Results tagged ‘ Jeff Niemann ’

Could the Shields Era be Coming to an End Soon in Tampa Bay?

 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

The number 55 can be symbolic to a number of people. We all know it is in the title of the song by musician Sammy Hager, “I Can’t Drive 55!”. We all know it was the posted National speed limit designated by huge signs along the nation’s Turnpikes and Interstates for a huge portion of our lives. Some gaming enthusiasts also know the number is associated with an astute “Call of Duty” clan of seasoned perfectionists who fight their battles on television screens everywhere.


The number “55” within the realm of the Tampa Bay Rays history books holds a very unique place, but it is also a dangerous place. Going into Monday’s night game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, the Rays would collectively bear witness to seeing the current Rays All-Time leader in victories, and Angels Starter, Scott Kazmir battle to preserve Kazmir’s weakening hold on the Rays All-Time career mark currently set at, you guessed it…55.

Kazmir will oppse the Rays in that contest against his former Rays teammate and friend, James Shields, and with a Shields win, Kazmir will have to acknowledge another part of his short legacy with the Rays will fall. It is extremely unusual for a pair of young guns like Kazmir and Shields to be fighting for the right to hold the Rays All-Time career mark. It does seems like such a low, low number, this “55”, but the solid reality is that life as a Rays pitcher does not always have a solid foundation or expanding future.

There can be several reasons for this, but the biggest is simply that the dollar signs sometimes makes a Rays pitcher a trade commodity way before his pitching expiration date. Recently, Shields has begun to hear the increasing mumbles and ground level grumbles around the Rays ballpark that he might be nearing the ultimate end of his long reign as the Rays King atop the Rays rotation. We soon forget as Rays fans, just how fast and short the escalation of the pitching exiting process here in Tampa Bay.

For a firm illustration of past quick exodus of the Rays winning pitchers’, you only have to look at the next four slots within the Rays career victories list to see former names of Rays pitchers like Victor Zambrano (35) Esteban Yan (26), and Albie Lopez (26) to show the Rays have not held onto their pitching stars for very long. Zambrano was traded for Kazmir, but when Zambrano left the Rays, he was the team’s career leader in victories.

Funniest part is that Shields is not even the highest paid pitcher currently on the Rays roster. That designation goes to teammates Rafael Soriano ($7.25 million), Dan Wheeler ($ 3.5 million) and fellow starter Matt Garza ($3.35 million). Shields will jump to $ 4.5 million for the 2011 and be in the current Top four of the returning members of the Rays roster. That high salary by itself could become Shields downfall. Sonnanstine (29 wins) who trails Shields in the Rays active victory tour will only see his salary rise to possibly $ 1.5 million due to his first stint at salary arbitration.

 

But it might be another Rays teammate that makes Shields expendable. Garza’s estimated salary arbitration has him garnering a possible $ 5.25 million salary for 2011, and that total could send the Rays searching high and low for a team willing to take on Shield’s and his 2011 salary. In 2011, Shields could find himself just like Kazmir, on the outside looking in at the next wave of Rays pitchers who will strive to take his name off the Rays pitching mantle. Shields has also not done himself any favors recently with some of his erratic pitching, and clouds of doubt have begun to fly all around the stands as to Shield’s effectiveness.


Surely the pitcher who has logged over 200+innings over the last two years and has been one of the only Rays pitchers’ not to go down for the count on the DL will be spared from this worry. But can the Rays gamble that same level of consistent return again in 2011? On the positive side of the equation right now is two solid performances where Shields won twice, plus he logged 7+ innings for just the second time this season. Maybe Shields had a bit of a dead arm and instead of complaining he fought through it and has gone 5-2 now over his last 7 starts. The signs are there that Shields might have found his second wind in 2010 and that we should not count him out…just yet.

Still stuck firmly in the back of my mind was that horrendous day in Toronto when Shields surrendered 6 Home Runs, becoming only the third pitcher to produce this type of hurling disaster in the last 70 years. Even though Shields did push some of the blame on himself for the debacle, Shields also tossed his young catcher, John Jaso firmly under the buses’ wheels and pushed a mountain load of the blame firmly towards his catcher and his play calling. That was uncharacteristic of Shields, and might have been a defense mechanism, but it was still an ugly side of Shields the Rays had never seen surface before. If Shields felt that way on the mound on that horrendous day, why didn’t he shake off Jaso’s signs?

 
Elaine Thompson/AP

That one instance doesn’t make Shields expendable, but the rubber arm and his consistency will come to a crashing end in the future. Will the Rays take the gamble and roll the dice with Shields, or will another starter who is waiting in the Rays system like Jeremy Hellickson take his turn in the Rays merry-go-round. If the Rays moved Shields this off season, it would save up to $ 4.5 million the Rays could use to entice another offensive weapon to join the Rays for 2011. With Garza also getting a substantial pay raise through arbitration, the Rays (after Garza’s salary) could effectively only have to spend around $2.525 million for their other four possible starters (David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson) in 2011.


That makes Shields very expendable, even with only the second highest starter’s salary on the team. We might be seeing the everlasting glow before the sunset of Shield’s time with the Rays. Considering Shields has already been here about 5 years, maybe his time has come for him to seek another opportunity elsewhere. Another interesting sidebar to last night’s game, Shields and Kazmir became only the second pair of former Rays Opening Day starters to meet in a Rays game.

Ironically, the first time this happened was when Kazmir met Oakland starter and former Ray Joe Kennedy back on May 5,2007 at Tropicana Field. Maybe it is time for Kazmir to pass that Rays torch to Shields and let him shine brightly before his Rays tenure begins to dim. But then again, that is what we have come to expect out of “Big Game”.
 

 

Could a Rotation 5.5 Scenario Work for the Rays?

 
 
We all know that Tampa Bay Rays prospect Jeremy Hellickson’s name has been on the lips and minds of most MLB Fantasy baseball owners right now. I can admit he is on three of my teams, but what happens now? Most of us who roam the highways and byways of the Rays Republic know that Rays Manager Joe Maddon has been more than adamant about wanting to pamper Hellickson’s first journey up in the big leagues and Hellickson will be headed to the Rays Bullpen after his next start (Friday in Oakland ).

His next start will also correspond within a few days of the possible timeline for Rays pitchers Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis to come back from their recent shoulder stiffness vacation. With the Rays usual starting five then back into the swing of things, Hellickson will be free to free lance or get some spot duty here and there for the Rays. Maybe we can devise a roation 5.5 scenario and effectively use this hot young arm to the Rays rotation’s advantage through the final 46 games? 

Most people have the assumption that Hellickson will do mostly relief duty through the rest of the Rays 2010 season, pretty much exactly what David Price provided for the Rays in 2008. But I have another idea. I have something that just might be a perfect 5.5 scenario of attack the Rays could employ during the rest of the season.


Why not just let Hellickson take at least one spot start from the top three Rays starters during the rest of the 2010 season, plus one of the four games against the New York Yankees in September in New York to give the Rays starting five a short breather. It would give the Rays pitcher with the hottest arm right now a chance to gain momentum, confidence and also provide a alternative in-house to stave off any dead arm syndrome or possible long term injury.
 
With at least a pair of the Rays starters  currently showing a bit of late inning strain on their tired arms, it would be a possible 6-8 innings of work saved on their arms going into the stretch run of the season…and beyond. W
ithin the next few starts, if it seems that Price will not be able to hit that heralded 20-win mark, it would be a great time to even set down the mighty leftie for a game to also save his arm for the Playoff run.

 

This is not a 6-man rotation idea, but something I like to call rotation 5.5, where Hellickson can use his hot arm, plus give some added relief to the guys who have been grinding it out every five days all year long. Of course, this would depend on the match-ups provided by the opposition, but right now the finesse pitching of Hellickson could adapt well opposite almost any pitcher in the Major Leagues.


