Results tagged ‘ Dan Wheeler ’
Have to say I had a more than a fantastic time yesterday during the 2010 Toby Hall Golf Classic. Saw a lot of old baseball friends, and met a few new ones during the event and the social times later at the awards presntation and silent auction at the Courtside Grille. It is funny how I was just standing there helping both the participants and the celebrities get their correct size Addias shoes for the event, and so many people just seemed so glad to see me at the event. And that what makes that day an instant classic memory.
People were fast to extend their hand for a handshake or do a little chatting with me about a multitude of subjects before heading out for a round of golf. I felt like I belonged yesterday in that environment, and I thank everyone for that. But then again, I never been known to be a isolated hermit and I do tend to be a bit too outgoing at times.
But there were also some people missing that I had hoped to check up on and see how things were going with them, but they had to take a “rain check” on the event because of some great news and unexpected events. Within the first few minutes I learned that ex-Rays slugger Jonny Gomes was going to miss the classic because he had just joined the exclusive ”Dad’s Club” after having a baby girl. And that former Ray Rocco Baldelli was going to to miss the event after some travel fatigue following his recent trip to Europe.
And that Rays centerfielder B J Upton, who also has his own golf event this week was actually currently up in New York filming a segment on the MLB Network that is making the video rounds on the Internet today. But also former WWE wrestler and Rays fanatic Brian Knobs was also AWOL for the event because of scheduling conflicts. But the classic also had some very familiar faces to local Tampa Bay fans such as World Champion boxer Winky Wright and former players of the Tampa Bay Bucs like Mike Alstott, Anthony Becht,Matt Bryant, and Matt O’Dwyer.
Current Bucs players Clinton Smith, Kevin Carter and Sheldon Quarles also came out to support the classic which was working closely with the Miracle League of Florida to raise $ 250,000 to help construct a state of the art facility in Hillsborough County(Tampa area) for physically challenged kids to get the opportunity to enjoy the game of baseball. But mostly it was the Major League Baseball contingency, that included a lot of local home grown MLB talent coming out to support the cause and to have a great round of golf with their fellow MLB players.
And the Rays had several players come out and show support like Dan Wheeler,Andy Sonnanstine(who was late, but got into speed mode and completed the course),and James Shields. The Rays Coaching staff also had golfing fanatic (Third Base Coach) Tom Foley out representing the Rays staff. Former Rays players showed up and support their former Rays catcher in his foundation’s drive to help the Miracle League of Florida reach their goal.
Former Rays players like Trever Miller (Cards),Miguel Cairo, Jorge Cantu (Marlins) Chuck Hernandez (Coach), and retired Rays players like Doug Creek, Roberto Henandez and Jason Romano were all on hand to play in the Scramble format classic. Local baseball talents like pitcher Jesse Litsche (Toronto),Casey Kotchman (Seattle),Boof Bonser ( Boston), Gavin Floyd (Chicago White Sox), Denard Span (Minnesota). Also in attendance was a excited and totally gung ho Yankee prospect pitcher Christian Garcia that was loving the day on the Bayou Club Golf Course even with it wild conditions.
The media was also not forgotten as local radio host Fisher and the Rays own Todd Kalas were on-hand to show that the Rays voices in the poressbox and on the air waves were also represented in the classic. Former MLB players Darnell Coles and Casey Cox were also playing for the great cause. And during the event I found out that Romano had actually retired and was now working closely with Speed Gel, which is a cream that can help reduce inflamation, help heal injuries and relieve common musle pain.
But Span, who doesn’t play golf, actually stayed in the clubhouse and we spoke on a always expanding round of subjects, some not baseball related. Span actually chuckled when I mentioned where I sat and remembered me and how persistent I was to get his autograph. Always a compliment if a fan can leave an impression on a player. Well, I think so.
I asked Span about the new Twins digs set to open up this Spring, and we both were in agreement that the turf might be rough until May before it has some give and take while playing on it. He also acknowledged that the Twins might lose some homefield advantage for a few homestands until they also got to know all the nooks and crannies of playing this new stadium. But I also found out he also played football as a wide reciever before he was drafted into the MLB. Span actually laughed when I told him I took the football route and should have picked baseball.
And it was a great day on the links and in the clubhouse getting to know Span and other golfers’ in between holes chatting about the game and things outside the game. And even if the day did stay a bit blustery with huge wind gusts, it was a great event I will never forget. From the game of cart tag near the end of the event, to the congestion of golf carts at the check-in point where everyone seemed more than happy to stay around and talk or make post-classic plans at Courtside Grille, the day just seems to fly by in no time and the classic was over
on the links for 2010.
And I have to say I have not volunteered for a golfing event since I used to help out with the Emerald Coast Golf Classic (Senior PGA) up in Milton, Florida. But I would be more than willing to give time and my energies to events like this anytime and anywhere. Sure I might have started out just being the guy who help get everyone in their Addias golf shoes, but by the end of the day, I was part of the great day and wild times that will live on inpictures and conversations.
Several times that day Hall made sure to come by and thank me for my time, but in reality I did not need thanks, I was more than happy to give what I could to this former Rays that I will always consider a “baseball buddy”. Hall is the type of player I would give up almost anything to help him achieve his goal, or get that dollar amount for his cause.
Last Sunday was the final Tampa Bay Rays game of the 2009 season. It is funny, but for some reason this years just seemed to fly by, and was over way to soon for some of us sitting in the stands. Not sure why it felt that way unless the extra time last season marching onto the World Series just made 2008 seem almost three months longer. But unfortunately, we are at that time where bags are packed and boxes are sent to other locations so members of the team can get some needed R&R before starting it all over again in 2010.
And because of that extra time playing the game they love, some of the Rays had an abbreviated off season in 2009 because of other activities, such as participation in the World Baseball Classic, or several Rays players went to Winter Ball in 2008 and had only about 3 1/2 months to themselves and to individually train before they had to reporting to Port Charlotte, Florida for their first Spring Training away from St. Petersburg.
So on that last day of the season, I decided to ask a few of the Rays if they had any special plans or goals for this off season. And I have to admit, that one of the “vacation” suggestions makes me hunger to maybe hide somewhere in their luggage, just pop a few air holes in the bag for me please! But there also seemed to be another angle coming up in a lot of their conversations. The talk of just total rest and relaxation without the stress or pressure of the white round ball.
It seemed that so many of them just wanted to just “chill and relax” after the rush and the extent of the 2008 playoff season. And still others have a few life changing moments coming fast on the horizon and needed to make some last minute adjustments before getting on with their lives. Then there was a small group who might be facing that decision about their careers, and if they still want to don a uniform in 2010 for any team.
A total of three members of the Rays Bullpen will be getting married this off season, two players and Scott Cursi, the Rays Bullpen catcher who will finally marry his sweetheart of five years in November 2009. It is funny, it is just like yesterday that I met Cursi and his bride-to-be, who used to work for the Rays and is now working in partnership with Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s wife, Jaye in a concierge service for people on the go, like the Rays players and their families.
I pulled it out of Cursi that they are going to have their romantic and exotic honeymoon on St Lucie’s Island at the all inclusive Sandals resort, and both should come back with a beautiful Fall tan. But then we also have a former members of the Rays Bullpen crew going down the aisle soon in ex-Ray Jason Hammel, who will be getting married this off season in St. Petersburg, Florida in the striking Renaissance Vinoy resort right on the waters of Tampa Bay.
Rays reliever Grant Balfour will be the first to be strolling down the aisle this off season, and the Aussie is not planning any additional triathlete competitions this off season, but is just going to enjoy the time off this year. Rays closer Du Jour J P Howell will also be closing the deal with his bride-to-be also this Fall, and then plans to just be “The Dude” until it is time again to report to Spring Training camp. Congratulations to both guys and their brides, and I wish all of you all the luck in the world and a total boat of happiness as you begin your lives together.
Neither of them would tell me where they plan to honeymoon, but that is okay, because one veteran member of the Rays Bullpen might have them beat totally just on the romance factor anyways. Rays reliever Dan Wheeler and his wife will be taking a beautiful European adventure to Italy, with stops in Rome, Florence and Venice on the agenda. Hopefully while he is on his Italian adventure, Wheeler might see the lone Rays cap that Rays Manager Joe Maddon saw in 2008 in an Italian train station.
I have to say, this might be the one I want to see pictures of when he gets home (I wish!). Just the idea of getting out of the country like Cursi and Wheeler sounds like the perfect way to get some isolation and some peace to again get ready for another 6 months plus grind in 2010. And that is one of the great advantages of having a job that is not 9-5, for 12 months out of the year. Plans can be made, and special events planned without a hitch. Wish some days we could all live like that.
But several members of the Rays roster will not have that luxury of world travel and no commitments. Some of the Rays are committed to going to play Winter ball in exotic locales. This additional work should show the Rays brass that they are vital pieces needed by the team, and also get some great prep and conditioning work before they report to Spring Training in February. Justin Ruggiano, who was at Durham Bulls for all of the 2009 season will be heading to Venezuela, while Shawn Riggans will be heading to Puerto Rico for Winter ball.
