Results tagged ‘ Gabe Kapler ’

Maddon has One More Math Problem to Solve this Spring

         

 

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With Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon seeming to go (on the surface) from genius to deflated mathematical slogans over the last two Rays seasons, it will not be the last time Rays fans see Maddon hits upon a numerical formula for the formulation of his young Rays squad. Just on the horizon, there will be another call for a numerical sequence to shape and ultimately sort out his final 2010 Rays 25-man roster.

And the final direction this 2010 Rays team takes in 2010 will be heavily based on this mathematical breakdown, even before their Home Opener on April 6,2010. And this simple math problem might say a lot about how solid and confident this Rays Coaching staff, and Maddon feel about the key elements of their 2010 squad before firmly heading into the Rays 13th Major League Baseball season.

 
 

One statistical breakdown remains unsolved, and it will definitely define the early roster of this team. This one still undecided simple mathematical conclusion could become the balancing fulcrum towards the realizations of multiple scenarios for possible failure, or ultimate success going into the 2010 season. For these two sets of simultaneous and sequenced numbers will decide the final set-up of the Rays roster. How the Rays split their 2010 roster into their “13 & 12″ segments will be a huge indicator of how the Rays perceive their team’s strengths coming out of Spring Training, and into the early divisional firestorm with American League East ramifications starting with Game 1.

How Maddon and his staff decide if they want to start the season with 13 pitchers and 12 bench players or vice versa will be an early tell tale sign to the confidence level this Coaching staff has with its roster, and its solution towards early challenges.

 
 

For the Rays can not have a downward spiral in the month of April, like in 2009, when the Rays went quickly towards an unpredictable 9-14 early record, and put themselves in “catch-up” mode for the rest of the season. How this Rays squad separates their personnel into those “13-12″ splits might be a instant indication if the Rays organization believes their pitching will need to get the “upper hand”, or if the hitting/fielding players will get the chance to man that “13th seat” at the table.

But you can count on more than a few players trying to force the Rays hands and have their names put in ink onto that “13th” numbered roster spot this Spring. These young and hungry players will do everything humanly possible to make the Rays staff’s decision tougher, and hope to make it lean towards their names with an impressive performance during Spring Training. And the ultimate reward just might make their first Opening Day MLB roster.

 

If the Bullpen pulls it together and borderline relievers like Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer make the roster, it could tilt that invisible line towards the team ultimately carrying 13 pitchers. And even the addition of former Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine thrown into the pitching mix, either in the Bullpen, or as a possible fifth starter. This could throw the whole equation quickly into the pitching sides favor early on this Spring. But that in itself presents an interesting and complex decision all by itself.

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With returning fifth starter Wade Davis and Sonnanstine squaring off in the only battle this Spring for a starting job, could the eventual loser of that battle just be sent packing to another team like Jason Hammel in 2009, or could they just be sent down to Triple-A Durham knowing they might be the first call-up of the season?

 
 

I have a feeling right now Maddon and his Pitching Coach Jim Hickey might be leaning towards extending that “13th slot” towards a pitcher, but there are also going to be some tough and interesting decisions to be made in the Rays infield and outfield mix that might make that entire pitching situation moot.

We already know that outfielder Matt Joyce is going to try to prove once and for all to the Rays Coaching Staff and Maddon that he deserves that Rightfield slot going into the season, and maybe for the next several years. And even if Joyce wins that spot (which I think he does), it is small factoring process compared to the highly competitive dogfight that will ultimately decide the fate of the Rays second utility guy between Reid Brignac and newcomer Sean Rodriguez.

 
 
And right now, I am basing this opinion solely on drills and exercises I have seen at the Rays complex, it seems at this moment that the Rays staff’s eyes are focusing tightly on Rodriguez’s defensive abilities more and more every day. But real soon we will see just how slick Rodriguez is at second base when Grapefruit League games begin on Wednesday with the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Florida.

And maybe Brignac’s roster “pop-ups” to the majors in 2009 might have given the Rays staff more of an comprehensive book on Brignac’s abilities coming into this Spring, and possibly Brignac’s scorecard already has a few penciled-in notes and scratches from the Rays Coaching staff, while Rodriguez is a blank slate with everything to gain heading into the Spring Training games.

Sure Rodriguez was a key trade component of the Rays trading left-handed starter Scott Kazmir to the Angels in late July 2009, but this will be the first time most Rays fans and the Tampa Bay media will get an extended chance to see what the kid can do……now or in the near future for the Rays.

