August 2010

Why am I Surprised this Happened Tonight

 
 

I am not sure why I am taking this Tampa Bay Rays attendance smack down so personally. For some reason I firmly believed a question was positioned towards two of the Rays high visibility team members and they drank the usual media Kool-Aid being portioned out by the St. Petersburg Times and a few other local fish wraps.

For some reason the Times doesn’t provide the information that the Rays have drawn an astonishing 8th best attendance in the MLB based on per capita numbers. I bet if the Yankees ( or any other team ) was born here 13 years ago, they would have about the same attendance numbers based on the Tampa Bay regional per capita population (4,028,749 -2008 estimate).


I guess I take it a bit personally since I have only missed one game in the last two seasons, and will (hopefully) hit a perfecto ( 81 games) when the Rays finally end their 2010 home schedule on Wednesday, September 29th. What internally pains me so much is the fact that the hidden agenda or despicable propaganda of the Times finally got funneled down into the Rays clubhouse, and Carl Crawford and Rays Manager Joe Maddon might have been a bit nudged to take a huge swig of the addictive Kool-Aid without knowing it.

For some reason the local media thought it was a great idea to take the focus off a great Toronto versus Rays game and turn the immediate focus towards the blue-seat monsters that tend to gobble up Rays fans and make them invisible for their Monday night contests. Is it any wonder that the Times or any of the other media monglers took it right to Crawford and Maddon tonight knowing that there was visibly less than the announced 11,968 fannies in the seats tonight. Why did the Times have to go and beat this decaying dead horse carcass over and over again tonight.

I am not proud of the Rays attendance tonight, but I also have a bit more class and respect for those faithful Rays fans that hit the ticket takers every night and have to keep hearing this same old song being played by the Times whenever they can get a chance to pop that song and dance online for everyone else in the World to see again and again. I personally know who the economy and unemployment have trashed this Tampa Bay region and have made even the most loyal Rays fan winch and rethink their usual obsessive passion for attending multiple Rays games.

 

To keep pushing this same drawn out issue fully down people’s throats when they have enough troubles away from the Trop’s doors. I was told today about at least 1,000 people who either bought their tickets online, or got them from friends who thought Sunday’s Rays game was still at 1:40 pm instead of 8 pm. I wonder how many of those fans actually stayed in the St. Petersburg area waiting for the Trop’s doors to open at 6:10 pm. My guess is that a good percentage of them either tossed their tickets, or tried to find someone in the local sports bars to purchase their tickets and call it a day.


I can firmly predict within the next 48 hours even if the Rays draw 30,000+ to the final two games of this home stand, someone on the current local media “blogs” in the Tampa Bay area fish wraps will condemn the fans and want immediate answers or solutions. It saddens me that this region and the devoted fans of the Rays have to keep hearing this trash day after day when they fulfill their end of the bargain. Sure the oil spill doesn’t extend within the doorways of Tropicana Field, but it has kept people away.

If you take the three dates of low Rays game attendance this season, the immediate factor that leaps out at you is that all three were games held during the times when Tampa Bay area schools were in session. The previously low points in Rays crowds were during a stretch from April 27th and 28th when the announced attendance was 10,825 and 10,691 respectfully during an Oakland A’s series. I went back into my blog posts that month and also found that I addressed this same factor back on April 28th and I wrote a blog post about media negativity. When will this evil cycle of the Times badgering this issue end?

You can bet that the Rays will get a bit of a shock on September 9th when the Rays Season Ticket holders Postseason money is suppose to be into the team that there will be a marked decrease in people buying the possible 10-game postseason packages. I know for a fact that a few of the people I have spoke with would love to be a part of the Rays run in October, but their finances will prohibit their involvement. But I guess then we will have to endure another Times propaganda slam that “we do not care about this team and are a bunch of fair weather fans and might have finally fallen off our bandwagon”.

 

But that is what the media has been doing for years. When I took my first journalism class in college, they called these type of tactics “yellow journalism” that originated in the 19th Century and newspapers produced sensational stories that were produced to excite or anger the public more than to inform them. Sometimes media people forget that the story is not in the lack of people in the seat at Tropicana Field, but why they are not there.


Understandably school kids will be absent, which goes along with their parents also not attending. If you go out on the streets wearing a Rays cap, like I do every day, you know people are talking about the team and are excited. Sure I am ashamed that some night we creep back into vintage before 2007 Rays attendance figures, but that is to be expected both when school is in session and the economy is tragically taking a little bit more from each and every one of us every day.

I have hidden my financial heartbreaks all season long to support my team, and take it as a personal attack when the Times and other news sources begin to beat this again and again into the ground not providing any remedies or solutions, but pushing the issue like they understand it all. I am one of those people who pay for my own tickets before the season begins and have them in my possession from the Rays Opening Day to their last out of their final contest.

If I had not bought those tickets before the season began, I would certainly be one of those people the Times would be berating tonight.

I want the local media to do an experiment for me. Pop down out of your Carolina blue Press Box seats for one game and sit in the seat with the fans and you will see the energy is there. That the spirit of those following this team are not lost or forsaken, but are audibly alive and well.
 
My father told me once that the best things in life should be based on quality, not quantity. But for some reason, the Times and the other media members seem to dwell on this “quantity” issue more than the “quality” of baseball being played in the field, and the increasing “quality” of the type of fans who will always be here to support this team.

Special Moments within Moments

 


Steve Nesius/AP

The Red Sox series did a few things for the Tampa Bay Rays. Not only did it create a scenario where the Red Sox would have to go 23-8 to even catch the Rays now, it also brought about some personal celebrations within the Rays clubhouse. Some of these moments show the longevity, commitment and great feats accomplished by a few of our favorite Rays. But it also silently rewarded a guy who has been viewed as a liability for the wrong reasons.


It was great to see James Shields win his third game in a row after getting demolished in Rogers Centre against the Blue Jays. Especially enlightening was the way Carl Crawford still seems so humble as his name is written next to some of the true icons of the game and still he has that “aw shucks” mannerism to him. But hidden behind all of this was the celebration of the big “10”. Former Rays DH Pat Burrell hit this lofty plateau on my birthday (ironically).

