Results tagged ‘ Gabe Gross ’

Rays Arbitration Clock is Ticking Loud

 
 


Mary Schwalm/AP

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

As I glance up at the luminated clock on the kitchen wall, I see that it is just a few minutes past midnight on Saturday morning. Within the next 24 hours, the Tampa Bay Rays front office will be finalizing the 2010 fate of 10 of their players. This is that stressful 24-hour period that every Major League team and their selected players have to endure where offers of arbitration, possible signing of contracts, or non-tendering their players  so they can find employment elsewhere, or possibly sign with the team as a free agent (but doubtful).

It is not only a nervous time period for the 10 Rays players the team has up for arbitration this season, but also for the Rays fans who have grown attached to these players. A few of these player’s names might be absent from the Rays 2010 equation within the next 24 hours.  And the possible 10 decisions by the Rays will include core players and borderline players who stepped above and beyond, but might be eliminated by numbers and talent rising up from the Rays farm system.

Of the 10 Rays players being considered for 2010 arbitration hearings, only one  of them is currently a Rays starting pitcher. And on paper, you have to consider him to be a bona fide “sure thing” to be offered a contract. Rays starter Matt Garza  might actually be one of the four possible “sure things” for the Rays within the next 24 hours.  Garza has been a key member of the Rays staff, and has upped his game again in 2009, and on paper is a solid choice yo again be with the team in 2010. And Garza will see a nice bump in his 2010 salary (estimated $ 3.2 million) compared to the $ 430,000 he receiveded during the Rays 2009 season.

Tick…..Tock….Tick….Tock….

But during this 24-hour period the Rays front office might be finished crunching the numbers and getting scouting reports while letting their personal feeling for the players disappear from the equation. The Rays Bullpen could look considerably different after this 24 hour period as 5 total members of the Bullpen are up for arbitration. But the first glints of daylight also  showed a rays of light that one arbitration eligible player will not have to wait for his fate as left-handed reliever Randy Choate signed a 1-year  $ 700,000 contract with a possible $ 25,000 bonus if he appears in 80 games next season for the Rays.  

That’s right, Choate is the first Rays player to feel the joy of not having to worry about the anxious stress of not knowing his 2010 fate. But even with one player down, and nine to go, that still leaves Bullpen mates Grant Balfour,J P Howell, and Lance Cormier to  wonder about their possible fates for the next several hours. 

But of that selective reliever corps, I have to consider Howell the second “sure thing” bet of all the Rays players to again get a clear contract offer from the Rays. He went above and beyond his job description in 2009, even giving the closer’s job a chance before the Rays finally shut him down in late September due to arm fatigue. The progress that Howell has shown from miserable,disgruntled starter to confident, out-going reliever is like a night and day transformation. And with that, Howell might finally get a chance to celebrate with his new wife that fact that he could have an estimated 2010 salary in the $ 1.8 million range during his first time on the arbitration tightrope. 

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

But that still leaves both Balfour and Cormier to be in the “unknown” group based on a few personal observations, and not on their solid pitching performances in 2009. During the late 2009 season, Balfour was critical of the Rays pitching concepts late in the season and might have produced some bad blood between him and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey. Could Balfour’s small episode of mouthing off cost him a chance to continue with the team?


Kathy Willen/AP

Also considering the Aussie is about to get hitched on January10th, you hope he did not put a wedge between him and the Rays front office and coaching staff in 2009. Could the Rays make him sweat a bit before late in the evening offering Balfour a contract? And if they do sweat him out a bit, could they be possibly motivated by the comments to try and get his estimated $ 2.1 million reduced through the arbitration hearing?

But my biggest Rays question mark concerning the Bullpen might come down to what the Rays will do about their long reliever spot. Cormier was impressive in that role during 2009, and I truly hope he is safe. But the Rays have two other pitchers fighting for their 25-man roster  spots who do not have a secured spot for 2010. Might Cormier be the “sacrifical lamb” to give the Rays a possible roster spot to pitcher Mitch Talbot, who has no minor League option left, or Andy Sonnanstine. 

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

Cormier would garner around $ 1.1 million in possible 2010 salary if the Rays offer him arbitration. Sonnanstine and Talbot’s combined 2010 salaries might only cost the Rays around $ 850,000, and could be the main reason the team doesn’t give Cormier an offer. Personally, I hope he gets an arbitration offer from the Rays because the job he did in 2009 was fantastic, but my word means nothing in the final scheme of things.

 
**** Update: 7:33pm EST.  Lance Cormier, who is arbitration eligible this season for the Rays has signed a 1-year contract to stay with the Rays for 2010.  

