Results tagged ‘ Jim Hickey ’

Niemann is my early AL Rookie of the Year Candidate

 


Jim Presching / AP

The deeper this Tampa Bay Rays season goes,the more the “Tall Texan” seems to grow on you. When you see how easy it is to call out Rays starter Jeff Niemann and he causally just comes over and chats with you while he continues signing a multitude of autographs for what seems like forever, and  he still has that smile on his face the entire time. And you see a small level of discomfort and bummed out look when he has to turn and head into the clubhouse with people still calling his name.
 

He is one of those reason the Rays are within striking range of the New York Yankees right now to again try and regain their spot at the top of the American League East division. And here is a guy who at the very end of Spring Training had to fight tooth and nail for a final spot on the roster that in prior years he might have had by mid-March. But since the 2008 success, a lot has changed in Rays-ville, and the “gentle Giant” is one of the great stories of this season.

I mean he truly did not know until almost the last possible day that he would regain the fifth rotation spot until his competition got traded away to the Colorado Rockies. But all during that time there was chatter and rumors that he too was under the trading microscope maybe heading to San Diego, Colorado, or maybe Pittsburgh. The competition for that final spot was so intense this season that even a guy who might have made the rotation on 20 other teams might of had to find alternative solutions to stay in the major leagues.

And how great do you feel right now if you are in the triad of Rays Manager Joe Maddon, Pitching Coach Jim Hickey and Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman right now that you kept the Tall Texan. Sure you might have labored over the decision and might even have second guessed yourself after the first start or two, but quickly you also saw a small glimmer of hope and beauty in the way Neimann was taking the ball every fifth day and making magic happen on the mound.

I mean take the fact he had a 2-1 record with a 6.32 ERA in Spring Training this season and it might look like a feasible reason to consider him for the last spot in the rotation. But if you really look close at his statistics, he was in a five-way tie on the team in wins,  his 6.32 ERA in the spring was better than the Rays Opening Day starter, Jame Shields who had a 8.16 ERA.  Unlike Jason Hammel, Neimann did not start a single game this Spring, but did get into 6 contests and still made enough impression to get two wins.  But his 15.2 innings of work was the fifth best on the team, and his 17 total his given up this spring were better than Matt Garza (26), Shields (19), Scott Kazmir (22) and Hammel (25).


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From the edge of Spring Training, he knew he had everything to prove, plus everything to lose in the coming months for the Rays. He had to have his stats put next to Hammel and David Price for comparison, and in the end might have gotten the job by proxy to the shagrin of some in the franchise office. But I do not see it that way at all. Neimann had struggled in the past with injuries, and in 2008 he had his best season as a professional because his health did not let him down at all that year. So this season was going to be a test of not only his health, but his pitching ability.

But the best part was this was not his first time up in the major leagues thanks to a short stint after Garza went down right after Opening Day in 2008, Neimann got some needed experience and struggled and also showed some great improvement to stay on the minds of the team the entire year. So it was no surprise that he was one of the possible pitchers brought up by the team after the Durham Bulls were eliminated from the IL Playoff picture in 2008.  The man a few people have commented on could be the twin brother of Toys R Us icon Geoffrey (Giraffe) was to get more of a chance to show his stuff in 2009.

And his first start this season at Baltimore showed that he still had a ways to go to be an effective pitcher, or did he just go into the game maybe a little over prepared and actually took himself out of that game by trying to think of adjustments on the fly without a good thought process in his mind. After his first start he had a balloon ERA of 10.13. He had only lasted 5.1 innings and had thrown 94 pitches in that game. The one shining light out of that performance was the he settled down after that disastrous first inning and blanked the Orioles until he left the ballgame.

But from that start he gained a lot of experience, and gained even more of an insight of what it was going to take to be a great pitcher in this league.  So at the end of the month of April he had gone 2-2 with a 4.43 ERA. He had rebounded from a two-some of tough games against the Orioles and the White Sox to put together two great wins against the Twins and Mariners.  In both wins in April he threw 3-hitters, and also saw his command  starting to come together. So with a even keel from April, it was imperative that he have a good month in May so solidify the Rays decision on him. 

