Results tagged ‘ Akinora Iwamura ’

The Rays Wa

I think I might have finally found the seed that formed the Tampa Bay Rays serene sense of brotherhood. It always seemed to me to just be a bit out of focus or range, but I truly feel I might have figured out and maybe cracked Rays skipper Joe Maddon’s long held secret to his team cohesive unity….I might have finally dug up a simplified version of the orgin of the mystical “Rays Way”. But who knew I only had to remove the “Y” to find out it might actually be the “Rays Wa”.

Why did it take me so long to realize this simple concept was foreign to our shores and this great group element did not sprout from the American terra firm. This belief of wa is a complex little entity, yet its simplified and time honored value system that derives out of respect for authority, devotion to the group as a whole and instills a slice of the honor and pride of the Japanese Samurai tradition finally makes sense to it all. This mashing of the Far Eastern elements that have been instrumental in the Japanese adoption of our game make it unique, and before now, totally foreign to the style and type of baseball played in this country.

The concept of wa into baseball probably came from the impromptu baseball games in Japan during post World War II. As the Japanese culture and population began their love affair love for baseball, the game internal elements began evolving more in tune with the Japanese beliefs and traditional system. With that evolution came intricate changes and nuances that made it distinctively a Japanese version of the game we treasured. Maybe someone once gave Maddon a copy of Robert Whiting’s “You Gotta Have Wa”, which goes into deeper this delicate team dynamic told through the thoughts of a American writer who witnessed first-hand this intricate ballet of team chemistry while living in the orient.

Both countries play the game with the same equipment, rulebooks and even the same bravado and lust for victory, but each have their own personalities and traits that make their style special, and wa is as important a part of the Japanese game as the bat or the ball. The US version of the game celebrates the individual achievements within the core team concept, while in Japan, the basis is more team-oriented and celebrated, on and off the field.

The more and more I researched on the concept of wa, the more Maddon and his implementation of this grand system made sense to instill into the patterns and routines of his young team, possibly building their unified team bond through the introduction of this time honored testament of team cohesion. Made total sense to me that Maddon, who is a great scavenger of past positive elements of baseball borrowed and re-configured parts of the “wa” culture and made them MLB-friendly evolving this aura of respect, honor and continuity into his early Rays foundation.

This transition started way before the Rays introduced Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui to the local media this Tuesday, way before former Ray Akinora Iwamura stepped into the Rays fold. Maddon might have been shaping this proven and team unifying element even before his hiring as the Rays Manager. Possibly this could have been a mantra in the works long before his name and the Rays combined into their now successful association.

We all thought this concept of group harmony was unique to Maddon, but we also knew he loved to bring back time honored traditions and elements of baseball’s past. This could be Maddon’s way of honoring the team concept by basing it on a time tested and honored tradition that started beyond even his former California shores.

This country immortalizes the individual effort more than the team concept. That sense of one person making a difference has been grounded into our psyche for as long as we have played sports. In Japan, “kojinshugi” the term for individualism is considered a bit of an obscenity. There is an old Japanese proverb that states, “ The nail that sticks up shall be nailed down”. What better way to illustrate the Japanese endeared concept of unity as opposed to individualism.

I might be wrong in finally having found the element that makes Maddon’s special way of bringing his team together and having them bond for that 180 day grind more believable. But to me, wa seems to be the founding element at the base of Maddon’s popular themed road trips that promote unity, imagination and form a cohesive shell of cooperation between Maddon and his troops as they embark on their travels. Even the way the Rays collectively go about their game of not showing intense emotion at random moments speaks highly towards the wa foundation of respect for the game and its officials as well as other players.

I have always wondered what the essence of Maddon truly was that took players once deemed as borderline MLB players and sometimes troublemakers and suddenly they become transitioned into model team leaders and enthusiastic players who stayed within the lines both on and off the field. Is it Maddon, or is wa more of a secret power than we ever realized People see the Rays clubhouse as a “Fraternity house” of different personalities, cultures and beliefs, but underneath could the floor of this exciting team be actually based on the concept of wa?

The Rays Wa”, still has a great ring to it, maybe it will catch on in the stadium stands too.

 

Editor’s Note:  I included photos of the Rays road trip themes as a show of this team unity. It might not go perfectly with the essence of the posting, but it shows the always evolving Maddon philosophy and his team’s eager thrusts towards fulfilling this “wa” venture.

 

Thank You Just Doesn’t Seem Enough

On the eve of the day all of us collectively gather together and pronounce our blessing and “thanks” for all the bounty and goodness life has exposed to us in our past year. Like so many other families around this Nation and Tampa Bay, my parents kept that honored tradition of everyone gathered at the table giving “thanks” a loud for the blessing and good things that had transpired over those last 365 days.

I loved those moments, but as the Rays begin to venture into their 15th year of baseball in the major leagues, I have some unfinished business. People and events that warrant not only a “ shout out”, but a significant remembrance or high-5 at this time we want to express ourselves. So, hang on, this list might be a long one.

THANK YOU to the relentless men of the original Tampa Bay Baseball group who shed tears, fought away drowsiness and endured their long path until we got our storied franchise.

THANK YOU to the cities of Seattle, Oakland, Chicago, San Francisco and even the Minneapolis/St Paul Minnesota community that were stepping-stones as the eventual Tampa Bay expansion franchise made it path through the MLB minefields. These MLB teams all brought bits and pieces of themselves to the table as the Rays fashioned their early patchwork franchise.

THANK YOU to our first owner Vince Namoli and his crew who fought the tides and battles early on in this franchise, and still do. Our Captain at the helm since 2007, Stuart Sternberg who has secured a new path, a new identity and a new reason to rejoice being a member of the Rays Republic crew.

THANK YOU to Wilson Alvarez for that first delivery to the plate on March 31, 1998. It completed the completed the mission and set into motion that events that are still unfolding, and will for a long, long time.

THANK YOU to players like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Dwight Gooden, Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, and St. Pete natives Casey Kotchman and Doug Waechter who came “home” to play in the Rays colors for Tampa Bay. Each of you have left footprints in the Rays historical sands that will stand the tests of time, and always be some of our fondest memories

THANK YOU to my friends within the Rays 4th Floor from BK to DJ Kitty’s master. Each of your actions have brought together different scenarios and changes to the Rays experience from the concerts, promotional goodies to the foundations of fan-based gatherings like the “Maddon’s Maniacs”.

THANK YOU to the men who have assembled in the Rays Bullpen over the past 14 seasons who have sat, spat and even chattered with me on their journey’s to and from the Rays “second Clubhouse” under the Rays Rightfield stands. From the gum-tossing and comedic activities of Andy Sonnanstine, to the Elvis-inspired guitar styling of Rusty Meacham, I am thankful for those moments.

THANK YOU to guys like Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland and his crew who let me see things behind-the scenes as their Pepsi vendor for years. Getting to see the Rays Clubhouse as it transformed, and even letting me take a piece of it home forever.

