Results tagged ‘ Jeremy Hellickson ’

Players and Fans Definitely Rocked the Trop at Fan Fest

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I saw a member of the Tampa Bay Rays front office while doing my usual trading card route a few days before that Saturday’s Rays Fan Fest. He seemed really excited about the anticipated fan to player ratio at the multiple events held throughout the day, and believe me, the Rays not only delivered, but a few of their players such as INF Sean Rodriguez and P Chris Archer seemed to be everywhere.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 099All day long I heard stories of players going above and beyond. We all have heard of Archer inviting a young fan up to the Autograph tales and behind the Rays blue curtain to meet a few of his Rays friends in the “Blue Room”. It was stuff like this, plus the added touch of players reading to young fans,  being open to fan’s questions and requests all day long that made a deep and lasting impression as to their investment in this region and this special fan base.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 073I did not hear a single story of a player turning down a fan, or refusing any request during this special Rays day that is a huge celebration of the season that is now upon us. Heck I think we all might even have gotten a glimpse at a possible Rays future draft pick as Toby Hall’s son stroked a HR out of the curtained off ballfield a few times from the left side of the plate.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 023I mean I even saw Rays P Jeff Niemann at one point basically depositing basketball over by the hoop carnival games like he was dropping a wad of paper into a wastebasket. And during all of this were a gaggle of screaming and excited kids, adults and a combination of the two relishing in this increased presence of the player this year. Over the past few years as the team has grown increasingly competitive some of the fold reverted a bit back into old habits of selective signings and photos with fans. On this day if they were able, photos were snapped and memories were imprinted forever thanks to their increased visibility.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 039Combine this breathe of fresh air from the Rays themselves with the over 25,000 fans who walked into the Rays Rotunda on Saturday, this region still craves baseball and made sure other in and around the MLB World knew there was a fan base in this community. Even with the huge turnout of fans to Tropicana Field for Fan Fest, it was overshadowed by the fact the team only drew over that 25,000 visitor threshold 17 times during the 2012 season.

Hopefully the recent blast in the media of supposed apathy and nonchalant attitudes towards the game have been erased at least until the regular season when the proof will be in the proverbial pudding if the fans will again flock to the Trop.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 041But this day was about the 2 lucky fans enshrined into the Rays/Pepsi Wall of Fame, the hundreds of scavenger hunters snapping pictures around the Trop in hopes of grabbing an Even Longoria signed bat for their collections. Everywhere you looked there were kids, parents and even long time fans walking, talking and making mostly positive comments about the days events. Baseball Hall of Fame member Peter Gammons visited Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s “Thanks-Mas” event prior to his own panel discussion making a few of those fans not only full of Maddon-induced food goodness, but also got to hear a baseball analyst’s take on the Rays and baseball.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 045Sure there were moments that made you scratch your noggin for a second like Rays INF/OF Shelley Duncan and Rodriguez as a pairing for the “Family Feud event. There were a few scattered “boo-birds” when Duncan was announced, but most have let the Spring incident of 2008 be finally put to rest. Still, it would have been interesting if Elliot Johnson was still here…pairing him with Duncan would have caught everyone’s ear. Still this season’s Fan Fest was amazing in the items up for sale in the Rays Garage Sale to the amount of MLBPA Alumni players participating in the Home Run Derby (won by O’s OF Mike Deveraux), to the huge table of past stars both of the Rays and other MLB vistas.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 095All in all the event might have been a bit reduced in total time we all spent within the confines of the tilted cap, but it was a day spent watching kids frolic in the batting cages, running the bases and getting a high-5 from Archer as they hit Home Plate. Matt Joyce also made a few more Rays fans as he stayed after his signing time was over and came to the side of the autograph stage and signed for a bit longer for fans who did not get a chance to get to him before his time was over.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 019Rays new Stud-du-Jour Wil Myers even made extra time for Rays fans who did not know him before his recent trade to the Rays and with Myers taking that extra moment, he sparked a few comments from people hoping he makes it to the MLB level some time in 2013. So now that the Rays Republic got a chance to see and meet a few of our new players to the Rays fold, and a few of the hungry and eager ones wanting a taste of the MLB life, it is now our time to show support for this team not only this Spring, but all the way until Game 162.

Rays Fan Fest 2013 002The Rays invest a lot of time and money in an event like this, and with 16 of them now in the books I can definitely say without any remorse that the 2013 edition definitely has set a new standard for future Rays Fan Fest’s. I made a tongue-in-cheek Tweet the other day about the whole Rays front office forming a Congo line today and each of them pat each other on the back for pulling off this grand event in style. I think it was Pepsi who sealed the emotions of the day as the Rays staff and players definitely “Rocked the Trop” on Saturday and I do not think anyone did not leave with a bit of Rays swag, autographs or maybe even a former players jersey tucked under their arm. The Trop definitely rocked a bit on Saturday, but I think we were all having too much fun to notice, which is a good thing.

Rays “Golden Arms” Were the Highlight of 2012

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As we begin our final countdown days towards the end of 2012, I want to take a moment to look back and remember both fondly and shudder at what was the Tampa Bay Rays 15th full season. This team showed us so much in their 180 day 2012 campaign both on the turf and off as this team bonded like never before where we all were witnessed to watch segments of their battle plan both explode and implode.

m3f5403-retouchIt was a season where human action figures named “Batman” (Wil Rhymes), “Godzilla” (Hidecki Matsui) and even “Wolverine” (Luke Scott) intertwined with “Zorilla” (Ben Zobrist), “HellBoy” (Jeremy Hellickson) and the “Archer” (Fernando Rodney). Even with such heroic character names, this team could not ultimately find a way into the October post season party, but their travel from game 1-162 was never boring, or devoid of heart and soul. We also got to see this team’s “nerdy”-side as team road trips again showed imagination and chemistry.

