Results tagged ‘ Gabe Kapler ’

Team Unity goes Western

 


RRCollections
(Sorry my camera is having major focus issues right now)

The Tampa Bay Rays have been described as a huge brotherhood for their closeness and their ability to stand up for each other in the bad times. I went to a Rays speaking engagement earlier this year where Rick Vaughn,the Rays PR guru told the group about a story following the conclusion of the World Series Game 5 plane trip back to the Tampa Bay area. Vaughn and his wife were seated in the same aisle as Rays reliever J P Howell and his girlfriend and Vaughn  was awestruck by the fact that everyone on the plane made sure to come by and comfort Howell about taking the loss for that final game in 2008.  

And the mood on that late night plane ride was sad and muted, but it also had the unique feeling that everyone was also upset that they would not be hanging out with each other  every day after that loss. That is the  wild and special bond and closeness of this ball club that other teams would envy. If you ever really watch them during Batting Practice and even before a game, you see the connection factor that this team has with everyone on the roster. So it is only fitting that they would also plan events and road trips with themes and costumes or wardrobes to fit the occasion.

And that also has a great effect on this club. For to come out for a farewell to family and friends before a road trip dressed to the theme of the trip shows a great bond of unity and togetherness on this team. The team has conducted their own version of “American Idol” during Spring Training inviting anyone within the Rays organization to step up to the mic and sing. They have held BBQ’s and impromptu events throughout the year that is attended by almost everyone on the roster.

And the team also showed up in force for Carlos Pena’s 30th birthday celebration out on Madeira Beach earlier this season. But that is the magical bond that this team forged in 2008 and is still growing more and more this year. Rays Manager  Joe Maddon has even instilled a theme to every road trip this year, with the last one to start off in South Florida to have an all-white theme. The players all showed up in their best dressed whites, which included some very stylish head gear by Gabe Kapler, Carlos Pena and Joe Nelson.


RRCollections


So it is only fitting that during their road trip starting today to the Western town of Denver Colorado they promote a “Western” look. I am not privy to the fact if anyone is going to dress up like a gunslinger, but hopefully if the do, airport security will also have a bit of a sense of humor when they go through the security check near the plane on the tarmac of St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport.  I can only imagine what some of these guys are going to pull out for such an event. With a few true Texans on the team like Jeff Neimann (Houston), Carl Crawford (Houston) and Randy Choate (San Antonio).

With a majority of this team actually coming out of the western state of California, it might be a wild sight of all these guys decked out in their country western best  for the trip to Denver. Now I have done a blog recently where I mentioned that Rays reliever Joe Nelson is going to do a personal rendition of the Yul Brenner character from “The Magnificent Seven” with a complete head-to-toe black on black ensemble.

I really wish I could be there to even get a glimpse even without a camera of this outlandish event. But hopefully some one within the Rays organization (Skip Milos) will be on hand to record the event for prosperity. I did however get a few other members of the Rays to tell me how they were going to promote the event. Both are members of the Rays Bullpen and have been great enough to furnish me with their renditions of their scheduled outfits for the flight.

Scott Cursi (Bullpen Catcher) is a very businessman like guy. He is very upfront and doesn’t partake in the designer label game that some of the fashion plates on the Rays team might use for this trip. He is going to wear a black shirt with jeans and a pair of black Ostrich boots he picked up on a past road trip. He is also going to go with a mesh straw-like cowboy hat because of the heat in the Denver area. Very practical, realistic, totally Scott Cursi is going as the every day man.

Bobby Ramos is one of the best people you could ever meet and chat with about anything, even baseball. He is also one of the teams hidden fashion plates evidenced by his outfit he gave me for the trip out to Colorado. Most people might know about Ramos love for Salsa dancing and music, but the guy is also a man who enjoys the finer things in clothes. From head-to-toe Ramos might just be the best dressed Rays Coach on this plane trip. He is going to top his head with a Jack Daniels black cowboy hat.

He plans on showing off his Ely white shirt with the black piping. He is planning on wearing black Levis jeans to celebrate the western look, and will be wearing a cowboy “bling bling” buckle around his midsection. He did not tell me if it was one of those bronco-busting Texas sized buckles, but you can only imagine. He will put his feet in a fine set of black Justin boots with silver toe caps for that special “Uptown Cowboy” look.


polishedtwo@Flickr.com

Doing things like this themed road trip traveling party can help bring together everyone on the team. Players like Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler did not get to mesh with these guys in 2008, but they have also come together with the Rays players to form a close knit bond on this team. The one guy who might feel a bit left out on this trip might be Winston Abreu, who comes from the island of the Dominican Republic and might not have gotten a heads up on the festivities today for the plane (Hopefully they will drink Coors Light).

But you can bet maybe Willy Aybar or Carlos Pena will get the recent addition to the Rays roster ready and in style by the time they head to the Trop tonight.  Team bonding is a special time for these guys, and events like this can show outwardly their own commitments to the “Rays Way.”

Kapler is growing on Me

 


Gail Burton/ AP

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

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

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

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

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


Brian Blanco / AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          
           male-model-agency@Flickr.com


Gabe Kapler Mini Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introducing Levon Washington to Rays fans

 



AP file photo

Maybe I do not get it. Maybe I am missing the entire idea of the draft when you take a player who is rehabbing an injury in the First Round of the draft.  And the funny part is that the Rays have known about the injury the entire time having had the kid here a few weeks ago with his parents to do some ground work on even considering him for the Rays. He has even told the University of Florida coaching staff that he is going to try and get signed as soon as possible so he can get right to playing for the Rays.

Oh, and did I mention he is a distant cousin to Rays former slugger Fred McGriff who was sitting at the Rays Draft table in Secaucus, New Jersey and probably was the one to telephone his relative and give him the great news. But there is some unusual things to go along with the announcement of Gainesville native Levon Washington as the first pick for the Rays in 2009. Did I mention he is coming off an  shoulder injury? The kid does have a pedigree that puts him just inside the top 30 prospects in baseball according to Baseball America, but even with his athleticism and speed, there is a huge amount of danger involved signing him as damaged property.

He is rehabbing nicely right now, with a total prognosis for no sustained problems after the injury heals, but the thought is to get him signed and maybe used as a Designated Hitter in the Gulf Coast League for the rest of the year so he can be ready in February 2010 for a full season team. Really?  Is that too soon, or is the injury maybe a slight smokescreen that kept some teams away from the guy before the Rays took him with the 30th pick. And even if they did get a steal at 30th, does he have Carl Crawford speed, or maybe more like Gabe Kapler speed.

These things are major considerations for the Rays to think about before signing Washington sometime this week. Oh, the kid is above eager to get down to the Trop and talk money and get into playing for the team, That is a great thing to hear, that a player wants to play for the Rays. For years it was more like a disappointment to even be considered by the team, but after 2008, players are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and wondering if they might be the key to the next emergence of the team towards the playoffs in the future. 

Oh, did I forget to mention that MLB.com did not even have a scouting report on the kid to place under his name on the website right after his selection. But that is not the curious thing to me. That is the fact that MLB.com had him listed as an infielder, while ESPN.com had him listed as an outfielder when the listing hit the Internet about 8 :30 last night. Now that is fine if the team pulled the rug out from under a few teams and selected a kid that flew under the radar due to his injury, but even high schooler Todd Glaseman, who was picked in the third round with the 108th pick had a small scouting report  on him listed at MLB.com.


Doug Finger / Gainesville Sun.com

Okay maybe I am a bit bitter that two great catching prospects were still on the board and the thought of an injured player being picked in the First Round sounded more like  a Dewon Brazelton than Tim Beckham type pick. But the fact that R J Harrison is so psyched that this kid was still on the board might be a better indicator of his possible potential for the Rays. ” There’s a lot of things we like,” scouting director R.J. Harrison said told the St. Petersburg Times. “First of all, he’s a premium athlete and y’all that have been around here for a while know we like that kind of athlete. He fits right in with the kind of players that we’ve signed in the past. He’s a well above average runner and we really like his bat. We think he’s going to hit, and hit for a high average. … We saw an advanced young hitter.”

