August 2010

Kurt Vonnegut Could have been a Rays Fan

 

 
Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

There is something about the Tampa Bay Rays that sometimes boggles my twisted, but usually sane mind. The Rays have one of the best collective hitting line-ups in all of the Major League in regards to being patient and getting walked by their opposition. But they can also just as easy twist 180 degrees and also possess one of the worst overall team batting average in that same sentence.

The Rays have somehow now been involved directly with 5 no-hitters or one-hitters in the last 12 months of baseball, and yet the Rays win-loss record is still somehow among the elite in the Major Leagues. They are definite pupils and teachers in retrospect of the liquidity of the basic yin and yang theory.


Let’s see if I can for one day immerse myself within the dusty trails modern literature and see if I can find a vantage point of clarity for our Rays through the quotations of Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe a cerebral focal process from which to fully understand the way this pendulum of production seems to find itself rocking to and fro to outlandish point of god awful performances, back by pronounced hitting and progressive defensive maneuvers. How quickly these 25 Rays seem to possess the innate power to go from the dangerously dismal to the climatic explosion of power in a mire pitch or timely swing of the maple bat .

 
Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

I could throw the usual baseball clichés on this page right now and write to the heavens above that the Rays are just another reincarnation of that devilish team that wouldn’t die, but we still have 56 some odd games for that to materialize fully. Instead let me find verse, quotations and maybe a few home spun yarns as to the resilience, perseverance and down right uncanny ability this team has uncovered to keep itself in the hot spot for so long, while also venturing into the bowels of normalcy by always poking the sleeping dragon with a stick. These former (Devil) Rays might have a death wish cast upon them from beyond, or might be luckier than a litter of kitten with all their lives intact.
 
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”   

How provocative these mortal words have rung true this past weekend as the Rays seemed to again and again defy the logic of gravity and physics by going outward from the center of their comfort zone to immerse themselves in the chaotic and random actions of lunatics. How bizarre that these Rays on Saturday afternoon saw one of their more prolific throwers convert himself into a human B P machine and surrender 6 Home Runs to his opposition. How during that debacle, there must have been chatter amongst the players in their mind that it could not get worse, then with the crack of the bat…It materialized and optimized that this Rays team can not conjure up luck on the fly.

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion…I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterwards.”  

Over the last four contests, the Rays Republic has not had much to take in as positives or any affirmative points of reference. The true fact that a evolving ball of internal frustration has built its way larger and larger into the subconscious of this Rays team to a point of epic proportions with key previously productive teammates possibly suffering injuries and unexplained bouts of fatigue is mesmerizing at a time when each Rays teammate needs to gather and assemble their collective positive chemistry and provide a sense of release from this bubble of frustration, and exhaust the bad karma within themselves.

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody want to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

Seriously here. This is so within the Rays character right now. It is not about “lollygagging” or even settling for less. It is about pushing beyond the levels of yourself and accepting more from yourself at a time that the team needs that spark of motivation. Right now the innate positive going through so many minds within that Rays Clubhouse is they took 4 out of 4 from this same Tigers team last week at home. It is a starting point, a jumping off point to further the range of what can be achieved for these 25 guys.

 
Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

Now is the time to promote the civility of winning again into this Rays culture before the nagging bits of negativity again reign supreme upon the rotting corpses of “what if’s”. Time is of the essence to take back the winning characteristics that drove this Rays team to such heights on the road in the beginning of 2010. Time for a rebirth of reality, and of the expectations of “What is Important Now”.

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything meaningful to say”.

This last quote is all for me. Seriously, how frustrating it was during the hours following yesterday’s defeat to see people ring in the “possible No-No” card, but forget the game could have eventually turned on that same first hit. How the general public wanted to tunnel-vision the situation and forget Longoria was the tying run of that contest. They wanted to proclaim the Rays a pathetic team, but totally cloak the fact their team has a worse record than these same Rays. What was so profound to me that I can understand and empathize with Blue Jays fans on this feat, but other team’s supporters suddenly clicked on the MLB.TV link to see history get flushed in an instance.


Lost in that moment of Jays euphoria was the aspect of Rays long reliever Andy Sonnastine coming off the Disabled List prior to that contest to make a spot starter for the ailing Jeff Niemann and no one gave a single prop to Sonnanstine. Everything centered on Brandon Morrow, and nothing, even on MLB Network spoke to the courage and strong performance of Sonny. But that is the sad end of that No-Hit coin. The opposition can hold the other team to only 5 total hits and a single run, but the hero is the guy who missed out on destiny. Just ask Matt Garza, if destiny wanted you to have that No-No, it was within your grasp. Fate and destiny do not know how to throw a fastball.

 
Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

Hope you enjoyed me standing out on the ledge for a bit here today. For some reason I needed to do a bit of clarity cleansing myself after this weekend. I saw so many episodes that pushed pre-2007 moments into my mind this weekend that I needed to proclaim a different mindset today and evoke another during of rare karma amongst my Rays. Who knows, maybe they can get a recharge of mojo in the Motor City. I guess I should leave all of this with at least one more muse of Vonnegut.

