August 2012

“Prey” or “Pray”?

I was standing in line getting a cool and wet Polar Pop fountain drink at Circle K this afternoon and accidentally spit out a bit of my Diet Dr. Pepper onto the clean floor when I spied a unique and compelling headline on the back page of an out-of-town publication nestled on their newspaper rack.

Upon seeing that headline, “Tampa Prey”, I did give out a little school girl’s chuckle and snicker, much to the chagrin of the poor New York Yankees fan 5 people behind me. But that is what late August has been for these two behemoth Major League Baseball programs as one emphasises growing talent from their farm system bumper crop, while the other uses their massive wealth to sometimes just pluck the ripe fruit it desires.

Two uniquely different approaches to the basic premise of baseball, and all it has done is produce the last 4-straight American League East titles for these two opposite ends of the monetary world. Some within the boroughs of NYC saw the Rays 2008 first A L East snatching as a gift from the “Baseball Gods”, and after the Yankees were witness to the Rays first banner raised to the rafters of Tropicana Field, they were on a mission to not let than happen again. 2009 saw the Rays falter while the Yankees drove their wagon straight into October, but crashing and burning before getting a chance at the World Series.

2010 the Rays basically took it to Game 162 before the Yankees and Rays budding rivalry ended as the Rays went into extra innings in Kansas City knowing their destiny as the Yankees played their way into the post season via the Wild Card. Back and forth since 2008 the Rays and Yankees have traded barbs, animosity and A L East titles with the Rays garnering their banners in even numbers years while the Yankees have dominated in odd-numbered seasons.

With this being an even number year, some have already speculated and boasted it will again be the crew from St. Petersburg, Florida who find themselves on top of the hill after October 3rd, but with 37 contests still to be decided, and 2 3-games series between the pair to still be played, there is still a large chunk of chances for either team to rise or fall. Even as the Rays take to the AstroTurf today at the Trop., this pesky Rays bunch find themselves 2 ½ games behind the Yankees but not on solid turf yet.

Even as the Bronx Bombers have dropped to an even 5-5 record over their last 10 games while the Rays have escalated their chances with an impressive 7-3 mark, it is starting to look like a possible replay of the 2010 showdown that came to the last outs before a victor can be truly announced between the pair. With the Baltimore Orioles slowly fading back, and Boston over 8 games out at this point, it looks like a 2-horse race for the 2012 A L East laurels. But as we all know, a lot can chance in a matter of 10 games, possibly making the race more of a jog than a sprint.

Still, the headline also did get me a bit concerned. Not that the Yankees will reach down deep into their historical bag of tricks and find a miracle, or even a way to sweep the Rays at home no less during the upcoming Labor Day series. There is still a span of 9 games before the two teams meet under the Trop’s dome, with the Rays playing 7 of those contests on the road where they boast a 35-27 mark. Then again, the Yankees have pretty much gone toe-to-toe with the “road warrior” idea this season sporting a 33-28 mark themselves to this point.

Some will quickly say the Rays are an unbalanced ship this season having seen their pitching excel while their offense has sputtered and gone silent on occasions. Even now the Rays are just emerging from that Perfect Game cloud and back into the sunlight sporting a pretty even-steven home (35-28) and road record (35-27) that shows that even with their slew of early season mishaps and injuries, the Rays have found way to post victories.

But just as quickly we have seem the Rays push out winning streaks and impressive series only to derail themselves a bit. Consistency from this Rays squad will devour and dispose of the 2 ½ game lead the Yankees have at this moment. Pitching staying stellar and hitting reaching new heights and distances down the course of these 37 contests.

Maybe that is why the headline of “Tampa Prey” seemed so humorous. Not that it isn’t true, or can not happen, but just as easily the Rays could provide another stumble. I am hoping the ghost of 2009 doesn’t awaken and take the glory away from this crew as the Rays conclude their 15th season.

In a heartbeat that “Tampa Prey” title could just as easily need a vowel change and become “Tampa Pray”.   Right now the Rays are the team with the momentum and chance to gain an advantage, but just as quickly tides can turn and praying could become a daily ritual. Funny how one simple letter within the context of a word can change not only the meaning, but the conclusion of the word.

Jaso Earned His Perfect Moment

I know I was one of many of the Rays Republic sitting with a dazed and confused look on my mug when Seattle Mariners hurler Felix Hernandez thrust his arms up into the air following his Perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays recently. Not only did I feel a know in the pit of my stomach because of the process put a stumbling block into the road for the Rays with losing this series, but for the third time in as many years, the Rays anointed a new monarch into the ranks of pitching brilliance.

