Results tagged ‘ Dioner Navarro ’

Is Navarro Being Ushered out the Door?

 



Gail Burton / AP

In what might be a simple Tamp Bay two-step right now, the Tampa Bay Rays traded the always popular “Player To Be Named Later” today to the Cleveland Indians for experienced catcher Kelly Shoppach. The Rays will probably conclude the trade with a member of their current 40-man roster, and this trade announcement should be made public before December 20th. 

The move gives the Rays a solid hitting catcher with a keen eye at the plate, and some much needed power in his bat. Shoppach, who has hit 33 HRs over the past two seasons is tied for second with American League MVP Joe Mauer in total HRs by an AL catcher. Another bright spot for the Rays is that Shoppach lead the American League in 2009 with 18 HBP. He is known to crowd the plate and makes opposing pitchers work hard to get him out at the plate.

And this trade is definitely a physical “calling out” of Rays current catcher Dioner Navarro. For the first time in many years, the Rays did not invite a experienced catcher to come into Spring Training in 2009 to push Navarro for his starting job. But now, this trade to upgrade the Rays offensive power behind the plate makes perfect sense considering that Navarro fell so far off the offensive wagon for the Rays last season. 

Navarro’s  seasonal batting average quickly dipped from a career high of .295 in 2008, to an anemic .218  this season. And combined with his offensive downfall, Navarro also saw his defensive statistics also take an unexpected tumble. At times, Navarro’s defensive game has been called into question several times during the 2009 season. Navarro’s caught stealing percentage dropped from 35.7 (25-70) percent in 2008, which was third best in the Major Leagues, to only 23.8 (19-80) percent in 2009.

Maybe this downward trend finally convinced the Rays to look somewhere else for catching help for 2010. I personally noticed several times during the season that Navarro was becoming a bit lazy behind the dish  at times not coming out of his crouch for simple errant balls in the dirt. Navarro seemed to be not getting his glove down flat to the plate to prevent Wild Pitches or Passed Balls by adequately securing the baseball during games. Even though he was charged with only 5 Errors and 6 Passed Balls in 2009, his defense did take a huge step back in 2009. 


Elaine Thompson / AP

Maybe this is a clear message to Navarro by Rays Manager Joe Maddon, an ex-catcher, and the Rays staff that they are about done with trying to fix Navarro’s many defensive woes. It seems to me to be a blatant message that Navarro has regressed and maybe was rested too heavy on his laurels after his 2008 All Star season.

But this is not the first time in the last few months the Rays have not tried to send a message to Navarro. You have to think that when the team traded Arizona Fall League standout Ryhne Hughes to Baltimore for veteran Gregg Zaun, the young catcher would finally get the message. For some reason, Navarro did not read into the transaction that things might not be so rosy under the surface with his game performances in 2009.

And considering Navarro, like Shoppach is also up for arbitration this season, it might be a clear indicator that Navi’s time is about to end in Tampa Bay. With the trade for Shoppach, it is a clear that Navarro is now clearly behind the 8-ball and might not be tendered a contract by the Rays this off season.  You have to imagine that the Rays would not trade an arbitration eligible player unless they plan on giving him a contract offering.

And with the Rays not fully disclosing if they might be one of the 8 said teams talking with Zaun for 2010, this is a clear measure by the Rays to get the attention of their 2009 Opening Day catcher. Zaun has made recent comments that within the next week, or before the MLB Winter Meetings, he will announce his 2010 destination.

Another player that could make some noise in this recent  transaction is Rays back-up catcher Shawn Riggans, who is currently playing Winter Ball in Puerto Rico for Gigante de Carolina. Riggans is not arbitration eligible, and would only cost the Rays $450,000 compared to a possible $ 2.5 million arbitration ruling for Navarro.  The play of Riggans in Puerto Rico might be a key component to the team even considering either Zaun or Navarro for 2010.

Since Riggans did spend  97 days on the DL, and played in only 6 games for the Rays in 2009, his durability is a keystone to any catching arbitration moves by the team.
Riggans is currently hitting .211 average with a solo HR and a .429 Slugging Percentage during Winter ball.  Riggans has caught in 5 of Gigante de Carloina’s 11 games this season. His injury situations over the last few seasons could be another factor to securing a solid player like Shoppach.


RRCollections

After the Rays traded for Zaun in August 2009, Navarro’s agent, Kendall Almerico was famous during the rest of the season for sending email and text messages to the Rays front office supporting his clients abilities with direct comparisons to the newly acquired Zaun. Almerico also represented Navarro in 2008 when he was trying to obtain a $ 2.5 million 2009 salary during Navarro’s first run during arbitration.

The Rays currently hold Navarro’s rights for three more season, or until 2011, then he would become a free agent. But after all of Almerico’s 2008  pre-arbitration ” talk” about respect, and the hearing maybe effecting Navarro long term relationship with the team. The Rays might be visually showing Navarro their first move in the chess match towards any possible arbitration for Navarro by the Rays.

Considering that the Indians did pick up a pretty good catching prospect in Lou Marson in the player return with the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Cliff Lee, it might be a long shot that Navarro could be the “PTBNL” in todays deal.  So maybe Navarro’s career clock with the Rays is ticking louder and louder right now in his household. Because the Rays might have cast the first stone to bring in a viable replacement to Navarro in the Rays lineup. The next comments by Navarro or Almerico might seal his fate in Tampa Bay.

Zobrist is the Rays MVZ (Most Valuable Zorilla)

 


Chris O’Meara /AP

Before the 2008 season, Benjamin Thomas Zobrist was considered a possible “Super Utility” player for the Tampa Bay Rays future. He was one of the players the team acquired back in July 2006 when the Rays sent disgruntled rightfielder Aubrey Huff to the Houston Astros near the MLB Trade Deadline. When the Rays made that deal, Zobrist was being sought after as a back-up and not a starter, even though he had the talent to start in the Major Leagues.

And even if the Rays did throw that “utility” moniker on Zobrist  when he arrived, at that point the Rays had not given him a fair amount of time to shine at the Major League level until  the end of 2008. But then again, Zobrist has always seemed to be in that different group of player who’s game beats to a different drummer, but is in unison with the team’s goals and aspirations.

But Zobrist has always been strong silent type who used his glove and bat to do his talking. And even then he still got pigeon-holed into a small finite group in the MLB. Zobrist is only the ninth player in MLB history to ever appear in the regular game at the shortstop position, joining Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer in that exclusive club.

Zobrist is only the second Rays player to have a “Z” at the beginning of his name, joining Victor Zambrano in that club. And only Tiger’s pitcher Joel Zumaya is lower in the alphabetical listing in the MLB entire active roster than Zobrist. So as you can see, Zobrist has always seemed to be at the back of the class by alphabet, but on the field, well that is a different story.

But how valuable is a guy who in 2008 played 6 different positions for your squad? During the Rays 2008 season he jumped back and forth from the minors to the major leagues four times before finally sticking with the Rays on August 5,2008 and played every field position but pitcher, catcher and first base during the season. And this season, he added first base to his playing resume’ when he started playing the position after a late season injury to All-Star first baseman Carlos Pena.
 

And who knows, after  the Rays let go of Joe Dillon, maybe Zobrist was the Rays designated “third catcher” option  in case of a unfortunate injury to Dioner Navarro and Gregg Zaun during a contest. But that is the reason Rays Manager Joe Maddon think so highly of his fielding handyman who brings four different types of fielding gloves into the dugout during Rays games. I can still remember a game during the 2009 season where he started the game in rightfield, moved to second base in the middle innings of the contest, then finished out the game at third base subbing for Evan Longoria.

I know there are only a handful of players on any roster in the Major Leagues who can hop, skip and jump from position to position like Zobrist. And that is one of the reasons I keep looking at players like Mark DeRosa and new White Sox journeyman Mark Teahen and can ultimately see Zobrist developing into that same mold of player who will do whatever the team needs to win every game.

So am I upset that Zobrist did not end up in the top 5 in the MVP voting? I am a little surprised, but I also know that it sometimes take more than a splash on the scene to convince the tunnel visioned BBWAA guys in the press box who never played the game that you are a special breed. And that is  honest truth to why I feel he did not post any higher vote totals in the American League MVP race because the BBWAA voters are more geared towards their own teams player selections and other regional and divisional guys they see all the time.