york-yankees-v-tampa-bay-20120702-193721-7552012 was also the season we saw a few players take their game to the next level with authority. B J Upton missed the coveted “30-30” spot by 2 HR, but in his failed attempt we finally saw glimmers of the potential we have always envisioned for him. Hellickson, fresh off his AL Rookie of the Year platform again garnered new hardware as he earned a special honor of garnering a co-ownership spot in the form of a glistening Gold Glove taking his pitching education to another dimension. We got to see the pitching promise that is Chris Archer, the resounding clarity that was Fernando Rodney brilliance, but also felt the pain and anguish of Rhymes as he collapsed into the arms of Rays First Base coach George Hendricks.

d2We all got to bear witness to one of those once-in-a-generation moments as Rays southpaw David Price and New York Mets knuckleballer R A Dickey both squared off in an early Inter League showdown on their journey towards their eventual Cy Young moments. Price in particular showed his stamina and determination throughout the 2012 campaign being one of the true linchpins of the Rays rotation providing the type of consistency and fortitude needed of your number 1 hurler.

In an ironic twist, the Rays home city of St. Petersburg, Florida somehow dropped the celebration ball with Price, possibly committing a ultimate publicity faux pas by getting “one-upped” by their “neighboring community” of Tampa presenting Price the key to the city with Astro, his trusty sidekick getting the opening cue on ESPN’s “Sportcenter” that evening. As is Price’s personality, he rolled with the moment possibly producing the best dog sound byte since Lassie’s first bark on television.

tumblr_m3fqj3gHF31qekndso3_12802012 was definitely a “Dog’s year” for the Rays as early on in the Spring they revealed their true love for the canine when players from the team teamed up with local no-kill animal shelter/clinic Pet Pals to produce a calendar that showcased the likes of RP Wade Davis’s German Shepherd pal Charlie, Evan Longoria’s “Spuds McKenzie” look-alike Bull Terrier Jango and Longo’s other canine condo bunk mate Boerboel Mastiff Tatum. We all even got to meet Maddon’s stoic English Bulldog furry friend Winston who like Astro has his own twitter account. Even behind the camera lens there was a Rays presence as James Shields wife Ryane did all of the shutterbug duties as the team embraced this community animal haven.

6985308645_09d3a46c7d_zalso saw bald again become beautiful as both Rays players, Coaches and even front office personnel let their curly and straight locks of hair fall to the wooden decks of the Charlotte Sports Park this Spring. From Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, Maddon to even Rays clubhouse staffers, all sat in the barber’s chairs to show community support and love for the “Cut for a Cause” campaign started by another fellow Tampa Bay sports icon, Tampa Bay Lightning star Vinny LeCavalier to bring about awareness to local pediatric cancer organizations and promote one of the Spring most heart-felt moments.

Even with all this animal love bounding through the Tampa Bay region, 2012 was also produced another stalemate check mark as the team and the surrounding communities wage verbal and visual battles trying to loosen the Rays lips and get some sort of loose translation sound byte of their own in the Rays quest to find their next home on either side of the bay.

carillon-new-rays-stadiumWith proposals surfacing that went as far East as the Florida Fairgrounds region, to a patch of dirt just off the Howard Franklin bridge in the Carrilon region, the entire community awaits with baited breath for some sign of the Rays want to stay or leave this community. Hopefully 2013 the silence will be broken and at least some parameters set into the community as to the Rays visions and dreams of a new state-of-the-art stadium hopefully somewhere in the Tampa Bay region.

Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta2012 started off with a few displays of fireworks with walk-off victories and the revelation that would become the foundation of the Rays Archery Club as we all bared witness to re-emergence of the shut-down abilities of Rodney who pushed post game arrows higher and farther with even his teammates watching as his quivers and stats reached levels not seen in the MLB for some time. Just watching Rodney pull back the imaginary string and release into the sky a Rays record 48 times was reason enough to be a Rays fan. 2012 was also filled with “Gladiator” moments as the team embraced the Roman warrior culture with some of it making its way onto television screen across America.

Evan LongoriaUnfortunately 2012 also revealed a few flaws in the Rays machine, especially after Longoria went down with a hamstring injury and the Rays began a roller coaster ride that did not straighten out until Longo again adorned a Rays uniform and returned to the lineup. Even with the Rays pitching staff producing incredible numbers in strikeouts, saves and ERA during 2012, the elimination of the Rays most potent weapon for such a long stretch showed their Achilles heel to all, and their opposition attacked the Rays at the core of their weakness with vengeance.

201208221343494136596-p2Even though Upton, Zobrist and even new Ray Jeff Keppinger tried to fill the void, their own production was muted by the struggles and slumps of Carlos Pena, Scott and the merry-go-round that was the Rays Third Base and Shortstop position for most of the season. The Rays once strong point of defense sprung leaks, showed faults and ultimately produced moments that reminded all of us of those pre-2008 Rays squads. 

It is hard to find a true title to the Rays 15th campaign. For all the highs and lows, the moments of exhilaration as we witnessed walk-offs and lost opportunities, nothing really stood out except the 5 souls who made up the Rays rotation.

Seattle Mariners v Tampa Bay RaysTheir arms truly becoming “golden” during the season as the team set an AL leading marks of 1,385 K’s , a incredible combined team ERA of 3.19, and saw Shields and Price eclipse the 200+ inning mark again. 2012 also saw mirror image inning production from young Rays Moore (177.1 innings pitched) and Hellickson (177.0 innings pitched) as they gained another strong year on the mound.