Then I saw a figure run out from behind the plate and join the mound festivities and a bit of the gut retching subsided as I saw someone jump into the celebratory impromptu team meeting who desired this kind of moment and who is quietly establishing himself as a great game caller behind the dish. And it seems in perfect ironic harmony that ex-Rays catcher John Jaso finally gets to celebrate a historic pitching moment by being the battery mate of a new pitching immortal.

Everyone always throws the accolades and praise towards the pitcher in these displays of perfection and finesse, and for a flamethrower like Hernandez it not only took a delicate amount of luck and precision, it possibly took a little fine tuning and graceful glove work by Jaso to bring perfection into a reality.

Jaso over the last few years has gotten really good at framing pitches, bringing wandering breaking pitches and border line called strike into the red so the Home Plate Umpire can make an easier job of having to bellow out a called strike to the astonishment of many a batter.

I am not pushing back the emerald green curtain and trying to tarnish an ounce of Hernandez’s brilliance on this afternoon, but Jaso definitely played a key role and deserves a little sunlight himself. This was a catcher shocked and a bit dumbfounded and possibly still has some abandonment sentiments after the Rays sent him to the Pacific Northwest late last November sending him from a contender to a team trying to find the right pieces to their own contending puzzle.

The mild-mannered Jaso took his change of scenery as a chance to again establish himself, put himself on the map in another locale possibly again having throngs of female admirers loving his facial hair and protruding dimples as much for his hard work and determination on the field. All # 27 has done for the Mariners in his 73 game is post a .292 average with 14 doubles, 8 HR and 3 stolen bases. And watching Jaso behind the plate taking each and every one of King Felix’s 113 offering and being a part of only the 24th backstop to help help monitor and achieve perfection for his pitcher.

I felt the trading of Jaso this past Winter was a bit premature, one of the handful of total glitches that have transpired since the dropping of the “Devil” from the Rays in November 2007. Possibly his ailing batting average and the hint of more production and long-term solutions from the bevy of Rays farmhand catching prospects made this deal not only warranted, but needed at the time. I am one of those who scratched my head and wondered what the Rays had in kind trading a proven component for a relief pitcher who was still trying to pitch his way out from under his own trouble cloud.

Most of you already know I glance towards the scoreboard a lot trying to view the Seattle scores, it is my adopted second home and holds my favorite stadium. In the end, even as I pondered and thrust my own arms into the air in frustration, it was with hidden admiration and joy to see our old former # 28 bounce and jump for excitement as he approached the King and his field court, finally getting that well deserved sunlight alongside a hurler who had just put himself into an esteemed and lofty pitching Fraternity.

This is the kind of player moment a hard-nosed guy like Jaso sweats and bleeds for. It has to be a bittersweet moment as he stood on the hill celebrating with his fellow M’s, then turn and see his former squad with their heads down possibly wondering if this was the first nail in their post-season coffin.

Jaso was catching at Triple-A Durham when Chicago White Sox Mark Buehrle handcuffed the Rays for their first perfecto in 2009 as well as May 9, 2010 when Oakland Athletic SP Dallas Braden duplicated the feat.

A minute after the wave of negativity washed off me concerning the event I found myself laughing a bit. The guy we thought was expendable, was a patchwork piece of our former Rays battery possibly got his career defining moment and even if they could not cheer for him, you know a few Rays inside were happy Jaso got to finally feel this kind of adulation. Jaso had a perfect angle to see and watch this historic event play out, and it couldn’t of happen to a better player or person. 

Zorilla 2.0

I am starting to believe in this full circle train of thought. That all things go into circles and come back again new and improved and somehow modified in their simplicity. I guess we can say the same for Tampa Bay Rays newly annoited SS Ben Zorbrist, or should I call him Zorilla 2.0?

It was exactly 6 years and 33 days since the first time a young and lanky SS prospect was traded to the Rays from the Houston Astros for a gruff and grumbling Aubrey Huff. Along with Zobrist the Rays received P Mitch Talbot, who we all know wears Cleveland Indians garb now. Zorbrist came to the Rays as a infield specialist, but his true specialty was playing the deep hole between second and third base both with range and a cannon attached to his shoulders.

Some say that his ability back then worked B J Upton around the infield from Third to Second before he finally found his home in Centerfield. But 2006 was a memorable season for the defensively maturing Zorilla as he spent only 18 games at Triple-A Round Rock and when Zorbrist and Upton were recalled by the Rays on August 1st after the Rays felt secure enough with the tag team of Upton and Zobrist at SS that they sent starting SS Julio Lugo to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline.

