Results tagged ‘ J P Howell ’

Maddon has gone to the Dark Side

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

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

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

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


 

Chris O’Meara / AP

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


http://www.tbo.com

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

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

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

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


Chris O’Meara / AP

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

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

 
 

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

Gameworks Shindig was a Total Blast!


RRCollections

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

Lefties are Right for the Rays

 


Ed Zurga / AP

After tonight’s game Dewayne Staats of the Rays Television Network informed us that Rays leftie J P Howell tied a Tampa Bay Rays record by saving all three games in the three game series against the Kansas City Royals.  Add onto this the fact he tied that record with the Rays ex-closer Troy Percival and you see just how unusual and special this was for both Howell and the Rays. Add another layer of awesomeness to the record is the fact it is the first time a Rays Bullpen member had ever done it in the Major League park.

Not the Rays past relievers like Roberto Hernandez, Danys Baez, Seth McClung or even Esteban Yan had the chance to take three from an opponent in a major league park. Percival made his mark back in 200 in a series against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Disney complex, not an approved MLB park. Sure the series was moved there for a three game series to promote the Rays culture into the center of the state, but how many people remember before we took our balls and bats and went to Montgomery, Orlando was our Double-A home.

But here I go rambling off the page. What I want to stress here is that before Howell and Randy Choate made their marks saving  14 total games so far in 2009, the Rays Bullpen has not has such a distinctive “leftie” feel to it. That is not to mean that in 2010 the Rays will feature a “rightie” specialist instead of the usual leftie guy. Heck, I think 2009 is thew first time in team history that we have some legitimate left-handers not named Miller who can toss the ball effectively for the Rays.

To illustrate this, right before the All Star break Howell surrendered his first earned run since April 23, 2009.  And even during that slight moment of vulnerability, the Rays lefties both had a bit of trouble for the first time this season.  Overall, the entire Rays bullpen has thrown to 2.34 ERA since their implosion for 9 runs during that must forget game in Cleveland on May 25th. Even with their moments of normalcy this season, the Rays relievers are currently tied  for the best Bullpen ERA with the Boston Red Sox Bullpen with a 3.35 ERA in the American League.  And not too shabby is the fact that places them within the top 3 Bullpen ERA in baseball right now.

But this blog is about the guy who seem to not get the right levels of respect for what they do. I understand this totally being a leftie in everything but throwing myself. Society tries to change you the minute you pick up a pencil or ball and throw with the southpaw grip. But within time, if the teachers and coaches nurture the leftie, he can become a wanted man at the higher levels of baseball. And right now the Rays have two of the better examples of the leftie revolution in Howell and Choate. Both of them have been magical this season, and Choate has done it at the time the Rays needed a viable option when Brian Shouse got injured.

But at the forefront of all of this is Howell, who could have given up after having a disastrous career as a starter and gone onto other things in his life. But he took a chance and became one of those valued leftie relievers as has grown into one of the most confident and effective of that often ridiculed bunch. Coming into todays game, Howell holds onto a 2.01 ERA and has now converted his last 7 save opportunities.  Before he took the mound again today against his former team, he had only surrendered one earned run to them in his last 16.2 innings.



Chris O’Meara / AP

Except for an unusual Howell outing on July 8th against the Oakland A’s where he let 3 earned runs score against him, before that contest he had a 17 appearance scoreless streak from May 31st until July 8, 2009.  But the real key to all of this is that it came right before the All Star break in which on July 12th against those same A’s Howell gave up only his second home run of the season to Mark Ellis late in the game. That could have played hard on most relievers going into a 4 day lay-off for the All Star game, but Howell used it as fuel to the fire and came out ready to go in Kansas City. Howell had been a pleasant surprise in 2008 elevating his game and his usefulness to the Rays.

So when Troy Percival went down with another injury and Rays Manager Joe Maddon decided to go to a closer-by-committee approach you hoped he would give the California leftie a shot. That came early in the season, but Howell had not adjusted his game yet to get those last 3 outs. He talked with teammates Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour about the pressures of the job and their pluses and minuses before it finally clicked for him. Now he might be the most feared leftie closer not named Fuentes in the AL. His slow curving breaking ball and the movement on his upper 80’s fastball teases hitters until he gets them with his change-up that dips severely before it hits the heart of the plate.

And he is the former leftie specialist for the team when Trever Miller decided to take an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals this winter. He did not look comfortable in the role, but the Rays did bring in another leftie for the first time to help Howell out. Brian Shouse was initially brought in to be the total leftie specialist, but got rocked a bit early in the year, He adjusted and then began to dominate on the mound before he went down with a left elbow following a stint on the mound on May 24th where he gave up the game winning hit to Ross Gload in the Marlins 11th inning victory over the Rays.

Before that injury, Shouse had held left-handed hitters to a .235 average against him.  This was a little elevated from the usual .210 mark he had maintained during his career against left-handers. But before his injury 15 out of his 19 appearances had been scoreless, and he had become the oldest Rays to win a game when he threw 2/3rds of a scoreless inning against the New York Yankees. Shouse (40) also one of only three Rays players to ever take the field for the team over the age of 40. The other two were Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff.

But even if this is his 19th year of professional baseball, Shouse will again get a chance when he returns off his rehab assignment. The Rays want to see him again take the mound on consecutive days before they make a solid decision on the leftie. But currently he is just down the road a spell in Port Charlotte playing for the Class-A Charlotte Stone Crabs. He is scheduled to make his second rehab appearance tonight when the Stone Crabs  visit the Lakeland Flying Tigers. Maddon had said before today’s game in Kansas City they might be making a decision on Shouse by the next home stand.


Steve Nesius / AP


That would make the team look long, hard and deep into the prospects of either trading current leftie number 2, Randy Choate or hoping he gets through waivers.  I truly can not see the leftie getting through waivers and get sent back to the Durham Bulls. So the logical scenario is a trade to a team seeking some leftie action for possible prospects. And Choate has made a great case for staying with the Rays too, but the Bullpen is a bit overcrowded right now. For the Rays to even entertain the option of three lefties, someone would have to go on the Rays bench.

