Results tagged ‘ James Shields ’

Will Price’s Venture into Arbitration Facilitate a Rays Countermeasure?

Southpaw starting pitcher David Price easily can be considered the most important cog to retain in the Tampa Bay Rays surging competitive machine. His potential is limited only by his own tinkering and shifting in his pitching grips. His confidence and abilities might have taken a direct hit in 2011, but his first season as a Rays “ace” definitely showed he has huge potential and “up-side” to grow into the role and Price is eager to embrace these challenges.

As his abilities have grown, so will his seasonal salary, with Price garnering a sustainable $1.25 million for 2011, Price definitely will see his bank account expand in the coming seasons. Some people among the Rays Republic were shocked when Price opted out of his original 6-year $8.5 million dollar payday recently with the Rays. After achieving Super Two status this past season, Price was in a position to not throw a curveball into the Rays 2012 plans, but possibly offer a bit of salary stability if the Rays would talk about an extended foundation in the Rays fold. Price was set to earn $ 1.5 million for 2012, plus garner the last deferred installment payment of his $ 5.6 million signing bonus from his original Rays contract signed on August 15, 2007.

Some have said publicly that Price executing his right to refuse his 2012 option of $ 2.433 million was a formality, possibly a venue for the Rays and Price to discuss another deal for the long haul. But his decision to exercise his right to refuse his option might put a few of the Rays “wishes” for offensive help on the back burner for a bit possibly putting handcuffs on the Rays front office from getting that needed offensive firepower to stay competitive.

Then again, the move by Price could be a calculated risk with Price knowing he could bring a sense of salary stability with an extended deal instead of the financial darkness that always overshadows the arbitration process. The Rays currently have club control over Price until 2015. But with Price’s decline of his 2012 set salary, his suspected 2012 salary jumps tremendously from the $ 2.4 million figure to between $ 7-8 million dollars just for 2012.

Price could go instantly this off-season from a true Rays payroll value to potentially being the top dog (sorry Astro) within the Rays salary hierarchy. This off-season both Price and arbitration eligible CF B J Upton could both possibly take between $14-16 million of the Rays payroll between themselves. That is why a long-term understanding between the Rays and Price should be on the table this Winter.

Price’s decision definitely puts the Rays front office behind the 8-ball this Winter to either sign Price to a team friendly extension, or face the reality that his escalating arbitration salaries after 2012 might make Price more of a liability financially as his abilities escalate upwards. You wonder if the Rays will stand by patiently watching as Price’s salary escalates yearly finally seeing the Rays faced with another Scott Kazmir or Carl Crawford situation as his worth exceeds the Rays fiscal abilities.

This move by Price could transition into a finely packaged extended stay with the Rays for the southpaw, or be the first indicator of his own exit visa being stamped with a potential 2015 date. possibly shipped out before that expiration date. Rays payrolls for the next few seasons might not venture even close to the previous high of $72+ million dollar threshold back in 2008.

SP Jame Shields has a bevy of club option salaries of $ 9 million ($1.5 million buy-out) for 2013 and $ 12 million for 2014 on the immediate horizon, and these high dollar figures will make him instantly expendable as early as July 2012. Current Rays offensive spark plug 3B Evan Longoria will see his 2011 salary double from $ 2 million to $4.5 million in 2012 with club options on the horizon that balloon to $7.5 million (2014) to $11.5 million in 2016. Even 2B/OF Ben Zobrist will see his coffers increase from $4.5 million in 2012 to a possible $ 7.5+ million club option in 2015. Suddenly this Rays cohesive core has an impending high salary expiration date.

This whole Price situation can go a multitude of directions. The two sides could sit down, iron out an extended stay with the club with team friendly terms. Or the Rays could venture into the unknown void of the arbitration process that will surely see Price’s value escalate skyward on a yearly basis until Price is a high dollar risk and an instant trade commodity.

This fiscal nightmare has been on the horizon for some time. With extended deals signed prior by Zobrist, Shields,Longoria and last season with SP Wade Davis. The Rays financial nightmare scenario might have been set into motion by Price’s option out of his low-ball 2012 salary. Other members of the Rays young core will soon reach salary arbitration for the first time and financial decisions will have to be made as to the breaking point nears for this Rays expanding young nucleus.

That is the fiscal reality of the Rays. They are a franchise that is currently treading water in a deepening financial MLB ocean as salaries push them under and they gasp for needed financial relief. There is the potential for salvation, or the realistic drowning financially of this franchise. Either way, the Rays player movements this Winter will definitely define their direction and their commitment towards their young core. Within the next few years with a few budding stars pushed out by their impending financial burdens, not their talents.

The final rendering of their movements with Price will either send out shock tremors, or sighs of relief. Price is the keystone to this movement. The first to walk through this fragile threshold, and he will definitely not be the last. Price is wandering into the impending darkness not knowing his final destination, but hopefully the Rays will illuminate the path with their trademark sunburst and make the whole journey pleasant for both sides. Price is betting his Rays future on it.