 
 
And if you realistically count the Rays bench players right now, with players like Carlos Pena, Kelly Shoppach, Dioner Navarro, Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B J Upton, Gabe Kapler, Pat Burrell and the injured Willy Aybar, you already have 11 Rays players penciled into that first 11 possible bench slots ob the 25-man roster.

If more than one of these young players like Joyce, Rodriguez, Brignac or even Elliot Johnson makes a lasting impression that they “have to be” on this roster, this could ultimately shake up the preconceived notion of 13 pitchers and twist the equation quickly towards 13 bench players. And that scenario has a very distinctive possibility of happening this Spring. These numbers games for the first time in Rays short history, might effectively come down to total game day performances and not the foresight predictions on their talents, or a daily growing maturity in their abilities to play at the Major League level.

 
 

But, the wrist injury to Aybar might be one of the biggest question mark still unanswered totally into this first set of Grapefruit League games. If he is down and out for an extended time, or even gets put on the 15-day Disabled List to start the regular MLB season, the Rays could keep an extra bench player down with the Rays instead of sending them to the minor league camp or even up to Durham.

So there might be a lot of day-to-day evaluations and recommendations discussed with Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield in the next week or so to see if there is a viable option of Aybar playing before the Major League season begins, or they shut Aybar down from hitting drills and let him effectively rehab back into game shape before pressing this same numbers issue again during the Rays season.

 
 

And if Aybar does go on the D L, it could also be a bit of a last gasp of making this roster for one of the reliever fighting it out to become a Rays Bullpen member, or could evolve into a chance for the loser of the Sonnanstine/Davis battle to be kept on the Major League roster as a possible long reliever like Lance Cormier.

My personal gut reaction is that the Rays seem to want to do everything in their power to try and keep Sonnanstine up at this level, but if he falls into that 13th slot and Aybar comes back, he would be the first to fall from the 25-man roster. You already know that Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Cormier, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate (leftie specialist), J P Howell along with Wade Davis, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann take up 11 pitching spots before even considering Abreu, Thayer or Joaquin Benoit as a Bullpen option.

 
 

 
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That would leave a possible one viable slots, with a second up in the air right now if the Rays want to carry 13 pitchers. You could pencil in Sonnanstine into one of those two spaces, but with him and Davis both having minor league options, they could always be sent down with the adage that it came down to that “13th ” spot. And even with Thayer and Abreu showing mixed results at this level, you have to think of the two, Abreu would get a longer look based on his 2009 MiLB.com designation as the Triple-A Reliever of the Year.

But not going in Abreu’s favor is his short stint with Cleveland in 2009, when he seemed to imploded a bit on the mound and almost started an all out brawl in a game versus Seattle. But both relievers have paid their minor league dues and could force the Rays hand and send Sonnanstine to Durham, even with great outings this Spring.

 
 

This is only my scenario of the whole situation and is only my personal glance into the Rays possible decision on this issue. I see the loser of the Davis and Sonnanstine battle to be immediate trade bait offered before MLB rosters finalize and if a good trade option can not be found, the loser of the fifth rotation battle will be sent back to Durham knowing they are the first starting pitcher recalled by the Rays.

I think there are a few NL teams that would jump on Sonnanstine if he has a great Spring, but there is still time to see about his 2010 situation. I truly feel that Joyce will win his battle for Rightfield, and will platoon with Ben Zobrist to begin the season until Joyce shows he can hit left-handers with consistency, then it open another can of worms for the Rays as to a final playing position for Zobrist.

 

Out of the infield battle, I see Sean Rodriguez maybe having a slight edge right now, but I feel it is Brignac’s job to lose since he has the confidence and skill level to play at the Major League level. And if Aybar does go on the D L , they both could get a realistic shot to make the initial Rays 25-man Opening Day roster. But I also think in the end, the Rays will shop Brignac and he could be somewhere else either before the 2010 season, or within the first few months of the season.

It is funny how two of the Rays past “utility” guys, Aybar and Zobrist based on their great seasons in 2008 and 2009 will play a part so deep into the Rays decisions in 2010. But that just goes to show you the improved depth and wealth of talent sitting in Port Charlotte right now, just at the Major League camp level.

 
 

 
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Some people consider the number “13” to be mostly evil with no redemption for any good. But that same number “13” for one Rays player this Spring Training season will be a blessing, and a chance to show they have what it takes to survive and play daily at this level of the game. Whoever gets that coveted “13th” spot in 2010, no matter if they are a Rays pitcher, or field player, they will know internally that they survived one of the most competitive Rays Spring Training camps.

It might not seem so tough to some of the Rays fans watching the workouts and drills, but this Spring’s competition level has been raised very, very high, and the final Rays player to grace that “13th” spot decision has to consider himself lucky indeed, for they get a chance to grow with this Rays team as they again set their sights on games in October.
 

