April 2012

Price Got his Inner “Avenger On” Against his Nemesis

We all know the movie “The Avengers” is about to hit our television sets in commercials, product placements and even trading cards. But did you know you saw a secondary super hero who somehow missed “The Avengers” casting call, but is just as important and heroic to the Tampa Bay community.

Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price who like the Hulk and Ironman has been forever been imprinted in our minds and souls with his 2011 Rays miniature super hero figurine fame with his dog Astro, showed us all his own “fight the good fight” moment last night television screens in a Nationally televised ESPN Sunday Night Baseball contest against his own archenemy, The Texas Rangers. Sure it was not the classic “Good versus Evil”, but it was a moment of redemption not only for Price, but for the Rays.

For this was the Lone Star nemesis who had assassinated the Rays Fall plans in both 2010 and 2011 by sweeping the Rays away from the post-season like a dust bunny en-route to their own American League titles. In that span, Price had never had a dominating moment against the red, white and blue hued Rangers, but last night he broke free, showed courage, determination and a nice stealthy selection of pitches to finally break through and thrust his hand skyward in victory.

Sure this might not make a 90 minute feature film, but I am truly glad Price got to show a National audience his performance as he finally got the better end against his arch-nemesis. Heading into this twilight contest, Price had taken the hill 10 times ( including 3 post season starts) against this Rangers foe and had come out empty with a 0-3 mark and an uncharacteristic 5.67 ERA during the regular season. Further complicating the matter for Price was the fact he was 0-1 with a 15.63 ERA in his previous 3 starts in Arlington.

 To say last night rose up against his fears and demons would seem, well cinematic, but absolutely true. I mean it had all the makings of a classic hero versus villain make-up as this Rangers squad was one of only 2 Major League baseball franchises in the American League Price had never scored a win against in his career (Seattle is the other, but Price has never started against them). Price definitely had his back to the wall as the Rays hoped to bring home a 2-1 advantage and series win with a victory, plus help Price demolish another obstacle in his pitching path.

Coming into this contest, 2/3rd of the Ranger line-up (6 hitters) had career batting averages of over .250 against Price. To show the precision and complete domination of Price over even these 6 arch-enemies, they went a combined 2-for-19 last night against Price with only Nelson Cruz, who entered the game as Price’s kyptonite sporting a career .574 average getting the 2 hits among the gang of 6.

Total Price dominance would be an understatement, but Price finally finding his groove against his ex-foe and taking them down in this style was simply a made for TV moment. Can’t wait for the second installment of this season’s series, possibly when the Rays return to Texas for another 3-game weekday series August 27-29. Who knows, maybe Price has figured out his nemesis, guess we have to stay tuned and wait until the end of August for this unfolding plot line to be revealed.

Rays Want to be “King of the Hill”

You remember playing that childhood game called “King of the Hill”. Of course in Florida we do not have many hills, but sometimes sand dunes, the rolling landscape or even a set of monkey bars can set the tone of the combatant game of skill and wits. As you push, shove and generally bully your friends to keep sole possession of that sacred space, in the back of your mind you always knew someone could or would topple you with a counter move or bum rush you never expected.

It always came, it put you firmly back on your heels or backside, and you always knew someone wanted the “Hill” as bad as you. That is exactly how I picture the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays right now. Both teams want to sit a top that hill all by themselves, and the Rangers, who have won 75% of their early contests is trying to dig in and stay firm for the long haul while the Rays are pushing, shoving and doing the general mayhem needed to irritate and cause mistakes of this Ranger squad.

Just like our own childhood backyard fights for superiority, honor and neighborhood glory, this 3-game knock-down drag-out square-off is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Both teams know their own strengths as well as their oppositions weaknesses, but it was the Rays who forcefully shoved first last night pushing the Arlington crew back a step en route to the Rays 13th victory.

And the Rays did it the old-fashioned way by using their ace, James Shields who used his change-up and cutter to confuse and found the corners of the plate with sharpness and consistency last night, further helping develop the Rays chances of winning. Combine that with clutch hitting from Evan Longoria, some aggressive base-running that produced mixed results, but served notice the Rays are not standing in the base paths on their heels, and this team served notice it has come to take a few victories before heading back home for another home stand.

