Results tagged ‘ Dioner Navarro ’

Price Check!

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

I found it kind of funny last night. The way some of the Rays fans in the crowd at Tropicana Field began to slowly turn against David Price. It was odd the way they were beginning to cross that hypocritical line that you invade when you think you might have duped by someone or something. They were in that zone I like to call, the See-Saw Zone. And it is not like have never been that way before here in sunny Florida.  As fans of a team that has only celebrated one winning season, we can be totally critcial of anything at anytime within the sport.

We have done it before to all of our local favorite teams, the  Tampa Bay Bucs have gotten it ever since they stopped making the playoffs. And the one year absence of hockey in Tampa Bay made a huge legion of fans forget about the Lightning on the ice even if they did win the top prize,the Stanley Cup before the strike put them on the shelf for a season. And now it seems that the Tampa Bay Rays fan are starting to do it to the best pitching prospect to come through our minor league system. The catcalls in Rightfield after the third inning irritated me to the bone. People seem to have ADD anymore about the positive accomplishments of any athlete, much less one of their own.

Another adage I sometimes use to show this kind of behavior is the old Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me Lately?”.  It is actually that sense of entitlement and self ownership that the crowd gets to show their pleasure and displeasure at their own discretion towards a bevy of things Rays related. So did it bother me that people began to actually say David Price’s name out loud that maybe we plucked the cherry tree too soon and he was not ripe. Nope.

Did it bother me that they are now questioning their own sense of baseball as self-taught scouts.  Who knows if they are right or wrong about the southpaw that seemed to hold the franchise together last season at key moments. He did not start a game, but his presence on the mound in the end of the game left an impression of superiority to the masses. But what really got my goat is the  inflated expectations by the Rays that they threw upon this young pitcher the moment his name was chatted on the radio or typed into a computer. The kid pitched a combined 12-1 in the Rays Minor League system in 2008. But all some of the Rays fans remember is a short stint in the Bullpen where he looked like the second coming of fellow southpaw Scott Kazmir to the team.

             
              Chris O’Meara / AP

People forgot the reality that he jumped from Class-A to the bench in the major leagues in less than a full season. That is usually not the case with a young pitcher you are counting on for your future. MLB Scouts commonly say that you never really get  a true evaluation and potential of a young pitcher until he has thrown about 200 innings. Well, if you combine his 2008 totals (109.2 innings), plus his Rays 2008 totals (14 innings) you still do not get a good 200 innings out of the guy as a young professional pitcher.  And in that scenario, you have to admit to yourself he will be a work in progress at the major league level.

Sure he as the  explosive stuff on the mound and the awesome ability to pitch above his head at times, but he is also trying to parlay a new pitch (change-up) into his arsenal that needs time to mature and develop fully to be effective. So far in 2009, with his number from Durham ( 34.1 innings) and the Rays ( 30.1 ) he is still 26 innings short of that basic measuring point in his development ( 174 innings). And is one of the key elements that bothered me when they first brought him up this season. Sure his placement and velocity of his slider and his fastball might be above average, but his change-up is a work in progress and is improving daily. But such a pitch can be used as a glaring weak spot for teams to  be patient and sit on pitches waiting on Price to throw them early in the game.

And that might be a perfect explanation of what happened last night when the crowd and the Philadelphia Phillies dissected him like a frog in Biology class. They basically poked and prodded the young pitcher fouling off his fastball and slider and were giddy when he finally offered up his breaking stuff. The Phillies 6 runs and 4 hits along with a costly error by Evan Longoria was the example of in-depth scouting and having the Phillies hitter wait for Price to make a pitching mistake.

And he did make a few in the first inning, but it was not all his doing. Even thought the team behind him was in an odd defensive funk, he did finally get it all under control after the first inning before again stumbling in the fourth inning. And when the Phillies again took him apart for 4 runs. That is when I started to hear the voices behind me question if we brought him up too early ,or if he was over-rated as a pitcher. These were the same souls who cheered his first win, and also shouted encouragement to him as he was warming up by the Bullpen this same night.

Have we all gotten that fickle now in Tampa Bay by one short season of Price showing he has the right stuff. There is going to be ups and down with Price this year just as we have seen with Jeff Niemann. And people really do have to be a bit patient with both of them. Price is starting to figure it out at this level, but some people in the stands want instant gratification and do not have the precious time to wait for an improvement or knowing that better things are coming for the Rays starters. 

But I think Price so far has been given the same luxuries that Scott Kazmir was given in 2004 when the Rays brought him up to learn the art of pitching at the major league level. Last night was not pretty, but then again, the Rays starters this season have been as up and down as the new Manta roller coaster at Sea World in Orlando. There have been numerous twists and turns by everyone on the staff, even James Shields and Matt Garza. But this is also a series where the two teams have ample and extended scouting on all phases of the game. You to guess the Phillies have not only done their homework on the Rays, but know this is a series based on  a lot of pride for the Rays. This series could turn into a defining moment in the 2009 season.

Maybe the Rays were a bit hasty when they began the Price dog-and-pony show the day he was drafted. Price has been hyped since day 1 when he first signed his contract on August 15, 2007 with quotes telling us he will be here fast and to expect him to be with the team soon than later. “We ar
e thrilled to add a player of David’s caliber to our organization,” said Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman told MLB.com. “Not only was he the most outstanding amateur player in the country this year, we see him as one of the best pitching prospects to come out of the draft in some time. In addition to his remarkable talent, David’s character is exemplary. He is an important building block and a potential upper-echelon starting pitcher for many years.”  Can you say pressure cooker on high heat!

But then Price when he was interviewed right after being selected by the Rays with the top pick in 2007 showed some of his maturity and frank honestly on the acceleration process through the Rays farm system. “The difference between Major League hitters and college hitters, there is not even a comparison,” Price said during a conference call with Bill Chastian, who is the Rays correspondent for MLB.com. “Being able to pitch in the Major Leagues, you really have to have something about you. To go from college and breeze through the Minor Leagues is a rarity. You have to be careful with that.” 


Reinhold Matay / AP


Most people cheered when the Rays finally promoted pitcher David Price to the major leagues later than expected in 2009 knowing that the future of the Rays organization was right on their doorstep. I am one of those people who thought he might be the wrong guy at the wrong time.   For the record, I was more into thinking Wade Davis deserved a chance to flaunt his stuff and was more developed at the time, but that is why I am not a Rays scout. I am not against Price in any way, I just feel he needed more time to gel his pitch selection and control in the minor leagues before he got thrown into the MLB melting pot.

I was hoping for a post All-Star promotion for Price to give him more time to refine his craft and also show he had done everything he could at the Triple-A level. That has been the knock on him that he is a great pitcher who throws strikes, but can be picked apart by extending at bats until a mistake crosses the plate. But that is also the tale of hundreds of young pitchers in the league. If you are patient to wait for a mistake, you will be rewarded. And that same evaluation was apparent last night. He truly got picked apart by the Phillies hitters.

It might have been easier for Rays catcher Dioner Navarro to yell out the signals because the hitters were looking for a certain type of pitch (breaking ball) every time they went to the plate, and they were patient for all 4.1 innings of Price’s night. But when he did finally come off the mound and was replaced by Rays reliever Winston Abreu, most of the crowd did not stand and cheer for him. Instead most sat on their hands beyond the eyesight of the dugout. They guy did his best that night, but the wishy-washy crowd would not have any of it. Rays fans need to understand that art of patience again, or they might accidentally ruin this young pitcher by sending the wrong message to him.

It might have been the shock and awe of Price getting beaten around like this from a team coming in with a 6-game losing streak that unsettled the crowd. But lost within the stadium was the fact the Phillies are a monster on the road with a current 24-9 mark, which is best in the MLB this season. It is not often a team has a better road record than a home record and is still over .500. Price might have been more a victim of an aggressive team hungry for a win,but the Phillies did their best impersonation of a Sharks feeding frenzy when they tore into the young pitcher time and time again in the first inning. Price did threw 40 pitches in that inning, and 30 of them went for strikes by because of the score, any effectiveness went out the window. 

That proves he was hitting some of the spots that Navarro set up for him behind the plate, but the Phillies also stayed patient knowing the young southpaw would make a mistake. Rays fans had better get used to roller coaster rides by the young pitcher. t is common to have a topsy turvy time of it your first season. But for some reason it felt in the stands last night that people were looking at him throwing on the mound like the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year without even throwing 50 innings yet this season.

Scott Kazmir went through the same learning curve and has become the Rays winningest pitcher (51 wins). Kazmir also has thrown over 818 strikeouts in his 768.2 innings as a Rays starter . Jame Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine have all been battered and bruised before on the mound. But with them, the Rays faithful have given them time and space to grow into the pitching styles. Price not only deserves the same time and space, but he has proven he can win, and that he can pitch at this level. The big question is how long until they either join him or cast him off as a used relic.

It is sure to be a rough 2009 for Price, but if it was so easy, all of us might have had a professional career. The art of pitching at this level is one of the hardest things to master in sports. There are too many variables to account for on every pitch to bring about perfection or even a chance to try to achieve perfection. There is a reason we celebrate Perfect Games and No-hitter with such zeal. They are not given moments to people who settle or do not give total effort, but are classic examples of learning the craft and putting it all out there every time on the mound.

Price will be fine. He will begin to get it and become a great star in this lineup if we just give him the needed time to gel. The guy is only in his rookie year and people were calling for the Bullpen in the first inning.  What was especially upsetting was watching a young fan tear up a sign with Price’s name on it in the sixth inning. He looked frustrated and upset his guy did not get it done tonight. But also adding to the problem was his parents bickering and complaining about Price. It was not the right example to show to the kid first off, but it was not right to throw Price under the bus for great scouting and preparation.