In May, he went a combined 2-2 again in six starts and showed improvement by starting to see his walks-to strikeouts ratio get more into control.  He had a few blips of problems during a May 2nd contest against the Boston Red Sox at home, where he lasted only 3 innings and surrendered 6 runs on 7 hits. He only lasted 76 pitches into that contest, but his pitches for strikes was starting to show a closer trend towards an acceptable level. In that start he threw 46 strikes to his total 76 pitches. Neimann was beginning to understand how to win in the majors.

And during the rest of May, he surrendered less than 2 runs in every game but one. In that contest on May 18th against the Oakland A’s, Neimann did give up 4 runs in the contest, but he also got some great offensive support from the Rays and posted his  4th victory of the season.  He threw 110 pitches in that game, the most of the season for him. But the end of the month was not kind to him as he was limited to 3 innings in a rain delayed game in Cleveland that he had thrown 3 innings and had only given up a single run before the tarps hit the field.  He had only thrown 53 pitches in that game, but 34 had gone for strikes. He was beginning to show his improvement every time out from that point on in 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP

June also seemed to start great for him as he made 5 starts in the month and posted three
victories.  His 3.10 ERA for the month was the best he had posted as a professional, and he also had thrown 29 total innings in the month, the most since he had come up with the Rays. On June 3rd, Niemann tossed his first complete game shutout of his career during a home contest against the Kansas City Royals.  In that game he also seemed to have great command as he  struck out 9 batters and only surrenders a solo walk in the game. But in the next contest against the Los Angeles Angels he did have a bit of a setback only lasting 3.2 innings while giving up 5 runs on 7 hits that night.

June seemed more like a roller coaster ride for Niemann as he went to highs and lows before finally equaling out during a June 29th contest against the Toronto Blue Rays in Rogers Centre. In that game he went 7.1 innings and threw 100 pitches while giving up a solo run on 4 hits.  This was also the only time besides the first game against the Orioles that he had issued more walks than strikeouts. But it did not matter in the end as he took his seventh win of the season from this game. So at this point he was 7-4 and people were beginning to talk about the young Texan.

If June seemed like his month to shine, oh were people going to enjoy his July. So far this month he has only made three starts, but he has posted two wins in those starts to have the most wins so far as a Rays starter in 2009. July got started off a bit rough when he only lasted 3 innings in a game out in Arlington, Texas against the Texas Rangers. It should have been a bit of a homecoming for him, but the Rangers roughed him up early and he only lasted 47 pitches and gave up three runs in the game. It was not a pure disaster, but it did show him some room for improvement, and to get more first pitch strikes on the batters.

But after that contest, in his last start before the All Star Break, Neimann threw one of the best games of his career to that point against the Oakland A’s at home on July 10th.  This was the second start of the season for him against the A’s, and in his last start he lasted 8 innings and gave up four runs to the A’s hitters. But tonight he went 9 innings to post his second complete game shutout of the season. He threw a season high 118 pitches and got a standing ovation from the crowd as he went to the mound in the top of the ninth inning.  After that contest, while being interviewed on FSN/Florida, Niemann got the traditional shaving cream pie from Rays catcher Dioner Navarro.


Brian Blanco / AP

But that was not the cream on top of the pie yet for Neimann in July. After not starting since that July 10th game until last night, he was on 10 days rest when he took the mound in Chicago last night for his first start of the season against the White Sox. Neimann had saved his best for last ( so far) this season. Last night against the White Sox he posted 7 strikeouts and issued zero walks.  This was the third time this season he had not issued a walk in a game, and the second time in the last three starts. He was beginning to exert control on his game on the mound, and he lasted 8 innings last night before he was finally pulled before coming out in the top of the ninth after throwing  exactly 100 pitches. The Tall Texan made his presence known, and for the month has a 2-0 record with a 2.25 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 3 starts.