“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again”.

Spoken like a great Rays fan.

 

Shields Needs to Reset the Tone

 

I sat there staring at my big screen for over twenty minutes after Saturday afternoon’s contest between the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. What I saw on that screen reminded me more of a pre-2007 Rays squad. That was the kind of team that got dismantled 17-11 in their games, not this 2010 edition of the Rays. It had the eerie “been here before” vibe of an older version of a Rays contest where the offense had a stride going, but for some god awful reason, the pitching and defense just fell by the wayside producing moment after horrific moment until you just feel numb inside watching the screen.

It was a scene I thought we had finally grown beyond. A action and reaction that was filed away forever, never to be shown the light of day again. I truly thought we had seen the last of the pitching implosion in regards to the Rays staff. It was really difficult to watch the mental and physical disembowelment of Rays starter James Shield’s heart and soul during that debacle. We saw was Rays starter James Shield’s going from “Big Game” to “No Game” in a matter of hours. We were witnesses to the total effect of game day implosion of a pitcher we all used to count on for anything and everything….including ending unexpected losing streaks.

What we saw on that clean and new Astroturf was what happens when a Coaching staff lets a pitcher try to get out of a jam, or two and instead just further takes himself into the darker places and internal elements by missing their location, plus having to turn their back too often to watch balls disappear out of the ballpark. We all personally witnessed a pitcher’s own version of Hades on Earth. During the course of the game we all visualized the blood draining from Shield’s face, and finally exit the mound looking batter, beaten and bewildered beyond even our own twisted beliefs.


I do not know how Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey slept Saturday night. It is one of your responsibilities as a mentor and Coach to try and protect the confidence of the players under your command. To help divert the doubt and dark moments by protecting the pitcher’s delicate psyche, not sit there leaning on the rail popping sunflower seeds into your mouth discussing what comes next. You do not let a your main guy’s confidence meter go to almost empty point because sometimes a pitcher enters that dark place and never fully returns to form after that outing…..ever.

 

Games like this can change careers. It can let a bad image or even event permeate for five days with Shield’s either shaking it off and rebounding effectively, or it can further fester into his inner sanctum of confidence and rattle him to the core. One of the biggest weapons in a Major League Baseball pitcher’s arsenal is his sense of bravado. That swagger and aura of invulnerability is even more of a powerful thing than a well place Change-Up on the corner of the plate. Pitchers’ live and die on their confidence and their image as the keepers of the game. They set the tone, they provide the flow of the game.


If any of that is interrupted or corrupted, it can take a pitcher down a long and winding road of doubting his own stuff. A tendency to second guess any fingers popped down by his catcher. Then ultimately, he could lose himself within the game instead of commanding the game and leading his team. A pitcher’s state of confidence is a fragile thing. Even the biggest ego maniacs on the mound can be rattled and changed by an outing like Shield’s suffered on Saturday. This might be a really huge test for Hickey and his pitching philosophies over the next five days.

 

Either Shield’s will come back onto the mound rejuvenated and ready to pitch again with vigor and vitality, or he will try and foreshadow a bold outer shell with hints of hesitation in his delivery to the plate. One can provide a winning edge for the Rays, the other can take both himself and his team back into that dark place the Rays do not need to venture to again in 2010. Pitcher’s egos are a fragile creature. They need to be nurtured and grown for them to fully develop and provide a confident and strong performance.


Shield’s needs to take the mound for his next outing and show early dominance to effectively recover and push this past performance down into the dark again. He needs to set the tone, provide a winning edge for his teammates to rally around and he has to show that Shield’s swagger again as he strolls from the mound. Game shots of Shield’s after he left the mound on Saturday showed him dazed and confused. People around him were trying to give him positive points, but Shields was already in that dark zone.

Shields needs to climb back out of the darkened pit that embodies his last pitching performance and rise to the occasion again and lead this team. He needs to be the positive force, the striving piece of the puzzle that will lead by example and provide that winning edge again for the Rays. This has to happen. This has to materialize and provide a positive catalyst to regain and return to normal. Either that, or we will have other problems besides just Shields to worry about in the not so distant future. Set the tone James, set the tone.

Trop comes with Warning Labels

 
 
Brian Blanco/AP
It isn’t any wonder that after Minnesota Twins slugger Jason Kubel hit his high game winning pop-up into the center vortex of Tropicana Field that opponents came out of the woodwork like a bunch of festering cockroaches to condemn the Tampa Bay Rays home. Immediately after the ball struck the A-ring and came down 25 feet in front of where Rays infielders Reid Brignac and Jason Bartlett were stationed, the catwalk carnage was just getting started within the media posse’ in the Rays Press Box. But with these two American League foes, this is the third time the Tropicana Field catwalks have had it say in the course of a Major League Baseball game. Twice the advantage went to the home team, this time, it went for a game winning RBI pop-up single for the Twins

And it is nothing new for the out-of-town media to begin to bicker and rant about the stadium they call an architectural pinball machine. But it did come as a surprise that Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who has been at the helm of the Rays for 3 ½ seasons became its latest detractor after Thursday matinee game. Maddon did everything short of calling the Trop a circus big top and professed that Major Leagues Baseball needs to make changes to the Trop’s present Ground Rules if the Rays make it into the 2010 Playoffs. This was the same Rays Manager who once said we had to embrace the peculiarities of our home field and use them as a unplanned home field advantage. Funny what comes out of your mouth when the “advantage” works against you.