When I first saw this road blip on the Rays 2012 schedule I firmly thought this would be a nice checking point to see how this team will endure during the 2012 season. Usually around the 20 game mark teams show their developing interwoven character, and pitching begins to get closer to the hitter’s early season advantages. The Rays have fine-tuned their starter’s rough edges, and with that this Rays team has been rewarded with an impressive winning streak. For this to keep happening, the Rays have to keep doing what got them here, post up at least 6 runs in support for the starters and Bullpen, then find ways to secure outs and get this game quickly in the books.

Still, the Rays want to be the “King of the Hill”. For the Rays to keep pressure on the Rangers and possibly take the hill for themselves, they need to keep pushing the Texas squads mental buttons, shove runs across the plate and take it to this Rangers squad hard and rough especially when they are down. Aggressive actions along with calculated moves could bring the Rays another “W” this afternoon and with that, a clear advantage in this series that the Rays can bank and will clearly pay dividends down the seasonal stretch. I mean baseball and “King of the Hill” are kid’s games…right?

My Swirling Mish-Mash of Media Thoughts”

I was rummaging through an old box last night and came upon a few press clippings of my old beginning so long ago with the old sister paper of the St. Petersburg Tampa Bay Times the defunct but not forgotten Evening Independent. I looked at the browning and tattered pages ans remembered a simpler moment in journalism where the written word took time, meant something, and only the gifted seemed to boast, print or even attempt this form of communication.

Sometimes I still relish those long forgotten days for their harsh simplicity and archaic manner as I typed on the green hued screen of that old IBM computer. The monitor itself was the size of most home televisions of that day, and it’s bright white blinking cursor always seemed to beat in unison with my heart as I posted the words, comments and events that had unfolded and enlightened me that day.

Be it seeing a football game where the opponent (Lake Kathleen vs Dunedin HS) did not have a field goal kicker, or writing about a player so sick he (John Bishop) was throwing up on the sidelines when the soccer ball was propelled out of bounds, to a running back (Mike Ierulli) who had amassed 1,500 yards in his career. Every day was a new nugget discovered, and at that juncture in time, only a handful of people every wrote or gave their accounts of that moment.

It is so unlike the electronic marvels, insta-grams and Tweets of today that can spread a rumor like wildfire, or crush a career with a comment that is forever attached to a person or event. Trust me, I love the innovations of today where news flies as fast as your DSL or WiFi connection, but it comes with dangers we never imagined back in the olden days.

Where once careers were made or broken on the words of wisdom from those in the ivory towers of the Fourth Ward, today a single person with a cellphone, camera or even a Twitter account can take down an institution, a high and mighty player or even form a swirling coalition of current and disinformation about an event. Back then the first rule of writing was “”accuracy, accuracy, accuracy”. Now it seems to run and gambit of who can get it world-wide the quickest with the most re-tweets or comments.

I still do not write for money or fame, my writs are posted and written because I love the game of baseball. Most of them are devoid of stats, articulate discussions and sometimes seems like ramblings, but I digress from the Associated Press Style Book to write my own thoughts, opinions and viewpoints. I take pride in my time as a writer who was paid, and get more joy out of my free ramblings and rants.

I do not hearken the “old days” because I could force feed my opinions and comments upon so many without interaction, I miss it for the accuracy, the integrity and the sense of accomplishment after a long day as the copy was sent down to the typeset room. But I also do not want to hit those dark days again where communication was antiquated beyond belief and waiting cost you a scoop or exclusive. Maybe I am hoping for a 3-second rule, a moment of re-reading your stuff, deciding what is trash, then hit that “enter” button. Maybe it is too much to ask in a era where time is not only money but power and recognition, even for a brief moment.

But that is what this era in media has produced, millions of “media savvy” articulate purveyors of the written words who hopes they one day find fame, fortune and maybe a mention on ESPN. For myself, it is still about the game, still about the players and their actions, reactions and consequences. The game moves fast, but the present day media moves even faster…Sometimes faster than the speed of words and images as they enter our eyes and minds.

Brandon Allen Introduces Himself Again to the Rays Republic

I hope Tampa Bay Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman sends Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane a over-sized fruit basket to the Vinoy next weekend. Heck, I think toss the edible fruit basket idea and Friedman should instead reserve a late night dining reservation with Beane at the uber swanky Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa when the A’s hit Tampa Bay next weekend (May 4-6th) as a “thank you” for leaving a few A’s out on the waiver wire for Friedman to pluck.