So this brings about some scuttlebutt and chatter now that David Price might not be the guy to watch for the Rookie of the Year award right now with the Rays. That Neimann might have stolen a bit of the preseason thunder directed at Price. And what is wrong with that? How many other teams outside of Toronto have had two rookies basically come forward and contribute so much for their teams. Neimann is currently holding a 3.44 ERA, which is pretty amazing considering after the first start it was a bulging 10.13 ERA.  And a pleasant surprise for the Rays is the fact he is now 6-2 away from Tropicana Field with a 3.84 ERA. 

In the month of June and July he is 5-0 after posting a 4-4 record in the first two months of the season.  He has started 17 games for the Rays this season and has seen victories in 9 of those starts. For a rookie, that is impressive to me. Going into last night game he was tied with Detroit Tiger starter Rick Porcello for the most wins by a rookie pitcher this season in the AL. And not lost is the fact that his next victory will tie Rolando Arrojo for the Rays rookie mark for wins with 10.  And is it an odd connection that the night before they honor the 1998 team with their technicolor jerseys on “Throwback Night”, Neimann threw his complete game shutout.

I actually find that pleasantly exciting. The kid has been mired in doubt and intrigue the last few season as to his durability to play at this level, and this season he might eclipse the rookie record for victories in a season, and move it well beyond the present 10 win mark.  He has now won 5 straight decisions and has lost only one decision since the first week of May (@ Cleveland/ May 28th).  And even if he not on the mound to get a decision for the wins, the Rays have won 11 out of last 12 of his starts, and are 13-4 in all his starts this season.  And to put an exclamation point on his season since May 13th, he has a 6-1 record with a 2.51 ERA and has not allowed a home run since May 23rd when he gave one up to Dan Uggla in Landshark Stadium.

The above statistics can only help to establish Neimann right now as the team’s candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. Some might still feel it is Price’s award to lose, but Neimann right now is putting up all the right numbers to be within eyesight of the award. But considering he is only the 7th Rays pitcher ever to throw at least two complete game shutouts. Arrojo threw two in his rookie season in 1998. No other pitcher in Rays history has thrown three complete game shutouts in his career.  But that record, like Arrojo’s rookie win mark might be tested this season by Neimann.

And considering the impressive crowd he is now being mentioned with as the only holders of complete game shutouts this season, it reads like a “Who’s Who” in the MLB. The Royals Zack Greinke, San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, Cardinal Joel Pinero and Red Sox Josh Beckett are the only other guys to throw 2 so far in 2009.  You want some more impressive stats?
 

Hmmmm, he is also the fourth rookie this decade to throw two complete game shutouts joining Dontrelle Willis (2003), Jeremy Sowers (2006) and Hiroki Kuroda ( 2008).  And he is only the second rookie to throw both of his before the All Star break, the other was former Rays Arrojo in 1998. 

But then again, the Tall Texan has also been the recipient of some of the best run support in the major leagues by his teammates. The Rays are scoring 7.71 runs per 9 innings for Neimann. That works out to only the second highest percentage among ML qualifiers, and first in the AL. And to say he has been matched up against only fifth starters this season is a crock. He beat Roy Halladay in Toronto on June 29th, when he went 7.1 innings.  Sometimes being the fifth starter on the team can get you unique experiences for growth and excelling in your performance. I think it is more of Neimann finally feeling he belongs up here
and feeling more at ease on the mound. 

The winner in all of this are the Rays and the fans. In a spot in the rotation that people fretted and wondered about from the first game, Neimann had shown he is a solid member of the Rays rotation, and could be for a long time. Some people point to 2008, when Edwin Jackson also was the fifth starter and posted 14 wins in the season. So far Neimann is ahead of Jackson’s 2008 pace, and could be the new Rays total victories in a season leader by October. But the season still has over 60 games to play, and anything can happen from now on.