Rays 2010 Fan Fest Photo Blog 2 of 2

 

 


One of the biggest reasons so many fans came out to the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 Fan Fest on Saturday was a chance to chat and get autographs from their favorite Rays players in advance of the 2010 season. Also on hand were a few of the Rays minor league prospects invited to the Major League camp that started on Friday. The number of fans seen entering the building on Saturday definitely showed that the enthusiasm and the excitement is very much still alive within the Tampa Bay area for their team.

And there were a few big name players like Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, new comer Sean Rodriguez sent to the Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade in 2009 and Rays 2009 scapegoat Designated Hitter Pat Burrell. The autograph day went pretty uneventful accept for some late arrivals from players, and some people grumbling about the absence of Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett and leftie Jake McGee. I still have not heard a word on Bartlett, but McGee missed the event due to his wife Morgan going to a local hospital, but she has since been released and McGee is back with the team at the Port Charlotte complex.

 

But there were more than whispers from a few of the Rays Season Ticket holder I spoke to on friends not renewing their seats or even people downgrading from multiple seats to singles for the 2010 season. But the reality is also there that a small bulk of that inflated number in 2009 was for people who wanted to secure 2008 Playoff tickets and bought seats in the inexpensive sections of Tropicana Field to get guaranteed seating for the Rays playoff run. But there is a anticipated hope of people getting into the flow after Fan Fest and purchasing one of the many ticket packages or options for the upcoming season.

And there were members of the Rays Sales Department all over Tropicana Field ready and willing to discuss or show seating options to people all during Fan Fest. There are options starting as low as $ 273 (Friday or Sunday plan) and rising depending on the seat location. And beginning this Friday, February 26,2010 at 9 am, individual game tickets will go on sale to the general public for the first time in 2010. Another popular option is the Saturday game package that will include every game for the Hess Express /Rays Concert Series that start at $ 331 for T.B.T. Party Deck or Upper Deck Reserved seating.

And again in 2010, the Home Plate Club prices seems to have gone down a tab, so if you should win the Florida Lotto in time for the Rays season, you could purchase a seat in the All-Inclusive area starting at $ 13,256. And even as the Rays season Ticket numbers have dropped, it had to be anticipated by the local economic struggles and also the 2009 Playoff package ticket holders not renewing their seats for 2010. You can be sure within now and the beginning of the season, the Rays will announce some additional ticket options and also attractive promotions and events to get the Tampa Bay residents to come out to the Trop. for more games in 2010.  

 


And as usual, the autograph lines seemed to begin to get congested almost immediately as people bought their silver wristbands then stood in line almost two hours before Evan Longoria first stepped onto the first table location just after 12 pm. By the time he had stepped into his seat, the line formed around the white plastic chain links and circled out into the Rightfield Street hallway down past the Dipping Dots booth and almost to the Rays Carnival Games for the kids.

And there were all sorts of interesting items brought up to the players to sign this year. One fan, Christin Manfredo actually had new Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach sign her 1,000th autographed baseball during Fan Fest, with Rays prospect catcher Nevin Ashley becoming the 1001st autographed baseball in Manfredo’s collection. And there was the usual oversize baseball bats and  small scale batting helmets for players to sign, but the one item that caught my eyes was the oversize World Series ticket that were given to several players during the day. 


 

 

Everyone always asks who is sitting right there with me in my section. Well, here we see Michael, who sits in Section 138, Row C Seat 1 giving Evan Longoria one of the State Farm Home Run Derby balls from 2008 to sign.  Longoria took some time looking at the ball and remarked that it looked like it was actually hit, possibly by him during the event. It is a great collectible ball for Michael’s collection. Another item that came up just after Michael to Longo was an actual gold-colored fielding glove that looked a lot like the Golden Glove model glove on the trophy that Longoria will be presented at a Rays game in 2010. One of the great things about this event is seeing some of the fantastic collectible items fans have obtained during the past season from auctions, sales and even events like Fan Fest for the guys to sign.
 


 

 

People were complaining all day long about players getting to the Trop. late for their signings and not staying past their times to appease fans. I know that certain players had transportation delays on their travels up from Port Charlotte, while others had logistical situation going on with their belongings and equipment getting to Port Charlotte ahead of them on Saturday. For some reason, B J Upton took a huge blunt of this backlash, but he was not the only player who was delayed and did not stay any additional time to sign for fans.