And Choate has put up some great numbers since being called up on May 25th. During that time he has appeared in 28 of the Rays last 46 games. He is also tied for first in appearances in the AL since his call-up.  Like Howell, up until the last series against the A’s at home he had not surrendered many runs. In the July 11th contest he gave up a 2-run homer to ex-Rays Adam Kennedy. It was only the third homer ever by a leftie against him in 328 chances and only the seventh total homer given up in his career.

And to add more value to his possible trade market scenarios, he is a non-roster invitee who would not cost and arm and a leg to financially support for any team that might fancy another good left-handed option. Plus he has gone 4for 4 in save opportunities this season, the first time in his career he has ended into the ninth inning to save a game.  Choate has done everything asked of him by the Rays and has been effective from word one for the team.  It would be a total luxury for the team to find a spot for him to stay on the roster, but because of the success he has had while here with the Rays, he would be going to a great opportunity to get more time on the mound in the major leagues.

So within a weeks time the Rays will have to make some decisions on two of their three leftie Bullpen members. Howell is safe and secure and will not be going anywhere, anytime soon. But either Shouse or Choate will have a new uniform on their back maybe by August 1st.  Gut reactions have Shouse staying with the team and Choate getting an opportunity maybe in the National League for a team trying to steady their Bullpen. Maybe even another trip out to the Diamondbacks to reunite with his former teammates.  But no matter what happens, the Rays will have a safe and secure left -handed  presence in their Bullpen.

Right now in the AL, the names of the solid left-handed closers start and finish with the names of George Sherill of Baltimore, Fuentes, and Howell. With the rising stock of Howell, the Rays found an internal option that has been effective to their closer problems. With the combined efforts of Shouse and Choate this season it made it easier for some fans to let go of Miller as he went on with the Cardinals. With this not being a perfect world, the Rays will have to let one of their southpaws fly away to another team. 

The only question now facing the Rays is just how much can each of these guys take this season on the mound. Both Howell and Shouse are headed again for career marks in appearances and innings pitched this season.
Will the young Howell stand in front and lead by example for this team, or will the 40-year old Shouse rise above himself one last time. Either option or a combination of both of them sound great to me.

            
             Brianshousefanclub.com

Also check out this Brian Shouse fan website made up while he was with the Milwaukee Brewers last season. http://www.brianshousefanclub.com.   I am not sure, but I kind of like the Terminator photo over the Santa one. You be the judge…….

 

   

Four Rays make the All Star roster

 

You know it had to be a tough decision. And you know it had to have more than a few multiple phone calls or even stats investigations before Rays Manager Joe Maddon handed in his 2009 All Star selection card to MLB. I wonder if you fax such a document, or if it is on a Word Excel/Powerpoint program, or maybe the technology savvy Maddon sent it via E-mail or text message. No matter how it got delivered, or how it got decided on the dozen of guys on the fence, we have out 2009 A L All Star squad now.

And it is a pretty competitive bunch here people. There is the usual Rays-killers listed on the offensive side of the team with Boston’s Dustin Pedroia and the Yankees Mark Teixeira leading the parade, but it is some of the name that have been whispered in the recent days that popped up on the list that might spark the biggest comments or arguments. Sure the Rays put four guys on the All-Star roster. Each one of them have a legitamate reason and statistics to merit their selection. You already know I have been harping about Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett for months, and I have beyond myself that they have both gotten to the final vote.

I did not think Evan Longoria, who was the leading A L Vote getter at the last postng of the votes needed my hekp to get into the All-Star game. Heck he was killing A-Rod at the polls and that in itself is a major coup. Carl Crawford I always thought had a great shot at the field not only becuase of the injury to Josh Hamilton, but becuase he has been posting consistent numbers to merit such a selection. Again congrats to all four of the current Rays All Stars, but you might be seeing a few more familiar faces in St. Louis by the time the game is started.

J P Howell was not selected to the All Star team ,but you got to think he is going to be high on the list if there is an injury to a reliever before the game starts. He has put up another set of outstanding numbers to even trump his 2008 stats so far this season. And he has silently taken the reins in the ninth innings for the Rays in June. But he is not the only Rays who might also find themselves in that locker room come game time. Carlos Pena also might get a second shot as he is one of the five guys to choose from in the All Star Game Sprint Final Vote this season.

Last season that is how Evan Longoria got his spot on the roster, and see how he has blossomed in the last year. Carlos Pena will be joined in that final vote by Texas Ranger Ian Kinsler, Angel Chone Figgins, Tiger Brandon Inge,and Blue Jay Adam Lind. That vote will go on until 4 pm on Tuesday when the last memebr of the A L sqaud will be announced by MLB. This group is kind of interesting since two of the memebrs of the final vote were on my ballot to make the squad as their teams representatives.

I do find it kind of odd that Kinsler, the hard hitting second baseman of the Rangers did not make the team as a reserve. I am mean he is the most consistent hitter on the Rangers team this year, and he is amazing to watch on the field with him growing more secure every day at his position. It is odd to not see him on the squad, but the selection by the fans of Josh Hamilton gave the Rangers their one needed player for the team representation. It will be quite a time to see if the Rangers faithful come out and vote for Kinsler to get hm a shot at the All Star game. I am putting him as having an outside chance at the spot. 

The other player I thought might get on the squad as a reserve was Tiger’s catcher/third baseman Brandon Inge. And I did not think he would get on because he is on my Fantasy team, more for the fact he also has been the consistent hitter for the Tigers this season. Sure Miguel Cabrera has hit the cover off the ball, but Inge even leads the Tigers in homers with 18, two more than Cabrera. You want to dig deeper into this, well Inge even has 52 RBI compared to the 46 by Cabrera. And to slam the door let’s look at their batting averages. In this statistic is come out as a pure power slam as Cabera’s only bright spot in this match-up. Cabera’s .324 batting average dwarfs Inge’s .269 average, but Inge has been the consistent scoring machine.