But one thing is for sure, the Rays are a better team with Neimann on it. Where early in the season people spoke aloud of the outlandish decision to keep him, now those same people are clapping and praising him for his wins and performance. Hey, the guy might just be the Rays second Rookie of the Year winner, and keep the tradition alive for one more season in Tampa Bay.  But I am going on record as saying when they ask me to put my stamp on any rookie who I think deserves the award, the first statistics I will look at in comparison is to Neimann’s numbers. And so far, no one is holding a candle to the Tall Texan.
  

Cursi gets ready for All Star game action

 

                   
                     RHaggerty@Flickr.com

Those people who know me in the Trop know I have a good baseball relationship with one of the members of the Rays staff. I would like to think I have a good rapport with several people, but you never really know what is said off the field. Anyways, I have had a post-game gesture with this person since 2001, and I have never tried to revert or change that routine for the fear of breaking a superstition. It is more me than him, but I truly look forward to it right after each third out in victory or in defeat. It is a simple gesture, but it is a bond I have with him  in my baseball world.

It is a simple hand salute off the baseball cap, but it has symbolism beyond just the motion to me. I met this guy back in 2001 when I was sitting the the Bullpen Cafe ( before Checkers bought the rights) and he used to always come over before the games to chat with myself and a good friend. I got to know this guy pretty well beyond the foul lines on the diamond, and also had on a few occasions had the chance to meet him over at Ferg’s with others for a post-game brew and some chatter. It was a special time for me because he was living the dream. He was on the field. It did not matter to me that ex-Ray Toby Hall or Greg Vaughn was standing right next to me up in the upstairs bar at Ferg’s run by former Rays Tony Saunders. Those were the simple times with Rays Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi  and they have been amazing.

I have gone on road trips following the teams in recent years and Cursi and Chico Fernandez, the Rays Video Coordinator have always welcomed me into their post-game events and we have spent some good times in other cities. Places like Cleveland where we went after a game into the Warehouse District and did the usual pub crawls checking out the nightlife and the local club scene. Or maybe it was a great atmosphere of Swannee’s in Seattle when I went a few years ago and he told me of prior years when Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff were in this same small bar drinking  a few beverages and there with the fans.  I just wanted to give you guys another side of the guy former Rays broadcaster Joe Magrane called “The Enforcer.”


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So when Cursi came over the other day before the game and we chatted for a bit I told him I was upset for finding out that he was getting married in December by seeing it in the Rays 2009 Media Guide. But what he told me next was exciting, even bigger to me than the fact he and Stephanie were going to tie the knot on the beach. Cursi sat there and told me he was going to get a chance to maybe catch during the 2009 State Farm Home Run Derby. I was not totally surprised since I knew he was going to be at the All-Star game in the Bullpen anyways as a member of Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s staff. But the added thrill of seeing Scott catch with the world watching him was simply amazing.

But in the last week there might be a small problem here with Cursi even catching in the Home Run Derby. You see, Evan Longoria can bring along his own pitcher for the event, and Cursi is one of the staff who almost daily throws Batting Practice to the Rays players. In such, you would think he would want a Rays staffer, since they are already there for the All Star game to throw to him. But there is a simple answer.

He could ask Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey to throw to him with Cursi catching and all will be great in Happy Valley. But I am not sure if Hickey will want to do that on such a large stage. Not that he doesn’t have the chops or the pitching ability ( he does), but the fact si he might be concentrating on the All Star pitching staff during that first day. But it would be a simple resolution to the problem, and would bring about a unique angle to the game.

But to even throw more cold water on either idea is the fact that Longoria, who was imformed by MLB he was the highest vote getter in the American League to participate in the State Farm Home Run Derby, might bow out of the competition to save his ailing hamstring. With the health concern, that is a good idea for Longo, but hopefully he is not pulling out after a poor showing
in the 2008 Home Run Derby. Maybe teammate Ben Zobrist could take his spot?  I wonder, have there ever been any switch-hitting home runs hit during the Home Run Derby? I will check on it and let you know the answer…..