THANK YOU to the assembled hundreds who have graced the Rays roster sporting numbers from 1 (Joey Gathright, Akinori Iwamura, Miguel Cairo, Rey Sanchez, Antonio Perez, Sean Rodriguez) to 98 (Jae Seo) for your spent energies, blood and even heartaches as this franchise went through their growing pains and ultimate defeats and celebrations. I consider you all friends for life.

THANK YOU to the fans I have met, entertained and even fought verbally with our these years. Your opinions, insights and even diverse comments have molded these posts and even gave me more than a dozen reasons to question my own logic. From Jeff McKinney, Pat and Christine Manfredo to George, Charlie and the crew up in the 300’s, if we could bottle your optimism and energy for this team, we could light up the Tampa Bay region indefinitely.

THANK YOU to the 2008 Rays team who let me grace a moment within a team photo etching myself permanently into the fabric of the greatest Rays team to date. Still hard to imagine that the Rays, in their rookie attempt in the post season fought so hard and valiantly had an element like rain play such a critical role in their first World Series.

THANK YOU to the Rays scout and player development people like Mitch Lukevics, RJ Harrison who have been linchpin in the development of so many of the Rays past, present and future stars. Their devotion and work ethic knows no bounds, and their tireless emphasis on quality has made the Rays farm system a model of player development efficiency.

HANK YOU to the people of Tampa Bay no matter if you are a long-time Season Ticket holder or someone who graces the stands only a handful of games a season. Your support is needed and appreciated from those among you in the stands, on the field and assisting you with your baseball experience. The lifeblood of this team is the interaction and reaction of the community, and our return to future games.

Giving “thanks” at this time of the year for things outside of Tropicana Field are also very important. So my last THANK YOU has to go out to Rays Manager Joe Maddon and his cooking crew of Rays Coaches, Rays staff and employees who have yearly venture out into the Tampa Bay region for Maddon’s annual “Thanks-Mas” celebration.

But I would be remiss if I did not make one more “THANK YOU”. I have to also make a huge and humble shout out to you, the readers of this blog. Since our change over in May 2011, so many of you have stayed the course and returned while others have gone away or have not returned. I “THANK” each and every one of you reading this right now for your support, your time and your comments that have made my writing better since 2007.

But then again, you can never hear the words “Thank You” enough these days.

Farnsworth Brings Intimidation Back to the Rays Game

 

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StPeteTimes.com (unknown Photographer)

Sometimes I think in pretty abstract ideals and put together some really “out there” suggestions that might take most people a bottle of Mezcal to comprehend or embrace my sometimes obscure reference points. And I am fine with that. I mean, I am a lifetime Pepper for gosh sakes (Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too!). Last night I was in one of those usual states of odd combinational thinking while watching the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning (they won 3-0) take on the potent Washington Capitals squad.

While sitting at the game bundled up in my pre-2008 Rays Winter outerwear jacket, I began a quick cold climate aided thought process emerging wondering why Major League Baseball team’s have never selected or signed a player just for his physical intimidation factor?

Sure there have been guys like former MLB players Ty Cobb and LHP Randy Johnson that have made more than a few of their MLB peers quake when they hit the rubber, or was getting a sizable lead off First Base. This type of intimidation is a primal human instinct and sometimes needed to have success at this level. I am talking about a singular player who can be labeled as an “enforcer”, a guy who will take no backtalk and will prove his measure and means with his fists if needed.

The reason I bring this idea even up is that in their recent past, the Rays have had two distinctive mano-on-mano moments (during 2008) where just this type of rugged barbaric presence was not only needed, but could have quelled the on-field bravado in advance knowing this one lone figure could emerge from the dugout or Bullpen to go headhunting.

We all remember the Cobb-style thigh spiking of Rays Second Baseman Akinora Iwamura by then Yankees First Baseman Shelly Duncan back in the Spring of 2008 after Rays INF Elliot Johnson plowed into Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli and sent him to the hospital and the DL. During that Rays moment, the immediate enforcer role was taken on by Rightfielder Jonny Gomes. He was a student and admirer of the professional wrestling circuit, and Gomes took his run-in role seriously tackling Duncan from behind as both benches and Bullpens cleared.

Then again on June 5, 2008, during a Rays versus Red Sox game in Fenway Park, Boston outfielder Coco Crisp took exception after a pitch from Rays starter James Shields plopped him and charged the mound. Again it was Gomes who got there after a missed haymaker punch was thrown by Shields at Crisp, but the boxing savvy Crisp ducked the punch before Gomes again took him down like a linebacker to the green grass.

But with Gomes leaving the Rays fold and doing his thing now with the Cincinnati Reds, the on-field antics and bench clearing brawls over the last two years have resembled line dances like the Hustle or the Electric Slide more than standing up for your teammates. The 2009 tussle between the Rays and Cleveland after Indians catcher insulted Rays Manager Joe Maddon seemed more choreographed than spur of the moment. Something seemed to be missing in this Rays clubhouse. Something intimidating seemed to have packed its bags and wandered away, and was not to be refilled by another soul.

Who knows, maybe that past Rays intimidation factor instantly returned yesterday when the Rays signed RHP Kyle Farnsworth to a two year contract. Maybe a little more physical heart and intimidation was in order since it clearly has been missing since Gome’s departure. Can Farnsworth’s intimidating presence firmly prove fruitful to the Rays psychological bag of tricks

This entire realm of pugilistic or barbaric thinking was escalated by a ESPN,The Magazine poll that asked MLB players who was the one man you would not like to see clench his fight and head your direction in a bench-clearing incident? Farnsworth was the clear winner in the poll, and that could definitely play into the Rays advantage in the late innings of a game. Farnsworth could be utilized in the 8th inning set-up role vacated by departed Dan Wheeler, or possibly be posted up as a Rays closer to cement and increase the intimidating pulse.

Farnsworth threw around 94.5 mph in his tours in Kansas City and Atlanta in 2010,and there is no sign of him slowing down any time soon. But his overall 27 saves in 12 seasons might point more towards him taking Wheeler’s spot and letting Joel Peralta man the closer role. Still, the image of the “Rick Vaughn” look-a-like with his wide rimmed glasses perched on his face adds to his character on the mound. This will be Farnsworth’s 6th team in 12 seasons, but could easily escalate into a career defining moment as Farnsworth will be looked upon to provide a veteran stalwart point to help maintain and stabilize a evolving Rays Bullpen mix.

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RSBS.mlblogs.com

Most people might not know that the ray is actually closely related to the shark family, but they only have their lone barbed stinger as their source of self defense. Being the human counterparts of this fierce combative familia, possibly the Rays have finally solidified a member into their fold who can teach some of the other Rays more timid relievers or starters a thing or two about on the mound intimidation and how to use that wisdom to their advantage on the hill.

In 2010 the only person feared on the Rays roster might have been Rays starter Matt Garza, and his facial hair might have provided most of that notion. With Garza gone to the Windy City, the Rays might have picked someone they feared in the past to become an ally to their team and provide a bit of his on-the-mound presence knowledge to help the Rays future.

At first I did not like this signing because of what Farnsworth had done to us in the past on the mound. On April 29, Farnsworth came on in the bottom of the 6th inning with his team down by 10 runs and threw 2 complete innings while striking out 4 of 8 Rays hitters in the Rays 11-1 blowout. It was the only time in 2010 he would face the Rays.