 

And the Rays home is far from unfair or holds a distinctive home field advantage of some other ballparks around the country. Tropicana Field doesn’t have the luxury of a short Rightfield porch that Yankee Stadium possesses, or even the oddity of a flagpole perched upon a uphill grade within the playing surface like the Houston Astros. Each MLB stadium has it’s own distinctive advantage for the home squad. The problem with the Trop’s apparent advantages is that it can go either way in a matter of seconds.


Tropicana Field’s irregularities are viewed on a vertical scale, while those other examples have a more planed or horizontal distinction. I have even heard the roof support structures of the Trop referred to as the four rings of the apocalypse by a member of the National media. It is almost like the rings surrounding the playing surface of Tropicana Field are a vortex that white baseball enter, but are never seen again…most of the time.

Sure we have seen two different game day occurrences so far in 2010 of a hit baseball entering the upper echelon of the Trop’s air and being diverted a different directions, each with different outcomes. The first instance this season happened against the New York Yankees back on April 11th when Yankees Manager Joe Girardi protested that a pop-up by Even Longoria hit a large speaker situated in foul territory along the C-ring and deflected the ball into fair territory for an infield hit.

 

The Rays did not capitalize on that day’s magical event as they fell to the Yankees 7-3 losing their first series of the season at home. But again, the media decided at that same moment to bring up the particular interesting ground rules that pertain to this lop-sided dome,. Rules which totally favor the offensive team, and not the defensive unit on the playing surface. To quickly paraphrase the Rays Ground Rules, if a hit ball strikes anything, in fair territory, it is considered “in play” and should be dealt with accordingly. In other words, if it hits something between the foul lines, you better catch it or pay the piper.


And the totally obscure fact that Kubel’s high pop-up probably went vertical about 190-some feet before deflecting off a set of stairs that take people to the upper cupola or the A-ring, it is a magnificent blast no matter who hits it. And with as many distracters of this stadium’s roofing system, it was only the second batted ball to ever hit that section of the Trop’s roof. Particularly amazing, the first time also involved the Twins and Rays too. Since the Rays first game on March 31,1998, only 105 balls have ever come into contact with the Tropicana Field roof support structures, and none have ever been hit into the cotton fabric that lies underneath the stadium’s main Teflon roof.

Let’s see if I can fully illustrate the oddity of Thursday hit by providing that the Rays have played 1,028 home contests with less than 105 balls hitting that menace of a leaning roofing system that projects over 194 feet above Home Plate. That works out to one baseball possibly striking the Rays roof maybe once every 98 Rays home games.

Kubel’s high pop-up is so into the realm of being an obscure it is not even funny. The fact that only four balls have ever been hit up into any of the surrounding roof rings and never came down is simply amazing given the roof reputation by its own distracters. What is more perplexing is that the Twins are no strangers to the A-ring controversy on the Trop’s catwalks. Back on another afternoon contest on Sunday, May 31,2009, when Rays slugger Carlos Pena put the first ball off the A-ring but was caught by Twins reliever Jose Mijares for an out. And the only other time the catwalks have come into play when the Rays played the Twins was back on May 2, 2007 when again Pena hit a towering shot that deflected this time off the B-ring for an infield single.

 

The next day during Batting Practice, it was discovered that the Twins would have an additional helper up in the catwalks against the Rays as a mannequin had somehow been positioned just off the playing surface high in the roofing ring system with a Twins jersey cap and a right-handed fielding glove. It is not like the ball will always deflect or angle itself away from fielders when the roofing rings are involved. I remember a game one season against the Cleveland Indians and a ball went into the C-ring and was bouncing around on the flat surface. As both teams looked up into the rafter system, Indians shortstop Omar Visquel positioned himself under the ring between the infield and the leftfielder. Within less than a minute the ball began it descent straight into Visquel’s glove for an out.


Tropicana Field was proposed back in the late 1980’s when a futuristic baseball stadium was to be built upon the same site with an open-air concept with a circus tent type roof and water features in Centerfield like the Kansas City Royals Kaufman Stadium. It’s first design was to be open to some of the elements of the Florida climate.

 

 The final recommendation came that a domed stadium, or fixed roofing system had to be employed to further protect the playing surface from rain and gusty winds that plaque the region during the Summer months. It was a matter of picking your own poison, and the comfort of watching baseball indoors while rain and winds howled outside in 72 degree splendor won out to a natural surroundings.


Sure a retractable roofing system might have prevented 105 batted baseballs from striking the Trop’s present roofing ring system. And also of note, that type pf roofing system would give the Rays a chance to open their playing surface to the outdoor elements on starry nights or pleasant and cool afternoons, but that type of retractable roofing system was not totally developed by the time construction started on the then Florida Suncoast Dome.