 

Most Rays Republic members have mixed emotions about Gabe Kapler being on this Rays squad. Some point to his ability to play the outfield with zest and gumption as a perfect model of the consummate professional baseball player. Others nag and argue about his diminishing skills at the plate and his usefulness to this Rays squad has passed him by. I am centered in both camps a bit knowing that 10 years of playing in this league can take a lot out of you, but Kapler is a player that remains “old school” in hustle and demeanor, and that never gets old. But even as the team brought in a chocolate cheesecake to commemorate the moment.


But a confectionary treat should also be brought in for Rays starter James Shields who got to the top of the Rays pitching mountain with his 56th career Rays victory in his 145th career start. It has been classic Shields over the last two weeks after his out of character homer fest in Toronto, and that bodes well for the Rays. Not only has Shields turns his game around, but he is also closing in on a dubious Rays seasonal record. Shields currently has 29 Home Runs allowed, which is tops in the American League, and that total is within 3 of the Rays club record of 32 Home Runs allowed by Tanyon Sturtze back in 2002.

 

Even with a 6-2 record now over his last 8 starts, Shields has also shown a bit of his advanced age (28) this year on the mound, but his 13-11 record is very misleading. He has thrown 10 strikeouts in 5 games this season, and also was on the other end of the Dallas Braden Perfect Game against the Rays. As the cocky veteran on the Rays staff this year, Shields has also established his legacy here in Tampa Bay by finally rising to the top. But another Rays has been on top for quite a while, and we might be seeing the twilight of his Rays adventure.


There is no denying that Carl Crawford is a humble and timid person off the field. The guy is soft-spoken and polite to the end. So when he hit his 100th Home Run last night to push himself past Fred McGriff and into the third spot in the Rays all time Home Run list, you knew he would not want a big thing made out if the event. And the same thing happened twice this year as Crawford jumped over the 400 stolen bases mark, or even hit his 100th triple. This same guy will probably be the first player to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame wearing a Rays cap ( hopefully an old 2002 model ) and you would think he was only selected as Employee of the Month at your local Publix.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

But that is what you love about C C, that he is caught up in the numbers or the historical significance of it all right now. Crawford is definitely the type of guy who will reflect on it after his job is done maybe this off season on the accomplishments and events that have transpired over his Rays career with admiration, but the whole enchilada has not hit him yet. The iconic baseball names like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Lou Brock, Frankie Frisch, Kenny Lofton, Paul Molitor and Tim Raines, who pushed beyond that 100 HR,100 triples and 400 stolen base mark like Crawford also had that humble gene close in their minds and heart.


People will remark soon about this team as winners. They will embrace them again as playoff contenders, but one of the greatest things to me about this Rays team is the way each player melts into the whole stew of doping it the “Rays Way”. You have a wily veteran (Kapler) who might be seeing the sunset of his professional career hit a high water mark of 10 years of MLB Service while watching the kids win nightly. You have a pitcher young in age, but older in his leadership ability and effort (Shields) while guiding this team again towards the path of remembrance.

And then you have the still swift feet of Crawford, who might soon find these same feet walking out of his Rays clubhouse for the last time after their playoff run. Each celebrating a different special moment this season, but all collectively staying true to the Rays mantra of “WIN- What’s Important Now”. Last night’s series victory over the Red Sox might be a special moment in the melting pot of the 2010 Rays, but within that cauldron of bubbling goodness is the feats of Kapler, Crawford and Shields each going in their own singular directions, but within the path of the Rays destiny.

The Most Hated Man in Boston Tonight

 

 
Steve Nesius/AP

I guarantee when the Tampa Bay Rays head to Boston for their last series of the year against the Red Sox from September 6th through the 8th, there will be one member of the Rays who better have a map handy of the city of Boston when the Rays charter flight arrives at Logan Airport. Because after tonight, Rays Designated Hitter Dan Johnson’s picture will probably be blown up and memorized inch by inch in the minds of every single cab or limo service employee in the greater bean town area.

Johnson had better let someone else hail the cab or rent the limo, because if they see Johnson’s mug, you might just end up seeing the tail lights of that same vehicle as it pulls away leaving Johnson, and whoever else is with him in the cold. Johnson will probably take it in great stride knowing an entire city is right now loathing his existence and wanting a re-do on the pitch that cost the Red Sox a chance to humiliate the Rays. Instead it was the collection of red clad Boston fans who get to leave Tropicana Field tonight as it gives off it’s amber glow.

Some of the Red Sox Nation might have forgiven Johnson for his first instance of displeasing the multitudes that follow the Red Sox way back on September 9, 2008 when Johnson instantly took the breath out of almost every Boston fans both within Fenway Park, or watching on NESN with a blast up and over the Red Sox Bullpen for a game tying Home Run in the 9th inning off the Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. That single moment of Rays clarity in 2008 has also been embraced by a large collection of Rays fans as the biggest Home Run in Rays history…Bar none. And it was done by a guy who fought traffic to get to Fenway Park for the game that night, and was not there in time to start in leftfield.

 
Michael West/ Boston.com

You know more than a few of the Red Sox Nation’s historical fan base were a bit freaked last night when Johnson again got to oppose Papelbon in the bottom of the ninth inning as Johnson dug in at the plate for hi second appearance EVER against Papelbon, Johnson stood at the plate last night with great patience and was rewarded with a walk on 6 pitches to give the Rays a sense of impending hope in the game last night. But it was not meant to be last night for Johnson as Reid Brignac came on to pinch run for Johnson and he was left to watch from the dugout. Last night Johnson could not extract any carnage upon the Red Sox, but tonight was another story. But it did add a sense of revisiting that moment as Johnson stood in the batter’s box tonight.


Johnson’s latest injustice towards Red Sox Nation did not come against the Boston closer, this time it was reliever Scott Atchison who got the unpleasant task of having to turn and watch the ball disappear within the right field stands as the collective 36,973 ( 102% capacity) in attendance either danced or just shook their head in dismay. In that instance, you only had to look at someone’s face to know what team they rooted for tonight. Rays fans were high-fiv’ing and jumping like school kids, while Boston’s local faithful fan only looked for the exits. Johnson had again torn a bit of their Red Sox reality to shreds and this time it will not go down lightly.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

Johnson is a player who despite a .149 batting average has also posted an unheard of .367 On-Base Percentage because of his patient nature at the plate. To rub it in a little more, Johnson as either walked or hit his way on base for the Rays in 14 of his 16 games with the team. You might say that Johnson did tonight what he has done all year long in the minor leagues where he won the Triple-A Home Run Derby, plus smacked out 30 Home Runs in 96 games before being called up on August 2,2010. Johnson was just doing what Johnson is paid to do….Hit the ball a long way.