With First Chapter Scribed, Shield’s 2012 Rays Journey Begins

I completely love how Tampa Bay Rays starter James Shields had more than a few people surrounding the Rays Republic worried about “if” the Rays would pick-up his hefty 2012 club option. You heard the voices from both sides of the equation that Shields might be possibly “let go” or continue his tenure with the team after Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg’s well publicized rant about costs, attendance and another possible decrease in their proposed 2012 payroll.

Ever since the Rays got shoved out of the 2012 playoffs, any roster decisions seemed to again be bound by the usual Rays CIA-style cloak. Shields own continuous existence with the Rays at that point seemed steeped in a ever flowing stream of mystery and innuendo. As Shields packed for the off season and his migration to his Las Vegas off season home, he never knew for sure if this was his last moment in the Rays clubhouse.

Some wondered if Shield’s 2011 “comeback” was genuine or enough to boost the Rays confidence enough to guarantee that their Rays “greybeard” would again grace a Tampa Bay uniform. Skeptics thought another year like 2011 was not within Shields make-up, while other hope his transformation woulds help lead this team as long as the Rays felt Shields was a positive influence and fiscally feasible.

Even after possibly posting the best turnaround season for a pitcher in Rays history, you could not confidently bet the farm on Shield’s chances, or if the Rays would abruptly break their long-standing ties with Shields. Some hedged the facts that Shields could again fall into the folly with a breakdown like his 2010 campaign. Doubters still filled the Rays tank, possibly splashing fact after fact as to the percentages of Shield again faltering instead of soaring upward.

But with the Rays decision, that train of thought, for now, as firmly left the station. The idea of Shields anxiously pacing and sitting by the phone is over. The Rays did indeed decide Shields was worth his $ 7.5 million club option. So the first chapter of this Rays tale is in the book, but there could be plenty more set to be written even before the Rays mid-February report date for Pitchers and Catchers. There could be nothing to report, or there could possibly be an upcoming surprise and unexpected twist.

Just because the Rays exercised their 2012 club option on Shields, that doesn’t guarantee or even posture that he will be with the team for the entire 2012 season. This could be just the first step in a cloak and dagger Rays resolution with Shields. There will be a few key points in 2012 where Shields future could be as fragile as glass or sturdy as the steel reinforced cables holding the Trop’s roof taut. Even before the news left my ears that Shields had been retained, a recent rumors danced into my mind with visions of intrigue and speculation.

Not even 2 hours South of Tampa Bay new Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen would love a secondary punch like Shields in his 2012 rotation. Guillen knows first-hand of the ability of Shields to command respect on the mound, of his embracing of foster children’s charities and his strive for greatness every 5 days on the hill.

Shields is the kind of pitcher that would have the back of the Marlins current ace Josh Johnson and be a nice transition between Johnson and Anibel Sanchez making a great 1-2-3 fish attack. Plus the National League East is another hotbed of competitive baseball and with Shield’s past resume in the American League East, he would be a godsend for that team.

The Marlins would definitely dangle their estranged outfield prospect Logan Morrison as bait for Shields. The power starved Rays offense could be bolstered by Morrison, but it opens another can of prospective worms as to who in the Rays outfield would see more limited time with such a move. I am glad I am not Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman because I might take a deeper look into that scenario.

Still $ 7.5 million is a lot in the Rays economic environment. That amount by itself would have paid for Johnny Damon and possibly two of the Rays rookie salaries in 2011. I wonder if this rumor has any true foundation, but then again the Marlins might do anything to rid themselves of what a player their own front office made an ridiculous and spiteful example of in 2011.

Another option open to the Rays would be to hold on tight to Shields until near the end of Spring Training in 2012 and decide if their young prospects like SP Alexander Torres, Alex Cobb or even Matt Moore can pull the same pitching weight as Shields, then make a trade before Opening Day. This is rather unlikely, but the Rays have done a few trades and acquiring of talent even when the ink on the 25-man roster was starting to dry.

The most realistic option might be for the team to hold onto Shields until that dreaded last ticking of the Trade Deadline in July with the Rays picking up a few pieces or prospects in exchange for the last 60 days of Shields services in 2012. You can bet the entire season teams will keep a sharp lookout on Shield’s stats and development.

Shield’s could be a key component of this Rays rotation in 2012, or use as a bargaining chip to obtain another key piece to the formulation of the Rays 2012 roster. No matter what happens, Shields has been a inspirational Rays leader and a member of this team who has bled Carolina blue with a passion.

With the Rays picking up Shield’s 2012 option some within the Rays Republic feel Shields will be here for the entire season, while other feel he is already no borrowed time. But Shield’s now has the security of knowing he is wanted by the Rays, but not to the exact extent of that “want”. Let’s hope Shields can at least get to the dog days of Summer before we again have to bring this subject up. I think he has earned that.

Re-casting Possible for the Rays “Young Guns”?

It always amazes me when people make posters like this. It is creative, very well thought out in the ways of design, but the content sometimes makes a lot to be desired. It is not that I do not consider the Tampa Bay Rays pitchers that this artist selected for his poster to not be “Young Guns”, I just think a couple of pitchers who also made an 2011 appearance missed the photo cut.

