MLB

Everyone and anyone who has ever take in a baseball game at one time or another have thought they could do the job better than the guy in blue behind the plate. We have all seen the umpires make calls from a distance,or in retrospect with considerable digital enhancements to expose the life of an umpire is not easy. But one of the greatest dangers of being an umpire is not the threat of harrassment or injury from people attending the games.
The biggest threat to their personal health is actually the small white ball that they call for balls and strikes.
 

The game is played at an extremely fast pace between the pitcher and the hitter. In an instant the ball can travel from the pitcher’s hand to the glove or bat without a conscience of what might happen to it. In a fraction of a second all three members of the pitch’s evolution have to make consierable actions and reactions before the guy in blue even gets a chance to make a decision on the pitch. And sometimes the unthinkable happens.
 

Sometimes a variable comes to light that barely ever happens in a game,or a simple pitch selection cross-up between a pitcher and a catcher makes the unthinkable happens.  We in the stands usually do not hear the sound of the ball hitting  the metal mask or chest protector before the guy behind the plate goes down in a heap of humanity. It is a constant thing that can nhappen on any pitch in the game. He doesn’t have the ability to think for itself, or redirect its path, the ball can cause more harm in a split second than a Walk-off Grand Slam.


MLB/FSN

And lightning did strike, twice last night during a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. Twice  a lighting fast ball of twine and leather struck a member of the blue fraternity behind the plate, and twice there had to be a change of positions due to injuries sustained by a member of the umpiring crew to keep the game going smoothly. 

Last night’s game began with the groups crew chief, Jerry Crawford behind the plate. He is considered by many to have one of the most consistent strike zones in baseball. And that is a high honor considering most nights everyone,including the guy selling peanuts, thinks they can call the balls and strikes with more clarity than the umpire behind the plate. In the first two innings of last night’s game, Crawford called 24 strikes and 19 balls between the two teams, which included 5 strikeouts for both squads. The game was going smoothly and Crawford had a good grasp of both pitcher’s arsenals and seemed to be cruising along without incident.


MLB/FSN

But within a flash, he was gone. Crawford had begun having back spasms after taking a foul tip off the bat of the Jays Arron Hill in the bottom of the first inning. The pitch seemed to hit flush into his mask and it rattled his cage a bit. Instead of  maybe compromising the game, he pulled himself out from behind Home Plate before the beginning of the third inning and umpire Tom Hallion, who began the game at second base went behind the plate to call the contest.
 

Somewhere during the course of the first two innings, a foul tip came back and got Crawford square in the mask. But do we really know who might have slapped at the ball that finally got got Crawford? During the first two innings, a total of 16 foul balls were hit off the plate by members of both squads. And one of those fouls came straight back and got Crawford right on the mask.

It really doesn’t matter who got him, but it also shows the inherent danger of this position that we all might take for granted. Umpires have been hit by backswings, errant pitches and even shards of broken bats in the past and had to buckle down and keep calling games. For Crawford, who is the crew chief of this umpiring crew to pull himself out of the game, it had to be an extremely painful event.  This is also the second Rays game that Crawford has had to take himself out of this season, He also was injured in the June 21st game against the Mets in Citi Field.


MLB/FSN

Major League Baseball has 17 revolving umpire crews that travel throughout the circuit on a given year. But during that time injuries and game complications can endanger the group. On May 15, 2008 the MLB actually had six members who don the blues out with injuries, and of that group, five were out with head and neck injuries. and most of those injuries had a direct correlation with a ball striking off of their equipment when they were behind the plate. 

And that has to be another area of major concern for MLB. With the guy calling the games getting more and more injuries sustained because of batted balls or miscommunications between a catcher and a pitcher, it is only a matter of time before a umpire is seriously hurt to the point of extended hospitalization. And most of the catchers in major league baseball take pride in the fact they can get to most of those pitches before they ever get to the umpire’s chest protector.