The only better moment for tonight would have been if Papelbon had been toeing the rubber for this recent Rays/Red Sox venture. But Papelbon was not even warming up in the Red Sox Bullpen at that moment, he was seated on the wooden bench watching that same ball go deep into the stands and the celebration begin under the Trop’s roof. By ending the game in this fashion tonight, it was like a UFC cage fighter knocking you down, then twisting your neck until you passed out. It was a total reversal of fortunes in a matter of 8 pitches before the ball settled 384 feet beyond the Home Plate keystone.

So Johnson had better either have friends in Boston, or find some manageable entertainment options within the region of the Rays hotel during that last series in Boston. Maybe a great option would be to rent a car so that he can just come and go as he pleases without bringing up this second heartache again to the populous of Boston. But I will bet you anything if Johnson is standing at a street corner during that last road series in bean town and there is a puddle of water within range, some cabbie or truck driver will exact a little surgical play back to Johnson for again dashing the hopes of many in that city.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

But then again, maybe it is better that Johnson and the Rays visit Boston almost two years to the day that Johnson first became a curse word on every Red Sox fan on that night in 2008. Being infamous might not get you cabs or even a hearty hand wave, but it will remind you of why Johnson might be one of the most hated Rays in recent memory among followers of the Red Sox Nation, and I think Johnson is okay with that.

 
 
 

A Vital Dose of Redemption and Realization

 
 
Reinhold Matay/AP

By now the whole baseball World knows that the Tampa Bay Rays lost twice last night. They lost the chance to push themselves past the New York Yankees and visualize the 2010 team dream, but that revelation is mute right now. They lost the whole bag of marbles last night against the dreaded Red Sox and their Southpaw boy wonder Jon Lester. The Rays further lost within their own misguided intention and advances than by simple game action.

But that is what this series is all about. It is either going to be a time of redemption (for the Red Sox) or realization (for the Rays). Redemption in the fact that some of the walking wounded among the Boston roster are seeing that odd shaped roster beginning to cement itself and play as a define and articulate unit, much to the chagrin of the home town Rays. Redemption that a Wild Card reclamation is as close as 6 simple games, and made closer with the knowledge both the Rays and New York Yankees are not playing at their highest levels.

Redemption that as their own newspapers and bloggers have not screamed out the battle cry yet that this 3-game vacation into the sunshine can make or break their 2010 season, even with 32-odd games to follow. Forget that the Rays have 24 more games against the American League East over the course of the rest of the season, including another foray at Fenway in the near future. Tonight’s win showed the Rays hopefuls that the Red Sox machine might seemed broken and battered, but it can still rev its engines at full RPM’s when needed.

 
J. Meric/Getty

Realization by the Rays that this team is sometimes too slow to adjust and submit to changes at the plate as pitch after pitch goes by outside the zone and gets called for a strike. The Rays managed to suffice in the “Rays Way” for almost 6 innings before adjusting their game and swinging at those borderline calls that had been called by Home Plate Umpire Gary Darling all night long. It took too long for the Rays to up their game and swing at those pitches 6 inches off the plate that got the arm action of Darling and saw countless Rays rallies die an instant death with a still cocked bat at the plate.

 
J. Meric/Getty

Forget the double plays by Evan Longoria and B J Upton in the first and third inning that equalized any sense of control issues with Lester by giving the Rays freebie base runners than have them dissolved instantly by a solid ground ball hit to either Marco Scutaro or Adrian Beltre, who quickly dished the ball off to second and first to squash any Rays rally like a bug. A brief realization by the Rays that Lester and Boston catcher Victor Martinez were not always on the same page, but not utilizing it to their advantage to get more than one solo run in the stressful bottom of the fourth inning.


Here was the Rays trying to produce runs via the “small ball” approach, but Lester was pitching outside to try and eliminate a bunt down the line, or even a solid contact with the ball. By the time the Rays realized and circumvented their approach, it was already the bottom of the fifth inning, then base running malfunctions became the letter of the day. First it was Sean Rodriguez being completely hung out to dry by Lester on a steal attempt of third base with two outs that further complicated the Rays game plan.

But the huge exclamation point on the “missed it by that much” game performance of the Rays is best illustrated in the base running of Upton , who began the bottom of the sixth inning by walking, then getting a smooth and clean steal of second base off of leftie Lester before committing the ultimate game faux pas on a single to centerfield that former Rays farmhand Darnell McDonald scooped in shallow centerfield then tossed a grenade to Martinez who got Upton at mid-body on his feet first slide into home. Aggressive base running is one thing, and hustling and seeking the plate in an instance where the ball was maybe 40 yards above the top clay of the infield is suicidal at best.

 
Reinhold Matay/AP

Love the aggression, hated the result. But that is just another realization that night that maybe they were playing this game a click slower than the Red Sox. But this series already is showing high signs of a epic struggle for redemption by the Red Sox and the Rays did not have the ammo to fight back tonight. Six times in this contest the Rays either tried to get a man to third, or he advanced to either score or get thrown out. Six times the Rays had a honest and realistic chance to post more runs, but something jammed the Rays own engine every time, but once.

So I guess it is only right to tip your cap towards the players and fans wearing the big “B” on the cap tonight for playing the hands that were dealt to them and capitalizing on Rays mistakes or offerings. It was not as if either pitcher was brilliant, even though they both combined for 18 of the 24 strikeouts in the game. Fitting still was the last out, a called strike on pinch-hitter John Jaso that looked a few inches below and outside the strike zone to most in the stands.

An instant realization by the Rays that they let this game get away from them. But it also gave the Red Sox a realization that this series, and this season might just be beginning to heat up. I think I am going to bring a tube of sun block to the game tomorrow night because I some burning to be done, hopefully it will be the realization that the Red Sox might have woken a sleeping Rays giant. Or maybe it is the Rays this time who will seek a redemption for their play on Friday night.
 