Our parents drilled into us at a young age to “use what we got, improvise and adapt if you want something to work to your advantage”. All of us have tales and stories of making just that happen in our own lives. Tropicana Field is an abnormality to so many in baseball. Some call it and its crowds more like a mausoleum than a ballpark. But say what you will about the Trop., but remember this.

The Rays, even with their losing tradition early in the franchises first ten seasons has gone 507-520 All-Time at home. Only 13 games under .500 in the team’s history. Credit some of that to the Rays past teams, credit some of that to the fanatic Rays Republic, and you can give credit a few of those wins to the rings around Tropicana Field. It might not have gone our way on Thursday afternoon, but it distinctly our home field advantage….most of the time.
 

Pena’s Progress take a Step Backwards

 

 

Foot injuries can be the worst injuries in baseball for a powerhitter like Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena. Due to the fact that there is a minimal amount of muscle and ligaments in that apendage, sometimes the injury can bring you down like a ton of bricks when the pain gets too much, even for a professional like Pena.This one region of the human anatomy has mostly a bone surfaces that can easily bruise and when injured can provide a constant level of aching pain if you do not rest it and let it heal. The simple action of an opponent accidently stepping on the wrong part of your foot, or inadvertantly twisting their cleat onto your shoe can render a constant and lingering pain that can go on for weeks or weeks without treatment.


So this past Saturday during the Rays versus New York Yankee contest when Pena finally gave into his searing foot pain in his right plant foot, you knew it had to be tremendous pain to get him to leave such a hotly contested series. One of the givens in athletics is that you always have some sort of ache or pain during the competitive season. When Pena finally confessed to the obvious pain in his right plant foot to the Rays Medical Staff, they took every precaution and every  treatment move to try and get Pena back in the Rays line-up as soon as possible.

But after a training exercise and drill set yesterday before the Rays played their finale against the Twins, the team decided that Pena could be better served with a bit of down time and let his injury heal naturally. So following the game last night against the Twins, the Rays Medical staff  have a conference with the Rays front office and Coaching staff and decided to place Pena on the Disabled List retro to August 1st. This will provide some added rest time for Pena to do additional sessions to promote some healing of the region, plus give the Rays an added body on the Rays 25-man roster on their 6-game roadtrip. 


 

When Pena left the Rays line-up during their game against the Yankees, you knew it had to be something monumental for the Rays clubhouse leader to finally sit with his team so close in the hunt in the American League East. But a consistent pain in the top of your right foot when you are a left-handed batter can in time take you mentally out of your focus range while hitting as the repetious ache can feel like someone is stabbing the top of your foot when you swing a bat, or use your right foot as your trailing foot on the First Base bag.

That back leg is also a key element to providing optimal power in the swing process from the left-side of the plate. To have any type of nagging ailment in this region of the body can render your swing less productive, and provide limited power until the pain or the cause is found and dealt with accordingly. The loss of Pena tothe line-up until possibly the home series against the Texas Rangers will take another power bat out of the Rays line-up, and could be critical to them staying in close proximity to the Yankees in the A L East stadnings.


 

Think about it, Pena is one of those old-fashion warriors who normally will play through the pain and aches, to provide the  motivational leadership to keep the Rays young guys hungry. To see Pena sit, even for one game meant that the pain had to have reached his personal limits. So it was great to see the Rays do due diligence by performing an M.R.I, which concluded Pena had a slight ligament tear on the top of his right foot. But even with the right care and guidance the last several days, Pena’s injury did not respond the way the Rays had hoped, and he will spend a few days on the D L  healing and hopefully regaining his power level for the stretch run.


 

It is the kind of injury that you can deaden with pain killer or shots, but can also fester and become worse if not diagnosed and treated before it becomes a more severe tear or even finding the ligament detached from the bone. It was great to see Pena doing agility drills and performance tests with Rays Head Trainer Ron Portfield and Rays Third Base Coach and infield instructor Tom Foley before the game. They did agility drill with and without the baseball to try and gauge Pena’s range of mobility and seemed to focus on his quick acceleration left and right whilemanning a defensive position on the field.


 

Porterfield and Foley also tested Pena’s progress with him coming out of his hitting stance with a test on his first three steps out of the batter’s box to see if there is any hesitation or hitch to compensate for his ligament injury. They also did a battery of testing his acceleration moves on the base paths and a battery of test movement with Pena shifting his weight in multiple directions before concluding the exercises and all three then standing near the first base foul line discussing the exercises at length.


From the body language displayed by both Foley and Porterfield, it looked like they were receptive by noticeably concerned by the lack of progress in Pena’s situation . Their facial expression showed that they were not optimistic and totally pleased with the drills. The next step might be a bit of rest and relaxation for Pena for a few days, then re-evaluate the situation and plan a rehabilitation plan accordingly. 

 

One thing that has stood out in the past two Rays games is the visual fact that the Rays do not have an adequate bat outside of Pena that strikes any notion of fear into the opposing pitching staffs. The Rays have recently seemed to be one guy short of a great offensive strategy at times. The expulsion of Pena from the Rays line-up has left  one of the Rays young power hitters, Evan Longoria exposed and during this roadtrip teams will try to intimidate and make Longoria carry the bulk of the Rays offensive power.