Also scheduled to go to Winter ball, but he doesn’t know his location yet is outfielder Fernando Perez, who was out most of the season with a bum wrist. This actually might be a great thing for Perez to not only get some work in at the plate, but to get some flexibility in his wrist so he is not a question mark in the Spring. This upcoming season might be his time to shine, or he might find himself somewhere else soon manning the outfield for another team. There might be others from the Rays roster also going to Winter ball, but that list has not be released to the public yet.
But then there are guys like reliever Randy Choate who participated in Winter ball last season and will just wants to sit back and relax this season. Jeff Bennett, who came to the Rays late in the season, is planning to remain in the Tampa Bay area for a while this off season to work on his conditioning before going back to Tennessee and working out and gaining more strength and endurance after his injury in 2009 while he was with the Atlanta Braves..
While Bennett might be sweating and working out, two members of the Rays might be hanging up their cleats for good this off season. Veteran Russ Springer has been playing baseball for a long time, and made his Major League debut back in 1992. Springer has been considering retiring this off season to spend more time with his family and to pursue some of his other interests in life.
Springer is also looking forward with more time playing and enjoying his young son, who has autism and just be there to spend quality time with him. But you can bet that there will be more than one opportunity for him to put his coondog in the truck and maybe meet up with fellow Rays teammate Chad Bradford and go duck or deer hunting this off season. Both men value their country roots, and they both developed a great kinship this season around outdoor sports.
You could see that this bond should hold firm as both men live in the off season back in the Alabama-Louisiana area. But Bradford, who is also considering retiring to spend more time with his newborn, and the rest of his family, might have a Hollywood role in his future. And his addition to the silver screen might be delayed right now due to some script re-writes, but because of his time with the Oakland Athletic earlier in his career, the role would be a new adventure for Bradford.
There were rumors earlier in 2008 that when the movie “Moneyball” finally goes into full scale production, Bradford might be able to play himself in the movie. At that time it was not known if he would have the time during the season for such an adventure. It would be a great opportunity for Bradford, who reminds me of actor John Ashton, who played Sergeant Taggert in the “Beverly Hills Cop” trio to get some quality time on the silver screen.
But Bullpen guys like Brain Shouse and Lance Cormier are just going to take it day-by-day and just enjoy the time to relax, spend time with family and to heal up before reporting again in February. But there is one member of the Rays family group who might be going a hundred miles-an-hour during this off-season. Todd Kalas, who does the Rays television broadcast in various positions, will be working hard this off season involving himself with University of South Florida basketball and helping to host some of the Tampa Bay Lightning pre and post game shows.
Also heavy on Kalas agenda will be working with FSN Florida to do the Sunbelt Conference “Games of the Week” during the football and basketball seasons. So as you can see, there will be plenty of great stories and awesome pictures to be passed around when the Rays report after the second Saturday in February 2010.
But this year there will be no precursors of World Baseball Classic or even the usual smatterings of International games for players to have to report early this season to their teams. It might be one of the first years in the last several seasons that everyone on the Rays roster will come into the season with a vigor and vitality to again make some noise in the American League East. And maybe this off season is the time for the team to regroup and intensify their energies to again challenge for the top spot in the American League.
And a few of you asked what I might be doing this off-season at the last game. Well, hopefully I will be going out to Seattle, Washington and completing the inside of my old retirement abode out on Whitbney Island near the city of Coupville that I originally started work on in 2007. Then after it is completed, let my cousins live in it until I am ready to “Go West old man” maybe in about 5 seasons.
So hopefully you also have something exciting planned this off-season. Maybe a snow skiing trip, a quest to go back to school, or maybe even a jaunt down into the Carribean to watch baseball this Winter. Whatever it is, stay safe and remember, if you have a great adventure, this is the place to tell all of us about it……….I know I would love to read about it!
Brian Blanco / AP
I know a lot of Tampa Bay Rays fans have been a bit anxious and upset at the recent development over the last part of this 2009 season where it seems that Rays Manager Joe Maddon is wearing out the turf from the mound to the dugout sometimes changing a pitcher three times in an inning. For all the clammering and yelling towards the dugout to stop the madness, there is actually a good reason for his “match-up” formula, and the more you really look at the number, the more it seems to make sense in the long run.
Maddon would love to have that classic Bullpen set-up where you have that designated 7th, 8th and closer to round out the game. But with the injury to Troy Percival, and his shutting down his candidate-of-the-day J P Howell, he is apt to continue this wild stroll to the mound over the next 4 games. If you have noticed over the last three games, Grant Balfour right now is the closer-du Jour, and he has come away with three solid saves in the last three games.
Now this doesn’t mean he is going to get any notion of becoming the Rays closer, but the true fact that Maddon does look over the opposing line-up before the game with an eye towards the later innings. And in that time he does do a bit of matching-up on the back of his scorecard based on lifetime averages against some of his guys, and their ability to get outs from left or right-handed batters. And so far in this wild experiment, the prognosis has not been bad.
So let me take the 8th and 9th innings of the game last night and break them down a bit more and see if I can make it a little more easy for all of us to understand when he begins his Bullpen Blitz again tonight during the Baltimore Orioles game. But first off, let me remind you that the pattern does change for every game, and for every batter.
This same pattern might not show up the next four games, or it could even resurface tonight based on the pitching match-ups and the hitters. And Maddon does even look towards the guys that will be on the bench and matches them up as a precaution to them entering the game. So let’s get this guess work started right now:
Starting with the 8th inning, the Rays send out Russ Springer to start the inning to go up against Ty Wiggington. Now tonight is the first time either of them have faced each other in their long careers. This match-up really seems to be based more on a feel by Maddon than an actual scientific fact since Springer is allowing lefties to hit .342 against him this season, and righties hitting .268. But he gets Wiggington to line out to centerfield for the first out.
Russ Springer relieved by Lance Cormier.
Cormier comes into the game with a sub .250 average aginst both left and right-handed hitters this season. He is one of about three Rays relievers that Maddon might have total confidence in him battling against guys from either side of the plate. Cormier’s actual stats are that he is allowing lefties ti hit .243 against him, and right-handers have hit .255 against him this season, and both side have 3 home runs this year. First up is Nick Markakis, who was 0-2 against Cormier this season before taking the fourth pitch and getting an infield single off a hard shot to Reid Brignac at shortstop.
Up next is Luke Scott, who has faced Cormier two time prior to tonight and has only gained a walk from Cormier. Scott ends up hitting a fly ball out to leftfield to get the second out of the inning. Next up for the Orioles is young catcher Matt Wieters. In 2009, Cormier has faced Wieters only one time, and that was here in Tropicana Field when Cormier struck him out. In tonight’s contest Wieters takes 3 pitches before he grounds out to Ben Zobristat second base to strand Markakis on base and end the scoring opportunity for the Orioles.
Dan Wheeler relieves Cormier
Maddon sends his veteran reliever Dan Wheeler to the hill to begin the 9th inning. The first man to face him tonight will be Melvin Mora. The reason that Wheeler is on the mound is because right-hander, like Mora are hitting only .154 against him in 2009, and against the first batter in his appearances, Wheeler is allowing them only a .161 average. But a side note to worry about in this at bat is the fact that Mora is hitting .500 off wheeler this season. But Maddon is rolling the dice on that .161 average allowed to the first batter Wheeler faces tonight. On the second pitch, Mora singles to leftfield.
Randy Choate relieves Dan Wheeler
Maddon then quickly gets Wheeler off the mound since the next batter is leftie Michael Aubrey. The reasoning here is that wheeler is allowing lefites to hit at a .310 clip against him in 2009. So on comes Randy Choate to face the young leftie. Choate actually is the perfect guy to face Aubrey as he is allowing lefties to hit only .151 against him this year, with only 1 home run. Choate gets Aubrey to strike out swinging in their only meeting this season.
Orioles Manager Dave Trembley then pinch Hits Lou Montanez for Jeff Fiorentino. And the mind games get to be played all over again by both managers. Montanez has not faced Choate in 2009, but the fact he is a right-hander, and righties are hitting .306 with 3 home runs against Choate gets him an early night for the Rays.
Grant Balfour relieves Randy Choate
Maddon again makes his way to the mound and take out Choate so that Grant Balfour can face the right-hander.
For the season, both right-hander and lefties are hitting sub .250 against Balfour too. He is another one of the three possible guys that Maddon trusts pitching against lefties and righties in an extended outing in a ballgame. And with Montanez, a rightie due up, it is only natural that the Aussie, who is surrendering only a .236 average to righties gets the call. Balfour gets the job dome as Montanez goes down after 5 pitches after missing on a swing for th
e strikeout. For the season, Montanez is 0-2 now against Balfour.
Since Balfour is consistent between hitters from both sides of the plate, Maddon will leave him in the rest of the inning. Next he will face shortstop Cesar Izturis. Balfour has the upper hand on Izturis as he is 0-2 against him so far in 2009. But it is Iztruis, who swings at the first pitch and sends a fly ball to centerfield that B J Upton gloves to end the game. Balfour also recieves his hris save in three games for the Rays and might be the 9th inning guy for the Rays in their final 4 games.
The system emplyed by Maddon makes more sense when you look at the fact he also shut down one of his other great pitchers at getting guys from hitting from both sides of the plate. When he set down J P Howell for the rest of the season, he lost his current closer option, and also lost a pitcher who has allowed righties to hit only .180 against him this season.