The Red Sox are Coming, The Red Sox are Coming!

 
 
Chris O’Meara/AP
You could just sense that something was coming. Your ears would begin to burn and vibrate with increasing velocity, and you could just feel the barometric pressure beginning to rise the minute the Red Sox plane landed. This was going to be the series where the Red Sox laid it all out on the Trop’s turf and by heck or high water would make their ultimate 2010 stand to reclaim a spot in the 2010 playoffs.

At first you were not sure if it their first attack was an ambush at you from the Northeast, or maybe a flanking move from their Spring home in the South (Fort Myers), but you knew that the Red Sox Nation’s spirits were going to be flying sky high the minute they opened the doors for this decisive 3-game series. And you know every swing and every pitch will have viewers in the seats in at home pulsing towards the television feeling every ebb and tide of this series this weekend.

With the Red Sox sitting just beyond the Rays grasp right now in their own divisional fight, it is imperative that they gain ground this weekend, or finally face the horrific truth that they will need allies to get back into either the American League East race, or get a helpful nudge into the American League Wild Card top spot. With word spreading like wildfire that Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who has been a thorn in the Rays side all year pretty much done for the year, another viable weapon is taken out of the Red Sox arsenal.

And with around 35 games to go before the end of this season, the Red Sox will have to start an incredible push of possibly going on a unheard of 20+ winning streak, combined with some timely Rays losses to again be in a visible position to fight another day after October 4th. So what are a few key situations to keep in mind during this weekend series?

Chris O’Meara/AP

Red Sox Starters versus Rays Offense.

Rays have hit the combined Red Sox pitching staff with some consistency this season. But hold only a .226 opponents batting average against Boston this season. The key elements will be how the Boston starters hold the top of the Rays line-up plus adjust their pitching throughout the game. B J Upton is the only Rays hitter to hit more than one Home Run against Red Sox pitching this season, but the Rays have been patient and posted 53 walks.

Evan Longoria is not having a tremendous year versus Boston pitching this season, but has been on a bit of an offensive tear lately, which could work into his favor. With Carlos Pena now back behind Longoria, teams will have to pitch to Longoria more “straight-up” than pound his wrists and outer zones with the ball. Carl Crawford is definitely someone the Red Sox will want to keep off the base paths, but he has gone 8-23 (.348) at Tropicana Field this season against Boston with 13 total bases.

But in Boston’s favor is their first strategic move of the series, even before they landed in Tampa Bay when they scratched Daisuke Matsuzaka who was experiencing “back stiffness” on Wednesday and instead penciled in Jon Lester to start Friday night’s game. Granted, if you want someone with more spine, I would go to Lester too. The move might seem a bit hasty to some, but Lester holds a seasonal .182 opponents batting average over the Rays head, and a .052 ( 1-19) mark hitting in his only start in the Trop this season.

With a more solid chance to take a win in the first game, the Red Sox have pitcher Clay Buhholz ready to go Saturday night and holds a .261 average against the Rays this season. Combine that with 8 Rays strikeouts in their 23 plate appearances and you get a pretty provocative one-two punch to begin this series. But the problem is that this is a three game series, and John Lackey has not performed all that well within the roof of Tropicana Field this season. Lackey might be the Wild Card entry in this weekends games as the Rays hit him for a .308 average with 4 walks in his only Trop. Appearance.

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

Rays runners against Red Sox catchers

With the Red Sox catching crew decimated by wild injuries right now with former Texas backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia out with a leg infection and Jason Varitek not able to run effectively yet on his injured right foot they are down to Victor Martinez and ex-Ray Kevin Cash. The Rays have stolen 22 bases off the Red Sox in 2010, and have only been nailed once by a Red Sox catcher. With the Rays possibly amping up their usual small ball offense this weekend, being a catcher on this Boston team right now might be one of the most stressful spots outside of their Bullpen. But the Red Sox also can not forget Ben Zobrist (6 SB) or Carl Crawford (7 SB) at any moment this weekend.

Another unknown factor for the Red Sox to consider is that the Rays have garnered 53 walks off the Red Sox in prior games, and the Rays now have more patient hitters like Dan Johnson and Matt Joyce in the line-up to bolster the Rays chances of base runners. This segment of the weekend series might play out the biggest in the end. If the Red Sox can stagnate the Rays running game along with their small ball tendencies, it could be a huge blow to the Rays usual game plan.


 
Chris O’Meara/AP

Rays starters versus Boston Hitters

This is another area where the Red Sox might have a bit of the surprise factor as they started three outfielders in their game on Tuesday night who have limited at bats against the Rays this season. Former Rays prospect Darnell McDonald has appeared in only 5 contests between the two teams, but sports a .455 average in 3 games at Tropicana Field this season. Daniel Nava has played in four Rays vs. Red Sox games and is hitting for a .333 average with a triple. The third member of their unknown outfield from that night, Ryan Kalish has not faced the Rays this year.

But even with weapons like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis sidelined until 2011, this Rays pitching staff will have to be cautious. The Red Sox still have their power options in their line-up with both Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz, who both have 2 Home Runs in the Trop this season healthy and ready to go Friday night. But the Rays are also sending their best weapon to the hill on Friday night to combat the Red Sox bats.

 

Rays Pitching will have to “Set the Tone”

American League Cy Young hopeful David Price, who has held the Red Sox to a .258 average in his only 2010 start against Boston on July 7th at home before the All-Star break. Working in Price’s favor is that in that lone start against Boston this season, he posted 10 strikeouts in the game. But Price has been more impressive since the All-Star break and this Lester versus Price match-up might be a pitcher’s duel until someone blinks.


Buchholz against Garza will have the same effect as the Lester vs. Price match-up in that two very selective pitcher will be wheeling and dealing until someone leaves a ball up and over the plate. And that was the case in Garza’s only start against Boston this season. He got rocked with 4 Home Runs in the outing and gave up 13 hits and 11 runs in the Red Sox’s 11-3 spanking of the Rays back on May 26th. But Garza has seemed more in control of his pitches in recent outings and better equipped for this pressure filled match-up.
Last, but not least will be James Shields coming in on the Nationally televised ESPN Sunday Night Baseball telecast against Lackey.