It’s just a thought. A rambling of my brain cells that tells me this could work in a perfect crescendo of pitching performances for the Rays. Hellickson has been groomed as a starter, and a small segment of his time can be used for relief, but you really have to be cautious when you fool with a pitcher’s mindset going from a starter’s mentality to the every day grind of a reliever not knowing if he is playing, or watching that game. You only have to look to the Yankees and what has been done with Joba Chamberlain to see how quickly you can confuse and ruin a great pitcher.

if you can get Hellickson a few extra starts before his formal “coming out” party in Spring 2011,then it can only help the young Iowa native. With 46 games left to play, and 28 of those against teams playing .500 or better, it might be time to use the Durham secret weapon to its fullest. Sure there will be boasted bravado from any of the five Rays usual starters that they do not need a tag team pitching match-ups down the stretch, but the Rays have been playing a gambler’s hand for a long time with no huge setbacks and injuries on their starting pitching front.

 

Do you want to really tease with disaster when the prize is gleaming right in front of your eyes?  Hellickson could be a huge and key ingredient to how far the Rays go in the 2010 post season. Just like Price, he has the goods and the talent to help fortify the Rays in either the Bullpen or the rotation down the stretch. Even though Hellickson is now the first Rays pitcher to EVER go 3-0 in his first three starts, it is the poise and finesse he has shown both on and off the mound that make him a multi-functional weapon for the Rays.

No matter which way the team decides to use Hellickson over those next 46 games, you can expect Hellickson to want the ball, hit the mound throwing, and providing a chance for his team to succeed… a great mirror image of Price’s same role in 2008.
 

Rays Pitcher’s Have No-No Possibilities

 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

With the Colorado Rockies on Saturday night finally being able to erase their name off the four-some of current Major League Baseball teams without a No-Hitter thrown by a pitcher on their staff, the list has now been funneled down to only a trio, with the Tampa Bay Rays being the only American League team still searching for a No-No. And sharing this distinction with National League squads the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres, it is actually only a matter of time before another name is dropped off this list.
 
Honestly with the Mets farm system not having a highly-touted prospect in the pipeline, and the Padres having some talent in the lower levels, but nothing on the immediate horizon, it seems logical that the Rays might have the best chance to be the next team to throw a huge “X” through their name and eliminate the American League from this special list. But this is not to say that a pitcher from either the Mets or Padres could not have a once-in-a-lifetime pitching performance and one-up the Rays with no notice.

In my honest baseball opinion, the Rays seem to have more viable options either close to the MLB level, or presently throwing some impressive ball for the team. So I am going to toss out three categories here today, showing who I think is the odds-on Rays pitching favorites to produce a pitching gem, and a few who might fly a bit under the radar, but with good command and some great defense behind them could shock the world.
 
The one obvious visual choice has to be Rays current uber-competitive demon Matt Garza. Everyone around baseball knows the maximum competitive fires that brew deep within him every time he hit’s the mound, and that a pitching gem is just within his reach with every start. And the reasoning for this is quite simple…. He has flirted with this gem before…twice and still is just as hungry to taste it again and again until he finally is granted within the special club just for hurlers who possess a “No-No” on their MLB pitching resume`. And with him showing these glimpses over the last two seasons, he is the odds-on favorite in deed to finally take the Rays name off that “Non No-No” list.
 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

We first got to see that future dominating pitching ability during the 2008 MLB season when Matt Garza took the mound against the Florida Marlins in an Inter-League contest. In the contest, Garza completed his first career complete game, but more importantly, he threw a one-hitter with 10 strikeouts against the Marlins giving up one hit on the day via a solo Hanley Ramirez Home Run to lead off the seventh inning for Florida. On the day, Garza only faced 28 batters on the day tying the Rays club record for fewest batters faced in a nine inning complete game setting also held by James Shields. But this was only our first glimpse into his possible future chance to throw a no-hitter.

 
Garza also gave us a second glance early on in 2009 when on April 30th against the Boston Red Sox in Tropicana Field when Garza went 6 innings of perfect baseball before Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury infield single to lead-off the seventh inning ruined the longest bid for a perfect game in Rays history. And in that contest Garza retired 18-straight Red Sox hitters before Ellsbury’s single. But Garza tied for the third longest no-hit bid in club history while striking out 10 batters and walking one. He combined with Rays reliever Grant Balfour for a one-hit 13-0 victory for the Rays.
 
As you can see by the above situations, Garza is my favorite to be the first Rays pitcher to ever post a No-Hit or even Perfect Game performance for the team. This is not to discount the rest of the Rays starters in the least as I truly think there are a few others who might conjure up the chance to also venture into this hallowed pitching grounds if the right situation came their way. Rays left-hander David Price has the pitching pedigree that he could also be on the mound with a chance to produce his own pitching gem, but I think he might need a bit of defensive help behind him, but with the likes of Carl Crawford, B J Upton and Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena on the corner infield spots, Price could also produce a stellar pitching performance….but not within the next several MLB seasons.

 
Duane Burleson/AP

This takes me to the guy who I truly think might be the one Rays pitcher you might not think of throwing a no-hitter, but pitchers who have the same abilities as this Rays right-hander have produced gems of their own. Some times it has noting to do with killer speeds on your fastball, or even the ability to read and adjust during the game. Some times it is just something as simple as a game rhythm you get into early as a pitcher that can set the tone and get you amazing results. That is why the one pitcher who might beat Garza to the punch and produce a no-hitter before him, or be the second Rays to perform the task might be Jeff Niemann.

 
The Rays former First Round pick has had a pretty mild-mannered career so far with the Rays, but we have all see just what kind of dominating performances he can throw out there when his breaking ball and his fastball placement both sync up and his 12-6 curveball buckles players knees at the plate. The first time I got the realization that Niemann could possibly be a hidden gem to throw a no-hitter might have been during the 2009 season when he lead the Rays in ERA and wins, becoming the first rookie to lead a team in those two categories since New York Yankees pitcher Bob Grim in 1954.

What is simply amazing was the true fact Niemann has shown an increased dominance in several areas that could help him reel in a no-hitter bid. In 2009, Neimann allowed only 0.85 Home Runs per nine innings, which was the sixth best in the American League. But he also held lead-off batter to an astonishing .240 batting average in 2009, which was the lowest in the Major Leagues, and walked only six batters in 192 opportunities, which lead the American Leagues. And all of this was only during his Rookie campaign against aggressive American League East hitting teams.

 
Brian Blanco/AP

What really pushed the thought in my mind that Niemann might be a dark horse, but a distinct no-hitter possibility might be in the fact he did not lose a home start at Tropicana Field after May 2,2009. Niemann was an impressive 6-0 in 10 starts after that date and his 3.05 ERA tied him with Seattle hurler Felix Hernandez for 1oth best in the American League….as a rookie. But what ultimately put the exclamation point on the whole debate for me was the fact he was the only rookie to EVER bet Toronto’s Roy Halladay twice in one season, and was joined later in that exclusive club by teammate David Price later in the 2009 season.


As you can see, the Rays do have the pitching firepower to be excluded from that list within a short period of time. But as we have seen as recently as the Mark Buehrle no-hit game against the Rays last season on July 23rd. You can have the ultimate command of the strike zone and get the seams of the balls itching on the black corners of the plate for strikes, but the final test might just be a single defensive play by your teammates behind you.

 
Elaine Thompson/AP

All three of the Rays trio mentioned, Garza, Price and Niemann have the tolls and the skills to post this gem any time they step on the rubber for a game. But it might take a leaping catch by Upton, Crawford, or maybe a diving play down the line by Longoria or Pena to produce the Rays first shinning pitching gem amongst the dust of the baseball diamond.

Isn’t it great to know that the Rays can effectively produce those sparkling moments on the mound and might someday soon also be celebrating late into the night a performance worthy of not just a no-hitter, but eliminating their name from that lonely list forever.

Niemann Standing Tall with Rays

  
Gail Burton/ AP

To say that Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeff Niemann fits that mold of the strong, silent type would be an understatement. He has quietly amassed a perfect 5-0 record so far in 2010 and has been able to slip silently under the MLB radar. But we all know within the Rays Republic circles that the quiet and laid-back Texan harnesses a fire and a drive within him to take him towards the top of the MLB pitching ranks. Not many people know that Niemann was chasing another entry into Rays club history last night.

Niemann came into last night’s contest with two of the last three Rays complete game shutouts. And Neimann would have become the Rays All Time leader in that category if White Sox Mark Teahen had not crashed his silent party with an eighth inning blast to Rightfield.