But in the case of the second injury on Weds. night, Rays catcher Gregg Zaun could do nothing to stop that 96 mph fast ball that tailed up and away and caught Hallion square in the chest. “That was scary,” Gregg Zaun told the St Petersburg Times. “I feel so bad. It’s one of those things I don’t like to see that happen. It’s pretty rare I don’t get leather on a ball.”  And Hallion stayed down as medical staffs from both teams came out to aid him.
 

But after a considerable amount of time, Hallion walked off the field on his own. He was checked by medical personnel, and it was determined that if he felt no breathing difficulties, he could stay in the game.  The incident effected both Zaun and Rays starter Scott Kazmir who was physically shaken by the event. “You saw it and it hit him flush,” Kazmir told the Times. “And I heard the sound. And the way he fell down, I knew it wasn’t good. You never want to see anything like that. … It looked pretty serious. I missed my location and you kind of feel at faul
t.”

But the truth is that Kazmir’s pitch missed so bad  it was the only contributing factor to the injury. Zaun had set up for an outside low pitch and the ball tailed up andin on him and Zaun could not have done anything to stop the ball. The only good that came out of that pitch was the fact Jays batter Travis Snider swung and missed at the pitch and it ended the inning.  And since the team Not the fact he struck out stands out as the positive, but the teams would be switching field positions, this factor made it easier for the medical crews to come out and check on Hallion before the game play was restored. 

And with that, the third member of the umpiring crew went into the Umpire’s room under the stadium tonight and changed into his protective gear. After a 21 minute delay ,  the third Home Plate Umpire of the night, Brian Onora  called the game back into action. And you had to wonder if the facts of the night were swirling in Onora’s mind knowing that two of his crew had already gone down in this game. But Crawford was still at the ballpark and willing to even go out to third base and try and call the rest of the game, but Hallion made it be known that he wanted to continue this game at third base.



MLB/FSN-Sun


MLB has rules governing the umpiring of games, and the possibility of an injury to any of the games Umpiring crews. Rules 9.01-9.05 pertain to the job of the umpires during the course of a MLB sanctioned game.  In Rule 9.02(d) it states:
“No Umpire may be replaced in a game unless he is injured or becomes ill.” 
After that passage it continues onto 9.03, which outlines what is to happen if the number of umpires goes below the required 4 per contest. This section outlines the repsonsibilities and the duties of the remaining umpires and their correlation to getting game completed.

The incidents during this game did become a life threatening situation like in May 1, 2008 for umpire Kerwin Daley. He was behind the plate during a Los Angeles Dodgers versus Washington Nationals game when Dodger starter Brad Penny threw a 96 mpoh pitch that struck him in the head. His 68-year old mother was in the stands that day to watch her son and she was the first one to speak to him besides medical personnel before he was lifted into the ambulance.

In 2008, MLB umpires sustained a total of 38 blows to the head. Within the first two months into the 2008 season, there have already been 20 umpire injuries. These numbers are high,but the ratios are higher yet, when considering that there are only 68 Major League Umpires. Mrs. Danley knew that her son was in a profession that posed a physical risk to him, following surgeries to his shoulder and foot to repair damage he incurred on the field. But head injuries are a different story.


MLB/FSN

Even with the advent of newer equipment and more caution by both catchers and umpires, injuries will still be a fact of life behind the plate.  But the true fact that neither of the umpires injured in last night’s game had to physically be carted off, or sent to the hospital has to be a sign that the equipment is doing its job to promote a safer environment for the men in blue.  But you also have to tip your hat to the guys behind the plate who are tough as nails.

Crawford commented after the game to the Times that “If he (Hallion) was having any difficulties breathing or something like that we wouldn’t have let him go back out there,” said Crawford, the crew chief. “I would have gone back out there.” These guys know the inherent risks of their jobs and they still do it night after night. Both Hallion and Crawford fully expect to be able to again man spot in the field or behind the plate come Friday night in St. Louis for the Cardinals series. Say what you will about the umpires, but after last night, i have a new respect for two members of that fraternal order.