Shields has had his up and down moments recently, but he always seems to have a special 6th gear for Boston games. Shield has only faced the Red Sox three times in 2010, but held them to 4 hits and 2 runs and a .143 average in his only start against them at Tropicana Field on May 26th. Working in Shields favor is he is 2-1 against Boston this season and has held Boston to no Home Runs at home.


This series is going to be a bit of a :do or die” scenario for the Red Sox. They do not want to have to rely on any of the other American League East rivals to help their cause. This series might be all about the pride and the resolve of the Red Sox to show they can overcome and set the Rays down to get back into the Wild Card race.

If the Rays were to slip past Boston and sweep them in this home series, it could effectively put Boston near the double digit mark behind the Rays. This is going to be a great series, and one worth watching on ESPN on Sunday night.

Tick Tock goes the Clock

 

 

Most of the time getting out of the West Coast road trip over the .500 mark would be considered a major victory of its own. But right now for the Tampa Bay Rays, every loss is putting more pressure on this young team as they try and stay focused, energized and on the heels of the veteran New York Yankees. Sure the road trip came out over .500, which normally would have both the Rays Coaching staff and players enthusiastic, but the conclusion of this road trip also meant the Rays were about to enter the season’s danger zone.

It is that time of the season as it winds down tighter and tighter with every game to finding out if you truly are good enough to win another expensive ring, or if it will all come crashing down like a house of simple playing cards. This one upcoming month will show just what this Rays team is made of, and if they can truly compete late into October. And sure you can say the same about a dozen of other team around Major League Baseball, but this Rays team has consistently hovered near the top all year, and a fall from grace now would be disastrous.

It is that time of the year when every small decision by the team will be thrown immediately under a microscope for examination. The closet Managers will be coming out in force in the next couple of weeks with their own plan of attack or even survival over this 4 weeks of toil and trouble. Every pre and post-game comment uttered will be dissected and analyzed for a potential sign of overconfidence or vulnerability. Even a slight deviation from a players’ usual batting stance or throwing style will be greeted with shock and awe instead of the splendor of its actions.

But then again, that is what you expect out of a stretch run. And that is where a team like the Yankees have a distinctive advantage over the Rays. Not just that they won it all in 2009, but the team is a mixture of veterans and youth, with a few hired guns who know this point in the season like the back of their batting gloved hands. Over the next 35 games split almost evenly at 18 home games, and 17 on the road, the Rays will battle their divisional rivals 25 times including 7 extremely important games in mid-September against the Yankees. Over the course of the next 4 weeks we will see if the maddening rambles of Rays Manager Joe Maddon, plus the health of his Rays players can provide a solid answer, or just another huge question mark.

 

That is what we seek. A true sense of direction right now with the Rays. Sure we all saw the recent 1-run games that kept all of us up late into the wee hours of the morning during their West Coast safari where they bagged a few much needed victories. But the answer now is if they are going to be able to close those tight contests, fight to the last out, or even keep that sense about them of securing a spot in the playoffs. Websites have predicted the Rays can charge into the postseason in confidence, but with games still in hand, anything can happen…even losses.


Even if this Rays team does go .500 over the course of the rest of the season, will 95 wins be enough to hold off the Boston’s, Toronto’s or even the Chicago White Sox? The percentages tell us they can starve off the scoundrels trying to pry the final prize away from this Rays squad. You can bet every team that faces the Rays from Boston to the Kansas City Royals in that last 4-game road bump will try and play the spoiler right now with the Rays dead center in their sights. You want to say something eloquent and noble right now to send them into this den of success and failure and hope they come out no worst for the wear.

We all knew even back in April that these four weeks near the end of the season would be the pendulum to decide the Rays ultimate fate. It is that time where that bold separation begins to happen between hero’s and zero’s. That slippage of time that can take some predestined by others and throw it into a tumbling mass of internal team turmoil. Maddon has a post-game ritual of wanting his players to forget that night’s contest after 30 minutes, but even in victory now, that contest needs to be pushed aside and focus immediately happen for the next game.

Wins in this stretch run have a more sweet taste to them while losses are intensely bitter. Fate and destiny are no longer seated next to this Rays team. It is about to be time for the Rays to make their own magic, or perish by their own devices. Right now this Rays squad have their own destiny and fate in their hands over the next 35 games. In the end, by hook or by crook, we will know exactly what this Rays team is made of….

Could the Shields Era be Coming to an End Soon in Tampa Bay?

 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

The number 55 can be symbolic to a number of people. We all know it is in the title of the song by musician Sammy Hager, “I Can’t Drive 55!”. We all know it was the posted National speed limit designated by huge signs along the nation’s Turnpikes and Interstates for a huge portion of our lives. Some gaming enthusiasts also know the number is associated with an astute “Call of Duty” clan of seasoned perfectionists who fight their battles on television screens everywhere.


The number “55” within the realm of the Tampa Bay Rays history books holds a very unique place, but it is also a dangerous place. Going into Monday’s night game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, the Rays would collectively bear witness to seeing the current Rays All-Time leader in victories, and Angels Starter, Scott Kazmir battle to preserve Kazmir’s weakening hold on the Rays All-Time career mark currently set at, you guessed it…55.

Kazmir will oppse the Rays in that contest against his former Rays teammate and friend, James Shields, and with a Shields win, Kazmir will have to acknowledge another part of his short legacy with the Rays will fall. It is extremely unusual for a pair of young guns like Kazmir and Shields to be fighting for the right to hold the Rays All-Time career mark. It does seems like such a low, low number, this “55”, but the solid reality is that life as a Rays pitcher does not always have a solid foundation or expanding future.

There can be several reasons for this, but the biggest is simply that the dollar signs sometimes makes a Rays pitcher a trade commodity way before his pitching expiration date. Recently, Shields has begun to hear the increasing mumbles and ground level grumbles around the Rays ballpark that he might be nearing the ultimate end of his long reign as the Rays King atop the Rays rotation. We soon forget as Rays fans, just how fast and short the escalation of the pitching exiting process here in Tampa Bay.