 
In the last two games without Pena’s threat of power, the Twins manipulated Longoria and temporary fixes to the Rays line-up did not extract any levels of fear in the four slot in the Rays line-up. Now will be the time for Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson and even Willy Aybar to step up and become other great power options for the Rays in Pena’s absence. This segment without Pena will be another test to see just how adaptable this Rays team will be to change and if they can adapt on the fly to bring their offense back up to par and win. 

 

The loss of Pena until possibly next weekend could be a major blow to the Rays trying to stay in pace with the Yankees. With one of their leaders and big bats missing from their line-up, the Rays need to immediately refocus their attentions and have each team member contribute on this 6-game roadtrip through Toronto and Detroit. If the Rays stumble and fall and do not regain their offensive mindset, the season could pivot on these 9 games. It the Rays line-up can reconnect and finds a way to contribute evenly throughout the line-up, they might be able to effectively weather the Pena injury situation and come out on the winning end.

If not, it is going to be a long 9 games, and the team could find themselves closer in the standings for the American League Wild Card slot with the Boston Red Sox instead of nipping on the Yankees backsides for the A L East title. If the Rays want to secure their destiny and surge ahead, each member of the Rays roster during these 9 game will have to dig a little deeper and provide a few moments of their own.  But that is what good teams do, they adapt, conquer and move onto the next test with flying colors.

Rays Have Engine Troubles

 

 

Something last night just seemed off. There was this weird vibe in the air that brought you to an immediate sense of complacency. That for some reason it just wasn’t going to be enough no matter what happened, that the end result was already predestined even before Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price’s first pitch. Sure you can throw the obvious roadblock up that the thunderstorm bellowing it’s wind and rain outside Tropicana Field made an immediate impact when the lights dimmed inside But the reality is it just postponed the obvious for about 20-some minutes.


The Rays came out totally flat and produced only one run on a night when their young pitcher was going for a Rays franchise record 15th victory. It should have been a night where all cylinders were cranking loud and proud, but for some reason, the usual V-8 Rays engine was sputtering and gasping for even a base hit or a reason to stay positive. And that is not what happens to teams that want to play deep beyond the 162 game mark. Sure there was the late rally that has been a consistent trademark of the “Comeback Kids” Rays for a long time, but in the extra frames, that passion also seemed to be flushed like the rapid rain waters funneling outside the Trop.

With usual Rays component Ben Zobrist again in the Rays line-up. All night long the Rays seemed to be one click, one swing or even one second slower than they needed to be to best the Minnesota Twins. Even the difference of two inches to the west side of the leftfield foul post produced a moment that should have gave everyone within the Trop a sense of impending drama and heartbreak. But even as they fought with their engine down a cylinder, they evened the score at 1-all and gave it a fighting chance, but it was not enough. For the second time since their June 20th 13-inning contest in Baltimore, the Rays ended up on the wrong end of a extra inning affair.

Immediate blame was cast towards Rays reliever Lance Cormier, who was also the losing pitcher in that June 20th late inning loss, but Cormier was definitely pitching on fumes after throwing a 30-pitch side session for that night’s Rays contest. Those 30 pitches combined with his 3-inning total of 59 pitches pushed him to almost 90 pitches thrown by Cormier in less than 4 hours time…or a usual Rays starting pitcher’s pitch count before 2010. It almost seemed like the Rays Coaching staff was hoping and praying that Cormier could put his finger into every possible dyke leak after the 9th inning and plug them long enough for the Rays to fix their sputtering engine and take the game.

 
Mike Carlson/AP

Credit the Rays for their ninth inning rally to even play beyond the initial innings, but after that, the Rays machine just seemed to shut itself down for the night. Two former Durham Bulls helped the Rays get their tying run in the ninth inning as Evan Longoria doubled to lead-off the inning. Matt Joyce hit a screaming ball to right field that advanced Longoria to third base. Dan Johnson, who has been up as a offensive replacement while Carlos Pena’s injured foot ligament heals, singled to right to drive in his first Rays RBI of 2010. All done on the watch of newly acquired Twin’s closer Matt Capps, who lost his chance to save the game by allowing the Rays run on only five pitches.


Five pitches decided the night for the Rays. Five consecutive pitches brought the game into extra innings and set-up Cormier to again be the fall guy for a lack of Rays offense. At least in the June 20th contest it was a 11-10 loss and both teams had their offensive units in power mode, while last night it seemed termites had invaded the Rays bat rack for most of the game. Pity, because Price deserved a better result from his teammate last night. Price deserved his team to be on -point and hunting for bear to give the young pitcher a franchise first 15-game winner. It should have been a night of celebration into the wee hours, not still playing the same game until around midnight.

This is not the stuff that makes a championship team. A champion fights until the last out with gusto and bravado of no tomorrow. Losses like this come back to haunt a team in the end by not mustering the stamina to sustain a offensive attack. The Rays offense went 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Last night the Rays totally forgot their mantra of “Get The Man In”, instead it turned into making the opposition’s pitcher look like the All Star, not Price. And that will not work over the next two months . Losing games you are suppose to win is not enough now. This series the Rays had the Twins by the throat and never administered that chokehold needed by a champion.