Save a Horse ( Ride a Rays Fan )


Jim Thacker /DDR

Back in early 2000, I went to work in the Florida Panhandle for Buffalo Rock Pepsi, a local Pepsi distributor who ran a small warehouse out of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Even as a kid, I was never a die-hard country music fan. But considering my new job required me to drive at least 10 hours per day from various stops on the beaches of Destin and nearby Eglin Air Force Base to the Alabama border, I would spend a huge amount of time listening to music on the truck radio.


Jim Thacker / DDR

Sure there were Rock stations all up and down the dial, but this region was dominated by the country twang.
This was when everyone began to idolize the music of Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks and a new music revival was taking over our ears of to explore our Country Music roots. I began to listen more to the rhythm of the steel guitar and the sweet female Southern drawls coming out of my radio and found it to my liking. 


 Jim Thacker / DDR

And also about this same time Country artists were began to incorporate more rock and roll beats and rhythms and this style of music soon melted the two different brands of music together to form a fresh vibrant version of country that seemed to please everyone from sea to shining sea. The music had started to become a focus all over the country, not just to the southern and mid-western parts of the country.
And among those bands using the rock and roll based stage pyrotechnics and lighting antics was newcomers Big & Rich.

 


Jim Thacker / DDR

The band was different because they wanted to send their fans homes yearning for more of the new brand of entertainment that they presented to the masses at their concerts, and with their CD recordings. They wanted to send you to a new place within Country Music and make you hungry for more. And they truly did just that last Saturday night when they performed a postgame concert during the Rays Country Night.


Jim Thacker / DDR

Considering the band got on late thanks to the Rays staging a comeback victory over the Texas Rangers, thank goodness for the 10th inning heroics of Carlos Pena who sent a ball up the middle to score Evan Longoria and giving the team their second straight win against the Rangers. It was rolling past 11 pm when the stage was finally beginning to be set up and the crowd energized knowing they were going to see Cowboy Troy, Two Foot, Big Kenny and John Rich soon making music as charter members of Nashville’s MusikMafia.


Jim Thacker/ DDR

I have to honestly tell you, I have not been a long time follower of Big & Rich’s music, but during this show I did enjoy and will go to ITunes and download a few of their songs I heard that evening/early morning. I did not have the dedication and the stamina of a pair of Season Ticket holders who sit in my Section who had the field wristbands for the night and went downstairs after the 4th inning and stood all that time in line to be able to get a front row view of the concert.


Jim Thacker / DDR

I even saw a few of the Rays players like Matt Garza, James Shields and Texan Scott Kazmir mingling up front during crowd shots during the concert. Those two fans from Section 138, Jim and Debbie Thacker must have stood under and behind the rightfield stands for about two hours before they were able to run and at least stretch their legs a bit before the concert officially got under way around 11:30 pm that night.


Jim Thacker / DDR

And by the end of the night, Debbie would be rewarded with the back panel of the “Hick Chicks” guitar that was smashed on stage by the band right about the 12:30 am mark.  But the band did entertain throughout the night and did an awesome job of keeping us on our feet and bopping our heads to the drummers beat. Heck, every photo listed on the blog today was taken by Jim as he was in the front row and  got some incredible photos for me.


Jim Thacker / DDR

The band even brought up a young local Rays fan and let him finish off the song “Big Time” with the band right up on stage in front of the 29,000+ Rays fans who stayed for the concert. But you could tell the kid was nervous, but he was a total trooper and did a great job on the fly up there singing with the band. “Big Time” was one of their earlier hits that made it all the way to #20 on the charts. And was one of the first songs that night I knew would have a place on a CD real soon in my collection.


Jim Thacker / DDR

And it really impressed me that they did a 20 minute plus extendion of their song “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” marked with extra riffs and timely ad lib verses to celebrate the night and the Rays. Have to admit here that the next day I was pretty wiped out by all the dancing and the singing I was doing from my seat that night. They were not all songs that I knew by heart, and even some like “8th of November”, which honored the story of Nile Harris a veteran of the Vietnam War caught me a bit off guard.