For a firm illustration of past quick exodus of the Rays winning pitchers’, you only have to look at the next four slots within the Rays career victories list to see former names of Rays pitchers like Victor Zambrano (35) Esteban Yan (26), and Albie Lopez (26) to show the Rays have not held onto their pitching stars for very long. Zambrano was traded for Kazmir, but when Zambrano left the Rays, he was the team’s career leader in victories.

Funniest part is that Shields is not even the highest paid pitcher currently on the Rays roster. That designation goes to teammates Rafael Soriano ($7.25 million), Dan Wheeler ($ 3.5 million) and fellow starter Matt Garza ($3.35 million). Shields will jump to $ 4.5 million for the 2011 and be in the current Top four of the returning members of the Rays roster. That high salary by itself could become Shields downfall. Sonnanstine (29 wins) who trails Shields in the Rays active victory tour will only see his salary rise to possibly $ 1.5 million due to his first stint at salary arbitration.

 

But it might be another Rays teammate that makes Shields expendable. Garza’s estimated salary arbitration has him garnering a possible $ 5.25 million salary for 2011, and that total could send the Rays searching high and low for a team willing to take on Shield’s and his 2011 salary. In 2011, Shields could find himself just like Kazmir, on the outside looking in at the next wave of Rays pitchers who will strive to take his name off the Rays pitching mantle. Shields has also not done himself any favors recently with some of his erratic pitching, and clouds of doubt have begun to fly all around the stands as to Shield’s effectiveness.


Surely the pitcher who has logged over 200+innings over the last two years and has been one of the only Rays pitchers’ not to go down for the count on the DL will be spared from this worry. But can the Rays gamble that same level of consistent return again in 2011? On the positive side of the equation right now is two solid performances where Shields won twice, plus he logged 7+ innings for just the second time this season. Maybe Shields had a bit of a dead arm and instead of complaining he fought through it and has gone 5-2 now over his last 7 starts. The signs are there that Shields might have found his second wind in 2010 and that we should not count him out…just yet.

Still stuck firmly in the back of my mind was that horrendous day in Toronto when Shields surrendered 6 Home Runs, becoming only the third pitcher to produce this type of hurling disaster in the last 70 years. Even though Shields did push some of the blame on himself for the debacle, Shields also tossed his young catcher, John Jaso firmly under the buses’ wheels and pushed a mountain load of the blame firmly towards his catcher and his play calling. That was uncharacteristic of Shields, and might have been a defense mechanism, but it was still an ugly side of Shields the Rays had never seen surface before. If Shields felt that way on the mound on that horrendous day, why didn’t he shake off Jaso’s signs?

 
Elaine Thompson/AP

That one instance doesn’t make Shields expendable, but the rubber arm and his consistency will come to a crashing end in the future. Will the Rays take the gamble and roll the dice with Shields, or will another starter who is waiting in the Rays system like Jeremy Hellickson take his turn in the Rays merry-go-round. If the Rays moved Shields this off season, it would save up to $ 4.5 million the Rays could use to entice another offensive weapon to join the Rays for 2011. With Garza also getting a substantial pay raise through arbitration, the Rays (after Garza’s salary) could effectively only have to spend around $2.525 million for their other four possible starters (David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson) in 2011.


That makes Shields very expendable, even with only the second highest starter’s salary on the team. We might be seeing the everlasting glow before the sunset of Shield’s time with the Rays. Considering Shields has already been here about 5 years, maybe his time has come for him to seek another opportunity elsewhere. Another interesting sidebar to last night’s game, Shields and Kazmir became only the second pair of former Rays Opening Day starters to meet in a Rays game.

Ironically, the first time this happened was when Kazmir met Oakland starter and former Ray Joe Kennedy back on May 5,2007 at Tropicana Field. Maybe it is time for Kazmir to pass that Rays torch to Shields and let him shine brightly before his Rays tenure begins to dim. But then again, that is what we have come to expect out of “Big Game”.
 

 

Goodbye Sweet Lou

 
 
I like Lou Piniella, I truly do. I got to know the former Tampa Bay Rays Manager when he first came aboard with the Rays when I came into the Rays Spring Training Clubhouse at Progress Energy Park and could hear his laughter from two rooms away. He had all the gruff and lines of a Manager that you should fear with every inch of your being, but also had that calming effect you wish your friends possessed.

And he truly loved this game. And at times it seemed that he not only loved it like a secret mistress, but he relish the excitement, agony and also the drama that makes this game special in every moment of every game. I never got a chance to sit there and chew the fat with the Manager that some Rays players avoided at any cost, but I did share a joke or two with him on occasion when performing my old Pepsi duties for the Rays clubhouse Manager, Chris Westmoreland.

Lou wanted a nice cooler unit for my office, and I had come into the Rays clubhouse to show “Westy” some of the selections of coolers when Piniella came roaring around the corner with a new special idea he wanted to illustrate to his players as to commitment to the game. This was the moment Piniella had come up with the hair dye moment to commemorate a winning streak, and the glow in his eye showed the fire was still deep and glowing within him.

 

But most people remember the Manager who would rant and rave at his players, even from his perch in the dugout for a jaunt instead of a gallop towards a base. Giving his troops a rant after their telltale moment of a lapse of any baseball intelligence, or simply not giving the game the respect it deserves…always. For deep down below that angry guy persona was a former player turned Manager who’s respect and adulation for the game far outweighed his sense at times.


Piniella never seemed totally at ease being the skipper of the Rays warship. He always seemed to want one more power weapon, one more viable option, but the team was strapped to it’s fiscal responsibilities and could not always give Piniella the weapons he so deserved or demanded to fight within the American League East. But Piniella tried to be the model Manager and leader and absorb some of the punches from the mistakes and faltering pitching or offense that always seemed to doom his Rays teams.

But in the end, it was not Piniella being tired of teaching the young how to play the game right, or even the weigh of all the Rays losses that killed his passion, it seemed to be he did all he could with the Rays resources he was given and had finally seen that it was not going to change anytime soon. I did not see him the day he finally decided to put his Rays cap on the last time, but I know even with the end in sight, Piniella fought the game as if it was his first contest as a rookie in Kansas City.