It is almost as if there is a Kevin Bacon type 6 degree of separation coincidence going on here in correlation with the Rays and A’s that is starting to bond a growing lineage of former A’s become Rays then thrusting themselves into the Major League Baseball headlines. How is it two teams seem to mesh so well swapping players that fit into their system in very unique ways and these sluggers provide moments you will not forget, or want to forget.

Don’t forget the Rays Dan Johnson was also plucked off the waiver wire by Friedman, and we all know what he ended up doing for the Rays over his inspiring short but explosive Rays tenure. Johnson might be on the South side of Chi-town now, but he will never be forgotten in these parts. Do not forget, if not for Johnson’s Home Run in the bottom of the ninth inning with 2 outs off former Rays Spring Training 2011 RP Cory Wade, the Yankees would have won Game 162, and Evan Longoria would never have hit his monster shot.

It is not that Oakland is a feeder farm for Rays up and coming players, but it sure has made an impression with the last 2 waiver wire pick-ups for this Rays franchise, with Brandon Allen becoming the latest former Athletic to provide a gasp, then a burst of uncontrollable excitement under the Trop’s tilted cap. What is it about a player leaving his yellow and green uniform on one coast, then putting on the sunburst and magical things happen for them?

The latest former A’s offering, 1B/OF Brandon Allen went so deep into Right field this afternoon with his Walk-off Home Run offering if we were in an outside setting, someone’s car would have had a very visual dent or possibly a baseball embedded in their windshield. Wild how not 7 days ago the Rays plucked this unknown to anyone outside of MC Hammer-land. Allen was another Friedman find as he was plucked off the A’s waiver wire after being deemed possibly “expendable” after First Baseman Daric Barton cam off the DL. I got a feeling Beane tried to do exactly what Friedman did in the Rule-5 Draft with Josh Hamilton not so long ago and Beane ended up getting burned to the core on the move.

Allen now joins a list of former O-town off-casts from Carlos Pena to the legendary Dan “boom boom out goes the lights” Johnson in providing not only explosive results, but doing it with style, class and a bit of panache`. Allen is already gaining a bit of cult hero status with 2 deciding moments in the last 2 games that will have every kid and possibly adult beckoning for his autograph when the Rays return home after their 3-game Texas road trip.

Here is a guy who had less than 275 total MLB plate appearances in his career for both the Arizona D-Backs and A’s, but has provided an unheard of highly combustible start with the Rays. How else do you explain a player coming to the plate only 2 times in his Rays tenure and boasting a 1.000 batting average with the Rays, a bases loaded walk for his 1st Rays RBI and today’s 2-run blast that will be played endlessly on ESPN for some time.

Not sure what the correlation between O-town and Tampa Bay is yet. Sure some might say they are the only 2 cities without a new baseball home, but for some reason former A’s do not come here for retirement, they seem to come here to play ball like no one else. Maybe Friedman should make that reservation for 3…I think Brandon Allen also deserves a little special treat considering his last 2 at bats….Just no table-side flambe`s please, Allen is simply flammable right now.

When Will the AL East Sorting Begin?

Starting to wonder if the American League East has hit a bit of parity amongst the division. I know we sample from this buffet every year at this time as all 5 members of the division sit at or near the top of the table. No matter if their respective records illustrates a first taste of divisional morsels like the Red Sox devouring the Tampa Bay Rays during their recent road trip, or the New York Yankees falling prey to the Rays in a season opening series. Every season at this juncture we wonder if our team is that good, or if they are still shaking off the Winter rust.

You want to think it is just that sampling point in the season where teams come together as they begin their yearly journey to either the penthouse or the basement, but something tells me this season this division might be a closer race, have some interesting plot twists and maybe even an unexpected divisional leader heading into May. Sure all 5 teams in this deemed “hardest division in baseball” have met their own shares of adversity already this early in the season, but will someone separate themselves from the pack soon, or will this group maintain their equality for a few more weeks before either their respective balloon bursts, or they rise to the top.

I want to thrust out my chest and paraphrase American Idol’s Randy Jackson That “The Rays are in it to win it!”, or just “gotta have it!” I truly feel we have the right stuff to post up in the top tier of this division, but we are only a tad over 10% completed with the season. Looking at the standing and seeing Boston 4 games back as the rest of the division sit comfy at 10-7 is a bit perplexing considering each of us have only sampled a bit of our divisional team’s offering so far in 2012, possibly we will know more by mid-May on who truly wants to hoist the 2012 AL East banner next Opening Day.