But I can understand some of the BBWAA voters for not getting so excited about Zobrist this season. But if he still puts up the same numbers in 2010, and even posts higher numbers, will they still see him as a reliable utility player or as a full-time field player?  

And the fact the Zobrist began this statistic campaign actually during the last 4 games of the 2008 season when he hit four home runs and won co-AL Player of the Week honors after the Rays season ending series in Detroit. Sure in 2008 he might have only appeared in 62 games ( 49 starts), but people forget Zobrist might have actually made the Rays 2008 Opening Day roster if he had not gone down with a left thumb break. So you have to wonder, if Zobrist had gotten more playing time in 2008, would this season’s MVP total have been different.


Steve Nesisus / AP

And of course, this has to be speculation, but sure, his number would have been dramatically different, and considering he lead all Major League middle infielders with a 16.5 At Bat per Home Run ratio finishing ahead of players like Marlin Dan Uggla (16.6), Hanley Ramirez (17.9) and Phillie infielder Chase Utley (18.4). Considering each of these players is an All Star caliber player, doesn’t that make you think the potential might have always been bubbling under the surface in Zobrist.

And also in 2008, he hit is second Gram Slam of his career during a September 13th game against the New York Yankees and was the last visiting player to hit a Grand Slam in the old Yankee Stadium off starter Sidney Ponson in the nightcap of a doubleheader.  So as you can see, his 2008 numbers gave Rays fans something to look forward to in 2009.

And if you have even looked towards the outfield grass beyond first base before a Rays game, Zobrist is always out there stretching with the starters even if he is not in the lineup. That is part of his game day prep, and one of the reason I truly feel he is a player to watch over the next few seasons.


Steve Nesius / AP

And considering he is not even arbitration eligible yet, Zobrist becomes a huge double-edged value to the Rays both in payroll and in his playing ability. Zobrist’s projected 2010 salary might only be around $450,000 before he hits arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season. And how valuable is that right now with the Rays looking to stabilize their payroll and find needed money for possible Bullpen help. Zobrist is not only helping the Rays on the field already, he is heaping them in their fiscal bottom line too.

So even if Zobrist did not get an additional votes in the MVP race to post his name up there with the American League heavyweights, his day might still come in the future. People always love to root for the underdog, and you know Zobrist definitely fits the bill for that title, even in 2010. And you can be sure that in 2010 there will be more than a few Fantasy Baseball team owners who will take Zobrist onto their rosters. I have to admit, I took him in the 10th round last year because I have seen his potential over the last two years and have always liked what he brings to the game both on and off the field.

So Benjamin  Zobrist, we are proud of what you have done in 2009. And we salute you and hope and pray that the off season keeps you safe and ready for Spring Training in 2010
. Starting this spring, when your name appears in the lineup people will begin to check your stats and watch your development to see if you are a flash-in-the-pan or the real deal. We already know the answer here in Tampa Bay. We already know you are our MVP.


Chris O’Meara / AP

So what if the American League’s other BBWAA voters do not give you the respect yet, or even the courtesy of a 10th place vote on every ballot. You can be our little secret for another year. You can be the guy that opposing fans look at each other and wonder who you are after you launch one into the stands. Sure we might hide you around the outfield and infield again, but getting you on the field is the main thing, because a lineup with Zobrist in it is a ticking time bomb ready to launch an offensive explosion.

So as we begin to go towards the bulk of the off season, it is okay if the rest of the countries media want to forget about Zobrist. It is fine if they do not want to honor a year to remember from a guy who stepped up and accepted the challenge and propelled his team. We know your value and we know your potential. Tick,tock…..tick, tock. Spend the off season resting, relaxing and playing with your son Zion. For in the Spring of 2010, you can again get your determination and intensity scale set to “10″, because some people forgot who you were. They forgot you were “Zorilla”, but that is fine. Even Godzilla had more than one film, and he did pretty well for himself.   

Sunday Rewind” “Garza just misses Immortality”

 

Sunday Review:

As you might remember, during the off season I am going back over the 650 blog posts since 2007 and trying to find postings that I think were special over the years. Since the Rays news does get a little short this time of year, it was a way for me to still post daily and also give some of the newer bloggers a chance to see how my style has changed over the years.
 
 
I picked this blog from my archive for today because it not only shows the  writing style I was using in 2008, but it is a special moment in Rays history. With B J Upton finally getting the first cycle in Rays history on October 3,2008, I wanted to focus today on one of the past pitching performances by one of the Rays emerging starters.

In this series ending game against the Florida Marlins, Rays starter Matt Garza basically served up only one mistake all day long, and the Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez deposited it into the leftfield stands for the only hit,and run of the game for his team. It was one of the most dominating efforts by a member of the Rays starting rotation in 2008.
The blog was originally posted on June 26,2008.

    Rays 6,       Marlins 1
 

It was reported yesterday by the Montgomery Advertiser  that Tampa Bay Rays  pitching prospect Jake McGee will undergo season ending elbow surgery next week. The Biscuit starter was originally put on the Disabled List a few days ago, but an MRI revealed a torn elbow tendon and a Tommy John’s surgery looks to be in McGee’s not to distant future.
 

This could have been a huge blow to the Montgomery Biscuits chances for a third straight SAL title, but the Rays quickly promoted David Price and Jeremy Hellickson several days earlier from Class-A Vero Beach and  both pitchers’ should fit into the Biscuits rotation.  McGee will fly to St. Petersburg to meet with Rays orthopedic doctor, Koko Eaton, and was also scheduled to see Dr. James Andrews after the weekend to  get a second confirmation on the diagnosis.  If McGee requires Tommy John’s surgery, McGee will be lost for up to a year and a half from the Rays Farm system.

 

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Trivia Fact of the Night:

In 1953, respected and innovative National League umpire Bill Klem was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
 

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AP Photo 

Rays starter Matt Garza (6-4) will remember this game against the Florida Marlins for a very long time. Not because he got his 6th victory of the season,and the first complete game of his career,but for one floating slider that  could have brought him a special place in Rays history.
 

There is still no doubt that the sweep in the Inter-League series by the Rays over the Marlins in Miami made for a fantastic airline flight to Pittsburgh, but what might have been will be in Garza’s head for a few days.

 
            
 

On the first pitch from Garza that Marlin’s shortstop Hanley Ramirez saw in the bottom of the 7th inning,Ramirez drilled  the hanging pitch into the seats just above the huge scoreboard in the leftfield bleachers. It was the only pitch that Garza would want to take back all day long. And the errant pitch not only cost Graza his chance at a shutout, but a spot in Rays history and immortality by throwing a no-hitter. 
 
                 
 
According to the Elias Baseball Bureau, It was the first complete-game no-hitter or one-hitter with a double-digit strikeout total in the majors this season. There was only one such pitching performance in each of the last three seasons: By Chris Carpenter in 2005, John Lackey in 2006 and Justin Verlander in 2007.
 
 
A P Photo 

The Rays are now a franchise high 15 games over .500, and have  posted 4 more wins than any other season before the All-Star break. They are also 7  ahead of their pervious best record after 77 games.

 

The Rays have been above .500 for 57 straight days this season  and 61 total  days for the 2008 season,both  marks are Rays club records. Prior to the 2008 season, the Rays had been above the .500 mark for only 72 days combined in the teams short history.

 

                                         
 

Rays rookie Evan Longoria has been given many nicknames in the last few months,”Evan Almighty”, “The Natural”, and “Longo”. The last one nickname seems to be a wild reference to an Alex Karas character in “Blazin’ Saddles,” and Evan might just be  molding himself to represent a fine reputation to continue hearing the new nickname.
 

Longoria is one of the main  weapons and reasons this years Rays team has been on a winning roll the past two months. Since coming up from the Triple-A Durham Bulls, the Rays have been pretty hard to beat most nights, which has been a rareity in Tampa Bay Rays history. 
 

Yesterday’s game totals just added to the ever increasing legend that is “Longo:”

Longoria had three hits on Thursday night (two doubles and a home run) in the Rays’ win, after notching three hits (a single, double and homer) in Tampa Bay’s 15-3 win over the Marlins on Wednesday night.

Longoria is the fourth player in Rays franchise history to have consecutive games with at least three hits and one home run. The other Tampa Bay players to do that were Aubrey Huff (2004), Jorge Cantu (2005) and B.J. Upton (2007).

 

 

The Rays now have a 9-5 record in Inter-League play this season, the team’s highest win total since 2006 when they posted 11 wins in the Inter-League series. With a sweep in Pittsburgh they could establish another Rays club record for total victories during Inter-league play.
 