Pena’s addition on to this final vote can not be because of the over 3,000 votes I submitted at the Trop with his name as a write-in candidate for the State Farm Home Run Derby. I almost wish it was, but I can not see my little input having any nudging points for the MLB brass. So I have to conjure up the thoughts that the American League leading home run hitter should get a chance on that roster. Heck, I really was looking forward to seeing ‘Los crank his back to a 45 degree angle and see a few balls head to rightfield on a lazer beam. But then again, I know the guy is not only a itting machine.  He ia also leading the AL again with walks with 54, and sitting in a three-way tie for eighth in RBI right now.

His power and grace would be a nice addition to the A L Roster. And if you have ever gotten the pleasure to hear him talk, you would know he will do not only the Rays proud, but MLB with his intelligent and thought provoking conversation. I am happy and pleasantly surpsied that four memebrs of the Rays will be on the field during the 2009 All Star game. What is even better is all four of those players were on the field at some time for the Rays in 2008 when they visited Busch Stadium for the Inter League seriesagainst the Cardinals. That proves that the Rays do not go after guys just to get on the All Star roster, but look for competitors who will gel with the team and prove themselves on the field. 

So, you are probably thinking who I am voting for in the final vote. Well, if you have to ask you do not know me at all. I am going to vote for Pena. Not because he is a Ray, but because of wht he means to that team over the last three seasons getting a Silver Slugger and Golden Glove, but no All Star bid. It might be a slow escalation for Pena to finally reach this plateau in his career, but it is one he has been putting up the right numbers to be considered for the last three years. Tuesday will be either an exciting day for Pena, or another chance to get his name out there for the rest of the MLB to take notice of for 2010. There are three great hitting first baseman in the A L East, and the third guy’s name is  Carlos Pena.

J P Howell and Lance Carter….Odd Rays Closers

 


Paul J Berewill / AP


The more I see Rays reliever J P Howell pitching and finding success in the late innings, the more I am reminded of another young Rays closer that once threw just like Howell without blinding speed to the plate, but used his pitch selection and deception in pitch speed to make his pitches dance around the plate. And maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon has taken a page out of the Rays  not so distant past and is using past reasonings to again thinking of applying an off-speed pitcher into the closer role.

It has worked before, and with great results. If you have been a Rays fan for some time you might remember Rays reliever Lance Carter and his off-speed arsenal that propelled him to his only All-Star appearance in 2003 when he had 15 saves at the All-Star Break. He did not get to play in that All-Star game at US Cellular Field in the south side of Chicago, but you can bet that experience changed him. Maybe Maddon in all his cerebral wisdom is again coming to the understanding that control and not a 95+ fastball might be the answer right now for the Rays.

It is not like the Rays have a reliever right now thrusting himself to the forefront to take the 9th inning reins and lead the club to wins. When Carter was the Rays closer in 2003, he went 7-5, with a 4.33 ERA. The ERA is kind of high, but the results spoke for themselves. He was involved in 51.6 percent of the Rays wins (62) that season. Even more incredible is his year end total of 25 saves in his rookie season put him in the top 5 rookie performances  of all time at that moment.  He made over 61 appearances in 2003, which is incredible in its own right. He converted 25 out of 32 save opportunities for the Rays that year.  All by a pitcher who used his off-speed stuff to accent his high 80’s fastball.

Carter’s 25 saves shattered the Rays rookie save mark of 5 that was held by Travis Phelps set in 2001.  At the time he represented the Rays in the All-Star game, he was the oldest rookies at 28 years, 6 months and 29 days to be selected to play in the classic. Carter ended up back setting up closer Danys Baez in 2004 when the Rays signed the former Cleveland Indians closer. Carter did spend another two years with the club until he was dealt along with Danys Baez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young pitcher Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany on January 14, 2006.

In comparison, J P Howell’s climb to the Bullpen came out more of a change of direction for the young pitcher after some trouble starting games for the Rays in 2006 and 2007 hen he made 18 starts for the Rays and went a combined 2-9, but did show promise in getting 82 strikeouts in 93.1 innings of work. So when the Rays came to Spring Training in 2008, his main concern was to learn th fine art of  successful relieving to try and save his career.  His ERA in 2007 was a high 7.59, but who would have ever thought that the young pitcher would take to relieving with such zeal and success.

In 2008, he appeared in 64 games and finished the year with a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA. He also  almost threw more innings (89.1) in one season as a reliever than he had in the last two ( 93.1) for the Rays. He also began to set a consistent mark of striking out opponents with his fastball that sinks and tails and sometimes even cuts away from hitters. His fastball, just like Carter’s comes in a lot slower (84-88 mph) than his body makes it look coming out of his left hand. 


Boston.com

Combine that with a change-up he often overthrows that is only about 5 mph slower than his fastball, but it dives quickly as it approaches the plate.  And his curve ball, also like Carter’s can be the perfect out pitch because if its great last minute break. All three of his fundamental pitches tend to stay below the 90 mph range, and usually sit within the low to mid 80’s at any time. Combine that with a hard breaking and reliable 12-6 breaking curveball and both pitchers tend to look like photo negatives of each other on the mound. It is classic deception pitching at its best.

 

And who knows maybe Maddon has also asked Howell to view some of Carter’s old game videos to get some confidence and show the young reliever he too can have success with moderate stuff on the mound. Howell has his age as the best advantage here on Carter because he is still the youngest member of the Bullpen and is still learning the art of late inning heroics. But both men have a calm and cool exterior that tends to deflect attention and brings a calming effect on team mate when they throw, which lends itself to great success in the late innings.