In the end, 2012 began and ended on the mound for the Rays. No matter what offensive highlight moment or defensive mis-step behind them, the Rays hurlers both starting and in relief set the tone this season and brought this team within a few victories of again hitting October moments. Their consistency, going deep into contests combined with stellar relief marks by everyone down in the Rays Bullpen gave us hope and want that the playoffs and October glory was still within our reach.

thYou can say 2012 was a lot of things from “Fortune Favoring the Bold”, to arrows piercing the night sky, but in the end it truly was the Rays “Golden Arms” who kept us spirited and showed us determination, heart and even a little hustle can produce moments to remember. As a homage to 2012, I am definitely tilting my cap to the right on New Years Eve as an homage to what was so fantastic about 2012.

Who Will Take a Chance on the Rays Roulette Wheel?

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The Tampa Bay Rays starting pitching situation is beginning to emulate the spinning of a casino Roulette wheel. Sure it is a gamble on both ends of this spectrum, but the Rays have the advantage here as the spinning of the wheel with any of their MLB or even minor league hurlers’ names anointed on the spinning circle could bring them rewards, financial stability or provide an end to a future problem scenario.

377261244And right now the Rays have more than a few suitors watching the spinning wheel wondering if their trade wagers either catch the Rays attention or if they only get a fleeting glance as the team takes in all of the MLB barters trying to find the one that brings the team the personnel windfall this franchise will need in 2013 or beyond to be competitive. As the dizzying wheel keeps gaining momentum and speed, you have to wonder if there are members of the MLB’s brass who will throw down the right coinage on the Rays felt and come away with a treasured piece, or go away empty-handed, wondering if they short-changed their opportunity to gain pitching riches.

I hate to tell everyone around the Rays Republic, but that always present fear of having a huge threshold of starting pitching talent and no where to put them is firmly on display on the Rays gaming table, but do not fret, just like Las Vegas, the Rays front office has the odds in their favor. Now is the time of the off season where we will truly see if anyone in the MLB is anxious to throw down a few much needed trinkets or prospects to entice a deal with the Rays and take a prized piece from the team;s staring pitching coffers.

201207151513547959658-p2This is the reality of the combined effort of the Rays over recent years of stockpiling such starting talent that one day the noise would be deafening as these hurlers begin to pound on and finally break through the Rays farm system ceiling on their journey to the major league level. Also at this time comes the stark realization and ramifications of the Rays current starters hitting their groove at the highest level and other MLB teams seeing that maturity and seeing their future potential rise even higher as their fiscal presence begins to put strain on the Rays fabric, almost to the point of breaking. 

I truly think we will see one, and possibly two pieces of the Rays starting staff traded before the end of July 2013 Trade deadline. This would be beneficial to the Rays by releasing some of that vented pressure both financially and physically so another cog of the Rays expanding pitching machine can take their place at the MLB level. But this current epidemic is this is not a 1-year situation in the release of a bit of this compounded pressure.

Over the next 3-4 seasons we could see an additional 2 or 3 more Rays starters possibly exhaled from the Rays balloon, finally bringing about a bit more room within the organization for the next generation of Rays pitchers to find their own grooves and one day be the focal points of another Rays purge as they block the way for another wave of Rays prospects on their trail of MLB glory possibly by 2017-2018.

GraybeardOn the expanded roulette wheel right now there are at least 3 current Rays names on the tips of MLB tongues that could find themselves wearing a different teams garb sooner than they realize. James Shields might be the guy everyone is pointing to right now, but Jeremy Hellickson and David Price also have to feel a bit of extra pressure and uncertainty as the financial reality comes over the horizon they are either too expensive to sign to extensions, or their management teams will be uber difficult to perform such an endeavor.

Shields right now is at his pitching zenith, possessing the tools and talent needed to push a team higher in the win column while also having at least 2 years of contract (Club options) stability. Hellickson, who has a rising resume that includes a 2011 AL Rookie of the Year award and a recent co-recipient of an AL Gold Glove is quickly approaching his arbitration years, and with an agent (Scott Boras) who detests team friendly contract extensions, Hellboy finds his own name on the lips of MLB suitors. But there is also a golden delight also on the table, but will cost someone dearly to wander into the gambling arena for his services. 

David PriceAfter winning the 2012 AL Cy Young Award, Price possibly sealed his fate with the Rays not based on the fact he will not sign an extension, but his proposed $9.5 million arbitration figure for 2013 already is pushing at the Rays top financial ceiling with another arbitration venture on the horizon following the 2013 season that could possibly push his 1-year salary towards a mark of $11 million plus. But he is the “golden Goose”, who will be pried from the Rays only for some of the best talent, possibly bringing in a unimaginable player bounty to further build upon the Rays player foundation.

Sure you could also include the “Silent Assassins”, also known as Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis into this scenario with no problems, but I think the Rays can use both of them in relief or even fill-in roles over the next 2 seasons, but their own futures might have some unscripted conclusions especially around the Trade Deadline as the Rays look to add or subtract bodies for a post season scramble. Seems odd that a team would even think of jettisoning pitching talent, especially talent of Shields, Price and Hellboy’s caliber, but sometimes it is just time to cut ties, find additional solutions, or just conclude the end is finally here for their Rays stay. 

Tampa Bay Rays v Milwaukee BrewersAs a betting man, I see Hellickson and Shields having the most MLB eyes gazing upon them at this moment, but just as easily if the right pieces get thrust into the eyesight of the Rays, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer or even Matt Moore could also find themselves armed with new contact numbers, plane tickets and be jettisoned towards another locale. That is the true reality here, even if these guys are paramount to the Rays rise in the coming MLB seasons, their Rays existence can never be completely balanced on the Rays always swaying teeter-todder as priorities change almost as quickly.

Rays starters name will be whispered and talked aloud by other MLB General Managers over the coming weeks with some extending offers, trade scenarios and possibly giving the Rays front office cause to pull the trigger and send one or possibly 2 starters away by the opening of the major league camp in February. As the Rays again begin another journey of that shiny steel ball into the wooden circular wheel the Rays are betting heavily on the fact a few MLB spenders with deep prospect and talent pockets will belly up to the Rays ever-spinning roulette wheel hoping to come away as winners.