Granted the Rays might have seen a pile of unclaimed gold at the bottom of the First Round, but could his rehab after tearing his labium and spending most of his high school senior season as a DH and not in the field been a deterrent to his high selection in this draft.  “We didn’t go into this blind,” Harrison said. “It’s just a matter of time, and getting him back to full strength. He’s made good progress already on his rehab, and when he gets with us and gets with our people that will only make it that much better.” Okay, I understand personally that Ron Porterfield and the Rays medical team are the best in the game, but did we have to take this kid in the money round?

But with that aside, he might not have been there at the 78th pick in the second round, so I am going to reserve 3/4 of my judgment on here right now and wish the guy a speedy recovery and hoping he does sign fast and furious so we can get him into the “Rays Way” as soon as possible. But why is it that Andrew Friedman, the Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations just learned of the six degrees of separation concerning McGriff on draft night? If we had done our so-called background and knew everything about the kid, we would have also seen the correlation of the McGriff family bloodlines. 

Of course this made no matter to the Rays. They were not selecting him for his bloodline, which Friedman confessed he did not know about prior to Tuesday night pick.  When the St. Petersburg Times asked Friedman about the six degrees of separation he stated, “I learned it on the way over here (to address the media),” Friedman said. “R.J. said he heard it the other day. Fred told him again when R.J. called him to tell him the pick. Certainly can’t hurt and hopefully it can help us in the recruiting process.”  And this was a kid the scouting department has said the Rays have been watching for two years ( according to the Times). 

They had even had him at their homefield to do a short impromptu workout and nothing about the Rays-Washington correlation relationship came to light. They talked with his parents, and they did not divulge the family ties. Come on here, you mean a proud parent did not boast about their kid to a scout, in their home MLB stadium. It is a miracle people!  Even though the kid is eager to get signed and maybe even get into a Rays uniform as soon as possible there are two words that might hinder a quick and sure-fire signing for the kid. Does the name Scott Boras send chills down Friedman or Matt Silverman’s spine right now. The kid is represented by the anti-christ of agents.

This is not to say that the client will not get a speedy and quick resolution to the situation. The client( Washington) is eager and anxious to get his professional career underway and has not hinted of going to even enroll at the University of Florida, even if he does have a scholarship waiting for him right now. He is not posturing for a prolonged stalemate, or even
giving out any negative vibes that you got when the Rays selected Delmon Young a few years ago. Hopefully everything will go peachy keen in Rays-land and we can get this kid to the GCL within a month or so to begin rehab and his playing career.

http://sports.espn.go.com/broadband/player.swf?mediaId=4065422

I am not against the Rays getting a bargain, or even a steal in the First Round by finding a talent that people are overlooking due to a circumstance like a shoulder injury. It is just the fact that it is like trying to roll a “7″ and the odds are against the player most of the time. I hope he heals and becomes a great player for the Rays, but I am going into this First Round signing with a bit of hesitation people. I mentioned Dewon Brazleton before in this blog.

There was a guy who was a project pitcher from the get-go and did finally make it to the major leagues before finally falling from grace and out of baseball by 2008. The last place I saw Brazleton was at the 2008 Little League regionals in Gulfport, Florida helping to coach the All-Star team from Tennesse.  Here was a guy selected by the Rays with the First Round with the third pick in 2001 Draft and he is now out of baseball looking in at the game.
 

That kind of puts the baseball draft into true perspective for me.  Of the Rays First Round selections prior to Brazleton’s pick, only Rocco Baldelli and Josh Hamilton are still playing baseball at the major league level. Paul Wilder, Jason Standridge, and Josh Presley ( third Round) are out of the game. Presley was selected in the third round after the Rays lost picks to compensation for the signings of Wilson Alvarez, Dave Martinez and closer Roberto Hernandez. Day One is over for the 2009 Draft, but the murmur and the hum still can be heard amongst the Rays fans as to the selection of Washington.

This is the first true draft that will have Friedman and the Rays new Scouting staff’s fingerprints all over them. With their successes of the past, and their eye for detail, you have to take a “wait and see” premise right now with their first three selections. But there is a long way to still go here with the later round continuing today with more possible surprises in hand for the Rays and other teams in the MLB. Oh, and there are still a few great catching prospects out there guys……….just a short hint there.

Bird is the Word Last night

 

                Orioles 7,      Rays 5

           
                   Mike Ricigliano/www.baltimoresun.com

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

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

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

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

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

 
Nick Wass / AP

Rays Did Have Offense..Early

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

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

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

               
                Nick Wass / AP

Sonny is No Longer Money

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Wass / AP

Wednesdays Wild Writs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rays Steal Series from Red Sox

 

              Rays 5,     Red Sox 3


Mike Carlson / AP

The C.C. Show

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

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

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

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


Mike Carlson / AP

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

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

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

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


Mike Carlson / AP


Rays Take Series

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

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


Chris O’Meara / AP

Defense Wins Ballgames

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

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

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


Mike Carlson / AP

Mondays Moments

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

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

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

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

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

Rays take first loss to Red Sox at Home




 
Red Sox 10, Rays 6


Steve Nesius / AP

Butterfly Balls and Odd Plays

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

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

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

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

             
               Steve Nesius / AP

Rays Bats  Went Silent


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

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

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

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

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

       
       
Steve Nesius / AP

Red Sox Bats were wild tonight

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Rays Gain back the Trop in Win

 

             Rays 13,     Red Sox 0



Chris O’Meara / AP

Josh Beckett: You Got Served!

I have to admit, I was a Josh Beckett fan when he was on the staff of the fellow Florida squad, the Marlins. I was excited to see him raise his arms in victory as his squad fought for the World title. At that time I knew this guy was going to be a great pitcher, but I had no idea I would have to begin to hate the little thing that he does on the mound. Last night though, the Tampa Bay Rays manhandled the Boston ace within an inch of his collective life. They did everything to get under Beckett’s skin but flirt with his girlfriend. The Rays did an extremely effective job of taking his rhythm away from him and stepping out of the box and collectively just getting him off his game.


And the local Rays crowd, which numbered only 20,340, did everything in their power to chant,harass and try to also become a factor in his bad night. Beckett tried to do his stall tactics on the mound, but the Rays did not play that game with him for the most part all night long. A few times the Rays did toy with him by calling for “time” late in the pitch, or even just staring Beckett down instead of concentrating on the pitch coming into the plate. And it did take effect on the right-hander. Several times in the game he seemed to be physically bugged by the Rays tactics, which is a kudo to the Rays coaching staff to point the small ways to get Beckett a bit uneasy on the mound.

But the best part is that the Rays also manhandled him with their bats. They did not settle for the walks, or the singles, they wanted to make a statement to both Boston and Beckett that they are still the team of piranhas’ here even if they think they are the Great White in the division right now. But be that as it may, a school of sharp toothed piranha can take a shark any day of the week, and both Boston and Beckett got served that notice loud and clear last night. Beckett lasted 4.2 innings, and threw 113 pitches, but his night was over in his head about the third inning when the Rays got two straight infield hits to start the inning off.

That is right, Jason Bartlett and B J Upton got two straight nibblers to the third base side of the mound. Bartlett hit a good shot towards Mike Lowell at third, but he could not get a great throw off, and he was safe by a country mile. Upton then hit a short grounder off the end of his bat that Beckett finally got to, but could not get Upton at first base. Beckett then seemed to be a bit unnerved and gave up a walk to Carl Crawford on 5 pitches to load the bases for the Rays. What came next seemed to unravel him a bit on the mound for the next few batters.

Evan Longoria then came up and took a 2-1 count breaking ball to the gap in right-center field for a 3-run double. Longo basically took Beckett’s night in that one swing. Because at that point, it put the Red Sox down 3-0 in a game that Rays pitcher Matt Garza had total control over from his first pitch. After Carlos Pena struck out, Pat Burrell did the last surgical strike on Beckett in the inning when he hit the first pitch from Beckett to right field to score Longoria. But what might have really ruined the night for Beckett was the fact that the Red Sox went down 1-2-3 in the top of the fourth inning, and he got sent back out there already reeling from the top of the third inning.
 