Price might still get a chance to be selected for the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year that most people in the sport anointed him with in Spring Training. But even if he doesn’t the guy is giving his all and doing a job most of us would trade almost anything for to try every 5 days. I have to admit, the first inning took a lot of the air out of me last night too, but I also know that this team can do anything if they motivate themselves. Price is going to be around for a long time here in Tampa Bay. We should show more positive crowd reactions to the guy, not chant for the Bullpen after the first inning. Maybe in five days when he is again on the mound against the Florida Marlins the fans will give him the chance to again prove he is here for good.

Jason Bartlett deserves an All-Star spot

 


Gail Burton / AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Steve Nesius / AP


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

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

 

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

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

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

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


Reinhold Matay / AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gail Burton /AP

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

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

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

Who will get the Rays first Cycle?

 


David Zalubowski / AP

I remember back on March 31, 1998 a friend of mine and I were chatting up in the Beach area about our new Rays team and he asked me  who I thought would be the first Rays player to ever hit for a “cycle” for the team. I had to really think about that one for a few minutes since this first Rays squad had a few burners on the base paths and they could make the difference quickly in a game.

I thought for about three innings and came up with a list of three guys I truly thought had a chance to hit that magical segment of a single, double, triple and then a homer.  I came up with the trio of Dave Martinez (who got the Rays first hit ever), Quentin McCracken and Miguel Cairo.

But what is so amazing is that we have played 1,845 games as a franchise and we still have not had any player hit for that elusive prize. I mean we have had plenty come close, including 5 in 2008, but no one has gotten to that golden moment yet for the Rays. So it kind of caught me by surprise last night after the game checking out the box score and seeing that both Ben Zobrist and Gabe Kapler only missed the magical moment by not getting a double in last night’s 12-4 Rays victory.

What was truly amazing to me is that both guys had the worst part of the cycle out of the way by the start of the 7th inning with Kapler getting the early nod by getting both his triple and home run by the end of the third inning.  Another outstanding statistic is that Zobrist and Kapler each got hit in the same inning three times in that contest. 

They started their scoring in the top of the second inning when Zobrist got on with a infield single to third, then Kapler scored Zobrist on his triple to deep left-centerfield. The in the top of the third inning, Zobrist hit the first pitch he sees for a triple to deep centerfield to lead-off the inning. Kapler then comes up and homers to leftfield to again score Zobrist in the game. 

Then again in the seventh inning, Zobrist comes up with two outs and hits a 2-1 pitch out of the ballpark in leftfield. Kapler then comes up and get a single to rightfield.  Zobrist had another chance to get his cycle, but he hit a ball back to Rockies reliever Matt Daley that he easy converted for the third out of the inning. The night was a huge explosion for the entire Rays offense as they won their sixth game in a row and ended the Rockies own 11-game winning streak.

But was last night’s attempt by two Rays players a good indicator of the type of offense this team can post at anytime in 2009. Gabe Kapler is currently on a 4-game home run  and RBI streak, plus he has gone 7 for 11, with 10 RBI in his last four games. Could we finally be seeing the hitter the Rays envisioned when they signed Kapler on January 12, 2009. Then you have Zobrist, who has emerged as the Rays secret weapon after injuries have made the club utilize him everyday instead of as a platoon or late inning replacement/pinch-hitter. 


David Zalubowski / AP

Zobrist has also been on quite a tear recently going hitless in only two of his last ten games. He has gone 14 for 35 (.400) with 4 homers and 7 RBI, but it is his 14 runs scored that have been the biggest indicator of his surge for the Rays.  He has also walked 7 times in those 10 games and stolen 2 bases to become an all-around player for the team. And this is not the first time in 2009 that Zobrist has gotten near the cycle.

And to just show how explosive the entire team can be this year, including last night, the Rays have had 11 players just this season who have had chances to get the cycle for the Rays. Starting with Evan Longoria on April 9th needing just a triple to complete his during the Rays 4-3 win in Fenway Park. Longoria again almost got the cycle in another game against the Red Sox on April 30th at Tropicana Field during a 13-0 win over the Red Sox. He missed with only a triple again. But he was not the only Rays to have a shot at the cycle that day. Back-up catcher Miguel Hernandez had a career day going 4 for 5 and also missed the cycle with a triple that day. 

In a 7-3 loss to the Red Sox in their second trip to Fenway on May 8th, the usual suspect for the cycle, Carl Crawford only missed with a home run from getting the feat. He did have a ball bounce into the stands in deep centerfield that could have been a close inside-the-park home run if it had not gone into the stands.  Then on May 15th with the Cleveland Indians at home, B J Upton had a chance to put his mark on Rays history, but also missed out with a triple. Two days later Jason Bartlett got a chance at the mark, but he too came up short needing a home run to complete the feat.

Then someone you would not expect, Gabe Gross who has seen limited duty this year as a platoon member in rightfield got a chance to set the mark on May 22nd in the Rays 15-2 win over the Florida Marlins. Gross also missed the mark with only getting a single, double and a homer in the game.  And so far in June, the Rays have had four players now who have attempted to get a cycle for the squad. Before last night’s heroics, Matt Joyce, who was only up for a limited time also had a chance for a cycle on June 2nd in a 6-2 win over the Kansas City Royals. Joyce also came up a triple short of getting the first cycle in Rays history.


Jeff Zelevansky / AP


But the wildest part of it all is that Zobrist now has had two chances, just in June 2009 to get a cycle. Besides last night’s attempt, he had another on June 7th in Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees, but he again fell just a double short of the cycle.  What is even more amazing is that he has now had three chances since September 27, 2008 to get the Rays cycle record. On the September 27th game against the Detroit Tigers in Comerica Park, Zobrist again came up short, but this time he could not get a triple to complete the cycle.

The Rays have had a chance 11 times in 2009. For the entire 2008 season they only had 5 players even get close to trying for  a shot at Rays history. It began with the Disney World series when the Rays took on the Toronto Blue Jays on April 22nd. Ex-Rays bat boy Jesse Litsch was on the mound and Eric Hinske hit three extra-base hits to fall only a single short of the cycle for the Rays. In that contest, in the only other at bat for Hinske in the game, he struck out swinging to end his quest in the eighth inning. One of the guys you might least expect to have a shot at a cycle actually got pretty close in 2008. Dioner Navarro was having a great first half to the season and picked a May 8th game against the Toronto Blue Jays to try and make a claim for the cycle record. 

In that game, Navarro hit a Grand Slam to win the game for the Rays in the 13th inning, but he missed the cycle by a triple that night. But the event was considered a turning point for the young Rays team, so missing the re
cord might not have been a bad thing that night. It was three months before anyone else had a shot at a cycle for the Rays when on August 2nd, Evan Longoria tried to make his mark, but he also came up a triple short in the Rays 9-3 win over the Tigers at Tropicana Field.

A wild statistic is that in the last three attempts by Rays players to hit for the cycle in 2008, they all came against the same team, the Detroit Tigers. First we had Longoria on August 2nd come up short. The next player to have a chance at Rays immortality was Upton on the same night( September 26, 2008) that the Rays clinched their first American League East title. Upton’s chance at the cycle was overshadowed by the big event as he only fell a triple short of the cycle after beating out a throw for an infield single to even have a shot at the historic mark. And of course, the next day, Zobrist had his chance to also add his name to Rays history. 

All in all since the beginning of the 2998 season, 16 Rays players have had a chance to finally put their name on the Rays history book as completing a cycle during a game. The Rays might have gone 0-16 in that time, but in 2008, they went 4-1 when a player was attempting to go for the record. And so far in 2009, the team has gone 8-1 when a Rays batter has been attempting to go for the cycle. And also of note, for the first time in two seasons, two player have been just short of cycles in two different games only 46 days apart.

With the Rays offense cranking on all 8 cylinders right now there will be more chances for the team to flex its muscle and give more guys chances to finally put their name into the Rays record books as the first player to hit a cycle for the Rays. I can not even guess who the first one will be anymore. Almost everyone in the lineup can have an outstanding game and transform a simple game into a historic event.

But I would not bet against Crawford and Zobrist right now, both players have the ability and the speed to finally give us an answer to that question asked back in 1998. Who do you think will get the first Rays cycle?

Kapler is growing on Me

 


Gail Burton/ AP

I have never been one of those Gabe Kapler lovers that dot the Trop from Section to Section. I am for some reason still holding out any love for the guy because of his Boston Red Sox roots, but a home run like the one he hit last night into the first row of the Left Field seats will go far to get me to open my mind to his effectiveness on the Rays. But then again, I was one of those people who questioned his name on the 25-man roster back on April 1st thinking the Rays might be playing an April Fools joke on the fans.

I mean the guy went 9 for 60 in Spring Training for a dismal .150 average that might have gotten most players either a Greyhound bus ticket to the minor leagues, or an outright release from his contract. But the Rays front office and Rays Manager Joe Maddon saw something in the former minor league manager. Granted the guy has heart and an ability to keep motivation strong and focused on the bench, but I questioned the keeping of him over Matt Joyce even a few days ago. Now Kapler has given me a few reasons to even think he might just be another hidden gem that is about to unfold for the Rays. 

He has been flirting below the Mendoza line for a bit of time with the Rays, and his defense has been great at times. But the true fact is in the last two games he has done his best “Zorilla” imitation and has produced at an amazing pace. Sure he has gone 2 for 5 in the last two game with 2 HR and 3 RBI to boost his awesome scale to about a 4 based on the rest of his year.

