May 2011

Rays Pitchers are Ready to Hit

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It is always a special time of the
season when the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff brings out the lumber.
It signals the Inter-League schedule is upon us, and brings back that
great memory when Esteban Yan cracked a Home Run back on June 4,2000.


I mean the 6′ 4″ 275 pound pitcher
had the build and stature of a power hitter, but who in their right
mind could have predicted he would connect on the first pitch he ever
saw in live pitching, then come up later in the game and get a single
for a perfect MLB lifetime 1.000 Batting Average and a out-of-this
galaxy 2.500 Slugging Percentage.


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That one moment in time has set the
hitting bar super high for Rays pitchers turned sluggers.
Inter-League play is usually the only time Rays pitchers get a honest
chance to take a bat, pine tar it up and swing it with a donut firmed
engaged on the barrel. Sure some have a bat in their hand in the Rays
dugout when they are not pitching, but it is more cosmetic to most of
them.


It was fun this Saturday to see some of
the Rays pitching staff hit the batting cages on the field since both
teams opted to not take B P on the field. Rays pitchers Andy
Sonnanstine, David Price and Wade Davis decided to take a few pitches
thrown by Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey to get themselves primed for
the upcoming Inter-League Inter-state rivalry against the Florida
Marlins in just 18 days.


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This current brand of Rays rotation
members tho pride themselves on their hitting ability that could
inevidently help their own cause with an RBI single or a perfectly
executed bunt down the line to get a man into scoring position. Sure
they only take swings prior to these annual AL/NL bragging rights
battles, but some take it more serious than other.


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Take Rays long-reliever Andy
Sonnanstine who prides himself as a hitter so much he has taken his
Rays team picture the last two seasons holding some lumber on his
shoulder. And there is good reason for that. Out of the entire Rays
pitching staff, Sonny might be the best suited both physically and
mentally to stand in the box during a regular season game.


How many of us remember back on Sunday,
May 17, 2009 after a line-up card snafu Sonnanstine, who was that
day’s starter became the first pitcher on the starting line-up cars
since Chicago White Sox P Ken Brett back on September 23, 1976 ( vs
Minn).


Sonnanstine responded by going 1-for-3
with an RBI double becoming the first Rays pitcher to ever bat in an
American League game, and the first pitcher to walk to the plate at
Tropicana Field. You might be surprised then to know Sonny also
pinch-hit twice in 2009 for the Rays, both in National League home
games against the Marlins (May 23) and the New York Mets (June 21).


But he wasn’t the first Rays pitcher to
ever pinch-hit. That honor went to current rotation member James
Shields who picked up a bat on June 28,2008 in a game in PNC Park
against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not surprising, Sonnanstine owns a
career .318 batting average with 2 RBI, 6 runs and a .400 On-Base
Percentage heading into the 2011 Inter-League schedule.


On Saturday Sonnanstine was actually
the first Rays pitcher to put a ball out of Tropicana Field and
Sonny took a step forward and tipped his hat to the guy who snagged
it in the first row of Section 144. The St. Petersburg Times reported on Sunday that David Price hit the first ball out, but that was incorrect.


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Even so, Price did hit one out a few
minutes later to a huge round of applause to Rays fans who became
aware that the Rays pitching staff was taking a few hacks in the
cage. Price did hit his ball a bit farther than Sonnanstine, but
Price also did something Sonny did not when he took a celebratory
jog around the bases with the crowd cheering him. 


Price is not yet
a hitter on Sonnanstine’s level, but he did get his first
professional hit off Colorado Rockies starter Aaron Cook back on
June 17, 2009 in Coors field. 
Price currently hold a .200 (
2-for-10 ) batting average, but went an impressive 1-for-3 back in
2009, his first season in the Major Leagues. On Saturday, Price did
show a better more level swing with the element of power a few times
to the Right-Centerfield gap.


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That leaves us to the only right-handed
batter in this threesome, Wade Davis. He is still sporting a shortly
cropped haircut since Davis shaved his head this April for a Cut for
a Cure event that took place right on top of the Rays dugout. Even
though Davis is the second cousin of former Cubs catcher and NL All
Star Jody Davis, he has gone hitless in his only career MLB at bat.


Still, on this day he was stroking a
few well placed liners down the line and took some extra time getting
his bunts down with precision in between. Davis also had his moment
when he deposited his own pre-game souvenir for a fan in
Section 143.


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Even though we only got to see 3
members of the Rays pitching staff on Saturday, there are others who
will get their chance real soon to pick up a bat and take their spot
at Home Plate. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson has never stepped to the
plate in a MLB game, but will get a chance this season. 


Then you
have the tall Texan, 6′ 8″ Jeff Niemann who has gone 0-for-10 with
7 strikeouts. Niemann’s career stats might not evoke any clear
cheerful thoughts, but the final member Shields, should give you
reason to feel confident on the Rays staff’s abilities.