All Zorilla did was start 50 of the final 56 games….all at the Short Stop position. How good was the new acquired defensive neophyte? Well not 31 days later did Zorbrist and Rays catcher Dione Navarro stamp their own brand on Major League Baseball history when they recorded the only 2-6-2 triple play…EVER.


Many might have forgotten Zorbrist was the Rays Opening Day SS in 2007 starting 13 of the Rays first 17 games, then something happened and he fell out of favor and started only 2 of the team’s next 17 games before the Rays sent him down to Triple-A Durham and subsequently claimed SS Josh Wilson off waivers from Washington. Most see that as the memorial moment that the Rays might have set their sights on Zobrist being a key figure in the Rays scheme, just not front and center in their future infield.

Still, I think this is a great idea that has been kicked around for quite a while by Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who wanted to see Sean Rodriguez take ownership of the spot, but little things have de-railed the S-Rod experience for the Rays along with Rodriguez’s enemic .209 average with only 6 HR and 30 RBIs. Zobrist has a great first move towards the hole, and even with a few years of rust to shake off before he again find his optimal rhythm, I hate to say it, he is a vast improvement at the plate as well as in the field.

There are going to be a few rough patches as he again gains the trust in his abilities on the opposite side the the second base bag, but if anyone can do it and provide the leadership and positive mindset needed to be a consistent and agile SS, it has to be the Rays # 18.

It is a lot to ask of a player who doesn’t even make the Rays all-time Top-5 SS list in any category, but this is also the same stellar fielder who garnered a .989 fielding average and is not listed on either the SS or 2B all-time errors Top-5 list (Upton is #5 @ 2B with 12). So far in 2012, Zobrist has 8 errors in 961 total innings all around the Rays infield, and outfield. As a whole, the trio of Rodriguez, Will Rhymes and Elliot Johnson have combined for 31 errors with Zobrist tied with Rhymes for 3rd most on the team.

This is not to say errors will cease and life in the middle of the Rays infield will be a bed of roses. There will be challenges, possibly multi-error contests, but the leadership and offensive confidence of Zobrist should emulate enough so that the rest of the infield can feed off of Zorilla and grow tighter and stingier over the last portion of the season. The Rays have not put Zobrist’s finger in the dike hoping to stave off the total flooding of potential errors, but the maturation of Zobrist and his “can-do” persona should do miracles in a position in the field that was looking more like a gaping hole.

Seriously, to me it is a long time coming, and a position change that will not only get Zorilla consistent starts in one spot in the Rays field alignment, but it can finally give him a chance to possibly not have to lug around the huge equipment bag with 9 different gloves inside it. Who knows, if Zorilla takes to this position like he did in 2006 and makes it his own again…..It would be hard not to vote him again as the Rays team MVP like in 2009. Zorilla 2.0…….I like the sound of that more and more.  

Are Rays Hitting Their Stride for the Final 50?

All season long some of us have been waiting for this kind of production. Since the days before Tampa Bay Rays 3B Evan Longoria grabbed the back of his leg, the Rays Republic have been awaiting this kind of warfare. From singles to massive Home Runs, the Rays again have found their focus, their offense that combined with their pitching cohesiveness to brings about solid and warranted victories.

8 out of their last 13 road battle have seen either Fernando Rodney chuck a arrow into the sky, or provided the optimal moment for this team to celebrate mid-infield with high-5’s and handshakes galore. This is what happens when a team finally get back a fallen comrade and gets their sights set throughly for the final 50 game grind. That’s right, 50 games left in the Rays 2012 regular season, with a hope that October dreams come true.

From this squad getting their bellies full with “meatloafing” (winning 2 out of 3) series wins to finally finding that home remedy to evoke victories, this team has positioned itself going into today’s contest just 1 game out of the top spot for a American League Wild Card slot, and is within fighting range of the whole enchilada of another possible AL East banner being raised come April 2013. Tell me any of us felt that way as bombs burst in night air on July 4th while this team struggled to find cohesion and consistency.

Finally the Maddon mantra has again proven true as “Fortune Favors the Bold (or Bald)” as this team has stood tall in the face of injuries, potential trade chatter and unimaginable defensive blunders and gaffs to be in the right spot at the right time for a solid and concerted effort to topple their AL east rivals. Sitting currently with a 44 % chance of playoff champagne, this team has to continue to get their meaty goodness both at home and on the road mixed in with a few extra wins to bolster their post- season chances.