Along with Longoria and Garza’s efforts, the bat of back-up catcher Shawn Riggans showed some real promise in the game for the Rays. Riggans, who has seen very limited action this year with the emergence of Dioner Navarro.

 

Riggans responded today by going 1-3 with 3 RBI’s for the Rays. Riggans got his first RBI on the day after a sacrifice fly in the second inning to score Upton from third base,  he then hit a RBI-double to deep centerfield in the 5th inning to score both Upton and Longoria.
 

Riggans also called a great game behind the plate for the Rays. Garza only ran into trouble a few times the entire game and Riggans worked a magical game calling the pitches. Garza walked one lone Marlin, Jeremy Hermida in the 4th inning.
 

Rays shortstop Ben Zobrist hit his second homer in two days in the 8th inning to complete the scoring for the Rays. Zobrist is now hitting .292 since coming up for the Rays from Triple-A Durham.

 

With the expected return of both Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena on Friday in Pittsburgh,the Rays will have to make some roster moves before the Friday night game. 

 

I am perdicting we will see Troy Percival go on the Disabled List for another 15 days stint, and this time it will not be his decision. If this does not happen,another Rays reliever will have to be sent down, or possibly put on waivers.
 

Based on his recent numbers and the extra dose of experiece this year, Rays utilityman Ben Zobrist might be the odd man out unless a trade can be reached for another infielder on the team. I know that Zobrist needs consistency in his routine,and it is a shame he might have to be the fall guy this time.

Zobrist has only been off the Disabled List for 7 games now,both in Durham and Tampa Bay. And  Zobrist might need some more seasoning to get in great game shape for this team. 

Tonight the Rays start a 3-game  Inter-League series in Pittsburgh.  At this time,I want to tell you about a wild and unique thing they do in the Steel City before every Pirates game. They close the Roberto Clemente bridge to automobile traffic and let the Pirates patrons walk the bridge to the stadium.

It is one of the truly “must do” once experiences in baseball at least once in your life. You get to travel the roads on foot to the ballpark before and after the game…..without dodging  any automobile or motorized traffic.

 

The Rays are visitng PNC park for only the second time in their brief history, starting off when they lost 2 out of 3 in June 2005. They are currently 2-4 All-Time against the Pirates during the regular season.
 

 
 

The Pirates will be bringing up rookie Jimmy Barthmaier from Triple-A for his MLB debut against the Rays. Barthmaier
, a 13th-round Draft pick in 2003, will be making his first Pirates appearance when he takes the mound for Friday’s start.
 

The right-hander has combined to go 4-5 this season with a 4.04 ERA in 10 Double-A and five Triple-A starts. In his most recent start, Barthmaier threw six innings, allowing only one run on four hits and striking out eight in the game. Barthmaier has shown better control with both his fastball and breaking ball since being promoted to Triple-A in late May, allowing just six walks in 31 2/3 innings.

 

Look closely at the picture above of Barthmaier. Is it just me, or are there not color to his pupils in the picture.  Might be a Vulcan robot plant to supress the Rays victory celebrations.  Just Kidding,he might just have some wild contact lens for game days. Can we get the entire pitching staff a set of those Joe? No really can you? It could be a nice distracting measure to see only the “whites” of your eyes all night long on the mound.

 

 

3 Options Decisions loom for the Rays

 


Bill Koustroun / AP

Within the next few days the Tampa Bay Rays will have to make some critical decisions on three members of the team.  They will have to either consider accepting or declining club options on three members of the 2009 roster. Carl Crawford ($ 10 million), Gregg Zaun ($ 2 million) and Brian Shouse ($ 1.9 million +incentives) all are currently being looked at forward and back, and inside-out for pluses and minuses by the Rays. And more than likely, only Crawford could end up the only club option is picked up by the Rays.

Crawford’s $ 10 million option is pretty comparable on the open market with outfielder who are within their prime and he is considered a value at that price right now. And the announcement during the last few weeks of the season that Crawford would be willing to talk about even lowering that price tag and extending his contract again must have had the team giddy with glee.
 

But it is the other two club options that might be more of a time consuming decision by the team. Because if the Rays accept either option, it might send into effect a landslide of changes for the Rays roster even before Spring Training.

And of the two club options, it seems to me that Zaun has done a great job with the Rays starting rotation and  getting acclimated to the Rays system in his short time with the squad. I consider him an upgrade in the catching department both behind the plate and in the batters box for the Rays. And if the team does pick up his option,  it will possibly be a signal to current starter Dioner Navarro that he might have a rough road going through arbitration this year and might even be considered a possible Rays non tendered candidate?

Zaun’s .259  batting average is 40 points higher than Navarro’s season ending .218. But an interesting point might be that Navarro had his highest batting average( .231) on April 13th, while Zaun has hit .289 since joining the Rays and .308 against right hander since the trade. And if you look at their defense, Zaun wins that battle hands down. Zaun is a jack-in-the-box behind the plate attacking every ball in the dirt and trying to smother or keep them in front of him. He might have only thrown out 11 of 51 base runners this season (21.6 %), but it is only slightly below Navarro’s (23.8 %) mark for the season.


Chris O’Meara / AP

So this decision might be more if the Rays want to have an aging catcher (38 years old) behind the plate and might make a decision on the Navarro era with the Rays.  And considering Navarro is up again for arbitration this season, could his  salary which has been estimated at around $ 2.5 million be an upgrade over Zaun’s abilities. And considering that Navarro’s agent made it a habit to pester the Rays front office with phone calls and emails showing his clients stats, maybe the Rays will turn their back on Navarro and look elsewhere for catching help.

I see the Rays picking up Zaun’s $2 million option because it might be time to make a change for the Rays. Catching was not a huge disadvantage for the team in 2009, but a upgrade and a change in personnel might be needed right now. And Zaun is a veteran presence the Rays need to support and work with this young pitching staff and fine tune them a bit more in 2010.  

And the other option  to be considered by the Rays might have actually been decided before the season was even concluded by the way Brian Shouse portrayed it me when I gave him congrats for reaching his incentive numbers. Shouse gave me the off-the-cuff indication that he felt he might not be with the team, but held out enthusiasm and hope for a different scenario.

Considering the team lost Bullpen members Chad Bradford, Troy Percival and Russ Springer who close to go to the free agent market, the Rays Bullpen will again be a work in progress going into Spring Training. And considering that Shouse did prove to be an effective left-handed specialist for the Rays, this decision might come down to  his option amount and if the team think that leftie reliever Randy Choate can perform in this role in 2010.

Choate is arbitration eligible, and might command only about $ 1.2 million in arbitration. And if the Rays do indeed decide to keep Shouse, Choate might be considered trade bait or even non-tendered. And here lies the difficult decision for the Rays. Shouse will be 42 near the end (Sept 27) of the 2010 season, and is already the oldest pitcher to grace a Rays roster. Does giving him a possible $1.9 million plus his incentive be considered a sound investment for the Rays?


Steve Nesius / AP

Combine that with Shouse holding lefties to a .224 average and  holding his opponents scoreless in 21 of his last 24 appearances, Shouse still has the ability to do the job. But the emergence of Choate late in the season while Shouse was on the disabled list with a left elbow strain, it might  bring the decision simply down to who the Rays think can do the job in 2010. I have feeling the Rays might dwell a bit on the fact he will be 42 before the end of 2010, and will decline the club option for Shouse.

And the buy-out options for both players is not a huge amount, and might also play into the Rays decisions. They currently have until November 11th to make public their decision on Shouse. And if he is not retained by the Rays, he will be given a $ 200,000 buyout. But the decision on Zaun needs to be made on Monday, November 9th, which is 5 days after the end of the World Series. If the Rays do not intend to keep Zaun on their roster, it will cost them $ 500,00 or 25 percent of the salary he would have commanded in 2010.  

And you have to take the delay on the announcement of the club option on Carl Crawford as a positive sign that things are being discussed behind-the-scenes, and that a decision will be announced soon on the Rays plans for Crawford in 2010.  The decisions made over the next few days by the Rays will not totally sculpt their roster for 2010, but it could indicate the direction and the possible intentions of the team in the free agent and trade markets over the Winter months.