Gazing at the poster several images of 2011 came rushing back to me, which several being possible final curtain calls for a few Rays. Some showed their magic in 2011, while some may have shown a bit of a bad slide, possibly signing their own visas for exit from the Rays universe. Still it is wild that this one photo to the right was presented on the first day Rays pitchers’ and catchers reported in Port Charlotte, Florida, and one person presented on the poster was not even among those assembled.

Rays phenom Matt Moore did not even report until the Rays minor league player’s strolled into the Southwest Florida community, but won a spot on the poster. It would be futile to not consider this southpaw a future staple in the Rays rotation, possibly making his next appearance after May 2012. Still it shows the defining depth and promise of the Rays hurlers that a guy not even selected for a Major League Spring Invite makes such a prominent figure on the poster.

But there is something that is bothering me about this poster. Something that today might not seem relevant, but could make the whole idea of the poster moot possibly even before the 2012 Spring thaw. I consider the duo of “Alex’s”, Torres and Cobb to have a prominent place in the Rays plans coming into 2012, possibly making their Opening Day debuts this season for the Rays.

That immediately raises the question on who I truly think might be airbrushed off this poster, possibly wearing different colors as the mid-February date approaches. The first pitcher that might get a new MLB address for 2012 could be right-hander Jeff Niemann. It is nothing personal, Niemann has shown great signs of brilliance on the mound, it is just that his risk factors in regard to injury setbacks and his up and down productivity make him a suitable pitcher to find another home for 2012.

Some people might be amazed that the “Tall Texan” has made 83 career starts for the Rays, but most of us are transfixed on his last 2011 start, in Fenway Park where Niemann was matched up against Red Sox hurler Jon Lester and Neumann posted up his 11th victory of the season. Niemann posted a 8-2 record on the road this season in his 12 starts, pushing him into the top 5 road records in the major leagues, including winning 8 of his last 9 road decisions.

Usually that kind of pitcher would not even be on the cusp of trade chatter, but the Rays have a bevy of pitchers trying to break through the barrier between the Triple-A Durham Bulls and a place on the Rays 25-man roster. 2012 might be the season where the Rays get significantly younger, and Niemann may only be the first to mosey into the Florida sunset. Niemann has had a good enough career and 2011 season to possibly get the Rays an up-grade in a few needed areas for 2012. I would put him at the top of the Rays list of available players come the Hot Stove season, and a pitcher more than a few teams covet.

The second member of the Rays current “Young Guns” who might need to worry is also Niemann’s hunting and fishing buddy Wade Davis. Even though he might have signed a salary respectable contract before the 2011 season, that could be a great tasty morsel to a struggling team with limited payroll looking for a viable starter with MLB experience. I guess I put Davis on this list because I consider the two “Alex’s” to have more up-side for the Rays in the near future than Davis, this is not about his present record or his injury in 2011.

Still, Davis is another Rays pitcher who has some valuable MLB abilities and could come at a respectable trade cost to another team. Worst thing here is that Davis would be a marked man in 2012 no matter what in reality. With the firm possibility that Moore will spend at least a few months in Durham before possibly making another visit to the Rays roster, Davis looks like a man firmly on unstable ground with no lifeline within reaching distance.

Even after posting a 8 inning, 2-hit start against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 25th, Davis might not have done enough to have teams kicking his tires this offseason. Davis won his last 7 starts of the season at Tropicana Field plus Davis posted double digit win totals over his first 2 Rays seasons, but it might not be enough to let WD-40 squeak by with a 2012 spot in the rotation. Davis may be in the same row boat as Niemann right now with financial numbers and the possibility of younger starters beating on the Rays doors being the catalyst for a trade, not his abilities.

Most would think I would have selected James Shields as one of the “poster boys” to be in the most jeopardy for 2012. If you thought that, you would not be totally wrong. Shields will possibly be dealt by the Rays, but it seems more logical for him to be separated from this team by the end of July, not this off season. With Moore, Torres and Cobb all having limited game experience, having a starting trio of David Price, Shields and Jeremy Hellickson to start 2012 makes the Rays an instant contender.

Shields 2012 salary would be a huge reason for his departure, but he also showed this season he has the drive and ability to still be a top flight pitcher and a value commodity for the Rays to start 2012. By the end of July, with free agency possibly on the horizon, the Rays might be more likely to trade Shields while his value is high to a contender outside the American League.

The poster is another reminder of the deep and promising rotation the Rays should be able to push up against their Major League Baseball adversaries for the next 5-8 years. Every one of these pitchers have the abilities and the skills to dominate and take a win from the clutches of any team, at any time. It is a rare and unique thing for the Rays to have such depth, but it is also a tragedy that some of their pitchers may ultimately experience their career peaks not wearing a Rays uniform.

Rays May Need a Half Dozen to Help Shields

Sure yesterday’s one-sided victory in Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series was tremendous, but I am one of those cautious Rays Republic members. Maybe it is the pure fact we have seen so many of these games where the Tampa Bay Rays awaken from a offensive slumber and post amazing numbers on the board, then as if someone spiked their Gatorade with sleeping pills, they fall silent again.

Not in my mind is the true fact this Rays club has outscored their adversaries 17-0 over the last 14 innings. I want to believe the Rays have finally found an answer to the mundane offensive woes of the regular season, and that their bats will not again go silent. It is my biggest concern heading into ALDS Game 2. Considering the Rays gave Rays starter James Shields only 104 runs in his 33 starts (3.15 per start) and produced a 21-12 record.