This served the Rays purpose perfectly. They knew they had him on the ropes and with a fast half an inning, they could still inflict more pain on Beckett before he got adequate time to adjust and cool down. After Bartlett started off the inning with a sharp shot to Julio Lugo on the second pitch of the inning, Michel Hernandez then came up and deposited his first career home run to left-center field to stake the Rays to a 5-0 lead in the game.  the the Rays began to truly twist the knife into Beckett as both Upton and Crawford hit back-to-back doubles to put Beckett on the ropes early in the inning. And the Boston Bullpen was still silent at this time. No one up throwing or even stretching out at all. It was Beckett only for this inning.

Beckett did get out of the inning with only Upton scoring after Hernandez’s blast to keep the score respectable for the moment. But in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Rays decided to inflict one more wound onto Beckett’s night. After another fast 1-2-3 inning by Garza, in which he only threw 19 pitches, it was Beckett’s turn to again get within the Rays sights.  After a lead-off 6-pitch at bat by Gabe Gross that saw four foul balls Beckett thought he had a grip on the game for the first time since the second inning. But Akinora Iwamura hit a double off the second pitch he saw and gave the Rays an early scoring opportunity.

After Bartlett struck out to give Beckett some breathing room, Henandez then came up and hit an RBI single to left field to put the final run up against Beckett on the night.  Red Sox Manager Terry Francona then came out and brought in Red Sox reliever  Hunter Jones to finish out the inning. For the night, Beckett ended up giving up 10-hits and 7-runs, plus 3 walks against the Rays. It was a great performance by the Rays bats to take the Boston ace out early in their 4-game series. Now for the next three games all Beckett can do is sit on the bench and reflect on what he could of, or would have done differently in that contest. But the fact remains, that in this second test between him and the Rays in 2009, this round goes to the Rays by a  bloody knockout.

          
                
Chris O’Meara / AP

 Michel Hernandez Has Banner Night

The post-game shaving cream pie by Rays starting catcher Dioner Navarro could not keep that Cheshire cat grin off his face. Even with a mountain of white suds dripping off his face Michel Hernandez was having the time of his life during his Rays Radio Interview on the field. And I can think of no one better to feel like he had a huge part in this contest than Hernandez. Not only did the Rays current back-up catcher have a fantastic night by going 4-5 with 3 RBI’s, but Rays Radio call-in comments were calling for Rays Manager Joe Maddon to play the “hot hand” behind the plate right now instead of Dioner Navarro, who has seen some offensive up and downs this season.

Hernandez also is the second Rays back-up catcher in two seasons to catch a Garza one-hitter. Shawn Riggans caught the other in Miami last season against the Marlins. But if you are not a Rays fan, you might not have ever heard about this fine catcher.The guy has been in the minors for the past 11 years. Going from club to club getting consistent results and reviews, but not finding a home for his talents. The 3-year old catcher was also an add-on to another great Rays moment when he was the second player called up in 2008 to get to Boston in time for the Rays game against the Red Sox. His flight companion that day, Dan Johnson, ended up being the Rays hero in that game when he hit a solo shot off Red Sox closer Johnathan Papelbon.

Hernandez got his first major league home run in the fourth inning and really did not even know it had gone out before turning at first and seeing it on the Rays Jumbotron. You could see his toothy grin the rest of the way around the bases, and the mob scene on the Rays dugout stairs were a testament to this guy’s heart and abilities. But that was not the end of the night for Hernandez, he ended up going 4 for 5 on the night also collecting his first double and RBI. Before this game, he had a total of six major league hits. But all this would not have been made possible if he had not made a huge decision as an 18-year old.

You see at that time he was playing for the Havana Industriales of the Cuban  National League on his current road trip brought him to the Yucatan Peninsula. That night, along with a few fellow team mates he made his marl for freedom and his chance to play baseball in the US. He ended up hiding out for almost two months as his wife Marta, who was in Venezuela at the time worked on his visa paper and his eventual freedom. Hernandez now lives in the Tampa Bay area, and with his new prize that first home run ball coming home with him  last night, finally might feel like he achieved that dream he envisioned 12 years ago while lying in Mexico. But you know the first person to see that ball in the morning will be his son, Michael who also enjoys playing baseball.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Garza Gets a Bit of Deja Vu

Rays starter Matt Garza had been there before. He had felt that burning in the pit of his stomach as the pitch was hit by the bat, and it was not that long ago. the last time he ad heard that sound during a pitching performance like this it was on a balmy June 26, 2008 day in which Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez hit a blistering home run in the 7th inning to take his no-hit bid away, and also post the only run given up by Garza on that day. Even though he had struck out 10 Marlins that day, that sound of the bat crack is all he remembered of that day. So we flash forward to last night game and we again see that Garza is pulling off a miracle by blanking the Red Sox through six innings. 

With the Rays comfortably with a 8-0 lead at the time, Garza is on cruise control right now just following the flow of this tidal wave waiting for it to break onto the beach. The game really did have a great feel and pace to it with Garza getting the ball and setting up fast to want to just go at the Red Sox. Through his previous six innings, he had a masterpiece on his hands and did not do anything out of character to play with the mojo that was happening on the mound. He had just gotten the ball and fired the previous six inning, and this one was no different.   

He faced Jacoby Ellsbury first in the top of the seventh inning and had not even granted a walk at this time in the ballgame. He was working on a perfetc game before the speedy outfielder put a softly hit swibbler just past Garza’s right ear to finally get something going for the Red Sox. The ball had taken a soft path towards Garza, and he could not adjust in time to grab the ball before it fell to the turf. Bartlett came in quickly from short and tried to scoop and fire the ball to first, but Ellsbury had already touched the base before Pena gripped the ball in his mitt.

The frustration was immedidate on Graza’s face. He quickly asked for another ball and got back to his routine by then getting Dustin Pedroia to ground into a double play to end Ellsbury’s time on the base paths. Without any base runners, Garza then returned to the mound, but you could see that the hit had effected him. He quickly gave up his only walk of the night to David Ortiz, but rebounded with a great inside pitch to Jeff Bailey that got him to hit a ground ball to Evan Longoria and get out of the inning. In the past, Garza might have gotten into his head a bit and maybe ruined hids great pitching performance with frustrated throws and maybe a visual meltdown in his head on the mound.

Garza went out again to the mound in the top of the eight inning to complete his night. After striking out Jonathan Van Every, Garza had given the Rays faithful a free Papa John’s pizza, but he gave us better thing to remember on this night from his pitching performance. He only pitched to Van Every in the eighth inning before Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out and brought in Grant Balfour to close out the masterpiece. Even as Maddon was heading to the mound, the Trop crowd, even Red Sox fans were on their feet to applaude the effort of the Rays rightie tonight. He had also fanned a duplicate 10 Red Sox tonight as he did in that June 26, 2008 game, but tonight he did it in front of the home crowd, which made sure he knew how much they needed and loved the effort. It was a thunderous clapping of hands and cowbells way until he was gone from the playing field.

But tonight, I think we saw the right hander take the right path and readjusted himself  on the mound and stood he tall and gained inner growth that will do wonder for him in his future starts. Last night’s performance was a true masterpiece. It is another great point in Garza’s maturation process and personal growth beyond the baseball diamond. To night he might have lost his perfect game and hos no-hitter, but in his development to be more consistent and mentally up for the challenge, Garza threw nothing but strikes all night long.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Longo and JB Fight for the  April Record

Coming into tonight contest, Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett were battling to become the next Rays hitters to get recognition as the Best hitters in the month of April for the team. Bartlett came up in the bottom of the eighth inning with a chance to overcome Rocco Baldelli for second on the list, but his pop out to third base ended his chances at the spot and he settled for a final .358 average for the month. Now I have to say that a .358 average is not too shabby at all, and he should take great pride in that mark, but I also know he wanted that top spot and was eager in tonight’s game to hit. He ended up going 1 for 5 tonight, which is one of the first times in recent games that he has hit less than tweo hits in a contest. 

