Results tagged ‘ Jason Bartlett ’

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.

My Final AL Vote Thoughts

 

With today bringing the 2009 All-Star game fan voting to an end, it is now time for people to try and predict, influence or even try and persuade some of the rest of the baseball world that their guys truly deserve a slot in the All-Star game in St. Louis on July 14. The official results will not be aired or known until at least this Sunday, but there is speculation and even rampant optimism that at least one star of your local team will grace the roster announced on Sunday during the 2009 MLB All Star Selection Show presented by Pepsi on Sunday on TBS at 1 pm.

The American baseball public has responded to cast 223.5 million votes from 17.8 million ballots to set a new record for the total number of ballots and votes cast in the fan balloting of the All Star game.  Of course this is not the last time they will get a chance to vote for a member of the 2009 All Star squad. On Sunday during the telecast, the “last chance” voting opportunity also known as the “All Star Game Sprint Final Vote”.  Wow, what a clever name for the contest. As we all know, the Rays Evan Longoria won that last selection vote in 2008, and so far has been the highest vote getter in the American League side of voting this season.

The All Star Managers, the National League’s Charlie Manuel and the American Leagues Joe Maddon will help select the five players to take part in the final vote. This voting will continue until next Tuesday at 4 pm EST when all electronic votes will be counted and submitted to MLB for final approval. MLB.com will announce the winner after 4 pm and they will represent their league in the 2009 All Star game.

Who will get that last slot this season?  Could it be the guy who comes in fifth or sixth in the outfield, or maybe even a late bloomer like Texas Ranger shortstop Elvis Andrus. Since my team is located in the American League, I am going to try and make some predictions and logical choices to be considered for the 2009 A L side of the field. For me to even consider who might make it on the NL side of the equation might be more speculation than fact, and I will leave that to the bevy of ESPN columnists more qualified than me to know the National League. So without further ado, let me try and figure out the final 32 members of the AL squad I would expect and also select if I was in the AL Manager’s cleats.

For the Final vote, hmm, this might be a bit interesting this season. I am thinking that the Rays will again have a member on the five people selected for the Final Vote. This season it will be uber-utility player Ben Zobrist. I think Maddon wants to put him on the squad, but he might already have three players on the squad at that point and might leave it up to the voting public for the last slot. For what he has done in the first half of the season, he deserves it, but does the rest of the country agree with the Rays fans.

A second player I feel might be considered for the final vote will be Toronto Blue Jay shortstop Marcus Scutaro.   Based on his defensive and offensive mastery in 2009, he should be an outside candidate to be included as the second shortstop on the squad. He is being a bit punished by New York Yankees long stay Derek Jeter taking the starting spot, and the Rays Jason Bartlett maybe taking the second slot. But this could change and they could also be swapped if the Jays do not place another player on the squad, but with Jays starter Roy Halladay now healthy, you have to consider him for your pitching staff.

 

I am also thinking that MLB and Maddon might let the fans decide if Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez deserves a slot on the team after his PED conversations and his recent emergence to again hitting like the old A-Rod. This might be the place for the general public to either voice their support or disgust for his actions.  The Yankee star will not be voted into the starting line-up this season as Longoria is the probable starter at third base this season for the AL.

The fourth player that might find himself on the Final Vote will be Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. This season with Jason Bay now on the AL-side of the voting, he has taken a usual spot taken by one of the trio of Hunter, the Rays Carl Crawford, and another former AL and NL All Star Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr.  Hunter has been a fixture on ESPN’s Sportscenter and also Baseball Tonight  for his defensive web gems, and it might be the publics votes that get him into the event.

The last guy to be on the vote for the All Star Game Sprint Final Vote has been mentioned above. I am thinking that Maddon and MLB would both like to see Ken Griffey Jr. in the All-Star game again, this time on the AL side of the field. The guy has been the role model for my generation on how to play the game with style, grace and a smile during all 162 games.  With his addition to this last vote, it would bring about a message that longevity and public persona do have a play in the classic event. The guy has given us great moments this year out of Seattle and deserves a shot at another All-Star selection.

So far this season, there have been some huge gains by player usually though of as back-ups or late additions to teams. There have also been some players who have sat at the top of their games have a few falls from grace moments and are trying to rebuild trust and their game. But no matter what happens, I still think this years AL squad looks as tough and as strong as the last 5 years. This is my  personal selection for the final five to be considered for the All Star Game Sprint Final Vote.

This is not t mean a player like  Toronto’s Aaron Hill, Twins slugger Justin Morneau, or even Indians catcher Victor Martinez will not be selected to the squads. I do not envy Maddon his job of getting all of the AL teams represented for the event. Every teams has a star who should attend the event, but also there are players who have already either sewn up a spot at that position, or might be involved in the last vote. We will not know what the country thinks until Tuesday evening, but starting on Sunday night e can again make our voices ring loud and clear and decide at least one member of the 2009 AL and NL All Star squads.

 

Rays trio key to Playoff Dreams

 


Darren Calabrese / AP

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brian Blanco / AP

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

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

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

           
            Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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

Jason Bartlett deserves an All-Star spot

 


Gail Burton / AP

People have always looked to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the ulitimate symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection. I mean the guy has the endorsement looks, the slick glove and a energized bat that always seems to hum at, or above the .300 clip every single season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.”

And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because  consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the name recognition that even part-time fans notice. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted  All-Star spot? 

I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game in St Louis. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more  fufutre All-Star selections in the future.

When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins, they knew what he could do on the field with a glove against a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player as maybe the hidden gem of that trade, and wanted him to be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their Rays defense. He was going to be that energy cell, or extreme excitement they needed to shore up a ever improving defense that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot.

So when he finally got on the field in Spring Training 2008, people were still a bit curious about this guy who made his Major League debut in 2004 and only hit .083 in eight games that season. But soon his slick skills and the fluid movement he had with the ball won over the Rays fan base. He had a new  converted second baseman, Akinora Iwamura, who was coming over from third base, and Bartlett made sure to make time every day to spend some quality time with Iwamura to get a better feeling for each other and get an internal bond and thought process going that would eventually click for the Rays.

That is the mark of a truly  great up-and-coming professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team. And they did bond into a unit that could convert the pivot on a double play with great percision, and was always in position to take a Dioner Navarro throw on a steal attempt. He made Navarro’s catching efficiency number go sky high with great tags and positioning.

The guy has been poetry in motion to Rays fans. Sure we had gotten shortstops before, heck we even had one standing behind Bartlett in centerfield  in Former First Round pick B J Upton, who was drafted out of High School as the Rays  heir apparent to the Rays shortstop post. But the year progressed and Bartlett seemed to get stronger and stronger in the position.

His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the cold hard facts and  the defensive upgrades and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you could see the game flowed through the 6-hole.