Niemann has been pitching in a state of quiet and not garnering unneeded attention since the Rays drafted him fourth overall in the 2004 First Year MLB Draft out of college baseball powerhouse Rice. Surprising enough, Niemann was one of three Rice pitchers selected on that day sandwiched between teammates Phillip Humber, selected by the New York Mets (third pick) and Wade Townsend, selected by the Baltimore Orioles ( eighth pick). Out of the three Rice Owls selected, Niemann is the only member of that group to still go to the mound every fifth day in the MLB.

Townsend has suffered numerous pitching ailments and recently retired for the second time after trying another comeback attempt , while Humber is currently in the minors (Triple-A Omaha) with the Kansas City Royals.


Niemann has silently carved out a healthy and viable niche for himself in Tampa Bay that has placed him solidly in the number three spot in the Rays rotation. All of this after a quiet 2009 MLB rookie season that boosted his credentials tri-fold, but left a few unique American League pitching feats under the radar outside of Tampa Bay. Surprisingly, Niemann, who lead all American League rookie pitchers last season in winning percentage (.684), ERA (3.94), complete games (2), shutouts (2). He also posted a major league rookie high 180.2 innings last season for the Rays while posting a impressive 13-6 mark.

Those 13 wins also put Niemann is an exclusive club with several other greats Rays pitchers just one win shy of the Rays club record held by Rolando Arrojo set back in 1998. But it could have easily been Niemann’s name printed in the Rays media guide at that spot. Five times in 2009 Niemann exited the game in line for the Rays victory but saw the Rays Bullpen fail to hold the lead and the win for him.

Without a great deal of fanfare, Niemann led the Rays pitching staff in wins and ERA, becoming the first rookie to lead a defending AL champion in those two categories since former New York Yankee Bob Grim in 1954. Niemann also posted the fifth best winning percentage all time by a AL rookie with 30 or more starts. Her also shattered Rays teammate James Shield’s club winning percentage record (.636) that he set in 2008. But then again so many thing go under the radar with the tall, silent Texan.

Who knew that only 4 other AL rookies in the 2000’s matched Niemanns numbers in ERA, innings and wins: Baltimore Oriole Rodrigo Lopez (2002), Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander (2006) Toronto Blue Jay Gustavo Chacin (2005) and Atlanta Brave Jair Jurrjens (2008). But then again, you have come to expect Niemann not to blow his own horn. So I guess it is up to me then. In 2009, Niemann went 57 consecutive innings without giving up a Home Run, and posted the best rookie total and sixth best mark in the AL in that category. Niemann also worked the most innings (15.1 innings) in 2009 of any pitcher against the MLB’s Home Run team leaders, the New York Yankees without giving up a single long shot to the Bronx Bombers.

 
Steve Nesius/ AP

Silently and quietly Niemann has held opponents leading off an inning with a Major League low .240 average in 2009. But that has been Niemann’s motive operandi ever since he finally overcame his injury woes to go a combined 44-19 in his last 97 career starts (majors and minor leagues). And being a forgotten piece of the overall puzzle can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. With other members of the Rays rotation getting the headlines and the early season accolades, Niemann has been able to post the second best ERA (2.37) in the majors this season. Niemann has also silently posted the fifth best Opponent’s Batting average ( .204) and second best pitches per inning (13.83) in the Major Leagues.


Niemann has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his past injury concerns and aliments are behind him. His commitment and determination to lead by silent example will be a key part of the Rays overall success in 2010. If Niemann can again post 13 + wins this season, it will put the Rays in a great position to battle for a 2010 Playoff berth. His stamina and endurance has increased throughout his career and will provide a great foundation and catalyst as the Rays reach farther into this season.

Being one of the tallest member within the MLB ranks has its drawbacks at times, but standing tall in the middle of this Rays rotation is just the place for Niemann. And on the mound, he lets his pitching do all the talking.

 

Rays are a AL/NL Hybrid Squad

 


 1080theFan.com
 

During the Tampa Bay Rays versus New York Yankee game last night Rays Television Announcer Dewayne Staats made sure to mention that the Rays have basically played like a “National League style team” this year. And with the Rays sporting the best record (30-11) in both Leagues right now, being a little like the “Senior Circuit” might not be a bad thing heading into the first round of games against a National League foe on their terms.

And with that, the Rays will be totally comfortable playing by the National League standards since they have been playing that style of baseball since the first week in April. The Rays have been masters at executing and perfecting the sacrifice bunt, squeeze bunt and even the suicide squeeze, which have been National League staples among the N L squad’s offensive arsenal.

But what was once considered a N L advantage with the American League teams sending their pitcher’s into the batter’s box for the first time this season, the Rays might have some special surprises awaiting their N L foes.


Sure heading into Houston we will first see Rays starter Matt Garza hit the mound to start the 14th season of Interleague play . And even with the Rays entering this season’s Interleague schedule with a less than .500 record All Time (99-115), they have been a combined 43-29 since Rays Manager Joe Maddon , which is the sixth best record in the Interleague play format since 2006. And over the past two years, only the Minnesota Twins (26-10) own a better Interleague record than the Rays (26-11) coming into their series against the Astros.

But just because this is usually the first time they send their bevy of pitcher’s to the plate, the Rays over the last two years have batted a Major League best .295 in Interleague play and their pitching staff has held their opponents to a .236 average, also best in the Major League. And even during their 2009 campaign into Interleague play, the Rays posted a 13-5 record last season which was beat only by the Los Angels Angels of Anaheim (14-4).

But playing in unfamiliar parks have been a bit of thorn in the Rays sides as they hold a 44-63 record in the National League ballparks, but they have begun to reverse that trend as they have gone 11-7 over the past two seasons in their strange surroundings.


But heading into the confines of Minute Maid Park with its train that moves throughout the outfield during Home Runs, and their unique Centerfield incline with their majestic flagpole in the center, this will only be the second time the Rays have ever wandered into the Astros home turf. But back in 2003, their last visit to Houston, the Rays did not leave with a great bit of Texas hospitality as the Astros swept them during contests from June6-8, 2003. And only one Rays player still remains on their roster from that 2003 squad, and Houston just happens to be his hometown (Carl Crawford).

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But the two teams did meet during 2008 from June 20-22,2008 as the Astros took two out of three from the Rays with former Astros Brandon Backe beating the Rays in their “throwback jerseys on that Sunday contest. Surprisingly, all three of those game were one run contests that season. But there will be quite a few Rays who will have a crowd or two on hand during this road series as Rays starter Jeff Niemann, who will start the Sunday finale, Crawford, Rays set-up man Dan Wheeler, and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey all have Houston roots. But the real treat might just be in how the Rays pitching staff does at the plate during this series.


The Rays pitching staff have been taking their turns in the Batting Cages over the last several weeks with several Rays pitchers showing they might just come out and surprise a few of us during the N L-slate of the Interleague this season. And starting with tonight’s starter Matt Garza, who is a career 0-8 at the plate, but has been showing increased ease and poise at the plate in recent B P sessions with Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton.

And Garza has a bit of revenge on his mind as this will be his second start against Houston lifetime. But his last outing on June 20,2008 when he opposed Astros ace Roy Oswalt did not go well as he lost the decision 4-3. But Garza also brings in a nice 3-2 mark All Time in Interleague play with a special one-hitter in 2008 against the Florida Marlins.


And with no Designated Hitter in N L parks, the Rays might be at a distinctive disadvantage seeing that only 5 other members of the entire Rays pitching staff after Garza even have a Batting Average. We could possibly see Lance Cormier ( 5-46 .109 2 RBI ), Dan Wheeler ( 1-7 .143 ) make at least one plate appearance this series. But Rays Saturday starter leftie David Price owns a 1-3 .333 batting average, and last night’s starter James Shields could get a go at the plate in the middle innings if Maddon wants to save his bench players for a late inning rally. Shield sports a 5-22 .227 average with 1 RBI. But the pride and joy of the Rays pitching staff hitters might be their “secret weapon” Rays long man Andy Sonnanstine who is a career 7-21 or .333 with 2 RBI.

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But most Rays fans might remember his May 17,2009 clutch performance when a line-up card snafu had Sonnanstine batting in the 3-hole after a mix-up on the initial lineup card given to the Home Plate Umpire before that contest. For some odd reason, Rays Third Baseman Evan Longoria was suppose to be the game’s DH, but was listed on the lineup card as a second Rays Third Baseman and was disqualified from the lineup. Sonnanstine responded with a 1-3 day with a RBI double.