Wonder which one of the Rays pitcher’s jersey numbers will have the highest stack of coins? 

Could Price’s Success Turn into a Rays Windfall?

This is the time of year when every baseball fan within the Tampa Bay region is anxious. This is the moment when every single fan has the air of an expert, with plots, sidebars and commentary on the team’s direction, points of attack and their own pick list of potential new jersey names to be sewn upon the Rays Carolina Blue unis.

This is that unscripted and unabridged segment of the MLB merry-go-round adventure where even the most popular and productive of names can find themselves not only trade whispers, but packing for new horizons and opportunities. With a mire tick of the off-season clock anyone currently residing on the Rays roster or farm system can not be totally at ease or comfortable because when the bell tolls for the MLB GM Meetings, it is a loud and clear signal that the first round of touchie-feelie wheeling and dealing conversations will commence and someone Rays tenure can be vaporized with a single late night ringtone.

Even someone like Rays ace David Price who has just been announced as 1 of the 3 choices for the 2012 American League Cy Young award, but Price could just as quickly find his name penciled in on a deal worksheet or scribbled on a team’s “wish list”. This is not to say Price is going anywhere, but if the perfect deal with the right talent that could right the Rays sinking offensive ship were to materialize…. Rays Executive VP of Baseball Ops Andrew Friedman might ponder it……for a moment.

Most would think it insane to even talk about Price going anywhere with his successes piling up during the last 4-odd seasons, but sometimes a player, even someone with mega-talent and rising potential can make another team so hungry to hitch their wagon to a player’s rising star they overpay and bring a bevy of goodness to someone anxiously wanting offense like the Rays.

Another odd factoid to remember is that Price has a limited and quickly evaporating fiscal shelf life as a Ray with his second arbitration salary a “gues-timate of around $ 7.5 million for 2013 which would escalate Price into the thin stratosphere of salaries for a player in his second walk down the arbitration process. That would put Price in the second slot in regards to salary only beaten by his fellow co-Ace James Shields who will bank $10.25 million for throwing the rock.

Immediately it comes to your mind the Rays would be insane to even consider trading one of their most popular and productive mainstays, but the MLB is a business and if someone is willing to part with an astronomical package…no one, not even Price is safe from at least a sitdown discussion. And we know all to well that the rest of his MLB peers have mad respect for the Rays southpaw bestowing upon Price the 2012 Player’s Choice award as the American Leagues “Outstanding Pitcher”. And these pieces of hardware that Price is amassing yearly only bring the cruel reality into the sunlight that one day Price will unfortunately price himself out of the Rays fold.

Price is only hitting the second of his 4 trips through the arbitration process and could command a salary above Shield’s $10.25 contract as early as the Spring of 2014 if he keeps moving onward and upwards fulfilling his potential. It’s a pity because Price has a chance to evolve into one of the greats, but this will not be realized wearing the Rays sunburst across his chest. Price’s Rays clock is ticking louder and louder every off-season towards the alarm finally chiming it is time for change.

I’m not forecasting, predicting or even remotely pondering Price’s departure, but the stark and undeniable truth is soon Price even with all his community upside and personality will make a trade decision a fiscal necessity. Maybe I’m being a bit too prudent, too calculated that possibly the Rays could turn Price now while his value is through the Trop’s Teflon roof and gain a top infield prospect, a few near the MLB caliber players that could fortify this Rays roster for the next 5 years with more offense, or maybe even a proven Bullpen arm to join forces with Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta to form a tight 1-2-3 late inning punch.

Some times hard decision have to be mentioned, breached and put out into the open air even if they may be considered unwarranted or mis-guided by their timing. Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and even Wade Davis will have their names thrown out into the wind this Winter as trade pieces, trade considerations or even sent packing for financial or offensive relief.

Bringing up Price’s name here brings out the reality of the off-season that no one, not even Matt Moore who has a team friendly contract can be considered “off limits” or beyond trade rumors and whispers. Price is probably completely safe right now in the eyes of Friedman and the Rays front office. But you have to wonder, when a player is at their highest career point with them teetering on the cusp of maximum possible return on value, can you ignore the sanity of the situation.

I do not envy Friedman’s job because I would hate to be remembered as the guy who traded Price, even if it did make sense.   

Are Rays Hitting Their Stride for the Final 50?

All season long some of us have been waiting for this kind of production. Since the days before Tampa Bay Rays 3B Evan Longoria grabbed the back of his leg, the Rays Republic have been awaiting this kind of warfare. From singles to massive Home Runs, the Rays again have found their focus, their offense that combined with their pitching cohesiveness to brings about solid and warranted victories.

8 out of their last 13 road battle have seen either Fernando Rodney chuck a arrow into the sky, or provided the optimal moment for this team to celebrate mid-infield with high-5′s and handshakes galore. This is what happens when a team finally get back a fallen comrade and gets their sights set throughly for the final 50 game grind. That’s right, 50 games left in the Rays 2012 regular season, with a hope that October dreams come true.

From this squad getting their bellies full with “meatloafing” (winning 2 out of 3) series wins to finally finding that home remedy to evoke victories, this team has positioned itself going into today’s contest just 1 game out of the top spot for a American League Wild Card slot, and is within fighting range of the whole enchilada of another possible AL East banner being raised come April 2013. Tell me any of us felt that way as bombs burst in night air on July 4th while this team struggled to find cohesion and consistency.

Finally the Maddon mantra has again proven true as “Fortune Favors the Bold (or Bald)” as this team has stood tall in the face of injuries, potential trade chatter and unimaginable defensive blunders and gaffs to be in the right spot at the right time for a solid and concerted effort to topple their AL east rivals. Sitting currently with a 44 % chance of playoff champagne, this team has to continue to get their meaty goodness both at home and on the road mixed in with a few extra wins to bolster their post- season chances.