Tonight has to be different for the Rays have a legitimate chance at gaining a 2-0 advantage with the ALDS heading back to Tropicana Field for Game 3 on Monday at 5:07 pm. Also you have to take into consideration the simple fact that this start by Shields tonight will be the third time he has faced this same Rangers offense in the last 30 days.

Shields has done his job over the past two previous starts throwing 8 shutout innings on August 31st for a 4-1 victory, then producing 5-1 win while throwing his 11th complete game back on September 5th in Tropicana Field. Shields can be the “Ranger killer” this team desperately needs tonight. Shields has compiled a career regular season mark of 5-2 with a 3.05 ERA against the Rangers, but is 2-2 with a 3.72 ERA in his 4 career starts in the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

So as you can see by those career stats, the Rays have to spot Shields at least 6 runs to effectively be in position to take both of the road games in Texas. Maybe I am a little leery and want 6 runs because of f Shields 2010 ALDS performance at the Trop against Texas when he only threw 68 pitches, but surrendered 4 runs over 4.1 innings in that 6-0 Rangers victory.

On any given day posting that kind of offensive number has been a bit tricky for the Rays. Since the All Star break, the Rays have scored 6 or more runs on 22 occasions including 8 times during September. It is not as if I do not believe the Rays have finally found their groove, or that their offensive flusters are behind them, but getting off to a quick lead, giving Shields a comfort level to not have to be perfect could be the keystone to the Rays putting the Rangers into a quick hole in this ALDS.

Combine Shields improvements on the hill in the latter parts of 2011 going 7-3 with a 2.43 ERA over his last 11 starts. Definitely Shields has the stuff right now to keep the Rays close in this key match-up, but any implosion, any crack in his arsenal and those 6 runs could be the catalyst between a 2 game cushion or back to square one with a 1-1 series record. Best thing that could happen to Shields is that Home Plate Umpire Kerwin Danley like his pitch location and gives him some of those change-ups on the corners.

The offensive firestorm on Friday night is not typical of the Rays who have only scored 9+ runs in 6 contests since the All Star break, but 3 of those came in the month of September. Leaving nothing to chance, if the Rays do produce 6 runs in this key contest, Tampa Bay will fly home for the day off at home with a 2-0 ALDS series lead, with David Price and Jeremy Hellickson set to take the mound under the dome.

This game might be a great indicator of how this Rays versus Rangers series might play out. It could seem a bit premature to consider Game 2 to be a key moment in this 5-game series, but taking 2 at an opponents ballpark heading back into Tropicana Field where the Rays went 11-3 with 3 extra inning victories in the month of September would be a pretty tough mountain to climb for the Rangers.

But it all starts tonight. I wonder which Rays machine will show up? The one that seems to score at will racking up runs like a video game, or the club that seems a slight bit off missing by inches of getting that key hit. As always, pitching will set the tone, but if the Rays get off to a quick start, it will do wonders in silencing that rowdy Texas crowd….That could end up being music to Shields ears.

If You Don’t Believe Now, Better Check Your Pulse



Words would just ruin the moment. Here is a photo essay of complied photos from the great AP photographers Mike Carlson / Chris O’Meara and Getty Images Photog  J. Meric  on the field and deep within the bowels of Tropicana Field  tonight. 




 

Last, but not least, the Home Run trot that began the celebration!



I am Betting on the Wild Card Factor

Now that the Tampa Bay Rays have let it be known to the entire baseball world that they want to be “Club C” in a possible 1-game playoff “winner, winner chicken dinner” type format, will there be more Rays surprises before the beginning of the Wednesday night season finale game at Tropicana Field?

Could this team pull their own unforeseen “Wild Card” from their pitching deck of cards for a potential American League Wild Card determining game set for Friday, September 30th at Tropicana Field? Problem is, will the Rays pick a staff “Ace” or go with another card hoping for a little Rays good fortune. 

If the Rays have a gut feeling that they might be in line to use their previously announced “Club C” option of facing the winner of the game against Red Sox and the Angels, would the Rays go outside their usual comfort zone and play a hunch, possibly scratching Rays southpaw David Price from his last start of the season, giving the ball instead to top prospect SP Matt Moore.

This scenario could easily play out if the Rays think they will be facing a one contest game of baseball roulette to decide if they are post season “worthy”. If it plays out even closely that the Rays would have a playoff game on Friday night in Tropicana Field, wouldn’t you want an Ace on the hill who can give you that win?

Some have said that fellow Rays starter/Ace James Shields could come back on 4-days rest and provide an a possible “Ace in the hole” sequence for the Rays for that Friday contest, but then you lose Shields in the American League Divisional Series until possibly Tuesday, October 4th which could line up to be Game 3 of the ALDS and a Rays home contest.

If Price pitched on Wednesday and the team did not seal their fate that night, Price would possibly not pitch again until Game 3 of the ALDS if you go by the present schedule on MLB.com. Seems like the Rays might be doing some midnight oil researching the possible match-ups of each of these two pitchers against their ALDS hosts either the Detroit Tigers or the Texas Rangers. Kind of hoping for a Rangers versus Rays re-match…We have some unfinished business to conclude from 2010 .