It almost makes me want to find some way financially to make it to the game and see it in person. I do not want an outfield seat, but just something near the field so I could yell out to Cursi before he squatted behind the dish and watch dinger after dinger disappear into the St. Louis night. Think of how amazing that is going to be for the guy who has put in countless hours and time warming-up pitchers and coming in and catching pitching prospects and potential free agents over the years for the Rays. I thought 2008 might be the top of the  proverbial mountain for some people in the Rays organization, but the hits just keep on rolling here for Cursi.

I am truly so excited that my baseball buddy get to live the All-Star dream on the field this season and also get to attend some of those exclusive and sought after events during the All-Star experience. I can not think of anyone else in baseball that I think deserves that honor than Cursi. Seriously here, the guy has bled Rays green, blue and even yellow for this franchise and this is another great life experience for him in his position with the Rays. But I think I need to let you know a little bit about Scott Cursi before I go today. He is in his 11th season with the Rays organization, and his 13th in professional baseball.  He spent three seasons as the Bullpen Catcher for the Double-A Orlando Cubs and the Orlando Rays of the Southern League from 1996-1998. 

               
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And sometimes you will also see him late in the Rays Batting Practice throwing balls to the hitters on the mound.  Cursi played college baseball at Seminole Community College in Orlando and graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Physical Education.  Before he made his trek to Florida, Cursi spent four seasons coaching for Bishop Waterson High School in Columbus, Ohio under Ohio baseball legend Scott Manahan. The guy knows baseball inside and out, and that has only endeared him more to the Rays. 

So Congrats Scott. You deserve a spot in the television of the world, and you can be sure all of Tampa Bay will be watching for you to put your mask on and squat behind the plate during the State Farm Home Run Derby. I know you will have some great memorable chats with some of the hitters that night, and I hope I can hear some of those stories some night after a game over some cool, refreshing beverages with great company. But until then I will just give to the hand salute to the cap back every night and wish you a safe road trip, and tons of great baseball memories.

Fridays Fabulous Fragmented Thoughts

 



Steve Nesius / AP

No Re-joycing in Rightfield


With the activation of Tamp Bay Rays Designated Hitter Pat Burrell right after the game last night, the team made the corresponding roster move of sending young rightfielder Matt Joyce back down to the Triple-A Durham Bulls. The press release was still hot and wet when the Rays Radio Network broke the news right after the game in their post-game segment. At first this news hit me kind of like a ton of bricks because I truly thought the kid was going to make the transition up here the rest of the season.

Sure he started out like he was going to take names and change minds after hitting two quick hoe runs to make people, think it was “Re-Joyce Time” in rightfield. Even the fact he got two hits off a left-handed pitcher spoke volumes that he had done a bit of the work the Rays asked him to do when he went down first to Durham after spending the first five game up with the Rays while B J Upton was rehabbing after his off-season shoulder surgery. Upon the start of the Sunday game in Baltimore on April 12th he was on his way back to the Triple-A squad ready to work on things and make his way back to Tampa Bay in 2009.  Joyce was upset but understood the situation perfectly and vowed to again be patrolling the outfield in the Trop sometime in 2009.

So when the Rays went to Durham and again brought up Joyce on May 30th, it was a sign to the fans that maybe the team was finally considering giving the kid a fair shake in winning the rightfield job during the season. And he did come on like gangbusters hitting the ball his first few games before finally going through a 0 for 15 slide before he was sent out to the Bulls. He was upset about the news, but took it in stride as he told the St. Petersburg Times last night.””Any time you get sent down, it’s not a good feeling. So you just go back to the drawing board, go back down and scratch and claw your way back up.” Coming into the Angels series, Joyce was 0 for 20 lifetime against the team.