And some Rays fans were quick to notice he was texting between signatures and also checking his phone a bit not aware of his transportation logistic situation. But then again,
when you are sitting at a table above the general public, they can see you every move and action and can develop negative opinions and reaction quickly based on your overall mood and attitude to the fans. Upton is excited to begin a new chapter in 2010 and is healthy for the first time in a few years. He has reached out to new Hitting Coach Derek Shelton for advice and has seen the errors of his ways in the past with his nonchalant base running and quiet demeanor. I think he is going to have a breakout year in 2010.

 

 

Gabe Kapler to me has become one of the greatest ” at ease” fashion sense guys on this team. And I mean that as a compliment. Here we see him in a great black hat and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers that seems to show his laid-back attitude and approach to this team. But he is also one of the guys who get into a “zone” during game day and is a constant figure helping other players both on and off the field. Kapler is one of those guys on the edges of the Rays roster in 2010 who could be beneficial to the Rays return to the playoffs in 2010.

 

Most people know these two guys as one of the best First Basemen offensively and defensively in the Major Leagues, and the other is the Senior Director of Promotions for the Rays. But Carlos Pena and Brian Killingsworth also have another “Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of Separation” moment”. Both were also members of the Wartham Gatesman who won the 1997 Cape Cod Baseball League Championship.  Funny story, Killingsworth actually called me on my cellphone the day we got Pena and told me about the signing. I still marvel at that moment I knew the Rays were bound for the playoffs with a guy like Pena behind the scenes.
 

 

One of the great thing I love about Rays Fan Fest is the way Rays Radio Network guru Rich Herrera gets time with the players to talk about the upcoming season, or even put an exclamation point on some issue. It was great how he started chatting about the limited edition Carlos Pena T-shirt being sold by the American Red Cross and the Save The Children Foundation.

Herrera told the crowd how the back of the T-shirt lists all the accomplishments Pena has accumulated since his arrival here in 2007.  About Pena’s 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Award and Silver Slugger Award, his 2008 Gold Glove, and his 2009 selection to the All Star game. But Herrera was quick to mention the one award Pena is most proud of is his selection as the Tampa Bay recipient for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award.

Most people know that this award is given annually to the player who combines outstanding skills on the baseball diamond with their devoted work within their team’s community. Pena was actually honored to be presented his nomination by Roberto Clemente Junior during a ceremony at Tropicana Field on September 3,2008. As part of the Roberto Clemente nomination, Major League Baseball made a donation in Pena’s name of $ 7,500 to Fundacion Lumen 2000, a Christian Foundation which provides foster care for children. Pena and his wife, Pamela, also donate school supplies, medicine and equipment to this foundation annually. 

I have notice a weird pattern lately in the family units of players within the Rays roster. It is fascinating to me the number of “twos” associated with Rays players and their children. There seems to be a wild Rays parallel, especially in the Rays Bullpen where 4 players have two children. Included in that list is Dan Wheeler (2 boys),Randy Choate (2 girls), Jeff Bennett (2 girls) and Dale Thayer (see above photo).

But the duo’s do not end there as First Baseman Carlos Pena (1 boy,1 girl), Outfielder Gabe Kapler (2 boys), Starting Pitcher Matt Garza (1 boy,1 girl) and Catcher Dioner Navarro( 2 boys) all celebrate the “2’s”. But it can go one step further as First Base Coach George Hendricks, Senior Advisor Don Zimmer and Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn also have two children in their broods. 
 

 

 

There was also a another wild moment behind-the-scenes as several members of the Rays showed up wearing some unconventional head gear for the autograph signings. From Rays starter James Shields, who should get the nod for the 2010 Home Opener against the Baltimore Orioles rocking a white cap, to new closer Rafael Soriano coming down the aisle dressed in black and gold and listening intently to his I-pod on the way to the signing table. Some websites around the Internet did not see his ensemble in its entirety. So the above photo is what he wore into Tropicana Field before he took the stage wearing the Rays new “Sky Blue”-themed alternative jersey.

 

 

And most of the Rays were in a really giving mood during Fan Fest. At one point, before Grant Balfour went over to the Season Ticket holder Photo area, he came down from the table and signed for a few minutes with a few more fans before heading over by the Leftfield foul pole to participate in the photo op for the Season Ticket holders only. But even as they were coming and going, several Rays players,including Upton posed with fans for pictures as
they were ascending the aisle to go back into the Clubhouse area following their autograph signing times.

 

Fernando Perez even took a moment out to come by my seat and tell me he read a bit of my posts during the off season, which really caught me by surprise. I had forgotten I told him about my blog following his poetry article back in 2009, and he advised me he likes my “personalized” view of the game and the actions. Got to admit, when you have a graduate of Columbia University in Creative Writing tell you he likes your stuff… I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Fernando, in advance, got to tell you, I am also a huge fan of your articles and I am still going to push you to join MLBlogs.com and submit some stuff….You can count on that!
 