The Toronto Blue Jays have seen their own version of the Rays young guns come through on the hill so far in 2012. Posting up impressive wins and stats early on with the young talent they have either home-grown or acquired in trade. The Jays offense has shown power and prowess, but has not shown their true muscle yet. It seems like a yearly tale that the Jays sit a top the AL East early before they begin to string together losing streaks that take them down further in the standings. I somehow think the Jays are for real, and might sit near the top until the end of May…if not longer.

Baltimore is beginning to mold its own home-grown hurlers like those ripe and juicy offerings from Earl Weaver’s tomato patch, but will they ripen too fast and fade in the Summer heat, or maintain a bit of consistency and strike some fear in the usual top tier threesome of the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox. Even as the Rays reconfigure their offense’s timing and their pitching staff mellows out, this division is not a 1 or 2 trick pony anymore. Teams will have to work for the free pass via the AL East title now, and the extra Wild Card berths do not have a pre-stamped AL East invite.

That could play big into the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees plans as in September when the division does their yearly last gasp in-fighting, the loser of the seasonal series could find themselves seeking help, or possibly be eliminated by one of their own divisional rivals. There has been a rumor the extra Wild Card slot was devised so a Boston or New York doesn’t miss the Fall party, but I have a feeling in 2012, it will all come down to the last few weeks.

Sure I’m rambling on a bit, but I do that at times to fuel the furnace or cool the jets. I truly think the Rays have the tools and the machinery in-house right now to contend and go far this Fall, but only 17 games out of the shoot, I’ll let the teams in the Northern parts of the country spout that logic. The AL East divisional winner will not boast over 100 wins, they might actually be closer to 90 than the century mark. But these 5 teams will decide more than just who can thrust their hands into the air, but first we got to find out who is for real, and who is just riding luck’s coat tails until they fall from grace. Got an odd feeling it might not be the obvious choices this season.

“When In Doubt, Let It Be”

(head tilt  Corky Gaines)

You hear the crack off the bat and instantly see the ball in the air as it spins and orbits towards you. Everything else suddenly fades away as you are stuck mesmerized watching that white sphere as it heads straight to you. It is almost like you are transpose into another surreal realm where it is just you and that little white orb doing it’s little dance as it nears your hands/glove. You go into an astute form of concentration where any surrounding noise vacates your mind, even the screams and pleas of fans around you can not beckon you back to reality in time.

 Just as you are about to reap the rewards and bring that sphere into your grasp you are suddenly snapped back into the present possibly by the deafening sound of footsteps as one of the field players also yearns for your prize. You think you are in the right, but without regret you reach for the ball and it slips through both your grasps, falling to the ground, skipping away from you as you look into the player’s eyes and instantly regret and shame come crashing down upon you even before the showers of boos and catcalls.

 You have interfered with a ball near the field of play effectively knocking it from his projected path and bringing the total focus of the action towards you as you realize the error of your ways. You instantly become entangled and bewildered by the loud chorus of boos making your actions even more deplorable as the seconds tick away. Even the act of trying to apologize, rationalize the previous moments falls on deaf ears around you, for you have committed a baseball mortal sin. You have interfered with a ball in the air that could of produced an out for your home team.

 It is one of the horrific things that can happen as you sit in those expensive seats between the dugouts and the Bullpen seating areas. You see the ball in the air as it rambles towards your seat, think for a moment you have a right to it then pounce, but instead you take a clears chance at ending an inning early with your actions. More and more we are seeing fan interference at Tampa Bay Rays games. It is human nature to want to catch a foul ball, thrust it into the air like a Roman Gladiator the hand it like a treasured jewel to your child. Instead you become an instant scapegoat, a pariah for wanting that white sphere for your own.

I would like to think some of most of this flashed through the mind of ex-NBA player and true Rays fan Matt Geiger as he came down the steps towards his seats on Sunday watching the ball spin towards his seating area with all intentions of being out of the reach of anyone, even Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena.  But Geiger forgot the cardinal rule at that moment like so many of us would of if the situation were reversed. 

And it is true, you do kind of get lost in the rotation of the ball, possibly forgetting that Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena also see the same prize within his grasp and wants it as much as you. We all know how the story ended, with Geiger putting his hands to his face is disbelief not for missing the ball, but for becoming the latest fan scapegoat within Tropicana Field.