You would love for the team to take all three players back into the fold and retain the chemistry that existed at the end of 2009. But the financial realities of the Rays payroll make this kind of a fairy tale and not a reality. Hopefully the Rays front office is working long and hard on their decisions concerning all three players, and that whatever looms in the future for any of them, that the decision will be for the good of the team and be received with the zeal that the team is again striving to be a player in not only the American League East, but in the chase to the 2010 World Series.

Rays #5 Moment of 2009: Welcome to Zaunbe Nation

 


RRCollections

Usually about this time of the year we try and look back and celebrate and remember some of the great moments of the Tampa Bay Rays season. As we begin to enter the sunset of the year, we should remember just how far we really have come as a franchise, and the players and people who have emerged this season to make its memories and tales light up like the brightest day.

Over the next several days I am going to revisit some of the Top 5 moments for me personally during the 2009 season. Now I am not going to throw them down as isolated moments, but as key moments I think happened during the season to change the outcome of this team. Also not listed will be the in-game foul ball catches by me ( May 29th vs Twins @ home), because those are personal moments of triumph, and not Rays moments. 

So today I felt it was only right to throw down my personal 5 favorite moments of the Rays 2009 season. And there is surely more than 5 that come to mind quickly, but I would hate to write a 125 paragraph blog on the excitement and the adventures that this team experienced daily in 2009 from the first reporting date on February 15,2009.

The fifth memory of the 2009 season has to be the way that the Rays newly acquired catcher, Gregg Zaun introduced himself to the Rays hometown fans during a game against the one of his old teams, the Toronto Blue Jays on August 16th.  Most Rays fans remember that in 2008, it was Zaun that hit a Grand Slam HR against the Rays to garner a victory for the Jays.
 


RRCollections


This Sunday afternoon contest had all the makings of a tight game with Rays starter Matt Garza taking the hill for the home team. And it was a tight game until the bottom of the eighth inning when  Jay reliever Brandon League came on with the score knotted at 1-all. 

League got the first out of the inning quickly when he got Evan Longoria to fly out to rightfield on the second pitch. But then League gave up a single to rightfield to Ben Zobrist, and Carlos Pena quickly countered with a double to deep centerfield to put 2 men in scoring position for the Rays with still only one out in the inning.

Toronto then Intentionally Walked the next batter Willy Aybar to load the bases, and  the Rays decided to pinch hit Gabe Gross for Gabe Kapler. League and Gross had a classic pitcher-hitter confrontation throwing 10 pitches before finally striking out to produce the second out of the inning.  With catcher Dioner Navarro due to come up next, Toronto must have felt like they had dodged the bullet in this inning.


Mike Carlson / AP

But Rays Manager Joe Maddon was not done with his mind games and instead sent up Zaun to pinch hit for Navarro with the bases still juiced with Rays runners. League got behind in the count early and finally got back to a 3-2 count before throwing the sixth pitch of the at bat. The next ball he would get would be a spanking new ball after Zaun smacked the ball a good 10 rows deep into Section 140 for a Grand Slam home run, and to post the Rays to a 5-1 lead in the game.

The crowd and the players in the dugout both went totally nuts and Zaun as he circled the bases did not even look into the Blue Jays dugout. But you could see his wide grin as he stepped on home plate and was mobbed by the three other base runners that had scored before him.  It was a great way for the “Zaunbe Nation” to begin its quest to win over the Rays fans. The pitch effected League so much he hit B J Upton with the next pitch and was taken out of the game by Toronto Manager Cito Gaston.

The reason it was my fifth best moment of the year was the introduction of a player I hope the Rays decide to have on their roster again in 2010. Zaun brings a nice energy and professionalism that seems to be working great with the Rays starters. The team will have to pick up his $2 million option, but considering that Dioner Navarro is also arbitration eligible, and might get a raise to about $ 2.5 million, my gut tells me that Zaun would be better in the long run for the franchise.


www.greggzaun.com

Also, if you get a chance, please go to www.greggzaun.com and check out his very slick and very entertaining website that he developed for his fans and to promote his many charity efforts. It also has both his “walk-up” tunes on the site.

The 2009 season has so many great memories and moments it has been difficult to even get them down to a possible 20. But I sat there for a few days this weekend with my list and a big sharpie and wrote notes in the margin and in between the lines to try and get a pretty concise and complete list. Of course we will not have the number 4 reason posted on Sunday as we have the “Sunday Rewind” already in the works to preview some of the classic blogs postings of the last few seasons.

But you can bet that on Monday night we will again begin posting the rest of my list from Monday to Thursday night baring any important MLB news. So hopefully you will return back and cherish some of these awesome Rays 2009 moments with me during the next few days as we celebrate the second winning season of the Rays, and just a small step backwards in our journey to walk tall among the teams in the American League East.

 

 

Every day until I reach my number # 1 moment of the 2009 season, I will be posting a link of that event on the sidepanel to the right of the blog entry. This will give other people a chance to also check out the event as it happened during the Rays 2009 season. You will see the Number # 5 moment is currently already on the sidebar so you can relive Gregg Zaun introductory moment to the Rays Republic.

 

 

 

Favorite Funny Photos from 2009…….Rays Style

 


www.Cowbelltime.com

2009 will go down as one of those seasons that a few of the members of the Tampa Bay Rays might want to forget as fast as possible. But there also have been some amazing funny and totally memorable photos taken during the past season that might be needed right now for a few who can’t seem to turn their frowns upside down. How could the photo above of a dog lover even turning his canine best friend into a Rays fan not get you to at least start the curving of your mouth into a smile or a deep belly chuckle.

So today I decided to entertain and hopefully lighten up the stress and the angst of the playoff series an hopefully put a few chuckles and smiles on everyones faces as their favorite teams continue to battle it out between the chalk lines. And you know that the best way to relieve stress has always been laughter, or an occasional funny moment. So with that in mind, it is time to begin the 2009 search for the funny bone, and hopefully we all still have one.


www.archiemcphee.com

I am always amazed at some of the new gadgets, puns and practical joke items on www.ArchieMcPhee.com . I originally used this photo not so long ago on August 7,2009 when I wrote on a visit to Seattle……the Renegade’s way.  The place is virtual comics dream with some of the wildest items ever offered online, or in their unique store in Seattle. I mean, look at the photo above of the handerpants, which are billed as “underwear for your hands”. Just the idea of such a thing is beyond words to me at times.  But at least you never have to worry about a skid marks, but you might have to worry about hairy palms.

I mean if you get a chance and want to have a really hard belly laugh, you got to go to the website and check out some of the wild and amazing things that you can buy for yourself or to amuse your friends. You can buy bacon soap, Absinthe floss for your teeth or maybe a Monkey portrait oil painting for the upcoming office Christmas party anonymous gift. Whatever your likes, this is the website for the simply insane and the mostly gag gift for people of any ages.


http://www.raysbaseball.com

This one actually is not a funny photo, sorry, but it is a great reminder that we lose so many great baseball fans every season to the dangers of smoking. I know it might seem like I am jumping on a soapbox here, but I really feel that it is a habit that has robbed us of a lot of great people even during my lifetime. I have never smoked, chewed or used any tobacco products, but with my luck I will die trying to shove in that last hot dog during the $1 Dog Nights at the Trop.

What is also amazing about this photo is the fact that the skeleton has two handlers right behind them in case they have to run and retrieve a foul ball and the leg-bone becomes disconnected from the hip-bone, and the hip-bone loses its tail-bone somewhere on the stairs. Or maybe that is just my own sick sense of weird humor? 


Pat Manfredo

This extremely hungry Toronto Blue Jays reliever about to eat Rays fan Christin Manfredo’s head during a photo opportunity in Dunedin, Florida during Spring Training is Dirk Hayhurst. Most people might remember him as the original storyteller of the Legend of the Garfoose, which is a tremendously funny and totally obscure baseball story that gets me giggling every time I read it. The guy has a wild sense of humor, and seems to like to bite the heads of live Rays fans. 


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I always wondered what a 6 foot parrot ate when he came to Florida for Spring Training. I guess he has an appetite for foul ball catching kids.  Seriously, when I first saw this photo in April I was wondering if t was one of those caption photos where you decide what he is doing, and what you want to have printed under the photo. If it was just that sort of opportunity, I guess my entry would say something like: Penalty in Pittsburgh for reaching over the wall for a ball, you get pecked to death by the Parrot.


http://www.brianshousefanclub.com

Another website that has gotten me to give up more than a few chuckles this season is www.brainshousefanclub.com. On this website dedicated to the Rays “leftie” specialist, you can see him immortalized as Neo from “The Matrix“, the Terminator, Santa Claus, and also Ghandi. The site was developed when Shouse was with the Milwaukee Brewers and was used in the 8th inning of Brewers games.