Joyce is heading back to the Durham squad with the intention of “tear it up again” in Durham, and “force them to bring you back up.”  And that is the kind of reaction you really want to hear from a young star who knows he will again shine bright among the lights of Tropicana field. This is not the last time we will see him in 2009, and you can bet the next time he is up here he will try and make it an extremely difficult decision to send him back down again.  Joyce was given some advice and things to work on by Rays Manager Joe Maddon before he left the Rays Clubhouse following their series win against the Los Angels Angels last night.

Joyce will go down to the minors and work a bit on his overall game, including his defense and hopes to again get a chance to make a huge impression this season.  During a few games in the Trop., he seemed to have a problem identifying the ball off the roof in the dome and that might have led to a few defensive problems during his time up here. He did not read the ball well off the bat a few times and the ball made it into the Right-Centerfield gap for extra bases.

That is a simple adjustment and recognition program that can be completed easily in the minors.  But Joyce has been totally supportive of the decision and is looking forward to more playing time and to prove he belongs here with the Rays. Before he was promoted at the end of May, he was hitting .315 with 5 HR and 27 RBI for the Bulls.  He had compiled a 1.000 OPS against right-handed pitching, and a .727 against left-handers. 


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Pedro  Martinez as a Ray?

Oh how Gerald Williams must be all tied up in knots knowing that the Rays might be watching former Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez throwing in the Dominican Republic yesterday. How it must be burning in his stomach that the guy who caused such a ruckus with the Rays back in 200 might even be considered for a pitching option. There are numerous reports that not only have the Rays checked out the aging pitcher, but some monetary figures have been exchanged between the two parties. 

According to Nick Carfardo of The Boston Globe, Martinez had both the Chicago Cubs and the Rays both exploring what it might take to sign the aging pitcher to their rosters. During his workout the former fireballer was throwing about 94 MPH, which is a nice increase in velocity compared to his pre-surgery speed.  Mark Lancaster of the Tampa Tribune said,”I’ve heard that one of the Rays’ officials in the Dominican who has known Pedro for a while just watched him work out, but it doesn’t sound like the team expects anything to come of it.” 

A local Tampa Bay television station even commented on their Twitter page that someone was checking out Martinez. And a pretty credible Rays blog, www.RaysIndex.com was reporting that the team did schedule a second workout for Martinez, which is usually a sign of interest.  When the World Baseball classic tenure of the Dominican Republic team was over during MLB’s Spring Training, it was reported that Martinez was basically seeking a single year deal in the $5 million range. With the MLB season  nearing the 62nd game, that request might have been cut in half to about the $ 2.5 million dollar figure. 

Some might say that the aging pitcher would be a great fit in the Rays Bullpen in some capacity. But considering he would supplant someone currently in that unit, it might be a difficult sell to Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey right now. But even if the Rays have always kept things like this close to their vest pocket, the history with Martinez might not sit well with long standing Rays fans.  For the same reason most fans were skeptical of Curt Shilling basically saying he would play for the Rays years ago, Martinez might not be a great fit here. Martinez and Don Zimmer also have their own history, but Zim contends that it is ” by the wayside and ancient history.”

The guys still has the desire and the spunk to pitch in the majors, which is great for him. But the guy might not be a great fit into the Rays bullpen, and definitely can not be seen as a starter right now. Things could happen fast and he will be out of the Rays sights and this all will be dust in the wind. But the idea of adding him to our team kind of upsets my stomach. I admire the girt and the determination, but seeing him brawl on our home field, and throw Zim to the ground is enough for me to  print a “VOTE NO FOR PEDRO” t-shirt. Somethings even time can not heal.

             
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Boot Scootin’ Nelson

***  With the Rays getting ready soon to head on out for another road trip, Maddon has picked a “western theme” for the trip out to Colorado to begin their 6-game Inter-League road trip. I am not sure what most of the guys are going to be outfitted in before they board the plane, but hopefully they know that six shooters are not allowed on the plane.