He had not had even a trickle of a hit or a RBI since he posted 2 RBI and went 1 for 3 against the Cleveland Indians back on May 27th. So you can honestly say he has gone 0 for 11 in 6 games between his RBI chances. But for how long can you overlook a 4 for 42 stint that dropped your average from .235 to its present .183 mark.

But the thing that also endeared me to him was the poise he had last night in the post-game interview with Rich Hererra after Dioner Navarro got him square with his mouth open with a shaving cream pie. I mean he got the teeth, tongue and maybe even a few nose hairs deep and dirty in shaving cream.


Brian Blanco / AP

The flustered Kapler did end his interview because of the incident but gave another one a few minutes later in the Rays clubhouse where he made sure to thank the Coaching staff for their support and belief in him this year.  The guy is a class act from head-to-toe and that gained some more style and bonus points from me last night about him on this team.

And that might not be the best of averages, but the guy is here to maintain more than just a bat in his hand. Kapler is like a player/manager on the bench sometimes. He sits there and chats about the game with the other guys on the bench showing them some of the small nuances they might have missed on the field.

It is a great asset to have to show some of the Ray pitchers and reserve players how small things can blossom into great opportunities for the Rays. But he is on this team as much for his defense as he is for his mental and physical make ups. 

He is tied with B J Upton with 3 outfield assists this season, and has been involved in 3 game-winning or go-ahead RBI this year. Could he just be that type of player who wills himself a good game when he is counted on, or are we seeing a shell of the former Kapler that spooked us when he took the field for the Red Sox in the Trop.  The guy is a classic example of the type of player you want in your locker room. He is always up beat, personable and totally into helping another player with his game.

And that might be one of the reasons he is still here. He is a great bridge between the Coaches and the players since he did a one year stint at Class-A Greenville for the Red Sox in their minor leagues as a manager. And that experience might be a huge plus for him to convey and influence another guy to see a different viewpoint or idea.

But for the longest time, it was Kapler who had the world by his fingers. Few people remember back in the 1998 when Kapler was the Minor League Player of the Year. He was selected for that honor after killing the ball in the Southern League where he hit a staggering 80 extra base hits while maintaining a .320 average.

Because of this honor he got a chance to appear in a K-Swiss shoe print ad as a emerging baseball star for the up-and coming shoe manufacturer. Also of importance is the fact he shattered the Southern League RBI record by driving in 148 that year.  But could it just be that we are seeing the worse of Kapler here at home at Tropicana Field and he is excelling more on the road?

And wild as that statement might seem in your mind, it has merit people. He is hitting  .163 on turf this season, and combine that with his current .150 average at home and you get a generally miserable .118 in the last 30 days for him.

But there might just be a shade of light flickering in the distance showing he can be the producer the Rays sought when they signed him to his $1,000,018 contract this Spring. That odd two digit anomaly at the back end of his contract financial numbers is actually Kapler’s good luck number. But then again, the number “18″ in Judaism means “life”. Go figure.  In June we are starting to see a trend where his numbers are starting to rise as he is currently hitting at a .222 clip, better that the overall .080 he has against right-handed pitchers this year.
 

Kapler might not the first person you think of when you think power, or even scoring ability this season for the Rays, but he has been productive wherever he has played in the past. Last season he did post a overall .301 average while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, and we have gotten some good players in the last few years from the Brewers rosters ( Grant Balfour, Gabe Gross). Kapler might not be the best option for the Rays right now in right field based on his average, but he is the kind of guy you want out there to catch that difficult fly ball.

I am opening my eye a bit to the fact he might be a better player than I give him credit for most of the time. Kapler might just end up in a Eric Hinske( 2008) or even a Carlos Pena( 2007) role of being the surprise signing of the spring of 2009. I am going to keep my mind open here for awhile and see what the big guy shows me. But I can guarantee you one thing, you will not see me going against him in a poise down anytime soon.

          
           male-model-agency@Flickr.com


Gabe Kapler Mini Facts

***  Did you know his middle name was Stefan. Some how that makes sense.

*** If Kapler was not a baseball player he might have dabbled in the culinary arts as a chef. He is very nutrition oriented and might just be on par with Pat Burrell with his cooking skills.

*** He has appeared on several magazine covers including Men’s Workout and Natural Development in the past.

*** He hit his first home run of his career at Tropicana Field while in a Tigers uniform against Albie Lopez on April 30, 1999.

 *** Kapler broke up Chris Youngs perfect game with a 8th inning 2-run home run on September 7, 2008.

*** In 2005, he returned to the Red Sox after playing  38 games for the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese League.

*** He was put on the DL in 2005 after suffering a season ending injury after rounding second base  after Tony Graffanino’s homer and injuring his Achilles’ tendon.

*** In 2004, the Red Sox went 92-44 when he appeared in games for the team and they went 6-20 when he did not play for them.

*** In a game against the Rays in 2000, while with the Texas Rangers, Kapler tore his right quadricep in the game on May 2nd and went on the DL until June 9th of that season.

 

Walk-Off Felt like Old Times

 


Chris O’Meara / AP


A Celebration for the Past, Present and Future of this Team


If you missed the Tampa Bay Rays game on Friday night, you missed an instant Rays classic contest. There was that feeling in the stadium again of the 2008 struggle to get that winless feeling out of the air of the old dome, and become the team to beat in the A L East. But far and away, the biggest emotion flowing through Tropicana Field on that night was a renewal of hope. It has been awhile since the majority of the Rays Republic showed that  type of emotion out in the open for the players and other to grab a hold of and use as positive energy.The Rays were 0-224 when trailing by 7 or more runs  prior to tonight’s offensive explosion. 

On Friday night it was up in the air for everyone to grab and sample their own little piece of the magic that was transpiring on the turf. You could just see it in the eyes of the guys in the Bullpen, and you could just sense it in the air that change was about to happen. But what transpired can not be written about in books, or even sometimes contained in photos, the emotional charge that sweeps throughout the dome that is sent like a wave through each and every one of us to provide that instant glimmer of hope and wanting for this struggling team.

Not in the Rays brief history have we seen a offensive re-arming and dismantling of another team after they have achieved such a lead. But as we all remember in 2008, you never counted those Rays out until the last out was in stone. And for so many reasons tonight’s final victory felt exactly like that. And to make it even more remarkable was the fact the player who has been the subject of numerous articles and debates about his hitting skills and spot in the lineup came shining through and burst that personal bubble to provide the unscripted climax to the event. B J Upton was the man, but the team all have their own personal pieces of triumph in this remarkable win for their consistent belief both in themselves and their teammates.

And that is a character element that was so clear in 2008. Each player was responsible for their own actions, but no one all season long took potshots or even made reference to someone else not doing their part. They won as a team, and unfortunately lost as a team too. The word “chemistry” might be the biggest mis-used words in sports, but this team did have to melt and blend a bevy of different personalities and abilities to even make a competitive unit, much less a championship squad. And tell me you did not yearn for another one of those special home plate celebrations that became almost a nightly staple in 2008. 

When was the last time you saw a “team meeting” at home plate……………last season. And also when was the last time you saw a Rays player even show any type of strut or “peacocking”  as he strolled into home for his teammates ……Also only during last season. People in 2008 were quick to judge the team’s defining moments or turning points to the season. Well, if they have to again resort to finding moments of change and upward mobility, they have their first example in the way the entire team carried themselves tonight.

Every one picked themselves off the turf, dusted themselves off and got back to work nibbling and craving at that Cleveland lead. That was the way the 2008 squad attacked, as a team. They would put together scoring drives and fast attacks to stun and demoralize the competition at times. And the Rays Bullpen again is beginning to hit their own sense of stride again in 2009, which has been missed in recent games.

    
     Chris O’Meara / AP

But you have to admit that the Walk-off homer by Upton was the perfect ending to a wild night. Here we had a guy struggling to get back to his  former form and was finally starting to see some  great results, then this game comes along and reminds us why we liked the guy in the first place. You have to admit to yourself that the kid has been as hard on himself as we have been on him. He is his own worst critic, and his struggles at the plate have made us grimace at times wanting to help him out in any way possible to get back to his old form.

Maybe that sight of the team trying to pick themselves off the turf for the second night in a row when they got down fast also got into B J’s psyche and boosted him through that wall he had in front of him. Thursday’s contest did not come out the same, but the fact that the Rays seemed to be working as a team boosted the thoughts that we were beginning to emerge out of that funk and again take it to some teams again.

It is not like he has never belonged here, or was struggling both on and off the field. On the field he was his usual self, diving for balls and tracking them down with his deer-like speed deep into the gap, and near the wall. His throws have been darts, and his confidence in his throws have been key in his recent surge back into the outfield assist ranks in 2009. Even if Friday night was not the final turning point for Upton, it was for this team.
They again could see the golden ring, and they grabbed it with everything they had in their bodies. It was a welcome sight to see the smiles and the confident swagger as they walked back to the dugout after this win.

The fact that these guys love to be around each other is a testament to the team unity and chemistry that VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and Rays Manager Joe Maddon has assembled here.  The glue that holds this group together is simple respect for each and every member on the roster. But tonight belonged to a guy who at 17 years of age got his first taste of the big leagues in a September call up. Back then, that Rays team was not experiencing even the slight hint of a winning edge, and some of the veteran leadership was already looking for the door out of the Rays clubhouse.

That is a sad comment, but a truthful one in the realm of the Rays in the past. You want to think that the winning foundation was set early in this franchises history, but in reality, they did not believe in th system totally until 2007. The last few seasons has seen a resurgence in Rays thinking about positives and accountability amongst themselves. It was imply a case of “do your job, do it right, and great things will happen in the end.”  So can we take Friday night’s walk-off as a sign that the 2008 energy and commitment might be resurfacing in the Trop.? I know I felt it. The energy level and the positive vibes from inning to inning only seemed right to end on Upton’s first blast of the season.