If Price is the starter of a AL Wild Card determining game on Friday night, he would essentially be lost until Game 4 or 5 realistically for the ALDS. But if Price pitched in the possible Friday AL Wild Card determining game, it would make Shields the heir apparent ALDS Game 1 starter, plus a possible second start in Game 4 or 5. The Rays might just have to play the odds, rub a few rabbits feet, possibly get Price’s palm read somewhere.

Or the Rays could pull one of the bravest moves of 2011 and end up giving the ball to Moore in a Friday deciding game of the Rays fate for the post season. Immediately people might think this is crazy, but Moore is definitely throwing the ball better than Rays starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis right now, so it might be a more statistically dominant suggestion over Shields or Price.

Not trying to throw the Rays young prospect into the fire here, but if you need dominant pitching and a guy who neither the Red Sox or Angels have scouted with a huge amount of game film, Moore might be a nice monkey wrench to throw into the works.

That also would free up Shields to be the ALDS Game 1 starter, with a potential for another ALDS start in Game 3. Then you might have Price come back as a potential ALDS Game 2 starter if the MLB schedule changes enough for Game 2 to be moved to Monday, October 3, and also be on the hill (if needed) for a deciding Game 5 in Detroit.

Here is where it gets tricky and you almost want to be in on the wave length conversation between the ears of Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. But some thing are easily apparent, and should make trying to decipher Friedman’s brain waves a non-brainer (sorry Andrew).

When you consider Rays AL Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson is a better option than Davis or Niemann in Game 2 or 3, that could lead to an odd scenario of the Rays 4th starter even getting a chance to throw considering the travel days schedule, or if the Rays are in a “must win” situation.

For some reason Moore’s name keeps flashing within my mind as the key “Wild Card” to the Wild Card. If the team uses him on the mound for the Wednesday night regular season finale, it places possibly David Price as the potential Friday night starter. If Price starts on Friday, it would push him towards the back end of the pitching probabilities for the ALDS.

If you put all the cards on the table, look at them realistically for a moment, Moore should be the Friday night starter if the Rays have a 1-game last ditch shot at the post season. That way the Rays would have Shields on the hill for Game 1 of the ALDS, either Price ( even on 4 days rest) or Hellickson for Game 2 in Detroit.

But then again, this all could become moot if the Rays run the table winning both of their remaining contests and the Red Sox stumble against in Baltimore, or Texas eliminates the Angels threat. I still think the double nickel (55) will be the Wild Card factor, I’m betting on it.

10 Years Later, “Heart and Hustle, Redux”

2011 is the 10th anniversary of the Tampa Bay Rays up tempo slogan “Heart and Hustle” that signified and branded a Rays squad consisting of a hodge podge of vets and rookies who meshed together to play a energized style of Rays baseball. Sounds kind of familiar?

That same highly energized and enthusiastic slogan could easily be stamped upon this 2011 Rays squad. Truly it is the essence of this team’s “ fire in the belly “heart and “never say die” hustle that has lead this ball club from the April darkness of the American League East cellar to them gaining momentum, slowly escalating onward and upward towards a 6-game shootout with the slumping Boston Red Sox and surging Los Angeles Angels for the potential AL Wild Card post season prize.

Even 10 years later, heart and hustle still seem to be firmly within the foundation and backbone of the Rays team culture. From the extreme performance last night from their youngest player on their roster RP/SP Matt Moore to a their oldest “young at heart” performer OF/DH Johnny Damon who only has to look at his ring fingers to visually show he can help lead this young maturing band of baseball brothers to that last glorious plateau in late October.

 I mean how can you root against a team where Damon, who was born in 1973 is still grinding out extra base hits and stealing bases like rookie sensation Desmond Jennings. Just because Damon is adding nightly to his future Hall of Fame resume, the pure magic he sees within this team is not lost on him that the Rays have the drive and confidence to take this thing to its final destination, then party like rock stars.

Even the Rays usual whipping boy B J Upton has pushed his numbers high and higher as the number of games diminish, possibly knowing within his mind this might be his last chance at post season glory with this Rays club before the Winter could dish out a harsh reality to him and the Rays Republic. Right now Upton is playing like a man possessed, or who knows the window of opportunity is beginning to be shut.

Do not get me started on this Rays rotation where from top to bottom we have seen 10+ wins by each starter, and had glimpses of magic from often maligned SP Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. We have seen Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson get a secondary nickname just for 2011, “HellROY” as he burns towards the finish line.

Even the Rays rookies are set to make a little history of their own as Jennings needs only 2 stolen bases over the next 6 games to become the first AL rookie with 10 HR and 20 SB since the Rays own Rocco Baldelli and Kansas City’s Angel Berroa set the mark in 2003. Hellickson has a .290 ERA and a .208 opponent average, the fifth best rookie performance…ever.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s mantra of “pitching sets the tone” has definitely sparked some beautiful music from his hurlers as the Rays collectively have held the American League to a .236 average. The last AL team to post such numbers was the 2001 Mariners who had the same .236 average. Oh, and by the way, that Mariners club made the playoffs. Rays starters have gone 7+ innings 77 times, 21 times more than the second closest squad, their AL East rivals the New York Yankees.