When he came to the Rays, I was told about this website, and tried to immortalize it a few times during the season for the Rays faithful to check out and hopefully use as their desktop photo. No one has ever emailed me back with any information as to if they have selected any of the photos, and in turn added them to their desktops, even for one day. But it is still great to see fans of other teams have a great sense of humor about their favorite players, and want to immortalize them like this. Could a Jason Bay website be in the making?



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Still not sure what these guys were trying to convey when they showed up at Tropicana Field one night during a Scott Kazmir start. Were they lost on their way to the Middle Ages revival somewhere downtown, or could they actually be showing some level of solidarity for the Rays Republic. I came up with the notion that they were the Knights Tampa, who were sent here by a Coucil of an European hierarchy to protect the American League Championship trophy as our own Holy Grail….or I could be wrong?


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T
o this day, I wish I had known that the Rays and the GEICO Caveman were going to do a parody commercial where he runs out on the field and attacks the GEICO signage put up on the right-centerfield outfield wall. It was a trip talking with him in the interview I did a few minutes before he decided to run onto the field after being selected as the “GEICO Fan of the Game”. Such and honor, and yet he got to spend a night in the Pinellas County Jail making new friends and maybe getting a “Born to HATE GEICO” prison tattoo.

   
          http://www.BaltimoreSun.com

 Earlier in the season I wrote about an old tradition that was resurfacing again in the land of the Oriole. It seemed that some years ago they used to do a cartoon after every game, and after a bit of time, the cartoon fell by the wayside until they decided to return the tradition again in 2009. After every one of the 162 Oriole games there was a cartoon the next morning right there for everyone to see both online and in the morning paper delivered to the doorsteps of thousands in the Baltimore area. Great to see such a humorous tradition again take root in the town that gave us the “Ace of Cakes“.

  

Mark Duncan / AP

I still want to know how much each of those seagulls makes that have a habit of coming into Progressive Field and making a nuisance of themselves. I know that on at least one occasion, the winged ones have knocked down a potential game winning single then let out that all telling gull laugh as the Indians celebrated at Home Plate with a walk-off win. Make you want to again read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and see if there was any real truth to that book.  In Cleveland, the proof is sitting right there among the green grass on most nights when the Indians play baseball.


Steve Nesius / AP

I have to admit, I always wondered why B J Upton never stole any bases against the New York Yankees earlier in the season. I guess during this game in July I got my answer. Seems that Robinson Cano likes to come up behind Upton and clutch him like a long lost buddy until the ball gets to the plate. Seriously tho, it is great to see the guy have a common respect and love for each other, but can we save the “Man Crush” for after the game and let B J  run next time?


Steve Nesius / AP

I am not sure why Scott Kazmir first off decided to give his rightfielder, Gabe Gross a nice little extra pat on the back pocket, but the look on Kazmir’s face is simply priceless. I miss Scott, he was always up for some sort of humor within the confines of the game, and usually it somehow did get caught by the camera. Not sure the reasoning behind the low pat, but you can bet he got more a few ribbing from his team mate when this one hit the wire services. But the sign  held up in the background by Rays fan George Stone that stated simply “awesome” gives this picture a purely comical edge, and almost turns it a bit cartoonish, but it is a classic moment now.


Chris O’Meara / AP

All during the Rays season there has been at least one culprit during the Rays home games that has been delivering shaving cream pies to unsuspecting victims during television or stadium Jumbotron interviews. And the wild part it is someone who you would never associate such speed and stealth moves to for the most part. Dioner Navarro has been the shaving cream pie stealth bandit all season long, and you never know when he might sprint out of the dugout tunnel holding a towel filled with the creamy substance.

Such was the case when he got Rays Manager Joe Maddon during a FSN Florida interview near the end of the season. But Navarro was not as stealth as usual, as Maddon heard the catcher coming, and turned his head at the right moment to only get a right earful of the cool lime smelling concoction. Maddon, always the cool cucumber basically added during the interview that “Now I feel like one of the boys, and have been accepted into the club”. Classic line by a classic guy who also leads by example for his team to witness nightly. Even wilder, for the next two nights after the shaving cream pie, Navarro started behind the plate for the Rays.


Chris O’Meara / AP

A Major League dugout can be a wild place during a games. You never know just what kind of high jinks or pratfalls might be coming, and you never know who the true culprit is at the moment. Take this photo for example, it is the shoe of Rays Rookie Wade Davis after Rays pitcher Matt Garza gave him a hot foot during a game against the New York Yankees during the last home stand. But Davis was not the only victim of that series.

Earlier in the game, Rays reliever J P Howell, who was shut down in the last weeks before the end of the season got the classic treatment himself when he stayed in the dugout instead of strolling out to the Bullpen like he usually did on game days. He was situated on the dugout rail watching another Rays rookie, David Price pitch during a game and someone, who will remain nameless, got him with the classic bubble gum bubble on top of his Rays cap.

So these are a few of the moments in 2009 that got me to chuckle, laugh and maybe sip a few sips of soda all over the floor of the Trop. The season is long over, and the fans have gone from the stadium, but it is memories like these that will live on within our hearts and minds for a long time.

Gameworks Shindig was a Total Blast!


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What better way to celebrate a series ending victory than take a group of 10,000+ of the Rays biggest supporters to a place in Ybor City that celebrates the kid in all of us. And boy, did we all have a great time and also get a few great moments playing game with and against some of those same guys who took the field that very same afternoon. It is an event I have been looking forward to every since the invitation hit my mailbox, and the Rays Email system must have gone nuts with how fast I responded to the RSVP.

Yesterday was the Second Annual ( hopefully more) Season Ticketholder event at Gameworks in Ybor City. Now if you have never been in a Gameworks, think Dave and Busters on PED’s with a gleaming polished metallic finish that would send anyone into “Kid Mode”. Now I have been to both of these events, and let me tell you this season’s events kicked some royal booty. Missing were some of the Rays stars, but the entire rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann hit the event to show their support to the fans.

But they were not the only ones to come on out and see the masses in this crowded but truly spectacular event put on by the Group Sales Department of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bullpen was also very heavily represented with Randy Choate, Lance Cormier, Grant Balfour, Brian Shouse and J P Howell holding court near the racing games and near the “Dance, Dance Revolution” platform. But not to be forgotten was some of the guys who also play out in the field for the Rays who made the journey over to Ybor City. Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro came on out to represent the guys who play in the infield, and Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler also made the event along with B J Upton last night to show the love from the Rays outfield. 


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But even with people clammering (myself included) to get personal pictures and autographs from the fans, I could see that the guys truly enjoyed their time out with the fans last night. Shouse and Choate were even able to blend in and play a few games before some people noticed they were there last night. But some of the true hits of the night were delivered by the Group Sales Department as they again put on a first class event. From the photo opportunity area where you could be put into a Rays photo, to the awesome stuff given away as door prizes, the event sparkled from the first fan entering the building. And it was great seeing these guys out and about not in uniform and enjoying themselves.

And some lucky fans even got to race or play against some of the players during the night festivities. I remember seeing Kazmir in the back of the Game Room playing an NBA game against a fan and it was a highly contested game with a lot of great plays by both until someone had to lose. But the true hit of the night for me was the fact that 6 foot 9 inch Jeff Neimann got up on the “Dance, Dance Revolution” stage and strutted his stuff. I was in such awe of the event I forgot to pop my camera into video mode and film the entire wild and crazy event. But I have to tell you, once he got the hang of it all, the guy held his own on the dance floor, or platform.

I did not see Rays Manager Joe Maddon, but Rusty, the Rays game day host was remarking (joking) that he was holding a wine tasting seminar in the corner of the bar area. From seeing people like Matt Silverman, the numero uno of the Rays, to Andrew Friedman, the Vice President of Baseball Operations out in the crowd was fantastic. Oh, and Andrew, I truly loved the photo of the top of your head in my picture with Ben Zobrist, but I laughed out loud when I saw it. Some days I have wanted to pick your brain about the team, but never thought I would get a photo of the “brains” of the Baseball Operations group.