And with Sonnanstines first step into the batter’s box, he became the first AL pitcher to be in the lineup in an AL ballpark since Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Brett stepped in the box on September 23, 1976 against the Minnesota Twins. On that date, Sonnanstine also became the first Rays pitcher to ever head to the Batter’s box in an AL home game, plus was the first Rays pitcher to ever bat at Tropicana Field.  

Because of that hitting success, Maddon used Sonnanstine again on May 23,2009 as a Pinch Hitter against the Florida Marlins at then Pro Player Stadium, he then again stepped into the box on June 21, 2009 against the New York Mets at Citi Field. During those appearances, Sonnanstine became only the second Rays pitcher following James Shields example from his June 28,2008 appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Three Rivers Stadium. Sonnanstine also pinch ran on June 6, 2009 in a AL game against the New York Yankees and scored a run for the Rays.

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But after the aforementioned five Rays pitching “hitters”, the rest of the Rays Bullpen and starter have laid golden goose eggs to a tune of going 0-19 lifetime during Interleague play. Rays starters have combined for a 6-38 mark or a .157 average combined, but Wade Davis has never made an appearance yet in a Major League batter’s box.  The Rays Bullpen (including Wheeler, Cormier and Sonnanstine ) have gone 13 for 93 or a .140 Batting Average in Interleague play. Hopefully we will not have to see Rays relievers Randy Choate (0-5), Rafael Soriano (0-4), Grant Balfour (0-1) or Joaquin Benoit (0-9) make plate appearances during this series.

 
So they Rays, who have the basis of a National League squad down pat will come into their first series against a N L foe with a bit of confidence and a few tricks up their sleeves. But with that one extra hitter missing from the ninth spot in the Rays lineup, it is going to be really interesting to see how Maddon utilizes his troops and his pitching staff for spot duty at the plate.
And who knows, it could be the advent of the short game by putting down a well executed bunt or even a single through the hole that provides the difference in one of these three contests. But playing ” small ball” is the advent of the National League system. And even if they are considered a totally power-based American League team, they think like a National League squad, which could be dangerous for the Astros this weekend.
 

Rays Now 0-11 on May 14th Games

 

 
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This date, May 14th, has always held a small special place within me. It has been a day of honest reflection and undefined possibilities. It has been the Alpha and Omega of my entire life, not only as a person, but as an athlete. In High School, this date usually corresponded with either the Florida State Class 5-A Track and Field championships, or the State Decathalon event held every year at the University of Florida. But since that time has long passed in my life, it has come to signify other things. But with regards to my Rays baseball, this date can be murder on me and the entire Rays team.

For the last 11 out of 13 years, the Tampa Bay Rays franchise has been unable to win a single game on this May 14th date on the calendar. In 8 of the past 11 years, they have gone down in defeat and it has brought my joy and happiness on that day to a sudden standstill. The only blemishes on that dubious record is the fact of two “Off Days” thrown on the schedule in 2001 and 2007 to break up the streak a bit. But in reality, this is one date that the Rays have a huge wall in front of them, and I am beginning to blame myself.

Since 1999, I have circled this date on my calendar hoping to see the roof turned orange after a Rays victory. But again this year we came close, but it was no celebratory cigar again to be lit on this date. It has been my epicenter of baseball for the last 10 years. Since 1999, I have either traveled to Tropicana Field or another city or sat idle on this day in response to where the Tampa Bay Rays were playing baseball.
 
That is right people, I use this date as my personal symbol of my commitment to my level of fandom to the Rays. It is my own form of special celebration to the team that descended on my home town to make me have more remarkable summer nights than just cruising the beaches with the windows open, or sitting in a sports bar watching the NHL playoffs.

So here I go doing a 11-year recap of those games and their results. Even if it brings up bad memories or provide a bit of funk, this is a date I truly wished would change in their 13th season (My lucky number). Most people will probably not give a big deal about all of this, but on this day…….It is what I say that goes….Got it. 



Timmer82@Flickr.com

1999:   Tampa Bay D-Rays vs Anaheim Angels. (AWAY)

That is right, the Anaheim Angels. The Halos had not gotten politically correct yet to include the “LA” region back onto their name. But in this contest the D-Rays starter Bobby Witt did not get any signs of offensive support and the then D-Rays fell to the Halos 8-3.  A total of 5 hits were dished out by the D-Rays during this contest. The bottom of the Rays order did most of the damage with catcher John Flaherty hitting a homer in the game. But the Rays did  show some defensive signs of life, converting three double plays in the game.

2000:    Tampa Bay versus Toronto Blue Jays (AWAY)

This was my first trip outside of the country since my Army National Guard Tour almost 10 years earlier, and it was my venture to this awesome Canadian town. I  got a wild distaste for customs on this trip, but that is a story for another time. In this game, the D-Rays sent starter Esteban Yan to the hill. Yes, the same Yan who would become the Rays closer later in his career and provide massive puddles of sweat on the pitching rubber. But the game belonged to Blue Jays starter David Wells, who just seemed to have the D-Rays at bay all night in this contest. 

Wells threw a 7-hit 2-run game against the D-Rays, but the Rays Bullpen let the game get away from them in the end. In the bottom of the ninth inning, D-Rays reliever Albie Lopez gave up 2 runs to hand the Jays a 3-2 win.  After the game, I got my first taste of feeling a bit out of place when a French speaking woman was trying to have a conversation with me in a neighboring pub, but I could only understand every fifth word. I only took French 1 in college. Guess that day ended up as a total disaster for me, both on and off the turf.


www.bernssteakhouse.com

2001:                                 Off Day

I decided on this day to just go on out and hit a local James Beard recommended eater that boasts its steaks and fine conversation during an intimate dinner. It was the first time I had ever ventured into this South side of Tampa, and I made my Visa credit card pay dearly for it. I had heard the praise of the food and atmosphere around Bern’s Steakhouse for years, but this was my first entrance into the wine and steak primo emporium. If you have not heard of this fine dining experience, then you have missed out on some of the best foodie tales to ever tell at a cocktail party.

The interior is done in a classic French chateau style complete with the red velvet wall coverings and an over abundance of photos of people no one seems to know on the wall. But the real attraction is the telephone book wine list that has the World’s largest and most opulent collection of wines. An added bonus to all of this is an extended aging process on all of their beef offerings, which translates into a bit of ambrosia on your plate. I am going to stop here before I drool and ruin another computer keyboard.

2002:  Tampa Bay Rays vs New York Yankees ( AWAY)

This was my first baseball venture into the Ballpark in the Bronx. And I did wear my Rays gear into Yankee Stadium and had a minimal stint of problems. I had secured a seat right above the Rays dugout using a Yankee insider friend I knew while playing football for a great ticket. This game was over rea
l early as Rays starter Travis Harper did not last 3.2 innings before Rays reliever Steve Kent came on in long relief. It was my third game on this date, and I was beginning to think I was the cause for the losing on this date.

But in reality, the team was up against Yankees starter Roger Clemens, and he threw a 3-hit, 1-run outing on that night.  Rays Leftfielder Steve Cox did have a good night, getting two of the hits in the game. My old buddy Greg Vaughn did get a hit as the DH  also during that night. But in the end, the Rays fell by a 10-3 score because of a pair of Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada home runs.

2003 :     Tampa Bay vs. Toronto Blue Jays (AWAY)  

Here I am again venturing across the open borders on my trip to Canada, but this time I decided to bring a French phrase book (just in case). I decided to stay at Rogers Centre hotel this time, but it did not help in securing a win for the Rays. In this contest, my old Rays friend and current Jays starter Cory Lidle was throwing against the Rays. The Rays sent young starter Dewon Brazleton to the mound, who reminds me of Jeff Niemann sometimes, and he  quickly got roasted with 7-hits and 5-runs in the outing. This was also during the time when the Rays had John Rocker on their roster, and after the game I chatted with him a bit in the hotel lounge.