Longoria went 3 for 5 on the night, which included his sixth homer of the season and also 3 runs to go with his 4 RBI’s. The night helped him boost his average up to .369 for the month. This was enough to top Baldelli’s previous .366 record he set in 2003. How fitting was it also that the guy currently sitting in the top spot for an April average was also sitting in the Visitor’s dugout for the game. When Longo hit  a single in the bottom of the eighth, you could see Baldelli’s huge smile for the guy. That was a great sight to see. For these two guys not only have a great respect for each other, but they both share the fact that they both were the faces of this franchise in different times. Congrats Longo, with your .369 average you have also posted the fourth best April by a reigning ROY candidate. Now it is on to May’s mark for both of them.



RRCollections


Friday’s Funky Findings 

**** In tonight’s game, we will see the debut of the Rays Alternate jersey. And who better to show you the new uniform than tonight’s starter, Andy Sonnastine. Tne new additon features a navy blue button-down with RAYS outlined in white trim with a light blue shadow across the chest.  Light blue piping surrounds the sleeve and collar and extends down the front of the jersey. The usual “sunburst”  emanating from the “R” is 40 percent larger than the team’s ususal home and road jerseys.

****  I was talking with Shawn Riggans during the game about his up-coming rehab assignment and found out that he will be heading to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits to begin his trek back to the Rays roster. He is putting a hopeful target of May 10th, which could be one of Matt Garza’s starts for his return to the Rays. Riggans had been out with shoulder tendinitis and was put on the disabled list on April 13th.

**** Rays starter Jeff Niemann was awarded the Al Lopez award before the game. This is the Rays award to the best rookie during the Rays Spring Training. During the 2009 Spring Training Grapefruit League season, Niemann  had a 2-1 record with a 6.32 ERA. He appeared in 6 games and started in 3 while throwing 15.2 innings of work.  Niemann also was in the fight the enitre Spring Training for the Rays fifth rotation spot, finally garnering that spot on the last day of Spring Training.

**** Throwing out the First Pitch tonight will be a local baseball star who recently got exposure on ESPN and numerous publications for his pitching. Patrick Schuster, a senior at New Port Richey’s Mitchell High School will throw out the first pitch tonight before the game. He recently set a Florida State High School record with his fourth  consecutive no-hitter. Schuster lost his bid for five straight no-hitters in a recent game against  Tampa Gaither. Schuster, who is off to the University of Florida to play college ball,ended his year with a 9-4 loss to Gaither in the Class 6-A District 7 semifinals. Schuster had thrown 26 consecutive hitless innings coming into the game.

**** Is this a growing trend against the Rays? If you go down by 10 runs, you bring in your right fielder to toss an inning of work. The Red Sox brought in right field Jonathan Van Every to throw the last 2/3rds of the game last night. Is this a growing trend? For his efforts, Van Every did his best to re-produce a “Nick Swisher” moment on the mound, but was tagged by one hit in his fifteen pitches to finish the bottom of the eight inning. you might rem
ember that the Yankees inserted Swisher to pitch against the Rays in their season opener and the leftie blanked the Rays, also getting Gabe Kapler to strike out in that inning.

Dramatic Moments Doom Rays

 

                 Twins 4,     Rays 3


Jim Mone / AP

Momentum Swung like a Pendulum

I still can  not believe what I saw last night during that game against the Minnesota Twins. These are the types of games we used to come out on top of in 2008.  For some reason the karma or the magical ingredient is missing so far in this 2009 edition of the Rays. I mean that is a perfect example of the way we won games in 2008. We would fight and claw and produce hits and run scoring opportunities, then magically, a hit or a homer would open the floodgates for home plate celebrations. It is still time for this team to get back into that same groove, but we might have to dig to find it right now.

The person I feel the sorriest for right now is Rays reliever J P Howell. The guy is 0-2 this year after going 6-0 to begin 2008, and he should not have even had to go to the mound last night. How many defensive chances did we have in last nights game that could have turned the tide the Rays direction. Seriously here, there were plays that the usual Rays were adapt at getting, and one that would have secure the win even before Justin Morneau came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. Is this defense the same reproduction of the 2008 model, or is it lacking a bit of intensity right now.

I know a barrel of hard hit balls can get through the holes in the infield, but when you do the “Maddon ” twist and add another infielder to the mix, a sharp hit ball should not take you out of the game. I mean on that special shift in the ninth inning, with the bases juiced, you know the pressure is at its highest level of the game. Morneau hit a screamer that takes a bad hop right in front of Akinora Iwamura and he has to field the ball off his stomach. With the Rays maybe still having a chance to end the inning, and a chance to win it, Aki tosses the ball to second base to get the force out on Brendan Harris. With Harris out, the ball is quickly thrown to Carlos Pena at first base, but not in time and Twin’s catcher Jose Morales hit the plate with the winning run.

The split second that the ball hit Aki in the stomach might have gave the Twins that victory. For if he had been able to cleanly get the ball and toss it to second an instant earlier, the Rays would have been up to bat in the top of the 10th inning. Those plays used to seem routine to the Rays in 2008, but in 2009, they are having to work for every out and run.  Minnesota did what it took to win the game.period. They played the perfect National League scoring card to a “T”. They got Morales on base with a lead-off single. Nick Punto put down a nice bunt to move him over to second base and into scoring position. Denard Span hit a beautiful ball just past the mound for an infield single and put Morales 90 feet from the win. Then the ex-Ray Harris came up to pinch hit for Alexi Casilla and got walked. Then Morneau hit a routine grounder to Aki………..the rest is history.

          
         Jim Mone / AP

Three Key Moments in the Game


I saw three moments in that game last night that seemed to seal the loss for the Rays. If any of these events had gone the other way, that is in the Rays favor, it would have been a Rays win. I know it is speculation that these events could have, or would have been different, but you got to believe they did have a momentum change for the team.  Let’s start with the one that had me on the edge of my chair cursing out a base running blunder.

The first incident happened in the fifth inning, with the Rays down 2-0. Willy Aybar lead off the inning with a one-hopper to the left field wall for a double. With Aybar already in scoring position, it seemed like a easy chance for the Rays to cut into the Twin’s lead. Gabe Kapler hit Aybar over to third with a grounder to second for the first out of the inning. Then Dioner Navarro hit a ball to short that Punto decided to come home with for a force out at the plate on Aybar. Now the thing that got to me here was that Aybar was not moving on the play to the plate, or he would have scored before the throw. Instead he took a late break to the plate that Punto saw and he changed his throw from first to the plate.

The ball was there in enought time for Morales to post up in front of the plate perfectly to keep Aybar from sliding past him. Aybar was straight up when he bashed into Morales and sent him flying backwards, but he had enough time to firmly secure the ball and the aggressive thrust by Aybar was moot. I am sorry, but maybe it is the football player in me, but I used to dig my shoulder into the catcher and drive him off the plate from below to give him a sense of fear from landing on his head, not politely send him reeling backwards like a possum.

Incident number two might be more 50-50 to some people, but every time I saw that replay on television, I think I saw more of a chance to get that ball. In the bottom of the first inning, Rays starter James Shield issued a lead-off walk to Span. These lead-off incidents always come back to haunt you unless you get a quick double play ball out of it. Alexi Casilla then came up and struck out to post the first out of the inning. Morneau then came to the plate with the ability to hit one out on every pitch. Shields tried to go inside on him and the ball caught more of the plate than he expected and Morneau drilled the ball deep into left-center field. 

Carl Crawford was there with a bead on the ball as it began to slowly come out of the air. He jumped high along the 7 foot outfield wall as the ball began to fall rapidly. He made a perfect play on the ball, but it somehow managed to dribble from his glove and Morneau had himself a 2-run homer to start the game. You want to yell Fan Interference, or something when you see a play like that. But there was not a Twins fan near the seat before it hit the concrete beyond the wall. Crawford seemed to  have had the ball, but it slipped out of his grasp and it gave the Twins an early lead. 9 times out of 10, Crawford is coming down with that ball for an ESPN Web Gem, but tonight, it was instead labeled as Morneau’s fifth homer of the season.

Incident number three was not as obvious to a lot of people. 
But it is beginning to destroy offensive chances for the Rays. As of today, Evan Longoria is hitting the cover off the ball at a .365 clip. His power hitting and timely singles have been a major player in the Rays wins. His 10 doubles also are a team high and makes him a scoring threat every time he hit the plate. But there is another Longoria stat that is beginning to rear its ugly head, and it is taking the Rays out of numerous scoring chances this season. The reason I mention this is that every time this has happened recently, it has taken the Rays fastest base runner off the base paths and made Rays rallies more difficult.