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But what makes this such a great events is the milling of the Front Office guys and the players and the fans themselves just discussing everything from baseball to the chocolate fountain that is always the highlight of the event. I got lucky enough to be photographed last season at the fountain, but this year I kept an eye out for the camera. Just to see that light blue, dark blue and yellow chocolate flowing out of the top of the fountains crowned with a triangle of baseballs was tremendous.

And again, the food was one of the true stars of the evening. From the beautiful ladies handing me pot stickers or small wrapped tasty morsels, to the cute and personable bartenders, this was a night to celebrate everything Rays. From the hot stations in the front area of the party, to the temporary apps station piled upon the ticket counters, it was a feast made for a king. And if you did not try the roast beef, you missed out on some fantastic meat with a juicy and succulent au jus.

But the evening had to end sometime, and even as it neared 10:30 pm Garza was still laughing and holding court near the back game room. Gabe Kapler had left by then with his two boys, but he was the perfect doting Dad last night. By the time I left, or my card read only 100 minutes left on it, there was a light rain falling outside, but it felt great on the skin after all the sweating I did beating some unnamed pitcher on “Dance, Dance Revolution” score 1 for the old jock. I know I had a tremendous time, and the Group Sales guys and gals have to feel great about this event.


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The sheer fact that so many people fit into that small place and left with smiles should be a great indicator of the event. And my ticket rep, Craig Champagne was there from start to finish. I have to tell you a wild story about that night concerning Craig. My game card did not work and I asked him if anyone else had that problem. Well, instead of making me plow my way back to the front, he took the card and return within minutes with a
new one for me to use.

A small minor flaw that night was quickly fixed and repaired like new by one of the Group Sales best guys. Seriously, me not playing shooting and alien-killing games might have put a damper on my night. Then I would have had to sample a few more intoxicating beverages, and enjoy the view. But in the end, I was physically exhausted and sore, was full of great food and spirits and did not want to leave. But as I walked to my car parked in the Centro Ybor Parking Garage I was already flipping through the memories and the sights of the night in my mind.


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This season there have been some changes in the Season Ticket realms. Some things have been scaled back,some things have changed,but all in all,this event is still a benchmark of the dedication and the commitment of the Rays to the fans who attend so many baseball games. It was a great environment to see so many people you knew, and would get to know have a great time by themselves and with their kids. I know I am already with a red marker ready to circle the 2010 date to do it all again.

The Z-Man Comes to Tampa Bay

I have to admit when I first heard that the Tampa Bay Rays had traded for catcher Gregg Zaun a bit of ease went through my body. Here is a guy who might not be huge in stature, he is listed at 5 ft 10 inches, a slim inch taller than Dioner Navarro. But the fact that Zaun plays like he is 6 foot 9 inches and 250 pounds might be a great boost for the Rays.

We finally got a guy behind the plate that will be effective behind the plate stopping balls in the dirt and also can be a major pain to opponents at the plate. All you have to do is just look at what he has done to the Rays in 2009 to see the potential for added offense.  Zaun went 5 for 17 with 4 runs and 3 walks while homering once with an RBI. You might say that this .294 average is not great, but he has only faced the Rays in 6 games and did that type of damage. Do you need further stats to show you it was a great move?

Okay, maybe you need to be convinced a little more. How about we look at his 2008 numbers and see just how effective this pesky catcher has been against the Rays, even during their Championship season. Zaun hit for a .300 average just during the 3-games series in Walt Disney’s Champion Stadium.

But the Rays did blank him at Tropicana Field in 2008 by getting him to go 0-5 with only a walk. But he always seems to be at the center of any scoring drive against the Rays, and he did most of hid damage in 2008 at home in Toronto. In Rogers Centre, Zaun went 7 for 17, with 4 RBIs and a run scored.  He batted .412 against the Rays with a .647 Slugging Percentage in the confines of his domed home. But this trade was done for other reasons too.

 



Greggzaun.com

In 2009, Zaun has only committed 5 errors in 316 total chances in 435.1 innings. He has caught 5 base runners this season, and has a .984 Fielding Percentage. These numbers are pretty similar when you stack them up next to Navarro’s 2009 numbers of 5 errors in 572 chances in 696 innings. And Navarro has caught 14 base runners and boasts a .991 Fielding Percentage.

Those similar statistics might be the biggest reason he is here in Tampa Bay right now. His numbers are very similar in comparison with Navarro. But he also has a few intangibles that overshadow Navarro. One of the constant complaints on Navarro has been the way he handles balls that scuff into the clay or hit in front of the plate. It always seems like he is not getting his glove down in time, or is not in position to block it effectively with his glove.

This can frustrate a pitching staff and can render the catcher a liability in a close game. Ball getting away from the plate, or even sailing to the backstop can be counter productive to stopping a running game by your opponent. Even tho Navarro has been effective in gunning down guys, his mishandling of balls in the dirt could have prevented runners moving up into scoring position.

Zaun is a workhorse behind the plate, and like Navarro, he is also a switch hitter. But beyond all of that, he brings a professionalism that has lacked since Josh Paul left the Rays. Paul was a great catcher as well as teacher while he was here with the Rays. Navarro is not the type to teach anyone since he still has things to learn himself. Zaun could be the answer to letting him grow without pressure knowing his back-up is totally competent to running the Rays pitching staff.


Nick Wass / AP

But above all, Zaun brings to the Rays a truly professional sense from top to bottom. Who knows who the imfamous player-to-be-named-later will be, but he will be a small player in comparison to what Zaun could do for the rays down the stretch. Another huge plus is his knowledge of the American League East hitters. That brings about instant credibility and a great asset behind the plate.

And also, I think he is the first player we have ever traded for who has a dedicated website to his talents on the web. Just go to http://www.greggzaun.com and you will be impressed not only by the graphics and the music, but by the sheer abilities this guy can bring to the Rays. From the posted videos to the music contained on the website it breeds excitement, and brings you wanting to know more about the guy.

I am truly excited we have a guy that will get behind the plate and throw himself all over the clay and turf to block pitches and get this team into a mode to win every night. This is not to mean that he will come in here and dominate or even replace Navarro. I think he was brought in to compliment the team and not push anyone aside right now.

I can not wait for Zaun to get back to the Trop so I can go up and welcome him here, plus ask him what his walk-up music will be here in Tampa Bay. Could he be staying with his old favorites “BYOB” by System of the Down, or maybe  “Limelight” by Rush. The guy is going to bring some light to the Rays that is needed right now.

Offensive power from the catcher’s spot is needed right now, and his current line of a .244 average with 4 homers and 13 RBIs might not seem like a huge upside, but his 27 walks pose problems for pitchers. That last stat might be the biggest improvement behind the plate. Navarro has only walked a total of 9 times this season.

Zaun, or the “Z-man” as fans have affectionately called him has been a huge part of the scenery in the AL East for a long time. With him now here in Tampa Bay it boosts a soft spot in the Rays offense and defense and makes for a more effective battery going into the stretch run.


Nick Wass / AP

Want to know just what kind of classy guy we are getting here in Tampa Bay? Here is a small sampling from his website on his favorite charity, Right to Play:

Thanks for visiting our website. We started this site for one reason. To help raise awareness and money for RIGHT TO PLAY. I first became exposed to the organization while playing for the Blue Jays, when my wife Jamie and Patrick Grey, a former Blue Jay employee, first brought it to my attention. It was clear to me that Johan Olav Koss, the Olympic speed skater, had truly built an incredible foundation. Their work around the world is timely and crucial to the survival of a generation. I urge you to check the RIGHT TO PLAY website and when ours is finished, give all you can. The children of the world are counting on all of of us to do our part in saving them.

I am so excited to have this guy playing for the Rays. not only is he a great guy on the field in terms of his hustling style, but he is a major player in the community and would be a great asset to the Rays Foundation. Plus, I think he is the first player we have ever acquired who has a web presence besides Rays reliever Brian Shouse.  Mix that with his colorful catcher’s helmet that mirror’s the NHL goalies, and you get a guy with a great zest and love for this game. Can’t wait for him to get behind the plate in the Trop.

Rays Can’t close the deal for Shields


Steve Nesius / AP

Oh, somedays it just doesn’t pay to be a Rays pitcher. Even if you are on the top of your game, it can fail with just a small mistake, or even a mis-guided play. Some people have been throwing Rays starter James Shields under the bus recently, but if you really look at his statisitcs, he has been pretty consistent all season.

It is just seems he has been the victim of the worst run support in the American League. Coming into today’s contest against the Royals, The Rays offense has only given Shields 2.59 run support in his 22 starts this season. The team has a 10-12 record when he starts a game, and Shields is so much better than his 6-8 record this season.