Now that we have looked into the Rays possible arbitration plans for their 2010 pitching staff, lets look to the five Rays field players who also could receive an arbitration offer within the next 24 hours. I will also make a quick evaluation on their possible chances to remain in the team past December 12th.


Jim Mone / AP

You have to consider both Rays players B J Upton and Jason Bartlett are pretty much another set of “sure things” locks for a contract offer within the next 24 hours. Bartlett has increased both his offensive and defensive worth to the Rays since the first day he lined up at the shortstop position for the team. But considering he might get a huge bump in contract up into the $ 3.3.5 million range in 2010, you can never count out anything until the arbitration contract is faxed to your agent. And everyone, everywhere has their own special opinions on Upton.

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

I personally can not see this team without Upton in centerfield in 2010. With the flip flopping of people around baseball as to the possible departure of Carl Crawford by the MLB Trade Deadline in late July, Upton  is the solid member of the outfield and has increased tremendously over the last two years while learning his centerfield positon “on-the-job”. I truly have a feeling Upton will come into his own in 2010 both at the plate and in the field. Everyone has comments on his running style and his sense of complacency at the plate, but in reality, no one on the Rays is more concentrated and inwardly critical of his own actions as Upton.

But the stark reality is that Rays farm hand Desmond Jennings might just be on the cusp of playing in the Major Leagues, but it will not be in centerfield. Upton will be at the arbitration table for the first time and should get a considerable jump up from his 2009 salary of $ 435,000 to an estimated $ 3.5 million on his first journey through arbitration. It might seem like a good idea by Upton and his agent several years ago to not sign a long-term deal with former GM Chuck LaMar and continue with his norm of 1-year contracts until his arbitration years.

And this leaves us with only three members of the Rays squad still being considered for arbitration to discuss further. The trio left consist of outfielder Gabe Gross and catchers’ Dioner Navarro and newly acquired Kelly Shoppach. I do not think I am going too far out on a limb thinking here that a budget restricted team like the Rays usually do not trade for an arbitration eligible player unless the player could be a solution to a internal problem. And one of the main off season priorities of the Rays this year was their catching situation. 

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

And that is what intrigues me most about Shoppach. Would the Rays possibly go to arbitration with both of their catchers  and secure both of them on their 2010 25-man roster, or is one of them(hopefully) being shopped around for a possible new locale right now for 2010? Seriously here,I think Shoppach is a clear power upgrade to Navarro and might possibily be saved by the arbitration alarm clock in the 11th hour. Navarro might not so lucky.


Elaine Thompson/AP

Considering that Shoppach’s estimated 2010 salary ($ 2.1 million) is close in comparision to the estimation for Navarro ($ 2.5 million),I think Shoppach wins  a arbitration submission based on his possible upgrade at the plate and his ability to get on base over Navarro. Their catching styles are similar, but Navarro has shown to be a bit lazy this past season behind the plate, or the team would never have traded for Gregg Zaun in the first place late in 2009. 

I am thinking that Navarro might be one of the two Rays on the outside looking in after the bell strikes at midnight tonight. And I think there is nobody else to blame here but Navarro. The Rays gave him the steering wheel early in Spring Training by not bringing in a veteran to push him for the first time in his Rays career. But Navarro visually seemed to have gotten more and more lazy on bouncing balls in the dirt and  seemed to have lost some concentration and confidence in his game behind the plate. Combine that with his solid decrease in hitting, and you have a formula for possibly being non-tendered tonight.

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

The lone Rays player left to be considered for arbitration just might be a victim of the Rays farm system and available options that exist within the club. He is a guy I have seen play above and beyond his abilities in his two seasons with the team, but hard cuts sometime have to be made,and Gabe Gross might be the hardest of the Rays decisions today.

You know the team has treasured having him in the lineup for the past two seasons, but youngsters like Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings are knocking at the Major League door to play in rightfield. And if Sean Rodriguez is dominant this spring at second base, it might force a position change for uber-player Ben Zobrist to play in the outfield. The Rays organization is coming to a point where a decision like this is not going to be based on performance, but on an obtainable roster space.


Ben Margot/AP

And you know the Rays have tried to find another suitor for Gross, but corner outfielders are a deep position this Hot Stove season, and no one has made a play for Gross. For years Rays fans have know that at some point the team would have an abundance of talented young players in place to force an established player off the Rays roster. And this season, the player elimination hatchet might fall hard on Gross. The Rays decision will not be based on monetary reasons, but on the overflow of talent just below the Major League level.