Other guys on the bench for the Rays are more situated for spot work the rest of the season. Take for example Jeff Bennett. Right-handers are hitting .333 (7-21) against him this season, and lefties are killing him at a .500 clip (14-28). So his use will be dictated by individual match-ups the rest of the season. Bennett was actually brought onto the squad as a insurance policy for long relief, but he was one of the main pitcher in that blowout last week in Texas.
Dale Thayer was not brought up for his facial hair, but was also considered a insurance policy for any possible problem that might happen with any of the Rays relievers. And it is a good thing they did bring him up, because Chad Bradford is experiencing elbow pains again and is done for the season. But Thayer is also learning the ropes at the Major League level, and has been hit by righties to a tune of a .345 average this season. He does have some good stuff to punch lefties back to a .250 average against him in 2009.
But Bradford has been used only 10 1/3 innings this season as he has been battling injuries. But also the fact he has given up some really gaudy numbers to both sides of the plate this year is another eason he has seen spot appearances this season. Against righties, they are hitting .391 (18-46) against him, and lefties just begin to salivate when he takes the mound as they are hitting a robust .800 (4-5) against him in 2009.
So the match-up scenario used by Maddon right now is the best possible option to try and post a victory every time out for the Rays. It might not make much sense when you are sitting in the stands or watching on the TV that he uses 5 different relievers for a total of two innings. But the end result in the last three games have been victories. This is not to mean that this is going to be a indicator of a system that will be empolyed in 2010.
This match-up system is only being used now out of necessity because we do not have a proven late inning trio to take the Rays from the 7th to the 9th inning every night. The Rays do not have a Mariano Rivera or a Jonathan Papelbon in their minor league system at the time, and might have go outside the organization for one in 2010. And isn’t it ironic that the two best closer in the league tend to be in our division.
Maddon is adapting to the cards he has been dealt, and even if it is frustrating to the guy sitting in the stands, it does have some logic to it all. I also found it frustrating until I began to look at the numbers associated with each reliever and their breakdown against both sides of the plate. Sure it might be all science and a hitter can get a lucky break of a hanging curveball. But the relaity is that the system is working for Maddon right now, and it is producing wins for the team. It is not a cure-all situation, but is a nice substitute measure that he can emply for now until we can again try and shore up the Bullpen for 2010.
Because the Rays have seemed to lose a bit of the fight in them the last few days, I decided to revisit my favorite moment from 2008 and try and get some of the “Playoff Fever” rhythm back again in the Rays House. I do not have all the answers, believe me, I want to have the answers to get this team back into that fighting and hungry mode again. There is a different vibe on this team this year, and it doesn’t have the same feel to it. So I am revisiting this moment that is etched deep within me in hope that the team, the fans, and the community can again remember what 2008 really meant to all of us.
Everyone remembers the magic of your first time. The first time you had a bubbly ice cold soda, or your first adult beverage. Or maybe it was the first time you finally go the courage and finally decided to try that scary ride at the fair that has terrified you to death your entire life. The fascination and excitement of trying something, or achieving something for the first time can be a rush that can not be beat. There is a burst of energy that you can never have again. And last, but not least, a sense of accomplishment for finally hitting the finish line with gusto and pride. You always remember your ” first” anything, but this one will stay with me until the day I meet St. Peter at the pearly gates and he asks what I am most proud of in my life. My answer will be pretty simple, my answer will be unexpected to most people. My honest answer is my All-Time favorite” first” was when my home town team finally got to go to “the Show.”
It is for that reason that I feel I have to revisit my ”Top Moment for 2008″ one more time. As I said before, we always remember our first time entering the ballpark, checking out the sounds, smells and the atmosphere of this game that excites us from the television screen or in-person . You still think about the first Batting Practice or your first foul ball catch. And how special was getting your first autograph, and didn’t that player become a favorite of yours instantly. And who could ever forget the taste of that first stadium hot dog. I know all of these are still fresh in my mind, and it has been over 40 years since my first game at Al Lang Field watching the St. Petersburg Cardinals. And the bag of peanuts in front of me still taste better at the ballpark.
So it is with great pleasure that I re-introduce to the MLB community my number one memory of 2008. The realization of the 2008 playoff finally came to light on September 20, 2008 with 36,048 other “9 = 8″ believers in the stands who had spent most of the game jumping up and down like maniacs. It was a time for celebration and rejoicing. It was a time to remember all the things we loved about the 2008 Rays. Not only did the team play a hard fought 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, but the team secured its first EVER playoff berth. And that moment seems have been buried lately because this group of players want to make their own memories, which is fine, but sometimes you have to embrace the past to secure your future.
Considering the 2008 Rays squad pushed the envelope from the first Spring Training game and fought long and hard to finally get this team over that “wins hump” that has kept prior teams from achieving this goal. This was a team before 2008 who had NEVER won more than 71 games a year, and for the first time in this franchises history, they fought and sweated daily to keep themselves in the top spot in the American League East. September 20,2008 was a blessed moment of celebration for the fans both inside Tropicana Field or at home, plus it was a perfect moment for the players to salute a great season, and a unique event for both sides to celebrate together. This moment was so personal to me. I got to celebrate with a few baseball buddies both with hugs and fist bumps to swigs of champagne and cheers of excitement as the entire team wandered and cheered around the stadium.
I made sure to remind a select few of them that the journey has just began and they made sure I knew that it was us, the fans that drove this bus to the playoffs as much as the players. And I got to drink from the champagne bottles and taste that sweet nectar that went down like cool rainwater and tasted like spun honey. It was one of the biggest moments for me as a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays…………….and hopefully you got to enjoy it too that day…………….
It might have looked like a mob scene out of your favorite sports movie, but believe me, the energy in that place on that September afternoon was so severe that it sometimes seemed to choke you from the intensity in the air. From the energy and the explosion of emotion in the stadium atmosphere, this game seemed to have been in the cards even before the Rays stepped on the turf. There was a wild feeling in the air that day. Most of that might have been nervous energy knowing they were within a whisker of franchise first and an event that would explode throughout the Tampa Bay community.
Seriously folks, after that celebration in the stands and on the field, I felt so drained emotionally and mentally just a wreck. I was literally crawling out on my hands and knees, but I had a huge Cheshire Cat grin when I finally exited the Trop around 9 P.M. after celebrating in the stands, near the clubhouse with a few friends, and in the Budweiser Brew house having a few brews with the old crew from the last 11 years. This was a night where everyone in Tampa Bay would have a peaceful nights sleep more induced by exhaustion than by excitement. But that was fine, because that night we all dreamed the moment again and again and finally awoke knowing OUR team finally had a date to play in the postseason.
This was an entire weekend that will sit up there with the best memories I have involving sports in my life. I have been to a few wild celebrations, like the Baltimore Ravens victory party in Ybor City after they won the Super Bowl in Tampa, or even a late night cocktail party at Reign after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a few ex-Rays players. I was so spent that next morning from sheer excitement and celebration that I did not even feel I was walking on the turf when I arrived at the Trop for the annual Season Ticket holder Picture Day with the players. Well, the ones who are awake at 10 am. and did not have that emotional and physical body and mind hangover from all the celebrations.
TWO more times these guys got to pay as much attention to their team partying as they do out with us, the fans. From interview to interview that night, the Rays players to a “T”, talked about the Tampa Bay Rays fans. And to show their respect to those fans, they included all of us in their celebrations. There were wild scenes of players like Akinora Iwamura and Carl Crawford getting up on the dugout and spraying the masses with champagne and beer. Throwing 9=8 playoff hats and T-shirts to outstretched hands, and basking in a moment that will live in this franchises history books and our collective memories forever.
The picture above means so much more to me now that all three have moved onto other opportunities away from this Rays team. All three of them had a unique personality that helped this squad in different ways to achieve this goal in 2008. It was also was the first time all three of these old teammates got to celebrate something like this in a Rays uniform. You know they will always remember their first time. You remember where you were, Who you were standing with, and what you were doing at that exact moment. When the guys came running down towards the Bull Pen Cafe area , I was standing on the railing waiting for them. I can not remember how many of those guys came by there and how many times I slapped their hands and gave them a fist bump.
But the memories that are really were the energy that produced Hugs from J P Howell, Jonny Gomes, Chad Orvella and Scott Kazmir. I have chatted almost daily with a lot of these guys on their way to the Bullpen, or back in the right field area, and they are some of the best guys you will ever want to meet. But that night on and off the field I got to know and see other sides to these guys that only their teammates get to see daily. And that is a moment that was not lost in my mind. Even today as I remember that September afternoon, the images are still crystal clear and the emotions still swirl within me. It was a time I again want to feel in 2009. It will be another awesome moment for this second generation of Rays. This years squad do not have the “jokers” and some of the big personalities that the 2008 squad had, but they are still the reigning AL Champs.
Some of these guys have been transformed by the moment. And success can do that to a player. It gives them a vital self realization that they are winners. Take J P Howell for instance. He used to be one of the quiet guys on this team. When he was a starter, he was a bit moody and never seemed to want to talk with anyone near the field level. But now he has been transformed since he has found his calling in the bullpen He now one of the friendliest people I have ever encountered on the Rays. Dan Wheeler is not known to smile a lot, but he does when we chat back and forth during the games. There is a unique bond there between the Bullpen and the fans here that I have never seen before in my life. But then again, they are living the dream in 2008.