The guy has thrown 146.1 innings coming into today’s game, but had things fall apart on him defensively. He had everything going for him today and even after he strolled off the mound to a standing ovation from the home crowd, the only thought in his mind was on what could have happened. Yeah, what if Gabe Gross had done the same thing White Sox outfielder Dewayne Wise did for Mark Buehrle not so long ago.

What if? What if might dominate his mind for more than a short span. You see Rays Manager Joe Maddon wants his guys to think about a game for 30 minutes, then forget it and get ready for the next one. But I have a feeling this one is going to linger on Shield’s mind a little longer. Some people have the  avant garde opinion that Gross should have done everything humanly possible to grasp that ball and save the moment. Even if it meant him leaving his feet and snagging that dying quail fly ball in front of him in the 8th inning.


Steve Nesius / AP

Other people will view it as a defining moment catalyst that brought on the  lax in the defensive unit for the next few plays that ultimately cost the Rays, and Shields a win. You have to see both side of that ball that dropped in front of Gross. If he dives and makes the play, he is on “ESPN’s Baseball Tonight”, and viewed as a sunky hero that went beyond common judment to make a difference in the game. 

If he doesn’t ” go for it” or try and make the difference in the game, it will be viewed as a defensive decision based on the probabilites of disaster if he misses the ball and it rolls around in the outfield waiting for B J Upton coming over for it. You would then have Maddon  be the first to not question the play. Some will call it a perfect defensive play by one of the best rightfielder in the AL, but others will find fault in it because it led to a loss.

But that single by catcher John Buck, who was hitting only .227 at the time was quickly releived by pinchrunner Ryan Freel. Then the wheels began to come off this wagon for Shields, and he could do nothing but watch it happen.  Alex Gordon hit a squibbler in front of the plate and Rays catcher Dioner Navarro tried to take out the lead runner, but instead overthrew second base and Freel ended up standing on third base. Shields got Mitch Maier to a 3-2 count before finally producing a RBI single to centerfield.

Gone now was the shutout and the last three hitter had gotten good wood on the ball against Shields. But Mark Teahen pinch hit for Yuniesky Bentancourt and popped a simple out to Evan Longoria to take some of the pressure off Shields. He could breath a bit now knowing it was not over yet. Then the play that would define the Rays loss actually happened.


Steve Nesius / AP

Maier was caught in a simple run down between first and second by Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena and was shifting to and from second base when Gordon becan his trek to the plate. Bartlett was shifting his weight and was off balanced when he threw towards Navarro and home and could not get the ball on line and Gordon scored and Maier moved to second on the errant throw. It made the score 2-0 at that point and proved to be the difference in the ballgame.

In the previous three plays the Rays had committed two errors that deflated the enitre effort of Shields that day. It is not often that the Rays defense has a struggle, and it was not a pretty thing to see in person. But Maddon could see his starter beginning to unravel on the mound by emotion, not his pitching. So he went to the Bullpen and Shields was greeted by a huge chorus of support from the home crowd.


Steve Nesius / AP

James Shield came off the field today after 7.1 innings of work and a total of 107 pitches. It is a pure gamble sometimes when a games gets that late and you are chasing a dream peformance. Shields did struggle a bit in the first inning, but he adjusted and kept the Royals off the board. But he did stride and slide and scramble to try and make some Rays history today. This was a fantastic effort by Shields and the only loss was to a Gatorade cooler that was stupid enough to be near him as he left the field.

But you can understand it. But you also felt for the guy. This game always seemed to be just out of his hands a bit from the first inning on, but the Rays also could not give him the run support again. It is sad that two of the Rays best pitchers, Shields and Matt Garza have had to pretty much shut people out to win games this season. Wake up offense! You are missing some awesome pitching performances.

For everything the defense has done for the Rays pitchers this season, this was the one that will hurt the most. Not only did it rob us of a special piece of Shield’s history, but it also rob us of a memory that will never be forgotten. Not of the no-hitter, but of the fact they would again come off the match and get a chance to survive this latest struggle.

But it did not happen. So, what would you have done?
Would you have thrown yourself to the turf and hope it was enough for the catch, or would you have played it safe? That will be the debate tomorrow. Myself, I might have gone for it all on that play. I might have don
e evrything humanly possible to give Shields a chance at immortality. But then again, I am a gambler and never take the odds into account.

It will not define the Rays season, or even put them in a bad situation right now, but the honest truth is every loss from now on will take 2 wins to erase it. As my favorite movie line from The Program goes, “It’s time to put the women and children to bed and got get dinner.” It is the time to win, the time to set sights for the top again, and defend your teammates to the end. Don’t you agree?
 

Niemann is my early AL Rookie of the Year Candidate

 


Jim Presching / AP

The deeper this Tampa Bay Rays season goes,the more the “Tall Texan” seems to grow on you. When you see how easy it is to call out Rays starter Jeff Niemann and he causally just comes over and chats with you while he continues signing a multitude of autographs for what seems like forever, and  he still has that smile on his face the entire time. And you see a small level of discomfort and bummed out look when he has to turn and head into the clubhouse with people still calling his name.
 

He is one of those reason the Rays are within striking range of the New York Yankees right now to again try and regain their spot at the top of the American League East division. And here is a guy who at the very end of Spring Training had to fight tooth and nail for a final spot on the roster that in prior years he might have had by mid-March. But since the 2008 success, a lot has changed in Rays-ville, and the “gentle Giant” is one of the great stories of this season.

I mean he truly did not know until almost the last possible day that he would regain the fifth rotation spot until his competition got traded away to the Colorado Rockies. But all during that time there was chatter and rumors that he too was under the trading microscope maybe heading to San Diego, Colorado, or maybe Pittsburgh. The competition for that final spot was so intense this season that even a guy who might have made the rotation on 20 other teams might of had to find alternative solutions to stay in the major leagues.

And how great do you feel right now if you are in the triad of Rays Manager Joe Maddon, Pitching Coach Jim Hickey and Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman right now that you kept the Tall Texan. Sure you might have labored over the decision and might even have second guessed yourself after the first start or two, but quickly you also saw a small glimmer of hope and beauty in the way Neimann was taking the ball every fifth day and making magic happen on the mound.

I mean take the fact he had a 2-1 record with a 6.32 ERA in Spring Training this season and it might look like a feasible reason to consider him for the last spot in the rotation. But if you really look close at his statistics, he was in a five-way tie on the team in wins,  his 6.32 ERA in the spring was better than the Rays Opening Day starter, Jame Shields who had a 8.16 ERA.  Unlike Jason Hammel, Neimann did not start a single game this Spring, but did get into 6 contests and still made enough impression to get two wins.  But his 15.2 innings of work was the fifth best on the team, and his 17 total his given up this spring were better than Matt Garza (26), Shields (19), Scott Kazmir (22) and Hammel (25).


RRCollections

From the edge of Spring Training, he knew he had everything to prove, plus everything to lose in the coming months for the Rays. He had to have his stats put next to Hammel and David Price for comparison, and in the end might have gotten the job by proxy to the shagrin of some in the franchise office. But I do not see it that way at all. Neimann had struggled in the past with injuries, and in 2008 he had his best season as a professional because his health did not let him down at all that year. So this season was going to be a test of not only his health, but his pitching ability.

But the best part was this was not his first time up in the major leagues thanks to a short stint after Garza went down right after Opening Day in 2008, Neimann got some needed experience and struggled and also showed some great improvement to stay on the minds of the team the entire year. So it was no surprise that he was one of the possible pitchers brought up by the team after the Durham Bulls were eliminated from the IL Playoff picture in 2008.  The man a few people have commented on could be the twin brother of Toys R Us icon Geoffrey (Giraffe) was to get more of a chance to show his stuff in 2009.

And his first start this season at Baltimore showed that he still had a ways to go to be an effective pitcher, or did he just go into the game maybe a little over prepared and actually took himself out of that game by trying to think of adjustments on the fly without a good thought process in his mind. After his first start he had a balloon ERA of 10.13. He had only lasted 5.1 innings and had thrown 94 pitches in that game. The one shining light out of that performance was the he settled down after that disastrous first inning and blanked the Orioles until he left the ballgame.