Intimidation plays a great psychological role in the game of baseball. At any moment a team or their players play coy mental games against their opponent both in the field and at the plate. This Farnsworth deal might be one of those signings that do not add up on paper, but in regards to what he can produce both mentally and physically for this rebuilding Rays team, Farnsworth has heavyweight potential…even before he clenches his fists.

 

 

The Three Wise Men….The Rays Trainers’

 
Mike Carlson/AP

All throughout my athletic career I always saw this one piece of the total puzzle as a necessary evil. That even if we did not want to suffice to injury or to pain, I knew that the team’s Medical Staff and Trainer’s sole mission was to keep us healthy or get us ready to again take the field as soon as possible.

And within time, I began to see them not as evil, but as a saving grace to my career and others on the team for their dedication and their determination to do whatever was needed to make the team whole and strong again.

 
And right now, some members of the Rays Republic are beginning to see the small grip that early Spring injuries have had on this Tampa Bay Rays squad over the last three weeks, but most have forgotten about the trio of men working behind the scenes to mend, strengthen and solidify this team again before the April 6th Home Opener to the Major League Baseball 2010 season.
 

Most people are beginning to dwell and concentrate their attentions on the reports spilling out onto the Internet that gaze upon the Rays players names that have been taken off the daily line-up cards without seeing the total picture here right now. They forget that this is the time in the Spring Training season where the “dead arms” begin to multiple, and the players bodies are racked with aches and strains of sweating bullets for the last three weeks.

Some Rays players are hitting the baseball equivalency of a marathoner’s wall, where even the slightest pull or strain could develop into a more severe episode if not for the Rays trio.

 

And most people do not even know their names, but they know their faces because every time a player is hurt on the field, or is taken from the game with a injury, they are right there in the photo with the Rays player usually helping them or stabilizing a body part hoping that their small action will minimize the consequences of the injury and speed the player’s recovery even before they both reach the Home Team or Visitor’s dugout.

Some of the most unsung heroes on this Rays squad is the trio of professionals that make up the Rays Medical Staff. So today, I want to take a moment to introduce you to the main three figures within the Rays Medical staff that treat, diagnose and prevent the breakdown of our favorite team on a daily basis. And this includes everything from the pre-game taping of ankles, wrists and even hamstrings, to post game visits by player’s feeling a tightening or tweak of their muscles during the contests.

There collective job’s starts way before the first pitch is thrown during Batting Practice, and they days ins well into the early morning on game nights.

 

 
Mike Carlson/AP

Most people know Ron Porterfield more by his smile or his occasion visits out to the field to throw with a rehabbing player before the game, usually during B.P. And this move by Porterfield might seem foreign to most, but by observing the player in their throwing motion, he can see any deviation or hesitation personally and make his moves accordingly. And Porterfield has been doing this for some time for the Rays.

 

In 2010, Porterfield will be entering his 15th season with the Rays, and his fifth straight as the main guy on the Rays Medical Staff. And before his time at the top spot, Porterfield, was the Rays Assistant Head Trainer for three seasons after getting his stripes as the Rays minor league medical and rehabilitation coordinator. And during that time he has been a great ally to the Rays players, both past and present pertaining to both on and off the field medical situations.
 

Most people might not know the untold hours and endless research Porterfield did concerning Rocco Baldelli’s 2007 ailment, and his constant attention to finding relief and treatments that would enable Baldelli to again take the field with the Rays. And you would only expect such dedication and commitment from the 2008 recipient of the prestigious American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) Career Service Award. The honor “recognizes individuals who have provided a career of exemplary care to baseball players.” I think the Institute definitely got that one right!
 
 
And the New Mexico State University graduate did not just walk into the Rays position, he also had many years of working his way up the minor league ladder beginning in 1988 with the Auburn Astros of the short season NewYork-Penn League. Porterfield also spent time with the Astro’s Triple-A affiliate in Tucson, Arizona before finally arriving with the young Rays Medical Staff. But most people might know Porterfield by his ear-to-ear smile every day at the ballpark, and his excitement that seems to beam on his face when he hit’s the field before Rays games.
 

 
Bob Hansen/TBO.com

The second Member of the Rays Medical Team recently got his photo in the news wire photos as the Rays were carting Rays catcher Dioner Navarro off the field after he suffered a massive cut and possible nerve injury on a Home Plate collision with Twins speedster Jacques Jones. Paul Harker usually looks pretty serious when you see him before, during and after games, but the rugged Rays Assistant Trainer is entering his fifth season in that position after leaving his post as the Rays minor league medical and rehabilitation coordinator after three prior seasons.

 

And Harker was involved in the Rays minor league system for over 11 seasons before rising to his post with the Major League staff. And before the Rays, Harker was a trainer with the Seattle Mariners in their minor league system at Hampton, Virginia (1991-1992), Jacksonville, Florida ( 1993-1994) and Wilmington, North Carolina (1995-1996). And like Porterfield, Harker has paid his dues to get to this level in his career.
 

The last member of this triad also got some attention recently as Rays starter David Price was nicked by the barrel end of a maple bat during a recent game and Nick Paparesta was prominently featured in photos throughout the country holding onto Price’s wrist as they both exited the field. Paparesta is entering his third season with the Rays as an Assistant Head Trainer, but he has been with the Rays organization now for five seasons.
 

 
YahooSports/Getty Images

Paparesta can usually been seen sitting down by the Rays Bullpen benches during Batting Practice watching the actions of Rays players on the field. He spent his first two seasons in the Rays organization as the minor league medical and rehabilitation coordinator and was responsible for overseeing all minor league trainers and rehabilitation with minor league players as well as assisting with the Major League club’s rehabilitation schedule.

 

Paparesta, a Florida native from neighboring city Fort Myers, got his Major League Baseball start in the Cleveland Indians organization for 11 years, including four with their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, New York. Paparesta has dual certifications as an Athletic Trainer from the National Athletic Trainer’ Association (NATA) and also certification by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a strength and conditioning trainer.
 

These three members of the Rays Medical staff are the front line responders to actions and reaction that take part in front of our eyes, and within the dugout on a daily basis for the Rays. Their fast actions and adherence to policies and team procedures pertaining to the health and well being of every member of the Rays staff both during the regular season and this Spring will have a direct impact on the Rays this season.

The prognosis and diagnosis by each member of this Rays staff is critical to supporting the Rays objectives and ultimate goals for 2010.  By keeping the Rays players on the field by mending their wounds and bandaging their limbs and applying ointments and medications to the Rays players when needed, they are the first line of defense to keeping this Rays team securely on the field and providing the team with a fighting chance to again rise towards a possible 2010 Playoff berth.

 
Lynn Sladsky/ AP

They all work their magic behind the watchful eyes of the Rays Republic to secure the Rays player’s health and generally are only seen when something bad or preplexing has happened on the field, or if called out to provide a second opinion into a player’s injury and offer guidance as to if a Rays player should remain on the field, or taken off the field for further evaluations.