But the Rays were beginning in this 2003 to show signs of the emergence of one of their key players in the Rays future. This was Rays rookie Carl Crawford’s first full year in the MLB, and he had mixed results in this May 14th game. He did go 1 for 5 in the game, but Aubrey Huff was the star of this game, but even his bat was not enough as the Rays lost the contest 7-6. the Rays did try and mount a offensive counterattack by scoring 4 runs in the top of the eighth, but Jaye reliever Cliff Politte (Ironic a “Cliff” did me in) secured his fourth save of the season by shutting down the Rays offense.



Radioinsomnia@Flickr.com

2004:     Tampa Bay Rays vs. Cleveland Indians (AWAY)

This was my first venture to “The Jake”, and it was the first time I have ever been mesmerized by an “away” stadium. They were celebrating the 10th anniversary of “The Jake”, and it did not even look a few years old at that point. This was the night that my flight got delayed in Atlanta and I was still sitting on the tarmac at 5 pm EST, but  got on a alternate flight and the plane began its descent towards Cleveland-Hopkins Airport at about 20 minutes before game time. The plane banked just perfect so I could get a great shot of the stadium beaming with excitement.

I did not get into the stadium until the fourth inning, and it was “Ladies Night” at the ballpark. I have to say it was the best present I ever got seeing this stadium and going down to the Warehouse District and dancing until near dawn. I even got to catch a home run ball by Indians Casey Blake in the 10th inning of the game. Unfortunately, it was the game winner and I still have that ball in a special place in my collection. We lost that contest 8-7, and it was another friend, Rays reliever Lance Carter who gave up the home run to Blake that night.

2005:   Tampa Bay Rays vs, Kansas City Royals (AWAY)

This was my first post-football visit to Kansas City. I did my usual old habit of hitting a few BBQ joints before the game, but the contest was the real treat of the night. I had always loved to see that night starter, Hideo Nomo pitch in his younger years in LA. Now the Rays had this aging Japanese superstar on their team, and I was anxious to see him pitch tonight. But the Rays offense ended up coming up a bit short during the 6-5 loss. Rays hitters Chris Singleton and Nick Green did their best to try and finally pull out a May 14th win for me, but it was not in the cards again tonight.

2006:   Toronto Blue Jays vs. Tampa Bay Rays (HOME)

Yes, that is right. This is the only time I have seen the Rays play at home so far in their existence. But the home cooking was not enough this night as the Blue Jays took final control of the game in the top of the ninth to send the Rays faithful home miserable after a 8-3 beating. In the contest, the Rays gave up 3 additional runs in the top of the ninth to put the game out of reach for the Rays.

Jays starter Josh Towers took the mound and was not overpowering, but the Jays defense kept them in the game and the Jays produced just enough offense to pull  the game out in the end. The Rays sent starter Casey Fossum to the mound and he had some success against the Jays, but could not keep the big inning from getting to him in the fifth. Rays reliever Chad Orvella gave up 3 doubles and a triple to Alex Rios that was the deathblow of the contest.

2007:                                 Off Day

Since we were going to begin a 3-game series at the Walt Disney starting this morning, I decided to head on out to O-town and do some wandering of the region. I have to admit I am a bad Floridian. I have never been to Sea World, and have only been to Walt Disney World (before this series) twice in my life. I have not even been there since 1984, but was looking forward to hitting both downtown Orlando and the Disney adult complex after the game that night.

Instead, after the contest I headed over to the Hard Rock Cafe at Universal Studios and had a celebration dinner and then just hit the multitudes of clubs in the Orlando area. I did order an outstanding steak and lobster dish at the Hard Rock that gave me boundless amounts of energy for the night. I just wanted to have a great night before the Rays started their series the next day. I heard a rumor that Pop star Justin Timberlake was in the VIP area after doing some Nick show that afternoon. That is as close to getting “Sexy Back” as I have gotten in my life.


RRCollections

2008:  Tampa Bay Rays vs New York Yankees (AWAY)   

Back to old New York, New York. This would be my last trip into the old Yankee Stadium&nb
sp;haunts, and I tried to make the best of it. I did the usual Papaya King hot dog salute, and went down to Ground Zero, but I decided to sit in the Rightfield bleachers for this game. I do have to tell you I did get some wrath from the Bleacher Creatures at first, but by the end they were telling me a few places to have a post-game brew and maybe meet a Mets girl.

I think what went down better in their minds is the fact we lost a squeaker 2-1 to the Bronx Boys tonight.  Yankee starter Mike Mussina kept his dominance over the Rays intact and tight in this contest only giving up one run in the top of the sixth inning. This was also my first sighting of Joba Chamberlain, who did come into the game, but was gone just as quickly after walking 3 batters. James Shields also gave up all of the Yankee runs, but still pitched a great outing.

It was my last time to stroll amongst this hallowed baseball shrine, and I did take a stroll through Memorial Garden before the game. I even stayed a half hour after the game and was whisked out by security guards as I did not want to leave. But I did, still wearing my Rays gear and getting a few Bronx cheers, but nothing too bad to get me put into Fort Apache. But tonight was different from the other May 14th dates to me. I was at the last Rays game I would attend in this old iconic ballpark. I ended up sitting outside the front of the stadium for another half hour before finally heading to JFK to sleep before my 10 am flight back to Tampa International Airport.

2009:   Tampa Bay Rays vs Cleveland Indians (HOME)

On this night I had the feeling we might finally break the streak of not winning. Something in the air just felt different to me, and that gave me a immediate omen of a possible win. The Rays sent starter James Shields to the mound, but the Tribe quickly scalped him for 5 runs in the middle innings. It was a hole that the team would not come back from, even with 6-run effort to pull closer, the score was still 9-6 at the bottom of the sixth inning.

Just as quickly as we all began to sense a chance at victory in the stands after blanking the Tribe’s hitters in the top of the seventh inning, Rays reliever Grant Balfour gave up two runs and the Rays had to settle for a 11-7 loss. Even the ninth inning run by Ben Zorbrist on a Dioner Navarro double play, it brought the Rays only one more out and a chance to seal a final victory on May 14th. But B J Upton struck out to toss all those percentages down the drain. 

I hope I did not bore you too much with a special recollection on the date of May 14th through the Rays baseball times. I am lucky enough to have a home game again this season, and hopefully the team can break my curse of not getting a single victory on this date with me in attendance. You might notice that I had not included the date of May 14th 1998 on this blog. Well, that year I was here in St. Petersburg by my old dog’s side before he was to put to sleep. He had been my close ally for 15 years and had recently suffered a stroke and could not hold his balance well.

So I was not in Kansas City where the team fell 10-3 that night. As you can see, this can either be a day of rejoicing or pain depending on how you look at it. I see it as a beautiful day for baseball. I feel a bit older every day on this date (hint, hint), but what has not aged is the enthusiasm and joy I feel inside my soul on this date in relation to baseball. 

I truly have baseball in my heart of hearts, and I hope that shows most of the time. As I have gotten steadily older (about to enter another decade) I have been given the gift of remembrance of this date in time. And these past Rays games where I have either traveled or seen my favorite team take on the rest of the MLB from the comfort of my seat in Section 138 have all been classic birthday moments in my life.

Rays Have No-Hitter Pitching Options

 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

With the Colorado Rockies on Saturday night finally being able to erase their name off the four-some of current Major League Baseball teams without a No-Hitter thrown by a pitcher on their staff, the list has now been funneled down to only a trio, with the Tampa Bay Rays being the only American League team still searching for a No-No. And sharing this distinction with National League squads the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres, it is actually only a matter of time before another name is dropped off this list.
 
Honestly with the Mets farm system not having a highly-touted prospect in the pipeline, and the Padres having some talent in the lower levels, but nothing on the immediate horizon, it seems logical that the Rays might have the best chance to be the next team to throw a huge “X” through their name and eliminate the American League from this special list. But this is not to say that a pitcher from either the Mets or Padres could not have a once-in-a-lifetime pitching performance and one-up the Rays with no notice.

In my honest baseball opinion, the Rays seem to have more viable options either close to the MLB level, or presently throwing some impressive ball for the team. So I am going to toss out three categories here today, showing who I think is the odds-on Rays pitching favorites to produce a pitching gem, and a few who might fly a bit under the radar, but with good command and some great defense behind them could shock the world.
 