 I know Tampa Bay Talk Radio trashed this incident involving Geiger to death on Monday, but I refrained from getting into the shark frenzy. Unlike two of the Home Run controversies during the Rays and New York Yankee series, Geiger did not reach over and pluck the ball out of the air or in front of that mysterious painted yellow line to rob the Rays of potential runs. Geiger did cost the Rays a clear out, but it came with minimal damage, and a few extra pitches.

 Geiger got caught up in the moment, of wanting a actual game used ball for his young son but instead got the wrath and attention for doing something really uncharacteristic for him. He projected himself into the game. The ridicule and harsh comments bellowed towards him as he was escorted from his expensive seat as Geiger’s interaction within the game was being reviewed and it was concluded he did not reach into the field of play, his big mitts just were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 This just goes to show you, anyone can get caught up in the moment, even someone as experienced as Geiger. This incident just goes to show you the consequences of your actions when you sit down close, next to the rail or lean over for a ball can dictate and turn the momentum of a game, plus you might get an early exit from the ballpark.

I guess it is best to go by this simple rule: If you are sitting in a region that a ball can be deemed interfered with, when in doubt, let it be. Simple words until you hear the crack of the bat and see that spinning white sphere coming towards you.

 

Cap tilt to Rays Index/Corky Gaines for the fine in-game freeze frame images.

 

Time to Re-Joyce

The title says it all. How can you not even consider any act of rejoicing for the pure fact that Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Matt Joyce is not only off to a great start in 2012, but has gotten more than a fighting chance to show his stuff against left and right-handed pitchers this season. I understand the post-2012 thinking of Rays skipper Joe Maddon of Joyce wade into the Rays hitting pool slowly, but the guy has proven he doesn’t need a platoon partner. I mean what else does the guy have to do to get a full-time gig? It is time to finally throw Joyce into the deep end of the shark tank and see if he can dog paddle or swim like a cow-nosed ray.

Coming into the 2012 season Joyce was riding the accolades of his first All-Star selection, playing in 142 games during the season, and posting up some impressive number during his first season of Maddon loosing up the reins. So far in 2012 Joyce has posted up a .308 average with 7 extra base hits, including a current streak of going 8-for-20 over his last 5 games with 3 HR, 3 RBI and has scored 8 runs. Joyce has hit safely in 8 of his last 9 games batting .375 during this span. Unfortunately so far in 2012, Joyce has seen a bit of struggles against left-handers who have tried to expand the outside corner of the strike zone on him, but Joyce has pushed up a .222 average with a solo HR and 3 RBI.

 That might not get a resounding vocal of support from Maddon, but considering Joyce has only had 18 at bats against lefties this season, Maddon might still be playing the odds with Joyce. But seriously, hasn’t Joyce over the last few weeks proven he can stand tall in the box against hurlers from either side of the rubber? Why go back to the old Maddon mindset of putting Joyce on the pine when Joyce might be finally adjusting to the outside pitch offering and getting into a groove mentally of knowing what is in store for him during plate appearances against southpaws. Why not let Joyce mature and get some valuable plate time proving he is an all-around hitter, not just someone who can blast one against righties.

Of course a lot of this early 2012 success has also been on the heels of the Rays not having a legitimate tag-team partner to interweave with Joyce after Rays CF B J Upton went down even before the 2012 season after a Spring Training game collision with LF Desmond Jennings. Sure maybe Joyce has not posted up amazing numbers to get his name scribbled in daily against left-handers yet, but the guy is learning with each step in the box, and sooner or later he will find that rhythm and bat cadence that will produce the run scoring opportunities and boast his confidence at the same time.

Going to be interesting especially on Sunday to see if Maddon goes against his old judgment concerning Joyce and gives him a day on the pine against struggling Twins leftie Francisco Liriano. You would think this might be the perfect test for Joyce going against a hurler that has posted a 11.91 ERA and has given up at least 5 earned runs in his 3 2012 starts.

Still when you hit .290 against right-handers with 16 HR and 60 RBI during the 2011 season then mirror image that with a glaring contrast of a .219 average with 3 HR and 15 RBI against lefties, it makes a decision to bench you statistically solid. But if you look deeper at the splits, Joyce got 370 chances against righties while he only went to the plate 92 times against southpaws last season.