Right now the Rays are toe-to-toe with Oakland, Detroit, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Angels for a solid chance to walk into their third consecutive playoff spot, and fourth in 5 seasons. But it all begins now. 50 games, 50 chances to pull closer or fall to the back of the pack. Of those 50 contests, 29 of these contests will come against divisional leaders or Wild Card hopefuls. Plus in this 50 game hunt for October bliss, the Rays will play only 6 more games against the Yankees and 6 against the pesky Orioles. Of their final 50, the Rays will suit up against their AL East rivals in only half (25) of those contests.

Definitely the Rays might want to also channel a former Maddon Mantra from 2011 of “Finding Another Way” as they will have to garner additional victories against the likes of Seattle, Kansas City along with a slate of 16 contests against the unpredictable American League West foes.

The key to the Rays future seems to lie not only in their divisional slanted schedule in September, but in their rivalries against the West Coast opponents. Throw in 7 contests against the AL Central and you get the idea the Rays final AL East tallies might hold the key components to the Rays post-season recipe, but the rest of the American League could poison the “meaty” goodness with a few well-placed wins against the Rays.

6 games currently separate the Rays and Yankees with Baltimore still hanging on like that poster kitten, but destined to fall before the leaves turn colors. With the days of September coming closer the Rays engine is currently purring on all 8 cylinders and looking stronger every game. But it will only take a small back-step, a slip or even another key injury setback to again put haste and anxious thoughts into everyone’s noggin.

Winning series, posting up impressive game stats is only part of the equation. In the end, possibly the Rays will have to win at least 37 of these final 50 games to again shower the Trop’s fans with champagne and not have to re-visit another Game 162 moment or heartbreak.

30 Minutes to Reflect, then Onto the Second Half

By the time I end up posting this on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays will either be celebrating their gutsy performance over the first half, or spending 30 minutes before thoughts turn to the second half, and the chase for another spot on the post season dance card. Expectation were sky-high in April, reality and gravity brought the surreal excitement to a halt with unforeseen injuries and players beginning a Conga line into and out of Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield’s humble office. Even with a victory today in Cleveland, this 2012 Rays squad will have posted the worst record of any Rays team since their re-incarnation in November 2007 by dropping the “Devil”.

From the hamstring drama of Evan Longoria, the fainting spell that possessed Will Rhymes, to the bats that turned to sawdust, the first half of 2012 has been a test of patience, determination and faith both in the dugout and among the stands. True fans have seen this before, but it was pre-2008 when the Rays Republic had to hold their breath as long, and pray to anything and anyone for a simple single victory during some of their awful losing bouts so far this season. Do not fret little Rays campers, for the 2012 edition of Rays complete with their patchwork quilt of fielders and hodge podge of Mendoza Line hitters might not be the defensive unit of 2011, but they have the courage, confidence and vital constitution that was forged in 2008 and is still rock hard today.

That might be the Rays saving grace with their line-up changing as much as the flight board in Chicago O’Hare Airport with rehab delays, hitting slumps for the ages and a defense that looks more like a piece of Swiss Cheese. Even with all these intangibles working against them, the Rays will end the day with an identical 44-41 record as the Cleveland Indians. But hidden just out of view is the travel this team has taken lately that took them from the 4th slot in the American League East standings, to possibly the second spot by nightfall. Even with all the toils and troubles on the field, this team still is in prime choice position heading into their home-stand on Friday to make an early run at solidifying their silver medal position.

When Longoria went down, this team did not fret, did not pout. Instead they called upon new additions to the Rays fight card from Brandon Allen, Drew Sutton, Rick Thompson and finally Brooks Conrad trying to piece together a consistent order both on the field and in the batters’ box. Some pieces of this amended puzzle proved moot, and have been cut away from this team either for good, or onto the Triple-A Durham Bulls roster. Farmhands Stephen Vogt and Chris Gimenez tried to show down home production, but both faltered and again found themselves again staring at the Green Monster in Durham wondering “what if”.

Hitting has been the throne in the Rays side for most of this season as the team will enter today’s contest with a Team Batting Average of .232, which is the lowest average at this point in a season , but then again the 2011 squad entered the All Star break with a .245 average last season and went onto a post season Wild Card bid. And their last 13 games has been especially cruel to the Rays as they have been held to 4 runs or less in 11 of those games, and have hit only .193 with RISP. But hope is shining on the Rays lately as Luke Scott shrugged off his hitting slump demon with two powerful blasts in C-town, and has looked more relaxed and selective in his appearances.

That is a good thing as the Rays Designated Hitter position has looked more like the 9th slot in an National League line-up than an AL powerhouse slot. Scott and Hideki Matsui have not been able to capitalize and make opponents pitchers pay for their mistakes, which is vital for this position. Sure the Rays have been Hit by a Pitch more than anyone else in the AL (36 times), but going into today contest, the Rays are tied with Baltimore for the most K’s (679) in the American League. Possibly with Scott again finding a groove he likes, the Rays DH spot again can bring some amount of fear and power heading into the final months of the season.

Defense has been so bad early on for the Rays they currently have 71 errors with a few innings to play in today’s contest. To put this into perspective, the Rays have had 19 multi error games including today’s game and seen 22 flaws coming out of Longo-land (3B), 14 out of the 6-slot, and 11 from the pivot (2B). For this team to again climb back into the Wild Card race and have any shot of catching division leading New York Yankees, this team has to hone their throwing and again look like a impervious defensive stalwart. This is not to say this team has to be flawless, but they need to be calculated mistakes that can be erased possibly with double plays or sneaky pick-off moves, not be free run scoring opportunities for their opposition.