The one obvious visual choice has to be Rays current uber-competitive demon Matt Garza. Everyone around baseball knows the maximum competitive fires that brew deep within him every time he hit’s the mound, and that a pitching gem is just within his reach with every start. And the reasoning for this is quite simple…. He has flirted with this gem before…twice and still is just as hungry to taste it again and again until he finally is granted within the special club just for hurlers who possess a “No-No” on their MLB pitching resume`. And with him showing these glimpses over the last two seasons, he is the odds-on favorite in deed to finally take the Rays name off that “Non No-No” list.
 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

We first got to see that future dominating pitching ability during the 2008 MLB season when Matt Garza took the mound against the Florida Marlins in an Inter-League contest. In the contest, Garza completed his first career complete game, but more importantly, he threw a one-hitter with 10 strikeouts against the Marlins giving up one hit on the day via a solo Hanley Ramirez Home Run to lead off the seventh inning for Florida. On the day, Garza only faced 28 batters on the day tying the Rays club record for fewest batters faced in a nine inning complete game setting also held by James Shields. But this was only our first glimpse into his possible future chance to throw a no-hitter.

 
Garza also gave us a second glance early on in 2009 when on April 30th against the Boston Red Sox in Tropicana Field when Garza went 6 innings of perfect baseball before Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury infield single to lead-off the seventh inning ruined the longest bid for a perfect game in Rays history. And in that contest Garza retired 18-straight Red Sox hitters before Ellsbury’s single. But Garza tied for the third longest no-hit bid in club history while striking out 10 batters and walking one. He combined with Rays reliever Grant Balfour for a one-hit 13-0 victory for the Rays.
 
As you can see by the above situations, Garza is my favorite to be the first Rays pitcher to ever post a No-Hit or even Perfect Game performance for the team. This is not to discount the rest of the Rays starters in the least as I truly think there are a few others who might conjure up the chance to also venture into this hallowed pitching grounds if the right situation came their way. Rays left-hander David Price has the pitching pedigree that he could also be on the mound with a chance to produce his own pitching gem, but I think he might need a bit of defensive help behind him, but with the likes of Carl Crawford, B J Upton and Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena on the corner infield spots, Price could also produce a stellar pitching performance….but not within the next several MLB seasons.

 
Duane Burleson/AP

This takes me to the guy who I truly think might be the one Rays pitcher you might not think of throwing a no-hitter, but pitchers who have the same abilities as this Rays right-hander have produced gems of their own. Some times it has noting to do with killer speeds on your fastball, or even the ability to read and adjust during the game. Some times it is just something as simple as a game rhythm you get into early as a pitcher that can set the tone and get you amazing results. That is why the one pitcher who might beat Garza to the punch and produce a no-hitter before him, or be the second Rays to perform the task might be Jeff Niemann.

 
The Rays former First Round pick has had a pretty mild-mannered career so far with the Rays, but we have all see just what kind of dominating performances he can throw out there when his breaking ball and his fastball placement both sync up and his 12-6 curveball buckles players knees at the plate. The first time I got the realization that Niemann could possibly be a hidden gem to throw a no-hitter might have been during the 2009 season when he lead the Rays in ERA and wins, becoming the first rookie to lead a team in those two categories since New York Yankees pitcher Bob Grim in 1954.

What is simply amazing was the true fact Niemann has shown an increased dominance in several areas that could help him reel in a no-hitter bid. In 2009, Neimann allowed only 0.85 Home Runs per nine innings, which was the sixth best in the American League. But he also held lead-off batter to an astonishing .240 batting average in 2009, which was the lowest in the Major Leagues, and walked only six batters in 192 opportunities, which lead the American Leagues. And all of this was only during his Rookie campaign against aggressive American League East hitting teams.

 
Brian Blanco/AP

What really pushed the thought in my mind that Niemann might be a dark horse, but a distinct no-hitter possibility might be in the fact he did not lose a home start at Tropicana Field after May 2,2009. Niemann was an impressive 6-0 in 10 starts after that date and his 3.05 ERA tied him with Seattle hurler Felix Hernandez for 1oth best in the American League….as a rookie. But what ultimately put the exclamation point on the whole debate for me was the fact he was the only rookie to EVER bet Toronto’s Roy Halladay twice in one season, and was joined later in that exclusive club by teammate David Price later in the 2009 season.


As you can see, the Rays do have the pitching firepower to be excluded from that list within a short period of time. But as we have seen as recently as the Mark Buehrle no-hit game against the Rays last season on July 23rd. You can have the ultimate command of the strike zone and get the seams of the balls itching on the black corners of the plate for strikes, but the final test might just be a single defensive play by your teammates behind you.


 
Elaine Thompson/AP

All three of the Rays trio mentioned, Garza, Price and Niemann have the tolls and the skills to post this gem any time they step on the rubber for a game. But it might take a leaping catch by Upton, Crawford, or maybe a diving play down the line by Longoria or Pena to produce the Rays first shinning pitching gem amongst the dust of the baseball diamond.

Isn’t it great to know that the Rays can effectively produce those sparkling moments on the mound and might someday soon also be celebrating late into the night a performance worthy of not just a no-hitter, but eliminating their name from that lonely list.

 
 
 

Trying to Evolve…My Rays Way

 
 
RRCollections

They say that a “picture can speak a thousand words”. That a simple image from even a Polaroid camera can set the tone and the mood of any event especially a Major League Baseball game. And I can definitely attest to that fact with flying colors. So this season I have invested what little coinage I have in gaining some new sets of eyes or visual images that could enhance or tell the story without me writing a chapters worth of paragraphs each entry. But then again, maybe I am also advancing in my journalistic ventures to include a photo essay or two to prove to myself that I am not as one-dimensional as I think my blog is most nights.
 

So I have gone the way of providing every photo for my blog posts so far this season from my little Fuji digital camera, and I know they are not as sharp or as professionally poised and postured as the old Associated Press or Getty Images photos I have used in the past, but they are free and mine to use in any way I desire this year. And with that, you will see my photos hopefully improve and get extremely better over the course of the season. But they will all be taken from one vantage point in the stadium, my Season Ticket blue seat. That’s right, the one blue seat within Tropicana Field that has a warm body in it every Home game will also try and provide a few timely and game action shots.
 

But the problem with learning “on-the-fly” like I am this season is sometimes I will also be coloring outside the lines , and hopefully they are mostly in some kind of focus range. This is the biggest obstacle for me since I can not take a lens larger than a foot into the stadium without the proper Rays photo credentials, and I am still trying to get on “double-secret probation” with the Rays to even stand in the back of the room taking panoramic views during any type of team event. But that is also fine because I know I have a few mountains to cross and a few rivers to swim before I can say I even remotely “get it”.
 

 
RRCollections

And another reason I have come to trying and getting my own photos is the recent decisions by some of the photo agencies to offer limited “royalty-free” photos to people like me who write small “Mom & Pop” blogs posts and usually only want 2-3 photos to accent the piece, not bury it in a visual jungle. But those same “free” photos are not the kind I would post on my site anyways as they are more still action shots not even of the baseball nature. The sports shots I might desire are now considered “rights-managed” images, and being unemployed and a blogger who doesn’t submit to a site where I can gain income from advertising or even selling my printed products on Cafepress.com , my options are limited.


 
RRCollections
 

But this is not a rant on the tightening of the grip by the photo conglomerate so that even us little guys have to squeeze out some greenbacks to get great photos. There are still a vast majority of photos on websites or even local newspaper media Sports sections that we can still “right-click” with our computer mouse and save to our computer files. But I think that free practice might come to a quick halt soon as the general media is also aware of the royalties and the provisional monies lost by people taking their ” copyrighted” images and throwing them up as their own photos.
 

That is one of the reason I started to post “by-lines” under each photo a few years back to at least show that I am trying to give the proper credit where credit is due. No matter if it was “Joe Shmoe” on Flickr.com, or Associated Press photog Steve Nesius, I have tried to give them at least a form of photo credit acknowledgment over that span of games. And I truly think everyone should do the same online, but it all starts with one person doing it until someone else does it and soon enough you have a revolution heading in the right direction. I loved writing stories and taking pictures as far back as Junior High School and always wanted to work at a newspaper or magazine.
 