 
They are just another part of this Rays organization that is on top of their game daily, and because of that, this Rays team is constantly getting the best care and solutions to keep the Ray team solid and cohesive during the Major League Baseball season.

So next time you see one of them hanging out at the ballpark, be sure to thank them for their services, and maybe ask how they are doing. For if it wasn’t for these three gentlemen and their commitment to this team, the Ray current injury situations could have been much worse, and resemble the shambles that is the New York Met’s Medical Staff right now.

 

Ladies and Gentleman…..Elliot Johnson

I remember back in 2008 seeing him standing right next to Akinora Iwamura during the Rays Team Photo. Standing there was this Rays player who is now fighting for his professional life, not even an arm’s length to the right of me, but I really did not know the first thing about Elliot Tyler Johnson at that moment. Johnson was one of those Rays players who had begun the 2008 season teetering on the edge of the Rays 25-man roster and was within an injury or a recovery away from again falling into the Rays farm system…again.
  

You have already known that Johnson has spent only a total of 28 days with the Rays after making the 2008 Opening Day roster following a blistering Spring Training, combined with Rays utility man Ben Zobrist’s 15-day Disabled List visit with a fractured thumb, Johnson firmly earned his first shot up with the big club. But his time in the Majors was short lived as Johnson appeared in 7 Rays games before disappearing again back to Triple-A Durham, where he spent the rest of the 2008 season. 

I had forgotten how not even a month earlier, Johnson had made his Major League debut in the holy confines of Yankee Stadium on April5,2008 in only the Rays fifth game of the season when Johnson got his first chance to show what he could do for this Rays squad. Johnson was that night’s Designated Hitter, and was popped into the ninth slot in the lineup. And I somehow had forgotten that Johnson did get his first Major League hit off Andy Pettitte in Johnson’s second at bat, but maybe I brushed the moment away because Johnson then got picked-off first base by the crafty left-hander. Not the first guy to have that happen to him, but not also a great moment to show weakness in your talents. 

And before these same Rays teammates assembled on those risers back in 2008 for the official team photo, I could have talked with Johnson beforehand, but I missed a great opportunity to chat with a Rays player who is quickly seeing his time with these Rays ticking away with his every step into the batter’s box, or play amongst the dust of the Rays infield. That second hand on the Johnson’s Spring Training clock is beginning to run out on Johnson, as the team is currently focused on other players fighting out their battles this Spring. For when Johnson was sent down on April 27,2008 when the

Rays decided to bring up another infielder Andy Cannizaro, Johnson had only appeared in 5 Rays games and batted only .158 ( 3-19) , but in an instant, Johnson was gone again.
 

And it is a bit of a crime that I have not taken the time to learn more about this guy who won the 2008 Al Lopez Award as the top Rays rookie during Spring Training, or who scored 17 runs and led the Rays 2008 Spring Training team with a .417 batting average and got 23 hits while logging an astounding 117 Spring Training innings. And how most of us within the Rays Republic knew his name only after maintaining the 2008 Rays team mantra of always hustling, even during the Spring Training games, when Johnson came in hard on Yankees rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli on a play at Home Plate during the 9th inning of a Spring Training game against the Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field, and ended up fracturing Cervelli’s right wrist. He instantly became a villain to Yankee fans, and a reincarnation of Pete Rose to the Rays Republic. 

Instantly he became the Rays Spring Training poster child for taking advantage of his game opportunities, but Johnson also became an instant scapegoat from other teams’ who condemned his Spring Training hustle because it was only Spring, and it cost another team one of their bright stars so early into the season. Instantly people forgot the great feat Johnson performed on May 28,2004 when he blasted homers in his first three at bats while playing for the Charleston RiverDogs in their first three innings of play that night. Johnson had started his minor league career with only three total home runs before that night’s breakout performance against the Greensboro squad. As a side note, Johnson had homered in his last at bat the night before in Greenboro, effectively hitting homers in his last four at bats for the RiverDogs. 

And before B J Upton hit his cycle with the Rays in October 2009, Johnson was the last Rays organizational player to hit for the cycle when Johnson hit his cycle on September 15,2006 while he was playing with the Montgomery Biscuits. Johnson was one of those guys who has more than paid his dues within the Rays farm system, but we as fans, discarded him for some reason without a second thought. And during this 2010 Spring Training season when the Rays are seeking a versatile utility guy who can play multiple positions, Johnson might be finally entering into his final sunset with the Rays.


Johnson no longer has any minor league options left in 2010, and Johnson could effectively be gone either by the Rays placing him on waivers, or Johnson could be dealt in a late Spring trade ,and gone from the Rays for good. And even with only two games down in the 2010 Rays Spring Training schedule, Johnson went 1 for 2 today with a triple and scored on a single by outfielder Matt Joyce in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 6-5 today in Port Charlotte, Florida. Johnson is still trying to get his name into the Rays organization’s minds this Spring, and hopefully get another chance to show he belongs at the Major League level.

I do not think I am alone here within the Rays Republic in not taking the time, or the energy to chat it up with Johnson along the Rays sidelines this Spring. And I am totally guilty of not taking advantage of this opportunity in the past, almost forgetting at times that Johnson was even here for Spring Training. Johnson is like so many guys among every Major League Baseball Spring roster who is not invisible, or even unapproachable, but might be caught in that middle ground of players that we always think will be a part of our teams. He always seems to do enough to stay on long into the Spring Training schedule, and we feel they might make that leap again, and you don’t give it a second thought that players like Johnson can be gone in an instant.

And you maybe would not even have recognized Johnson out and about within the Port Charlotte community, or even up in Durham, North Carolina where he still makes his home during the off season. Or that Johnson has conducted local baseball camps for the last three off seasons for the kids and teens of the Durham community, where Johnson also instructs students in one-on-one baseball lessons. Or that Johnson comes from the community of Thatcher, Arizona, which was the backdrop of the Albert Brook’s movie “Lost in America”. Johnson is simply one of those guys who has fallen through our mind’s cracks and might be getting his last chance in 2010, to make this Rays team soon.


For some reason, baseball fans sometimes seem to get a bit of tunnel vision during Spring Training where we funnel our attentions towards our team’s stars and the aspiring prospects, and we instantly forget the players like Johnson, who have been there for so long trying to grab a hold of a chance to get back to the Major League level. And Johnson has been with the Rays since the team signed him as a non-drafted free agent back in 2002. So it is not like he just rode into this Spring into his first run with the Rays franchise this Spring.
 

Johnson has been here so long that some of us, myself included, have made him a bit invisible to ourselves over the last few seasons. And that is a crying shame because this is the type of guy we should be cheering for ,and wanting to see make this 2010 Rays club. And Johnson is not alone on this squad in that manner. People forgot a bit about another long-time Rays farm hand Justin Ruggiano. But you can bet that on Sunday, when I hit BrightHouse Field for the Rays versus Phillies game in Clearwater, I am going to try and call over Johnson and wish him the best this Spring.

Finally, I am going to try and get a chance as a Rays fan to get to know Johnson before he might be gone. And maybe, just maybe, I could then call him over again on April 6th ,before the Rays take on these same Orioles in the Rays Home Opener, and Johnson would be smiling ear-to-ear while still sporting that # 47 jersey…. just like today.