After the Rays were defeated in the 2008 World Series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
 

And that bodes well for the team. Coming into Spring Training he had more security with Iwamura, and felt that he belonged here in Tampa Bay. He used that positive vibe to hit at a .327 clip for the spring. Showing leadership and  more confidence he appeared in only 19 games, but left an impression upon fans of some upcoming power and offensive fireworks for 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP


He started the season pretty much under the radar  as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during the season. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of May that skyrocketed him to a lofty .373 mark. That mark was leading the Major Leagues in hitting at the time. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.

But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. He is beginning to hit the ball for power, which was a component absent from his hitting earlier in his career. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.

 

But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs.

So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from his second spot currently behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter.

So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2008, what do you think? 

He has appeared in 50 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 23 double plays. Bartlett has  put the ball in play 210 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors.  His .981 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now.  In close comparison, Jeter has 248 total chances and 3 errors and 32 double plays for a .988 Fielding Average.


Reinhold Matay / AP

So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League?  I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league without question. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is showing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.

The only killer to this right now is his ankle injury he suffered during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins in game. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle.

But with him out of the lineup, you saw a completely different feel to the Rays defense. It didn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and  afraid to make errors and seems a bit timid  compared to when Bartlett played in the field. The Rays missed its field general, the guy  who always pumped up the infielders and makes the defensive calls for the infield.

And even since he has come back off of the shelf after that ankle injury, he hit the ground running as currently has a 16-game hitting streak, second only to the Cub’s Derrick Lee’s 17-game streak earlier in the season. And if you want to talk average, his current .373 batting avaerage is the highest by a shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra’s .391 mark with Boston in 2000.

He missed a total of 19 games for the Rays during his left ankle sprain, and his presence was surely missed in the lineup and on the field for the Rays.  He has hit safely in all 6 games since he came back into the lineup, plus he hit safely in all three of his rehab games before coming back to the Rays.  He is hitting .386 during his current streak, and he currently leads all shortstops in RBI ( 31) and stolen bases ( 14). His hitting would lead the league, but he is currently 18 appearances short of qualifying again for that top spot.

But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.

“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon said. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.”  So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?


Gail Burton /AP

I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the American League with great flair and confidence. 

Bartlett’s selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
 

But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.

Upton Finds his Groove

 


Steve Nesius / AP

About a week ago I was trying to trade for B J Upton on my MLBlogs Fantasy team on ESPN’s site. I had a rough feeling from what I had heard and seen lately out of his batting appearances he was about to break out of his hitting funk and take some extreme measures to boost his average over .200 for the season.  I am not going to mention my trading partner in this transaction, because after he reads this he might know I would have given up almost anyone on my staff not named Crawford to get Upton.

I have known this guy since he came the first time at 17 in a September call-up for the Rays. He has always been honest and forthright with people and the media, and I respect him for that. So when I saw him right after he finished his BP and he said to another hitter on the team he was “seeing beach balls up there”, I had to do anything to get him on my roster. I might have given up one category for good this season in swapping Angels closer Brian Fuentes for him, but I know I have a chance to lead in all 5 offensive categories with his addition to the roster.

As a matter of fact, since his induction into my roster he has been on a tear at the plate. Upton is currently riding a 8-game hitting streak and is hitting even his fly out for power. Let’s take the first pitch he saw on Tuesday night game when he drilled a ball towards the 370 marker in right-centerfield that was caught by David DeJesus a few feet from the wall. For a short period of time now people have seen that he is more relaxed and controlled at the plate, but when he gets on base, he is getting more attention than even in 2008 for the damage he can do at any moment in the game.

That is one of the reason I was glad that Rays Manager Joe Maddon stuck with Upton as his lead-off guy for so long until his bat woke up and he is now inching upward with his average. He can be a classic lead-off guy, but that also is another hard position to learn because sometimes you have to do what you do not want to do at the plate to promote the team concept. Some times I think this was hard for Upton early on since he did moist of his damage from the second spot in the lineup in 2008. 

Ask guys like Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon, or maybe new Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, that spot in the lineup not only get more appearances at the plate throughout the year, but is also within the crosshairs nightly for your performance. It might have taken Upton longer to feel “normal” in that part of the lineup because of the extra responsibilities and extreme confidence it takes to succeed in that pressure cooker spot. But people also forget the guy never got a true Spring Training like the rest of the team as he was rehabbing that shoulder of his this spring.

        
         Steve Nesius / AP

He did not make the Opening Day roster, instead he was stuck in the Tampa Bay area hitting in the Trop and working on getting himself in great shape to start when the team came off their first road trip of the year. Because of this lack of timing and basic game experience that you get in a new position in the spring, he was behind the Rays bell curve early on. But he did not fret or even sulk, but instead went out there every day and took his hacks until it began to all come together for him.  Everyone in the Tampa Bay area seemed to have an opinion on the guy when he was struggling. That is right he was struggling, not slumping.

There is a huge difference in those two words. When you slump, you on-field performance also suffers and you seem to just be behind a few steps in the game at all times.  But when you are struggling, like Upton was, you still have the ultimate defensive nature and the rest of your game is intact, it is just one facet of your game that is suffering. Son now that we got that out of the way, why was he suffering. Well, a common occurence in shoulder surgery guys is the struggle to “let go” to swing with everything you got because of fear of scar tissue or even re-injuring yourself right away. But with time the confidence and the sense of your body responding correctly with every swing can make those fears ease with time.

So how did I know that I needed to get Upton on my MLBlogs Fantasy team?  Well, I guess it is the sense I got chatting with him about things and that smile, even if the tobacco was in the way gave me a sense of urgency to get him on my squad. I might have given up a good player in Fuentes to get him, but I was willing to part with even Jake Peavy or even Ryan Braun for him. Of course the aspect of him playing for my team did factor highly in the motives, but even if I was a fan of another team, his up-side is amazing when he is clicking on all cylinders.

Any team would want him for his base running abilities and his skill in the outfield, but the power that should emerge in his game soon will be the true prize. People have always projected him as a 30 (Homers)-30 ( steals) guy, and he just might begin to fulfill that projection this season. Since his outburst in the post season in 2008, a huge amount of pressure has been thrust on the guy to be the man for the Rays. Maybe now he is ready to take that title on and with Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford transform the 1-4 hitters of the Rays into the 2009 edition of the Rays infamous “Hit Show.”

      
       Elaine Thompson / AP

Maybe for the first time in Rays franchise history we got the “Hit Show” without the fanfare and the huge salaries. Maybe this group of four hitters can transform the record book for not only the Rays, but the American League in 2009.  The Rays have scored a total of 312 runs, but the Yankees are closing in on them fast with 300 runs as of today. But in that time, even if he has struggled, Upton has been involved in a total of scoring 34 runs, which is fourth best on the team right now. Upton, even while struggling has been a force for the Rays.