Jim Thacker / DDR

And before that night I had never heard their hit “Wild West Show”, which is full of Native American imagery and tones. This song is definitely another one of the tracks I am purchasing from Itunes soon.  And more than one woman in the crowd around me were voicing that they wanted the wedding ballad “Lost in this Moment” to be played at their wedding reception or ceremony.


Jim Thacker / DDR

I truly did not seem to attribute this song to the band if I heard it outside of tonights concert because of the gentle vocals of the song, but then I forgot Rich used to be a member of the ballad-rich country band Lonestar before forming this band. The song actually was so well recieved it crossed over onto the adult contemporary charts and rose to the # 12 spot. That is a song that stayed with me long after the end of the concert that night.


Jim Thacker/DDR

So as I walked to my car right about time the DJ at Ferg’s called “Last Call” for the night, I still had a few of those songs ringing round and round in my head. And I know that in the next week or so I am purchasing songs online and maybe even a CD or two of their music for more enjoyment as I travel to and from games. It truly made the night something to remember.  Big & Rich did everything they advertised that night. It was loud, wild and full of unexpected moment from the first note to the last.  

Intensive Battles on the Horizon

 


To  most people the odd premise of the Meatloaf song, “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad” could be adapted  into the stark reality and finalization of the next final weeks of the 2009 baseball season. Right now, this song can give the Tampa Bay Rays a musical punctuation mark to what must be done for rest of the season to realize their dream of taking this team into the postseason.  And it is a good thing to envision and a positive thing to take two out of three games from your opponents, but what happens if you have only two games (Seattle) or a 4-game series ( Detroit/Baltimore/ Yankees) against an opponent? Do you then have to adjust to winning both of the two games, or three out of four games in that four game series?

Everyone seems to be starting to quoting those cliches right now of “Crunch Time” and “Must Win Situations” when chatting about the Rays chances.  And to me it is all so funny because I have been voicing those concerns ever since April. I actually think that you set up your post season chances in the first three months of the season. Silly losses and unfocused moments rob you of wins that could be valuable right now. But in those early months of the season, people throw around phrases like the gospel according to ESPN that “It is early” or “Not to worry a 7-game winning streak can fix all of this”.

And in those early months you can be that naive about the ending of the season.  Because there was so much baseball to be played, to even thinking of having to buckle down and win at least 2 out of 3  of the rest of your games to get into a spot to claim a Wild Card berth  seemed like odd vision in the early months. Funny, they could even go this route and still come up short of your goal. And to me that is the reality right now. 


Steve Nesius / AP

We need help to get to the post season. We truly do. It is not like this team is not competitive enough or strong enough to take on all comers to get there on their own, but they need help to step up the ladder and take that Wild Card berth. We have exactly 39 games left to our season. And we do have a huge important series lingering against team like Baltimore (8), Detroit (7), New York Yankees (7), Boston (6)and Toronto (6) that will shape the Rays dreams and aspirations for the postseason.

But maybe the remaining teams hidden on that schedule will be the deciding factors in this quest for the playoffs. There is one division in baseball that has handled not only the Rays, but the entire AL East this series in their series. The A L West again might hold the trump cards. The Rays are currently a combined 31-25 (.554) against the above group this season with all of their seasonal series games against Detroit still on the books. 25 of those 39 games are against team that are sporting a .500 record of above this season.

And 27 of those 39 contests are against our American League East foes. The Rays currently have a 27-18 (.600) record against their division in 2009. But not lost on the Rays is the fact that half of their final 32 games are played against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers, who all currently have great spot to enter the 2009 post season.

 Those divisional games are important, and could be the fulcrum to balance the Rays towards a eventual Wild Card, but for some reason I am worried about a small set of 5 games more than the divisional tilts. The odd 2-game series against the Seattle Mariners and the 3-game series against the Rangers in late September in the hot box located in Arlington, Texas might be the last grasp at a chance to secure their goals. Those 5 games, not the divisional one could prove to be the teams downfall. And you know that this team has been simply miserable against the A L West division in 2009.