It is something everyone does during their year hitting, but so far in 2009, Longoria is making a bad habit of  hitting into these plays day in, and day out. Longoria is currently ranked tied for second in the American League in this category. It is an “offensive” category to me, but not in a good way. So far he has hit  grounded into 6 double plays this season. He is the only member of the Rays with over 2 this season. And in last night’s game in the fourth inning, after Crawford walked to lead-off the inning, Longoria took two pitches to take the Rays scoring chance off the board.  Most people would say, ” So what” to this, but it is a pattern in recent games.

Do I need to go back into the 21 game annuals and show you key moments this has happened? Number 6 is listed above, but how about a few other recent examples. 
Example number 5 .
This past Sunday during the Rays 7-1 loss to the Oakland A’s. In the third inning, with one out and Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford both on base, Longoria hit a ball to second baseman Mark Ellis that he tossed to Orlando Cabrerra, then to Giambi to end the inning and the Rays rally.
Example number 4.
During the Rays last home stand, on Sunday, April 19th in the sixth inning, with again two men on base, Longoria hit into a inning ending double play. That day he had Michel Hernandez on second and Gabe Kapler on first base when he hit a ball to  Alexi Ramirez at short that he flipped to second and on to first base to complete the inning.

I am not trying to throw anyone under the bus here, but this is a habit that the young Longoria can fix before it gets to be a situation for him. Considering the Rays have only hit into 14 double plays all season long shows that Longoria is heads above the rest of the team in that category. In two of the three examples listed, his  action of hitting into a double play might not have changed the course of the contest. But last night, it could have made a monumental change to the game.

          
         
Jim Mone / AP 

Zorilla Needs More Plate Appearances

He was one of those hidden gems on the Rays roster in 2008 when he made 48 starts for the Rays. His bat was just developing into the creature it has further morphed into in 2009. We saw glances of his increased power and his ability during the season. His . 249 average does not jump out at you, but his 10 home runs and 48 RBI’s in limited at bats does make a bold statement about him in 2008. He even put an exclamation point on the last series in Detroit in 2008, by stroking three home runs, including a 420 foot shot to dead center field in that game. His two Grand Slams in 2008, the first against Baltimore on August 29th, then added one against Sidney Ponson in the Rays versus Yankees night cap of the double-header on September 13th.

Now consider he hit all of those in only 193 at bats. that is right, he hit 11 extreme homers in less than 200 plate appearances in the year.  Considering he spent the first 38 games of the season on the disabled list with a left thumb fracture, I guess we can say that Zorilla has made his full transformation into not only the “Super Utility” guy, but also a needed tool for the Rays offense. Yes, I am very high on this guy. Not because he is on my countless Fantasy teams ( Which he is), but because I can see the desire and the drive for several years finally peaking with him gaining more time to show his wares to the Rays coaching staff in 2009. 

Considering he did not come back up to the Rays until August 5th, for his fourth tour of duty with the Rays, what could he have done if he was healthy all season long and not missed a stretch of the year rehabbing and gaining at bats in the minors. But in 2009, he has done nothing to push him onto the bench, or even be considered a secondary player. Right now I truly feel you play your “hot” card. And right now, he is the hottest guy on the Rays roster. Last night is a classic example of his pinch hitting in 2009. He comes up in place of Gabe Kapler in the top of the ninth inning and blasts a shot into the baggie in right-center field to tie the game up for the Rays.

Pressure, what pressure? This season, Zobrist is 2 for 4 as a pinch hitter with 5 RBI’s. Both of those hits have been home runs, including a Grand Slam pinch hit on April 17th. Before this season, in his three prior years with the Rays, he has gone only  0-12 in that role. So the 24-year old is stepping up his game in 2009, trying to gain either a spot in the field every day, or just be a top option off the bench for Rays Manager Joe Maddon. Now let me throw another wild fact at you about Zobrist.  And no, it is not the fact that his wife is an extremely talented singer ( Julianne Zobrist ), but it a Rays career record that might impress you. Zobrist is currently tied with Carlos Pena ( 3 ) for the team franchise record for Grand Slams. Oh, and he has hit all three of those Grand slams in only 86 total at bats. He could run for mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida right now and win by a landslide.

                     
                     
Jim Mone / AP

Tuesday Tidbits

**** In last night’s game, 3 of the Rays 9 hits were doubles off Francisco Lariano.  The Rays have now hit  74 extra base hits this year, which is ranked fifth in the American League. Their stolen base percentage of 87.1 is also fifth in the AL this season. The Rays are also fifth in the AL in homers, with 24 this year. But the team is ranked third in doubles this season with 46 so far.  But on a bad note, they are also ranked third in the AL , with 165 total in strikeouts this season. 


**** 
In last night’s game, the Rays had their best chance of the season to increase their win total against left-handers. As it stands now after the loss, the Rays
are 1-8 against southpaws this season.
The only left-hander the Rays have defeated this year was Boston’s Jon Lester in their second game of the season. In that 7-2 Rays first win of the season, they tacked 8-hits and 5-runs on the young leftie. In the upcoming 4-game series at home against the Red Sox, the Rays will not face Lester again as he is starting the Wednesday night game against the Cleveland Indians to conclude their series in Progressive Field.


**** 
Injured literary Ray Fernando Perez will be adding the title public speaker to his resume tomorrow as he will be the guest reader  at the Rays “Open Doors for Children” event at the law offices of Holland & Knight ( 100 N. Tampa Street ) in downtown Tampa at 10:30 am.  The Columbia University graduate will be reading the popular children’s book, H is for Home Run to about 35 children from ” A Brighter Community” Day Care”, which is one of the oldest day cares in Tampa.

**** Tickets still remain for the Thursday and Friday games of the upcoming Boston Red Sox series.  There are limited numbers of seats for the Sat. and Sunday games, but plenty of variety seats for the first two games of this series. The Rays are currently ranked fourth in home attendance in 2009, even with only 7 home games so far in the season. The average of 28, 986 after the seven games is a 60 percent increase over last year’s attendance figures for the team in 2008. The team will play only 13 of their first 35 in the confines of Tropicana field in 2009.

Rays Hungry in Win in Oakland

 

              Rays 8,     Athletics 2


Ben Margot / AP

Dr. Devilrays and Mr. Ray

The beginning to the 2009 season began another chapter last night as the  Tampa Bay Rays evened their road record in 2009 to 5-5 with a wild shootout in O-town. Now in the past, a game like this would not be possible with the dominance the last few years of the Oakland A’s pitching staffs. But this is not the same pitching staff your older brother was salivating over in his Fantasy Draft. It has come on a few seasons of wheeling and dealing as the A’s are going through a self-imposed rebuilding of their staff. But in this game, even the Barry Zito’s or even the Dan Haren’s might have been hard pressed to keep this Rays team under their thumbs.

In their usual Dr. D-Ray and Mr Ray fashion the Rays took control of the game from the onset and did not let up the entire contest. This is the type of game we hoped and prayed for during their 2-5 home stand last week. They did have a few minor base running mishaps, but the overall ability of the offense to take control of a struggling pitcher was a thing to be seen with your eyes. The team did what you are suppose to do when a pitcher is having control and command issues. they sat waiting on their prized pitch and drove it endlessly into the California skies to post their seventh victory of the year. 

The fact that Mother Nature was also working in the Rays favor to begin the game was not lost on just the players. Rays Television Commentator Todd Kalas was quick to alert the fans at home to the 31-40 mph winds that were swirling in and around the stadium at game time. This just added to the Rays offense as they  went on in the contest. But considering they were facing  Oakland rookie Trevor Cahill today, the 21-year old, who was drafted by the A’s in the 2006 Player Draft, got his first look at Tampa Bay in his career. In his fourth start of the year, Cahill might have wished he had missed it after the Rays took an early 1-0 lead after B J Upton scored on a Carl Crawford RBI-double to start the game.