So within the next 24 hours, there will be cheer and tears for members of the Rays roster. Some players might be faced with the stark reality of looking for another team, while other might be just starting the battle for their positions in 2010. But as the arbitration offer clock winds down, some of the Rays arbitration eligible players will be sweating while others sit calm waiting for calls from their agents and the team. I am guessing that 7 or 8 of the Rays arbitration eligible players will be smiling.


Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

(Fellow Rays blog, Rays Index was the source for my estimated 2010 salarie
s included today on my blog post. You can visit them on their website
www.raysindex.com. It was a great help using your sidebar tools to complete this blog…..Thank You).

Thank You Gabe Gross!


Steve Nesius / AP

I still remember coming home after a Tampa Bay Rays game on April 23,2008 and watching ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” when Brewer outfielder Gabe Gross  sprinted across home plate and was met by an impromptu Brew Crew team meeting after a walk-off victory. How wild that night must have felt to Gross before he wandered into the Manager’s office that night to find out he got traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.

A lot has happened to the former Auburn University quarterback since that rollercoaster April evening. In the near future the Rays might end up not extending an arbitration offer to Gross. And as a non-tendered player, he will be seeking employment somewhere else for 2010. But let’s not forget, Gross has brought a great blend of on-field moments for Rays fans over the last two seasons.

And before he is gone from the Rays, I want to remember the shy outfielder and thank him for great moments with the Rays. Who can forget his 3 walk-off RBIs in 2008 that not only tied a Rays club record, but produced some special moments in Rays lore. One that quickly comes to my mind is his 9th inning home run off Chicago White Sox reliever Matt Thorton in 2008 that  produced the first home run off a left-hander in his career. 


Mike Carlson / AP

We can’t remember Gross for just his offensive contributions of facing mostly right-handers over the last two years for the Rays. Gross was the defensive “go-to” outfielder for Rays Manager Joe Maddon over the past two seasons, usually as a late inning defensive replacement. In 2008, Gross was sent into a Rays game 39 times as a late inning defensive move by Maddon. Over his two seasons with the Rays, Gross started 149 times for the team while appearing in a total of 255 Rays games.

And Gross did have an offensive presence for the Rays illustrated by 14 of his 38 RBI in 2008 either tying or giving the Rays the lead in a contest. But that is not where Gross made the biggest impression as a Ray. His defensive game will be remembered long after he is gone from the unlimited photo opportunities where he was shown sprawled all over the field and walls of Tropicana Field. You never had to question his effort in a game. He always gave 100 percent.

Who can forget the moments when Gross was either jumping or bouncing off the outfield wall to grab an unusual out for the Rays. And you know that the Rays opposition did heed running on Gross’s rocket arm. And the second guessing of teams helped him produce 9 outfield assists the last two seasons gunning down runners trying to advance. There always seemed to be more tension in the air if there was a runner in scoring position, and a ball hit towards Gross in rightfield. 

In  his short time with the Rays, Gross embodied everything Maddon and the Rays Coaching staff wanted from a player to exhibit professionalism and pride to this young Rays team. Gross worked hard every single game, and never took a single play off, or went half speed at anything he did in the field or at the plate. He was an excellent example of professionalism that others should model their behaviors after in this league.

 
Some fans call that sort of person boring or predictable, while other see the truth that Gross respects the game of baseball and treasures his God given abilities to play this game at this high level. While with the Rays, Gross became a father for the first time, and it elevated his game. Gross gave the Rays fans his dedication and total effort at every opportunity, and another team would be lucky to have him on their roster.

 

Steve Nesius / AP

It is rare for a child who early in their life dreams of playing professional baseball and finally gets the chance to take in the journey to finally being able to tip his cap on a Major League field. Gross will forever be remembered as a player on the Rays 2008 American League Championship team. But the vivid memory of Gross embedded in my mind is of a play seemingly hit over his head that he leaped for high above the wall and pulled in to rob a potential home run from an opponent.

The play stole my breath away for a moment until you saw him unfold the deep pocket of the glove on his right hand and toss the baseball  back towards the Rays infield like any other routine play. That play was nothing special to Gross, because every moment on the field is special to him, and every play was just another way to show his appreciation for this game. And  it has also given each of us a memory to remember.

  

Rays #5 Moment of 2009: Welcome to Zaunbe Nation

 


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Mike Carlson / AP

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

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

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


www.greggzaun.com

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Maddon has gone to the Dark Side

You knew it was coming up and you had an odd feeling someone was going to do a wild antic to celebrate the next road trip,which had been dubbed the “Ring of Fire” Johnny Cash tribute tour by Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon. When they boarded that plane this Sunday it was to be an all-black extravaganza, no blues, reds or even whites, just plain, simple black-on-black. But you would have never expected the silver fox himself would be the one to trump everyone in the locker room with his actions.