 

 

But this was also a time for some “old Friends” to reunite as former Rangers teammates Jaoquin Benoit and Carlos Pena chatted for a bit before Benoit and Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos made their way to the stage for their 4 pm autograph times. There were a lot of chuckles and writing down of information between the three of them before Ramos and Benoit descended for their time at the autograph tables. And as was custom for every Rays game since he got here, Ramos gave me a salute as he entered the blue-screened area for the signing. I am a lifetime fan of Ramos, and it is not just for the sideline Salsa displays either.
 

 


And the Rays organization has to be proud of its fan base that still had the roped off areas full and awaiting autographs at 4 pm. This is a great sign of the energy and the commitment this region has towards Major League Baseball. And it is also fitting that Maddon did not leave the signing table until everyone in the “Table 1″ line had their chance to come up and get their signatures. Even as the overhead lights began to dim within Tropicana Field, Maddon and his two Coaches stood their ground until the last fan got their items signed. Maddon did the same thing in 2009, and I suspect he will do it every season he is here with the Rays. And that is another reason to love him as this team’s manager.

  

 

 

 

As you can see by this last photo, the time is quickly upon us to begin our nightly patronage of all things Rays related. And those 45 days will seem to simply fly by as the Rays begin game within the next week or so. Once the team begins their Grapefruit schedule the days will pick up steam until that last Florida Home game at Tropicana Field against the New York Mets. And then with one more trip up to Durham, North Carolina to play the Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls, it will be only a matter of hours before we again assemble for another Major League Baseball campaign, and a drive towards playoff glory again.

Even with all of the outside distractions and riff-raff going on within this Tampa Bay area, the one constant is that the Rays play a brand of baseball other teams are now adapting for their own squads. They always say that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. If that is true, then the “Rays Sky Blue” jerseys might be a great addition as expectations rise and the sky is the limit in 2010.

Rays Pitchers & Catchers Report…2010 Edition

 


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**** Within the next few days I will post a extended Photo blog of the pictures I took today after the Rays Fan fest tomorrow afternoon.


I could not sleep a wink last night and thank goodness AMC had a pretty good movie lineup until 6 am this morning. This felt like the first time I ever suited up for a baseball game. I had the butterflies early today and mixed with the anticipated assembly again with Tampa Bay Rays baseball players who I consider “baseball buddies”. And the long hours leading up to this special moment of the Rays pitchers and catchers reporting for 2010 more than lived up to all the previous night’s hype and anxiety.

Sure you would think the hour and a half drive down to Port Charlotte from the shadow of Tropicana Field would seem to take forever as the sun began to rise in the East, but the reality was it seemed to furiously fly by with only the time staring to ebb slower as I began to wait first in line this morning to get into the Charlotte County Sports Park and “officially” begin my 2010 Rays experience. And it was great to not have the over indulgence of the Mosaic Corporation’s name attached to signage surrounding the complex today. And as I was standing there as the Rays media members began to assemble, some just passed by, while others acknowledged me standing their in my Pepsi sweatshirt as I battled the 56 degree weather.

And while I was standing there, a wild figure in pink sweatpants, barefoot and a huge poof of hair began to walk up to the security checkpoint carrying his baseball gear in a Army green dufflebag. He had come to make the team, and Edgar Gonzalez was not going to take “no” for an answer. Sure he might not have had great baseball experience only playing Marine Corp baseball, but decked there in his USF baseball jersey ( but did not play at all for USF), he was energetic and wanting an audition today for a possible slot on the Rays.

 
 

And two assembled security guards were business like and totally professional as they tried to point him towards Tropicana Field and the Rays Front Office to arrange an “official arrival” or even a slot to participate when the minor league camp came in next week. But Gonzalez was persistent and totally seemed to have his wits about him, until he began to unravel his story into a million pieces by saying he was trying to hold correspondence with U.S. President Obama and the world leaders on the curing properties of baseball. So as Gonzalez began to fade to black in the minds of the security force, he was advised to “put shoes on, or vacate the property as a safety precaution”.

 
 
 

Just then, you could see the color drain from Gonzalez’s face and he knew instantly that he had blown his scheme to try and infiltrate the Rays first 2010 workout. But I do commend the security force for doing it with grace, class and not singling him out and making the situation difficult. So as he turned away he said he would rehash it out up in “Tampa” with the Rays officials and be back another day to formally take the field. Well, Edgar Gonzalez, I wish you luck, and I hope you do get that shot, but since you have, by your own admission, never faced a 90+ mph fastball or seen a slider in your life, the audition might last the $ 2 it costs to run the Batting Cage machine at the Mini Golf complex down the street.
 