But I am not panicking or even about to spout defeatist venom yet. Sure this 7-game road trip envisioned by Rays Manager Joe Maddon to be the “Ring of Fire” could actually be the hot box they need right now to get into mental and emotional shape to grind out these last 39 games. But for their goals to still be on track, they need to take at least 4 or 5 of the seven games on the slate.


Steve Nesius / AP

And there is nothing that Detroit would like better than to pop down the Rays because they could end up being an opponent in the playoffs.  The Tigers would love to send the Rays back home with their barbs between their fins and have to regroup and reformulate a plan to get them to their goals.  Right now there are a few teams sitting there waiting for their chance at us again knowing that a victory by them can end this Rays drama in 2009.

Now the Rays front office is already secure in the fact of offering our 2009 Postseason Ticket packet prices and options to us in the mail the last few days. In it I saw that the package in 2009 for my seat will cost me $ 1080. That is a bit higher than last season, but you have to admit, we have expected more out of this team in 2009. And this Rays squad has the talent and the abilities to thrust themselves right up into that Wild Card mess and make it interesting all the way to their last game on October 3rd against the Yankees at home.

And believe me, I do not want to be watching football during the weekends in October. I would rather be sitting in my seat at Tropicana Field seeing these same Rays fighting for a chance to redeem themselves on the World Series stage again. But in the Rays post season packet is the message that any money or tickets not used this postseason will be adjusted and placed in our accounts for our 2010 Season Ticket purchase.

And I have faith in their chances and abilities to again celebrate and enjoy their moments with the fans in securing a second romp into the postseason dance. I will send in my money hoping and praying for a chance to again sit there and maybe catch two more foul balls during the American League Divisional Series. I hope to be sitting in the Trop for a pivotal game in the ALCS, and might even have a chance to see another first pitch at a World Series game placed in the dome. If not, I know my money will be there for me to enjoy another year where promise and hope will reign heavy again in April, May and June.

Pena is Charging the Rays Batteries

 


Mike Carlson / AP

Oh Carlos, how you tend to flirt with our hearts and then break it when you strikeout with men in scoring position, or when the Rays have a chance to cement a victory. How we enjoy seeing that infectious smile and that graceful grin that makes us forgive you for everything that has happened both good and bad this year. But your single in the bottom of the 10th inning last night  push your squad towards the playoff once again in 2009.

And Carlos let me tell you, it was done in classic Pena fashion with a accent mark on the night being that gliding RBI-single that seemed to drift forever before it bounced upon that turf. You wonder how you could have built another layer after hitting two home runs for 3 RBIs before your at bat in the 10th inning. When you took that second pitch from Jason Grilli and drilled it back into centerfield you sent more than our hearts a flutter last night. You also might have silenced the wave of critics that have been building energy and momentum concerning another run by you towards a strikeout crown.

But let’s dwell on the positives today and forget the past shall we. Can we forget that you currently lead the American League in strikeouts with 147 because of the magic of last night.  But a bright side to it all is that you are also tied with Boston’s Jason Bay for the top spot in walks with 78 this season. Also fans are forgetting today about how you have gone 9 for 32 with 5 home runs and 10 RBIs followed by 6 strikeouts. But those numbers might be a bit dwarfed by the last two games where you have been 4 for 7 with 3 homers, 4 runs scored and 5 RBIs.

Also missing from the box score might be the fact that you have now had an RBI on your last 4 hits this series. You have lived up to your leadership role in this series. We are taught from a young age to lead by example, and you have done just that Carlos. That stat really freaks me out to the potential you could have to turn this playoff push into a playoff reality soon if you keep on track and get those timely hits.