But this not like the Toronto Blue Jay game in 2008 when Edwin Jackson threw an awesome game only to see Troy Percival blow the save. It is also not the same vibe or environment when Dione
r Navarro hit the grand slam to boost the Rays to a victory and finally feeling like they belong on top. No, this celebration seemed different on the turf tonight. It had all the elements of 2008 except one.

One huge difference is missing from the “team meetings” called at home plate by the Rays in 2008. This year, we are the “hunted” and not the one pursuing the top spot. But an night like this can re-shape and remove the rust and tarnish of the last month just by its sheer power. Biggest comeback in Rays history really pales a bit in comparison to a young hitter regaining his edge at the plate, and remembering why he loves to play this game.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Upton Get a Welcome Surprise during his Interview 


After the conclusion of last night’s game I was sitting near my seat waiting for the anticipated in-game interview of B J Upton when Dioner Navarro came streaking out of the Rays dugout with a towel filled to the brim in deep shaving cream. I have to admit I have never seen the Rays catcher act so stealth and swift as when he deposited that wet, white concoction on B J’s face during his television and radio interview.

It is a a great tradition of baseball to see that done to him on the night that might spark of return of our centerfielder’s bat to his game. But the shock and awe of the crowd when he finally got that towel in the face was priceless. We all knew it was coming, but did not who or when it was going to be delivered. Upton took the event with class and professionalism, but I would have loved to see the scene in the locker room after Upton got back there. Hopefully Navarro was long gone by then, or there might be a shaving cream situation in the clubhouse.  

That is also one of the areas that Upton has matured tremendously in the last two years. He is a soft spoken guy who kind of doesn’t take to the media side as well as some members of the team. But in the last year he has become more secure and comfortable in front of the camera, and it shows. That will bode well for him to become a likable guy to people who might not get down here and see him on the bench motioning and chatting with guys on base or in the field. He is truly one of those guys who loves this game and looks forward to it every night.

Bird is the Word Last night

 

                Orioles 7,      Rays 5

           
                   Mike Ricigliano/www.baltimoresun.com

During last night’s game, a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, The Birds kept going through my mind.  You might remember the scene where they were stuck in the gas station and the pumps were about to blow up and the anxious and terrified adults were looking for options, but none came to their minds. That is the same rationale that was floating through my head after watching seven innings of the Tampa Bay Rays scrambling for answers and coming up blank.

I mean I could have only had to watch the game from the first pitch just past 7 pm until American Idol began on Fox Television at 8 pm, and I would have seen all the Rays offense in that contest.  I know there were more scoring chances in the game after that huge second inning, but the Rays did not execute or even seemed to have the ability to provide any additional show of consistent offense after that inning.  The wildest play of the night had to be on a fly ball hit by Ben Zobrist and a wild game of “catch me if you can” in centerfield by Adam Jones and Ty Wiggington.

That play was a negative Web Gem all its own. Jones came in for the ball and Wiggington stood to his right to watch him glove the ball for an easy out. But instead we had a Three Stooges (Wiggy was playing the part of Curly Joe) routine where Jones misplayed the ball and it popped off his glove and smacked Wiggy in the chest and he had a chance to be the hero, but the ball finally fell to the grass.  For his efforts, Jones did get an error on the play.

From the third inning on tonight the Rays only got five additional hits in the game. Unfortunately the Rays did provide the Orioles defense with 2 strikeouts and two double plays in those last 7 innings to secure their 14th win of the season. Missing were Akinora Iwamura and Pat Burrell from the Rays lineup tonight. Rays Manager Joe Maddon had decided to give Aki the night off since he has been working extra hard recently and did play extensively  and looked a bit fatigued coming off the field after the Red Sox series. And Burrell has been battling a neck situation that had come and gone for the last week or so.

Considering this might have been a perfect match up for Burrell tonight, one has to wonder if the Burrell injury might be a little more than advertised by Maddon. And it is a shame he could not even use him as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning when George Sherrill, the leftie closer for the Orioles was on the mound. Both Sherrill and Hendrickson might have been great pitchers for Burrell to get some needed hit and confidence at the plate from in this game. Hopefully, we can see Burrell again at the plate in Wednesday nights contest.

 
Nick Wass / AP

Rays Did Have Offense..Early

As I stated before, the top of the second inning was a great display of what the Rays can do against a struggling pitcher. They seemed to be putting pressure on the jugular in that inning and never let Hendrickson get any reprieve until Carlos Pena finally flied out to Nick Markakis to end the inning. But the damage was already done by then by the Rays, who had a 5-1 lead at that point. In that inning Gabe Kapler hit a nice sacrifice fly to deep left field to score Willy Aybar, who had singled to lead-off the inning. It was Kapler’s first RBI as a Ray.

Dioner Navarro then hit a RBI-single up the middle to score Jason Bartlett, who had doubled down the third baseline earlier in the inning. B J Upton then walked to put men on the corners with Carl Crawford coming to the plate. Crawford, who had doubled in his first at bat, took a hanging breaking pitch and hit a 2-run double to deep left that Orioles leftfielder Felix Pie tried to dive for, but came up short.  Evan Longoria then extended his RBI streak when he put a pitch off the out-of-town scoreboard in rightfield to drive in Crawford.

Carlos Pena then hit a long fly out to  Nick Markakis to end the inning with the Rays now up 5-1. In that inning, the three outs recorded against the Rays were also hit balls.  But a few great thing did happen for the Rays. Crawford moved past Aubrey Huff with his 2 RBI in the inning to become the All-Time Rays RBI Leader for the young franchise. And Longoria, after the Orioles announcers were debating if he could keep up his RBI pace, hit his ball off the scoreboard with the next pitch. Longoria is still the MLB RBI Leader, now with 45 on the year.

               
                Nick Wass / AP

Sonny is No Longer Money

Man how it pains me to write that last line. I really like the lunch pail work ethic of Andy Sonnanstine. I can see that he has the drive and passion to go out there ever five days and throw until his heart gives out, or his arm falls off. But when is enough going to be enough here. At this time last year he had a 4-1 record, not the 2009 version that sports a 1-4 record with a inflated 7.27 ERA. Is there something wrong here, or am I just be too critical of a guy we had total faith in last season and might have a few struggles on the mound in 2009.

I am not a Pitching Coach, so my opinion is based solely on what I see and what I know about pitching, but there is something tell tale about him in 2009. I am not saying he is tipping his pitches, but something is tipping off the hitters more this season than in 2008.  Or could it just be something a simple as he is not re-inventing himself a bit every start. Maybe the team Volvo has finally hit the point where team have scouted him so much they can even tel
l when he is exhaling now.

That does happen in the pitcher’s career, and they have to re-adjust or re-invent their pitching style to confuse and make hitter get back off their heels waiting for his breaking ball. I am not going to call for a change just yet because it might be fixable, but it will have to be fixed at this level and he can not go down to the minors and work on it. It either has to be done up here, or he might just be on his way out the door in Tampa Bay. Coming into the 2009 season, you looked at Sonnanstine as a consistent pitcher, but so far in 2009, that consistency is based more in the negative than positive so far.

Last night, he lasted only two innings, or 69 pitches before getting the hook with the Rays behind 7-5. Every one of the Orioles runs were attributed to Sonny last night. That second inning only paled in comparison to Hendrickson’s by two great plays by the Rays outfield. If not for those plays, the Orioles might have tacked on two additional runs.  I know the minds in the Rays dugout are spinning right now trying to figure out what to do with this situation.

Like I mentioned before, it could be a simple mechanic adjustment like Scott Kazmir, or it just might be the end of Sonny’s run as a start with the Rays. Either way, the bleeding has to stop. The Rays had a killer inning in the top of the second and had no reason to have to stand out there and see all their hard work go bouncing by them in the bottom half of that inning. Change has to happen……….either good or bad, but it has to begin starting today for Sonny.


Nick Wass / AP

Wednesdays Wild Writs

****  The Rays got a huge boost from their outfielders’ in the bottom of the second inning.  After Designated hitter Lou Montanez hit an RBI-double to right-centerfield. Greg Zaun hit a single to rightfield that Gabe Kapler quickly got a hold of and sent a rocket to Dioner Navarro at home to easily get Montanez trying to score. The ball was a one-hopper that came up to Navarro perfectly to secure Kapler’s third outfield assist of the year. That ties the part-timer with Carl Crawford for the team lead.

The second outfield assist came from centerfield as B J Upton got Cesar Izturis and second base for his first outfield assist of the year. Upton, who was the Rays leader in outfield assists in 2008 with 12 assists. This play, along with Kapler’s earlier assist in the same inning, kept two more runs from scoring for the Orioles in the second inning.

**** Every one was curious what had happened to the missing left fielder for the Orioles in the top of the fourth inning. It seems that during the bottom of the third inning after Pie had struck out looking against Grant Balfour, he reportedly was sent to the University of Maryland Hospital complaining of stomach discomfort and after a CT scan, he will be in the Orioles dugout for tonight’s game.

Orioles Manager Dave Trembley was not aware of the situation in the top of the fourth inning and went into the Oriole’s clubhouse looking for Pie, but had to send out Ty Wiggington to play left field for the inning. “We thought it was just a temporary thing, that he had a stomach ailment or virus, upset stomach,” Trembley said. “I went to the home plate umpire and told him and he said, ‘I’ll give you a couple minutes.’ And I told Wigginton to get ready and Pie couldn’t come back, so that’s why we had to make a change.”