Piniella was always a fighter, a scrapper and was ultimately the right man at that moment in this Rays development as a franchise. People always say that the winning attitude was defined with the beginning of the Joe Maddon Era. Well, the fires were lit, and the embers never dies under Piniella’s watch. And that passion sprung to life again after a short hiatus as a broadcaster and he took his last grasp at the job that has consumed and entertained him for much of his adult life.

 

Piniella might have finally take his last stroll onto the Wrigley Field turf today, and hopefully he took in the blue sky and the green grass and memories flooded his mind of being able to play coach and manage this great kid’s game for such a long time in his adult life. I always thought Piniella might become this generation’s Don Zimmer, the guy who will always have his fingers somewhere in the baseball cookie jar and take an occasional big bite until he takes his last breath.


But this is not a truly sad day because we all know that Piniella has lived, breathed and been so consumed within the fabric of this game for so long it will always be a part of him. And he will be somehow just beyond the shadows talking, instructing or possibly building a dream team of his own after he finishes wearing the Manager’s uniform. Tampa Bay has been blessed to have a Manager like Piniella when he was here to push the team and the franchise into another spot in it’s development.

I know family matters brought this action to fruition before the end of the Cub’s season, but I hope I have the same sentiments as the rest of the Rays Republic and hope that Piniella finds that next rhythm, that essence of solitude and finally a time for loving life after the diamond. Mostly I am glad he was a part of our Rays history and brought this franchise through its teenage years with patience, counseling and a bit of tough love to give it the firm foundation of respect for the game that the Rays possess today.

 

They say special people help make and shape our lives. Hopefully the integrity, virility and a passion formed by Piniella here in Tampa Bay always flows through this franchise. I know I will miss your gruff triads and comments, all boosted up by the love you have for this great game.

St. Petersburg and Oakland Could be Sister Cities

 
 

Going into this weekend 4-game series between the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, I decided to take a little look under the municipality covers of both locales and see if there is any similarities that would provide a common thread to mend these two communities together. My reasoning is simple here, both are not the largest cities within their regional boundaries, but yet they both currently support a Major League Baseball American League franchise within their own unique city limits.

With something like this in common, you know there has to be more than a few links and similarities that might have gone unnoticed to most people outside these two cities. Let first step into the cities themselves and provide a few interesting facts, then we will end with the two teams common bonds within the scope of Major League Baseball.

*** Both cities lie on the western most shorelines of their separate natural harbors or estuaries. St. Petersburg is located on the western edge of the Tampa Bay estuary, while Oakland is situated within the larger San Francisco Bay estuary.

*** Both cities are relatively close in size with Oakland encompassing 56.1 square miles of land, and St. Petersburg having 59.6 square miles of land.

*** Both cities were incorporated within 25 years of each other with Oakland being established on May 4,1852, and St. Petersburg being incorporated on Leap Day February 29,1876.

*** Both municipalities got their prominent starts thanks to the growing railroad industry with St. Petersburg being a main railroad terminus thanks to one of the city’s founders Russian railroad tycoon Peter Demens, and Oakland owes its debt to the Central Pacific Railroad.

 
St Pete Trolley Line

*** Both had little known trolley systems with Oakland’s system expanding into the modern day Key System while St. Petersburg’s trolley system, which ran from its most western point at Park Street down St Pete’s main road, Central Avenue to the eastern ending point at the end of the Million Dollar Pier.


*** Both cities boast a special place in aviation history as St. Petersburg was the site of the first known commercial airlines (1914) flight. Oakland was the starting point of Amelia Earhart’ s final flight on her World-wide flight plan. She had envisioned landing again in Oakland to conclude her journey.

*** Both cities primary newspapers started within 10 years of each other. The Oakland Tribune started in 1874, while the St. Petersburg Time started it first printing in 1884.

*** In both cities, local Major League Baseball support groups have been critical and instrumental in changes for the MLB’s team future homes. In Oakland, “Let’s Go Oakland” (Keep the A’s) has been a grassroots civic group trying to keep the team in Oakland. They even have a face book page to advertise their plight. While in St. Petersburg, POWW (Protect Our Wallets and Waterfront ) has been instrumental in blocking the formulation of plans for the Rays 2008 vision of a waterfront ballpark on the site of the team’s former Spring Training stadium.

*** Both Oakland and St. Petersburg are currently fighting to keep their MLB team’s within their city limits, with Oakland currently losing their battle to have team leaders consider a future home in O-town. St. Petersburg officials and Rays personnel will discuss more details following the 2010 Rays season as to their future plans.

 

*** Both have cities on the eastern coast of their estuaries fighting for recognition in the MLB team’s fight for a new state-of-the-art stadium. Oakland has the east shore communities of Freemont and San Jose fighting for the Athletics, while St. Petersburg has Tampa wanting the Rays to relocate in the downtown region of the city.


*** Both communities had team employees who went onto brilliant careers after serving as batboys for the teams. Tampa Bay had Jesse Litsch, who served as a Devil Rays batboy and worked as a team intern transform his baseball talents into becoming a member of the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. In Oakland, A’s owner Charlie Finley hired a local dancer, Stanley Burrell as his team’s batboy and also gave him an honorary title of Executive Vice President. Most of use know him by his stage name M C Hammer. Also interesting, both were locally born natives of the region’s where the teams are located.

***Oakland has long been known as the home of the “Moneyball” system of baseball talent evaluation set up by Athletics GM Billy Beane. Tampa Bay is home to the risk management style of players evaluation made famous by new MLB hotshot Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. Both are considered baseball wunderkinds for their new provocative ways of evaluating their farm system’s talent.

 

*** Both team’s primarily use their farm system to restock their MLB 25-man rosters with limited outside Free Agent signing. Free Agents are brought in to fill holes, not institute major roles within the team’s core, which keeps both team’s payrolls within some of the smallest payrolls in the Major Leagues.


***Oakland closed their Third Deck seating areas to fans in 2006, including the famous “Mount Davis” sections built by Oakland Raider’s owner Al Davis to push his NFL football capacity to over 60,000. This effectively lower the A’s potential sellout capacity to 34,077, the smallest current MLB stadium capacity.
Tampa Bay covered up a higher section of their Upper Deck or 300 sections with blue tarps to lower their usual game attendance to 36,048 ( not counting Standing Room Only tickets). During the Playoffs, the Rays can remove the tarps and increase their stadium overall attendance to over 41,810 seats.