Before Joyce sent a pitch into the Rogers Centre seats in the top of the 7th inning against Toronto Blue Jays southpaw ace Ricky Romero during the Rays April 17th loss, Joyce has been feast or famine with round-trippers against his leftie foes. In 2011, Joyce got all 3 of his Home Runs against left-handers in a span of 13 at bats, and before his blast in Toronto, these were Joyce’s only Home Runs ever hit against lefties in his career.

Seems to me possibly Joyce is starting to find his moments against southpaws, possibly figuring out a wise and honest approach to putting bat on ball and producing results in his starts against the type of pitchers who used to “own him”. Since Maddon is a purveyor of the statistical elements, hopefully the recent actions by Joyce in the batters box will give Maddon the hope and confidence that Joyce can handle any pitcher, any time, in any situation and prove once and for all he is another valuable weapon in the Rays hitting arsenal no matter who is on the hill.

Who Knew “The Longo” Would Endure

What is it about our society and crazes. Every time I turn around it seems there is a new and hip movement or direction being thrust upon us to either decide if we want to be hip or square. When we were young it was having the right tin lunch box and thermos ( mine was Gilligan’s Island) to today doing a one motion pose that is sweeping the baseball nation.

Yes, I’m talking about the phenom we know in Tampa Bay as “The Longo”. I got a chuckle recently from a fellow Rays blogger (Corky Gaines) who said “ it was like Tebowing, but had less religiously”. We have developed into a social animal that mimics, interprets and constantly repeats motions and things like human parrots. But that is not always a bad thing.

How much you want to bet there will be a between innings contest tonight to see who does the best “Longo” instead of dancing against the Rays mascot Raymond. I could easily see a group, an individual or maybe even an entire seating section down the Trop’s First Base region rising to their feet, thrust their arms and fingers at a 58 degree angle and do the addicting maneuver. Heck, who needs the Chik Filet cows tonight, give those 100′s of
Rays fan a free chicken sandwich for doing the latest visual craze since…..doing the Tebow.

I like doing “The Longo”, heck if I would have known a simple motion of thrusting my arms and fingers to the heavens would have done such for my “cool” stature, I would have done it in the late 70′s. I mean I did do a rendition of former Red Sox Carlton Fisk where I used my body to groove a ball fair, but it went unnoticed and was viewed by my baseball coach more as showboating than showing an air of respect to a baseball player.

How our society has evolved that we can embrace, simulate and take pride in an emotional reaction to a life and game altering moment like Longo’s blast to bring the Rays to the 2011 October party. If you really watch Longo on that play I truly expected him to turn towards the Rays dugout on the way to first and do that famous “Crash “ Davis move of pulling his hands to his face in form a moment of disbelief as the dugout does the Wave. But instead we have an emotionally charged moment as the ball clears the outfield yellow line then pandemonium not only breaks out in St. Petersburg, but I think a few hearts wept in New York City.

Not since KC and the Sunshine Band did their patented “shake your booty” move has Florida embraced a physical move like this. I have seen photos roll in from a class full of kids doing “The Longo”, to High School baseball teams in the clubhouse, numerous members of the Rays Republic doing it all around this community, to a simple figurine and glorious T-shirt so many fans will adorn and treasure tonight.

So many great moments have been witnessed under the tilted cap of Tropicana Field. Wade Bogg’s 3,000th hit, the first MLB instant replay and enough walk-off magical moments to make a 30-minute tutorial on how to do it right. But tonight we all get to not only honor, but relieve again and again via the Trop’s Jumbotron a moment our kid’s will discuss with their grandkids, and possibly re-enacting “the Longo” again 40 years from now.

So tonight we honor that special moment, that gesture that will live forever in not only Rays lore, but baseball’s magical moments as the Game 162 blast by Evan Longoria will possibly be this generation’s “Robby Thompson’s Shot Heard Around the World”.

As the gates of the Trop open, I wonder how many the entering fans will thrust their fingers and arms into the cooled Trop air, tilt a little for aerodynamic stability and take off again just like Longoria as he rounded First Base last October. Who knows, if you do the new cool and hip thing in Tampa Bay today you might even find yourself thrusting skyward revisiting the moment in your own glory on the Trop Jumbotron. That not only would be impressive, but I bet Longo would be mimicking you in the dugout….Now that would be a cool move.