He has a .219 average right now for the Rays, but considering he has been badgered and beaten down by catcalls and media and fan message boards asking for his removal from the top spot, he has performed to the best of his abilities, and now we will see the fruits of his labors again. But while he as struggled at the plate, his walk totals have been consistent and remain a second advantage of his game.

His 28 walks is second on the team behind Pena’s 41 so far in 2009.  He is second on the team , and fourth in the Americ
an League in steals with 17 this season. His ability to read pitchers is getting better, but he is still guilty of the occasional base running gaffe due to the Rays aggressive nature on the base paths.

Upton has been caught stealing three times in 2009 to lead the team again. And for most of 2008, he lead the major leagues in caught stealing for most of the season. It is his aggressive nature that also get the wrath of fans, but if he did not test the boundaries and stress the opponents pitching staffs’ Crawford would not get so many juicy fastballs to hit into the outfield.  He is a quiet guy who is among the best at what he does, and really doesn’t get the credit for his success at times. He is only hitting .219 this year, but his Slugging Percentage is .325, which shows he is getting wood on the ball almost a third of the time.

So let’s get to what Upton has done lately to end this blog. In yesterday’s game he hit a 8th inning 2-run blast to secure the win for the Rays. Combined with Weds. nights game, it is the first time in 2009 that he has recorded multiple RBI in consecutive games. That is right, in the Rays first 49 game with Upton, he has not recorded back-to-back multiple RBI games. 

During his current 8-game hitting streak he has gone 11 for 28, for a .328 average ans has driven his batting average from .189 to .218 in that span. He also went 9 for 20 for a .450 average on the recent homestand. And to put some bright spots on the upcoming four game stand with the Yankees, Upton has hit 8 homers against the New York boys, the most against any team.


Chris O’Meara / AP

But if you want to still think he is not the answer for the Rays at the top of the order, please bear in mind that Crawford doesn’t want it, and Jason Bartlett is thriving in his current spot in the lineup. It is still his to lose, and based on the current level of hitting, base stealing and consistent walk totals, Upton might just get comfortable in that position finally. You have to think that his batting spree actually started during that dismal Cleveland series on May 15th and 16th when he ended a 28-game, 120 at-bat homer drought to begin the season. Considering the power the fans saw in last season’s playoff run, they expected homers left and right to begin the year.

 

But Upton is again secure in his “Rays skin”. He is more relaxed and hitting the ball with power again for the Rays. And that is bad news for the rest of the league, because when this kid gets hot, even the water cooler turns to steam. So am I upset I would have given up the farm for Upton?  No, but I can tell you that with 4 members of the Rays on my Fantasy roster, the leading run producing team in the major leagues is just getting started. And with Upton at the top of that lineup, the sky is the limit this season.

Jason Bartlett = All Star

 


Gail Burton / AP

People have always looked to New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter as the symbol of what it takes to be a American League All-Star selection at that position. I mean the guy has the looks, the slick glove and the bat that always seems to hum at or above the .300 clip every season. For what seems like his entire career Jeter has had his name stenciled on the All-Star ballot, and been selected for the team based mostly on “what he can do for you in a pinch.” 

And that is a great quality for your shortstop aka field general to have because  consistent clutch performances earn you the big bucks and the true fans notice  these moments. So can we honestly say that maybe the Yankees famed number 2 is going to have a bit of competition this season for that coveted  All-Star nod?  I think this year he might still make the All-Star roster, but I am hoping he is not the starting shortstop in the game. I have another name in mind, and I think the statistics not only back up my selection, but also convince you he is the man for the job this season, and maybe a few more in the near future.

When the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Jason Bartlett in late 2007 with the Minnesota Twins they knew what he could do on the field with a glove and a sharply hit missile to the hole. They coveted this player who could be the stop-gap in the middle of the left side of their defense. That he could be the energy cell needed to shore up a team that has never had such a highly skilled infielder in the 6-slot. So when he finally got on the field in Spring Training 2008, people were still a bit curious about this guy who made his Major League debut in 2004 and only hit .083 in eight games.

But soon they could see the slick skills and the fluid movement he had with the ball. He had a new second baseman, Akinora Iwamura, who was coming over from third base, and Bartlett made sure to make time every day to spend some quality time with Iwamura to get a better feeling for each other and get an internal bond and thought process going that would eventually click for the Rays.  That is the mark of a truly professional shortstop. He made sure he had the bond with the one guy who could make or break this Rays defense for the team.

The names Bartlett and Iwamura were heard and seen a lot in boxscores and by radio and television announcers while completing double plays for the Rays.
The guy has been poetry in motion to Rays fans. Sure we had gotten shortstops before, heck we even had one standing behind Bartlett in centerfield  in B J Upton, who was drafted out of High School as the Rays shortstop of the future. But the year progressed and Bartlett seemed to get stronger and stronger in the position.

His skill set has always been strong, but with a renewed confidence and a determination to help the Rays first hit the .500 mark, then get their first post season berth, Bartlett led the way by example. The fact that the Tampa Bay Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gave Bartlett the 2008 Team MVP award shocked some people, but if you really look at the feats and accomplishments of this first year Ray, you would see the game flowed through the 6-hole.

After the Rays were defeated in the World series by the Philadelphia Phillies, Bartlett went back home and began to make a transformation in his life. He got married, was blessed with his first kid ( a girl) and he also went through his first arbitration with the Rays getting a significant raise in pay ( $ 1.9 million) for the first time in his career. It seemed through all of this he had become more relaxed and focused when you saw or even spoke to him at the Rays Fan Fest in February 2009.
 

And that bode well for the team. Coming into Spring Training he had more security with Iwamura, and felt that he belonged here in Tampa Bay. He used that positive vibe to hit at a .327 clip for the spring. Showing leadership and  more confidence he appeared in only 19 games, but left an impression upon fans of some upcoming power and offensive fireworks for 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP


He started the season pretty much under the radar  as Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena were leading the majors in their categories as he slowly slid higher and higher in the Batting Average ranks during April. He had kept his focus to be above the .300 mark most of the month and then had an explosive first part of may that skyrocketed him to his present .373 mark. That mark is currently leading the Major Leagues in hitting. Not bad for a guy who was a secondary piece of a trade.

But there is another part of his game that is starting to show significant improvement this season in Tampa Bay. Last season, Bartlett did not hit a home run until the last regular series of the year against his old team, the Minnesota Twins. In that series he only had one solo shot, but it did make an impression on Rays fans. Some of us wondered if he had the power we needed out of that spot, or if he was just hiding it right now. He hit another during the playoff run, but settled for only two moon shots during 2008.

 

But that was a curious stat to people who did check out his former statistics before the season started in 2008. Because in 2007, he had 5 homers and 43 RBI, both career highs at the time. We started to wonder if maybe he had peaked a year before he got here. But with the start of 2009, there was a feeling of renewed vigor in Bartlett. He quickly started his average skyward, and his home run power seemed to come out of no where. The guy currently has 7 home runs, most of them great shots and is on the way to having the best season of his career.