*** According to their 2010 Opening Day payrolls, the Tampa Bay Rays are ranked 25th ($ 63,313,035) and the Oakland Athletics are ranked 26th ($ 62,310,00 ) respectfully in Major League Baseball.

***
Both teams are also ranked in the lower third in attendance with Tampa Bay currently ranked 22nd and Oakland holding onto the 28th spot within the MLB’s 30 teams. Surprisingly, the Rays hold the bottom spot at number 30 in 2010 road attendance with a 22,780 road attendance average, while Oakland sits at the 20th spot with an average of 29,416 fans in the stands at away games.

 

As you can see these two communities definitely have a few things in common beside their future fighting and wrangling about their stadium situations. But what is amazing that even with this uneven playing field in front of them, both teams are above the .500 mark in 2010. One team (Tampa Bay) has a chance to secure their second AL title, while the Oakland will just have to be happy to play the spoiler role in 2010.

But both teams have one of the best baseball talent evaluators in their front offices, and one of the best stocked farm systems with young talent to keep their payrolls under control for many years. Maybe one day, both these communities could become “Sister Cities”, or would that just feel too darn weird?

 
 
 
 
 
 

First Acknowledgment by Rays of the Playoffs


 

Leave it to the Tampa Bay Rays to make me look like a fibber. For some reason I was given the end-around, double clutch fake woohoo babied about the Rays Post season ticket packages. This is not the first time the Rays have tried to swerve my judgment or even taken me down the path least followed, but this time I thought the source was secure. So it was a total surprise today that I got a treasured packet within my mailbox today from 100 Tropicana Drive. And when I opened it, I swear a heard a chorus of rowdy angels singing off in the distance.


For today was the day I was to hold within my sweating fingers the first acknowledgment by the Rays that we might wander into the Playoff territory again in 2010. So it was no wonder that I quickly tore that white envelope’s end off and gathered in the dark blue folder with Rays icons Jeff Niemann. Matt Garza David Price and James Shields on its cover. I find ot kind of ironic that the four pitchers posed on this folder’s cover might just be the Rays starting four in the postseason.

But what was more remarkable was the inserted invoice for the Postseason in my little seat in Section 138 was going to cost me $950 little George Washington’s with a $ 25 Service Fee…..Really a service fee that high? In the end, getting a seat not even 7 feet from the playing surface for less than $ 1,000 is extremely rare, and one of my cherished possessions in life. And I like how being a Rays Season Ticket holder has gotten me almost a 20 percent discount for the ALDS and ALCS game, but no such luck getting a discount for the MLB-controlled World Series tickets.

But still, it is pretty cool that the possible 10 games (plus 2 possible tie-breaker games) the Rays could play in the 2010 post season will once again be mine and all mine for its entirety. And again we have been given the double fingers crossed promise by the Rays of additional seats in the 300 sections of the stadium with the number of seats granted equaling our normal Season Ticket seats. For me, that would be one additional seat for $ 590. But as in 2008, the deadline for my little George Washington’s to wander into the Rays money safe is by the deadline of Wednesday, September 8th, which is less than 19 calendar days from today.

Why couldn’t the Rays have had a longer period to get our funds deposited into their bank like say by Friday, September 24th when the Rays begin their final home stand with the Seattle Mariners in town. It would still give the team time to place their fingers on their keyboards and print and mail the post season ticket strips to their fan base, plus they could open the general public seating tickets on that Monday, 27th, still during the Rays final three game of their home schedule against the Baltimore Orioles.

But the Rays were more than adamant in their postseason packet that if you fail to register or send your full payment in by Wednesday, September 8th, you might be lost in the Rays general public ticket system trying to buy a seat for a playoff series. This is their quote straight out of the packet:

In order to purchase your postseason ticket packet, full payment must be received no later than Wednesday, September 8th,2010. After that time, the location of your invoice will no longer be available and the opportunity to purchase postseason ticket packages can no longer be guaranteed. Commemorative postseason ticket stock will not be available for accounts paid after the deadline.

But on a happier note, I do have the dates of the postseason games in the American League and will post them below so we all can request the day off, or re-schedule that dentist appointment or whatever. Starting times will be announced at a future date.

 

The American League Divisional Series :


Game #1 will be held on Wednesday, October 6
Game #2 will be held on Thursday, October 7th.
The teams will have Friday, October 8th as a travel day to the opposing team’s city.

Game # 3 will be held on Saturday, October 9th

Game #4 (If needed) will be played on Sunday, October 10th.
If a fifth game is needed to finish the ALDS, The involved teams will have Monday, October 11th as a travel day.

Game #5 will be held on Wednesday, October 12th,2010 to finish the series.

The American League Championship Series:

Game # 1 will start on Friday, October 15th
Game #2 will be played on Saturday, October 16th.
The teams will have Sunday, October 17th as a travel day between cities.

Game #3 will be played on Monday, October 18th
Game #4 will be played on Tuesday, October 19th

Game #5 (if needed) will be played on Wednesday, October, 20th

If one team has not garnered a series advantage by this point, the teams will have Thursday, October 21st as a travel day.

Game #6 will be played on Friday, October 22nd

Game #7 (If needed) will be played on Saturday, October 23, 2010 to determine the American League participant in the World Series

The 2010 World Series:

Game #1 will be held on Wednesday, October 27th

Game #2 will be held on Thursday, October 28th

The teams will have Friday, October 29th to fly to the American League city

Game #3 will be held on Saturday, October 30th

Game #4 will be held on Sunday, October 31st

Game #5 (If needed) will be played on Monday, November 1st
If the World Series is not decided by the October 31st date, the teams will again have Tuesday, November 2nd as a travel day back to the National League city.

Game #6 will be held on Wednesday, November 3rd

Game # 7 (If needed) will be held on Thursday, November 4th to determine the 2010 World Series Champion.

Hope all this information is helpful to Rays fans who will want to also be included in the 2010 Rays playoff fun. Hope to see all of you at the ballpark, and look forward to cheering for our Rays this postseason.

 

 
 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 278 other followers