Pie, who is hitting .180 right now  has essentially lost his starting left field position to Lou Montanez after being brought over from the Chicago Cubs in the off season to shore up that spot in the outfield. Ex-Ray Joey Gathright was recently traded also from the Cubs to the Orioles for infield/outfielder Ryan Freel. Gathright does have major league experience, and could be a nice speedy option in left field for the Orioles to consider for the position.

**** I give Sunsports some credit for at least giving us the audio feed from Oriole Park at Camden Yards as they were trying to fix their video problems last night. We got to hear the pre-game voices of Brian Anderson and Dewayne Staats as they ran down the match-up and only missed Upton long drive to the 364 mark in centerfield, and Crawford’s ninth double of the season. We got back into the 20th Century right as Longoria began his first at bat of the night, which ended up being a liner to center field to move Crawford to third base.

**** After the game, Todd Kalas interviewed both Aubrey Huff and Kapler about their feelings on the recent demonstrations by players and pitchers in the league. Huff told Kalas that he had ” gotten several text messages”.  I still thin it is a bit humorous that Huffdaddy had to wait two years before he got a chance to rub that fist pump back at Joba Chamberlain before Sunday;s 3-run homer. But it was Kapler’s comments that showed the best representation of what most of the league might be thinking on this subject:
 

“Personally,my standpoint is is that if the fans enjoy it.  And it is good for all of us, and as long as it is not, you know, completely over the top and out of line, I think that anything that makes puts fans in the seats, ends up paying all of our salaries. media folks included, So I do not mind seeing a little bit of showboat or something good roots out there.”

I think Kapler has a great grasp of this whole situation having played with the Boston Red Sox for several seasons, then taking off for the Japanese League, which views cheering and also displays of showmanship completely different than in the United States. Then he comes back to the MLB and managed in the minor leagues for a year before deciding in 2008 he still had the desire and passion to play the game.

Classic Rays versus Red Sox Game

 

               Red Sox 4,       Rays 3


Michael Dwyer / AP

This One Did NOT Hurt As Much

Every season you have games that will come down a test of wills at the plate. In last night’s game, Jonathan Papelbon won this first face-off of the season against the Rays. But even if you are a Red Sox or a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you had to enjoy this game for the pure pleasure of it being a ever-changing affair from the first pitch on. There was everything you want in a featured baseball game on ESPN.

You have the tale of the struggling hitter, the emotional pitchers from both teams, the outfielder who replaced a former Fenway legend who is making his own legacy, and you had a scattered amount of hits and runs to keep everyone interested until the last out. Heck, even the ninth inning pinch-hit by Carlos Pena had me at hello. Coming into that at bat, Pena was 1 for 3 against Papelbon with a home run. There was that instant anxiety that Pena, the MLB home run leader could take any pitch yard on him.

And there was the fact that Papelbon is usually at his best in this kind of scenario. Even with the count 3-2, you had to imagine what was going to happen next in this game. The only thing that spoiled it for me was the strikeouts. I know I am being a bit critical here, but I wanted to see the Boston defense step up and show their teeth or their obvious weakness tonight. When Dustin Pedroia left the game with a gimpy hammy, you knew the pressure would fall upon the Red Sox shoulder even harder to win this first series from the troublesome Rays.

But in the end, it was the flamboyant closer thrusting his fists and doing his best Joba Chamberlain impression. I am only hoping that the next time a Ray hits a homer off Papelbon, he gets the same greeting as Joba after Aubrey Huff took him yard on Sunday. This was the Rays 20th game against the American League East opponents , with two more on tap before they finally greet another A L Central opponent at home this next coming weekend. I mean let’s think about the game in a really abbreviated form.

The Red Sox ace, Josh Beckett had given up 25 runs and 44 hits since his Opening Day win over the Rays in Fenway. He had blossomed to a 8.13 ERA. He was ripe for the picking, and the Rays did not take full advantage of a guy who was having trouble with his fastball. But that is the game. You never know where your offense or your pitching will be at any moment.

The game did begin with a classic National League style run production after Carl Crawford got on base with a slap single to Mike Lowell at third base. Pat Burrell hit a nice slow rolling RBI-single to deep left and Crawford did what you have to do when he scored on the play. He bowled over Jason Varitek like we were taught in Little League. It was not a locomotive collision, but it was the classic side punch to get him off the plate and send a message slam. The Rays wanted this game, and even a great catcher was not going to stand in Crawford’s way tonight.


Michael Dwyer / AP

And what was even better, Willy Aybar, who gracefully pushed a catcher in Minnesota and cost the Rays a run in a Rays loss got a front row seat to it. Aybar now can see with his own eyes what playing the Rays way really means. You go all out no matter what…..even into a catcher. You might remember in Spring Training 2008, Elliot Johnson blew Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli to the backstop with a massive slam. Ironic that it was also seen as a catalyst by the Rays of the potential and the power of this teams confidence in 2008.

I hope the message got through to people on that bench. The emotion and the confidence is still within that roster, they just have to physically bring it to the surface, and the win will pile up again for the Rays. I heard a guy last night complain about B J Upton’s lack of aggression at the plate. Well, if he had really seen his last 10 at bat this series, you would see the slow evolution of his swing and that he is not long for a huge game. He needs to outwardly display that confidence, then the team will also respond accordingly.
 

People do not visualize that Upton is a key component in the Rays machine.  Without him 100 percent on-board and showing his abilities, this time is running on 7 cylinders. Great illustration of this was Upton’s blast down toward the leftfield corner in the fifth inning for a double. Then Crawford hit a bloop single in front of Jason Bay for an RBI single. With that RBI, Crawford is now tied with former Rays Aubrey Huff for the team RBI record ( 449). But if Upton needs to have a example of what it takes, he only has to look towards the On-Deck circle to Crawford.

Earlier in the year Crawford was beginning to slump a bit, but now he is one of the hottest hitters in baseball. And to add to that fire is the fact he is also the most feared man on the base paths right now. Of course in Boston they throw a few well phrased adult superlatives with his name, but that comes with success. Considering the fact that there are three players who have not hit their stride yet ( Dioner Navarro,Pat Burrell, Upton), this team is only 3-games below .500 right now. That is only 3-games off last years pace, and we have a harder schedule in 2009.

So we leave the confines of Fenway with out first losing series of the year against the Red Sox.  But this time, even the Red Sox Nation have to agree that this series was one of the best in the history of these two divisional rivals. Not just for the Rays huge win on Sat., but for the close games that could have gone either way with a few breaks. The best thing about this ever growing rivalry is that it is not going to die down anytime soon. Both teams are loaded in the minors, and they both will find incredible ways to beat the other team today, tomorrow and in the immediate future.


Michael Dwyer / AP

De-Fense, De-Fense

For some time, one of the biggest improvement over the Rays in recent years has been their commitment to their defense. Well, you have to give a huge amount of style points to the Rays last night, because their defense kept them in this contest. For one of the first games in recent memory, the Rays did not complete a single double play on the Boston hitters. But then again, the Rays defenders did keep their base runners to a minimum  thanks in part to a former Ray.

Nick Green has been removed from the Rays system for a few years, but he still has a fond place for the Rays. I do not think that was on his mind when he tried to stretch two single into doubles last night, but the Rays will thank him for the outfield assists and the outs. The first one came in the third inning off a hard hit ball bouncing off the Green Monster in leftfield that Crawford took fast and threw hard and true to the base to nab Green for Crawford’s team leading third assist of the year.

But then again in the fourth inning Green again tried to test his former infield teammate Ben Zobrist when he hit an RBI-single in the fourth inning to rightfield, and Zor-illa turned and fired a strike to nab him for the second time tonight to also get his second outfield assist of the season. Bartlett did not have to move an inch to take Zobrist’s throw in and tag Green in time to end the fourth inning on that play. I think the rest of the American League can attest to Upton and Gabe Gross having the rocket arms on this team, but Crawford and Zobrist will get their shots to disprove their own detractors this season. 

But the Rays defense was not perfect tonight either. Crawford almost got the Rays into early trouble when he overthrew to second base on a double by Jason Bay in the second inning. The ball went high and wide from Bartlett and the Rays had to scramble to get it before Bay knew what had happened on the play. But the Rays did have a helper in some of the defensive troubles tonight. The Red Sox secret weapon for years has been the Green Monster.

Several times in the game the wall made its presence known and take simple balls off it and transform them into directional switching ricochets that made the Rays scramble a bit. But every team has that home field advantage, but in Boston, it is a huge green painted wall that grins every time a ball hit it.


www.tbo.com

Pink Cleats almost become Verboten

I actually love the fact that MLB celebrates the holiday of Mother’s Day the way they do every season. I mean I remember a few years ago if you bought a certain dollar amount in the Team Store you got a make-up bag and small pillow embroidered with the pink ribbon and the MLB logo. Well, my  mother had passed in the last year, but I gave the pillow and the case to my daughter’s mother and she loved the thought, but she is a hockey fan. Oh well, such is life.

But the fact that the teams were a sea of pink wristbands and stretchable bands everywhere on their arms and wrists was amazing. And the pink bats were out on force with players suing them throughout baseball on Sunday. And with those bats being collected again and being offered on MLB.com’s auction site will bring in more great amounts of funds for the possible final solution to this  cancer that has taken so many of the people we love and know from our lives. 

Among those who are expected to wear the pink Reebok cleats are twelve players from the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the game’s umpiring crew and the entire Red Sox staff including Manager Terry Francona. Players “getting their pink on” include David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox and Gabe Gross, Grant Balfour and James Shields of the Rays, along with other players from both teams.