So why should Bartlett, who is showing offensive savvy get a All-Star nod? Well, offense has always been a key indicator for the voting people in who they might consider for the All-Star team. Hopefully Bartlett can move up from the fourth spot currently behind Toronto’s Marco Scutaro, who is having a banner year himself in 2009, and new comer Texas rookie Elvis Andrus. But Bartlett’s current vote tally of 233,482 is considerably behind the American League vote leader right now, Derek Jeter with 664,630.

So we know Bartlett has the offensive skills to merit the spot. Is his defense really that good for the Rays? Considering the team went from a middle of the pack defensive unit to one of the best in the game in 2oo8, what do you think?  He has appeared in 44 games this season for the Rays and has help convert 19 double plays. Bartlett has 180 times so far in 2009 and has made 4 errors.  His .978 Fielding Average is on par with his peers in the league right now.  In close comparison, Jeter has 179 total chances and 2 errors and 21 double plays for a .987 Fielding Average.


Reinhold Matay / AP

So is Bartlett now a guy to be considered in the top tier of shortstops in the American League?  I truly believe he is in the top 4 in the league. I also think he has not even begun to show his top potential yet in the field. Some of the plays he tries to make deep in the hole, or over near the second base bag are ones that most infielders watch go through to the outfield without an sign of remorse. Bartlett now seems to grimace each time a ball goes up the middle or is hit above him towards leftfield. He is shoeing that primary killer instinct right now that is key among the league’s best players.

The only killer to this right now is his injury he suffered last Sunday during the tenth inning against the Florida Marlins. In that inning Dan Ugglas was attempting to steal second base and Bartlett put his foot on the bag to make Uggla go towards the outside the bag, and Uggla came in and clipped him with his spikes on the ankle. After an MRI and the medical staff calling for him to sit a few days, Bartlett finally was open to sitting the letting it heal instead of trying to play on it and risk further damage.

But with him out of the lineup, you have seen a completely different feel to the Rays defense right now. It doesn’t seem to flow with grace and ease, but is rushed and seems a bit timid at times. It misses its field general, the guy to pump up the infielders and make the assignments for the infield. They miss that main cog in their machine. Bartlett recently told the St. Petersburg Times, “Part of me wants to be selfish and just get out there and keep playing,” Bartlett said. “But if I do that I could make it worse and be out two-to-three months as opposed to a week or so. “

But believe me, the effort and the want to play and help his team has not missed the eyesight of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. He knows that Bartlett wants to play and contribute to the team. His finishing out the game that Sunday was enough to attest to the toughness and spunk of his shortstop. But after a ankle sprain was diagnosed, the decision was easy for Maddon. Risk losing a key piece of your puzzle for a week or so, or maybe lose him along with Iwamura for the season. The decision was easy for Maddon.

“It’s really unfortunate because this young man is having an All-Star season right now,” Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times. “There’s no getting around that, and that’s not made up by his manager, that’s pretty much what’s going on. All facets of his game have been spectacular. And we need him back quickly. … He was voted our team MVP last season for a reason, and he’s playing even better this year than last year, on all fronts.”  So you have to wonder after all that, does Bartlett have a chance to impress upon the American League All-Star Manager that he has what it takes to make the squad in 2009?


Gail Burton /AP

I am hoping that the fans and the players see his involvement and his accomplishments both in the second half of 2008 and so far in 2009 and get him voted into the All-Star game. He has the ability to shine brightly for the Rays in that game, and he would represent the Rays with great flair and confidence. But if he is not in the upper tier of voting and is not selected by the fans votes, he still has a great shot of getting to his first All-Star game. I think the AL All-Star Manager will see that the game needs a guy like Bartlett in it.

That his selection would help put the best talent in the AL against the finest the NL has to offer in a great contest. For this year’s game in St. Louis, I am predicting a shot for Bartlett on the AL All-Star team. Based on the early results he will not be the only Rays rep on the field that day. Evan Longoria is getting the top votes for the third base spot, and also pushing Jeter right now for the top vote getter in the early returns.
 

But most of all, Bartlett will not have to go far to show his skills to be selected to the All-Star team. That is because this season’s AL skipper gets to watch him 162 games a year and has seen just how far this young player had come in a short time with the Rays. Oh, did you forget, Maddon is the AL skipper this season, but if he picks Bartlett it will be on merit, not on fondness or an impartial vote.

M*A*S*H* 33701 Staff

 


Lynn Sladsky / AP

The roster of the Tampa Bay Rays is beginning to represent a television episode of M*A*S*H* 4077th right now. The recent flurry of injuries, both serious and treated with kindness have made this roster change shape in recent weeks. But behind the scenes, the sight in the Rays training room right now might not be as bloody or surgically fixated as the television show, but the drama and the extent of the injuries have made their medical staff one of the true treasures right now in the Rays organization.

Most fans have never heard the names Ron Porterfield, Paul Harker or Kevin Barr before during most of the Rays telecasts. They are a group of guys who try and stay beyond the cameras and beyond the eye sight of most people in the stands before, during and after most of the Rays games. But their contribution to the Tampa Bay Rays will now have a huge significance on what is going to happen on the field. You see, this trio is the conglomerate that is responsible for the well being and health of the players on our roster. Each one of them is considered the best in their field, and have served the Rays for several season in their respective positions.

With their state-of-the-art training complex and new and proven methods being employed daily, the medical staff is beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s take Rays reliever Brian Shouse’s injury first. After his first MRI, it was concluded that he might have a slight tear in his left flexor muscle right off the elbow. This would put the reliever essentially out for some time. But under further diagnosis and further testing, it was ruled that Shouse might have just a slight strain to the region and not need surgery at all. That diligence in finding the correct diagnosis might have cost the Rays the use of Shouse later in the season. Now after rehab and some carefully watched exercise and throwing sessions, he might again be back with the club a lot soon than originally expected. And that is huge as the Rays try and regain their core and take on the task of repeating their AL East title.

As we speak several players are also trying to get off the training tables and rehab assignments to bring some help to the slumping Rays. Designated Hitter Pat Burrell has missed 15 games now due to his neck stiffness. The team has been able to tread water to a 8-7 record since he went down, but his bat is needed to protect Carlos Pena in the lineup. Yesterday in Cleveland, Burrell was suppose to take some special individualized batting practice to see just how far he has progressed in his fight to get his neck situation under control.  The session was canceled after he was experiencing more neck stiffness. The team is tentatively expecting another try at Burrell going to the plate on Friday when they return to Tropicana field for their latest home stand. Hopefully on that day the Rays will have some good news on their ailing DH.