From the first champagne bottle out of the clubhouse that day, to the two champagne bottles Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos had ordered for himself and the close fans down there near the Bullpen, it was a magical night. The parade around the Trop outer perimeter was a show of the love and respect these guys have for the fan base. I have been lucky enough to know a few of these guys off the turf in private. And I have to tell you this in total confidence, not one time this year did any of these guys take this responsibility to the fans or to the community as a job or work.
On that September afternoon these guys actually enjoyed interacting with the fans. From the time they walked out at the Spring Training complex in mid-Feb. to now has been a long and rewarding journey. There have been injuries to key members of this pitching staff early in the year, but the team bent like a rubber band and did not break. This season players have come and gone from the roster, but the core of this team has been strong, mentally tough and been an inspiration to the fans. Not many groups have a tie to the fans that these guys have. The Rays community can honestly say the have the team’s back at any moment.
The funny thing about that celebration is that about 50 percent of it was outside the locker room on the same field where these guys have toiled and struggled and left themselves bleeding and wounded some nights. To say this battle towards a playoff spot did not end with a fairy tale ending is totally inaccurate. I really need to hit the sack for a few hours before I fall down, but the adrenaline is still pumping hard in me right now and I have tossed and turned for about 5 hours since I got home.
I am a emotional wreck right now, but I would do it again in a New York moment. If you have never been to one of these defining moments, you know how the Rays Republic is now feeling. If you have not, I truly wish it upon yourself and your team sometime in the future. It is a roller coaster ride fitted with some great ups and downs that is not even over yet.
I just want to repurchase my “E” ticket so I can climb aboard the coaster again and roll through another three of these celebrations with the Rays and this truly spectacular group of guys. I actually now know what other team’s fans have talked about when the y remark about the feelings and the intensity of the moment. I can see why New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans yearn and seek thin moment in their lives yearly. But I have to almost admit, I do not want to share it with them anytime soon.
So As I finally slink out of the stadium, and check out that bright orange roof, I am reminded of all the glory and the sweat and tears that have blanketed this great dome in the past 10 years. But tonight they all seem like a distant memory as we have a new found tradition of winning and are celebrating the success of our boys’ tonight. I can’t wait to get back into my seat tomorrow and see how much of the energy is still trapped in this building…………….9 am is coming fast to me tonight.
And he has his own sense and realities to his job as a major league manager. He even has a “fine” bowl in his office where guilty players, who are found guilty by the Kangaroo Court have to purchase a bottle of wine for the skipper with the paper divulging their fine. He is one of the only mangers in the major leagues that I know of who has his own wine rack and wine cooler in his office for post game tastings and special occasions. And you know that cooler got plenty of good use with champagne and fine spirits during the 2008 Postseason celebrations.
Held between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon along with his Rays Coaches and front office staff have personally shopped, cooked and even served special dinners of spaghetti, sausage, pierogies, past and salad for over 1,000 people in the Salvation Army shelters in Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Port Charlotte areas. One of the biggest food hits in this event is the special meatballs Maddon was taught how to make by his mother Beanie back in his home town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania.
The two immediately fostered a great bond emerged during that series between Maddon and Challis. Maddon has since been actively involved in fund raising for the foundation and in November 2008 when he was named winner of the Chuck Tanner Award as major league manager of the year, he had John’s father Scott, accept the award for him in Pittsburgh.
He get to share that honor with four other managers’ who have come one vote shy of perfection. He even gets to share the honor with a personal member of his staff, Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer, who in 1989 while managing the Chicago Cubs came up short while winning the award.
After that walk, Maddon replaced Balfour with reliever Dan Wheeler who got the last out to preserve the win for the Rays. The only other time it has happened in baseball history was on May 23, 1901 when Clark Griffin, then a player/manager for the Chicago White Sox intentionally walked future Hall of Fame member Nap Lajoie with no outs in the ninth inning with a 11-7 lead.
Some people forget he is only starting his fourth season with the club in 2009, and already has the most victories of any manager in Rays history. He passed Rays Inaugural manager Larry Rothchild on August 23,2008 with his 206th win in a game against the Chicago White Sox.
People forget he has had a taste of being a major league manager before he got his first full-time stint in the dugout in Tampa Bay. He first got a taste if it in 1998, when the Los Angeles Angels Manager Terry Collins got an 8-game suspension following a bench clearing brawl in Kansas City. He got an additional turn at the skipper post when Collins resigned on September 3, 1999 and he led the team the rest of the season to a 19-10 record.
But the most unique moment might have been when Maddon was called upon to replace John McNamara in 1996, who was replacing Rene Lachmann who resigned that August as skipper. McNamara had developed a deep vein thrombosis( blood clot) in his right calf. Maddon took the helm for 22 games, finishing with a 8-14 record.
Maddon did get another set of circumstances during his tenure as a Angels Bench Coach when current Angels Manager Mike Scioscia had to leave the team for a short period of time. Maddon lead the Angels to a 33-26 record during his stint with the squad.
As for his biking hobby, he is a very dedicated biker who puts in 60-100 miles every week. An unknown fact about Maddon in his youth is that he was recruited as a shortstop and pitcher for Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He switched positions voluntarily to catcher midway through his freshman year. At Lafayette, he majored in economics and he will also receive an honorary degree this summer from his old Alma Mater.
It will be his second All-Star game. He previously got to attend when Sciocsia was the 2003 AL Manager. Maddon is expected to select two coaches from among the AL Managers, and then bring six of his own coaches, along with Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi to round out his 2009 All-Star coaching staff.
Maddon has only been in Tampa Bay for a short time, but the teams and its fans have united around him to show support for his new ways of thinking about the sport of baseball. Along with the fan base uniting to support the manager with the formulation of the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group three seasons ago.
From speaking engagements to small snippets of chats with fans and media members the Tampa Bay community has gotten to know Maddon deeper and closer than he ever imagined. With the 2008 success and the renewed interest in the team during their recent seven game winning streak, the Rays might be the team to watch in the second half of the season.
You have to think sometimes that the new item out in the Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen has to be an hourglass. You know that simple time measuring device that is simply turned over the minute you want to restart the clock and readjust time. And with the recent problems in the Rays Bullpen, who do you even attempt to point the blame at when the ERA is bouncing up and down like a EKG chart.
I mean how can the most improved part of the Rays defensive alignment go so north and south in such a short time. To begin with, in April you knew that this was not the same unit that dominated the American League in 2008. You saw that in the type of spring a few of the guys who held it together for the Rays had coming into the season. Grant Balfour, one of the most improved Rays in 2008 went through the spring with an uncharacteristic 5.63 ERA in only 9 appearances.
In a total of only 8 innings he gave up 12 hits and 6 runs , but he did get 9 strikeouts. Can it really be true that in this 2009 season it might be feast or fathom for the Aussie? So far in 2009, he has not always looked like his old self, but he has shown improvements recently before his recent outing again put his name in the whispers of the fans.
On Saturday, Balfour gave up his first homer to a left-hander when Mark Teixeira took him yard during his one inning of work. He also set-up the run scored by Jorge Posada before he left after a pitching change. But then on May 30th, against the Minnesota Twins, Balfour was on fire as he threw 2.2 innings and dominated his 7 hitters he faced in that appearance.
It was the longest he has been on the mound since July 20, 2004 when he faced 3 innings of work against the Detroit Tigers when he was with the Twins. Balfour is also currently tied for 4th in the AL with only 15.4 percent of his inherited runners scoring on him. But is this the same Balfour this season that lead all MLB relievers last season with a 12.65 strikeouts per 9 innings ratio, which also ranked 9th best all-time among AL relievers. I mean last year he struck out 36.6 percent of the batter he faced, and his .143 opponents batting average was the best in the game.
Could a pitcher change that much in such a short period of time? Well, if you have watched the radar gun in the Trop. during his 2009 appearances, this question might be easy to answer. He has consistently been a few clicks below his former self, but was this done as a camouflage for his high and hard fastball by throwing some a bit under his usual blazing speed, or is there something else going on here.
It is understandable that a pitcher, especially a reliever can impose some tricky maneuvers to try and disguise either a flaw in his arsenal, or even try to hide a change in his delivery. Could Balfour be toying with some new angles and pitch placements and just be getting beat right now? Both could be happening, but they are beginning to happen at the wrong time for the Rays and their Bullpen.
Right now as the team is close to the .500 mark and about to reel in a few of the big fish in front of them in the A L East division, they need all hands on deck to eliminate any chance of defeat in the late innings. So far in 2009, the Bullpen has been a bit inconsistent at the wrong times.
And Balfour is not the only culprit that has been manhandled so far in 2009. One of the brightest emerging stars and most surprising pitchers in the Rays Bullpen last season was J P Howell. He was trying to make that difficult transition from being a starting pitcher to a reliever, and in essence fell right into a perfect flow in the transformation.