 

Adiosu Aki, Settai Chavez


SPTimes.com

You just knew that the Rays had put the discussion and the issue of whether to retain Akinora Iwamura or test the trade waters for him a high priority this World Series week. Mostly because they had to make a decision immediately after the series on if they were going to pay him a $550,000 contract buyout, or accept the 1-year $4.85 million dollar contract for the 2010 season.

And we all knew that the Rays could always trade Iwamura, but everyone in the league knew they would have to make a decision on him, and might try and low sell the Rays on a prospect to get some veteran leadership on their team. And in the end, Iwamura went to a team that did not even appear on anyone’s radar as a potential trade partner.

Before last night, who besides the Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman would have believed that the Pittsburgh Pirates had anything more than a passing interest on the infielder. It seemed some what out of character that a team that has been sold on youth and keeping a lower payroll would bring on a player that instantly became their highest paid player in one firm stroke.

But it is not as if Iwamura was a salary dump, or even a bad contract move. His one year deal actually might make a bit of sense for the Pirates considering he has shown he is a team first player who can also play both third base and second base with exceptional defensive skills.  But it might be his effectiveness at the plate that intrigued the Pirates the most.

They had been seeking a lead-off bat that could produce both with infield hits and on the base paths. Iwamura fits that bill and more. In his three season with the Rays he was used as a lead-off man and also a lower in the line-up hitter and excelled in both spots with timely hits and aggressive actions on the bases.


RRCollections

Also a glowing positive is the fact that in his first two season in the Major League, Iwamura had only hit into 4 double plays in 1,216 at bats for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007-2007. He is a career .281 hitter who is known to go on hitting streaks and has a medium dose of power in his bat.  But what might be exciting to fans and players alike is his imitation alligator skin glove that he had made when he signed with the Rays back in 2007.

Iwamura is quiet on the field, but was a constant clubhouse figure during the celebration and during fan signings during his season with the Rays. Some people think that the Rays might have gotten the short end of the deal with only acquiring reliever Jesse Chavez in the deal. But all indication are from the Rays scouting department that Chavez is a young pitcher who can bring the ball to the plate and should be firmly in the mix to make the team in the 2010 Spring Training.

Chavez almost set the Pirate rookie record for innings pitched in 2009, but he fell 12 inning short of the record set by teammate Matt Capps in 2006. Chavez did finished the year with a total of 67.1 innings and led all National League pitchers in innings pitched last season.  And his record in 2009 might be a bit misleading at 1-4 with a 4.01 ERA.

But he did lead the Pirates Bullpen in total appearances last season (73). And he picked up his first Major League win in a walk-off victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on September 6,2009. And what might have appealed to the Rays is the fact he was scored upon once in his last nine appearances, and posted a 3.19 ERA early in the season before the All Star break.

So the Rays are getting a guy who has one season of Major League experience, and is under team control until 2014. Which in the long run is the Rays formula to success recently. The addition of Chavez fills a hole the Rays will have in their Bullpen coming into Spring Training, and also gives them a viable option that could make the team out of Spring Training at a reasonable salary for the team.

And after the Pirates traded John Garbow to the Chicago Cubs, the team depended on Chavez more and more during the season to get critical outs in the game.  But one disadvantage Chavez has coming to the Rays might be that the Pirates did not play the match-up game the way the Rays have done for most of 2009. Instead Pirates Manager John Russell would put Chavez in the game no matter if right or left-handers were coming to the plate.

Russell personally felt that the match-up system would tax his Bullpen and his philosophy was not to play into situational pitching, but to make his guys get batters out on both sides of the plate nightly.  And Chavez held both sides of the plate under .300, with a .228 average against lefties.  But there might be a few things that ring alarm bells in the Rays head also about the powerful rightie.

During 2009, opponents hit Chavez to a 9.0 ERA on turf, which he will play over 81 game on both at the Trop. and on the road for the Rays.  And he has a better ERA away from home than on the road, which is not usually the case in a young pitcher. Chavez has a 3.45 ERA away from PNC Park, while he held a 4.50 ERA at home. But he is a young pitcher, and future adjustments and a comfort level both with the Rays and on the Field Turf might change those stats fast for Chavez.

I honestly think this trade is more of a “win-win” for both teams.  Some have brought up the issue of the Rays having a limited sense of leverage in this deal, but in reality the Pirates gave up a guy with loads of potential and a gift of giving up the long ball in return for a veteran they control and could use as a nice trade tool at the Trading Deadline in 2010.

But in the end, I will miss seeing Iwamura manning the second base hole during Rays games, but the reality has shown again for the Rays. Even in the time since we have let our payroll go a big north the reality was still there that members of this team would out-grown the Rays financial breaking points. 

First Scott Kazmir was jettisoned before the end of 2009 to free up capital to try and keep Carl Crawford in the fold. Then both Crawford and Iwamura both went to the team and let them know that financial options could be discussed with each of them. But in the end, it is a business, and with the financial background of the Rays front office, we will see more and more of these emotion less transactions in the coming years. Even if it is business and not personal, seeing Iwamura go now is sad, but a product of the system that the Rays employ to keep their team fiscally fit and ready for 2010.


Elise Almendola /AP

 
私達は2010年のAkiのピッツバーグの繁栄そして健康を望む。
そして私達はあなたの微笑を逃す!

( We wish you prosperity and health in Pittsburgh in 2010. We will miss your smile!)

Rays Decision on Iwamura is Complex

 


Duane Burelson / AP

With the beginning of the 2009 off season upon us, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays will soon have to begin to make some serious personnel decisions for the 2010 season, even before they hit the MLB Winter meetings in Indianapolis, Indiana. Everybody and their brother already know about the Rays impending decision on Carl Crawford’s $ 10 million club option, and his public eagerness to sweeten the deal and possibly sign another extended contract.

But there is another Rays player who has made it be known to the Rays front office through the media that he would entertain a contract restructuring, and maybe give the team a local discount because of his family’s love for this area. Iwamura informed the Tampa Bay media during his May 29th press conference about his successful knee surgery that he wants to “come back for the fans” in 2010, and the teams holds a $4.85 million club option.

One thing working into Iwamura’s favor is the fact the Rays have seen him work totally with the team in mind in the past to do whatever is needed to make this Rays team better. When he first came to the Rays, he was their third baseman, and he quickly showed his defensive skills at that position. After the end of the 2007 season, Iwamura was asked by the Rays Coaching staff if he would consider a move to second base to open the door for the Rays top prospect Evan Longoria to maybe move into that position in the Spring of 2008.

Without hesitation, Iwamura  began to work on the switch during the off season both  in Japan and with the team at the Rays complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. Iwamura was hoping for a smooth seamless transition to his new spot at second base. During that off season, the Rays traded with the Twins for Jason Bartlett to also add more defensive power to their two weakest spots in the infield.
 