To put the Rays offense emergence into perspective, they put their lead-off man on base in five of the nine innings tonight, and in three of those innings, the lead-off man scored for the Rays. Gabe Gross and Carlos Pena lead-off two of those innings with solo home runs to pace the Rays offense tonight.  In all, the Rays hit 4 doubles and 3 homers against the A’s, and only Upton and Pat Burrell did not have hits in the Rays 13-hit explosion. This is the type of Rays confidence that was so familiar with them in 2008. The Rays were hitting the long balls, but also concentrating on extending rallies tonight.

In their first inning, they strung together three straight base runners to put early pressure on Cahill. Then in their  5-run third inning, they got two early base runners before Pena hit a 3-run shot over 388 feet for his first homer of the night.  After Burrell hit a fly ball to Mark Ellis for an easy out at second base, they again strung together  5 straight base runners before Crawford hit a sharp fly to Matt holliday in left field for the final out. But by that time they had exposed the young right-hander and paced to a 7-0 lead.  In the fifth, the Rays again tired to mount an extended rally, with Akinora Iwamura getting a lead-off single into the gap in right-center field, then Jason Bartlett hitting a ball to Eric Chavez at third base that he beat for an infield single.  But Upton hit into a 6-4-3 double play to prematurely take the Rally down.

From that inning on, the Rays only extended one inning to multipule base runners. In the eighth inning, both Burrell and Gabe Gross got walked by A’s reliever Maichael Wuertz, but were stranded on base after a Dioner Navarro fly out to center field ended the inning. At that point it was 8-0, with the Rays in control of the contest. For the night, the Rays got 13 hits, 8 of them off the Oakland starter and also  gathered  8 total walks on the night.  The Rays did leave 7 runners in scoring position, which is still the Achillie’s heel of this team. If not for the A’s starter getting into early trouble tonight, the Rays only sustained two rallies all night long after Cahill left the game, and both of those were off of reliever Dan Giese, who Oakland got on waivers after the New york Yankees released him.


Ben Margot/ AP

El Presidente Issues a Statement

Carlos Pena has been the vocal leader of this Rays team now for several years. He is one of the first people to speak up for the Players Only meeting the other day in Seattle, that lead to a Rays victory, and tonight he let his lumber do the talking. It is great to see a Raya slugger let his bat do the talking in this contest. But Pena has always been someone who will “walk the walk, and talk the talk.” It is one of the reason the Rays took a chance on him several years ago and signed him to a Minor League contract. He did nothing more than surprise and rise this team by hitting the daylights out of the ball and make his love for this young team know.

The Rays made their committment to him by signing him to a multi-year contract, and since that day, he done more and more to take and portray a leadership role on and off the turf for the Rays. Tonight he took two pitches and made his statement in this game.  In the third inning, he took a letter high ball and deposited it deep into center field to send the Rays in front 5-0 at the time.  Then  in the the sixth inning off Giese, he took a 3-1 pitch and drilled it into the first row into right field, about 333 feet from home to provide the last run of the game for the Rays. His two homers tonight puts him into the American League HR catbird seat with one more than Carlos Quentin of the Chicago White Sox.

His 4 RBI’s tonight also puts him at 21 for the year, which also puts him currently  2 RBI’s ahead of Nick Markakis of the Orioles for the American League lead. Pena went 2 for 5 in the game, and moved his average up to .254 tonight. For the Rays to be successful in 2009, they need their big hitter to remain consistent and producing.  In their 1
0 loses this season, Pena is a combined 7 for 36, or a .194 average with 13 strikeouts. He has a total of 21 strikeouts so far in 2009, which is good enough for second in the American League. But the Rays seem to feed off his energy, and his success has been key to the team rebounding and rebuilding their oen confidence this season. El Presidente is a leader, and the young Rays seem to play better and with more consitent nature when their leader is setting the example on the field and at the plate.

 

Ben Margot / AP

Kazmir Adjusts Mid-game for Great Start

Rays starter Scott Kazmir did not start the game in great fashion he again seemed to be a bit off the mark, but adjusted correctly and posted one of the most impressive night of the year for him. He did not use his fastball to set-up hitters, but used a greatly improving slider and change-up to keep them guessing at the plate. When the game first started, you would not have thought he was going to go 6 innings and thrown only 96 pitches in the game.  But coming into this game, he has always been extremely good against the A’s. He was a combined 6-2 against them with a 2.70 ERa in 11 starts.

During tonight’s first two innings, you did not see the dominating Kazmir stuff, but it was showing itself throughout those innings and gaining momentum. Kazmir did not start out the night in impressive fashion as he walked lead-off man Ryan Sweeney with four pitches. He neded up throwing 22 pitches just in that first inning. In the second inning, he surrendered  a quick single to Jack cust to lead-off the inning and then walked Kurt Suzuki before taking control of the inning and sending the next 3 hitters down in order to strand both men on base. In that inning he threw 26 pitches. It looked like another early night for Kazmir.

Then in the third inning he again gave up a lead-off walk to Sweeney, his second of the night. At this point, Kazmir has given the lead-off hitter a chance in all three innings. But then he ended up getting Orlando Caberra to hit into a double play to erase Sweeney after a difficult 10-pitch at bat. At this point it seemed that Kazmir regained his command and ended up striking out Nomar Garciaparra to end the inning after 21 pitches. Up to this point, Kazmir had thrown 72 pitches in the contest and was heading for another early night.

But between the innings he discovered his small mechanical error and then took the mound in the fourth inning and went right after the A’s hitters. He only threw 7 pitches in that inning, getting Matt Holliday, Cust and Suzuki in order for his first 1-2-3 inning.  In the fifth inning, he again took control and sent the A’s down 1-2-3 for the second inning, but this time threw only 15 pitches. He was beginnig to take full control of the game. In his last inning, the sixth, he again got the A’s down in order 1-2-3 to put an exclamation point on his night. In that inning, he had retired 11 straight hitters and did his last inning on 6 total pitches. For the night he had given up only two hits, and had held the A’s hitless from the second inning on tonight.


Ben Margot / AP


Gross Doesn’t Waste Opportunity

Gabe Gross did not get an opportunity in the last few games to contribute anything to the Rays. He had not been in the field since the Rays 4-2 loss to open the series in Seattle at on Tuesday night. and in that contest, he only came on to pinch-hit for Gabe Kapler in the ninth inning and popped out in that appearance. His .130 average was cause for concern among the Rays faithful. People had been calling for Ben Zobrist to get more time since the left-handed Gross was struggling at the plate. But tonight he got a start against the A’s right-hander and did not waste his chances. He not only made a mark at the plate, but made sure the Rays did not forget what he brings to the table as a defensive expert.


In the bottom of the first inning when Holliday hit a hard ball to right field and Sweeney tagged up at third base to try the arm of Gross, he quickly got his feet set before the ball reached him and threw a missile to Dioner Navarro in front of the plate for an easy tag-out and to end the A’s rally and inning. But he did not let the momentum end there. He then was the lad-off hitter in the top of the second inning and blasted a 0-2 pitch into deep center field for his first home run of the year.  Gross rode the energy to again in the third innig when he hit a double to the left-center field wall to start another Rays rally after Pena’s three-run shot. 

He ended up crossing the plate in that inning to then put the Rays up 6-0 at the time. He again got on base in the fourth inning on a  5-pitch walk to put two men on base for the Rays. He did not get an opportunity to put anymore runs up for the Rays in that inning, but his offensive struggles seemed to be behind him. After a hard hit ball to center field for an out in the sixth inning, he again got on base in the eighth inning after a 5-pitch walk by A’s reliever Michael Wuertz.  That was his last time on base for the game, but his 2-3 performance had made his average take a positive turn to end up at .192 for the night.

Some people have commented it seems like I do not like Gross. It is not that at all here. It is the fact I know the team is struggling right now, and when you are in a hole, you go with your best horses. At that time Zobrist was the hot bat, and also deserves some playing time considering his early season successes at the plate and in the field. Both guys have a single outfield assist this year, but Gabe Kapler is leading the Rays with two so far in 2009. I like the way Gross played in 2008. Maybe I got spoiled by his banner year and he is showing his more stable hitting average. No matter what, I think the Rays should ride the hot bats this year in right field. If that means Zobrist and Gross get the bulk of the turns, then so be it.