Mark Carlson / AP

Now I am not asking for a homer a game, or even a bunch of them. Instead I would love to see a few scattered singles that could produce scoring chances or RBIs in this next road trip. You have done well against the team that drafted you first into the MLB family. Now after three games you will visit another “ex”. When you and the Rays arrive in Detroit, it might be time for you again to show the same fire and the same drive to show the Tigers, just like you did to the Rangers, what it is like to miss Carlos Pena.

Another wild stat from last night, only four other players in the last 15 years have ended a game with an RBI-single after hitting 2 home runs in the contest.  The Cardinals Albert Pujols did it on April 16, 2006, Twin Torri Hunter did it on May 26, 2001, ex-Dodger and Rockie Todd Hollandsworth did it on April 15, 2001 and ex-Brave Brian Jordan did it again on July 15, 1995. Only Hollandsworth and Pujols did it by ending their games on their third home run. Simply amazing that now your name is etched among these players names.

And why don’t we add another kicker to your statistics as you currently have 34 home runs and lead the American League again this season.  But lets add another interesting “Carlos” fact to your player resume’. You are currently on pace to become the third player in major league history to hit as many singles (34) as you have home runs.  Ex-Cardinal Mark McGwire did it 4 times, and Barry bonds did it in 2001. I know the company might look a bit “tainted” right now, but you are in rare air my friend with this feat.

So Carlos, I can’t not love what you are doing right now, but for this team to thrust itself back into contention and make the playoffs they need your clubhouse leadership and your bats to stay upbeat and hot right now. Last night was your third multi-homer game of the season, And more might be needed before it is all said and done on October 3rd, but we know you have it in you Carlos. We do believe! 


Steve Nesius/ AP

The fact you now have 8 homers in the last 14 games shows you can do it in the clutch, and nothing is more clutch than coming through for you team in the playoff push. With you next home run you will also own the top two season spot for home runs in a season, and we all know that just might be a matter of time before that record of 46 you set in 2007 will fall too. So now is the time Carlos, we want to again see you “do that dance” in the dugout. We want to again see that Pena smile go deep into October, and last but not least, we love to see those team meetings at the plate!

  

Excitement in the Air at the Trop.


Mark Carlson / AP

If you missed last night’s Rays and Rangers game, shame on you. First off, you missed a classic game of two teams bashing back and forth to try and gain control of their own  sets of destiny for the 2009 MLB Playoffs. Secondly, you missed a game that had more excitement, suspense and total energy  inside Tropicana Field since  the 2008 playoff push. The air was purly electric static with huge charges of excitement even before the game knowing that this 3-game series could be either a starting point, or the ending to fulfilling the team’s playoff goals.

And the crowd of 20,634 that did attend the game last night felt like a crowd much louder inside Tropicana Field. For all 27 outs tere was noise and energy flowing from every side of the stidum knowing that their cheers and cowbells could possibly make a difference in this struggle. But the true hero of this Rays night did not hit, and did not even score a run in this contest. No, the true hero of this game was the re-emergance of our leftie ace back in the saddle and throwing with gusto last night.

It truly looked like vintage Kazmir last night, and we have missed that guy a lot since 2008. But people are eager to forget that every special game, every moment where the team is behind the eight-ball, there has been Kazmir standing on the mound. Seriously people, this is the same guy who busted the Fenway Park curse in 2008, then out did himself with the Rays first victories in the American League Divisional and Championship series last season. Sure in 2009 we might have seen a very sebdued Kazmir, but the fire and the intensity have still been there in the 25-year olds body.

And how much do we forget he is still only 25 years of age and leading this club in almost every pitching category for the team. How soon we forget this is the same guy who in 2007, just outpaced ex-Twin Johan Santana for the AL Strikeout crown. But  sometimes as fans we forget too soon of the good that a player has brought to this franchise. We seem to have tunnel vision at times to all the things this guy has meant to this team in the past, in the present, and inthe future.