Right now the Rays are toe-to-toe with Oakland, Detroit, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Angels for a solid chance to walk into their third consecutive playoff spot, and fourth in 5 seasons. But it all begins now. 50 games, 50 chances to pull closer or fall to the back of the pack. Of those 50 contests, 29 of these contests will come against divisional leaders or Wild Card hopefuls. Plus in this 50 game hunt for October bliss, the Rays will play only 6 more games against the Yankees and 6 against the pesky Orioles. Of their final 50, the Rays will suit up against their AL East rivals in only half (25) of those contests.

Definitely the Rays might want to also channel a former Maddon Mantra from 2011 of “Finding Another Way” as they will have to garner additional victories against the likes of Seattle, Kansas City along with a slate of 16 contests against the unpredictable American League West foes.

The key to the Rays future seems to lie not only in their divisional slanted schedule in September, but in their rivalries against the West Coast opponents. Throw in 7 contests against the AL Central and you get the idea the Rays final AL East tallies might hold the key components to the Rays post-season recipe, but the rest of the American League could poison the “meaty” goodness with a few well-placed wins against the Rays.

6 games currently separate the Rays and Yankees with Baltimore still hanging on like that poster kitten, but destined to fall before the leaves turn colors. With the days of September coming closer the Rays engine is currently purring on all 8 cylinders and looking stronger every game. But it will only take a small back-step, a slip or even another key injury setback to again put haste and anxious thoughts into everyone’s noggin.

Winning series, posting up impressive game stats is only part of the equation. In the end, possibly the Rays will have to win at least 37 of these final 50 games to again shower the Trop’s fans with champagne and not have to re-visit another Game 162 moment or heartbreak.

Ray of Hope, Not Savior

I’m no the savior. I’m happy to be back, and hopefully I’m able to change the complexion of the lineup. Maybe not go out and hit two home runs a night…” - Evan Longoria

A lot of games and maturation has transpired in and around the Tampa Bay Rays internal World order and well as Longoria’s since his departure from the Rays line-up on April 30th with a torn left hamstring injury. Seem like so long ago Longo ventured from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list after starting the first 23 games of the 2012 season in stellar fashion, with everyone from the field to the stands noticing his new stature and poise.

But if the statement above could be illuminated and turned into small novellas, you would see the process from the last days of April until his first step into the batters box on August 7th took Longoria down a road he has never traveled as well as dealing with frustrations he had never even fathomed or dreamed about.

Longoria will be the first to admit to you he might have tested himself a bit too much when he first experienced his initial setback during his first attempt at rehab this season. Anxiousness, a want to again be a vital cog in the Rays machine might have driven him a bit over the edge, and he went headfirst into the injury abyss again.

In his first rehab attempt, Longo seemed more interested in just getting back into the Rays confines and being a key piece again. During his second venture, he stopped, became aware and matured beyond his years as he finally seemed to figure out he is not only a keystone of this franchise, he is one of the valuable valves that pump this club’s heart and soul. In his second rehab attempt recently at Triple-A Durham, Longoria did not go out to truly impress, he went to gain bat speed, provide a cohesive game plan and finally show he is the guy who will lead this team for a long time.

When I first met Longoria before his first Rays start, he had that rambunctious air about him encircled by his boyish charm, with a insatiable appetite and child-like eagerness to swallow and digest everything about the game and instantaneously transition it into his own vibe and style. Last night Longo still flashed glimpses of that boyish wonder and grin, but deep in his eyes you can see the determination, the want and the desire to again be this squad’s “go-to” guy.

He might not be the Rays savior, but he definitely is a key ingredient to this team fulfilling its dreams and goals this season. Longo’s smile on his way to the plate during that first at bat beamed way out into the cheap seats, and showed all of us that he is again a shining glimmer of hope that this season is far from over.

August Waiver Fishing Can be Catch and Release

I have always looked at the 30 days after the final bell of the Trade Deadline as fishing season. Now that the non-waiver wire transaction have been concluded, that doesn’t mean the wheeling and deals has come to a halt, or that as the month of August comes to a close, more and more deals will come popping out of the blue. You got to remember, during this critical juncture in the season, if a player is not squared away on an MLB 40-man roster by August 31st, he will not have eligibility for post-season play.

So I imagine we will see an unending plethora of both fly fishing casts and deep sea trolling maneuvers from sea to shining MLB sea from any of the 30 members of the MLB brass up until the final ticks of the clock of August.

The Trade Deadline being done and buried, this is the time period where all 30 of the MLB brass can select any player on their 40-man roster, pluck him into the briny blue and wait to see if the waters churn and become agitated or remain flaccid and smooth. Any player, even a All-Star or fading veteran can be deposited into the water during this time, and depending on the type of fishing, they can either be landed or the underwater menace is left with just a bad taste in his mouth as his prey is pulled to safety.