But most people remember Howell as the eventual loser in the World Series Game 5 who was actually sick as a dog on the mound, but wanted the ball.  And there is that second characteristic that tends to bond both of them as mirror image relievers. With the game on the line, both pitchers want the ball to give their team a chance at a win, and secure the victory. That kind of confidence or cockiness can not be taught, or even duplicated. Either you have that inside you or you do not…period. 

Howell might have had a 2008 that defies most logical answers. At the time he was the only Rays reliever on the staff under 30 years old.  But he quickly did not let his young age keep him off the mound for the Rays. He only got 3 saves in 2008, but in his last save of the year, he went 2.1 innings to preserve the win for the Rays. His 89.1 innings lead all MLB relievers, and  his 92 strikeouts was also a MLB high for relievers in 2008. Even as he was learning the craft of relieving, he lead all MLB reliever also in only letting 11.8 percent of his inherited runners to score in the game. 

And he only turned it on more for September as he owned a 0.00 ERA for the month spanning 15 innings. Howell also broke the Rays club record  with his 89.1 innings previously held by Doug Creek ( 62.2 innings).  Both left-handers (.188) and right-handers (.197) hit under .200 against him in 2008. Howell was developing into a severe late inning weapon for the Rays as they headed to the 2008 playoffs. 

           
            Brian Blanco / AP

 But Howell’s solid start to this year also shows that the things he learned las
t season and during the playoffs has made him better equipped for the 2009 season. Howell has become more secure and ready to take on all comers for the Rays. Sure the ex-starter might just be in his second year in the Bullpen, but Carter also found his success in his second stint in the Rays Bullpen.

Maddon might be drawing great comparisons to the two relievers and giving Howell the opportunity to show he can handle the ninth inning stress and responsibilities. So far this season Howell has been up to the test. Howell entered the 2008 season with only two prior relief appearances at Rookie-level ball at Idaho Falls in 2004. But he is turning into a polished gem for the Rays this season, posting in even better numbers than in  his remarkable 2008 season.

This year Howell has appeared in 35 games, which ties him for the American League lead. He currently has a 2-2 record with 4 saves.  He has thrown for 34.2 innings and has 42 strikeouts so far. His last 13 appearances have been scoreless, and  he is second in the AL in strikeouts.

But the biggest confidence to his year might be the time he spent in the Team USA Bullpen during the World Baseball Classic this spring. In the WBC, he appeared 3 times for Team USA and held opponents scoreless.  He did not figure into the last innings for any of those appearances, but got great advice and training playing along side some of the best closers in the game.


Chris O’Meara/ AP

One downside to Howell is his five blown saves so far in 2009. But that is some of the learning curve that he will have to endure if he wants to make the transition into the late inning guy for the Rays. But just like Carter, Howell is still throwing his style of game and not adjusting or tinkering with his pitches so far this year. His 4 saves already this year is only second only to Troy Percival.

Maybe this “blast from the past” is exactly  what the Rays need right now to again gain their 2008 edge. Reverting to a time where the closer threw slower and with control compared to the starting pitchers might be a godsend to Howell in his quest to gain the spot. But you know he has a great believer in his corner in his manager. Maddon is probably one of the biggest Howell supporters, an it just might get him another honor in the next few weeks.

Even if Howell is not determined to be the answer as a Rays closer, the job he has done in the past ans so far this season puts him in a small group of relievers in Rays history.  In the end, the guy who could have his pitches timed by a hourglass might be the best solution to the Rays closing problem this season. And who knows, maybe he just might evolve into the perfect guy for the job with his “on-the-job” training this season.

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.”

Rays Possible Draft Prediction and Notes

 

                      
                       http://www.mlb.com

So here we are on the day of the 2009 MLB Draft, and the Tampa Bay Rays for only the third time in their history are picking in the lower levels of the draft board today. People forget that this is not the first time the Rays have actually picked near the bottom of the First Round of the Draft. Sure we have had our share of non-winning seasons, but prior to our first professional game in Tropicana Field as the Rays, we had a few lower level (pick 29-32) draft picks. 

The Rays did have some lower picks prior to our first ever game against the Detroit Tigers on March 31, 1998. How many people remember that we picked 29th in 1996 when the Rays selected their first amateur player in the draft, outfielder Paul Wilder. The Rays actually did get a bit snake bitten in that years draft. Marc Topkins of the St. Petersburg Times wrote about Wilder in 2005, “Wilder was a big man who was supposed to be capable of doing big things. But the attention that came with being the Rays first first-round pick in 1996 far exceeded the production. Wilder couldn’t stay healthy, never made it out of Class A and was released in 2002.” 

Be he was not the latest pick the Rays ever had in the Amateur Draft. That honor will go to former Alabama native  pitcher Jason Standridge who was selected with the 31st pick in 1997. Unlike Wilder, Standridge did make it to the major leagues with the Rays and made his major league debut on July 29, 2001 when Standridge came on in relief for 1/3rd of an inning during a 2-0 loss to the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. He did end up pitching in 21 games for the Rays before leaving the team In 2009, Standridge was assigned to the Florida Marlins minor league camp on March 19th, but is not currently on the roster of their Triple-A affiliate, the New Orleans Zephrs.

But the late First Rounds selections that the Rays have gained from trades with other teams actually worked out great for the Rays. Russ Johnson, who the Rays obtained in a trade with Houston was the 30th pick of the 1994 draft.  Johnson ended up a valuable utility player for the Rays, basically a clone of Ben Zobrist from 2000-2002 for the team. Johnson last played in 2007 for the New York Yankees for 22 games.