Or should we say the new “Clark Kent” of the Rays clubhouse went to the dark side. I really think Maddon went above and beyond the call of duty on the Rays day off and took an extreme turn with his silver locks and transported his folicles to a place that they had not been since his 20′s. He went totally black. Yes,black as the night in a tunnel. As dark as the black letters being typed on this blog.

And some outside of the Rays fandom might think this might be too much of an extreme measure to be taken at such an important and critical segment in the Rays season,but if you are questioning it at all,then you have not been paying attention to the savant skipper. The guy is a walking encyclopedia of witty sayings, optimistic quotes. Maddon recently told the St Petersburg Times:

“I was going to wait until Sunday night to do it, then I thought why not in advance just to get it out there, loosen things up a bit. I think we’ve been playing hard, we definitely careI’ve been looking for an avenue to lighten things up a bit. So I went with darker hair to lighten things up bit.


 

Chris O’Meara / AP

 The Rays have never had such a thinker as a player or manager before Maddon stepped into this clubhouse. Sure former Manager Lou Pinella did sport blond locks on the side of his head for a while after the team fulfilled a promise of a 3-game winning streak in 2003,but if this little experiment works,if those 25 guys in that clubhouse follow the lead and continue onward and upward in the Wild Card standings then maybe the Mensa society of Tampa Bay should have a chat with the Rays skipper.


http://www.tbo.com

And to really think beyond the box here,this could be this season’s Rayshawk”. Think about it for a moment,most of the current Rays already sports dark hair,but there are a few holdouts with the golden locks or reddish tints to their hair follicles. But could it only be a matter of time before they to, follow the skipper and make it a massive statement or show their pride in the “2009 Rays Way” of thinking.

Maddon did it to drum up confidence and excitement in the clubhouse. B J Upton did his  initial mohawk in 2008 as a change of pace to pump up the energy level a notch and show his support for the team heading towards the playoffs last season. Others quickly followed on the team and soon we had an army of  finely sculptured hair challenged fans and players who sported the “Rayshawk” look all the way into the World Series. This darkend hair statement could be the 2009 version.

For some it might take a bit more commitment than others. Rays reliever/closer J P Howell might be one of the guys to next take the ultimate “Sharpie” inspired coloring to his head along with uber-infielder Ben Zobrist. Maddon has chatted with both of them, and knowing the commitment to this team of both of them, I am expecting darker beards and hair by tonight’s game. If Howell did go “dark” he might look more like a cast member of “Grease” than a baseball player,but it would be an outward statement to the team and the fans.
 

For Zobrist, it would just be another evolution in the “Zorilla” persona and might bring him back to his earlier season glory at the plate. The one guy who the look might fit perfectly would be catcher Gregg Zaun. It would transform him into an instant band member of ‘Seether” or “Metallica” if he took his reddish-brown locks and went into the dark with the tint. But the one true test on the team, the one that would stand out the most might be with the guy you would never expect it from……..Gabe Gross.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Gross is that All-American,apple pie and Chevrolet kind of guy. Back home Americana reeks off of him. For Gross to go the “Goth way” would not only send shock waves through rural Alabama, but send a rush of excitement and energy into the crowd at Tropicana Field. There is no doubt tha
t the mental image of Maddon taking a chance like this with his hair, and the Rays trying to boost themselves back into a tight Wild Card race do notseem to have parallel paths.

But Maddon is a genius with motivation and leading by example and by showing his own personal level of commitment by altering his hair, it might be the perfect visual key to unlack the Rays potential right now. It is the motivational process in its simpliest forms. Maybe it took only a smattering of hair dye by Maddon’s new blushing bride Jaye, but it was a huge outplaying of total commitment by the skipper to his team, and to their goals in 2009. In the end, it would be a fitting tribute to Johnny Cash who wrote a song entitled “Man in Black” in 1971. In the song is the following line that just might fit the reason Maddon took this chance:

 
 

“We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose/In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes/But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back/Up front there ought to be a man in black.”
 
 

Gameworks Shindig was a Total Blast!


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


RRCollections

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

WWYD = What Would You Do?


Steve Nesius / AP

For some reason I kept waking up last night because of a weird and unsual dream. I was standing in rightfield yesterday during the beginning of the eighth inning and I heard the smack of Royals catcher John Buck’s dying quail hit to right. I sat there a second and then went in full speed to scoop the ball backhanded and give the Royals their first out of the inning.

The play was met with a huge round of applause and I could see  B J Upton out of the corner of my eye coming over to cover behind me in case the ball dipped past me towards the wall. How do I know this was a dream? Because on that play in real life that afternoon, Upton was still situated in centerfield watching it unfold instead of moving towards Gabe Gross to back him up.