Putting a player into the MLB waiver pond is simple enough, but from there the rules can get as muddled as the mighty Mississippi as it winds through the Louisiana delta. Teams can either be playing the light and loose game of catch and release by offering a player into the waiver wading pond, then just as a team puts in a waiver on the swimming feast, his parent club can yank him back to the safety of their 40-man roster without regret, and possibly a future off-season trading partner. Once a player during this waiver period has hit the tidal pool, if he is pulled back off the line, he can not be dealt for at least 30 days…if then.

But then there are others who are playing the trolling or deep sea game. Putting a large contract or “ big fish” out there in hopes someone will nibble, bite or swallow whole a player and his club can wash their hands of a bad contract, aging veteran or possibly just rid themselves of a fish that is beginning to stink in his own bait bucket. You will definitely see this type of fishing game from a club hoping to swing a deal to lower payroll, but then again they could also pull back their bait knowing they have an interested party who might again bite in the Winter.

Sure a player can be pulled back to safety in either of those fishing antics, but what if the parent club lets the hook get in deep, doesn’t pull the bait to safety, or no one bites at the tasty morsel even if they desire it in their clubhouse. What options then might lie ahead for the consumed or lonely bait nugget? There can be 3 alternatives to waiver fishing at this time of the year.

First option is the fisherman/ parent club can begin to work out a trade arrangement with the Goliath Grouper /hungry adversary who bit the bait and hung on for dear life. As long as the player who is usually on his team’s 40-man roster clears waivers, both sides are privy to slicing and dicing up a trade/sushi roll that satisfies both of their desires.

Second option is more cunning and can directly effect the claiming team economically as well as physically. The trolling club can just take the option of dumping the player and his enormous salary right on the desired team’s dock with no remorse, regret or chance of being called “Indian givers”. This option comes with a bit of peril as one team will get the player desired as the others gets to walk away free and clear of all financial and physical responsibilities for the claimed trophy fish.

Third option that can be played out is no one claims the waiver wire bait and his parent club can wiggle his carcass to any of the other 29 MLB clubs free and clear of want or worry of someone making a claim on them.

But here is where it can come down to just plain good gamesmanship and cunning strategy. Let’s say a player is dangled and wiggled in the waters and two fish want to consume that tasty morsel. Well, then it gets a bit complicated, or simpler depending on your respective league and overall record at that moment.

Depending on both teams records and if the player is from their own American or National League, the team that has the worst record among the 2 squads, and if they are in the same league as the claimed player…that doubles the ante and gives that team a viable chance to nibble on the yummy fillet.

Okay, let’s use the Tampa Bay Rays RP/SP Wade Davis ( an avid fisherman) as an example here and show all 3 options. If we get a solid tug on the line and a team claims Davis and the Rays are receptive to dealing Davis to the claiming squad, then the two sides will haggle out a deal and Davis will turn in his sunburst for whatever colors his new team wears.

Option 2 definitely will not happen as the Rays have Davis under a pretty team-friendly contract and would not be looking to dump him on someone at any cost. Considering Davis is signed through 2014 with options for 2015,2016 and 2017, option 1 will be the only clear cut way to getting a player like Davis who a claiming team can control for the next 2 seasons with club options for 3 additional seasons. If this would happen, it would be a clear cost-cutting move for the Rays, but that isn’t a viable conclusion.

Option 3 would not happen as at considering there were more than 4 teams watching Davis before the Trade Deadline, and possibly every one of them would possibly put in a waiver wire claim on him knowing his contract and pitching flexibility.

Davis is definitely one of the examples from the Rays roster that could get a waiver claim submitted when the Rays post his name for that 48 hour period. Another key component here is the team doesn’t have to advise the player of his waiver posting, and usually a player can go through the entire process without a hint or whisper as either his team will pull him back from the waiver pond, or he will go unclaimed and be subject to the team’s final decision.

I expect SP James Shields, RP Kyle Farnsworth, RP J P Howell, CF B J Upton, RP Joel Peralta, INF Elliot Johnson, Jeff Keppinger , Jeff Niemann and maybe even 1B Carlos Pena to make a bigger splash with possible waiver decisions for the Rays.

With some of these mentioned players, 2012 might be their last time wearing the Rays colors, but before the end of August, almost every player with value, including possibly a few names we once thought were “untouchables” could spend a few moments in the cooling waters of the waiver pond.

Wonder who will be plucked, and who will be pulled back to safety?

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