Michael Dwyer / AP

Iwamura stated to the St. Petersburg Times on February 17,2008 that he was “Proud of my play at third base but at same time if the team needs me to be at second for team reasons I more than welcome it,” he said through new interpreter Bori Uchibori. “It’s a challenge to me anyway. I know I can do it. Wiggy can do it so I can do it.” During that season’s Spring Training, Iwamura and Bartlett  worked out together and formed a quick bond and a second sense for each others actions and reactions, and it became a flawless fit for the team.

Even after his knee surgery to repair damage received during a May 29,2008 game against the Florida Marlins where Marlins rookie Chris Coghlan came in hard to break up a double play and Iwamura went down in a heap after getting caught between the bag and Coghlan’s foot. Iwamura was encouraged by the surgeries prognosis and vowed to be back with the team before the end of the season. On August 29th, Iwamura returned from the disabled list after 60 days.

And that kind of team-oriented qualities need to be welcomed by the Rays Coaching staff and Front Office as they consider if they want to include Iwamura in their future plans.  You can bet there will be more than a few discussions before the team announces if they will pick up or refuse Iwamura’s 2010 option. And the team can go a few directions here.  There is some doubt right now if recently acquired infielder Sean Rodriguez, who might have outgrown Triple-A is ready for every day duty in the major leagues.

And that has to be the biggest question mark surrounding Iwamura right now. Can Rodriguez be an every day MLB level player for the Rays, or even a valuable utility man like Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist? That might be the big question in mind as the Rays roll the dice before the team reports to Port Charlotte on February 19,2010.  Can they afford to refuse his option and resign him for a reduced salary and incentives, or risk letting him test the free agent waters?


Ben Margot / AP

And you know there are a bevy of teams that might want to lure Iwamura away from the Rays. A team like the New York Mets could benefit from the Rays confusion and would use his speed and flexibility to compliment their infield. But this is putting the cart before the horse. The Rays have not let their intentions known yet to the general public, but you know it is a high priority of the Rays Front Office to try and get both a financial and  team suitable arrangement that can benefit both sides.

And with Iwamura being a bit of a fan favorite, the team might have to tread a bit lightly right now considering the fallout from the Scott Kazmir trade in late August 2008. To make another trade so quick without a solution in hand might again send up some unwarranted red flags amongst the Rays faithful. The Rays best solution might be to sign Iwamura to a extended contract with the stipulation that if Rodriguez is ready, Iwamura could be traded to another team during the season. 

That would show a level of good faith by the Rays along with some future considerations in place if Rodriguez provides another option piece for the team.  The worst part of this decision is that it is going to be more of a financial than personal decision about Iwamura. You know the team would love to keep someone like Iwamura on their roster, but his payroll number might make it unfeasible. But the team has been sure to note that an exit visa is not in the cards right now to jettison Iwamura from the Rays.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

But  his $ 4.85 million club option is also pretty affordable by most of the teams within the MLB, and the Rays could shop Iwamura maybe for some Bullpen help that the team desperately need right now. I actually hope they come to an arrangement prior to accepting or declining his option that would benefit both sides.  And maybe an “out” or trade revision will have to be added to any contract. But since Iwamura has announced he would do some shifting in money and conditions, this negotiation is going to be tricky for the Rays.

There is a slippery slope here that the Rays have to be careful and move gingerly or fall prey to some past decisions. But that is one of the drawbacks of being an successful club. Sometimes hard line financial decisions have to be made without personal feeling involved. Best case scenario has Iwamura staying with the team and maybe moved at the Trade Deadline when Rodriguez could get some extra time at Triple-A.

But no matter what the team does between now and February, you know this is going to be one of their toughest decisions of this offseason. Hopefully they make the right decision with the team and its future in mind.

Jason Bartlett deserves an All-Star spot

 


Gail Burton / AP

People have always looked to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the ulitimate symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection. I mean the guy has the endorsement looks, the slick glove and a energized bat that always seems to hum at, or above the .300 clip every single season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.”

And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because  consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the name recognition that even part-time fans notice. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted  All-Star spot? 

I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game in St Louis. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more  fufutre All-Star selections in the future.

When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins, they knew what he could do on the field with a glove against a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player as maybe the hidden gem of that trade, and wanted him to be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their Rays defense. He was going to be that energy cell, or extreme excitement they needed to shore up a ever improving defense that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot.

So when he finally got on the field in Spring Training 2008, people were still a bit curious about this guy who made his Major League debut in 2004 and only hit .083 in eight games that season. But soon his slick skills and the fluid movement he had with the ball won over the Rays fan base. He had a new  converted second baseman, Akinora Iwamura, who was coming over from third base, and Bartlett made sure to make time every day to spend some quality time with Iwamura to get a better feeling for each other and get an internal bond and thought process going that would eventually click for the Rays.

That is the mark of a truly  great up-and-coming professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team. And they did bond into a unit that could convert the pivot on a double play with great percision, and was always in position to take a Dioner Navarro throw on a steal attempt. He made Navarro’s catching efficiency number go sky high with great tags and positioning.

The guy has been poetry in motion to Rays fans. Sure we had gotten shortstops before, heck we even had one standing behind Bartlett in centerfield  in Former First Round pick B J Upton, who was drafted out of High School as the Rays  heir apparent to the Rays shortstop post. But the year progressed and Bartlett seemed to get stronger and stronger in the position.

His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the cold hard facts and  the defensive upgrades and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you could see the game flowed through the 6-hole.

After the Rays were defeated in the 2008 World Series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
 

And that bodes well for the team. Coming into Spring Training he had more security with Iwamura, and felt that he belonged here in Tampa Bay. He used that positive vibe to hit at a .327 clip for the spring. Showing leadership and  more confidence he appeared in only 19 games, but left an impression upon fans of some upcoming power and offensive fireworks for 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP


He started the season pretty much under the radar  as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during the season. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of May that skyrocketed him to a lofty .373 mark. That mark was leading the Major Leagues in hitting at the time. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.

But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. He is beginning to hit the ball for power, which was a component absent from his hitting earlier in his career. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.

 

But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs.

So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from his second spot currently behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter.

So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2008, what do you think? 

He has appeared in 50 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 23 double plays. Bartlett has  put the ball in play 210 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors.  His .981 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now.  In close comparison, Jeter has 248 total chances and 3 errors and 32 double plays for a .988 Fielding Average.


Reinhold Matay / AP

So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League?  I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league without question. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is showing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.

The only killer to this right now is his ankle injury he suffered during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins in game. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle.

But with him out of the lineup, you saw a completely different feel to the Rays defense. It didn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and  afraid to make errors and seems a bit timid  compared to when Bartlett played in the field. The Rays missed its field general, the guy  who always pumped up the infielders and makes the defensive calls for the infield.

And even since he has come back off of the shelf after that ankle injury, he hit the ground running as currently has a 16-game hitting streak, second only to the Cub’s Derrick Lee’s 17-game streak earlier in the season. And if you want to talk average, his current .373 batting avaerage is the highest by a shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra’s .391 mark with Boston in 2000.