 
Mike Carlson/AP

The instruments are in the Rays toolbox to fine tune this team and get this Rays team motor purring like a fierce cat right away. And a 8-2 home stand with one game to play would make most teams happy as a clam, but most teams are not trying to fight toe-to-toe with the New York Yankees right now. The Rays need to again gain that mojo, that swagger, that “Rays Way” of thinking that propelled them to 67 wins before tonight. The Rays have now conjured up three consecutive winning seasons, and the sky is still the limit for 2010 to exceed all previous Rays teams, if they again fight to the last out.

Hopefully this Rays team is not seeking an excuse or a person to take responsibility for last night’s loss. The real explanation for this defeat can be seen in every mirror inside every Tampa Bay locker.

This Rays team as a whole has to take this loss equally on their own chins and get up again in less than 12 hours and fight, or be left behind in the carnage. The sputtering Rays offensive machine doesn’t need an overhaul, doesn’t need a modification, it only needs to have all eight cylinders cranking away with the same objectives, goals and emotions. Otherwise, this season could quickly be headed to an early end and an unfortunate trip to the junk pile.
 

Hellickson has the Right Stuff


 
Jeremy Robert Hellickson started his lone walk out of the Tampa Bay Rays dugout at 6:40 pm. Here was an emerging Rays player who on first impression, might look more like a college baseball player than a pitcher about to get his first taste of life at the Major League Level. As Hellickson approached the Tropicana Field outfield, you instantly wanted the lone figure to get larger in stature based on the folk tales and lore that had trickled down from North Carolina, about his pitching.

We all knew the pitching accolades and the praise that proceeded him to Tropicana Field. His 2009 Rays Organizational Pitcher of the Year Award. The same player who won the Bobby Mercer Award as the Most Valuable Player of the 2009 Triple-A Championship. That during the 2010 Spring Training season, Hellickson amazed and tantalized us with visions of a future young Rays pitching staff that could envision all five starters amassing at least 10 wins.

 

It was said that Hellickson’s appearance tonight would be for only one start, and be a chance to benefit the Rays usual five starters by giving them a breather during the Rays current 20 games in 21 days stretch. But in reality it was another short peek at an important piece of the Rays future pitching puzzle. As Hellickson took the Rays Bullpen mound, his first pitch to Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi did not seem to have the force or the “pop” of the usual Major Leaguer. But it was Hellickson’s show now.


Eyes around the stadium began to focus towards the Rays Bullpen. Cameras and fans began to watch Hellickson’s mechanics, his grip on the baseball and especially the increasing speed and force of his pitches as Hellickson moved closer to his first pitch of the night. As his warm-up session progressed, Hellickson’s pitches got sharper, built up speed and right before his final pitch, a small smile appeared on that mound. The last pitch popped the glove of his catcher John Jaso, and you knew Hellickson was more than ready for the job in front of him tonight.

 

In the curve of the Bullpen Café, his cousin Joey Hellickson stood watching Jeremy warm up wearing the same red Team USA jersey that Hellickson’s wore for the 2010 MLB Future’s game in Anaheim, California during the All-Star game festivities. But not only Rays fans were proud to see Hellickson take the mound tonight.

14 members of the Hellickson clan had assembled just beyond the Checker’s Bullpen Café to watch as Jeremy readied for his first night in the Rays spotlight. Winning tonight would do nothing more than show he had the right stuff to be here.

Winning tonight would not garner him another chance to stride the hill this time, but could possibly open more potential chances come September. It was Hellickson’s moment on the mound tonight to finally show and acknowledge that his size and stature were not a measure of the abilities and heart that beat within him.

Hellickson’s performance would show why so many other organizations and scouting agencies coveted his right arm.

 

He showed the brilliance of a veteran pitcher on the mound tonight in taking back with him to Durham, his first Major League win. Over his seven innings last night, Hellickson scattered three hits and two runs to show the Rays ample reason why they have turned down trade after trade for the 22-year old right-hander. . Hellickson’s debut also featured him retiring the first 10 Twins hitters, the first time in five seasons that a American League rookie pitcher had performed the feat.


Sure Hellickson might have given up a Home Run to Jason Kubel in the sixth inning, but after that blast he retired the next five Twins hitters before Rays reliever Chad Qualls came on in the eighth inning. After his customary beer shower to celebrate his victory in his Major League debut, it was learned that the New York Yankees had lost their home game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Not only could Hellickson celebrate his win, but he also gave his Rays teammates the gift of again regaining at least a tie in the American League East.
Even with his win tonight Hellickson will again pack his gear and board a plane in the morning to rejoin his Durham Bulls team on the road in Indianapolis, Indiana.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

Hellickson will not leave the Rays Clubhouse tonight as the same player. He is now has confidently made his first appearance at the Major League level and gave his future fans cause to wait in anticipation for his return.