I am still not sure what disillusioned me when I was working as a Sport Correspondent and occasional Sports Copy Clerk at the now defunct Evening Independent afternoon paper in St. Petersburg, Florida back in the early 1980’s. To this day I am seeing an ex-Dixie Hollins graduate Rick Stroud still employed by the St. Petersburg Times and I wonder if I too could have stayed on the path any maybe be the one in the Rays Press Box ( not knocking current Rays beat writer Marc Topkin). But then again, I am a bit more relaxed and pressure-free considering I write what I want and there are no political battle line or subject limitations on my blogs posts. But still, I find it simply ironic that the National media journalists blast bloggers, but have the smug audacity of calling their own postings “blogs”.
 

 
RRCollections

But I am not going to digress into that segment right now but instead sit here at the bottom of Section 138 at the Trop. with a direct shot of the Batter’s Box and a clear view (but a wide angle) of the entire Tropicana Field playing surface to partake in seeing, shooting and hopefully capturing some exciting Rays moments in 2010. Evolving as a person and a more consistent writer was one of the main goals I set for myself personally on New Year’s Eve. I have begun that journey, plus added a new notch in trying to gain some photographic cubbyhole for myself. I will probably never be considered more than a closet sports photographer, but then I am also not trying to be a provocative modern day sports “Anne Lebowitz” either.

 

 
RRCollections

Maybe it is my next evolution as a fan too to make some awesome photos and treasure the games with a few odd or wild shots such as the entire Rays Bullpen wearing Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s black rimmed glasses, or the bad angled shots of fireworks going off within the confines of Tropicana Field. My photos submitted and posted on several photo storage sites along the Internet Superhighway will never have a place in the annuals of Sports Illustrated or even a moments notice in ESPN, the Magazine, But then again, it is not someone elses work I am not acknowledging here, it will be mine, all mine and if I pop it up online for the world to see you can bet the byline will read “RRCollections“.

 

Rays Pitching still has Question Marks

 
 
Www.TBO.com

The only thing right now keeping Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Wade Davis as a question mark entering the final weeks of the Spring is Davis himself. Davis could have made some movement towards silencing his critics, and possibly securing his fifth spot in the rotation with a good outing, but instead Davis stubbed his toes. And that lackluster outing has added fuel to the fire that Davis might not be with the Rays on April 6th for the Home Opener and might be headed down to Durham for a month or so to regroup.

 

And before his last outing, the idea of the Rays sending Davis down to stop his Major League service clock seemed to be the only logical reason to ship Davis back to the minors until at least the middle of May and sticking with Mr “Plug In”, Andy Sonnanstine on the Rays roster. The versatility of Sonnanstine right now might lay heavily on their upcoming fifth rotation decision as Sonnanstine could effectively switch from Bullpen or staring positions as needed until either Davis or J P Howell are again shown to be a positive move for the club.
 

And it was only last Spring that Davis also took himself out of the thought process for the battle for the Rays fifth spot in the rotation in 2009 with another similar bad outing at the wrong time. But this year, after a great late season campaign up starting games for the Rays, it seems that Davis had his future with the Rays in 2010 firmly in his pitching hands. And with Sonnanstine not flinching at all, but showing his resourceful nature and rebounding effectively from a bad 2009, it seems that the Rays could, should and might send Davis back for a month to push his service clock back a season.
 

And this move is totally reminiscent of the way the Rays pushed Third Base prospect Evan Longoria back to Durham in 2008 for a small period of time before Longoria was then brought up weeks later due to an injury to Willy Aybar. But with the Rays recent injury bug there is speculation that both could make the Rays roster without incident this Spring and push away the competition for the fifth spot. Which poses a few questions to me. If both starters make the roster, with one pitcher doing spot duty as a long reliever, will that reorganize the overall chemistry and roles of the Rays Bullpen, with the exceptions being closer Rafael Soriano and Dan Wheeler?
 

And if Sonnanstine is given the additional slot on the Rays 25-man roster, does that mean that Joaquin Benoit doesn’t have a realistic chance to make the Rays roster? There have been moments where Benoit has looked like his former Rangers heydays, and others where he has looked like he is still seeking the answers. But Benoit has done exactly what the Rays have asked of him, and is currently tied with several relievers in total game appearances this Spring, plus Benoit has looked extremely good over the last week. Could Benoit be peaking at the right moment to get in the mindset of the Rays Coaches as the clock winds down this Spring?
 

And with Howell out for at least a month, could fellow lefties Heath Phillips or even Carlos Hernandez get a chance again at the Major League level to occupy Howell’s spot in the Rays Bullpen, then bring about some major decisions by the Rays when Howell returns. Or could the Rays take their chances and try to sneak either pitcher through waivers and back to the minors upon Howell’s return?
 

Howell’s injury brings up the new thought of both Davis and Sonnanstine staying up with the big club, but could the move compromise the Rays Bullpen’s overall integrity a bit. With Sonnanstine joining the motley crew, could the move force former long reliever Lance Cormier into Howell’s old role on the short term, or do the Rays hope that Benoit can assume Howell’s role of facing hitters from both sides of the plate, and leave Cormier to mostly specialized rightie roles, or as a second possible long reliever?
 

 
Gail Burton/AP

But then there is another Bullpen question that some people have been mumbling about since late in 2009. Could Rays reliever Grant Balfour be a problem or could he be hiding something? Balfour has been decreasing his overall pitch velocity and looking pretty vulnerable to hitters over the last several months of 2009. Could he just of had a weak arm also towards the end of 2009 from his overuse in 2008 and 2009, or could he just have run out of tricks and the hitters are wise to him now? And again this Spring, Balfour has not had the best Spring again here in 2010 showing either he is a slow starter, or maybe the 2008 season’s magic might have finally left his fingers.

 

There are still many pitching questions left to be answered, but the Rays have said that a definite decision on their 2010 rotation will be coming soon. One highly probable suggestion is to flip-flop current the 3 and 4 starters Jeff Neimann and David Price to break up the right-handed heavy Rays front of the rotation. Something that was unique for the Rays in 2009 was their addition of the second leftie when Price finally joined the Rays mid-season rotation so the Rays could break up the righty-lefty batting order match-ups during every series, but with Scott Kazmir now gone, only David Price remains in the Rays rotation.

The move would effectively eliminate a lefty dominant line-up for an entire Rays opponent’s series, and break up any chance of another teams getting into a hitting rhythm against the Rays by possibly facing three right-handers in a row. Big decisions, hard decisions. But then again, that is why the Rays brass get paid the big money.

 

My personal hopes are that the team uses Benoit effectively in the Rays Bullpen to begin the season, with Sonnanstine as the fifth starter for about a month. That would give Benoit a chance to show he still has the stuff to compete at the Major League level. When Benoit is on the ball, he is simply magical on the mound. And this move could also effectively buy the Rays an added year of Davis’s services, plus give the team more time to showcase Sonnanstine’s talents if they decide they might want to seek a trade, or they could simply send Sonnanstine back to the minors as a insurance policy against further pitching injuries.
 

Whatever the Rays decide, the team has to effectively decide what the roles Rays player’s like Benoit, Cormier and leftie Randy Choate will perform before they can streamline their thought process and make an adequate and concise decision. This might be the final season the Rays have this much offensive firepower for awhile, so the team needs to make the right adjustments and the right moves to counter that offense with a great pitching staff and effective Bullpen in 2010.

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

Rays Manager Joe Maddon is famous for using the quote, ” Starting pitching sets the tone of the game.” If the team doesn’t find the right solutions to shore up their back-end of the rotation, it will just fester into a situation every 5 days for the Rays. Davis and Sonnastine have to provide that comfort and confidence level over the next few days for the Rays to begin their final decision process. But with a swift decision, it also sets up the Rays pitchers to get into a rhythm now, even before the season begins and adjust accordingly to their rotation slots.

The Rays had a few setbacks recently on their pitching front, with Howell going down this weekend and question marks still surrounding several Bullpen 2010 roles and abilities. But in the end, the Rays have to do what is right for the team to fulfill their quest to again play deep into October. With both sides of the ball clicking for the Rays, the sky could be the limit in 2010, but quickly even that scenario can falter if an injury bug decides to hit the team, or a starter falters early….but then again, that is why we play 162 games before crowning a Division Champion.