 

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But as 10 pm came, I strutted in first in the line and was handed a Dioner Navarro and Matt Garza bobble heads and a great present of a Rays Spring roster cardboard placard that listed each invited Rays ” guest” to the 2010 Spring Training complete with the final statistics including every stop during 2009. I scanned up and down it a few time to see the names and former 2009 teams illustrated and saw a few extremely interesting names. Names like Mike Ekstrom who was claimed off waivers by the Rays this off season from the San Diego Padres , or former Ranger pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who might push some pressure on the Rays Bullpen spots, or Joe Dillionaire” Dillon who might push for a bench spot on the team and be an adequate third catching option on the Major League roster because of his versatility.
 

 
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As the guy all assembled around Rays Manager Joe Maddon for his first inspirational speech for 2010, and the brief speeches and chats by Jeff “Ziggy” Zigler, who is the Rays Traveling Secretary, the team got into stretching and began long toss to get their arms stretched out for the first time in 2010 in front of a live audience. Rays starter Matt Garza and Rays Bullpen reliever Lance Cormier put on the show of the day easily topping 200+ feet in their long toss segment before the squad split into three groups and began to start drills on retrieving the ball in front of the mound and doing basic drills like covering first base on a bunt or even shot towards the hole at first base.
 
 

And on another part of the field, the Rays field players were beginning their daily workouts in the batting cages under the watchful eyes of spectators and autograph hounds. Gabe Kapler, Jason Bartlett and a bulkier-looking Rays prospect shortstop Tim Beckham all took their swipes in the cage today before taking time out to sign for some of the fans and expressed excitement in returning to Tropicana Field tomorrow for the 2010 Rays Fan Fest. I took this time to chat a bit with Rays Communication Manager Carmen Molina and St Petersburg Times Rays writer Marc Topkin about the season and to see if I could get a few tidbits.

 

 
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But I was lucky enough to be within a good earshot of the conversation by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to the assembled media when he began to discuss the Rays payroll, keeping Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, and the possible Rays stadium pot that is beginning to boil. He was his usual self showing total commitment to the St. Petersburg market place the team is currently in, but stressed the stadium will not be adequate up until the 2026 lease expiration date. Standing their in his own “Rays Sky Blue” sweatshirt he spoke for about 15 minutes answering volleys at him and providing in depth, complex answers that more than fulfilled the questions thrown at him on the fly. P. T. Barnum would have been proud.
 
 

And as the players began to split into their respective groups for their day ending run in the western-most field’s outfield, several players like J P Howell, Jeff Neiman and Rays prospect Jake McGee sprinted to the Rays clubhouse and shed their sweatshirts and came out again to do their running before taking time to chat and sign for fans before leaving for the day. I had a chance to talk to Howell, and his eyes lit up when I asked about his off season trip to Bora Bora for his honeymoon, or when I asked if we could do an interview sometimes during Spring Training about it.

 
 

And as I was asking that, Grant Balfour slapped me on the back asking if I was keeping my same seat. I quickly told him I was, and told him he better keep his same seat also ( on the Rays Bullpen bench) for 2010. He just smiled from ear-to-ear and told me he was going to do everything possible to stay put. Or when Randy Choate came up with his new facial chin hair and asked why I did not yell “Randy” when he saw me. And I began to tear up a bit. This is hard to explain, but over the past three years while I have been battling employment issues, these guys have been the solid foundation and the people I made sure to say something to before, or during every single Rays game.

 

 
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So today was special to me in a different way than most of the people assembled to welcome the Rays back from cold Winter snow-scapes, or even trips abroad with their new loved ones, this is my personal rite of Spring passage. Baseball is back, but better yet for me, Rays baseball is back. Even as I stood there talking with baseball buddy’s Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos or Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi, I could feel that inner fire kicking up again and was eager for the upcoming season.
 
 

Maddon did not bring out any mathematical equations this season, but offered confidence and a yearning to remember those steps made in 2008 to again get back to that ” special place”. For the Rays to revisit their 2008 roots, it will take sweat, blood and commitment by each and ever member of their 2010 roster. In the next month and a half guys will come and go from the Rays clubhouse either to the minor league camps, or even towards other opportunities in baseball, but Maddon stressed that they had to regain that passion, had to redefine and re-energize to again do things “The Rays Way”, and make those steps to again claim a top spot not only in the American League, but in their ever present difficult Eastern division. But for today, it was just great to see my buddies again.

 
 

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.