But then you have guys like Rays reliever Chad Bradford, who is right now on loan to the Rays Class-A squad, the Charlotte Stone Crabs for a rehab assignment. So far the prognosis is great for Bradford, and with the Bullpen right now a bit tired and weathered, he just might be ready soon to give some relief to his Bullpen mates.  His last appearance was on May 24th, and he went 1-inning and only gave up 1-hit in the appearance. The Stone Crabs have been victimized lately by weather as their last two game have been canceled due to the elements. But this week they are in Clearwater to play the Threshers, and the medical staff left behind on this road trip will be keeping a close eye on Bradford if he gets into any of these contests.

Another guy who is suffering from bad timing is Shawn Riggans. Earlier on in the season, Riggans went down with a bout of shoulder tendinitis and was set down for a few weeks before he was again allowed to participate in a throwing program. He went through the  throwing program set up by Barr and was ready to again try and hit a rehab assignment with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.  Riggans went on up to Alabama and joined the team, but was quickly taken back off the roster after a sudden pain in his shoulder after throwing a pick-off attempt to first base during a game. He was sent to renowned doctor James Andrews in neighboring Birmingham, Alabama. After son consultation and recommendations from Andrews, Riggans was on his way back to St. Petersburg, Florida to again try all over again with the rest and relaxation program for a while. He is hoping to again be ready for a throwing program by the first week of June.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

Ron Porterfield probably had one of his worst days recently during Sunday’s Florida Marlins versus the Rays game. In the ninth inning of that contest, the Marlins Chris Coghlan came into second base to break up a double play opportunity and struck Akinora Iwamura in the left leg while it was still planted firmly on the infield clay. The result of the moving Coghlan into the rigid Iwamura made for one force taking damage on the other. Iwamura instantly went down and was in obvious pain on the infield. Porterfield rushed out their immediately and tried to ease the pain of Iwamura. The hardest part of this job might be the instant recognition of a bad situation and remaining cool and calm during this time is extremely difficult.

You could see on the replays during the injury time-out that Porterfield was not trying to stretch the area out or even attempt to have Iwamura stand based on the visual extent of the injury. He immediately asked for the crash cart to be brought out onto the turf and Iwamura was transported off the field to the rear of the Visitor’s Clubhouse area. At this time it is Porterfield’s job to ease the suffering and pain of Iwamura and give reassurance.  You have to guess he already had a opinion on the extent of the injury and was doing everything he could to mask the emotions and the conversation more towards positive elements. 

Iwamura was on crutches by the end of the game putting no pressure or force on his left knee region. He was then put in a car en route to St. Petersburg where a MRI was to be conducted this past Monday morning. He was not there when the results came in from the MRI in St. Petersburg as he was with the team in Cleveland for their four game series there before finally coming back to Tropicana Field. The results of Iwamura’s MRI showed that surgery will be needed to repair the ACL and a slight bit of damage to his MCL ligaments.

This will put him out for the rest of the 2008 season, and some speculate it might be his last time to put on a Rays uniform. But a planned surgery in the next two weeks after the swelling goes down and it is optimal to operate, Iwamura will get fixed up locally by Dr. Koko Eaton.

Later in that same ballgame, they again got called back onto the field after Dan
Uggla’s stolen base attempt. On that play, the Rays starting shortstop Jason Bartlett put his left leg in front of the base to attempt to make Uggla go to the outside of the base. Instead, Ugglas came in spikes first and clipped Bartlett on the top of the ankle, which resulted in him going down fast to the clay surface.  Again the medical staff went out there and performed some quick aid to relieve Bartlett of his obvious pain at the time. Bartlett did refuse to come out of the game and finished the contest and was getting more treatment as the team was packing up for their plane ride to Cleveland for the next series.

In Cleveland, it was decided because of the conversation with the medical staff that Bartlett should rest the ankle for a few days. Some say he could have played through the pain, but considering that Bartlett is a key element of the team again playing for that divisional title, precautionary measures were decided by Rays Manager Joe Maddon and the medical staff. Bartlett sat out the Monday game against the Indians and was set to have an MRI to check for further damage in the region. 

Because the MRI revealed a sprain, it was advised by the medical staff that rest and staying off the ankle would further the healing process. We all know that Bartlett would want to play, and might just do a good job even with a gimpy ankle. But the consideration of his total health was in order. A healthy Bartlett could help the team pick up the needed wins to regain some places within the division. If he re-injured it, or made the injury more severe, his participation might be hindered significantly the rest of the season.

Then you have people like Barr, who have designed the rehab programs for players like Fernando Perez while he is on the DL to increase his mobility and keep him in shape while he waits for further word on when he can begin a throwing program of his own designed by Barr. With his baby blue cast off his wrist you would think that the injury might be over and he can again take full baseball activities. But the wrist area is a delicate region that can be injured again quickly if the injury is not fully healed before a top workout begins. Perez was recently transferred to the 60-day DL, and it is thought he might not be on either a rehab assignment or playing before August 2009.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

The training/medical staff of the Rays is considered one of the best in baseball.  So who are these guys, and why should we be glad we have them on the Rays. Well, let me see if I can give you some insight to why we are lucky to have this trio in Tampa Bay.

First let’s start with the team’s Strength and conditioning Coach, Kevin Barr. In 2009, Barr will be presented with the Nolan Ryan Award, sponsored by Life Fitness. The award named after the Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, honors an outstanding strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball. The Nolan Ryan Award recognizes the coach whose accomplishments, in the opinion of fellow members of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society (PBSCCS), reflects an exemplary dedication to strength training and conditioning. The award also recognizes the recipient’s professional and personal accomplishments as well as his integrity as a strength and conditioning coach.

You might recognize him more for his time spent out on the field during Batting Practice in the right field corner with the pitchers’ helping them both do stretching exercises and running drills. He also can be seen on the first baseline just before the game when the players come out to stretch before Rays games. He is one of the only people out there at that time not in a Rays uniform, and can be easy to spot. He is a key element to the consistent health and rebuilding of the Rays roster after an injury has been sustained by a player.

Most people confuse Paul Harker with a player since he is tall and built like a player. But it is his duty to assist Porterfield in any needs before after and during the game to prepare the Rays field players and pitchers for that days game. Harker joined the major league staff after serving for three seasons as the Rays Minor League head trainer.  He  first joined the organization in November 1996 as the trainer for the Class- A St. Petersburg Devil Rays before serving as Triple-A Durham’s trainer from 1998-2002. Prior to joining the Rays organization, Harker worked in the Seattle Mariners organization for six seasons. He is a graduate of Florida State University and is certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association.

But the guy most people know by his smile and his personality is Ron Portfield, the head honcho in the Rays medical corps. Porterfield is afraid to put a glove on and catch a bit with rehabbing players, or to just be a sounding board for a player trying out a new pitch or delivery. He is on one of the busiest people before the game for the Rays, and his training table area is also a hot spot for conversation and group conversations before the Rays games. Porterfield, spent his time as the team’s Major League assistant trainer before finally getting the top spot in December 2005. He joined the Rays organization in 1997, serving as the Minor League medical and rehabilitation coordinator for six years. Porterfield originally came to the Rays from the Houston Astros, an organization he joined in 1987 after he graduated from New Mexico State University.