Pitcher Nick Bierbrodt, who was acquired by the Rays from the Arizona Diamondbacks was the 30th selection of the 1996 draft. He ended up pitching for the Rays at the major league level only in 2001. Most people who follow the Rays know that he started to have some control problems and he was sent down to the Class-A Charleston Riverdogs for some mechanical work. While down with the Riverdogs, Bierbrodt and some friends went to a local drive-in for some late night food and he was shot in the chest and right arm by a man on a bicycle in the drive-through line. He did rehabilitate from the injuries suffered in the encounter, and last pitched for the Texas Rangers in 2004.


http://media.scout.com

And the last traded player in the later part of the first round to play for the Rays is current reliever J P Howell, who was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 2004 draft. Howell has developed from a leftie starter to one of the most proficient members of the Rays Bullpen in 2008, and is continuing that tradition in 2009. He currently is the youngest member of the Rays Bullpen and 14 of his last 16 outing have been scoreless. He is currently riding a streak of 12 straight appearances with a strikeout in 2009. And his 2.17 ERA is second only to Lance Cormier on the Rays Bullpen staff.

But picking that low in the first round of the player’s draft can have its advantages. Some teams might be scared away from certain agents representing clients, and some players might be leaning towards maybe attending college for a few seasons before finally deciding to play professionally in the major leagues. For that reason, sometimes the lower section of the First Round can bring about bargains and also can make some of the better athletes fall towards the Rays pick at 30th today.

Some of the players that are being picked by the Rays in mock drafts vary, but the team has said it is going to focus on either a catcher, or the best athlete available at the pick.  So the team will be able to do a lot of checking and double checking before they make their section about two hours after the draft starts in Secaucus, New Jersey today.  After their pick at 30th, the Rays have to wait until the 78th pick of the draft to again select a player unless a trade can be worked out during the draft.  Rays Scouting Director RJ Harrison has a bevy of 16 possible names that might fall into the Rays lap at the 30th pick.

“We have a pretty good target group,” he said to the St. Petersburg Times. “You hope like heck (the other teams) leave us a couple of the names toward the top of our list.” Baseball America most recently projected them to take Bonita (Calif.) High shortstop Jiovanni Mier. Catchers Tommy Joseph (Horizon, Ariz., High) and Tony Sanchez (Boston College) and Midway (Texas) outfielder Todd Glaesmann have also been suggested. But several mock drafts conducted online have the Rays looking for other options at this spot.  MYMLBDraft.com has the Rays selecting Wil Meyers, a 6’3″ catcher/3B out of Wesleyan Christian Academy with their first pick.

But then you have other sites like MVN.com have the team selecting left-handed pitcher Andrew Oliver out of Oklahoma State University with that first selection. That pick looks more like the site is thinking of the best athlete available for the team at that point in the draft selection process.  But then again, the site MLBDraftSite.com has the Rays selecting another player entirely from any of the players listed above. They have the team taking A J Pollack, a Outfielder/2B out of the University of Notre Dame with the first pick. This site also goes so far as to pick the second selection (78th) as Robbie Shields, a shortstop out of Florida Southern College. This pick is a bit unusual as the Rays picked a shortstop, Tim Beckham with the top selection in 2008.

but let’s let one more website make a guess at the possible Rays selection at about 10:15 pm on Tuesday night. ProspectInsider.com might be the closest so far to the Rays wish list as they have the team taking Tommy Joseph out of Horizon Arizona HS with the first pick. This is also one of the players that the Rays have circled in their books that could still be available at their section spot.  the spot is purely speculation until maybe five minutes before you select because you can see the type of players who might have slipped a bit because of injury concerns or maybe functionality for the teams above the R
ays.

But I am going to try this speculation thing out for the first time in the MLB draft. I actually have three guys who are staying in my brain right now as possibly falling to 30th and right into the Rays laps. The first is Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez who is from South Florida, but his availability will depend on if the Boston Red Sox want to take the local  B C catcher, or maybe float down a bit and take someone in another round. But Sanchez has some great comparisons to his catching style that might entice either club. He plays a lot like Kelly Shoppach, who the Red Sox were grooming for years before he got away and is a success with the Cleveland Indians.


Kcraddmin2

But there is another catcher, even if he is a High Schooler who might be wetting the Rays whistle right now. He might not even fall this far, but it might be based on what the Red Sox do with the 28th pick if this catcher is even still on the board when the Rays name is called.  California prep catcher Matt Stassi has been labeled as a clone of the rockies current catcher Chris Ianetta.  He is a great hitting catcher who has a fluid swing and his demeanor behind the plate is impressive . He would be a great addition to any team that selects him. But I am not sure if he will fit the Rays bill at 30th. I still have questions on his stamina and his ability to control a pitching staff, but those skills can be learned also on the job.

I am going to go out on a limb and agree with the Baseball America pick of Wil Meyers for the Rays at the 30th pick of the First Round. The North Carolina High Schooler might have one of the truest swings in the draft at his current level. But along with his possible catching skills he could also be converted into an outfielder or maybe even a future corner infielder for the Rays. He is a solid runner who has some speed and should be sitting there pretty for the Rays to select him. The one thing that might separate him from the other two catchers is his versatility to maybe adjust to another position based on his speed and ability beyond just behind the plate. Because he is such a great athlete, he might just be the perfect fit for the young aggressive Rays.

The biggest advantage the Rays have this year is the fact they are noting going to have to pay the huge signing bonuses out that they have in the past to their First Rounders. Meyers will still get a good lion’s share of some bonus money, but it will not be like the money given to David Price in 2007, or Beckham in 2008. This should help the Rays financially be able to maybe entice some other great players down in the later rounds of this years draft. This picking of a player who might or might not be there with the 30th pick is like a Las Vegas Roulette table. But I am putting my money on the Carolina Blue and holding my breath that the team selects Wil Meyers tonight.

Rays Bullpen Struggling

 


Kathy Willens / AP

You have to think sometimes that the new item out in the Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen has to be an hourglass. You know that simple time measuring device that is simply turned over the minute you want to restart the clock and readjust time. And with the recent problems in the Rays Bullpen, who do you even attempt to point the blame at when the ERA is bouncing up and down like a EKG chart. 