 

 

 

Gameworks Shindig was a Total Blast!


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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?

Competitive energy goes Haywire

 


Jim Presching / AP

I am a very competitive person. I at times insanely dedicated to playing football and baseball as a kid growing up as I am now as an adult doing something at home like video games with friends. It is a mild personality defect that has been drilled into me since I was just about 4 feet tall. I was always told to hit harder, sweat more and push myself to the  outer limits of my body. That sort of routine after awhile gets ingrained into you and it becomes a part of your basic personality.

It doesn’t matter to me if you think it is a bad or good trait, it is there for everyone to see  and I do not think it can be reversed. And at my age now, my body and my mind are finally playing tricks on each other. For years I have still been able to match up against the neighborhood kids in some street football, but over the last year, my body has decided that is for the young, and not the guy who beginning to show gray on his temples and get winded after 15 minutes playing the game.

And I take that same sort of insane passion with me into my Fantasy sports and even with my  Rays Renegade team. None of this was more evident yesterday afternoon than when I saw my Fantasy guys go belly-up.  I saw my team, which has 6 Tampa Bay Rays players on it begin to take a free fall towards a final 1 for 37 mark last night, or a miserable .027 batting average for the day. You see, I can not longer play the game like I did in college, professionally, or even in the backyard, so these simple games of skill and have now become my battlefields.

And it is hard for me to sit there and hope for a rebound effect, or even simply just take deep breathing as a relief for the pain. My mindset for so long has been fine tuned to want more than the usual. It has been primed for confrontation and geared towards defeating any enemy, friend or foe.  Heck, I do not even go to a friend’s card games at his local tavern because I am afraid of my competitive streak.

So yesterday while I was watching a two-fold implosion, one on Sunsports/FSN-Florida, and the other on my small laptop screen I was venting some extreme clouds of fire from my belly. Smoke was clouding my judgment, and small embers of rage and disappointment ravaged my stomach. I had never seen such carnage before with my team in the crosshairs, and I frustrated me to the extremes.

Anyone who was on Twitter yesterday knows I was within a fine hair of melting down and imploding myself online. Oh, I do not get nasty and go all four-letter words or even attempt to curse, but the pent up frustration did make me re-write my Tweets about three times before I sent them. But this was a different competitive edge.


Jim Prisching / AP

It had a different feel to it for me, or so I thought at the time. I guess all those years of playing and scrambling had finally gotten me to this point. I was so upset by the end of that game that I knew I could not take phone calls, could not take emails, and especially could not encounter people who would rehash the game with me. I put a huge sign on the fridge door to leave me alone or there would be a firestorm of Nerf products coming at you that would rival a  Confederate cannon bombardment during the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

I was in no mood to celebrate one of the biggest pitching accomplishments because it had happened to my team. And with that I sat in the dark for about an hour and thought, and thought and thought, hey I forgot to bring food and drinks into the room. So I wandered out the back door and drove to the grocery store. There I got a few Pepsi products, a Cuban sandwich and a few things to nibble on later that night.

And wouldn’t you know it, the two guys in front of me were chatting about the Perfect game. It was at this moment that I finally came to the realization that I had a problem. I still had the fire in my belly and that pain in my head from losing. That the lessons learned a long time ago might be mis-guided now and out of date. And that is a hard thing to admit. I am older, but not wiser in this area. And I know I am not the only one. I think about friends of mine who still play competitive softball or coach Little League and wonder if they still have that acid belly pain and yearning to smell the win and avoid the bitter aftertaste of losing.

I began to wonder as the two guys were starting to put down the failing efforts of the Rays in that game, and were laughing at the Rays efforts. The little devil in me wanted to throw down and take them both out with vengeance..with authority… with angry power.

 
And then I wondered if they even knew about Dewayne Wise’s late inning substitution and if he was not there, these guys would not even be talking like this. I wonder if they knew that 5 times in that game Rays hitters got 3-2 counts on Mark Buehrle and he made his magic happen. That even into the Rays last at bats in the ninth inning, that they were still trying to find a way to win. That Rays catcher Michel Hernandez got Buehrle behind in the count 3-1 before taking a strike looking, then swinging at a pitch for the second out.

Three outs before Buerhle and the White Sox were to celebrate, an outfielder had to make the play of the game to save his masterpiece. Two outs from the end he had to show he was the skilled pitcher we always knew he was by prying a walk out of Hernandez’s hands, and in the end, he dominated one of the better hitters in the American League by getting Jason Bartlett to hit a ball to short for an easy third out and end the game.