One part of the Rays equation though has been up to the challenge and has consistently shown they have the field players backs, even if the bats did not respond in kind. The Rays Team ERA of 3.72 (3rd best mark in club history at the break) combined with a club record 676 strikeout heading into the All Star break has been the foundation for many of the Rays 1st half victories. David Price shared the best record in the AL (11-4) and combined with Rays greybeard James Shields, they have sent 214 hitters back to the dugout via the K so far this season. Matt Moore has found his rhythm again, Hellboy is ready to wreck havoc and Cobb is primed to prove he belongs here even after SP Jeff Niemann heals.

We saw another piece of the Rays pitching future come into the spotlight and perform as Rays prospect Chris Archer became the first non-Rays raised farmhand to take the hill as a starter in the long, long time. Archer showed just how valuable he will be for this team in the coming seasons, and Alex Cobb only cemented his reputation not only at this level, but as a solid MLB pitcher.

Expectation were high in April, but even with this fall from grace the last few months, the Rays are in prime real estate to again fight to the last game for another chance to play into October. Even with all the Rays perils, they are only a few well placed wins away from the top Wild Card slot, and with the momentum of their recent win in their old nemesis Cleveland, the Rays should be pumped to against strap on the uniforms this Friday when rival Boston invade the Trop.

I’m going to take a page from Rays Manager Joe Maddon mantra book and forget this first half in 30 minutes as soon as the Rays exit the turf at Progressive field and become excited and enamored with the second half and all its possibilities. This Rays team is one that is built for the long haul. With Longoria set to possibly still be out to mid to late August, and Matt Joyce possibly missing the 10-game home stand to start the second half, again faith, a slice of good luck and possibly a few bats finding the ball could help this team until their offensive brethren again don the Rays sunburst.

30 minutes has since elapsed since my first written word, time to forget the first half and stand ready, willing and able to help this team push a few squads out of their way in the second half of the season….or die trying.

 

Is Pine Tar a Demon or an Equalizer?

It’s in every bag in the big leagues. We have it everywhere. If you get rid of it, there are going to be hitters getting plucked left and right. When you have adverse weather games, extremely hot, cold, windy humidity;s crazy, sometimes as a pitcher you can’t feel the ball, that’s no good for the guy (at bat).                      – former Tampa Bay Rays Pitching Coach Chuck Hernandez

I’m being to feel that pine tar is a lot more prevalent and in wide-spread use than any of us can imagine. One of the most important assets to a pitcher no matter if he is a starter or a reliever is feeling a consistent and constant grip on the baseball. There have been no reports or experiments conducted to see if pine tar does give you an extra inch of drop, velocity or even control, but even if it is all in the pitcher’s mind only that he has more consistency because of it, isn’t that a good thing for the game. 

Makes sense that pitcher’s might dabble and spot a few dots of pine tar on their mitts during rain, sleet or snow, and humid and hot temperature do produce more sweat and moisture that could effect not only the grip, but final destination of every pitch. Seems like pine tar ( to me) might have a few helpful benefits to keep batters upright and safer at the plate. Former Rays TV Announcer and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joe Mcgrane said he has used pine tar before for it’s gripping properties while current Rays TV Announcer and former Rays/ Indians pitcher Brian Anderson says he never touched the stuff.

I remember more than once pitchers reaching into the Rays Bullpen bag for a green leather sleeve with a darkened element on it, but I never associated it with pine tar. Even though there has never been an adequate test or study to show if pine tar or a substance of that nature effects the flight of the ball, it seems more viable and controllable than other elements that can be applied to a baseball and masked without the darkened spots. In earlier baseball history Vaseline and saliva were commonplace, but I wonder if things like suntan lotion. Extra hair gel or possibly even leaving shampoo or conditioner in your hair pre-game could bring about the same results. 

In the same article Hernandez tells of the plight of former Detroit Tiger starter Kenny Rogers and his unfortunate pine tar incident that played out during the 2006 World Series when Rogers had some pine tar on his hands when he took the hill. Hernandez stated the aging hurler did not use the element to produce more sink or doctor the ball, he used it so he could get a better grip on the ball and not lose control of his pitches. 

In this case, rival Manger Tony La Russa handled it a bit more classier than Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson did recently. La Russa sent a message through the grapevine (Third Base Coach?) Telling Rogers to clean it up, clean it off. It was never made into the huge issue and polarizing issue it has in this recent Rays and Nationals series. Hernandez made a valid point that since they (Cardinals) beat the (Tigers) the issue was swept away without blossoming into a full blown incident.

You have to think MLB Home Plate Umpires reject a few baseball every game that might have hints or flashes of a substance, but do not call attention to it as pitchers “clean up” their act before it gets overly noticed or goes to extremes. I can tell you I’m going to be a bit more curious when an Umpire rejects a ball from now on as possibly having more than scrape mark or a darkened bat mark on the ball. 

I’m not looking to re-write MLB Rule 8.02, but Peralta did not touch the ball to his glove with the pine tar applied to it, the substance was within the finger area of the glove, thus not in direct contact with the ball. Still it was a violation, and a punishment Peralta might just be in the mood to appeal the punishment, possibly being a last thorn in the side of Nat’s Manager Johnson in this last game of the Rays and Nat’s InterLeague dance.  Wonder if Peralta heads to the mound tonight if the “boo-birds” will become a bit louder and crazier?

Maybe it is time for the hierarchy of Major League Baseball to dig a bit deeper into this situation, possibly poll current MLB roster pitchers with full immunity to discuss the issue and possibly find a viable solution everyone can not only live with, but promote safe usage and rules governing it’s application especially in adverse weather conditions. Just because MLB Umpires know it might be used by pitchers doesn’t mean they “look the other way”, it might not be as prevalent in everyday pitching situations thus a blind eye is given on occasion. 

I guess the use of pine tar will be one of those burning issues for a while some consider it in baseball’s “gray area”, and other see it as blatant cheating or dismissal of the rules of the game. No matter what your opinion, maybe this last statement by Hernandez might open a few eyes that maybe pine tar has an application in the game, but within set limitations or application.