I mean how can the most improved part of the Rays defensive alignment go so north and south in such a short time. To begin with, in April you knew that this was not the same unit that dominated the American League in 2008. You saw that in the type of spring a few of the guys who held it together for the Rays had coming into the season. Grant Balfour, one of the most improved Rays in 2008 went through the spring with an uncharacteristic 5.63 ERA in only 9 appearances. 

In a total of only 8 innings he gave up 12 hits and  6 runs , but he did get 9 strikeouts. Can it really be true that in this 2009 season it might be feast or fathom for the Aussie? So far in 2009, he has not always looked like his old self, but he has shown improvements recently before his recent outing again put his name in the whispers of the fans.

On Saturday, Balfour gave up his first homer to a left-hander when Mark Teixeira took him yard during his one inning of work.  He also set-up the run scored by Jorge Posada before he left after a pitching change. But then on May 30th, against the Minnesota Twins, Balfour was on fire as he threw 2.2 innings and dominated his 7 hitters he faced in that appearance.

It was the longest he has been on the mound since July 20, 2004 when he faced 3 innings of work against the Detroit Tigers when he was with the Twins.  Balfour is also currently tied for 4th in the AL with only 15.4 percent of his inherited runners scoring on him. But is this the same Balfour this season that lead all MLB relievers last season with a 12.65 strikeouts per 9 innings ratio, which also ranked 9th best all-time among AL relievers.  I mean last year he struck out 36.6 percent of the batter he faced, and his .143 opponents batting average was the best in the game.

Could a pitcher change that much in such a short period of time? Well, if you have watched the radar gun in the Trop. during his 2009 appearances, this question might be easy to answer.  He has consistently been a few clicks below his former self, but was this done as a camouflage for his high and hard fastball by throwing some a bit under his usual blazing speed, or is there something else going on here.

It is understandable that a pitcher, especially a reliever can impose some tricky maneuvers to try and disguise either a flaw in his arsenal, or even try to hide a change in his delivery. Could Balfour be toying with some new angles and pitch placements and just be getting beat right now? Both could be happening, but they are beginning to happen at the wrong time for the Rays and their Bullpen.

Right now as the team is close to the .500 mark and about to reel in a few of the big fish in front of them in the A L East division, they need all hands on deck to eliminate any chance of defeat in the late innings. So far in 2009, the Bullpen has been a bit inconsistent at the wrong times.

And Balfour is not the only culprit that has been manhandled so far in 2009.  One of the brightest emerging stars and most surprising pitchers in the Rays Bullpen last season was J P Howell. He was trying to make that difficult transition from being a starting pitcher to a reliever, and in essence fell right into a perfect flow in the transformation. 


Getty Images

And his last 7 appearances this season made you think more and more of his 2008 glory.  He has gone 7.1 innings with only 2-hits, 2-walks and 12 strikeouts to post a 0.00 ERA. He was beginning to show the same promise in 2009 that he used to dominate and establish himself in 2008. I mean the guy has been a iron man for the Rays this year appearing in 29 game so far this season. Is this number deceiving in that he has pitched great, but been the victim on the mound too much in 2009? Or could it be hiding another fact that his inherited runners are scoring on him.

Howell is also currently second in the AL in strikeouts by a reliever with 36 this season.  So why is it that I picked these two guys to chat about if their numbers are so consistent for the Rays. Well, mainly it has seemed in the last two years, as these two guys go, so does the team. So when during Sunday’s game both of them suffered a bit of a one-game meltdown defensively, it brought about a certain element of worry. 

Balfour threw only 19 pitches in the game on Sunday, but he also let the Yankees bully him for 2-hits and a walk to basically take the Rays out if the game. I am not going to throw him totally under the bus here, but he did have the steering wheel at the time of the accident.  And that sort of pitching brainfart can not happen against a divisional foe who we are chasing to secure another divisional title.
 

This is the one team you do not want to give scoring chances to in the AL right now. I mean they are only a few runs behind the Rays as a run producing machine right now, and to give them any daylight is almost suicide right now. 

Balfour came out to relieve Joe Nelson in the bottom of the eighth inning with a fresh slate, but he allowed 3 out of the 4 hitters to face him get on base. So Howell was brought on to clean up the mess with one out in the inning,  and Balfour left Howell with Yankees on every base and a slim 2-run Rays lead. Howell did not make matters any better after he got a 1-1- count on Robinson Cano, he threw three straight balls to walk a run in and give the Yankees a chance by trimming the lead to 1-run. 

It was at that moment that someone else actually committed the final blow to the Rays chances by not thinking quickly and clearly to prevent another run. Willy Aybar, who was again at third base as Evan Longoria rested his hamstring took a grounder at third base beyond the bag and sort of hesitated enough to lose the force out at home, and had to throw to first for the sure out in the inning.

It was only the second out, so Teixeira stepped on the plate to tie the game at 3-all. In review, it was shown that Aybar would have gotten Teixeira at home if he elected to go that direction instead of trying to get Posada at first base. He was also too far away from third base to even try and complete a double play to end the inning.

Hideki Matsui then hit another fielder’s choice to second base  that got Posada for the second out if the inning, but it also scored Alex Rodriguez with the eventual game-winner. But the damage could have been worse as Howell walked Nick Swisher on 4 straight pitches to again put two men o
n for the Yankees. But he did get Melky Cabrera to strikeout for the last out if the inning and stem the bleeding.


Ted S Warren / AP

But the damage was already done as the Yankees now had the lead 4-3.  Howell threw 15 pitches in his 2/3rds of an inning, with only 6 going for strikes. Some people might say I am nitpicking right now into the recent loss to the Yankees, and I might agree with you. I am trying to find a reason for a loss to a divisional foe that might come back and kick us in the butt in September or October.

You bet your life I am trying to sort out if there is a problem with the match-up system right now that other teams might have finally figured out for the Rays. Matching up hitters to pitchers has been a new fangled invention for only, what 20 years or so and has seemed to work at times, but also blew up in a managers’ face too. Well, this one might have been more of an example of reading the charts more than you were trusting your pitchers.