But I love the fact that MLB and the MBL Player Union finally let the player where those Reebok cleats with the pink striping in the game yesterday. There might not have been a huge display of the pink shoes, but thanks to Rays reliever Joe Nelson, it might not have even happened if not for his insight and call to the union about the exclusion of the shoes. You see, Nelson doesn’t get a pink bat, and his armbands can not adorn his body and arms on the mound. All he would have had to honor his mother-in-law that day would have been the glue able ribbon on his uniform top.

But after consulting the union and getting a ” we will work it out” response from the union on the Reebok situation, he was able to put on those pink striped cleats and show his support for this awesome cause. The original reason that the cleats were forbidden to be worn on the field was an outside of MLB sanctioned charity getting the proceeds from the future auction of these shoes. By the union and MLB taking into consideration the multiples of players and families that might be effected by exclusion of this display of support and honor, I commend MLB and the Player’s Union for their quick and positive actions.  The charity to be honored with the cleats is the Avon Foundation for women.

Most of the time this kind of decision-making can not be made on the fly. For the league and the union to step up and get a fast resolution and supportive stance will be a huge win-win for them in not only the public’s eye, but in the players too. Way to Go MLB and MLBPA for your insight and gracious admittance of this sign of support for guys who do not get to go to bat, or hit the mound during the game. You know their mother’s love you for it.

Just to let you know, the Florida Marlins also received batting gloves and cleats from Easton this week to wear on Sunday during their game against the Colorado Rockies. These items are also going to be made available in a future auction to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Marlins stars Hanley Ramirez, Luis Gonzalez and Cody Ross, who wear Easton goods during the season will be the highlighted players wearing the pink-hued accessories. It is just a great thing that so many of the games best have taken the time to honor not only their mothers’ today, but a chance to eliminate a horror that plagues women daily all over the world
.

Rays Sing Flat against the Orioles

 

                     Orioles 8,      Rays 4

      
     
Chris O’Meara / AP

Kazmir Doesn’t Set the Tone

If last nights game would have been an audition for American Idol , the Rays would have been eliminated for lack of harmony and pitchy performance. Simon Cowell would have directed his most venom-filled tirade towards Rays starter Scott Kazmir who did not seem to have any type of rhythm, or a even a sense of direction in the game. Rays Manager Joe Maddon has a favorite saying that” “Pitching sets the tone of the game”. If that is truly the case, then last nights game was played by a group of tone-deaf athletes who seemed to be boring and very karaoke on the field.

I know that seems a bit harsh, but the fact of the matter is that the team just got over a huge emotional series against the Boston Red Sox, and they did not need to take even a one-game vacation now against the team we are fighting to stay out of the American League East cellar. It is not like the Orioles are a bad team. Quite the contrary, they have been our biggest pest for several seasons taking wins that used to fall our way. But last night’s contest was in doubt from the first pitch from the mound.

Kazmir threw the first pitch to lead-off man Brian Roberts behind him, and both Roberts and Home Plate Umpire Tim McClelland looked at each other in utter amazement.  It would have been great if from that moment on we did not have the feeling we were watching “Nuke” Laloosh from “Bull Durham” fame throw balls everywhere but over the plate. But we had the leftie that used to dominate the plate and send a chill down your spine with that great slider of his. Tonight the only thing scary about Kazmir was where the ball was going on every pitch. Control was not in his forte last night.

But then maybe I am being a bit too critical?  Maybe, but if you walk the first two batters in a game on 9 pitches, doesn’t it open the opinion door wide open. Even the fact that the first two guys basically only had to have their bats on their shoulders to enjoy a short stroll down to first was not the major issue here. It was the 1-1 count and the hanging slider that Nick Markakis decided needed to go into the right field stands for a 3-run homer that peaked my concern. That gave the visiting birds a 3-0 lead after only three batters.

But the Rays have been great at digging out of holes this year?  That is true, but usually those holes do not find themselves dug as early or as deep as this one in only the first inning. To Kazmir’s credit, he did get the next three Oriole batters in a row to get out of the inning with only the 3-0 damage inflicted on the Rays. Now we all know that Kazmir has been difficult his entire career early in his outings, and maybe this one is a prime example of his woes. But I know the Rays have tried various solutions to try and combat that early wildness on the mound.

They have tried to get him to throw his pre-game warm-up session like a simulated game to maybe get rid of the cobwebs faster and warm him up to game situations. But that had mixed reviews. They have even tried to get him to do more stretching and mental imaging before the game to stimulate his mind towards the actions of the first three batters. If he did do a pre-game simulation or visualization on the bench, thank goodness someone bothered him before he got down deep into the order yesterday.

In his post game comments, Kazmir eluded to the fact he did not” feel right tonight. Some thing was off mechanically.” I have to agree with you there Scott. Something did look a little off. When you were on the side throwing before the game you looked rushed and a bit flustered. But that has sometimes led to great things, so I do not read too much into it anymore. But you are right, something is off a bit with your delivery. Or maybe you are trying to bite on the plate corners too much and the umpires are not giving it to you based on your lack of control most of the game.

Whatever the reason, we need to get our leftie asset back under control before Kazmir get into his own head and begins to doubt himself or his purpose to this team. People forget that this guy is still only 24, and will not even hit 25 until August. Just because he is the longest tenured pitcher, and hold numerous Tampa Bay Rays records, he is still a guy who is growing as a pitcher every start.  There is no doubt in my mind that he is a star on this team. But his recent problems have casted a shadow on him that might be deserved at times.

But remember, there are a huge amount of pitchers this year who are also having sub-par years in the both leagues. From New York to Los Angeles, young pitchers are getting rocked and having their control situations. I know most people will just say that is the other team’s problem, but maybe we are hitting a mental or mechanic pandemic that is effecting our young pitchers right now. The only cure to such a virus is to study film, check location placement and maybe even do some side work to try and pinpoint the problem. Usually it is something simple that can ruin a pitching outing. Hopefully for Kazmir it is a simple case of maybe his foot placement on the rubber. But then again, I will leave that to the experts.


 
Chris O’Meara / AP 

Navarro is Doing Some Great Things

For the past few days I have heard a few grumbles and rants from the stands about the Rays current option at catcher. Dioner Navarro has had a history of starting slow before, but people still point towards last season as the barometer for his hitting. They do not take into consideration that we might have seen his best season last year, and this is an example of a average season for him. Catching has never been a position that a team look towards for a huge offensive outburst of power and average.

Usually a .240 hitter with power outbursts is what you find in the catching realms. What they are on the roster for is their defensive excellence and their ability to control their pitching staff. But with Rays current back-up Michel Hernandez having a career night this past weekend, it put the grandstand prognosticators on high alert. They are calling for a change, and there is not current Rays solution. The Rays normal back-up catcher, Sha
wn Riggans is getting ready to head out to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits for his rehab assignment and might not be back for a week to ten days.

But why are people calling for a change when Navarro is still acting like an All-Star catcher behind the plate? The voices seems to bring up the fact he is increasingly getting more and more prone to not putting his glove to the ground for balls that skip before or on the plate. This has lead to numerous passed balls and wild pitches in the last two weeks. Some of them have been costly to the team in moving up runners into scoring position, but some of that also has to be put on the pitcher’s shoulders. Navarro is not the one throwing the ball in the dirt, but is the one chasing them around the backstop.

But I do see the rationale here for that thinking. It does at times seem like he is giving 75 percent, but he might also be looking back runners at the corners and also trying to do too much at one time behind the plate. He has grown by leaps and bounds behind the plate as a team leader and the controller of multi-personalities that hit the mound. You have to think it might be difficult to pull in a emotional pitcher like Grant Balfour at times, or even try and figure out a character like JP Howell when he cool, calm and collected out there with the bases loaded and no outs.

But considering that in the recent games, Navarro has gunned down Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and  he got the Orioles Adam Jones at third base last night. For the year he is 4 for 19 this year throwing runners out. That 21 percent might not be lights out, but it shows he is trying to get them, and that speaks volumes. When a player is showing up defensively on the field, his hitting is considered a slump, not a lack of confidence. Navarro will be back on track again.  He got to the 2008 All-Star game based on the entire package behind the plate.

He had great coaches who used to catch like Maddon and Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos to guide and watch his mechanics. Navarro will again be stroking the ball hard for the Rays. The entire team has had a few pieces that have been slow to rise to the top this year. That happens some times, but why is it he is single out right now as the problem? Sometimes when you dip below that Mendoza line people doubt your offensive abilities.

He hit .295 last season and set numerous personal highs. The guy can hit, and we have seen it. But let’s give the guy a bit of a break because the Rays do not have huge options to even consider replacing him right now. “Stay the course and the ship will right itself” is an old nautical saying. It is Navarro’s time to sink or swim. Let’s give him the opportunity to rebound before we throw a great talent away for instant success.



Chris O’Meara / AP

Longo and El Presidente


Where would the Rays be this year without these two tearing up the base paths? You have to think of the possibilities of where we would be if not for their offensive thumping so far in 2009.  Based on his past weeks heroics, Evan Longoria again garnished the American League Player of the Week honors. Longo hit .379 with an A L  best 14 RBI during the past 7 days and  21 total bases. His 2 homers and 4 doubles were included in his 9 runs scored and  a .724 Slugging Percentage. This is his third overall Player of the Week honor, and his second this season.

Carlos Pena (28) and Longoria (31) are the first teammates since Duke Snider (31) and Roy Campanella ( 28)  with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 to have 28+ RBI through the first 26 games of the year.   Longoria and Pena are also the current MLB home run duo with Longoria (8) and Pena ( 11) combining for 19 homers this season.  There 58 combined RBI also have them number one in the MLB right now, 8 RBI ahead of their nearest competitors, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick of St. Louis who have 50 RBI.