Jim Prisching / AP

The entire last inning or so people on Twitter saw my responses, and I think they saw the aggression and the frustration come to a boil, or maybe they thought I was playing. Here is just a few of the rambling out of my collective soul during that final bunch of outs:

RaysRenegade Pat ‘the Faucet” Burrell almost ended the suspense. Game of inches with that drvie down the 3rd b line. Perfectly turning my stomach rotten.

RaysRenegadeWhere is my lighter fluid? Neidermeyer dead, Marmalard, dead, DTX Death Mobile gassed up. White tube sox…….flaming as we speak! Imperfect


RaysRenegadeMark Buehrle is no Billy Chapel. Sorry this is not a re-make of “For the Love of the Game.” Kapler, Hernandez, Bartlett..my $ is on Bartlett.

RaysRenegadeHoly Crappo! Dewayne Wise just came off the bench and goes up over the wall to steal Kapler’s HR.

RaysRenegadeI am not going to act like those NY fans in the movie..I am pissed! I saw Derrick Lowe throw the first no-hitter against the Rays. No No NO!

RaysRenegadeThank goodness I do not have a dog! It might be the 18th Perfect Game in MLB history, but the TV is off! Shut the door,I am not in the mood.

RaysRenegade@MLB I was tweeting like a canary. Kudos to Dewayne Wise for saving the special gift. But it will take me a day to congrats to Buehrle.

RaysRenegadeSeacrest out!

And here is the last Tweet I saw before I left Twitter last night:

RSBS@RaysRenegade i assume it’s just sleep for you now

You have no idea what was venting through my ears at that time. People who have never played at a high level of sports think that a coach comes into a locker room calm, cool and collected after a game like that. Well, most do not.  At least mine never did. From Coach Charlie Pell in college to Coach Kush while I was playing ball in Indy, losing was not an option, it was an excuse for not winning.

I really do not think that New England Patriot Head Coach Bill Beleichick strolled into the locker room after an 11-5 season, and missed the playoffs and sent his team off with a hardy ” we just missed boys” speech. If he did, that will be the end of that dynasty chatter. 

This evil energy gnawed at me for about 4 hours last night while I watched shows I had on the DVR saved from Monday and Tuesday night. Competitive spirit and  a yearning for the best and the top shelf do not just transcend sports, they support it.

I am wondering if there is a support group of former athletes or competition junkies that meets in my little town. I am not upset by the Rays losing this game, I am not so angry because it was the Chicago White Sox, or much less a great pitcher like Buehrle, the final essence of all of this is that it was a Perfect Game. 

I mean I was in Boston  on that cool April night when Red Sox starter Derrick Lowe no-hit the Rays and I was upset, but not to this level. It did bother me for the rest of the night, but not to the extreme this one is clawing at my heart. Maybe I have finally hit that wall, that invisible part of life where reality beats up the image of my team. 
Maybe it is finally time for me to seek professional help to combat the effects of this over-competitive libido before it kills my love of the game(s).

Nah, that is just crazy talk.  I will be fine until the next time we have this sort of performance from the Rays. But I am confident it will not happen to them again in my lifetime. There have been only 18 Perfect Games in the history of the game. To be a part of one of them was great, but thank god it did not happen at home. You do not know what kind of reaction you might get from the bandwagon faithful.

Do I still feel the same about the Rays….sure. And my Fantasy team will rebound. I might get popped out of first place this week, but I will fight back and regain my spot by the time the playoffs come around.

But this one did hurt. All the way down to the middle of the core of my competitive spirit. It fractured my perception and  ultimate foundation of my team, but they will be fine and will fight on. No one died. No one was injured, the games will start again tonight. I will again be on Twitter ready for tonight battle and post a few, or more snippets during the game.


Jim Prisching/ AP

I will again be full of the competitive fire in my belly to support my team. I guess what really got to me was the fact that this was it for our games against the White Sox this season unless we both meet in the playoffs. No chance at redemption, no chance to try and duplicate the feat again in 2009. But what might have been the epicenter of all the anger and rage might be as simple as this team did not deserve to go down like this, but you can not stop history, you can only contain it.  

But then again, I think I need to make a call right now to  a Rays support group. I need to go to a place where people like me can go to grow again and get rid of these ugly feelings bottled up in my belly. I hear they have just that sort of group down at the Red Room in Largo, and the leader of that support group wears a big blue wig and serves cold Coors Light.

I think I need an infusion of other Rays fans right now. I think I need a spirit transfusion stat before I melt into the carpet. Maybe they are meeting tonight at 7 pm. Maybe I can get help during the Rays versus Jays game tonight……..just maybe. Hopefully Roy Halladay did not watch this game and wonder…….


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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