Amazing enough, this Rays pitching staff has thrown 1,024.1 innings (most in AL) and leads the AL with a 3.51 ERA, 15 complete games and has allowed an AL-low 593 runs. All this by a staff that has seen all 156 prior 2011 Rays game started by pitchers drafted and developed by the Rays, the only team in the majors this season who can boast that claim. Plus, they are riding a 758 consecutive streak of starters under the age of 30…an MLB record.

Along with their upward trend in pitching, the Rays have solidified their overall defense to the tone that the Rays have committed the least errors in the Majors (69), and their combined .988 Fielding Percentage is tied with NL powerhouse Philadelphia for the top slot in the MLB. Talk about “hustle”, this Rays team has committed only 4 errors in their last 17 games, and only 17 in their past 53 contests.

If ever there was a Rays team that demonstrated that mantra of “Heart and Hustle”, it is this 2011 squad. This Rays squad was 9 games out of playoff contention on September 2, 2011. No other team in MLB history has overcome that many games in September to get into the post season. The closest comparison would be the St. Louis Cardinals (who trained in St. Petersburg, Fl) who were in 3rd place and trailed the Philadelphia Phillies by 8.5 games on September 3, 1964.

History is definitely on the Rays side right now as the Rays have already secured their 4th straight 10 win seasonal series against tonight’s foe, the Toronto Blue Jays, the most against any Rays opponent. The Rays are also a combined 25-8 against the pesky bird in Tropicana Field over that same time period. Also working into the Rays favor is their lifetime 6-4 record against the Yankees in the last series of the season, including a dismal 1-2 mark in 1999.

Since 2001, the Rays have beaten New York by a 5-2 mark during the last series of the season at Tropicana Field. This 2011 squad has a chance to possibly duplicate some more late season angst upon the 2011 AL East Champion Yankee just as they did back in 2001 when the Yankees won the AL East and the Rays beat them 3 out of 4 games heading into the post season

The Rays past “Heart and Hustle” campaign centered on their rising stars and a few veterans getting their last swings at glory. Maybe we should collectively called this Rays prospect of the Rays 2011 Renaissance and possibly Rays history repeating itself, “Heart and Hustle Redux”. I think it fits perfectly like a glove.

No Pressure, Rays Just Need to Win

This Tampa Bay Rays versus New York Yankees final 6-game battle royale needs no hype, and definitely needs no extra drama. It is the classic tale of lower (payroll) class rising up against the established norm. A meager collection of gutsy veterans and energized rookies banging their heads with Major League Baseball’s anointed ones who’s own city treats them like royalty.

It is the tale of the player who still drives the car he bought with his MLB Draft signing bonus against the one’s who could buy a new auto for everyone in the clubhouse and still have money to valet each car. One is a team steeped in baseball lore with legends of greatness, longevity and feats of power unknown to the other squad.

Yankees versus Rays has all that connective lore and more, much more. The pinstripe now have the Rays initial franchise Manager acting as their Pitching Coach, while the Rays have the Yankees long time staple as their Senior Advisor. Interesting enough, so many thought current Yankee skipper Joe Girardi was going to be the Rays Manager after Lou Pineilla until the cerebral Merlot Joe won the gig.

There is bad blood that stems as far back as Spring 2008, with the aggressor of that day Rays INF Elliot Johnson on the field this series, and Franklin Cervelli again out with an injury, but not due to a 2011 plate collision with Johnson. Out in the Yankees Bullpen the Rays 2010 closer is being used as a set-up man while former Yankee RP Kyle Farnsworth is biting at the bit to get back into his closer’s saddle.

Both of these teams used to train in St. Petersburg, Florida in the Spring, with some saying departed Yankee greats still haunt the old ballfields. Yankees even still call Tampa Bay their Spring home, nestled behind the blue-hued fences off Dale Mabry and within view of an NFL stadium.

These teams are so much alike, but so different at the same notion. The Rays have been able to use their Save-a-Lot budget tactics to bring 2 American League East title to their dome catwalks in 3 seasons. The Yankees are the only other team over the last 4 years to equal the Rays AL East haul, and that is if the New York squad can hold off the ram-rod Rays in their final 6-game showdowns in 2011.

Before last night’s loss, their was fodder sinking and flowing around the web that if the Rays went 10-0, they would command the AL East title for the third time in four seasons, besting the high dollar Boston Red Sox and Yankees with a payroll that is less than their bench players make…combined. Maybe there is something to that “Moneyball” shenanigans.

Most have come into this series with the pure thought that the Rays will have to duplicate their “Fenway magic” in the replica Yankee Stadium if they are to fully send the Red Sox Nation into a tailspin, even before their upcoming 3-game weekend slate with these same Pinstripes. More importantly, this Yankee club would like to see nothing better than to see the Red Sox and their Nation try and justify out this recent plunder into the deep recesses of failure.

But the Rays are not going into this Yankee series without reservations. Their offense needs to crank itself up a notch, particularly with left-handed hitter aiming for the Rightfield short porch. Rays DH Johnny Damon needs to revisit a few of his Pinstripe past moments of pushing the ball into the stands, possibly aiding in the Rays taking 3 out of 4.