Looking Forward to the Rays 13th Season


RRCollections

There is going to be something special about the superstitious
number “13” and the Tampa Bay Rays this season. And surprisingly, there is not
just one instance where this number will come hugely into play this year,
but several occasions where “13” might just be the Rays lucky number. There are
a possible three instances where this superstitious number could bode heavily
into the Rays possible 2010 plans, and might also be instrumental in some of the
team’s future beyond 2010.

I have always liked this “strange”
combination of numbers, maybe more since it contains my two favorite numbers,
but the stark reality is that these two digits together will be constantly in
play over the next several weeks and might be right in the thick of it in
determining which direction this Rays team takes in the American East division.
I am  looking forward during the next three days to outline my scenarios
where “13” and the Rays will be side-by-side this Spring.

 

Considering the simple fact that the
2010 season will be the Rays 13th professional baseball season, and (
hopefully) one that will further define the direction of the franchise and
possibly make all the rest of Major League Baseball green with envy. Sure I
want to say I would cherish seeing Rays Manager Joe Maddon hoisting  a beautiful
golden trophy with all 30 MLB teams flags on it to the high heavens during a
cool, crisp October night.

This 2010 team has a viable chance to
cement the phrases “winning” and “Rays”  uttered in the same sentence within the
mindset of all baseball fans and media members around the country this year. The
always negative “devil” has now been exorcised for three seasons, and maybe this
is the year people finally forget that old name and the Rays can move from
underneath that negative persona and flourish like a shining ray of consistent
light.

 

The 13th season is going to be one
of the best in Rays history based entirely on talent in regards to their pitching
and field players. This is one of the first Spring Training in history where the
Rays have come into their Spring camp without a huge number of question marks
dotting multiple field positions and their starting rotation/Bullpen. For the
first time in Rays franchise history, Maddon can have the confidence to pencil
in five names, even before the first Spring Training game as his desired 2010
starting rotation. Even the remote thought process of penciling in a  Rays
rotation  has never been a realistic option so early into Spring Training for a
Rays Manager in the last 12 seasons. 

Sure
there could still be a huge question mark added as to the final decision on
the Rays fifth starter, but current fifth starter Wade Davis and possible option
Andy Sonnanstine both have minor league options still available for the Rays.
This might be another deja vu moment to 2009 when Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel
fought it out to the last moment to finally reign in that fifth rotation spot. 
But could the loser of this competition be a possible trade piece for the
Rays? But this ensuing competition will be great for both of them, and that
makes this 13th Rays season special.

 

And even if the biggest question mark hovering
the Rays field players might be where Ben Zobrist hop, skips and jumps within
the Rays line-up, or lines up on the field in 2010, you can bet there will be
more than capable players to take the vacant spot(s) left by Zobrist with
a vigor and vitality that has been missed during past Spring Training seasons.
And with Maddon stressing that his starting nine will get more chances to hit
during the Spring Training games this year, it can only be a positive sign of
better things to come for the team and better prepared hitting corps coming into
the Rays first game against Baltimore on April 6th in Tropicana
Field.

When was the last time there was even the possibility
of a handful of Rays players possibly formulating all the changes within this
team’s final seasonal make-up.
Sure there
is the fight brewing for the fifth rotation spot between Davis and Sonnanstine,
but the top four slots are pretty much set in stone even before their first
inter-squad workout. The biggest controversy with the starting rotation will
come out of this fifth spot, and maybe if Rays left-handed starter David Price
gets the number 3 rotation slot to break up the right-hand dominated Rays
rotation right down the middle and provides a different adjustment for teams in
2010.

And even in the Rays Bullpen, there are signs it might
be down to a total of one or two slots depending on the numbers of pitchers the
Rays want to carry going into the 2010 season.
It could come down to the Rays decision on relievers Dale Thayer,
Winston Abreu or maybe a healthy Joaquin Benoit to win one of the two last
slots. But Sonnanstine could also figure into this mix as a long
reliever/6th starter option sitting in the Bullpen. And who knows,
maybe someone else coming into the Rays camp from the minor leagues might blow
the doors off the Rays Coaching staff and wiggle their name into the
conversation. That is why they call this part of the year
“training”.

 

But this 13th season could also be
the breakout year for many of the Rays field players. We all know that
outfielder Matt Joyce was upset last Spring after starting the season on the
Major League roster to go back down to Triple-A Durham after Rays centerfielder
B J Upton came back after his shoulder surgery, but the whole experience also
gave Joyce ample time to play daily and develop more in the minors with an eye
towards regaining his rightfield slot for good this Spring.

Maddon and Triple-A Manger Charlie Montoya have both praising
Joyce’s 2009 development and his adherence to the Rays ” wish list” given to him
before he left for the minors. It might have been this forward stride in their
confidence in Joyce’s ability for the Rays not to pursue a left-handed
outfielder this off season and that Joyce made all the right moves and the
strides to be penciled-in  as a starter in the Rays
rightfield.

 

 


But then again, we get the “Zobrist” factor that
will come immediately into play here. With Zobrist not having a defined position
and a defined role right now in the Rays field positions, he might just be a
human pinball bouncing from infield to outfield  to start the season until some
sort of stability forms, hopefully not due to an injury. And with that, it makes
the competition between prospects Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac one of the
most interesting and closely watched Rays competitions coming into Spring
Training.

This fight is going to be for one of the coveted
“utility” player roles on the Rays along with Rays holdover Willy Aybar. But
with the possibilities of Aybar nursing a bad wrist through much of the Spring
Training schedule. It might be their ultimate chances this Spring to either fade
out or shine  and possibly make this Rays squad, even if Aybar would go on the
D L.
And right now, there is a distinct
possibility that until Aybar takes his first swings in the batting cages, that
both could possibly be penciled into the Rays roster.

But
if I had to point towards someone right now, it seems that Brignac might be the
guy right now to have the edge defensively because he can play all the infield
positions but first base. But the Rays are going to push and raise the bar
for Rodriguez by having him play every position around the diamond this Spring
to test his abilities and evaluate his readiness to be pushed towards the Major
League level.

 

And right now based on possible logistics, you
have to consider that second base will be mostly a transient position for either
of them since second base gives the Rays a instant option to get Zobrist in the
line-up if Joyce come out  this Spring hitting the cover off the ball. But isn’t
it great to know that 4 infielders could decide the formulation of the Rays
2010 roster to such a degree. And there is only one shoe-in at this time
(Zobrist) that could be guaranteed a roster spot while the other three fight it
out to what degrees they will ultimately play in the Rays 2010 plans.

 
 

Got to love that as a fan. You can finally take a
side, much like the “Vampire/Werewolf” teams formed by the “Twilight” movie
series. We could see possible “Team Joyce” or even “Team S-Rod” or Team Brig”
T-shirts don the stands around the Grapefruit League pushing each of them
farther  along in this realm of competition. And maybe I am the first to say it
out loud, but this infield competition will greatly effected on what
ultimately happens with Joyce and a possible Rightfield slot. This
13th Rays season is going to be fun-packed from the get-go, and we
will definitely see the strongest Rays squad to ever take the field when the
rosters are finalized around the time the Rays face their own affiliate
and Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls in Durham’s home stadium on April
3,2010.
 
 

How fitting that the Rays will be playing
their Triple-A affiliate in their last warm-up game before heading back to Tampa
Bay to get ready for the 2010 Major League Baseball season. How great is it that
the Durham fans might actually be the first to see the formative Rays
everyday line-up the team will field in 2010. But then again, how bad is it
going to be for one of these borderline Rays players to be told after the game
they might be remaining in Durham, and not have a plane ticket for the flight
back to Tampa Bay for the season.

I have a weird vision in my
mind that all of them will be donning the Rays home blue and whites for the Rays
Opening Night game against the Baltimore Orioles. For some reason I
see Rodriguez,Brignac, Sonnanstine and Joyce there and being introduced to the
sold-out crowd beaming with pride that they made the cut for the Rays 13th
season roster. But their Spring Training numbers and play will ultimately decide
their fate. Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. Right now there are 
plenty of other MLB squads that need to fear this 13th Rays season. For I view
it like the Hindu religion as a positive sign and not the negative influences of
the Rays past. “13” will play a major role in the formulation of this season’s
Rays roster, but the next example will have to wait for
tomorrow. 

 

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