And his last 7 appearances this season made you think more and more of his 2008 glory. He has gone 7.1 innings with only 2-hits, 2-walks and 12 strikeouts to post a 0.00 ERA. He was beginning to show the same promise in 2009 that he used to dominate and establish himself in 2008. I mean the guy has been a iron man for the Rays this year appearing in 29 game so far this season. Is this number deceiving in that he has pitched great, but been the victim on the mound too much in 2009? Or could it be hiding another fact that his inherited runners are scoring on him.
Howell is also currently second in the AL in strikeouts by a reliever with 36 this season. So why is it that I picked these two guys to chat about if their numbers are so consistent for the Rays. Well, mainly it has seemed in the last two years, as these two guys go, so does the team. So when during Sunday’s game both of them suffered a bit of a one-game meltdown defensively, it brought about a certain element of worry.
Balfour threw only 19 pitches in the game on Sunday, but he also let the Yankees bully him for 2-hits and a walk to basically take the Rays out if the game. I am not going to throw him totally under the bus here, but he did have the steering wheel at the time of the accident. And that sort of pitching brainfart can not happen against a divisional foe who we are chasing to secure another divisional title.
This is the one team you do not want to give scoring chances to in the AL right now. I mean they are only a few runs behind the Rays as a run producing machine right now, and to give them any daylight is almost suicide right now.
Balfour came out to relieve Joe Nelson in the bottom of the eighth inning with a fresh slate, but he allowed 3 out of the 4 hitters to face him get on base. So Howell was brought on to clean up the mess with one out in the inning, and Balfour left Howell with Yankees on every base and a slim 2-run Rays lead. Howell did not make matters any better after he got a 1-1- count on Robinson Cano, he threw three straight balls to walk a run in and give the Yankees a chance by trimming the lead to 1-run.
It was at that moment that someone else actually committed the final blow to the Rays chances by not thinking quickly and clearly to prevent another run. Willy Aybar, who was again at third base as Evan Longoria rested his hamstring took a grounder at third base beyond the bag and sort of hesitated enough to lose the force out at home, and had to throw to first for the sure out in the inning.
It was only the second out, so Teixeira stepped on the plate to tie the game at 3-all. In review, it was shown that Aybar would have gotten Teixeira at home if he elected to go that direction instead of trying to get Posada at first base. He was also too far away from third base to even try and complete a double play to end the inning.
Hideki Matsui then hit another fielder’s choice to second base that got Posada for the second out if the inning, but it also scored Alex Rodriguez with the eventual game-winner. But the damage could have been worse as Howell walked Nick Swisher on 4 straight pitches to again put two men o
n for the Yankees. But he did get Melky Cabrera to strikeout for the last out if the inning and stem the bleeding.
But the damage was already done as the Yankees now had the lead 4-3. Howell threw 15 pitches in his 2/3rds of an inning, with only 6 going for strikes. Some people might say I am nitpicking right now into the recent loss to the Yankees, and I might agree with you. I am trying to find a reason for a loss to a divisional foe that might come back and kick us in the butt in September or October.
You bet your life I am trying to sort out if there is a problem with the match-up system right now that other teams might have finally figured out for the Rays. Matching up hitters to pitchers has been a new fangled invention for only, what 20 years or so and has seemed to work at times, but also blew up in a managers’ face too. Well, this one might have been more of an example of reading the charts more than you were trusting your pitchers.
Some one said to me on Twitter last night, “You go with your hot guys”, and the more I thought of that last night I began to agree with it. Nelson was looking good, and maybe the idea of using Randy Choate instead of Howell last night would have made a bit more sense. Not only because Choate has three saves this season and has only had to face 4 batters to earn them, but he has a bit of familiarity with the Yankees system having pitched here.
I might be important that he spent the first 7 years of his career in pinstripes, and even if some of the hitters were new to him, he did know the hitting styles of some of the Yankee long time guys, which is always a plus. So did the Rays match-up system doom them yesterday? I am not sure if I can give a definitive answer to that because the Balfour appearance might have been the only real question to the loss.
We can pint to Aybar’s mistake, but if Balfour had dominated the Yankee lineup, we would never have gotten to that situation in the game. The Rays have lived and died by Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s match-up system both this season and in 2008. But you have to agree that the system might have been flawed a bit last night in not using your hot reliever Choate or even extending Nelson a few more hitters into the eighth inning.
Of course this is truly speculation that either pitcher could have made a huge difference. But I guess I was in a New York frame of mind today. You know, the Yankee bloggers and newspaper reporters love to dish and bury the team at any moment based on their own observations during a contest. I might be guilty of the same today, but with a twist.
I hate to admit it, but I am seeing a trend in this year’s Bullpen that is going to spell more trouble in 2009. This is not the same unit as 2008 based on Balfour’s 5.68 ERA or Dan Wheeler’s 5.50 ERA. The Rays might be beginning to tread a bit of water right now with their late inning guys, but confidence and stamina will be the key right now.
The team got an unexpected rest during their last series at home, and it might have relaxed the guys a little too much this early in the season. The Rays Bullpen in 2009 has gone a combined 6-7, with 15 saves, but has a modest combined ERA of 3.89 this year over 171 innings. The Rays have surrendered 35 runs in the eighth inning this season, which is a great indicator of bad thing happening on the mound.
Combined with the 28 given up in the ninth inning, the Rays have surrendered 63 runs in only those two frames this year. That is not playoff quality Bullpen effort right now, but there is still ample time to fix the problem. Or maybe to consider just tossing the match-up idea away for a bit and letting your Bullpen gets its legs back under it and thrive again before it is too late……..just a thought.
If you have been watching Tampa Bay Rays baseball for any length of time, you will know that we have always had one big hole in our roster, and we have tried valiantly to find the right pieces to fit that puzzle. But it is not like we have not seen some success in the closer role, but the majority of the time we have been sunk by lofty or inadequate expectations of players either too young and inexperienced, or guys on their way out the door. We have had successful closers in our young history,like Roberto Hernandez, Danys Baez and Lance Carter. It is considered the hardest situational pitching position in baseball to master and keep under control. You either have the muscle and mind to handle the stress and pressures, or you fold quickly when pitching flaws come to the surface.
So with the announcement today that the Rays and Troy Percival are going to take a “vacation” from each other for awhile, you could hear the air sigh inside Tropicana Field. For the mighty Percy has finally struck out in his chances with the Rays. I mean I was not totally on board with the ex-Angels connection signing in the first place, but I was willing to give the guy a chance based on his past accolades, and what he could bring to this team in the way of leadership and teaching to the up and coming ballplayers. But, you have to admit that he has been here on borrowed time for some time, and if not for the genuine respect both Rays Manager Joe Maddon had for him, and Percival’s “never say die” attitude, it did make for a volatile and some time effective relationship while it lasted.
Troy Percival has been a giant in the closer’s role for so long in the MLB, that maybe a bit of it moved past him and he did not adapt. But you have to give the guy some credit for the past. He is eighth in All-Times saves with 358. That is only 9 away from the next guy, Jeff Reardon. He was the fourth highest closer actively throwing in the MLB, but I truly think his days are over. Even though he was 6 for 6 in save this season for the Rays, a few past decisions are going to haunt him for a long time. He has shown signs of being a great closer still, like before his May 13th appearance, he had not allowed a run in 10 straight appearances dating back to April 17th.
In 2008-2009, the Rays were 40-1 when he entered the game for a save opportunity ( He was 34-38 in those save opportunities). Percy has held opposing batters to a .188 batting average against him, which is the lowest average of any MLB pitcher with over 400 appearances. Oh, and before he started to show a slow decline in 2008, he had 28 saves for the Rays, his highest total since he left the Angels in 2004. But his decline started to take place before he got here, but the Rays also saw him take to the DL three times in 2008 and miss a total of 42 games. But you have to admire his the fight within him before you can condemn him here. He was truly one of the most fiery guys to ever grace our roster. But that also might have led to his disfavor with fans. But in the end the mighty Percy struck out.
You might ask how he struck out with the fans and maybe even his own team. I know of a few guys in the Bullpen who used to cringe when he warmed up, but kept up the team unity face for morale. Rich Herrera, who does post game and pre game for the Rays Radio Network once said, ” You can’t applaud the guy one day, then boo him the next day. Either you like what he is doing, or you don’t . Take a side.” Okay Rich, I will here. I think that he struck out with the fans based on three incidents, but there were more that could have merited the same outlook.
First off, his injury near the end of 2008 was for back stiffness and a possible knee injury. That being said, he was a ghost around the clubhouse at the time the team needed him most. I know it might be personally painful for you to sit there on a bench and watch the game like a fan instead of play, but to show support for your team mates at that playoff juncture of the year was a huge flaw in his character to me. Jonny Gomes and Chad Orvella were not on the team’s rosters for the playoffs, but they were there for them with emotional and vocal signals that “they had the team’s back”. Percy was not on the bench, and not even in the clubhouse for the first game of the 2008 World Series. To me, that was STRIKE ONE.
A couple of weeks ago there was an incident in a Sunday afternoon game where Evan Longoria went for a ball in the third base stands in section 121. This section pokes out a bit beyond the Visitor’s Dugout and always sees it fair share of foul balls and hard hit smashes during games. The ball is hit high into the air and the ball is heading for that section of the stadium, we all know that the fan did not see or hear Longoria coming until the last moment, or he might have given way for the fleet footed third baseman. Instead he misplays the ball and both he and Longoria miss the ball. Longo throws some choice words for the guy and also so steely glances the rest of the game.