Hellickson has shown the Rays front office and staff that he is capable and ready to take the next step and contribute with confidence the next time the Rays call for his services. Hellickson gave all of us Rays fans just enough of a tasty pitching morsel last night that we are already salivating and anticipating his return again in the Rays uniform.

That Dastardly Injury Bug

 
 

When Tampa Bay Rays reliever J P Howell went down for the 2010 season and had his shoulder surgery, it pushed a disturbing thought into my mind. When was something else devastating going to happen with regards to a Rays player this season? Injuries for some odd reason seem to come in a surreal pattern of 3’s. Instead of having any Rays nagging injuries early on this year, the Rays stayed relatively healthy and injury free as they made their remarkable climb straight to the top of the Major League Baseball mountain, and the injury bug never got a chance to catch up with them.

Deep down, I knew the “big 3″ injury prognosis was coming. The injury bug had been eradicated by the Rays Medical Staff for over 2/3rds of the 2010 season, but I knew the team could not be totally immune to it’s eventual sting. Rays fans knew in their hearts and minds that any injury epidemic, or even a slight clog in the Rays machine could cripple a chance of celebrating in late October. Then without a hint or warning, the Rays had a quick foursome of injuries.
First came the weird occurrence where Rays Centerfielder B J Upton took in a routine fly ball during the first inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers, then suddenly went down to the turf like a sack of potatoes.

 

Somehow the Tropicana Field turf reached up and grabbed Upton by the left ankle and twisted with all of its might. It officially took Upton out of Centerfield for the remaining two against the Tigers, but it also facilitated another injury. Ben Zobrist, who came on and played in Upton’s usual position suddenly felt his back begin to stiffen up, and another Rays soul was claimed unrepentantly by the injury bug.


This time the culprit wasn’t the diabolical turf or the Rays playing surface, but Zobrist’s own personal strive to be a better player and taking a few too many swings in the batting cage. Immediately Zobrist was removed from the Rays line-up and given time to let his back heal to try and facilitate a quick return to the Rays line-up. But now, two injuries could be assigned to the that dastardly invisible injury bug. Then just as quickly, the third member of the Rays suffered another setback on Friday.

During the Rays Batting Practice on Friday night, Rays reliever Grant Balfour and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey were “joking around” on the turf and again, and that spiteful injury bug again reached up from beneath the turf and caused both men to lose their balance and fall to its green surface. Immediately, Balfour became the third and latest victim of the increasing Rays injury bug plight. The injury has been called a “freak occurrence” by the Rays front office, but it was actually a secret covert operation conducted by the injury bug Black Ops corps done under the guise of playful “roughhousing” by Balfour and Hickey.

Balfour will get a 4-6 week unplanned vacation as he strained his intercostal muscle group, which aids in the holding of the ribcage in place, plus promotes adequate breathing. The injury bug had done his black magic in three straight days and had gone 3-3, but it was not done yet. Not even a day after Balfour’s ailment, another member of the Rays core offensive production had an issue of his own that needed attention by the Rays Medical Staff.

 

Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena had been fighting a nagging pain in his right foot for a few days before finally he could not stand the throbbing injury any longer and consulted with the Rays Medical Staff. Immediately Pena was taken out of the Rays line-up and became the fourth Rays in less than a week to get a solid nibble from the injury bug. But there is a ray of light on the immediate horizon in regards to Zobrist and Pena. With both partaking in a few days of rest and attention by the Rays Medical team, both players on Sunday felt a bit of pain relief and decreasing pressure in their troubled areas. Finally the Rays had some good news on the injury front to tell the media and fans.


Zobrist is optimistic he will not be headed to the Disabled List like Balfour and could return to the Rays line-up as soon as Tuesday, or at the latest Thursday during this last stretch of the Rays home stand against the Minnesota Twins. Pena has also let it be known to the Rays Coaching staff that he is also feeling less pain. But the Rays might be extremely cautious with Pena and Zobrist. Rays fans could possibly see one of the two take a few more days off, or one of them could be submitted today to the 15-day Disabled List to make a more solid guarantee that their injury situations are completely resolved and that the team can promote a better chance of no future repercussions down the stretch run of the season.

A two week vacation now could be beneficial and provide a secure cushion of not re-injuring or agitating the injury down the line. Extermination of this injury bug epidemic needs to start now. Nipping it in the bud and promoting health is a top priority of the Rays right now. The injury bug and its lasting effects have devastated a few Major League teams this season like the Boston Red Sox. There is no ample way to detect or predict the injury bug in advance, but the Rays Medical Staff keeps a keen eye out on any agitation or unusual movements by the Rays players during game or their workouts.

With the Rays having one of the best Medical and Training staff in Major League Baseball, the long term effects and the instant discovery of an aliment or injury can be handled in a timely manner. Injuries are a daily fact of life when you play in competitive sports. There is more than ample opportunity for players to try and step outside their usual comfort zones and try and gain an extra advantage or give their team a greater chance to succeed. The injury bug waits for those moments of self sacrifice and sometimes delivers a cruel and unkind result.