Even if the Rays play perfect ball both from their defense to their starting pitching, mistakes and lapses in judgment even at the plate can not be tolerated. Rays 2B/RF Ben Zobrist has to come into the nightcap game with vision of his newborn daughter dancing in his head, and a goal of planting a few souvenirs into the famed outfield stands.

Doesn’t matter who is on the hill to start, the Rays have the hurlers to keep the series interesting, the question is which Rays offense will show up…the anemic Baltimore crew who looked like they had food poisoning during their 3-game debacle or the swatting squad that sent Red Sox Nation scurrying onto Yakey Way talking to themselves about their darking fate.

The Rays have nothing to lose, and should play the Yankees with abandon knowing their fate lies firmly within their own hands, The Yankees do not have that luxury. Defeats will bring about worry and doubt heading into the final stretch, which would favor their adversary. Consider the fact that the Yankees have to play both Tampa Bay and Boston over that 10 game stretch, and the pressure cooker is gaining steam for the Yankees.

The possibilities of securing back-to-back series wins is firmly planted within the minds of the Rays, and the Bombers will do everything short of urban warfare to secure and safely conceal their quest of another AL East crown. Emotions will be sky high on both sides of the field as the Yankees still have a lingering hole in their souls after losing the AL East title on their last grasp in 2010.

If the Rays play the way they did in their 4 games in Boston and take the game to the Yankees, even during their day/night double-dose, this Rays team might have to all go have dinner at the Cracker Barrel a few blocks from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. For if this Rays team does the same to the Yankees that they just did to the Red Sox, when the Rays land late Thursday evening maybe Maddon should buy the whole team “meatloaf with a side of gravy” upon their return. I can smell it already. 

Rays Get Introduced to the “Wendelstedt Factor”


They were initially designed to be the “enforcers of the rules and regulations of baseball”. Be the facilitators of human error that was needed within the scope of the game to keep it from becoming inherently mechanical and stiff. The flaws and frailties of the human element have made baseball enjoyable to watch, banter about and discuss long before television made their mistakes more visual within seconds.

But in the end, you have to ask yourself why do some Major League Umpires find it necessary to “ jump the shark tank” at times to firmly cross that fine line and make the game their own? At what point do the Umpires have that right to step over that pre-conceived dividing chalk line of being “in the game or around it” that essence that sometimes separates fact from fiction, keeping the integrity of the game intact, or blowing it all out the window.

Most people in Boston today will say I have a case of extreme “sour grapes”, that the Tampa Bay Rays loss to the Red Sox last night was a well fought contest with hills and valleys that the team did not use to their advantage to post a win. I can agree with that, but there might have been another element that most Boston fans have thrown into the darkness of the closet, hoping someone like me will not bring it back out into the daylight. Something stunk in Boston last night, and it wasn’t low tide.

During the course of the game last night an old quote I read by former National League Umpire Bruce Froemming kept popping into my mind as a few questionable calls and strike signals were displayed on tele-illustrators and graphics pertaining to the exploits of last night’s Home Plate Umpire:

One of the really wrong theories about officiating is that a good official is one you never notice. The Umpire who made this statement was probably a poor official who tried to get his paycheck and hide behind his partners and stay out of trouble his whole life. Control of the ballgame is the difference between Umpires who show up for the players and Managers.

Usually when you think of the Rays and an Umpire controversy their top two past adversaries Umpires Joe West and Angel Hernandez come quickly to light. But last night the Rays dastardly duo were nowhere is sight with each hundreds of miles away calling other MLB games. With the above quote in mind, last night a new Rays villain in black emerged on Friday night, and his name is Hunter Wendelstedt. You would think a second generation MLB Umpire would have a more structured approach, a more defined strike zone, a definite want to be “in the game” but not an intricate part of it.

I actually enjoy an animated Home Plate Umpire who throws a little showmanship and bravado into the cool night’s air to provide a hint of excitement and twists to the game, but I have a firm distaste when I see a blatant disregard for a well defined parameter of the strike zone floating back and forth in the wind like a flag during the evening. The integrity of the strike zone is up to individual Umpire’s interpretation and will be compromised at times, but when it floats and is expanded like a balloon filling with hot Umpire air, that is where I draw the line.

I understand that sometimes Umpires make bad judgment calls in the spirit of the game that upon later review have merit for further discussions, but when their errors in judgment can be plastered upon a television matrix system and show an obvious disregard for the defined “box” of a preconceived strike zone that each hitter hopes an Umpire will structure and call with clarity, I have a problem with that.

A great example of this floating strike zone has to be Rays CF B J Upton’s 5th inning plate appearance. I agree that Upton does give a few extra words to Umpires during the game discounting their strike zones or even hoping for a reprieve on a later plate appearance, but when the zone expands to almost touching a player’s uniform and it is called a strike…..something is truly afoot.

In as much time as Upton instantly turned and began to disagree with Wendelstedt after his third strike, quick thinking members of the FSN/SunSports production crew were deciphering and dissecting the “called strike” to show that Wendelstedt did indeed put a lot of his own “English” on the strike zone and the pitch was actually way outside the usual strike zone.