He missed a total of 19 games for the Rays during his left ankle sprain, and his presence was surely missed in the lineup and on the field for the Rays.  He has hit safely in all 6 games since he came back into the lineup, plus he hit safely in all three of his rehab games before coming back to the Rays.  He is hitting .386 during his current streak, and he currently leads all shortstops in RBI ( 31) and stolen bases ( 14). His hitting would lead the league, but he is currently 18 appearances short of qualifying again for that top spot.

But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.

“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon said. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.”  So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?


Gail Burton /AP

I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the American League with great flair and confidence. 

Bartlett’s selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
 

But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.

Jason Bartlett = All Star

 


Gail Burton / AP

People have always looked to New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter as the symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection at that position. I mean the guy has the looks, the slick glove and the bat that always seems to hum at or above the .300 clip every season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.” 

And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because  consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the true fans notice  these moments. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted  All-Star nod?  I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more in the near future.

When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins they knew what he could do on the field with a glove and a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player who could be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their defense. That he could be the energy cell needed to shore up a team that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot. So when he finally got on the field in Spring Training 2008, people were still a bit curious about this guy who made his Major League debut in 2004 and only hit .083 in eight games.

But soon they could see the slick skills and the fluid movement he had with the ball. He had a new second baseman, Akinora Iwamura, who was coming over from third base, and Bartlett made sure to make time every day to spend some quality time with Iwamura to get a better feeling for each other and get an internal bond and thought process going that would eventually click for the Rays.  That is the mark of a truly professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team.

The names Bartlett and Iwamura were heard and seen a lot in boxscores and by radio and television announcers while completing double plays for the Rays.
The guy has been poetry in motion to Rays fans. Sure we had gotten shortstops before, heck we even had one standing behind Bartlett in centerfield  in B J Upton, who was drafted out of High School as the Rays shortstop of the future. But the year progressed and Bartlett seemed to get stronger and stronger in the position.

His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the feats and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you would see the game flowed through the 6-hole.

After the Rays were defeated in the World series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
 

And that bode well for the team. Coming into Spring Training he had more security with Iwamura, and felt that he belonged here in Tampa Bay. He used that positive vibe to hit at a .327 clip for the spring. Showing leadership and  more confidence he appeared in only 19 games, but left an impression upon fans of some upcoming power and offensive fireworks for 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP


He started the season pretty much under the radar  as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during April. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of may that skyrocketed him to his present .373 mark. That mark is currently leading the Major Leagues in hitting. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.

But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.

 

But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs, most of them great shots and is on the way to having the best season of his career.

So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from the fourth spot currently behind Toronto’s Marco Scutaro, who is having a banner year himself in 2009, and new comer Texas rookie Elvis Andrus. But Bartlett’s current vote tally of 233,482 is considerably behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter with 664,630.

So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2oo8, what do you think?  He has appeared in 44 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 19 double plays. Bartlett has 180 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors.  His .978 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now.  In close comparison, Jeter has 179 total chances and 2 errors and 21 double plays for a .987 Fielding Average.


Reinhold Matay / AP

So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League?  I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is shoeing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.

The only killer to this right now is his injury he suffered last Sunday during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle. After an MRI and the medical staff calling for him to sit a few days, Bartlett finally was open to sitting the letting it heal instead of trying to play on it and risk further damage.

But with him out of the lineup, you have seen a completely different feel to the Rays defense right now. It doesn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and seems a bit timid at times. It misses its field general, the guy to pump up the infielders and make the assignments for the infield. They miss that main cog in their machine. Bartlett recently told the St. Petersburg Times, “Part of me wants to be selfish and just get out there and keep playing,” Bartlett said. “But if I do that I could make it worse and be out two-to-three months as opposed to a week or so. “

But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.

“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.”  So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?


Gail Burton /AP

I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the Rays with great flair and confidence. But if he is not in the upper tier of voting and is not selected by the fans votes, he still has a great shot of getting to his first All-Star game. I think the AL All-Star Manager will see that the game needs a guy like Bartlett in it.

That his selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
 

But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.

M*A*S*H* 33701 Staff

 


Lynn Sladsky / AP

The roster of the Tampa Bay Rays is beginning to represent a television episode of M*A*S*H* 4077th right now. The recent flurry of injuries, both serious and treated with kindness have made this roster change shape in recent weeks. But behind the scenes, the sight in the Rays training room right now might not be as bloody or surgically fixated as the television show, but the drama and the extent of the injuries have made their medical staff one of the true treasures right now in the Rays organization.

Most fans have never heard the names Ron Porterfield, Paul Harker or Kevin Barr before during most of the Rays telecasts. They are a group of guys who try and stay beyond the cameras and beyond the eye sight of most people in the stands before, during and after most of the Rays games. But their contribution to the Tampa Bay Rays will now have a huge significance on what is going to happen on the field. You see, this trio is the conglomerate that is responsible for the well being and health of the players on our roster. Each one of them is considered the best in their field, and have served the Rays for several season in their respective positions.

With their state-of-the-art training complex and new and proven methods being employed daily, the medical staff is beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s take Rays reliever Brian Shouse’s injury first. After his first MRI, it was concluded that he might have a slight tear in his left flexor muscle right off the elbow. This would put the reliever essentially out for some time. But under further diagnosis and further testing, it was ruled that Shouse might have just a slight strain to the region and not need surgery at all. That diligence in finding the correct diagnosis might have cost the Rays the use of Shouse later in the season. Now after rehab and some carefully watched exercise and throwing sessions, he might again be back with the club a lot soon than originally expected. And that is huge as the Rays try and regain their core and take on the task of repeating their AL East title.

As we speak several players are also trying to get off the training tables and rehab assignments to bring some help to the slumping Rays. Designated Hitter Pat Burrell has missed 15 games now due to his neck stiffness. The team has been able to tread water to a 8-7 record since he went down, but his bat is needed to protect Carlos Pena in the lineup. Yesterday in Cleveland, Burrell was suppose to take some special individualized batting practice to see just how far he has progressed in his fight to get his neck situation under control.  The session was canceled after he was experiencing more neck stiffness. The team is tentatively expecting another try at Burrell going to the plate on Friday when they return to Tropicana field for their latest home stand. Hopefully on that day the Rays will have some good news on their ailing DH.

But then you have guys like Rays reliever Chad Bradford, who is right now on loan to the Rays Class-A squad, the Charlotte Stone Crabs for a rehab assignment. So far the prognosis is great for Bradford, and with the Bullpen right now a bit tired and weathered, he just might be ready soon to give some relief to his Bullpen mates.  His last appearance was on May 24th, and he went 1-inning and only gave up 1-hit in the appearance. The Stone Crabs have been victimized lately by weather as their last two game have been canceled due to the elements. But this week they are in Clearwater to play the Threshers, and the medical staff left behind on this road trip will be keeping a close eye on Bradford if he gets into any of these contests.