Which made me wonder WWJD or What Would Jonny (Gomes) Do? You know with the no-hitter on the line a player like Gomes, or Gabe Kapler or even Jose Guillen would have done whatever they could to try and keep history going for James Shields on Sunday. But would it have been the right move? Would it have been baseball savvy to put it all on the line just then without regard to the conscequences, or wold that have been baseball foolish?

You know a majority of the Tampa Bay area is thinking just this same scenario right now. Do you make the big play and maybe surrender a run if you miss the ball, or do you play it safe and secure at least a chance to get out of the inning with no runs. There are several schools of thought here, and there might be a few more expressed by the end of today on this blog.

But the first point of this all has to be if your centerefielder was coming over to protect you if the ball did squirt out and away from you. In that case, the answer is simple. Upton basically was a bystander on the play and did not even make a motion towards rightfield before, during or after the play. The second point might be if Gross could have effectively gotten to the ball in stride before it hit the turf.


Jim Prisching / AP

On this point I am  sure he could have gotten to the ball, but it is more comfortable for a player to go back on a ball instead of come towards the infield. Just because the ball is in front of you doesn’t mean it will an easier catch for you to make. Some guys play with reckless abandon in the outfield, just like that group mentioned above. Gomes, Kapler and even Bubba Trammel would have tried to secure the brief bit of history for Shields.

Which brings me to my second point.  Did Gross just do the fundemental defensive moves and not cause more damage in the inning? First off, let’s remember that Gross is one of the better rightfielder in the American League. His arm is on par with some of the best, and his accuracy can not be taken for granted. With that in mind, the aspect of throwing action to the wind is not in his DNA.

As an ex-quarterback you know he has be drilled with the fact of ball control since a young age. Even in the game of baseball ball control, or making the right play can be viewed in many different ways. But the reality is that he did what might be considered “vanilla” or boring by some people, but it kept the runner off of second base. For that it was the right play at the right moment.

The debate will rage for a few days, or the next Rays win until it will finally begin to disappear from the Rays fan’s minds.  In my dreams last night I did not miss the ball, but if I did, would it have caused more damage than good?  Or would it have been the same result. We do not know what would have happened now, but the fact remains that with either action, the result might have just delayed the result a bit.

Everyone has been taught differently in Little League as to what to do in that situation. I was lucky enough to have good fundemental coaches’ who would of had me do the same hing as Gross did yesterday. But then I did have a Pony League coach who loved the dramatic and would have yelled because I did not leave my feet on the play.


Gail Burton / AP

Both sides will be aired on blogs and in articles in the next few days. But what you have to ask yourself is if the play was done right, or if it was a calculated move to assure the end result. So WWYD, or What Would You Do?

Rays Can’t close the deal for Shields


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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

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

Second Half Thoughts

 


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About now the Tampa Bay Rays players and coaches are beginning to arrive at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri eager to get this second half of the season started and off to a winning note.  Missing from today’s workout will be Evan Longoria, who is at the ESPN ESPY awards, but he should be back in time for the Friday night game. Also missing will be Rays reliever Grant Balfour, who is delayed in his return back to the team after attending his grandfather’s funeral back home.

This clubhouse will be alive with stories and excitement following the three day mini vacation that most of the team’s players had since the end of the game Sunday afternoon. But you know the real group to keep an eye on will be the five players and 6 coaches who attended the All Star game who will be holding court about the last few days and the parties and events surrounding their All Star game adventures.

You have to wonder how many times  Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos will tell the tale of the fantastic catch by Carl Crawford with his first hand account of the play only 3 feet beyond the Bullpen fence.  Or you really want to imagine how many times Crawford has now picked up that crystal bat and swung it towards the heavens as if he was using it at the plate.  And you really want to know where the new keepsake is hidden that Ben Zobrist got after the final out of the All Star game. That ball that will forever link him to the All Star game.  Or maybe to hear the tales from Carlos Pena on the “pitches” that got away during the Home Run Derby.

After today all those adventures and stories will have to be put back on the shelf to be retold during rain delays and night flight to other cities as the Rays will renew their quest to get back into the playoff picture this season. At this critical point in the season they are only 6 1/2 game out of the top spot, but they know that even if they hit the 93 win mark, they might be out of the playoffs this season. So their effort will have to take center stage starting tomorrow night as they take on the Royals in a 3-game series. Then they will head to the southside of Chicago for a 4-game series against the White Sox. Then it is on to Rogers Centre to take on the Blue Jays in a 3-game weekend series before finally coming back home to finish out the month.