        

www.tradewinds
resort.com

 

Rays Watch Parties with Rich Herrera

Coming up in the next few days will be two Rays watch parties, with Rays Radio pre game and post game announcer Rich Herrera hosting the events in two great local locations. Both of these locales are not foreign to Rays fans as they have already hosted past events and will again be awash in the Rays blue and white and loud with the cheers and excitement of the Rays Revolution members.

The first will be held on Sunday, April 26th at the Tradewinds Resort on beautiful St. Petersburg Beach, Florida.  The resort is a key spot on the Gulf of Mexico and fans are invited to come out early and enjoy the beach and the resort before the Rays afternoon contest against the Oakland A’s. Your usual Rays host,Rich Herrera will be broadcasting the pre- and post game shows live and on location starting at 3:30 p.m., with the first pitch at 4:05 p.m.

Before and during the game, be sure to stop by and register for your chance to win an autographed baseball, tickets to a future Rays game, TradeWinds merchandise, and much more! The Rays  energetic Street Team will also be in attendance, passing out prizes and giveaways. So come on by the TradeWinds Island Resorts, soak up the sun, enjoy the beach, and watch your Rays on Sunday, April 26! The resort is located at: 5600 Gulf Boulevard, and you can get  more directions on their website www.tradewindsresort.com.

 


The second Rays Watch Party will be held in a location that Upper Pinellas County fans know well for their outstanding food and open dining areas. The Rays will again be holding another event at the Clearwater location of Smokey Bones located at 2693 Gulf-toBay Blvd in Clearwater, located in the north section of the Clearwater Mall complex. So if you are a extreme Rays fan like the “Maddon’s Maniacs”, or just a casual Rays fan who loves great BBQ ribs, we invite you to come watch the Rays play the Twins in Minnesota on Monday, April 27, from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill in Clearwater!

Come out and watch the game with fellow Rays fans and enjoy  great drink specials.  Rays Radio pre game and post game guru Rich Herrera will  again be live as the Rays play in the Metrodome. We hope to see you there, and GO RAYS!

Saturday Scattered Thoughts

**** Former Rays reliever Jason Hammel, who was traded just prior to the beginning of the 2009 season has been moved into the Colorado Rockies rotation. So far in 2009, Hammel has appeared in 3 games for a total of 6.2 innings with an 2.70 ERA and 5 strikeouts on the season.

The Rockies obtained Hammel thinking he could be effective as a starter or a reliever. Starts haven’t been available, so he’s made three relief appearances. All Colorado knows is that if he pitches the way he has in his last two outings, there is a place for him — possibly a prominent one.

**** Rays Commentator Brian Anderson has been a trip so far in the broadcast booth for this west coast road trip. Anderson who also doubles as the Rays Assistant Pitching coach has been a breath of fresh air in the booth in relation to the  finer pitching aspects of the game.  He has shown awesome insight and also techniques that a pitcher might use that have been missing since former Rays commentator Joe Magrane left for the MLB Network in the off season. 

Also a great aditon is the use of his own key phrase he like “cookie” to demonstrate a pitch that is just eaten up by the hitter. I was afraid the Rays commentary might be a bit dry and stale for the first season with Kevin Kennedy. But both Kennedy and Anderson have injected a different viewpoint into the every day workings of this team. Kennedy shows a perspective from the catching side of the game, while anderson is focusing on his expertise……..pitching. The Rays hit a blast with the occasional pairing of Anderson with award winning Dwayne Staats in the booth. I can hardly wait for Todd Kalas to get his turn in the booth and see what magic can happen.

**** I can imagine the grumbling and the grunts from the Rays as they entered the Visitor’s Clubhouse yesterday to no food choices in the clubhouse before the game. I could see Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland on the phone scrambling to get something, even a bag of pretzels into the clubhouse at that moment.  But even more entertaining in my mind would be the sight of the Rays getting back on the busses and maybe going ala minor league style to a local restaurant and having Westy and maybe Traveling Secretary Jeff Ziegler tossing bags of food up through the windows to the hungry Rays.

Maybe that was the motivation of the team in last night’s contest. They were hungry in more ways than one prior to the game. But you know that they did finally get some neded calories in their stomaches, but that would have been a sight of them trolling into maybe In-and-Out Burger with 35 chicken sandwiches and healthy wrap meals, with a small prize in the sack for their kids. Ahhhhhhhh, that would have made them cherish their old minor league roots.

  
 

Rays Fall to King Felix via Rare Feat

 

  
      Mariners 1,        Rays 0


Elaine Thompson / AP

Still the Royalty of King County


Most of us Floridians do not know that Seattle is located in King County, and if yesterday afternoon is any indication, we know who rules with a multi-directional fastball and a beautiful change-up. But the young King is  truly going to be one of the leagues premier superstars once the east coast of the country get a good scouting report on the guy. Felix Hernandez is hyped to the roof top by the Mariners, and for good reason. He has only been on their major league roster since 2005, when he appeared in only 12 games and furnished a 4-4 record.

But the sea-faring fans of the Mariner’s have been waiting for the day that the rest of the league catches on to this hard-throwing Venezuelan product.  Funny, but in that short period of time he has stacked up 42 wins and over  620 strikeouts and still is mostly an unknown outside of the shadow of Mt. Rainer and the west coast. People have said that the Mariners lucked out by having another Venezuelan product on their roster back in 2002. Freddie Garcia was  a childhood idol of  Hernandez, and  it was the fact he trusted and loved the Seattle area and team that finally convinced the young Hernandez to sign with the Emerald City team. In 2002, he then went to play for Aquirre in the Venezuelan Summer League.

From that point on up through the Minor League rosters he has done nothing but impress and persuade the team that he is their next home grown star. Very rarely do pitchers seem to grow up in a team’s minor league system anymore. Most are packaged or brought in via trades  to compete in the minors for a shot in the majors. But Hernandez did his time working up from Class-A Everett to Triple-A Tacoma, then finally to the clay of Safeco Field.  But what is more amazing is the future that this series will hold for him and the budding Rays stars. We all know that Carl Crawford and B J Upton have dealt with him for years, but Evan Longoria and Pat Burrell got their first official look at the man locals have dubbed the “King”.

And of this series is any indication of their fights and battles, we are going to have a fun time watching  the Seattle ace take on the Rays for the next 10 years. Henandez might have won battle number one with a clear margin, but the game seemed like a different story after he left the mound yesterday. Before that, the Rays did manage to claw and fight to get  4 hits off of him in the game. Crawford had the most impact gaining two hits off of him, including  a ball hit to shortstop in the thrid inning that handcuffed him severely into committing a throwing error on the play. Burrell made his presence know early in the second inning by popping the first hit of the night off Hernandez to right field.

Then  in an error-filled play ( 2 errors, one by first baseman Jaimie Burke and the second on catcher Rob Johnson) by the Mariner’s team on Ben Zobrist’s fielders choice, it put a tying score less than 60 feet from Mariner’s catcher Rob Johnson. But the Seattle defense and Hernandez stiffened and  Hernandez got the next two batter retired to save his shutout.  In the fourth inning, after two walks to Burrell and Zobrist, the Rays again eventually had men at first and thrid with two-outs, but the Rays again failed to convert anything to get the run home to tie the contest.

Then in the fifth inning, with Crawford up for the third time tonight, he hit a screamer back towards the mound that Hernandez tried to bare-hand with his pitching hand and throw to first base. He ended up doing a spin and dump to the turf instead of getting balance and throwing the ball towards first base. But with Crawford’s speed, it might have been a blessing that he did not wing the ball towards Burke at first base. Burke was only playing the position for the first time in his career because of injuries to Mike Sweeney ( back) and Russell Branyan ( back ). Plus usual fill-in Jose Lopez could not switch over to first base since his sub, Ronny Cedeno had a bad hamstring from the previous night’s game. Dioner Navarro did get a worm killer single to left field in the seventh inning, but a rally-killing double play by Jason Bartlett ended the Rays chances.