I don’t see anything in pine tar that creates an unfair advantage for a pitcher. You make a big deal of it, and all of a sudden guys are going to start, as we call it in the business, pitching naked. More balls would get away from pitchers, and now you’re going to be fighting. We’re going to have more beanball brawls than ever.” 

Don’t know about you, but I hated getting pelted with a 90+ MPH pitch somewhere on my body while trying to hit that small white sphere. Plus I usually did apply a bit of pine tar to my bat…for a better grip.

 

 

Rays Need to Wipe the Tarnish Off Their “Golden Arms”

Coming into the 2012 Major League Baseball season I do not think there was anyone connected with the game who had any major concerns about the Tampa Bay Rays starting pitching or their overhauled Bullpen. Most proclaimed them to be a pitching staff that was a year older, but considerably wiser beyond their years. From the only over 30 member of the starting rotation James Shields to rookie Matt Moore, the Rays were definitely a young staff to be wary of this season.

But how reality can change. How quickly things can go sideways, produce holes and show the Rays have a few situations, and not all of them have immediate solutions. Things looked up quickly for the Rays “Golden Arms” after sweeping the 2011 American League East champs, the New York Yankees at home. Quickly people were singing the praises of this young bunch of hurlers who seemed to have the midas touch, the “Golden Arms” moniker seem appropriate. Even after a hiccup of only winning one of three against the favored Detroit Tigers, the Rays seemed destine to head into the land of the Lobster and chowder with confidence and a chance.

Suddenly over a 3-game spread the Rays starters looked vulnerable, giving up extra base smashes that usually find a glove, or produce outs. Even though pitches were being placed perfectly in their quadrants, bats met ball almost like they knew it was going to be delivered there, without much sweat or guessing. Instantly eyes and fingers began to watch these Red Sox for clues or suggestions of a more clandestine reasoning for the Rays sudden fall from pitching grace. In an instant the once mystical Rays seemed bewildered and confused as speculation ran rampant that their secret formula had been deciphered and pilfered producing 3 straight dizzying losses to their divisional rival Boston.

The Rays seemed plagued by an aspiration more towards mediocrity than their acclaimed meteoric prediction. In a flash the Rays tumbled from the grace of promise to fall 0-3 and closer to the .500 mark before their ace, James Shields delivered them from the folly of losing all 4 contests to these Bostonians. Some say the difference was a change of habit, a visual game of hide and go seek where Rays catcher Jose Molina would do his best impression of hiding the corner and seeking the calls on the outside corners. Even if the strike zone did gain a few inches, it went both ways, but it did give Shields and the Rays a fighting chance.

You want to dissect the Rays starting staff and look for a fundamental reasoning for the Boston meltdown, but you will not find it. Tongues wagged that Moore was tipping off his pitches, but the same game outcome and hit barrage beset veteran hurler David Price and 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. How could a staff that stifled the Yankees less than a week before suddenly fall flat against a divisional rival they had winning history against in their ballpark. It is not like the Rays came into Boston complacent or sporting a superior record, somewhere the dike developed a leak and not until Shields hit the hill did it get plugged with success.

Some might contribute this strange quandary to the fact of a plethora of afternoon contests on this road trip, but that is the easy answer. The hard answer is this young staff is still maturing at times and can be vulnerable. The real answer is Hellickson and Moore have the abilities to shut down any American League offense, but if their control ticks even an inch off the plate, the Home Plate Umpire might not give that extra inch. That comes with experience and knowing which Umpire might be open to balls skipping the corners and who runs a tight strike zone. Worst thing is on any given night that variable could change without warning or hint.

We all know already if Shields and Price have the motors revving and are on point, only they can cost themselves a victory. Worst thing that could happen to the Rays is one of these two going down, or experiencing even a short span of wildness or ability to sit guys down via the outside corner called third strike. There is a gap between the experience levels of these two and the duo of Hellboy and M&M. Not even sure the tallest member of the silent assassins, Jeff Niemann can put himself into that middle ground at times. Even though the 6’9” Niemann can show the skills of an ace during his streaks, when he is off his game, weird things happen. You might consider Niemann a liability compared to the other 4 starters on this team, but when he is in his groove and popping balls into the strike zone, he looks more like a #3 starter than the back end option at #5.

The Rays starters just have to wipe the tarnish off their “Golden Arms” and again show the wealth and worth of their abilities to get the Rays close games that their offense can overcome and post wins. The Boston series was a debacle by any sense of the word, but this Toronto series might be the true test for the Rays starters. If they can harness themselves and post a winning edge in this first series in Canada, it could be a great launching pad into their home stand and again having people feel “golden” about this starting staff.

Did the Red Sox Signal Corps Find Success?

They’re just really hot right now,” Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times after Thursday afternoon’s 3rd loss in a row to the Boston Red Sox. “It’s almost like they knew what’s coming almost. They’re on every pitch. They’re on the fastball. They’re on the breaking ball. They’re on the change-up. They’re on everything right now. They’re really locked in.

Doesn’t take a baseball genius to decipher a little bit of hidden meaning in Maddon’s comments. But maybe Maddon is on to something. Sure stealing signs has been around since the invention of the game and unless you use a video tape system or other technology that can give you in-game information, Major League Baseball will turn it’s eye away from the situation. If you have every notice during Rays game, one of the Rays starters, and usually Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi will both keep an accurate account of the game stats, type of pitches and their results for future analysis.

This can be used in the future for predictions, but is not plausible for in-game use. Some thought the Rays pitching staff might be showing “tells” or tipping off their pitches during the Boston series. Seems a bit far-fetched when you consider the Rays sent hurlers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and rookie Matt Moore to the hill in the first 3 contests, and they did not seem to exhibit any visual “tells” in the delivery, arm slot release or facial movements. There are 3 valid reasons the Red Sox might have gotten the upper hand on the Rays this series.