Well, Percy comes in for the save in that contest and immediately after the third out begin to throw a few comments of his own towards the guy. This was about 15 minutes after the incident, but Percy was jawing the wagging a finger towards the guy. The language was not acceptable for a “Family Day” at the ballpark first off, but the badgering of the fan was not only insulting, but should have warranted a suspension or a public apology from Percival to the guy. It was another out-of-control moment probably brought on by emotion, but to me, It was purely STRIKE TWO.
Then we have a nice tight game going on in May in Oriole Park in Camden Yards against the Baltimore Orioles on May 13th. Percival came in with the score in favor of the Rays 8-2 and proceeded to do something I found so insulting to the baseball gods I wanted to just jack him up and beat him down for it in a blog, but felt it was better to leave him alone at the time. He was going to bite the hand that fed him soon enough in the contest. In 1/3rd of an inning, Percival had given up 4-runs on 4-hits, including two home run pitches that looked more like some one throwing Batting Practice. The first thought in my mind was that he wanted to get the score close so it was going to be a save opportunity for him. Giving another team an opportunity to come back for your own personal gain is against the grain of the unwritten rules Percy. The score was 8-6 when in the bottom of that ninth inning Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out to chat with Percy.
We all know that Maddon had already made his decision to take Percy out, maybe for disrespecting the game, but more for his awful pitching performance. This was the last game of the most recent road trip, and the Rays wanted this game badly. But what we ended up with was Percy behaving badly. He began to vocally challenge and argue with the skipper to the point you could see spittle trailing from his mouth. He fought long and hard to stay in the game, but some of the words lipped from his mouth were not entirely in the rules of respect for your Manager. I admire the fire and spunk, but I also detest the disrespect and his blatant disregard for the team Manager. For me, this was STRIKE THREE.
So when the Rays came home, I was clam and cool in the stands, but I did not address Troy anymore as he walked past me to the bathrooms and Bullpen lounge area. I would not even look at the man. I was pissed and I did not want to see an ounce of this guy on the mound for the team again unless he showed a bit more respect for his longest supporters, Joe Maddon. He did enter the game on May 15th in the 7th inning, one of his earliest appearances of his Rays career. As he slunk off the Bullpen Mound and the stadium Jumbotron announced his music I turned my back to the field. That was my show of not honoring the fact this guy was still out there on the mound. I was firmly going to show my distaste for his treatment of this team, and his Manager.
Percival did not have the opportunity in these next two night to get either the win or the save as Dan Wheeler and Joe Nelson took the mounds in the ninth inning for the Rays. That Sunday, Percival did hit the mound in the ninth and got two strikeouts en route to his sixth save of the year ( At the time, that placed him 9th in the AL in saves). The performance was one of his best in the season, but I again stood towards the back wall as he entered the ballgame. Then the last straw might have been during a save opportunity that almost got away, but this time Maddon was not going to let the closer take this one away from his young team.
Percival entered the game in the top of the ninth, and while I was looking at the back wall I was admiring the new huge sign by the Florida Sports Network and Sunsports that looked like a game day roster. I had looked back there dozens of times this season and did not really see how great it was before today. Well, Percival lived up to his usual expectations and gave up two quick hits and runs before Maddon made a move to bring in Nelson again for the the game. At that time, the score was tied, and Percival this time did not totally try and even voice any fight or vinegar at Maddon, but strolled off the mound to the dugout.
That was the last time we saw him. Strolling off the mound after giving up two runs to tie a contest the Rays would eventually win. You want to say something poetic here, that will be admired for years as sage advice or even a recollection, but I was glad it was his last outing for the team. I truly do not care if he ever comes back. He has options available to him. He can either rehab as long as the team deems he should and not fight it, or he can walk away from the game for the last time. My feelings are he still has some fire in his beer belly for the game, but it might not fit well here anymore. If he does ever some back into a Rays uniform, he will probably have to take a reduced role with the team. More of a set-up role than a closer.
It is actually kind of odd, but curiously wild that Percival was all rah-rah about Jason Isringhausen signing with the team this spring, and he might be the guy who gets eventually slotted into the closer role. I wish Percy the best as he takes his time and contemplates and make decisions about his future on the mound. Maybe he is again ready for that role of managing like he did in 2007 in the Angels minor league system. Time will tell. But I think the time of the scruffy, pear-shaped closer going to the mound for the Rays is over.
He fought the sands of time as long as he could, but maybe he is finally starting to realize the door is shutting behind him. I have glad for what he has done for this club in the last two seasons, but I will not miss him. And Rays, do not forget to lock the door, or he will find a way back into this clubhouse. But for me personally, he has not only struck a chord in me with his actions, he might have finally struck out with other fans too.
I have to say that the lineup card fiasco yesterday stirred up its own pot of controversy as we sat there in the stands for almost 15 minutes not knowing what was going on at home plate. We could see Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge constantly bickering and arguing a fact from just beyond Dick Vitale’s seat, but even the loud and proud Vitale probably could not have figured this fiasco out in less time. It is not the intention of the Tampa Bay Rays to try and shore up their defense by putting both Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist at the same position.
But you do have to give it to the Cleveland bench for not saying a thing before the Rays took their first time out in the field to solidify Wedge’s argument that Longoria should be tossed off the lineup card in the 3-hole. It was a measure of stealth that they let the Rays get their 3 outs then protest the line-up card to basically make this an old school National League versus American League game. By showing the error to the umpire crew the Indians did in fact get Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine put into that third spot for the ballgame. But little did they know that Sonnanstine was a .400 hitter and could stroke the ball with authority. Because the Rays play basically a NL-type game with a designated hitter most nights, the loss of Longoria did not take a huge bite out of the Rays scoring machine.
You would have thought it would cause all kinds of havoc and make for a very one-sided contest, but in reality, it boosted the Rays bench confidence in their team, and also got the other Rays pitchers to want to also take a few hacks at the plate. One television camera even caught Rays starter Scott Kazmir taping up his bat on the bench maybe hoping for a pinch-hitter role in the game. But what soon seemed like a huge injustice to the Rays turned into a plus as Sonnanstine put down an incredible bunt to get a fielder’s choice when the Indians instead went to second with the throw to get the speedy Carl Crawford. But later in the contest, Sonnanstine would make the Indians pay with a nice stroke to leftfield that had Ryan Garko doing circles out there in left field.
But for some reason, the post-game interview with Rays Manager Joe Maddon saw him take complete blame for the line-up blunder. He said it was basically his signature and that he was responsible for the error and that no one else’s fingerprints are on the decision to submit the wrong lineup card before the game. Okay, I am not a huge fan of conspiracy theories or even the mixture of intelligence and character building in reference to his team. But if I was, then Maddon is a true genius. For some odd reason I see his smiling face not at all too upset on the reversal of losing Longoria, who even got up off the bench and penciled in Sonnanstine’s name himself before putting on a sweat top and sitting on the bench.
How much of a true warrior statistician would you be if you pulled the wool over the eyes of not only your team, but the opposition. I truly think that Sun Tzu would be proud of Maddon right now. I think he meant to do that yesterday. For some odd reason it makes sense that starting on Friday, his pitchers would again be taking the plate in Inter League contests against the Florida Marlins. Here we had the best hitting pitcher on the Rays having to take hacks today against a guy making his MLB debut. It doesn’t take a wise man to see that the simple fact of Sonnanstine hitting can give the Indians a false set of confidence in at least one quick out in an inning.
It also doesn’t seem too far fetched to think of Maddon as using this “error” as a tool to motivate his pitchers who are now chomping at the bit to get time at the plate. That makes for more focused Batting Practice swings by the pitching staff, plus a bit of covert action by showing the pitchers’ one of their own going 1 for 3 with an RBI in Sundays win. I can see Maddon sitting in his office trying to devise his own “Trojan Horse” situation to boost not only the confidence of his pitching staff, but for his players to believe again in 2009. After the rough start to the season, and the last two nights emotional and building confidence levels, this move could make them take on a army of Transformers.
I sat down near the Bullpen and even joked about Joe Nelson and Dan Wheeler getting some hacks today at the plate. But in the back of my mind, I knew that Sonnanstine might get three chances, and by then it would be the seventh inning or beyond and the bench could be put into action. The last few days I have seen several members of this pitching staff take to the batting cages, and some of them have more focus than last season. So if Maddon did indeed do this to instill a sense of magic and power to his pitchers’ they got the message loud and clear. For the pure fact that he is the last one to see that lineup card before he gives it to either Dave Martinez or Tom Foley to submit, you have to think they also check it out while walking out there.
But for the fact that no one questioned it before the middle of the first inning is in itself a bold move by both benches. It could have been decided that Longoria’s name not being put under the “DH” moniker was just a clerical error and he would have been inserted anyway. But the umpire crew did its job and made the right decision. With a bit of luck, and skill it worked perfectly into the Rays favor. This is not to mean that Pat Burrell has been replaced by a pitcher, but it is a great thing to know that the pitchers want to contribute at the plate too now. That can lead to all sorts of plays and chances for this team to get additional bats in the lineup in the coming Inter League games.