Upton had a perfect right to become agitated and angry with Wendelstedt after it was shown that for that one pitch the strike zone had expanded from its usual 8.5 inches from the center of the plate to 14.5 inches. A called strike that was placed 6 inches outside the usual box led to Upton’s plate barrage. Some might say since Upton had a 3-2 count with Desmond Jennings attempting to steal second base he should have swung at anything within the zone, but 6 inches outside the zone would not have merited even such a thought, even by the usually swing aggressive Upton.

If the contest had been 6-3 or even a blow-out, there would not be this kind of banter by me to the integrity of the moving strike zone. But because it was a tightly constrictive 4-3 contest, a simple walk or even base hit could have made this game’s momentum and conclusion quickly change. Even more upsetting is the simple fact that even with an expanded and bloated strike zone, Rays starter James Shields did not seem to get the same lofty calls.

Gone will be the “Wendelstedt factor” behind the plate as he will be stationed behind Third Base this afternoon. Hopefully Wendelstedt doesn’t have an additional chance or moment to expand the chalk line down that Leftfield line in Fenway Park. I hope Wendelstedt’s father, former Umpire Harry Wendelstedt who patrolled the National Leagues from 1966-1998 has some great “fatherly advice for Hunter. Possibly  something like my own opinion that the MLB strike zone is there as a key, but to abuse it loses not only the key to the lock, but you lose yourself and your own integrity.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

I think the Tampa Bay Rays have the right idea right now. This series against the Boston Red Sox is the first set of playoff atmosphere and caliber games that the Rays will have to solidly win and show their might for them to secure a second straight visit to the October promise land. The energy and electricity in the air right now is evident, the Rays are beginning to find their offensive rhythm at a time when a powerful message needs to be delivered.

The team has to go into these next three contests against Boston with the same drive, determination and zeal to hand the Red Sox a “L” on their home turf within the eye sight of the Red Sox Nation. You got to hand it to the young Rays who again found their offensive firepower and stepping over their hitting mess left in piles upon the turf in Baltimore. The Rays power explosion last night definitely showed the Boston and Red Sox Nation, that this series is not going to be a cakewalk, and at the conclusion of this 4- battle mini war, one team will clearly have an emotional edge going into the final 10-odd games.

You still have to be mindful that last night’s convincing victory was not fought against the top tier of Red Sox pitching, and the middle games of this 4-game campaign will have extreme pitching challenges where the Rays will have to out-think and out play Boston’s top two. Rays Manager Joe Maddon always says “pitching sets the tone”, well in this case the Rays want to make Boston a bit tone deaf and knock them on their heels.

That is the way this series will be won. The team that makes the opposition pitch deep every inning, use up their momentum and energy will find the crack and exploit their adversary first. The Rays dominated in that category last night, tonight it is time to again duplicate the feat.

If the Rays truly want to thrust out their chests in victory, it will come against two of the Red Sox best, and with the full Red Sox arsenal again healthy and ready to face Rays starters James Shields and Jeff Niemann over the next two days. That is really how you want this series to play out, with each team going back and forth with momentum until one cracks the dike and the flood waters spill out into Boston harbor.

This is how you want the American League Wild Card to be decided, with the best on the hill for the front runners and the team chasing them finding ways to decipher and dictate a defeat over the course of the next two games. Considering the Rays could not take advantage earlier this week when Boston stubbed their toes to make up critical 2 games worth of ground bringing this Wild Card dash within a single contest. That would have amped up the intensity level, but I have a feeling that each team already feel those tingles in their bones.

 If the first game was an indication, this Red Sox/Rays series has all the trapping and emotional feel of a full fledged Major League Baseball playoff series. It truly feels to me more like a 4-game series to decide who gets to head into the final 10 days with a chance to make the current A L East leaders a bit nervous, possibly even shaving a few games off their current lead. At the least it could help delay and prevent any champagne corks from exploding until the Yankees and Rays end the season in Tropicana Field.

Think of the deep hole both these teams faced after the first two weeks of the 2011season. Both were fighting and clawing for a chance to get out of the A L East cellar fighting and have amazingly got their seasons on track and ascended back to the top tiers of the American League East. Most teams would have considered just that journey upwards out of the cellar a seasonal success, but both these teams have a bitter taste in their mouths and need that sweet nectar of champagne to wash the troubles away for good.

If the Rays battle and take the next two, it sends a clear message that this team has its engine purring and ready for that final run with 7 matches against the AL East leading New York Yankees. This definitely feels like the first round set of series game leading up to a AL East showdown on the horizon for the Rays and Yankees, but Boston is standing in the road defiant to let the Rays pass without a fight.

Emotions are flowing into overdrive on both sides as one begins to show a sense of panic, and the other is starting to settle into a familiar seasonal groove of fighting to the last bit of energy, prevailing sometimes with the last swing.

If the Rays dispatch Beckett and Lester over the next two games, it will demoralize more than just the Red Sox players. It will send panic and emotional pleas throughout Red Sox Nation. So get ready, strap in and prepare for a fight because the Red Sox will not go down without a fight, and the Rays seem ready to counter one…Now that type of scenario feels just like a post season series to me.


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