First off, Red Sox Manager Bobby Valentine is an astute student of the game who also caught for many years and knows the art of trying to both conceals and transmit false signals to prevent the stealing of signs. A smart Manager would have someone down near the back-end of the dugout watching in at the catcher, possibly seeing similarities, constant familiar movements or even a flash of a painted nail to signal the true intended pitch.

Just as quickly that player could tip his cap, stand up, clap his hands or do any number of audio or visual patterns to signify a certain pitch being thrown to the plate. This is not an illegal activity, but does seem to hide within the large gray area of the unwritten rules of baseball.

A great second indicator that the Boston brood might be fishing for signals is the fact the Red Sox brought in former Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach to be their primary backstop this season. Do not forget, it was this same Red Sox organization that gave @ShopHouse10 his first decent chance and taste of MLB life as a Red Sox prospect. Got to think the Red Sox have grilled and formulated a game plan in advance with information on pitching patterns and possible signal combinations so to get a bit of an edge against this young and talented staff.

This is also not illegal, and is a rather commonplace occurrence after a player leaves one team and joins another. But a catcher knows all the nuances and particulars of a team’s signal calling process. Even if the Rays changed their system this Spring, there is still leftover signals, patterns and small tell-tale signs that could trigger an all out discovery or disclosure of a team’s battery signals.

Still, Boston could have done their business the hard way and just watched game film from this Spring as these 2 squads played each other 3 times with the Red Sox coming away with wins in all 3 contests. Valentine could have had his off-the field staff tear down game tapes looking for patterns, “tells” or even a system that developed out of the constant movements of the Rays catchers this Spring and possibly into late 2011. He could have done it by dissecting the Rays Spring patterns, taking a slice of Shoppach’s past knowledge and sprinkled in a bit of his long history both as a spectator and catcher in the MLB.

Or maybe it is just as simple as Valentine figured out the Rays common “indicator” signal that all 3 of the Rays catchers from Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton to Chris Gimenez might have used when a player was on base. The “indicator” is usually one or two patterned finger or body movements made to try to throw off someone stealing signals, but if discovered, or if the pattern is somehow revealed throughout a contest, it can be a green light to the First and Third Base Coaches to alert hitters to what might be coming.

Even a calculated and synchronized system of random catcher movements and finger motions can be dissected within the scope of the game, possibly making the catcher the one giving up a “tell”. Even though it is illegal to videotape the concentrated area of the catcher for possible signal interception, the Centerfield camera always gives a perfect view into the heart of the plate, and signals can be deciphered quickly.

In the end it is a part of the game until you have hard concrete proof to the contrary. Considering Valentine and Shoppach could have brainstormed before the series began and when the indicators might have been discovered, the rest came fast and furious. But you want to think it was just an offense coming alive and no ulterior actions that hindered the Rays pitching staff this series.

But a clear indicator that possibly the system was compromised came to light today as starter James Shields held the Red Sox to a 4-hit shutout to break not only the Rays losing streak, but possibly the tale of the stealing signs. No matter if the Rays got duped by Boston this series and they did figure out the patterns and signals, it just goes to show you that not all information can be tied to a computer, a spreadsheet or even a video. Sometimes the human eye can figure out the game just as quickly and turn it into an advantage. I hope no signs were stolen, but who would fess up if it was true?

 

Time For The Rays To Act Like Contenders, Not Morgue Meat

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. Guess that is the only way to describe the scene that played out in front of me and the rest of the Nation after the fifth inning today. There is no other team that I hate seeing the Tampa Bay Rays lose to than this Boston bunch. And losing 2 out of the first 2 to begin the 2012 seasonal series, that just makes my stomach turn, burn and totally feeling like imploding.

I am not going to call anyone out for this loss because it has been 30 minutes and I am suppose to focus on the next day’s game now, but there is still some residue on my shoes and it doesn’t smell like roses. I tried to drum up the confidence game yesterday in my post by stating we have these types of losses during a long 162-game season, but against a divisional foe, the loss hurts double in my heart and in the standings. Worst part of it all is that this game seemed well in hand, then the mighty hand of something purely evil and nasty plucked the stingers off the Rays one-by-one until it seems our eyes glazed over from disbelief.

These types of losing streaks can be endured, but not when it gives glee and happiness to fan base that truly wishes and prays that the Rays choke on their pride and emphatically drown in their own tears. The scene on the Fenway grass today after the 5th inning seemed more likely to be one played out on a sappy medical drama where the patient comes into the facility in perfect health, has a great prognosis then somehow a severed jugular burst forward and instantly we were in a life or death struggle with no angels in the wings to pluck us from the obvious. The Rays right now look more like morgue meat than contenders, and that has to change…stat!

I so want that last sentence to be untrue, but there are fragments and obscure pieces missing that would make this whole enchilada complete. Some members of the pitching staff seem so at ease and “ in the flow”, while others seem to be going through the proverbial motions and not delivering up quality or quantity yet this season. It is frustrating when you have seen and felt the possibilities of this 2012 Rays team, then they stumble, fumble and look more like a pre-2007 Rays squad.

But here is where we do our work as fans. It is our job right now to keep the faith, push our chests out and take the insults and sharp criticism of this team’s downward turns and stand firm, stand erect, and above all stand united. For if even one of us falters in our belief and hope for this team, the dam could spring a leak and that will lead to a river of deplorable chaos and false propaganda with a Bulls Eye painted on each member of this team.

As the Rays unite as a team, solid in their goals, commitment and belief in themselves as individuals and a collective team, we must also stay the course, throw up the encouraging even in the face of the disenchanting truth. It is time to either bail out the boat and know survival is in sight or look in the distance for the school of media sharks awaiting any wobble or bob from this team and their potential.

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