Chris O’Meara / AP 

Tuesday Tidbits

**** As everyone knows, the Cowbell Kid will be making his annual road trip this week up for the New York Yankee two-game series and into Boston and Baltimore during the next road trip. He has even compiled a little didy entitled, ” The Cowbell Kid is coming to Town” that plays upon that Christmas classic, “Santa Claus is Coming to town.” He has even gotten  a few sound bytes from members of the Rays Bullpen that will be included in the video file he intends to sen to the media members in all three cities of the next road trip. Let’s hope the blue-haired one takes heed in Boston and remains calm when things come flying towards his Marge Simpson hair.

**** Again last night a mysterious orange ball came out of the right field stands after the home run by Nick Markakis in the first inning. People know my opinion on this trend. I know of the old tradition started by the 142 Crew where everything but the kitchen sink used to come out of the stands into the small right field corner, but this orange ball incident might bring about an odd group of copycats that will prolong the game.  The 142 Crew did their actions with the Bullpen knowing that the actions would happen and they used to send the ball boy out there to collect the balls and foreign items in a timely manner. To just throw countless balls back onto the field is a time-wasting effort and might be looked upon by the Rays as an insult, not as a fan energy booster.

**** Do not forget that today is Cinco De Mayo. The Rays plan on having their own celebration in the Power Alley Pub above centerfield today before and during the Rays afternoon game. I expect to see a multitude of sombrero’s and festive outerwear throughout the stadium. I will try and get a few photos of the festivities and post them tomorrow.  I am expecting to see at least a few Rays fans in ponchos and selective Corona-based wear in the stadium.

Rays Steal Series from Red Sox

 

              Rays 5,     Red Sox 3


Mike Carlson / AP

The C.C. Show

How else could you describe the event more than just stating it was the Carl Crawford Show. For the Rays two-time All-Star did everything but sell peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the stands before the game. If you are a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you know the speed and the ability of this great athlete. And you have to remember, he is an athlete as well as a pretty good baseball player. But the simple fact that Crawford picked baseball over all the other sports that he loved as a kid is a telling tale all its own.

Here is a guy who could have gone into two other sports, and might have even reached the professional level in them too, but he stuck with the sport that he had the greenest talent in……….baseball. And the end result is that he is starting to get that National recognition for the things we have seen him do consistently since 2002. But does it really seem like 7 years ago that this skinny speedster came on board with the Rays? It seriously feels like he has always been here, because he is the face of this franchise in so many ways.

He has been here during the lean years when wins were as consistent as gas prices, and fans were still here cheering for the Rays, but the blue seats outnumbered the moving parts in the stadium. But now that the team is beginning to defend their first winning season, and their 2008 American League Pennant, Crawford is beginning to get his own personal engine revving up. The season did not start out particularly well for the team, and Crawford also had a few bumps in the road, like his team, but he stayed motivated and fought through the small slump.

He had gone a combined 2 for 10 in the last series before coming home against the Twins, and had to be at his best for this Boston series for the Rays to again establish dominance at home. During this series, he went  8 for 16 for a .500 average to boost his batting average to above .300 for only the second time since April 12th. In the early stages of this season his base stealing expertise was absent as he was held at bay by the opposing pitchers most game, only stealing a total of 9 bases in April. But in the last three games against Boston, he has emerged again as the front runner to again take the stolen base crown in the American League.


Mike Carlson / AP

He stole a total of 8 bases, only one of his previous months total in this one series. But he saved his best for last on the series finale on Sunday. Coming into the bottom of the eighth inning against the Red Sox, he had victimized Jason Varitek all day by stealing 5 bases before he again got on base with an infield single to shortstop. With Evan Longoria at the plate, Crawford again stole his sixth base of the day, and he did not look like he was finished there.

I know I was one of the people in the crowd wondering if he might attempt to also take third base in this at bat, but Longoria quickly struck out to make the chance moot and end the inning for the Rays.  You wanted him to go on the first pitch to Longoria after he had stolen second, but it was not meant to be today. Every pitch from that moment on hung in the air for awhile as you waited for Crawford to lunge off second and sprint towards that third base bag. But it was not meant to be today.

What Crawford did was amazing in its own right. He personally demoralized the Red Sox that day by being the man. Sorry, but it is true, he stole not only 6 bases, but the show that day. Oh, did I fail to mention he also went 4 for 4 with 2 runs scored and an RBI ? The feat had only been attempted by 4 men since 1900. One player, Eddie Collins also did it twice. Could that be the next goal for Crawford, match Collins. Also getting 6 stolen bases in a modern day baseball game were former Colorado Rockie and ESPN host Eric Young and former Brave Otis Nixon.
 

The pure fact that Crawford is in the company of these great base thieves is an honor all its own. So now Crawford is hitting for an .583 average so far in May, and the Rays are winning, you might have to keep your eye on Crawford because I can see a AL Player of the Week honor coming his way for his efforts. His base burglary has also now put him 4 stolen bases in front of early front runner Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox. These guys will battle for the crown the entire season, but you can bet the guy who gets the most steals in this Boston/Tampa Bay series this year will walk away with the title in October.


Mike Carlson / AP


Rays Take Series

What is amazing to me is the fact that the only two series the Rays have won up to this point in the season is against their biggest rival in the AL East. They took 2 out of 3 in Boston to start the year, then went through 7 series without a win before coming home and taking 3 of 4 from Boston in Tropicana Field.  That is a total of 5 of 7 games in the series in 2009.  Considering these team have played each other more in the past 12 months than anyone else, there has to be a huge volume scouting report on both these teams that must weigh at least 200 pounds. But the win this season have been gutsy come-from-behind wins in most of the wins.

None of the games except for Boston’s victory on  Opening Day have had significant runs scored in the eighth inning or beyond this year. Most of the Rays and Red Sox’s win have been predetermined before the dramatic ending innings. But that doesn’t mean that this will hold true in the future contests. As these teams both heat up a bit at the plate, the dramatic endings and the luck of the past will again flow freely and we might see some of those classic Rays vs. Red Sox games real soon. Maybe even next weekend when the Rays come to Fenway Park again for three games.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Defense Wins Ballgames

You have to admit that this series did not always look like a defensive struggle for either team. Considering in this four-game series, both teams committed 4 errors in the series. The Red Sox did not commit their first error in the series until Nick Green’s errant throw to first in Sat night contest.  But the Rays did have a couple of errors in the second inning of the game by  Akinora Iwamura and Gabe Kapler. Iwamura was the first to commit an error on  a hard hit ball by Ellsbury to him and he bumbled the ball and Ellsbury made it to first in time. Kapler made his error a few plays later on a throw trying to nab Ellsbury at the plate. The ball was up the line and bit and went by Dioner Navarro.  

In Sundays game, the only error was made in the early stages on the game on a toss by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who was trying to catch Crawford stealing his first base of the day.  The ball ended up going into centerfield and Crawford moved to third on the errant throw.  But the series did have their exciting moments when Ellsbury was caught stealing by Navarro on Sunday, and the comical stolen base attempt by Green on Sat. night. Kottaras also got into the act by catching both B J Upton and Gabe Gross on Sat. night. Upton was trying to make his second steal of the inning and was nabbed at third base by a great throw, and Gross got caught stealing late in the game by going straight towards the bag at second.

But the big defensive moments were the 5 double plays made by the Rays in this series. Not to down play any of the great defensive plays by the outfield or infield, but the double plays helped prevent scoring opportunities and get short innings out of the Red Sox. By keeping the Red Sox bats on the bench, the Rays made their best defensive plays of the game. But not to down play the awesome play by both teams defensively this series, but the Rays seemed to have more of them go their ways. Diving catches by Upton saved runs and  Jason Bartlett made play after play to save runs and prevent more scoring opportunities by the Red Sox.


Mike Carlson / AP

Mondays Moments

**** Jason Bartlett has continued his hot bat into May as he again went 3 for 4 in the game to raise his average to .368 for the season. That currently puts him with the fifth in the American League.  Ever since the 2008 end of the regular season, Bartlett has been on a tear at the plate. Considering he ended the month of April with a .358 average, which is now the third best April start for a Rays hitter.  But this season, he has kept his best games for the Boston Red Sox. In the Opening Series in Fenway, he went a combined 4 for 10, with 2 runs scored to lead the Rays, and in this last four-game series he went 4 for 11, with an identical 2 runs scored in the just completed series.

****  The Rays have only had 11 home games so far in 2009, but they have seated 317,533 fans, which comes out to a 28,866 average so far this season. The figure puts them currently fourth in the American league. Those figures might go considerably smaller in the next two games as the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles in a two-game series, with the last game an afternoon contest on Tuesday at 4:08 pm. Historically, the Orioles series is not a great seller for the team.

**** Dioner Navarro will appear at Coachman Fundemental  Middle School in Clearwater, Florida from 11:45 to 12:45 as a part of the Rays and Raytheon’s “Math Moves U” program.  The event will be a one-hour pep rally and instructional speech about the exciting possibilities of math.  

**** Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena are the fourth set of teammates since 1954 to record at least 27 RBI through the first 25 games of the season. They currently lead all major league teammates in HR and RBI. Pena is also the Rays second quickest player to notch 11 homers in 25 games. Pena missed the Rays record currently held by Jonny Gomes, who hit 11 homers in 24 games in 2006.