Hopefully we have seen the extent of the injury bug’s attempts to plaque this Rays team with unfortunate injuries and unexpected pitfalls. There is no cure for the injury bug. No chemical can eliminate, exterminate or eradicate him completely. But with players being open and honest about their aches and pains, sometimes the warning signs can be observed, and an aliment or injury prevented. This Rays team needs their core intact and healthy for their run here in the last 1/3rd of the 2010 season. Hopefully Ron Porterfield, the Rays Head Trainer is sitting on the bench tonight with an oversized flyswatter to smack that injury bug where he lies…..Dead.
 

The Rebirth of Chad Qualls

 
 
People remarks all the time that sometimes, people need or deserve a second chance in life. That a bad situation or event should not taint or stain a reputation, or cause people to shy away from you or not consider you effective. And there is no better time for that period of renewal, or a second chance to set things right during a Major League Baseball season as when the Trade Deadline expires. And believe me fans, if anyone is thankful for the reversal of past deeds, it is new Tampa Bay Rays reliever Chad Qualls.

Qualls will again get to taste this magical potion that will start his reliever redemption and it all came with just changing his locker from a National League team to an American League squad. Instantly and with no regard to what Qualls had in his dark Arizona closet, with a bad April-June start, instantly all that rubbish and doubting is gone with a blink of the eye. And maybe that is the most unique thing about this time of year. Every Major League Baseball teams is searching for their own answers by seeking out players who could make a substantial contribution over the last third of a season, or maybe provide some added defense or a deceptive pitching performance to put their squad in contention down the stretch.

Something as simple as boosting the power of Rays Bullpen can produce a handful of needed wins that can be the difference between playing into late October, or making airline flight plans with the family to begin the long baseball off season. And if there is one guy that understands this totally after an unusual and often dismal start to his 2010 season, it is Chad Qualls. The right-hander leaves behind in the National League a .370 Opponent’s Batting Average, with a .390 average against left-handed hitters. Something any pitcher would give his non-pitching arm to reverse in a heartbeat.

 

Boosting Qualls want for redemption is the fact as late as last Tuesday, Qualls allowed 2 runs on 2 hits (1 HR ) in 2 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. Adding insult to Qualls open wounds, opponents have scored on Qualls in 5 of his last 7 games to produce a preposterous 11.74 ERA. Qualls has been victimized with 10 Earned Runs in his last 7 innings of work prior to his trade to Tampa Bay. More heart wrenching is the fact that since June 10th, Qualls has been scored on in 10 of his last 16 outings, despite a small reprieve from June 29-July 5th when he threw 4 scoreless innings. But there is a bright spot to all the doom and gloom forecasted already about Qualls 2010 season.


Qualls did convert is 50th career save in2010 season, plus he has converted 11 of his past 13 save appearances prior to his trade to the Rays. Amazing enough, since 2005, Qualls is in the Top five among all relievers in the Major Leagues in games and innings pitched. And is also in the Top Ten of all relievers in wins and holds. All categories that show that effectiveness has not eluded Qualls his entire MLB career.

 

So there is some firm foundation to provide Qualls with another change in a different locale, and with the recent Disabled List visit by Rays reliever Grant Balfour, Qualls might be in line to be the secondary “go-to” guy and assume Balfour’s usual set-up role. Balfour will be out until possibly September with an injury to his intercostals muscle group, which runs between the ribs and helps promote the breathing action. The injury was not obtained during a Rays contest, but during a playful “horsing around” session


Balfour sustained his injury as Balfour and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey were roughhousing around during Batting Practice on Friday night, and both fell suddenly to the Field Turf. Since the Rays were facing a shortage of veteran experience in their minor league system, they decided to give Qualls a chance to erase the horrors of his miserable first half as a member of the Diamondbacks hoping that his latest chance with the Rays will not bring with Qualls any of his D-back nightmarish results that could rear its ugly head again and forsake the Rays for giving him a chance to start all over again in the American League.

 

Qualls has been given the grand opportunity to showcase himself over the rest of the Rays season to give adequate proof that his days as a questionable reliever are long gone. And that his new Rays reliever new image will emerge and show the confidence and productive nature needed for a chance at 2011 employment.

Second chances in sports do come, and if Qualls makes the most of his rebirth with the Rays, he could effectively salvage and possibly erase his horrid start to 2010 with a powerful and confirming last few months. And the magnitude of the overall situation is not lost on Qualls. Prior to Saturday night’s game against the New York Yankees, Qualls told the St. Petersburg Times,


“The majority of my text messages were, ‘Now you’ve got 0.00 ERA.’ That’s a great thing.”

 

Qualls has a clean slate, a chance to redeem himself and provide a solid answer to the Rays Bullpen over the course of the season. And with Qualls undoubtedly becoming a Free Agent at the end of the 2010 season, he could make a compelling case for someone to take another chance on him in 2011,maybe even the Rays But that is one of the glories of this time of year in Major League Baseball. Things can be erased and forgotten within a moment’s notice.

New beginnings can revitalize and reenergize a player to provide a solid performance for his new club. And a career once in peril can again be reborn brand new and full of hope and promise. Who says Christmas doesn’t come at the end of July?
 

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