This next week will be a  critical key indicator of any possible playoff push by the Rays. They truly have to adjust their mindsets and come back from this 10-game trip with a 6-4 record or better to begin a forward trend towards the top of the division. This is a road trip where a .500 record will not do them any justice. They have 3 games against a division foe, and 4 games against a caliber team in the White Sox to see just how good this squad is right now.  They are currently seven games off their 2008 pace, but even at this time last season they only held onto the American League East top spot by a half a game lead over the Red Sox.


Mike Carlson / AP

The road is going to be  a rough component for the Rays the rest of the season. They will play 17 more game on the road against just their division, and they will play host for another 24 at Tropicana Field. 41 times between today and the last game against the New York Yankees at Tropicana field on October 3, 2009. And so with a 41 game swing in any direction, the Rays will have to capitalize on their road opponents to make up some distance in the standings and give themselves any wiggle room the rest of the year.

But the road has not been kind to the Rays, who currently sport a 18-26 record outside the confines of the Trop. And the road mindset can be tricky at times considering the Rays pitching staff has not been great away from home so far this season. In their 44 road games this season, the Rays staff has a 4.52 ERA, and have given up 53 homers. Every statistic is higher on the road but hits. They have actually given up 5 less hits than at home, but they have not been able to stop rallies and scoring chances by the opposition on the road. So when James Shields take the mound tomorrow night against the Royals the Rays have to adjust their minds to almost feeling at home and strive to take this three game series from the Royals.
 

That would be a huge boost for the rest of the road trip if they got out of the gate in a positive manner.  But the Rays will have to continue to improve both on their defense and their offense if they plan on contending in late September and October. They will have to get on a good and fast run right now and gain momentum to achieve their postseason dreams again this year. The road will end up being the key to any playoff dreams.

But with the Rays top three pitchers, and the emergence of Rookies David Price and Jeff Niemann, the Rays have the horses to pull it off. The Bullpen has suffered a bit of a let down recently after blanking people since late June, but again they will be needed to step it up a notch to regain their edge and superiority.  And speaking of needing an edge, a few players who have begun to awaken at the plate again need to step up for the team to make any strides in the division. Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Zobrist have done their part to keep the offense clicking, but now a few other members of the team needs to do their part to propel the Rays.

Designated hitter Pat Burrell went 4 for 11 during the recent Oakland series and the ball sounded solid off his bat for the first time this season.  For the team to go anywhere the rest of the year, Burrell is going to have to step up his game and contribute on a nightly basis for the Rays to surge. And he is not the only one who needs to kick it up a bit right now. Evan Longoria started off the season simply on fire before he began to cool down during the first weeks of July. He has gone 7 for 40 in the last 10 games with only a single home run.  And during that period he has also drove in only three RBI.


Steve Nesius / AP

But there are great signs of the team’s sleeping giant offense making a second half run. Carlos Pena came out of a homerless streak recently during the Oakland series to get his game back on track. But his 5 for 33 mark in the last 10 games shows that the meat of the Rays order needs to awaken for the team to get any wins.   But then again the pleasant surprise of the season, Zobrist has been the big bat in the middle of the order going 10 for 35 with 1 HR and 6 RBI over the last 10 games. And that is a weakened set of statistics&nb
sp;by him right now. Between the 3 and 6 spot in the lineup the Rays are lacking some critical firepower.

But for what is missing right now in the middle of the order, the top and bottom of the lineup have come together to piece some huge wins for the team recently. Catcher Dioner Navarro, who has been flirting with the low 200′s most of the season has gone 5 for 13 in his last four games and has been instrumental in the rays scoring chances in the last two series Even the duo of Gabe’s have come up big for the Rays in the last week. Gabe Kapler has been hot recently going 6 for 17 with 5 RBI in his last 10 games. And Gabe Gross as emerged again going  7 for his last 26 to move runner around for the Rays.

But the consistent hitter for the Rays right now  have come out of the second and seventh spots in the lineup. Bartlett has come up big lately going 7 for 31 with 3 RBI while maintaining a .347 average for 2009. But if you really want to talk about pressure and coming strong right now, you have to point your finger at Crawford. Not only has he been great on the field defensively over the past 10 games, he has been incredible at the plate. 


Steve Nesius / AP

He has gone 8 for 37 and has stolen only four bases. the entire team is in a bit of a funk, but some members are still trying to keep the Rays heads above the waterlines.  For the team to have the added success the rest of the season, B J Upton will have to keep getting more hits and chances on the base paths.