2011 will be Shield’s fifth season
hitting during the Inter-League schedule, and he is hoping to up his
current .250 ( 6-for-24) batting average with a solo RBI and a .308
Slugging Percentage. IT might have been a while, but Shield actually
hit .478 with 11 HR and 45 RBI when he was selected the Los Angeles
Times
Player of the Year back in 1999.


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Pitchers hitting in game has never been
a huge part of the Rays game plan. But with Shields and Sonnanstine
able to connect and help the team’s cause during the Inter-League
schedule, I would not be surprised if Rays Manager Joe Maddon sends
one of them up as a pinch-hitter. It just adds another element of
their 2011 mantra “Another Way”.


I mean who can forget walking through
the Rays clubhouse during Fan Fest in 2010 and seeing Sonnanstine’s
bat and gloves sticking out of his locker like a sore thumb. Something curious I noticed on Saturday afternoon, at no time did Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton make an appearance on the field behind the cages to either instruct or watch the Rays pitchers. I find that kind of curious.


Got a
feeling this season, one of these guys is going to be trotting around
the bases. And when that happens take a look at the other four
members of the Rays rotation, I bet they are the first people on the
dugout steps to give congratulations to their peer.


REO Speedwagon Was a Lead-Off Hit for the Rays

They have produced a multitude of songs that step beyond the annuals of time. Anthems of new romance, loves lost and even emotional pulls at your warrior side that has been at the forefront of several generations. This was the perfect band to begin the third season of the Rays/Hess Express Saturday Night Concert Series.

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The selection of REO Speedwagon seemed as a natural to kick off this year’s musical celebrations considering some of their direct and indirect ties to the Tampa Bay area. How many people know that Oldsmar, the little shadetree town nestled on the northern shores of Tampa Bay is actually named for R E Olds, the originator of the Oldsmobile franchise, and the inventor of the REO Speedwagon.

Beyond that degree of Tampa Bay seperation, REO’s lead singer Kevin Cronin made sure to do a personal ” shout out” to some friends of the band (Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander) who live in the northern Tampa Bay city of Spring Hill. 30 memebers of the “Tampa Bay REO clan”, which included family members and friends converged on Tropicana Field with prime spot in front of the stage to see Cronin and crew bring back the 70′s full blown with the Teflon roof of the Trop.

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The chemistry on stage between Cronin, lead guitarist David Amato, piano/keyboardist Neal Doughty and long time member bass guitarist Bruce Hall was evident from the first note played.How can you not like a band with a drummer who last name is Hitt….Bryan Hitt to be precise. From the drum beats to the solo guitar riffs that embody every REO song, the band pulled us in with their musical magic.

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 I am one of those who remember and wore out my copy of their Hi Infidelity album with its great ballads and high energy guitar and drum riffs. With the band celebrating their 30th anniversary of the release of that iconic album, and a remastered version out now, it purely felt like a hometown concert between friends.

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The first thing I noticed upon hitting the photog’s well today was the entire band was smiling from ear-to-ear. These are guys who definitely get into their songs and have fun playing together. That is something so rare to see a band together for over 30 years since their days at the Univeristy of Illinois who enjoy their work, and love sharing their craft. Made for the perfect ambrosia to again remember all of our lovelorn past.
Thumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 068.JPGThumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 115.JPGHow many of us lived and died in our early relationships wins and losses with songs like “Take It On the Run“, The Letter” or “Can’t Fight This Feeling“. I have noted before that “Riding The Storm Out” actually set in a snowy setting was one of the songs we heard in our ears when I hit the sands of Kuwait City back in 1991. In my youth, REO Speedwagon definitely has a special place.

Thumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 279.JPGThe set by the band kept the assembled Tropicana Field crowd swaying and grooving with the riffs and vocals with more than a few in the crowd singing along and showing their inner Karaoke demons. But that is what hearing bands like this who set up musical memeory chips to our lives do to you.

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They bring up the intensity of the first moment you might have heard the song, possibly proposed to your future wife, or even lamented a failed attempt to keep the one you loved with you. REO delivered full bore and then some. 

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Was even great to see Johnny Damon and his kids around the Rays dugout rails enjoying the music. Funny thing is only 3 Rays, Damon, RP Kyle Farnsworth and RP Joel Peralta were even born when Hi Infidelity made its first march through the Billboard charts
Thumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 093.JPGThumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 088.JPGWith the band ending their set with “Riding The Storm Out” it sent the crowd back into the words buzzing on the band’s performance, and even bringing in a few new fans to the band’s music. REO Speedwagon has come a long way since their first gigs in campus bars and stashing their equipment in a friend’s station wagon (possibly an Oldsmobile).
Thumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 306.JPGThumbnail image for REOSpeedwagon2011 270.JPGClassic bands like REO always bring a new sense and appreciation of music to younger fans, but to those of us who have weathered the rock storms of the past it brings moments to light that sculptured our lives and made us who we are today.
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