Seriously though, I spoke with Rays reliever Joe Nelson yesterday on what style he was going to pull off for the western theme. He said he was going with the “Yul Brenner circa The Magnificent Seven look”.  Nelson already has the hairstyle, and I can see him in the black shirt and maybe even black leather pants, but I am really going to be surprised if he can find a great back cowboy hat to pull it all together. Maybe he can call Keith Millar, who is with the Toronto Blue Jays for a primer on how to “Cowboy Up” before the trip. I personally thought Nelson might go for the Yul Brenner look from Westworld where he played a gunslinging robot, but after the picture, I can see him in a black hat for some reason.

Season Ticket Gate Upgrade


The Rays instituted a new Season Ticket holder entrance near Gate 3 earlier this season. There is great news that an awning has been purchased that will expand out from the current gate to shelter fans waiting in that line for enter the stadium hopefully around the All-Star break. This new entrance brings you in right at the service desk at Gate 3 for easy access for signing up for the many contests, or getting with a Season Ticket Representative within a few feet of the doors. 

I have used the entrance a few times in the past few months and it is quicker and faster than the present system at Gate 1 where most of the current Season Ticket holders enter the Trop. This also might be a great alternative during the Boston or Yankee series later this year when the general standing area outside Gate 1 gets so crowded and heated at times. It is also a great alternative for the “giveaway” days as the lines will be smaller and less confusion.
 


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Familiar Faces in the Videos

If you are in Tropicana Field before the game and look up at the Jumbotron before the game and think you might have seen me on the big screen during the opening minute of the “Ground Rules”, you are correct. As a member of the “Maddon’s Maniacs”, I was invited for a taping before opening day this year to complete a fan version of the typical baseball rules explanation played 81 times a year in Tropicana Field. I got lucky enough to be in the first segments of the new video both in the first clip where you see me banging my over sized black cowbell ( which is now broken almost in half) and during the first two rules of the video.

I have to give props to the Rays vision crew who did most of the stand-in spots in the video and also had the changes and segmented video shoots done fast and professional at all times. Also have to give some acknowledgments to Eric Weisberg, Darcy Raymond and Sean Liston from the Rays Fan Experience department for their ideas to include the Maniacs in this years action. It was a great time, and I did get in a bit of a pickle about two pictures, but all is good in Rays-land. I hope you see a few of your friends in the video and be sure to stop us and say hello. We will be more than happy to chat with you about the “Maddon’s Maniacs” club or just about our hometown Rays.

Pitching changes coming for the Rays


Steve Nesius / AP

As Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and Rays Manager Joe Maddon sit in the conference room of the third floor of Tropicana Field today for the pre-draft Media lunch, they just seem to stare at the huge clock on the wall as it tick-tocks along. Both are in that room to try and put some future logic into the transactions and roster tweaks to make this team take that next step once they hit the .500 plateau again this season. Decisions must be made, either for the good or bad of the team to be able to contend later this year for their second shot at playoff gold. And each of the decision they will have to make will effect this team in some way.

Neither man wants to make these decisions. It would be so much easier if the rosters could expand to 30 players right now instead  September 1st. Staying within that 25-man limit when you have 9 players currently sitting around the training table seeking some sort of medical treatment or advice.. With the influx of these untimely injuries, and some lingering mechanical situations with some of the Rays players’,the season is slowly slipping away from them.

 
 
 
 
Right now they do not have the best 25 horse to pull the Rays wagon. That might be the worst part of it all. They know they have a solid team that can go head-to-head with anyone in the league, but small setbacks have not only stretched the minor league farm system, but also some of the fan faithful patience. Key players in the minors have either gone lame (Hellickson), or have been as inconsistent (Davis) as some of the Rays current pitchers.