I can truly see the mind of Joe Maddon cooking up this scenario and even making alternative plans in his head if it did not work well. That is why I like Maddon. He is one of those managers that actually manages during the game. Situational hitting, double steals and also watching for routine flaws in the other team is his style of play. Maddon is a great lover of the strategies and moves of the game. I am really thinking he just played the best joke on all of us, and only himself and maybe his Coaching staff know the truth in this matter.
So for now, the Rays as a “NL” team are 1-0 in the season. We will find out just how good this play of events evolves when on Friday night the pitchers again take to the plate in Miami. Not to truly say that the Rays skipper did do it on purpose, but if he did, it would be one of the best coaching moves to motivate a sector of your team since the bat sc
ene in “Bull Durham”. Sonnanstine is now in the history books, and the Rays turned a visual mistake into a confidence-boosting exercise. Sounds just like something Maddon would cook up in the kitchen too.
Replica Rings are the Bomb
I have to admit that when the Rays first told us they were going to give away American League Championship replica rings, my mind did wander to the Cracker Jack box rings and the plastic painted adjustable rings that team gave away in the 1990′s. I had a bad nightmare of maybe getting a ring that would turn my finger green or even fall off from lack of circulation because it was too small, or even had bad blemishes to the finish. But I was beyond pleasantly surprised when they handed me my ring on Tuesday night.
I came through the Season Ticket holder door as always and was presented with a blue satin sack promoting a local high end shopping mall on the outside of it. I knew that this establishment would not be privy to anthing cheap, so I looked quickly into the sack and found a gem of collectible quality hidden inside a small platic bag. The moment I first took a gander at this ring, my heart took a leap. It was beyond the simple words that I had read on numerous websites and had even thought in my own mind. The ring was beyond expectations and truly will be near me for a long, long time.
But I was in shock later in the night when a few Yankee fans were selling their rings for $ 5. I have to say, it was the best 25 dollars I have ever spent in the past 10 years. I am not putting them on Ebay or even trying to recoup anything financial with them. For me they will be additional rings to wear for the next 10 years. Mine is a bit snug on my finger and I will have to sand the inside down a bit to fit over my broken old knuckles, but I will wear them. Oh yes, they will be on my bony fingers for a long time. Treasures like this do not come along in life too often. This ring was no cheap substitute, it has real weight and real appeal. And it will be on my finger for a long time. Well, at least until I can figure out a way to get a real one……
AJ was more than OK
This is the thing that initially scared me about A J Burnett signing with the New York Yankees this season. He finally got a team that can score runs behind him this season. Last year. when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays, they had to have an outstanding game offensively to reward him some nights. But mostly he did it by himself by keeping the score close and letting his team catch up and overtake the opposition most nights. It is scary to consider that he was just that good, but lacked the firepower behind him. He now has that firepower, and his pitching confidence is sky high.
Burnett threw some impressive pitches last night. His breaking balls were falling off the plate at alarming rates. And his fastball seemed to have a new life of its own. He was truly on the moment on the mound. It was an awesome effort by a guy who has been close before to a no-hitter and miss. Well, last night he did not get that honor either, thanks to a Carl Crawford single to left field that broke up his no-hitter bid. But just how good was he up to that pivotial bottom of the seventhinning point?
Through 6 prior innings, Burnett had only allowed Rays DH Pat Burrell to reach base on a walk in the bottom of the second inning. Burrell even fought back from a 1-2 count to get his free pass off of Burnett. From the first pitch of the night until Crawford hit his single Burnett threw 74 pitches before giving up a single hit. But you have to also credit Crawford , who fought off Burnett with 5 straight foul balls before connecting on the Rays first hit. It was a classic pitcher versus hitter moment, with Crawford winning this time.
But that seemed to open the flood gates as Evan Longoria then hit a single to left on the first pitch he saw from Burnett. The Yankee starter was beginning to show some kinks in his armor tonight. Then Carlos Pena got an RBI single to right to score Crawford and also take the shitout away from Burnett. But the big blow again came from Burrell, who hit a RBI sacrifice fly to right field that scored Longoria and tied the game at 2-2. The Rays had battled for seven innings against a hot pitcher, and had finally broken through enough to get a tied contest.
Bullpen has a case of the Hiccups
Last night was not a typical night for the Rays Bullpen. The Rays had tied the game at 2-2 and gave the Bullpen a chance to secure the tie for them to try and take advantage of the Yankees in the eighth and ninth innings. But a few odd pitching performances gave the Yankees their fourth win of the season. Rays starter Matt Garza had thrown 7 innings of 5 hit 2 run ball and left the game after 112 pitches. The Rays problems on offense magnified the pitching of Garza, who actually had a decent outing by striking out nine Yankees tonight.
So with a chance at a free Papa John’s pizza in the wings, J P Howell took the mound for the Rays. Brett Gardner lead-off the Yankees top of the eighth inning with a double to deep left that split Crawford and B J Upton. Derek Jeter then hit a ball up the middle to put two on for the Yankees with no outs. With Gardner at thrid and Jeter at first, Mark Teixeira then came up and hit a blast into deep left field and Crawford did not attempt to throw Gardner out at the plate. That put the Yankees back in front 3-2. Jorge Posada then hit a ball back to Howell that he quickly threw to Carlos Pena to get out of the inning with only surrendering the lone run.
But in the ninth inning, the Yankees took control of the game from the Rays. Dan Wheeler came on to pitch and he got rudely awoken by Robinson Cano, who took for first pitch he saw for a single to left field to lead off the inning. Melky Caberra then kept the merry-go-round going by hitting a single to right on the second pitch he saw from Wheeler. After Wheeler got two quick out from Ramiro Pena and Jose Molina, it looked like he might be able to control this inning. But Gardner hit a ground rule double that went over the pulled -in Upton and bounced over the center field wall.
The Rays tried to play the odds and keep the outfielders in close to make a play at the plate more effective. The play backfired as Gardner’s blast was in the air a long time and Upton did give an honest chase for the ball, but could not get a glove on it before it hit the turf and bounced over the wall. Jeter then put the exclamation point on the game by hitting a 2-run homer to right field that just reached the first row seats. That gave the Yankees a 7-2 lead and the Rays could not convert any offense in the bottom of the ninth inning.
After the game the Rays learned that they will be missing Longoria, who is on his way to California to attend to family matters for the next two games. It is expected that he will return in time for Friday night’s game against the Chicago White Sox at Tropicana Field. While he is out of the Rays lineup, Willy Aybar will be manning third base for Longoria.
The Rays also officially put Shawn Riggans on the 15-day disabled list for right shoulder tendonitis. The move was made retroactive to April 10th. A collateral move was made to bring up Michel Hernandez from Durham to catch while Riggans is out of the lineup. Hernadez might see his first action of the year tomorrow in the Rays 4:08 pm start against the Yankees.
Photo credits: 1) www.raysbaseball.com
2) Chris O’Meara / AP
3) Chris O’Meara / AP
4) Chris O’Meara / AP
Rays 11, Orioles 3
Rays Even Road Trip Out 3-3
If you asked Rays Manager Joe Maddon if a .500 split on their first road trip would be acceptable, you might be surprised at the answer. Considering the Rays actually played 8 games on this road trip including 2 games in Philadelphia to close out the Spring Training schedule, they got a usual 10 day regular season road trip. you could hear it in the voice’s of the Rays Radio Network commentators the other night. Everyone wanted to go home. It is rough to start on the road, and the Rays have done that consistently since 2006.
Early in the month, it was reported that in 2007, the Rays requested to start at home this year. Since that time it has been learned that they in fact only petitioned this year to start 2010. The information I got off the Internet was incorrect. I am only bringing this up because I try and get the right stuff and the right information for you all the time. It is not unusual for bad information to get out here, but sometimes it gets nipped in the bud before the blogosphere picks it up. For that, I am sorry. But I know I am not the only one who got this. A few respected newspapers also got this bad information, but I doubt you will see any retractions.
Sleepy Offense Wakes Up Big Time
To say the Rays offense took a deep nap during Saturday night’s game would be an extreme understatement. But for what they lacked in that game, they more than made up for in this Sunday’s series ending contest. The Rays even started off first thing today as Akinora Iwamura lead-off the game with a single through the hole to right field. An interesting fact is that is the first hit ever given up by Orioles starter Adam Eaton to the Rays. After a strike out by Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria kept up his hot hitting by lacing a shallow single to center field to give the Rays two base runners early. Longoria then got his running shoes on and stole second base to put both himself and Iwamura in scoring position.
But the Rays floundered in their attempts to get both runners across the plate in the inning. The last out was made by Pat Burrell, who was 0-7 lifetime against Eaton. But the Rays did get Eaton to throw 27 pitches in the inning, which could lead to an early day for the Orioles starter. But in the top of the second inning, the Rays again began to pressure early on Eaton when Ben Zobrist hit a “Texas Leaguer” into left field that dropped in left field before the foul line. Gabe Gross then got walked on 9 pitches. Gross fought off Eaton from a 3-1 count in his favor with 3 straight fouls before Eaton threw a ball high for ball four.