Some one said to me on Twitter last night, “You go with your hot guys”, and the more I thought of that last night I began to agree with it. Nelson was looking good, and maybe the idea of using Randy Choate instead of Howell last night would have made a bit more sense. Not only because Choate has three saves this season and has only had to face 4 batters to earn them, but he has a bit of familiarity with the Yankees system having pitched here. 

I might be important that he spent the first 7 years of his career in pinstripes, and even if some of the hitters were new to him, he did know the hitting styles of some of the Yankee long time guys, which is always a plus.  So did the Rays match-up system doom them yesterday? I am not sure if I can give a definitive answer to that because the Balfour appearance might have been the only real question to the loss. 

We can pint to Aybar’s mistake, but if Balfour had dominated the Yankee lineup, we would never have gotten to that situation in the game.  The Rays have lived and died by Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s match-up system both this season and in 2008. But you have to agree that the system might have been flawed a bit last night in not using your hot reliever Choate or even extending Nelson a few more hitters into the eighth inning.



Steve Nesius / AP

Of course this is truly speculation that either pitcher could have made a huge difference. But I guess I was in a New York frame of mind today. You know, the Yankee bloggers and newspaper reporters love to dish and bury the team at any moment based on their own observations during a contest. I might be guilty of the same today, but with a twist. 

I hate to admit it, but I am seeing a trend in this year’s Bullpen that is going to spell more trouble in 2009. This is not the same unit as 2008 based on Balfour’s 5.68 ERA or Dan Wheeler’s 5.50 ERA. The Rays might be beginning to tread a bit of water right now with their late inning guys, but confidence and stamina will be the key right now.

The team got an unexpected rest during their last series at home, and it might have relaxed the guys a little too much this early in the season. The Rays Bullpen in 2009 has gone a combined 6-7, with 15 saves, but has a modest combined ERA of 3.89 this year over 171 innings. The Rays have surrendered 35 runs in the eighth inning this season, which is a great indicator of bad thing happening on the mound.

Combined with the 28 given up in the ninth inning, the Rays have surrendered 63 runs in only those two frames this year. That is not playoff quality Bullpen effort right now, but there is still ample time to fix the problem. Or maybe to consider just tossing the match-up idea away for a bit and letting your Bullpen gets its legs back under it and thrive again before it is too late……..just a thought.

 

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 Catch No Breaks in Loss

 

 
                     White Sox 3,           Rays 2

 

 

 

 
 

The Dye was Cast

 
I hate to admit it when the umpires get a play right, but the circumstances surrounding their logic and reasoning last night boggled the mind. In the sixth inning last night with Dye at the plate, he hit a ball that seemed to go fair and then Aybar picked it up deep in the hole and threw to first base for a easy put out. At no time did the Third Base Umpire Gerry Davis or Home Plate Umpire Brian Gorman signal a foul ball. It was not until Dye and White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen both started to act like a spoiled children that Gorman even considered the play by having a umpire conference just off the pitching mound.
 
 

During that time, I saw Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann do a really intelligent thing. Either he did it himself, or the Rays bench convinced him to roll the ball to the bench area before the umpire broke from their conference. Since none of the four umpires could of seen the ball  go off of Dye’s big toe and stream down to third base, they made a judgment call on the action. Well, they got it right by replays, but the reasoning left something to be desired. Why couldn’t they have just left it as ” it went off his foot” and not say another word.
 

But then Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out and argued his case as to the odd reasoning they also gave to giving him a foul ball on the play and not letting the play stand as an out.  The umpires called for the ball from the Rays dugout and  Gorman decided that the ball did show that Dye did foul it off his foot. But Dye was wearing grey spikes during the at bat and could not have made a mark on the ball. Also obvious to the fans, but not to the umpires was the fact that Dye was using a black maple bat, and could have produced the mark on the ball from the initial contact with the ball.
 

Maddon was livid at this point because he knew that they had the reasoning wrong on the call. He even went over and pointed to Dye’s spikes to show that he was wearing a neutral color spike that would not provide evidence on the ball. For his action, he gained his 10th ejection as a Rays Manager. But think about this, how can a grey cleat produce a black spot on a ball?  I can not. So Maddon was right in his argument. I wonder if Gorman or the rest of the umpiring crew might be on the lookout for similar situations the next three games at the Trop.
 
 

But the pure fact that none of the four umpires saw the play, or even made a vocal call on it tends to also throw some doubt on it all.  The television replay is the only solid evidence that they got it right, and it was not a reviewable incident.  They did get it right, but Maddon did have a few great points that I wonder if they even took a second look at before deciding that it was a foul ball and Dye again stood in the batter’s box. He did end up hitting a single  in the inning.

 
 
           
 
 
Niemann was a Changed Man
 

Rays starter Jeff Niemann did start off last night game a lot different than his last outing. Tonight he seemed more in control and had the White Sox double thinking a few times at the plate. And that is a great sign for the Rays. Since his last outing some sites and outside voices have called for the Rays to bring up David Price, but after tonight’s performance, Niemann hopefully has given some confidence to the Rays faithful. His ball did seem to have a bit more snap tonight and his pitch selection seemed a bit more in line with the White Sox tendencies. His breaking pitches also seemed to be hugging the corner better, and his fastball had great movement.
 
 
So the Niemann haters had to give props to the tall rightie tonight because he did everything in his power to keep the Rays in the game.  He did get hit around a bit for 9 hits in his 6 innings of work, but he only gave up two runs, and both of those was on a Dye homer run in the second inning.  He did get into jams and a few pretty hairy situations, but the Rays defense stiffened and got him through it with no problems.
 