Rays Need to Wipe the Tarnish Off Their “Golden Arms”

Coming into the 2012 Major League Baseball season I do not think there was anyone connected with the game who had any major concerns about the Tampa Bay Rays starting pitching or their overhauled Bullpen. Most proclaimed them to be a pitching staff that was a year older, but considerably wiser beyond their years. From the only over 30 member of the starting rotation James Shields to rookie Matt Moore, the Rays were definitely a young staff to be wary of this season.

But how reality can change. How quickly things can go sideways, produce holes and show the Rays have a few situations, and not all of them have immediate solutions. Things looked up quickly for the Rays “Golden Arms” after sweeping the 2011 American League East champs, the New York Yankees at home. Quickly people were singing the praises of this young bunch of hurlers who seemed to have the midas touch, the “Golden Arms” moniker seem appropriate. Even after a hiccup of only winning one of three against the favored Detroit Tigers, the Rays seemed destine to head into the land of the Lobster and chowder with confidence and a chance.

Suddenly over a 3-game spread the Rays starters looked vulnerable, giving up extra base smashes that usually find a glove, or produce outs. Even though pitches were being placed perfectly in their quadrants, bats met ball almost like they knew it was going to be delivered there, without much sweat or guessing. Instantly eyes and fingers began to watch these Red Sox for clues or suggestions of a more clandestine reasoning for the Rays sudden fall from pitching grace. In an instant the once mystical Rays seemed bewildered and confused as speculation ran rampant that their secret formula had been deciphered and pilfered producing 3 straight dizzying losses to their divisional rival Boston.

The Rays seemed plagued by an aspiration more towards mediocrity than their acclaimed meteoric prediction. In a flash the Rays tumbled from the grace of promise to fall 0-3 and closer to the .500 mark before their ace, James Shields delivered them from the folly of losing all 4 contests to these Bostonians. Some say the difference was a change of habit, a visual game of hide and go seek where Rays catcher Jose Molina would do his best impression of hiding the corner and seeking the calls on the outside corners. Even if the strike zone did gain a few inches, it went both ways, but it did give Shields and the Rays a fighting chance.

You want to dissect the Rays starting staff and look for a fundamental reasoning for the Boston meltdown, but you will not find it. Tongues wagged that Moore was tipping off his pitches, but the same game outcome and hit barrage beset veteran hurler David Price and 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. How could a staff that stifled the Yankees less than a week before suddenly fall flat against a divisional rival they had winning history against in their ballpark. It is not like the Rays came into Boston complacent or sporting a superior record, somewhere the dike developed a leak and not until Shields hit the hill did it get plugged with success.

Some might contribute this strange quandary to the fact of a plethora of afternoon contests on this road trip, but that is the easy answer. The hard answer is this young staff is still maturing at times and can be vulnerable. The real answer is Hellickson and Moore have the abilities to shut down any American League offense, but if their control ticks even an inch off the plate, the Home Plate Umpire might not give that extra inch. That comes with experience and knowing which Umpire might be open to balls skipping the corners and who runs a tight strike zone. Worst thing is on any given night that variable could change without warning or hint.

We all know already if Shields and Price have the motors revving and are on point, only they can cost themselves a victory. Worst thing that could happen to the Rays is one of these two going down, or experiencing even a short span of wildness or ability to sit guys down via the outside corner called third strike. There is a gap between the experience levels of these two and the duo of Hellboy and M&M. Not even sure the tallest member of the silent assassins, Jeff Niemann can put himself into that middle ground at times. Even though the 6’9” Niemann can show the skills of an ace during his streaks, when he is off his game, weird things happen. You might consider Niemann a liability compared to the other 4 starters on this team, but when he is in his groove and popping balls into the strike zone, he looks more like a #3 starter than the back end option at #5.

The Rays starters just have to wipe the tarnish off their “Golden Arms” and again show the wealth and worth of their abilities to get the Rays close games that their offense can overcome and post wins. The Boston series was a debacle by any sense of the word, but this Toronto series might be the true test for the Rays starters. If they can harness themselves and post a winning edge in this first series in Canada, it could be a great launching pad into their home stand and again having people feel “golden” about this starting staff.

Did the Red Sox Signal Corps Find Success?