**** Longoria currently leads the majors with 30 RBI, 19 extra-base hits. He shares the top spot with Alberto Callaspro of the Kansas City Royals in double with 12, plus is  currently second in total base hits in the majors with 67 this season.   

Rays take first loss to Red Sox at Home




 
Red Sox 10, Rays 6


Steve Nesius / AP

Butterfly Balls and Odd Plays

To Say that last night’s game had an odd feel to it might seem like I am making excuses for the type of play. But come on people, when is the last time you saw a guy trying to steal second base and basically takes himself out half way to the base? I felt bad for former Ray Nick Green for about 20 seconds on that play before I was rolling in the aisle about it. I mean the poor guy was trying to steal second base off Dioner Navarro, which is hard enough, but he seemed to stumble out of the gate and finally came face first into the soft clay of the Trop’s infield before trying to save some face and get back to first to keep from making an out.

I know the throw from Rays catcher Navarro did get there a few seconds later, but got to admit he was probably laughing so hard he almost forgot to throw the ball. That bit of impromptu comedy was only a small slice of some of the antics last night. Besides the usual Boston showers going on in the stands ( beer throwing), the game had an interesting feel to it. You know that bringing in a pitcher like knuckleballer Tim Wakefield can put a crimp in almost anyone’s game. The way that ball flutters and dances at times, it can even make a .368 hitter look a bit foolish. But thank goodness no one was spinning in their shoes and falling down trying to catch up to the multi-directional pitch.

But then their was the throw in by Carl Crawford later in the game as Dustin Pedroia tagged up at second base. Crawford, who is not always known for his swift and accurate throwing ability somehow threaded the needle and got a nice hard throw to Evan Longoria to try and get Pedroia at third base. The odd part to it is that the throw did not make it into Longoria’s mitt, but got deposited right into the cup region of Pedroia, who was visibly shaken by the throw. We know it was not an intentional thing, but the odd timing of this play on the Red Sox team crybaby was a bit humorous at the time. And for that reason, it is always great to wear a cup if you play baseball. Another incident that caught me laughing was the fact that Tim Wakefield hit Dioner Navarro in the fifth inning with a knuckleball. You could see Navarro at the plate break a huge smile knowing that it is not only odd, but pretty funny to have a butterfly ball peg you. Thank goodness it was not a 76 mph curve or a 86 mph fastball, but a 46 mph flutter ball.  But that was not the only hit batter in the game that made you wonder.

In the seventh inning, with two men on base, Rays reliever Brian Shouse was trying to get David Ortiz with the count 3-2 on him and Shouse plucked the big guy with a pitch in the hip region. I mean if we are going to just walk the guy, let’s intentionally walk him like we did the previous batter Pedroia before Ortiz came to the plate. So basically the Rays used 6 pitches to walk Ortiz. But the wild part is that Shouse had him 0-2 before he issued 3 straight balls outside the strike zone. Last night had a wild vibe all around the Trop., but these events really made you wonder at times.  But there were also wild things going on in the stands last night. One spectator was watching a foul ball come towards him and did not even put his hands up to ward off the ball. Instead, he got plucked right in the cheek and it opened a good 10 inch gash on his cheek that might need stitches to close the wound.

             
               Steve Nesius / AP

Rays Bats  Went Silent


If Boston Manager Terry Francona was trying to slow down the Rays offense last night, he used the perfect weapon to get the Rays to take some time to adjust and then begin to again get hits off his starting pitching. Tim Wakefield, with his flutterball, effectively shut down the Rays offense for bits and pieces of this game without letting them string together any scoring opportunities like they had the previous two games.  Tampa Bay was able to pop a run across the plate after Evan Longoria hit a ball to the opposite field in right that fell only two feet from becoming his next home run. the ball hit on the green top to the outfield wall and bounced back into the playing area for a double.

Carlos Pena then hit a RBI single to right-center field that scored Longoria, and it almost looked like Francona’s idea was about to back-fire on him. But the Rays bats went silent after that moment and between the rest of the first inning until the fourth, the Rays only came away with a Carl Crawford single to right. Crawford then moved up on a stolen base to put himself into scoring position.  Leading off the top of the fourth inning, Pena got a hold of one of Wakefield’s mistakes and deposited it just inside the right field foul pole for his 11th home run. But that was the last hint of offense the Rays would have in the fourth inning.

In the fifth inning, when Wakefield had gone through the order a few times, the rays began to make some moves towards evening the score. After Gabe Kapler struck out,  Navarro got hit by a pitch after going 3-2 against Wakefield.  B J Upton then got three straight balls and finally gained a walk  to put two men on with one out in the inning.  Then Boston catcher George Kottaras had his first passed ball of the night to put both men in scoring position. Longoria then hit a liner down the left field line into the corner and both Navarro and Upton came in to score for the Rays.  Pena then got on base after four straight balls and put two men on base again for the Rays with two outs in the inning.  Pat Burrell then hit a double to left that scored Longoria and moved Pena to third base.  Ben Zobrist then struck out to end the inning with the Rays trailing by one, 6-5.

That would be the end of the Rays offensive strikes until the bottom of the ninth inning with the team behind 10-5 at the moment. Hedecki Okajima had relieved Wakefield after five innings and 101 pitches on the night. He immediately gave up two hits to Akinora Iwamura and Kapler. After Navarro hit a sacrifice bunt to move both men into scoring position, they got stranded there after the Rays made
two quick outs to get Okajima out of the inning. But the Rays did get more chances in the seventh inning when Pena walked and  Zorbrist got an infield single to put Pena into scoring position.  Pena went to third base on a throwing error by Nick Green, but got stranded after Iwamura struck out swinging to end the inning.

]In the bottom of the ninth inning, Takahashi Saito came in for the Red Sox to close out the game. After a 12 pitch at bat, Crawford singled into  center to lead-off the final inning. After Longoria struck out, Crawford moved over to second base on defensive indifference and then took third base on Pena’s grounder up the first base line. On the third pitch, Burrell hit a RBI single to right-center to score Crawford and make the score 10-6. But then Zobrist struck out swinging to end the Rays rally and give the Red Sox their first win of the home series. In tonight’s game, Wakefield got the victory, which was also his 20th win in his career against the Rays. He is the all-time opponent record holder, with Mike Mussina formerly of the Yankees in second with 15 victories.

       
       
Steve Nesius / AP

Red Sox Bats were wild tonight

Rays starter Jeff Niemann came into the game  after several impressive outing since his first start debacle in Baltimore. There was hope that he could hold the Red Sox hitters at bay enough to let the team get a few early runs and set the tone tonight. But from the first batter on tonight, it did not seem to be Niemann’s night. The  tall rightie gave up an early walk to Dustin Pedroia, and then Hit Kevin Youkilis with the first pitch of the at bat. That gave the Red Sox two early base runners in the inning.  J D Drew then hit a strong double to right to score both Pedroia and Youkilis and stake the Red Sox to a 2-0 lead.

Mike Lowell lead-off the second inning with a single to center, and Kottaras then hit an RBI double to  Nick Green then hit an infield single to Iwamura that plated both Lowell and Kottaras and give the Red Sox a 4-1 lead.  Jacoby Ellsbury then hit a ball to Iwamura that he tried to get the speedy runner, but threw the ball past Pena for an error. Pedroia then hit an RBI single to right that scored Ellsbury, and moved to second on Kapler’s bad throw.  That put the Red Sox up 5-1 at the time. Then in the third inning, Jason Bay got an infield single to Jason Bartlett that was deep in the shortstop hole and he could not get Bay in time for the out.  Bay then stole second base, and moved over on Niemann’s wild pitch to put himself in scoring position at third base. Green then hit an RBI single to center to plate Bay and increase the Red Sox lead to 6-1.

The Red Sox bast went silent a bit until the fifth inning when Grant Balfour relieved Niemann at the beginning of the inning.  After Green struck out, Ellsbury reached on a infield single to third base that was put down between Balfour and Longoria, and he could not make the play and get the speedy Red Sox outfielder.  Ellsbury the stole both second and third, and Balfour ended up walking Pedroia. After David Ortiz ended up walking after a 10-pitch at bat, Brian Shouse came in to relieve Balfour in the game. Youkilis ended up with an RBI double to left that scored Ellsbury and Pedroia and raise the Red Sox lead to 8-5.

In the seventh inning, Lowell ended up hitting a solo shot on the third pitch from Shouse to up the score to 9-5 Boston. Green then doubled to deep right field and moved to third on Ellsbury bouncer to Shouse.  The Rays then Intentionally Walked Pedroia to set up a leftie-leftie situation with Ortiz. After getting him to a 3-2 count, Shouse hit him in the right hip with a pitch to load the bases. Youkilis then got another walk to score a run without even taking the bat off his shoulder and put the Rays in a 10-5 hole.  Jeff Nelson then came in to relieve Shouse and got Drew to pop-out to end the inning. That ended the Red Sox offense for the night as the Rays sent down the Red Sox 1-2-3 in the next two innings.

 

 

For the game, Neimann did not seem to be able to handle the Red Sox base runners and they stole their bases at will while the tall righties was trying to adjust and get a faster delivery to the plate. This is one of the thing that a pitcher has to learn to become more adapt at during their first few starts in the league. Teams get a flow and ebb from them and can time their deliveries to the plate and make their base stealing calls accordingly. Niemann is very uncomfortable out of the stretch, and it shows in his on-the-mound mannerisms. For him to be able to go to the next level, he is going to have to incorporate some side-steps and practice more effective moves to first and third base to begin to stop the base runners from taking advantage of him. When he makes these adjustments and a few guys get caught  stealing by Navarro, then teams will have to re-evaluate their  signals and come up with another alternative.

 

 

 

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