But as Rays Manger Joe Maddon stresses, “Starting pitching sets the tone of a game.” Shields is the one guy on the Rays staff who needs to see an increase in the runs scored during his starts. The team has only scored an average of 2.61 runs/game for him. The only Rays starter to even get close to 5 runs of support was Andy Sonnanstine, and he is now in the minors. This team surely has the ability to turn the season around and gain ground on both the Yankees and the Red Sox and battle until the end for that playoff spot.

Certain things will have to fall into place for the Rays to make a surge both in the win column and in the standings. But this first road trip will answer so many questions and provide extreme answers to their chances of even getting back to defend their title. There needs to be a total boost from the bench to the Bullpen for this team to take the next step. They have been there before and they know the level of commitment and sacrifices needed to achieve their goals.  Starting tomorrow night with the first pitch by Royals ace Zack Greinke to B J Upton the team will be able to regroup, re-focus and re-energize to shoot towards that ultimate goal.

The clock has started ticking, the Rays are getting ready to toss the ball and do some light hitting before finally going back to the hotel tonight. In that short amount of time the assembled Rays need to come together and feel that power and strength of this ballclub. The prize is within sight, all they have to do now is reach up and grab it and hold on tight to the end. Hopefully their grip will be tight, and their will is strong.
Go Rays!

Rays trio key to Playoff Dreams

 


Darren Calabrese / AP

Everyone around the game of baseball are starting to realize that the Tampa Bay Rays, who are nursing a 6-game winning streak might be starting hit on all cylinders right now at the right time to make some noise and cruise towards the top of the American League East division. But there is one problem right now with that idea. While the Rays have been one of the best clubs since April 30th (35-21) the division leading Boston Red Sox have also kept pace by going 33-22 during that same span. 

And the Rays have not even hit that cursed point from their 2008 season where they lost 7-straight before the All-Star break. That anniversary will not take place until July 7-13th when the Rays began their losing streak with a home stand ending loss to Kansas City and mushroomed into a debacle in Progressive Field in Cleveland where they were beaten in four games by a combined score of 26-6. Even with their late push towards the top of the division, the Rays are still 4 victories short of their 2008 pace, but it is expected that they can pick up that slack during that July 7-13th week.

In that seven day span they will play play a 6-game home series this season against AL East foe Toronto and three against the Oakland A’s before the All-Star break. You can expect the Rays to not have another 7-game fall like 2008 in this series with the Rays also having their annual “Throw Back” night on July 11th against the A’s. On that night, recording artist Smashmouth will also perform during the Rays Saturday Night Concert Series where the team is currently boasting a 11-0 record during concerts.  So that bodes well for the team going into the All-Star break with some positive energy to contend the rest of the way in 2009.

But what has been the answer here in 2009? Has the Rays really gotten that better even with some late bloomers not getting into their hitting rhythms until June.  Three Rays players have finally found their mojo and have started to produce and show the promise we all knew they had coming into 2009. Some people have speculated that a few of the Rays players might have had outside motives or distractions that have prevented them from achieving great numbers before the month of June. We all know that Pat Burrell was fighting a neck stiffness situation that landed him on the disabled list and even made him take at least two cortisone shots to ease some of the muscle pain at times.

But Burrell did finally come back feeling better and began to show the type of ball player the team was forking out $ 8 million for in 2008. Burrell has gone 7 for 39 with 2 HR, 6 RBI, 8 walks in 15 games since returning from the DL.  The Rays did miss his presence in the line-up for those 29 games, and on last Wednesday night he broke a 104 at-bat and 33 games without a home run streak with a nice shot against his former club, Philadelphia during the InterLeague series at Tropicana Field. 

Most people have voiced the opinion for the Rays to be a force again in the AL East, Burrell has to be the usually consistent 30 homer 100 RBI machine he has been for the Phillies for the last several years.  Gabe Kapler also came to the team with high hopes of posting good numbers as a platoon member in rightfield with Gabe Gross. Before the month of June, Kapler looked more like a shadow of his former self, and some have said that when his family finally arrived in Tampa Bay, he then began to again have total focus towards hitting.


Brian Blanco / AP

This might be a bit far fetched, but it might have a bit of merit to it too. Kapler has been seen during the last two Rays concerts visually smiling and having a great dad-daughter(s) moment on the turf of the Trop. during the event. He even was escorted up to the front stage area by Rays Security for the Pat Benatar concert and you can be sure that was a special moment for him and his girls. But I can tell you as a father that when you have a secure feeling and know your family is safe, you do have a different view on life. Maybe the girls, including his wife are just his “Good Luck” charms, and if they are, maybe we might want to trade him before school starts again in the Fall.