But from that start he gained a lot of experience, and gained even more of an insight of what it was going to take to be a great pitcher in this league.  So at the end of the month of April he had gone 2-2 with a 4.43 ERA. He had rebounded from a two-some of tough games against the Orioles and the White Sox to put together two great wins against the Twins and Mariners.  In both wins in April he threw 3-hitters, and also saw his command  starting to come together. So with a even keel from April, it was imperative that he have a good month in May so solidify the Rays decision on him. 

In May, he went a combined 2-2 again in six starts and showed improvement by starting to see his walks-to strikeouts ratio get more into control.  He had a few blips of problems during a May 2nd contest against the Boston Red Sox at home, where he lasted only 3 innings and surrendered 6 runs on 7 hits. He only lasted 76 pitches into that contest, but his pitches for strikes was starting to show a closer trend towards an acceptable level. In that start he threw 46 strikes to his total 76 pitches. Neimann was beginning to understand how to win in the majors.

And during the rest of May, he surrendered less than 2 runs in every game but one. In that contest on May 18th against the Oakland A’s, Neimann did give up 4 runs in the contest, but he also got some great offensive support from the Rays and posted his  4th victory of the season.  He threw 110 pitches in that game, the most of the season for him. But the end of the month was not kind to him as he was limited to 3 innings in a rain delayed game in Cleveland that he had thrown 3 innings and had only given up a single run before the tarps hit the field.  He had only thrown 53 pitches in that game, but 34 had gone for strikes. He was beginning to show his improvement every time out from that point on in 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP

June also seemed to start great for him as he made 5 starts in the month and posted three
victories.  His 3.10 ERA for the month was the best he had posted as a professional, and he also had thrown 29 total innings in the month, the most since he had come up with the Rays. On June 3rd, Niemann tossed his first complete game shutout of his career during a home contest against the Kansas City Royals.  In that game he also seemed to have great command as he  struck out 9 batters and only surrenders a solo walk in the game. But in the next contest against the Los Angeles Angels he did have a bit of a setback only lasting 3.2 innings while giving up 5 runs on 7 hits that night.

June seemed more like a roller coaster ride for Niemann as he went to highs and lows before finally equaling out during a June 29th contest against the Toronto Blue Rays in Rogers Centre. In that game he went 7.1 innings and threw 100 pitches while giving up a solo run on 4 hits.  This was also the only time besides the first game against the Orioles that he had issued more walks than strikeouts. But it did not matter in the end as he took his seventh win of the season from this game. So at this point he was 7-4 and people were beginning to talk about the young Texan.

If June seemed like his month to shine, oh were people going to enjoy his July. So far this month he has only made three starts, but he has posted two wins in those starts to have the most wins so far as a Rays starter in 2009. July got started off a bit rough when he only lasted 3 innings in a game out in Arlington, Texas against the Texas Rangers. It should have been a bit of a homecoming for him, but the Rangers roughed him up early and he only lasted 47 pitches and gave up three runs in the game. It was not a pure disaster, but it did show him some room for improvement, and to get more first pitch strikes on the batters.

But after that contest, in his last start before the All Star Break, Neimann threw one of the best games of his career to that point against the Oakland A’s at home on July 10th.  This was the second start of the season for him against the A’s, and in his last start he lasted 8 innings and gave up four runs to the A’s hitters. But tonight he went 9 innings to post his second complete game shutout of the season. He threw a season high 118 pitches and got a standing ovation from the crowd as he went to the mound in the top of the ninth inning.  After that contest, while being interviewed on FSN/Florida, Niemann got the traditional shaving cream pie from Rays catcher Dioner Navarro.


Brian Blanco / AP

But that was not the cream on top of the pie yet for Neimann in July. After not starting since that July 10th game until last night, he was on 10 days rest when he took the mound in Chicago last night for his first start of the season against the White Sox. Neimann had saved his best for last ( so far) this season. Last night against the White Sox he posted 7 strikeouts and issued zero walks.  This was the third time this season he had not issued a walk in a game, and the second time in the last three starts. He was beginning to exert control on his game on the mound, and he lasted 8 innings last night before he was finally pulled before coming out in the top of the ninth after throwing  exactly 100 pitches. The Tall Texan made his presence known, and for the month has a 2-0 record with a 2.25 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 3 starts.

So this brings about some scuttlebutt and chatter now that David Price might not be the guy to watch for the Rookie of the Year award right now with the Rays. That Neimann might have stolen a bit of the preseason thunder directed at Price. And what is wrong with that? How many other teams outside of Toronto have had two rookies basically come forward and contribute so much for their teams. Neimann is currently holding a 3.44 ERA, which is pretty amazing considering after the first start it was a bulging 10.13 ERA.  And a pleasant surprise for the Rays is the fact he is now 6-2 away from Tropicana Field with a 3.84 ERA. 

In the month of June and July he is 5-0 after posting a 4-4 record in the first two months of the season.  He has started 17 games for the Rays this season and has seen victories in 9 of those starts. For a rookie, that is impressive to me. Going into last night game he was tied with Detroit Tiger starter Rick Porcello for the most wins by a rookie pitcher this season in the AL. And not lost is the fact that his next victory will tie Rolando Arrojo for the Rays rookie mark for wins with 10.  And is it an odd connection that the night before they honor the 1998 team with their technicolor jerseys on “Throwback Night”, Neimann threw his complete game shutout.

I actually find that pleasantly exciting. The kid has been mired in doubt and intrigue the last few season as to his durability to play at this level, and this season he might eclipse the rookie record for victories in a season, and move it well beyond the present 10 win mark.  He has now won 5 straight decisions and has lost only one decision since the first week of May (@ Cleveland/ May 28th).  And even if he not on the mound to get a decision for the wins, the Rays have won 11 out of last 12 of his starts, and are 13-4 in all his starts this season.  And to put an exclamation point on his season since May 13th, he has a 6-1 record with a 2.51 ERA and has not allowed a home run since May 23rd when he gave one up to Dan Uggla in Landshark Stadium.

The above statistics can only help to establish Neimann right now as the team’s candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. Some might still feel it is Price’s award to lose, but Neimann right now is putting up all the right numbers to be within eyesight of the award. But considering he is only the 7th Rays pitcher ever to throw at least two complete game shutouts. Arrojo threw two in his rookie season in 1998. No other pitcher in Rays history has thrown three complete game shutouts in his career.  But that record, like Arrojo’s rookie win mark might be tested this season by Neimann.

And considering the impressive crowd he is now being mentioned with as the only holders of complete game shutouts this season, it reads like a “Who’s Who” in the MLB. The Royals Zack Greinke, San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, Cardinal Joel Pinero and Red Sox Josh Beckett are the only other guys to throw 2 so far in 2009.  You want some more impressive stats?
 

Hmmmm, he is also the fourth rookie this decade to throw two complete game shutouts joining Dontrelle Willis (2003), Jeremy Sowers (2006) and Hiroki Kuroda ( 2008).  And he is only the second rookie to throw both of his before the All Star break, the other was former Rays Arrojo in 1998. 

But then again, the Tall Texan has also been the recipient of some of the best run support in the major leagues by his teammates. The Rays are scoring 7.71 runs per 9 innings for Neimann. That works out to only the second highest percentage among ML qualifiers, and first in the AL. And to say he has been matched up against only fifth starters this season is a crock. He beat Roy Halladay in Toronto on June 29th, when he went 7.1 innings.  Sometimes being the fifth starter on the team can get you unique experiences for growth and excelling in your performance. I think it is more of Neimann finally feeling he belongs up here
and feeling more at ease on the mound. 

The winner in all of this are the Rays and the fans. In a spot in the rotation that people fretted and wondered about from the first game, Neimann had shown he is a solid member of the Rays rotation, and could be for a long time. Some people point to 2008, when Edwin Jackson also was the fifth starter and posted 14 wins in the season. So far Neimann is ahead of Jackson’s 2008 pace, and could be the new Rays total victories in a season leader by October. But the season still has over 60 games to play, and anything can happen from now on.

But one thing is for sure, the Rays are a better team with Neimann on it. Where early in the season people spoke aloud of the outlandish decision to keep him, now those same people are clapping and praising him for his wins and performance. Hey, the guy might just be the Rays second Rookie of the Year winner, and keep the tradition alive for one more season in Tampa Bay.  But I am going on record as saying when they ask me to put my stamp on any rookie who I think deserves the award, the first statistics I will look at in comparison is to Neimann’s numbers. And so far, no one is holding a candle to the Tall Texan.
  

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