Mark Carlson / AP

But there was so much suspense going on besides Kazmir last night. Oh there was a series of home runs that defied the usual course of action by hitting or being grabbed in the field of play. From the Ben Zobrist home run into Section 140’s front row that was actually fan interference, but the umpires and the Rangers did not challenge the call.When Zobrist sent that line drive into the stands, it actually ended up popping into a fan’s glove just 9 inches from the yellow line at would make it a clear home run.

A Rays fan in that section leaned forward and actually grabbed the ball before it got to the green colored upside-down “U” shaped piping beyond the playing field. Now if he had not grabbed it in that area, it still would have been a home run, but the fan did not even take into account it could have made it a 1-run double instead of a two-run homer by his leaning forward over the wall for the ball instead of letting it come to him in his seat. that action could have caused the Rays to lose that 2-run advantage if it was reviewed by the Umpire crew.

But the fact would prove moot as Carlos Pena then came up and hit an oppositie field shot to post back-to-back homers by the Rays in the inning. But the home run by Pena not only thrust him back in front in the AL Home Run race, but was also a growing trend of him hitting opposite field shots. And it might be a great thing that he is not bending his back so much and is getting all of the ball early through the zone and sendig it to leftfield.

But the home run of the night that sent the most curiosity and interesting discussions might have been the first home run every hit by Texas Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden. With one out in the eighth inning Teagarden hit a long, high and towering shot that cleared both the “C” and “D” rings before finally hitting a guide wire that supported the Batting Practice netting used to save the windows of the Batter’s Eye restaurant in centerfield.


Mark Carlson / AP

B J Upton was camped under the ball when it hit that wire and went immediately downward towards the outfield wall. The ball took an immediate 45 degree turn and bounced off Upton’s wrist befor finally falling to the outfield turf. The Umpire crew did do the right thing by conferring on the home run before finally waving Teagarden home for his first home run of the season.

But unless you saw the game on television, you did not know about the wire coming into play until you either got home, or saw the video replays in the post-game show. But signaled the beginning of the end for Kazmir that night, and he faced two more batters before finally leaving to a standing ovation from the home crowd. He truly looked like the old Kazmir who would take the ball when a win was needed and turn in a great outing. He might not have been as dominant at the plate as in the past, but he truly got the job done last night.

And with one game out of the way, and both teams in front of us in the AL Wild Card race losing last night, it was a true “win-win” situation for the Rays. But as Rich Herrera of the Rays post-game show always says, “The most important game is your next game. The most important series is your most important series.” And I guess that sums up playoff push baseball at its finest.


Mark Carlson / AP

Last night was a game you knew would have some wild explosive events, but it lived well beyond its own build-up. Tonight might be more of a pitcher’s duel as two hard-throwing righties will take the mound for both teams. Fiery Matt Garza will bring it for the Rays, while hard-throwing Tommy Hunter will counter for the Rangers. Tonight’s game should be a closer contest with mistakes showing up critical at any moment of the game. But at this time of the year, every single mistake, every single extra base hit, and every single cheer from the crowd could make an extreme difference in th games.

Get Ready for a Power filled Series

 


Steve Nesius / AP

It is that time of the season where a single loss can be a train derailing event towards a successful run at the postseason. Every single nuance of the game has to be clicking in rhythm from the get-go or the dream could come shattering down on you like a broken pane of glass. With the Tampa Bay Rays about to a begin a 3-game weekend set against the team many around baseball have dubbed the “2009 Rays”,maybe it is time for them to remind people around baseball that they are still in this American League Wild Card race.

So what if the Texas Rangers have been anointed this seasons “Rays”. Funny,but aren’t those pesky Rays still only 3 games behind the Rangers and 4 games behind the Boston Red Sox stalking both team’s every moves,and daily taunting them to lose so the Rays can creep up in the standings. Aren’t these the same Rays that people have put in correlation with the “2007 Colorado Rockies” and have stated time and time again will not repeat into the 2009 Playoff scene. How dare those Rays make ESPN’s Baseball Tonight look like fools. They do such a good job of that all by themselves. 