The Rays did fight and claw back all night long with Burrell making the most trouble for the Mariners and Hernandez. For the afternoon, he went 1 for 1 with three walks and always seemed to get into scoring position for the Rays. But the Rays usual lack of hitting with men in scoring position doomed their day. The Rays ended up leaving 15 men on base, and also struck out 7 times against Hernandez. They had their chances against the Mariners, but let every one of them slip away. The Rays did not lose this game for lack of effort to get on base, but lost it for lack to the killer instinct needed at key time in this contest.  But the Rays came into this series wanting to set the tone, they did in the middle game of the series, but got out-played, and out-hit in both their losses in Seattle.

           
           
Elaine Thompson / AP

Shields Make only One Mistake

The  oddity of throwing your second pitch of a baseball game and it landing into the right field stands and becoming the winning margin in a game is rare, but not unknown in baseball annuals.  Ichiro usually gets his two hits a game no matter who is pitching, but those who have seen the Japanese product take Batting Practice know he has the power and the ability to take a bad pitch and deposit it into the stands at any point in the game. Ichiro’s lead-off home run accounted for the game’s only run. He’s the second player in Mariners history to hit a lead-off homer in a 1-0 game. Greg Briley did it in 1992 with a home run off the Twins’ Kevin Tapani.

But how rare is it really in baseball? Does an early mistake happen as much as we think, or is it just a twist of fate that doomed the Rays early in this contest? Well, according to Stats Inc.,it was just the third time since 1994 – most recently by the Cubs on May 9, 2007, against the Pirates ( Alfonso Soriano homered ) and before that by the Mets on
May 12, 2004, over Arizona ( on Kaz Matsui’s homer ).  A rare feat, but also a rare omen for the Rays. It had been 12 days since they suffered their last shutout, and the team had ample time to get back that elusive run because of the pitching of James Shields. His one mistake should not have been the margin of victory today.

Shields did everything in his power to keep the score close and also crush any potential Seattle rallies throughout the game. After Ichiro’s blast, Shields and the Rays defense  sat down the next 7 hitters until Endy Chavez hit a single to center field to lead-off the fourth inning. But the Rays quickly erased that threat by getting Lopez to hit into a 6-4-3 double play to again empty the bases. Even in the fifth inning, after Shields walked Johnson, a hard hit ball to Longoria by  Yuniesky Bentancourt provided the 5-3 putout to end the inning.  But in the sixth inning, the Rays defense reared its ugly head and put its mark on the game. The only blemish was a bloop single over Bartlett by Ichiro, who now had two of Seattle’s 4 hits in the game.

Shields did  pitch deep into the game finally giving up the ball after throwing 102 pitches in 7.1 innings of work. His lines score would usually show a victory, but in tonight’s wild and unusual battle he was given the loss after only surrendering 4 hits himself and giving up the lone run. Tho his efforts were valiant, he did give up only one walk to Johnson in the fifth inning and posted 4 strike outs on the day. His pitching matched Hernandez’s pitch-for-pitch. And except for that lone one pitch that he might have known would spell doom the minute it left his hand, he was to suffer his second loss of the year to even his record to 2-2 on the season.

Twice this year Shields has been opposite a “hot” pitcher when he took the mound. Even if Shields was as effective in this contest as he was for the Opening Day game in which Red Sox starter Josh Beckett pitched a masterpiece, it is the underlying problem of pitching in the number one slot. You always face the premier pitcher of the opposing staff, and even if you are on your game, situation can take it from you. But Shields has the inner confidence and the stamina to know that karma and things can change in an instant and go for the Rays. Tonight it was just one swing of the bat that took the wind out of the Rays sails. Just less than 16 hours from one of their best road wins of the young season. Games can shift one one pitch or moment, and unfortunately Shields know that all too well tonight.


Elaine Thompson / AP

Pat Burrell is Heating Up

Burrell is in a weird situation for the first time in his career. He is having to take a crash course in the American League hitters and also the tedencies of the leagues infields to get a firm grounding in the batter’s box this season. Consider how hard it is to not only adjust to the fact you are no longer in the flow of the game by being out in the field, but now you have to sit a majority of the time on the bench and observe your team taking their defensive licks, and you can do nothing but cheer and clap for them. I think that would be the biggest adjustment he has to make since signing with the Rays this off season. Jonny Gomes found it difficult  the last few seasons, and it might have cost him his spot. Cliff Floyd was a great addition to the clubhouse in leadership and mentoring young players, but his bat did not surface to save him either.

It is as if the Rays Designated Hitter spot is the place where hitters have gone to die or retire for a long time. I am not even going to get into the Greg Vaughn or even the Jose Canceso days as a DH, because the formula has changed since their times. Now the DH has to be a run producer and a cheerleader second. Burrell also had the second horrific duty of having to digest and memorize the pitch selections and tendencies of every pitcher in the AL in a compressed manner. No longer can he just go up there and take his swings like in the Spring, but now he has to adjust and compensate for tailing breaking pitches on the fly, and catching up to fireballs coming in at his hands. 

It has been a tough first few weeks for Burrell evident by his average, but the last week of game have also given a sign he might be  gaining on the AL pitching staffs and being more selective at the plate. In yesterday’s game he was only 1-1, but his 3 walks showed he is seeing the ball and making great judgments at the plate for the Rays. In the entire three-game series, he went 4 for 9 , with 4 walks and 2 RBI’s to raise his average to .265 this year. He is beginning to come to terms with the American League. Some hitters who have spent their entire careers in the National League do not adjust fast, but Burrell  is hitting even better on the road ( .276 ) than at home  ( .250 ) this season and he knows that for the Rays to be successful again in 2009, he has to be on his game. It might have taken a bit longer than either he or we wanted for him to adjust and come to terms with the different hitting in the AL, but in the next few months, it is the Rays that will benefit from it all.


Elaine Thompson/ AP

Navi needs to Trust Hitting on the Ground

Dioner Navarro is beginning to heat up a bit at the plate. In the last three games he has gone 2-13, but the true fact is that in the last two series he has garnered only two hits a series. I am not about to cast him under the  ships rudder, because his two hits recently have been down a bit and not the usual rocket fly balls that have plagued his average this season. the last few days, Rays Manager Joe Maddon has been stressing the fact of ground hit balls might be the ticket for this team to survive right now. And for Navarro, that might be the right ticket. He is not going to beat a ball hit in the infield 9 out of 10 times, but the lone time could make for a scoring opportunity.

Not since the Baltimore and Yankees home series has Navarro had two hits in a single game.  Navarro hit 6 fly ball outs in this series and 3 ground outs in addition to his two singles to right field. But in yesterdays game, he  hit two long fly balls out to center field with men in scoring position. He did get Burrell to tag up and go to third base on his fly out in the fourth inning, but his fly out with Gabe Kapler on second in the ninth inning finished the Rays in that contest. Navarro seems to be the lone holdout still hitting the ball primarily into the sky for outs for the team. Because of his defensive abilities, it would be a down grade to sit him right now. He is calling a great game behind the plate, and is getting into a groove with his throws to second base on steal attempts. His peg of Ichiro in this series will be a the highlight of the year for him.


Cursi Magic Runs Out

My buddy Scott Cursi
is one of the best people you will ever meet in the Rays organization.  It has been a thrill for me to see him get some extra recognition that last few days in taking out the line-up card and also doing double duty as the “Jobu” of the Rays. Cursi has been the Bullpen Coach pro tempre before, and also been know to celebrate with the best of them during the Rays run in 2008. By Maddon picking Scott to have the honor again last night of handing out the line-up cards shows that Maddon respect streaks and anything that can make them roll on for another game. I hope he again get a chance to redeem his karma tonight when the team hits the field  in Oakland at 10:07 pm.

During last night game, the line-up card that Cursi presented to Home Plate Umpire Sam Holbrook had a Chinese Proverb written on it by Maddon. I am unclear if this is the exact verse, but this is the only one I could find with that phrasing in an old Chinese Proverb quotation book at the library. It might have said, ” Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.”   The saying has been found in two references, one in Chinese lore and the other in Native American. Which ever is the true origin of the proverb, it might be a unique key to the Rays success this season.

  

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