Jason Bartlett then hit a single to left field to load the bases for the Rays. But Iwamura, who was 4 for 13 with the bases loaded in 2008, could not convert and was struck out. Crawford then came up and laced a ball into the right field that Nick Markakis had to hustle to get to, but not before Crawford unloaded the bases with his 3-run triple. Longoria then hit a long ball to right that went over Markakis’s head and landed just shy of the right field wall for an RBI double. At that point, the Rays were up 4-0 on the Orioles.
But in the 4th inning, it got really interesting for the Rays. Gross lead off the inning with his second walk of the game, this time on 6 pitches. Bartlett could not move him over after popping a ball in foul territory taken by Aubrey Huff. But Iwamura then laced a ball between Huff and Brain Roberts to move Gross into scoring position at third base. With Crawford at the plate, Iwamura stole second and put both men into scoring position. Crawford then hit a one-hopper into center field that Adam Jones came up throwing towards home plate.
Gross was heading for home and Orioles catcher Chad Moeller got situated in front of the plate. Gross did not plow into Moeller, but instead decided to try and side-step him. But there was a problem in that plan. Moeller had the plate blocked and Gross ended up falling over Moeller’s ankle and missed the plate. Bot men went sprawling backwards with Gross flipping behind the left side of the plate. He then realized he had not cross the plate and scrambled to try and get back to the plate before Moeller could tag him out. He was not successful and he was tagged out at home on one of the oddest play I have seen in a long time. The Rays did not score in that inning and stranded both Iwamura and Crawford on base.
In the fifth inning, the Rays again went for the jugular after Carlos Pena struck out to lead-off the inning. Burrell was walked by Orioles reliever Brain Bass, who came on for Eaton in the top of the inning. But the next batter, Dioner Navarro, laced a liner to the right field wall for a double. Zobrist then came up and crushed a shot over the out-of-town
score board in right field for a 3-run homer, his first of the year. But that was not all for the Rays in that inning. Bartlett got on infield hit when he hit a slow roller to Robert Andino, who was playing short for the Orioles today. Aki then hit a gapper into left-center field that scored Bartlett to give the Rays a 8-0 lead.
In the sixth inning, Burrell got his first extra base hit off Bass when he got a double into the right-center field gap. He was stranded on base, but it showed that maybe Burrell was beginning to climb out of his season opening slump. When he was Philadelphia, Burrell was infamous for streaks, both good and bad. The Rays got a bit of a surprise in the seventh inning when Bartlett hit his first homer of the season to dead center field. Bartlett hit only one homer in the regular season in 2008, and 1 in the playoffs for the Rays. It was a welcome sight to see him rounding the bases.
But in the eight inning, the Rays finished their scoring in great fashion. After Crawford was called out on strikes to start the inning, Longoria hit his 5th homer of the season off Bass’s misplaced cutter to left field. Carlos Pena then hit his second homer of the year to right field to complete the scoring for the Rays and post an 11-0 lead on the Orioles in the top of the eighth inning. Seeing both Pena and Burrell go a combined 3 for 9 might be a great indicator of both men beginning to come out of the darkness and begin to produce some more scoring chances for the Rays. Before today’s game, they were a combined 6 for 36 with a homer and 2 RBI’s, both by Pena.
Balfour’s Game Went Down Under
Grant Balfour’s 2009 time with the Rays has not been his favorite times. This spring he fought some control issues, and thought they might be gone now that the regular season has arrived. Little did he know before yesterday’s game that the problem was about to crest and produce one of his worst performances in some time. This spring Balfour appeared in 9 games for a total of 8 innings and 12 hits and 6 runs. But, something else happened that was not your usual Balfour signature, he also had 7 walks to go along with his 9 strikeouts. His release point and mechanics seems to be off a hair or two.
And so when he made his second appearance of 2009, he expected to be in a better frame of mind, and also a renewed vigor on the mound. But what ended up happening is that he had a minor meltdown on his release points and ended up throwing 24 pitches, 10 for strikes in the outing. He came on in the ninth inning to preserve a beautiful pitching performance by James Shields, but ended up worrying both Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey as to his value with the club right now with the Yankees and White Sox coming into Tropicana Field for the next 7 games.
Balfour was officially credited with 0.0 innings pitched yesterday, but he allowed 2 hits and 3 earned runs, plus gave up three walks to balloon his ERA to 20.25 in the young season. He started off the bottom of the ninth with a 11 run lead, but he did not even last until the first recorded out of the inning. Markakis lead-off with a walk on 6 pitches. Then Huff managed to again beat the Rays shift for a single into left field. That was the second time this series Huff had popped a ball down the left side of the infield for a hit. He then gave up another walk to Ryan Freel on 6 pitches to load the bases for Baltimore.
Luke Scott then hit a ball to right field for a RBI single that broke the shutout for the Rays. Balfour then walked Felix Pie on 4 straight pitches to force in a second run. At that point, the Orioles had Scott sitting on third base with no outs. Maddon decided to come on out and take Balfour out of the contest before it totally bombed his confidence. Rays Reliever J P Howell came on to get Moeller to hit into a 6-4-3 double play that scored Scott to make it 11-3 Rays. He then got Andino to take a called third strike to end the Orioles rally and send the Rays home with the victory.
I am not sure what was wrong with Balfour last night, but it looked a bit similar to the pitching reversal of Rob Bell a few years ago for the Rays. Hopefully it is something mechanical that can be fixed in side work and he will again be back to old self. Sometimes just an inch can change a pitcher’s velocity and accuracy to the plate. Hopefully he was just losing his release point for some reason and it will just be a matter of throwing a bit to get back into a groove. If not, it opens a huge hole in the Rays Bullpen because of Balfour’s aggressive nature on the mound.
Shields wears Rare Road Win
James Shields made a few changes to his routine on Sunday to try and figure out the reasoning for his odd road woes. If you noticed on the mound, Shields wore short sleeves under his uniform for the first time on the road this year. Sometimes superstitions and rituals can be the life breath of a ball player. Some like to eat the same thing on game days, or drive the same way to the ballpark. Other have uniform rituals like wearing an old t-shirt under their uniform, or wearing three pairs of socks.
Whatever it was that Shields did yesterday, I hope he wrote it all down so he can do it again after the Rays next road trip in about a week to the west coast. He started the game by retiring the first 8 men he faced in the game yesterday. Shields did not even have a ball leave the infield until Andino single through the first and second base hole for the first hit of the game. He got out of that inning without a problem, until Jones doubled into the left-center field gap to lead-off the fourth inning. Then Shields shut down the next three batters in a row to strand Jones at third base.
A simple 1-2-3 inning in the fifth gave him more comfort as the Rays were then up 8-0. And it wasn’t until Jones again came up in the sixth inning that he gave up his fina
l hit of the outing. After Huff struck out to start the bottom of the seventh inning, Shields gave up his only walk of the day to Freel on 5 pitches. But after two quick unassisted plays by Pena, the Rays got out of the inning. Dan Wheeler than came on in the bottom of the eighth inning and Shields was done for the day. You could see him over there trying to convince Maddon to let him finish out the game.
But the Rays Bullpen needed to get some innings, and Wheeler, Balfour and Howell ended up completing the outing for Shields. For the day, Shields went 7 innings of 3-hit shutout pitching, and ran his record to 1-1 on the year. He threw 88 pitches, 53 of them for strikes on the day. He did give up 1 walk to go with his three strikeouts. Hopefully Shields did remember every move he made in his pre-game rituals and warm-ups to again try and duplicate it when the Rays again take to the road from April 21-29, 2009. At that time the Rays will be making a west coast trip that will end with 3 games in Minnesota.
Sunday’s Scattered Thoughts
Carl Crawford coming into Sunday’s game has hit .352 in his last 30 games with 13 extra base hits and 26 runs. He also has added on 18 RBI’s during that time. But right now the hottest duo on the Rays might be the two guys who will flip flop in the eighth and ninth slot in the lineup for a while for the Rays. Iwamura and Bartlett each went 3 for 5 yesterday, but Bartlett is hitting .391 currently and is winning the batting average stats of the duo. Only person hitting better than these two is of course, Longoria who is at a lofty .481 right now and is leading the majors in homers, and is tied with Miguel Caberra for the hits lead with 13 for the year.
With B J Upton primed to rejoin the Rays on Monday at Tropicana Field for the home Opener, the Rays sent Matt Joyce down to the minors after the game. He will join the Triple-A Durham Bulls and be their primary right fielder for the season. Hopefully while he is down in the minors, Joyce can get some quality at bats against left-handed pitchers and give the Rays more confidence to give him the right field job for good upon his return up to the Rays.
The Orioles and James Shields have some interesting history together. It was the Orioles who first got a glimpse of Shields on the mound on May 31 2006 and gave up 5 runs on 9 hits in his Rays debut. The Rays have now won 8 straight wins when Shields has faced the Orioles.
I am going to be on “Good Morning Tampa Bay” with the rest of the Maddon’s Maniacs on Monday to promote the Opening Day chatter and cheers for the Rays. Be sure to check it out since I know I actually have a speaking part in the telecast about the purpose of the “Maniacs”. As usual, we will be loud and proud and cheering for the Rays today. Also anyone coming to the ballpark early can check out our video we did with the Raysvision people a few weeks ago on the “Ground Rules” for Tropicana Field.
All Photos are from Gail Burton / A P