 

Niemann even helped his own cause in the sixth inning after a Alexi Ramirez short bouncer in front of the plate. the 6 foot 9 inch Niemann got to the ball and as he was tumbling to the turf threw a strike to Dioner Navarro to get the force out at home  for the second out of the inning. The tall rightie looked like a down giraffe on the play, but completed it perfectly to record the out.  But the biggest point of the night might have been in the first inning when he sent the White Sox 1-2-3 to start the game. That bit of confidence is essential for him this season. Knowing he belongs after the media and fans blasted him after his outing in Baltimore is critical for him.
 

After tonight’s display, where he also got White Sox second baseman Chris Getz to fly out to B J Upton in center with men on second and third to end the innnig, just adds to his renewed confidence.  That might have given him the spunk to again come out in the third inning and shut them down again 1-2-3 in the game.  Niemann left the game with it still tied at 2-2, and gave the Rays a chance to win this ball game, but the White Sox came up with a run in the top of the ninth inning to defeat the Rays 3-2.
 

Lance Cormier

 

How much pressure do think this guy has felt in the last 10 days. He was basically the last guy to be told he had a spot on this roster and has fought and clawed his way ever since in the long reliever r
ole. I actually think he has been the most solid member of the Rays Bullpen early in this season. I am wondering if he might just have the type of year that Grant Balfour and J P Howell had last season ans cement himself a  rock solid spot in this Bullpen. So far this year he has appeared in 4 games and pitched for a total of 7.2 innings of work.

 
And in that time he might be the only member of the Bullpen to surrender over 6 hits this season,he has given up 9 hits so far in 2009.  He is also the guy who has been on the mound the longest from the Rays Bullpen.  And not lost in that translation is the fact he has been on the mound in critical parts of those four games against great hitting ball clubs.  Tonight he went 2.1 innings and threw  55 pitches, and gave up the winning run to the White Sox. 

In the top of the ninth inning, after getting a quick out from Ramirez, he gave up consecutive singles to Getz and Brian Anderson to put two White Sox on with one out.  Josh Fields hit a sharp ball to Jason Bartlett that he hesitated for a moment before trying to get the speedy Fields at first. He did not get Fields, and Anderson scored to put the White Sox up 3-2. The play was very close at first base, and if not for Getz coming in high at second base, he might have gotten Fields with an earlier throw to first. But for the sake of argument here, Cormier has come in for some hairy situations this season and came out smelling like a rose. Unfortunately, tonight was not one of them.

 

 
 

El Presidente’ lets his Bat do the Talking

 

Sometime I marvel at how much torque Carlos Pena gets when he arches his back and leans back a bit on his swing. There have been times this year that he might have had the distance to again homer past the wall, but his back was arched too much and it turned into a towering out high into the sky. But last night during the Rays game, Pena hit a monster foul ball moments before correcting the path and again depositing one in the deep right field stands of Tropicana Field. His foul ball was a monster shot, but his homer was of equal distance, and counted to give the Rays a tie at 2-2 at the time in the contest.
 

Pena has been consistent since coming to the Rays in hitting the long ball. And paired with Evan Longoria and Pat Burrell, the trio was the Rays best home run hitting product since the deflated “Hit Show” in 2000. And so far this season Pena and Longoria have not disappointed the home team.  Right now Pena, Longoria and Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers all share the top spot in the American League home run contest with 5 this year. Pena is doing it without the usual protection of Longoria in the lineup, which is a huge factor. In the last two games, Pena has had to fight off breaking balls and sinking sliders to erupt into the home run race.
 
 

But with his line-up mate Longoria expected to be back in the lineup tonight, the duo can set their sights on the fans beyond the outfield walls.  Pena also sit in a 6-way tie for the second spot in runs batted in ( RBI) this season with 12. Longoria is also in that mess of six tied with Pena in RBI’s. And even with him just beginning to get comfortable at the plate, with Longo and Burrell in the lineup in front and behind him respectfully, Pena is going to see more and more pitches this year for the Rays . This in turn will be good news, because with more pitches thrown to him, his chances of hitting one long and deep increase dramatically in games.
 

Escot Friday Night Bus Service to Games
 

Starting tomorrow night, April 17th, ESCOT Bus Lines will add three routes to provide transportation to and from Tropicana Field for Tampa Bay Rays Friday  7:38 pm home games. These three routes will service Pinellas, Hillsborough and Sarasota/Manatee Counties.  Here is a tentative schedule of games that will provide the bus service and a example of pick-up points in the three counties served by the Escort service.
 

Schedule

Date Opponent Game Time

Friday, April 17 Chicago White Sox 7:38 p.m.
Friday, May 1 Boston Red Sox 7:38 p.m.
Friday, May 15 Cleveland Indians 7:38 p.m.
Friday, May 29 Minnesota Twins 7:38 p.m.
Friday, June 12 Washington Nationals 7:38 p.m.
Friday, June 26 Florida Marlins 7:38 p.m.
Friday, July 10 Oakland Athletics 7:38 p.
m.


Other games could be added to this schedule in the future.

Pick-up Times for Serivce:

Pinellas County:


5:15 p.m. departure from Tarpon Springs Shopping Mall
5:45 p.m. departure from Country Side Mall
6:30 p.m. departure from Courtside Grille( Carillion Park)
7:00 p.m. arrival at Tropicana Field

Hillsborough County:


5:30 p.m. departure from Beef O’Brady’s, 9331 E. Adamo Dr., Tampa
6:00 p.m. departure from Channelside District
6:30 p.m. departure from West Shore Mall
7:00 p.m. arrival at Tropicana Field

Manatee County:

5:15 p.m. departure from Beef O’Brady’s, 5942 34th St. W., Sarasota
6:00 p.m. departure from Beef O’Brady’s, 1795 Lakewood Ranch Blvd., Lakewood Ranch
6:35 p.m. departure from Beef O’Brady’s, 8913 US Highway 301 N., Parrish
7:00 p.m. arrival at Tropicana Field

 
 
Photo credits:  All three photos are from Chris O’Meara / AP

….

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