In 2004, Porterfield was a member of the medical staff that received the Dick Martin Medical Staff of the Year Award from Baseball Prospectus. Porterfield’s intense computer research and commitment to helping Rocco Baldelli in 2008 get back to the field last August helped earn Porterfield the 2008 American Sports Medicine Institute Career Service Award.


So as you can see, the Rays have a well educated and knowledgeable staff to prevent and treat any aliments that might come up during the Rays contests. With new technologies and treatment systems being discovered daily, it is also their job to wade through the  published  treatment paperwork and computer postings to find the best injury solutions for the Rays players.  The commitment and the stamina displayed by these three guys should be commended.

They are the first line of defense to keeping these players on the field, and the last ones to insure they are ready again to play for the Rays. It is a tough job, and one that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, but it is what they love, and what they are extremely good at doing. And we are lucky to have them here in Tampa Bay.

 

Bird is the Word Last night

 

                Orioles 7,      Rays 5

           
                   Mike Ricigliano/www.baltimoresun.com

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

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

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

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

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

 
Nick Wass / AP

Rays Did Have Offense..Early

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

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

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

               
                Nick Wass / AP

Sonny is No Longer Money

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Wass / AP

Wednesdays Wild Writs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Rays versus Red Sox Game

 

               Red Sox 4,       Rays 3


Michael Dwyer / AP

This One Did NOT Hurt As Much

Every season you have games that will come down a test of wills at the plate. In last night’s game, Jonathan Papelbon won this first face-off of the season against the Rays. But even if you are a Red Sox or a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you had to enjoy this game for the pure pleasure of it being a ever-changing affair from the first pitch on. There was everything you want in a featured baseball game on ESPN.

You have the tale of the struggling hitter, the emotional pitchers from both teams, the outfielder who replaced a former Fenway legend who is making his own legacy, and you had a scattered amount of hits and runs to keep everyone interested until the last out. Heck, even the ninth inning pinch-hit by Carlos Pena had me at hello. Coming into that at bat, Pena was 1 for 3 against Papelbon with a home run. There was that instant anxiety that Pena, the MLB home run leader could take any pitch yard on him.

And there was the fact that Papelbon is usually at his best in this kind of scenario. Even with the count 3-2, you had to imagine what was going to happen next in this game. The only thing that spoiled it for me was the strikeouts. I know I am being a bit critical here, but I wanted to see the Boston defense step up and show their teeth or their obvious weakness tonight. When Dustin Pedroia left the game with a gimpy hammy, you knew the pressure would fall upon the Red Sox shoulder even harder to win this first series from the troublesome Rays.

But in the end, it was the flamboyant closer thrusting his fists and doing his best Joba Chamberlain impression. I am only hoping that the next time a Ray hits a homer off Papelbon, he gets the same greeting as Joba after Aubrey Huff took him yard on Sunday. This was the Rays 20th game against the American League East opponents , with two more on tap before they finally greet another A L Central opponent at home this next coming weekend. I mean let’s think about the game in a really abbreviated form.

The Red Sox ace, Josh Beckett had given up 25 runs and 44 hits since his Opening Day win over the Rays in Fenway. He had blossomed to a 8.13 ERA. He was ripe for the picking, and the Rays did not take full advantage of a guy who was having trouble with his fastball. But that is the game. You never know where your offense or your pitching will be at any moment.

The game did begin with a classic National League style run production after Carl Crawford got on base with a slap single to Mike Lowell at third base. Pat Burrell hit a nice slow rolling RBI-single to deep left and Crawford did what you have to do when he scored on the play. He bowled over Jason Varitek like we were taught in Little League. It was not a locomotive collision, but it was the classic side punch to get him off the plate and send a message slam. The Rays wanted this game, and even a great catcher was not going to stand in Crawford’s way tonight.


Michael Dwyer / AP

And what was even better, Willy Aybar, who gracefully pushed a catcher in Minnesota and cost the Rays a run in a Rays loss got a front row seat to it. Aybar now can see with his own eyes what playing the Rays way really means. You go all out no matter what…..even into a catcher. You might remember in Spring Training 2008, Elliot Johnson blew Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli to the backstop with a massive slam. Ironic that it was also seen as a catalyst by the Rays of the potential and the power of this teams confidence in 2008.

I hope the message got through to people on that bench. The emotion and the confidence is still within that roster, they just have to physically bring it to the surface, and the win will pile up again for the Rays. I heard a guy last night complain about B J Upton’s lack of aggression at the plate. Well, if he had really seen his last 10 at bat this series, you would see the slow evolution of his swing and that he is not long for a huge game. He needs to outwardly display that confidence, then the team will also respond accordingly.
 

People do not visualize that Upton is a key component in the Rays machine.  Without him 100 percent on-board and showing his abilities, this time is running on 7 cylinders. Great illustration of this was Upton’s blast down toward the leftfield corner in the fifth inning for a double. Then Crawford hit a bloop single in front of Jason Bay for an RBI single. With that RBI, Crawford is now tied with former Rays Aubrey Huff for the team RBI record ( 449). But if Upton needs to have a example of what it takes, he only has to look towards the On-Deck circle to Crawford.

Earlier in the year Crawford was beginning to slump a bit, but now he is one of the hottest hitters in baseball. And to add to that fire is the fact he is also the most feared man on the base paths right now. Of course in Boston they throw a few well phrased adult superlatives with his name, but that comes with success. Considering the fact that there are three players who have not hit their stride yet ( Dioner Navarro,Pat Burrell, Upton), this team is only 3-games below .500 right now. That is only 3-games off last years pace, and we have a harder schedule in 2009.

So we leave the confines of Fenway with out first losing series of the year against the Red Sox.  But this time, even the Red Sox Nation have to agree that this series was one of the best in the history of these two divisional rivals. Not just for the Rays huge win on Sat., but for the close games that could have gone either way with a few breaks. The best thing about this ever growing rivalry is that it is not going to die down anytime soon. Both teams are loaded in the minors, and they both will find incredible ways to beat the other team today, tomorrow and in the immediate future.


Michael Dwyer / AP

De-Fense, De-Fense

For some time, one of the biggest improvement over the Rays in recent years has been their commitment to their defense. Well, you have to give a huge amount of style points to the Rays last night, because their defense kept them in this contest. For one of the first games in recent memory, the Rays did not complete a single double play on the Boston hitters. But then again, the Rays defenders did keep their base runners to a minimum  thanks in part to a former Ray.

Nick Green has been removed from the Rays system for a few years, but he still has a fond place for the Rays. I do not think that was on his mind when he tried to stretch two single into doubles last night, but the Rays will thank him for the outfield assists and the outs. The first one came in the third inning off a hard hit ball bouncing off the Green Monster in leftfield that Crawford took fast and threw hard and true to the base to nab Green for Crawford’s team leading third assist of the year.