But there is a problem with that premise….Someone forgot to tell the Rays they are not suppose to be in this thing. But the honest truth is that all of this can change in the blink of an eye this weekend. With all three of the  current contenders for the Wild Card race playing key opponents this weekend,separation in the standings will occur this weekend,by hook or by crook.

The Red Sox host the New York Yankees for three while the Rays tuck a 3-game series against the Rangers into the weekend. This combination of six games could,and should bring about a better overview of the Wild Card hierarchy for the last four weeks of the season. After these two series conclude,someone will be chasing someone else for that last spot into the 2009 playoffs. And behind it, the reality, that another team could begin a free fall that will fade them from the Wild Card. 


Jim Prisching / AP

Not to say that the Yankees have the A L East division all locked up yet,but a major fall from grace would have to occur,and all the stars align just right for the Rays to again take the A L East crown. But right now,all the Rays fears and the attention has to be on a team that really does mirror the 2008 edition of the Rays in so many ways. And with Elvis in the building,you never know what is going to happen.

But the key to this series is going to be all about power. Power hitting and power pitching might be the key elements to post a series win, and a leg-up in the Wild Card race. If the Rays take the series 3-0, it could boost them to within one game of the Rangers, and depending on what happens in Boston, could get them within a few games of the top spot. But it is going to be pure adulterated power that defines this series.

And both teams have the power in their line-ups to take any of these game into routs in a single innings. Both the Rays and the Rangers have done just that this season. Each teams boasts a A L MVP candidate, and a A L Rookie of the Year candidate, and both could be riding high after this series. But as usual in events that place power above all else, it could be the simple fact of control pitching and getting first pitch strikes that dominates this series.

And both teams have competent pitching staff from the starters to the closers that could take either team out of rally situations with a single pitch. But that is the fun of it all. To see if Scott Kazmir tonight can get a blast of the past glory and take down the Rangers early and often and control the plate. Or if it is going to be Dustin Nippert, who is 2-1 with a 4.21 ERA in his 4 starts this season taking control of the Rays and shutting them down.

But there might be a slight advantage to the Rays right now just based on the pitching match-ups for the weekend. The Rangers are going to send three straight right-handers to the plate to combat the left-handed Rays. That could play right into the Rays hands as they have feasted on right-handers in 2009. But this is not so one-sided as it might seem. The Rays will combat this with the hard-throwing Kazmir going tonight, then follow with another power pitcher Matt Garza on Sat. night. The series will conclude with rookie David Price taking the mound Sunday.

But the Rangers also boast a pretty good offense themselves this season.  The Rangers have hit a total of 181 home runs this season easily out-pacing the Rays 155 so far in 2009. And both teams are only .007 clicks away in team average this year. This could be a well-balanced series with defensive mistakes proving to be the big indicator of the series winner. The Rangers are modeled after the Rays successful defensive philosophy,and is currently ranked 8th in the AL in total defense. The Rays sit  about 3 slots below Texas at this time.

But even with the Rays defense having an off year, the Rays have a distinctive advantage on the base paths over the Rangers in this series. So could Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and B J Upton prove to be turning points in this series? Only if they get on base and have the right situations to steal bases and get into the Rangers pitching staff’s heads. 

The entire series might come down to the basics of baserunning.  If the Rays get the chance to run, it might be a long night for Texas. But if Texas can control the running game and keep the Rays out of scoring chances, it might turn towards the Rangers advantage. Right now I am feeling confident on the Rays chances to get close again in this Wild Card race.


Marc Avery / AP

Rich Herrera, who does the Rays Postgame Show on the radio always says, “The next game is the most important game of the season.” And that is so true. They are all equally as important as wins to get to that spot you want to be in before that last series of the year against the Yankees in Tropicana Field.

Hopefully at that point the Rays will have either made their play, or will still be right in the thick of it up until the end. Either way this series might be a chance for the Rays to make a statement against all those so-called experts who have doubted, and rooted against the team for most of the season. It is time to play the “Rays Way” and then let the cards fall where they may.

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