Another guy who is suffering from bad timing is Shawn Riggans. Earlier on in the season, Riggans went down with a bout of shoulder tendinitis and was set down for a few weeks before he was again allowed to participate in a throwing program. He went through the  throwing program set up by Barr and was ready to again try and hit a rehab assignment with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.  Riggans went on up to Alabama and joined the team, but was quickly taken back off the roster after a sudden pain in his shoulder after throwing a pick-off attempt to first base during a game. He was sent to renowned doctor James Andrews in neighboring Birmingham, Alabama. After son consultation and recommendations from Andrews, Riggans was on his way back to St. Petersburg, Florida to again try all over again with the rest and relaxation program for a while. He is hoping to again be ready for a throwing program by the first week of June.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

Ron Porterfield probably had one of his worst days recently during Sunday’s Florida Marlins versus the Rays game. In the ninth inning of that contest, the Marlins Chris Coghlan came into second base to break up a double play opportunity and struck Akinora Iwamura in the left leg while it was still planted firmly on the infield clay. The result of the moving Coghlan into the rigid Iwamura made for one force taking damage on the other. Iwamura instantly went down and was in obvious pain on the infield. Porterfield rushed out their immediately and tried to ease the pain of Iwamura. The hardest part of this job might be the instant recognition of a bad situation and remaining cool and calm during this time is extremely difficult.

You could see on the replays during the injury time-out that Porterfield was not trying to stretch the area out or even attempt to have Iwamura stand based on the visual extent of the injury. He immediately asked for the crash cart to be brought out onto the turf and Iwamura was transported off the field to the rear of the Visitor’s Clubhouse area. At this time it is Porterfield’s job to ease the suffering and pain of Iwamura and give reassurance.  You have to guess he already had a opinion on the extent of the injury and was doing everything he could to mask the emotions and the conversation more towards positive elements. 

Iwamura was on crutches by the end of the game putting no pressure or force on his left knee region. He was then put in a car en route to St. Petersburg where a MRI was to be conducted this past Monday morning. He was not there when the results came in from the MRI in St. Petersburg as he was with the team in Cleveland for their four game series there before finally coming back to Tropicana Field. The results of Iwamura’s MRI showed that surgery will be needed to repair the ACL and a slight bit of damage to his MCL ligaments.

This will put him out for the rest of the 2008 season, and some speculate it might be his last time to put on a Rays uniform. But a planned surgery in the next two weeks after the swelling goes down and it is optimal to operate, Iwamura will get fixed up locally by Dr. Koko Eaton.

Later in that same ballgame, they again got called back onto the field after Dan
Uggla’s stolen base attempt. On that play, the Rays starting shortstop Jason Bartlett put his left leg in front of the base to attempt to make Uggla go to the outside of the base. Instead, Ugglas came in spikes first and clipped Bartlett on the top of the ankle, which resulted in him going down fast to the clay surface.  Again the medical staff went out there and performed some quick aid to relieve Bartlett of his obvious pain at the time. Bartlett did refuse to come out of the game and finished the contest and was getting more treatment as the team was packing up for their plane ride to Cleveland for the next series.

In Cleveland, it was decided because of the conversation with the medical staff that Bartlett should rest the ankle for a few days. Some say he could have played through the pain, but considering that Bartlett is a key element of the team again playing for that divisional title, precautionary measures were decided by Rays Manager Joe Maddon and the medical staff. Bartlett sat out the Monday game against the Indians and was set to have an MRI to check for further damage in the region. 

Because the MRI revealed a sprain, it was advised by the medical staff that rest and staying off the ankle would further the healing process. We all know that Bartlett would want to play, and might just do a good job even with a gimpy ankle. But the consideration of his total health was in order. A healthy Bartlett could help the team pick up the needed wins to regain some places within the division. If he re-injured it, or made the injury more severe, his participation might be hindered significantly the rest of the season.

Then you have people like Barr, who have designed the rehab programs for players like Fernando Perez while he is on the DL to increase his mobility and keep him in shape while he waits for further word on when he can begin a throwing program of his own designed by Barr. With his baby blue cast off his wrist you would think that the injury might be over and he can again take full baseball activities. But the wrist area is a delicate region that can be injured again quickly if the injury is not fully healed before a top workout begins. Perez was recently transferred to the 60-day DL, and it is thought he might not be on either a rehab assignment or playing before August 2009.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

The training/medical staff of the Rays is considered one of the best in baseball.  So who are these guys, and why should we be glad we have them on the Rays. Well, let me see if I can give you some insight to why we are lucky to have this trio in Tampa Bay.

First let’s start with the team’s Strength and conditioning Coach, Kevin Barr. In 2009, Barr will be presented with the Nolan Ryan Award, sponsored by Life Fitness. The award named after the Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, honors an outstanding strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball. The Nolan Ryan Award recognizes the coach whose accomplishments, in the opinion of fellow members of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society (PBSCCS), reflects an exemplary dedication to strength training and conditioning. The award also recognizes the recipient’s professional and personal accomplishments as well as his integrity as a strength and conditioning coach.

You might recognize him more for his time spent out on the field during Batting Practice in the right field corner with the pitchers’ helping them both do stretching exercises and running drills. He also can be seen on the first baseline just before the game when the players come out to stretch before Rays games. He is one of the only people out there at that time not in a Rays uniform, and can be easy to spot. He is a key element to the consistent health and rebuilding of the Rays roster after an injury has been sustained by a player.

Most people confuse Paul Harker with a player since he is tall and built like a player. But it is his duty to assist Porterfield in any needs before after and during the game to prepare the Rays field players and pitchers for that days game. Harker joined the major league staff after serving for three seasons as the Rays Minor League head trainer.  He  first joined the organization in November 1996 as the trainer for the Class- A St. Petersburg Devil Rays before serving as Triple-A Durham’s trainer from 1998-2002. Prior to joining the Rays organization, Harker worked in the Seattle Mariners organization for six seasons. He is a graduate of Florida State University and is certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association.

But the guy most people know by his smile and his personality is Ron Portfield, the head honcho in the Rays medical corps. Porterfield is afraid to put a glove on and catch a bit with rehabbing players, or to just be a sounding board for a player trying out a new pitch or delivery. He is on one of the busiest people before the game for the Rays, and his training table area is also a hot spot for conversation and group conversations before the Rays games. Porterfield, spent his time as the team’s Major League assistant trainer before finally getting the top spot in December 2005. He joined the Rays organization in 1997, serving as the Minor League medical and rehabilitation coordinator for six years. Porterfield originally came to the Rays from the Houston Astros, an organization he joined in 1987 after he graduated from New Mexico State University.

In 2004, Porterfield was a member of the medical staff that received the Dick Martin Medical Staff of the Year Award from Baseball Prospectus. Porterfield’s intense computer research and commitment to helping Rocco Baldelli in 2008 get back to the field last August helped earn Porterfield the 2008 American Sports Medicine Institute Career Service Award.


So as you can see, the Rays have a well educated and knowledgeable staff to prevent and treat any aliments that might come up during the Rays contests. With new technologies and treatment systems being discovered daily, it is also their job to wade through the  published  treatment paperwork and computer postings to find the best injury solutions for the Rays players.  The commitment and the stamina displayed by these three guys should be commended.

They are the first line of defense to keeping these players on the field, and the last ones to insure they are ready again to play for the Rays. It is a tough job, and one that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, but it is what they love, and what they are extremely good at doing. And we are lucky to have them here in Tampa Bay.

 

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