They’re just really hot right now,” Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times after Thursday afternoon’s 3rd loss in a row to the Boston Red Sox. “It’s almost like they knew what’s coming almost. They’re on every pitch. They’re on the fastball. They’re on the breaking ball. They’re on the change-up. They’re on everything right now. They’re really locked in.

Doesn’t take a baseball genius to decipher a little bit of hidden meaning in Maddon’s comments. But maybe Maddon is on to something. Sure stealing signs has been around since the invention of the game and unless you use a video tape system or other technology that can give you in-game information, Major League Baseball will turn it’s eye away from the situation. If you have every notice during Rays game, one of the Rays starters, and usually Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi will both keep an accurate account of the game stats, type of pitches and their results for future analysis.

This can be used in the future for predictions, but is not plausible for in-game use. Some thought the Rays pitching staff might be showing “tells” or tipping off their pitches during the Boston series. Seems a bit far-fetched when you consider the Rays sent hurlers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and rookie Matt Moore to the hill in the first 3 contests, and they did not seem to exhibit any visual “tells” in the delivery, arm slot release or facial movements. There are 3 valid reasons the Red Sox might have gotten the upper hand on the Rays this series.

First off, Red Sox Manager Bobby Valentine is an astute student of the game who also caught for many years and knows the art of trying to both conceals and transmit false signals to prevent the stealing of signs. A smart Manager would have someone down near the back-end of the dugout watching in at the catcher, possibly seeing similarities, constant familiar movements or even a flash of a painted nail to signal the true intended pitch.

Just as quickly that player could tip his cap, stand up, clap his hands or do any number of audio or visual patterns to signify a certain pitch being thrown to the plate. This is not an illegal activity, but does seem to hide within the large gray area of the unwritten rules of baseball.

A great second indicator that the Boston brood might be fishing for signals is the fact the Red Sox brought in former Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach to be their primary backstop this season. Do not forget, it was this same Red Sox organization that gave @ShopHouse10 his first decent chance and taste of MLB life as a Red Sox prospect. Got to think the Red Sox have grilled and formulated a game plan in advance with information on pitching patterns and possible signal combinations so to get a bit of an edge against this young and talented staff.

This is also not illegal, and is a rather commonplace occurrence after a player leaves one team and joins another. But a catcher knows all the nuances and particulars of a team’s signal calling process. Even if the Rays changed their system this Spring, there is still leftover signals, patterns and small tell-tale signs that could trigger an all out discovery or disclosure of a team’s battery signals.

Still, Boston could have done their business the hard way and just watched game film from this Spring as these 2 squads played each other 3 times with the Red Sox coming away with wins in all 3 contests. Valentine could have had his off-the field staff tear down game tapes looking for patterns, “tells” or even a system that developed out of the constant movements of the Rays catchers this Spring and possibly into late 2011. He could have done it by dissecting the Rays Spring patterns, taking a slice of Shoppach’s past knowledge and sprinkled in a bit of his long history both as a spectator and catcher in the MLB.

Or maybe it is just as simple as Valentine figured out the Rays common “indicator” signal that all 3 of the Rays catchers from Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton to Chris Gimenez might have used when a player was on base. The “indicator” is usually one or two patterned finger or body movements made to try to throw off someone stealing signals, but if discovered, or if the pattern is somehow revealed throughout a contest, it can be a green light to the First and Third Base Coaches to alert hitters to what might be coming.

Even a calculated and synchronized system of random catcher movements and finger motions can be dissected within the scope of the game, possibly making the catcher the one giving up a “tell”. Even though it is illegal to videotape the concentrated area of the catcher for possible signal interception, the Centerfield camera always gives a perfect view into the heart of the plate, and signals can be deciphered quickly.

In the end it is a part of the game until you have hard concrete proof to the contrary. Considering Valentine and Shoppach could have brainstormed before the series began and when the indicators might have been discovered, the rest came fast and furious. But you want to think it was just an offense coming alive and no ulterior actions that hindered the Rays pitching staff this series.

But a clear indicator that possibly the system was compromised came to light today as starter James Shields held the Red Sox to a 4-hit shutout to break not only the Rays losing streak, but possibly the tale of the stealing signs. No matter if the Rays got duped by Boston this series and they did figure out the patterns and signals, it just goes to show you that not all information can be tied to a computer, a spreadsheet or even a video. Sometimes the human eye can figure out the game just as quickly and turn it into an advantage. I hope no signs were stolen, but who would fess up if it was true?

 

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