Seriously though, Kapler in his last 10 appearances has gone 12 for 23 with 4 HR, 14 RBI and has scored 6 runs for the Rays. And going up against left-handed pitchers the righty is hitting .324 this season and has hit a stellar .444 during the month of June.  But the amazing part might be his strong InterLeague hitting this year for the Rays as he went .500 for the InterLeague series to pace all major leaguers. He also lead all major leaguers in OPS (.586) and Slugging Percentage ( 1.227) to go along with his 3 homers and 14 RBI during the InterLeague schedule.

But Kapler has been more than just red hot in June. In his last 24 plate appearance he has gone 12 for 20 (.600) with 10 Extra Base hits and a 1.550 Slugging Percentage.  During that span he also became only the third Rays player to home in over 4 consecutive games joining Julio Lugo (4) and Jose Canseco (5). And Kapler is riding a 5-game hitting streak right now. So maybe his girls have a great effect on Dad, and if they are truly the reason for his surge, maybe looking into a local school here in Tampa Bay might be a great idea for the Kapler klan in the Fall.

           
            Steve Nesius / AP

The last of our late bloomers is a guy I always thought just needed some time to adjust and find his stride this season. After having off season shoulder surgery and getting a very late start at Spring Training, I always felt that B J Upton might not blossom or even begin to gel until the end of May. In the first home series this season against the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox  from April 13-19th, he had only a .217 average with 9 strikeouts and 4 runs scored in the two series. He did not look like the same guy who lite up the night during the 2008 American League Championship Series by hitting .321 with 4 HR and 11 RBI.

But in the last 35 games he has gone .319 to raise his average from a paltry .177 he set in his first 34 games of 2009. During that time he garnered a AL Player of the Week honor.  And he was simply magical during the InterLeague schedule this year hitting for a .364 average with 3HR,15 RBI and 11 stolen bas
es. His stolen base mark lead all MLB players, and he ranked second in total hits (28). Upton has hit safely in 13 of his last 16 games  boosting his average to his current .248 mark. He also has 12 stolen bases in his last 18 games, and his 29 stolen bases is ranked third in the American League behind teammate Carl Crawford (40) and Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury (31). 

Upton is finding his stride at the right time at the top of the order for the Rays. Combined with the speedy Crawford, they have posted over 69 steals so far in 2009. And Upton’s home run on Sunday capped the cheery on top as the Rays can boast to have the quickest march to 100 HR and 100 SB before the All-Star break in their 77th game. The shattered the previous record of the 1995 Cincinnati Reds who did it in their 80th game. At their current pace, the Rays are on course for 210 HR and 248 SB, which would be only the second time a team has hit that mark in MLB history.

With these three players beginning to hit their peaks in 2009, the Rays can count on more runs and scoring chances the rest of the season. With already consistent years from Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena, the team is beginning to get their engines churning for a post All-Star run at both the team’s second  over .500 season and another playoff push. The Rays have a huge bit of momentum right now coming into the All-Star break, but they need to take that time to recharge and refocus their energies on the fact they will play their AL East foes in 46 of their final 84 games of the season starting tonight.


Steve Nesius / AP

It might seem as a huge goal to have to play 46 games against the likes of Boston ( 8 games), New York ( 10 games), Toronto ( 17 games) and Baltimore (11 games) before the season ends.  But most amazing is the fact that in the entire month of September to October 4th, all but 8 games will be against the AL East teams (23 games).  A 2-game series against the Seattle Mariners at home,3-game road series against the Texas Rangers and another 3-game home series against the Detroit Tigers are the only non-AL East contests in that  entire month to end the regular season.
 

So it is not only time to begin the quest for their second playoff spot, but also the time to begin the rise to the top to try and stake their claim to a second straight A L East crown.  The road is going to be long and hard right after the All-Star break, and the Rays are going to need some help from their other divisional teams to pull off another championship.  During that same month of September, the Red Sox play only 17 games against divisional foes. The Rays might need some added help from the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Angels who play a combined 10 games against them that month.

With the Yankees currently only 1.5 games ahead of them the Rays have set their sights for the second spot in the division. This is not meaning that the Yankees will not just let the Rays have the division, but they also know that the hard charging Rays might just be the team between them and getting back to the playoffs in 2009.  The Yankees also play 21 of their final 31 games inside their division, which includes a day/night doubleheader against the Rays on Labor Day, September 7, 2009.

 
 
 
The Rays hold their destiny in their own hands right now and seem ready to defend their title. For a short time it seemed like the Rays might take a step backwards, but the recent winning streak has people remembering the 2008 Playoff excitement again in Tampa Bay. So where did I put that AL East Championship cowbell?

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?

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