But then again in the fourth inning Green again tried to test his former infield teammate Ben Zobrist when he hit an RBI-single in the fourth inning to rightfield, and Zor-illa turned and fired a strike to nab him for the second time tonight to also get his second outfield assist of the season. Bartlett did not have to move an inch to take Zobrist’s throw in and tag Green in time to end the fourth inning on that play. I think the rest of the American League can attest to Upton and Gabe Gross having the rocket arms on this team, but Crawford and Zobrist will get their shots to disprove their own detractors this season. 

But the Rays defense was not perfect tonight either. Crawford almost got the Rays into early trouble when he overthrew to second base on a double by Jason Bay in the second inning. The ball went high and wide from Bartlett and the Rays had to scramble to get it before Bay knew what had happened on the play. But the Rays did have a helper in some of the defensive troubles tonight. The Red Sox secret weapon for years has been the Green Monster.

Several times in the game the wall made its presence known and take simple balls off it and transform them into directional switching ricochets that made the Rays scramble a bit. But every team has that home field advantage, but in Boston, it is a huge green painted wall that grins every time a ball hit it.


www.tbo.com

Pink Cleats almost become Verboten

I actually love the fact that MLB celebrates the holiday of Mother’s Day the way they do every season. I mean I remember a few years ago if you bought a certain dollar amount in the Team Store you got a make-up bag and small pillow embroidered with the pink ribbon and the MLB logo. Well, my  mother had passed in the last year, but I gave the pillow and the case to my daughter’s mother and she loved the thought, but she is a hockey fan. Oh well, such is life.

But the fact that the teams were a sea of pink wristbands and stretchable bands everywhere on their arms and wrists was amazing. And the pink bats were out on force with players suing them throughout baseball on Sunday. And with those bats being collected again and being offered on MLB.com’s auction site will bring in more great amounts of funds for the possible final solution to this  cancer that has taken so many of the people we love and know from our lives. 

Among those who are expected to wear the pink Reebok cleats are twelve players from the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the game’s umpiring crew and the entire Red Sox staff including Manager Terry Francona. Players “getting their pink on” include David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox and Gabe Gross, Grant Balfour and James Shields of the Rays, along with other players from both teams.

But I love the fact that MLB and the MBL Player Union finally let the player where those Reebok cleats with the pink striping in the game yesterday. There might not have been a huge display of the pink shoes, but thanks to Rays reliever Joe Nelson, it might not have even happened if not for his insight and call to the union about the exclusion of the shoes. You see, Nelson doesn’t get a pink bat, and his armbands can not adorn his body and arms on the mound. All he would have had to honor his mother-in-law that day would have been the glue able ribbon on his uniform top.

But after consulting the union and getting a ” we will work it out” response from the union on the Reebok situation, he was able to put on those pink striped cleats and show his support for this awesome cause. The original reason that the cleats were forbidden to be worn on the field was an outside of MLB sanctioned charity getting the proceeds from the future auction of these shoes. By the union and MLB taking into consideration the multiples of players and families that might be effected by exclusion of this display of support and honor, I commend MLB and the Player’s Union for their quick and positive actions.  The charity to be honored with the cleats is the Avon Foundation for women.

Most of the time this kind of decision-making can not be made on the fly. For the league and the union to step up and get a fast resolution and supportive stance will be a huge win-win for them in not only the public’s eye, but in the players too. Way to Go MLB and MLBPA for your insight and gracious admittance of this sign of support for guys who do not get to go to bat, or hit the mound during the game. You know their mother’s love you for it.

Just to let you know, the Florida Marlins also received batting gloves and cleats from Easton this week to wear on Sunday during their game against the Colorado Rockies. These items are also going to be made available in a future auction to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Marlins stars Hanley Ramirez, Luis Gonzalez and Cody Ross, who wear Easton goods during the season will be the highlighted players wearing the pink-hued accessories. It is just a great thing that so many of the games best have taken the time to honor not only their mothers’ today, but a chance to eliminate a horror that plagues women daily all over the world
.

Long Day for Red Sox against Rays

 

             Rays 14,       Red Sox 5

          
           Mary Schwalm / AP

Just Wasn’t Their Day

Every once in a while a game comes around that reminds you that nothing is guaranteed in life. Well yesterday, in front of a Fox Television audience, the rest of the country found out what we already knew in the American League East division. Ever game is a battle, and even when you think you can win, you can lose. I really never thought we might have “parity” in baseball the way the NFL has weaned its teams towards. But in the AL East, even with the gigantic payrolls and the talent for days, the division is probably tighter today than it has even been.

There is not clear cut winner or loser anymore, it has been refined and designed down to the simple fact that the team with the highest score will win in the end. And that is the way it should be, it should not be decided by the pencil pushers or even the guys with the microphones protruding out of their faces, it should be decided by those 9 men on the field against that guy at the plate every at bat of the contest.

We are closer to that in the AL East. When you have a team that was predetermined to be a cellar dweller manning the second spot just a click away from the favorite, it is time to believe everyone is equal until the last out. When you have a pitching staff that has been destroyed by injuries but rebuilds itself within its own minor league system to emerge with more victories than you can count on your two hands, it is time to believe in parity. Who care if $ 2 billion dollar stadiums still need fine tuning, these squads within our division are hungry, and the plate is full for them right now.

With the AL East getting center stage in the East of the Mississippi for most viewers, it was a time for either the Rays or the Red Sox to proclaim dominance in the division. Even though Red Sox Nation might be mourning a loss, they should also rejoice in the game gave more validity to the fact we might have the ultimate division in baseball right now. The Rays showed why they can not be taken solely on their record by bashing 17 hits on the day. They also continued their stranglehold on Red Sox starter Jon Lester, who used to handle them like a rag doll.


Mary Schwalm / AP


The bevy of teams in the MLB also have this passion and skill, but still lack that personal challenge stage that besets every Red Sox vs Rays battle lines. Both teams know that to win this division, you have to conquer the elite first. The Rays have yet to even play their first contest against the Toronto Blue Jays, and some say that is why they are off to their big start in 2009.  The Rays do not play their first game against the Blue Jays until June 29th. Here we are in one of the most closely competitive divisions in baseball, and the defending divisional champs do not play one of their first games of the season against their nemesis divisional foe until almost the All-Star break.

Not to be outdone is the fact that the Blue Jays also are coming to Boston on May 19th for their first run at the Red Sox in 2009. So as you can see, even if we do have the division right now, the aspects and the smoke-and mirrors designed by the MLB schedulers make the division look a bit more one-sided than it truly is right now. The Blue Jays only played the Baltimore Orioles from our division in the first month of games. They have been set up against mostly A L Central and West divisional foes before finally taking on the Orioles in the beginning of May. Even though they did sweep the three-game series against Baltimore, they do not go against another divisional foe until this week when they play a mid-week series at home against the New York Yankees.

So even though the Red Sox might be currently sitting in the catbird’s seat, they also know that their work is just beginning in 2009. With every Red Sox loss to the Rays, they give a valuable key to the division to their southern brethren. And since the Rays have now won 5 out of the first 8 contests, giving them an early leg-up, but it is a long season. Today’s game was an abnormality in these two teams game over the long haul. Every year their is a small segment of games that show a huge disparity of scoring, but so far in 2009, neither team has set a dominance in that category against each other.  The only other game this year that featured any type of dominance by either team was the Rays 13-0 shutout the last time Matt Garza met the Red Sox.
 

For the first time in their divisional match ups, these two teams come in with defined roles, and lofty expectations. No matter what happens tonight, the game will be have a national audience so that the rest of the country can see what all the fuss is about in the A L East. From shore-to-shore, baseball fans will again see the rivalry that some say only exists in our own minds. That these two teams just hate each other and that nothing but a win will do for either team’s skipper. That might be true, but if the Rays do take the game tonight, it will be their seventh straight series they have defeated the Red Sox, both home and in Fenway Park.

That will not sit well with Red Sox Nation. They are accustomed to winning these games, and not settling for the Rays to gain any momentum towards the top of the division this early in the season. People have talked about the dismal start of the Rays as if they were 25-5 at this point last season. After 32 games, they are only minus two wins from their 17-15 record last season at this time. So much has been written, and so much has been anticipated of either team in 2009. For both of these squads to be within 4 games of each other after their collective starts is amazing on its own…but what else would you expect in the A L East. 


Mary Schwalm / AP

Rays put on a Hit Show

Coming into the game the Rays were t
he fifth best hitting team in the American League with a .274 team average.  Considering they were taking on the second best team in the AL in the Boston Red Sox, it might seem like a tall task. But the Rays have made their living the last two seasons out of beating the odds and winning the game people think they should lose on paper. So coming into yesterday’s game against the Red Sox leftie Jon Lester, the consensus might be a Red Sox victory. This is the first game that Lester will have thrown against the Rays in 2009.

I am not going to dive into the inning by inning blows of this game, but might just pick up on some of the highlights of this contest. We all know the score by now, and that Lester had an early dominance on the Rays before their bats awoke in a big way. Every hitter in the Rays lineup got a hit in yesterday;s game but Gabe Gross, who was on deck for his first at bat of the game when Evan Longoria flied out to left field to end the top of the ninth inning.  Five members of the Rays had multiple hits in the game. Carl Crawford led all Rays batters by going 3 for 4, with a walk in the game. 

But the biggest winner of the afternoon had to be B J Upton, who went 2 for 5 and had two nice hits during the game. Considering that Upton came into the game with a .156 average, which was the lowest average in the MLB for a starter, the game was a huge success at the plate. For if he is about to breakout and contribute to the Rays offense like he did in 2008, the sky is truly the limit for this team. We have seen a lot of frustration out of Upton at the plate, maybe trying to do too much at times, but his defensive plays have shown he is mentally on his game, and he only needed some plate confidence to get rolling this season.


Mary Schwalm / AP

Kazmir finds his Groove

A lot has been written lately on the good and bad side of Scott Kazmir’s 2009 season. He has always seems a bit out of sorts and fighting something within himself on the mound. It might be a small adjustment to his release point, or maybe a different grip on his slider, but he has always looked a bit off on the mound.  During todays game, he finally had a sense of confidence and mound presence we have come to know from Kazmir. His day might not have started on the right foot, but his first inning looked more productive and more controlled then usual.

Even his second inning lead-off slider that Rocco Baldelli put out of the ballpark for his first Red Sox homer was put in a nice spot, but Baldelli made a great swing to take it yard. But there was a small thing I did notice on the mound with Kazmir. He made a effort to look down and always check his footing after releasing the pitch. If you noticed on the television screen, after every pitch he glanced down to see where his landing point was on the mound. Maybe that was the small mechanical point he spoke of after his last outing. He voiced a displeasure in a level of his mechanics in his last post-game interview, and maybe they figured it out and he was just trying to maintain that level of consistency in the start.

But for whatever reason, Kazmir did look good today. He showed composure and also a sense of dominance we have seen missing from him this year. Oh, he has had great starts in 2009, but this one felt different for some reason. He seemed to be watching himself more, testing his stuff and throwing like he did in 2007 with more sliders and that wicked change-up that compliments his fast ball so well. He only threw 5 innings in the game, and only 100 pitches, but he did display a great work ethic today. His strikeout ratio have gone down since his huge numbers a few years, but maybe he is becoming a more complete pitcher who doesn’t have to win every game anymore by extreme measures.

           
            Mary Schwalm / AP

Sunday’s Smatterings of Thoughts 

**** Yesterday’s Fox broadcast of the Rays versus Red Sox game seemed to be riddled with some mis-guided  comments and observation by the broadcast team. I have always liked Tim McCarver and Dick Stockton as a duo, but yesterday they did make some very smartsy comments that I hope other people also heard during the broadcast.
1) Dick Stockton called Red Sox Jon Lester a “rightie” at one point when discussing the pitcher’s performance in the top of the second inning.
2)Tim McCarver in the top of the third inning said that Boston was the only team that had a winning record against the Rays in 2009. Well, Baltimore currently has a 4-1 record against the Rays in 2009 after winning their first series against the Rays, and splitting the last series against the team.
3) McCarver called Jason Bartlett “Evan Longoria” in the bottom of the sixth inning after he scored on Akinora Iwamura’s sacrifice fly.


**** 
The Rays are now 7-3 in their last 10 games and have scored 65 runs (6.5 runs per game average). They have combined for 304 hits this year and scored a total of 166 runs. They have also now hit 76 doubles this season, only trailing the Toronto Blue Jays by a single double for the A L lead.  On the negative side, they have also now struck out as a team 258 times in 2009 to lead the American League in that category.

**** Jason Bartlett is currently leading all MLB shortstops in batting average (.355) and only one AL shortstop has less errors than Bartlett’s two ( Marco Scutaro , 0 errors). He is also hitting 69 points higher than any other AL shortstop right now.  Combined, Bartlett and Longoria are hitting . 359 this season. That is the highest combined average for the left-side of an infield in the majors this season. 

**** You might notice a small blurp in the box score today in which the Rays Lance Cormier received a save during his 3.2 innings of work in Saturdays 13-5 win. Even though there was not a threat of him losing the lead, the aspect that he pitched three innings and did not give up a run constitutes a save in the MLB rule book. This is his first save with the Rays for the former University of Alabama closer.  in the MLB Rule book under section 10.19, the offcial scorer can give the relief pitcher a “save” if he complete three innings of work on the mound.

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