The first problem that might be coming fast on the horizon actually might have fixed itself a bit when both Jeff Niemann and Andy Sonnanstine had great outing this week to take some pressure off the coaching staff and Friedman to make a decision on the two hurlers. Sonnanstine still might be the guy on the bubble, but if he holds to the form he is showing now, the decision might be  a closely guarded secret of the third floor.  Just like Spring Training in 2009, Niemann is the guy who has pulled ahead of his rival with a dramatic game last night that surely set him up for a long term “tryout”, or at least until the Trade Deadline in August.

Niemann put up a 2-hit complete game shutout up last night against the Kansas City Royals that easily the best pitching performance of his career.  He hit the 100 pitch plateau with a swinging strike by the Royals Bill Butler. What is more amazing is the fact that Niemann has now had 1-walk or less in every game since May 18th. A total of 3 walks in 4 games is a great indicator that he might just have found his rhythm with the Rays finally. This is the kind of pitcher the team envisioned in that last week of Spring Training. He might have taken a few games to warm-up, but he is getting hotter and hotter with every start.  

               
                Steve Nesius / AP

This might be the worst decision they will have to make in 2009. Both pitchers have to be sweating bullets knowing they have given their all for the Rays this season. But with Rays veteran starter Scott Kazmir maybe only a month away from manning the hill for the Rays, it is more believable that one of these two guys will take the fall when Kazmir is reinstated. For all the heat the Rays took for even sending rookie pitcher David Price down ( I agreed with it) they are now going to face that same volume of voices if they even attempt to pop him back to Durham until September. It is considered a non-issue by most of the people in the blue seats that Price is an extreme up-grade to either of these hurlers right now. 

So it might take the  clever mind and crafty talents of Friedman to find a good trade partner to take some of the stress off both the duo and the Rays organization by maybe seeing if the San Diego Padres still have a need or want for either of the two come All-Star break time. You have to consider by that juncture in time, the Jake Peavy situation out west might have more clarity, and they also might have a better understanding of what pieces they have in their system that could entice the Rays. I do not know why, but it seems more logical for the pair to be considered by a National League team than anywhere in the American League.  So this is going to be high on the agenda of both men here in the near future.

Both pitchers have had their share of pitfalls and triumphs in 2009. But right now you have to give the edge to the Tall Texan based on his past 4 starts and his upside right now for the Rays. It really is a different animal to see the ball coming in from a downward angle of a 6 foot 9 inches pitcher. Sonnanstine did not win the race on height (6′ 3″), but this decision might have more basis on pure pitching performance than heart and want right now. 

         
          Steve Nesius / AP

Right now a few facts are starting to point to Niemann as the guy who might end up having a leg up on the decision making process. So far the Rays won 6 of the last 8 of Niemann’s starts and are 6-4 when he takes the mound. This is the best record of any of the five starters for the Rays right now.  Right now, after last nights brilliant performance, Niemann has the most wins on the Rays staff.  Over his last four starts he has pitched to a 2.86 ERA.  And he has been a bit of a road warrior for the team, starting 7 of his 10 starts on the road and coming back with a 3-1 record with 4.11 road ERA.  And to add some offensive support, the team has scored 40 runs in his last 5 starts.

His last start was a bit of a bummer for Niemann as he only got to throw 3 innings in Cleveland before the game went into a rain delay. Even though he took the loss for the start, he did perform great against the hot hitting Indian offense. His only run given up was scored on a groundout by Victor Martinez. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has gotten better with each start, but in the last 5 games he has posted 23 strikeouts, including a career-high 9 in last night’s game. The statistics are showing his confidence and his belief in the Rays way of pitching has shown on the mound. With almost no runner on base last night, Niemann looked in control both from the stretch and the wind-up. He might finally feel comfortable in his Rays skin.

As for his counterpart Sonnanstine, until Tuesday night’s game, Sonny has looked a bit consistent in a bad way on the mound. But like Niemann, Sonnanstine has continued to cut down on his walks in his last outing surrendering none to the Royals.  The Rays did go 4-2 in his May starts despite a 7.58 ERA. He has received the largest run support of any starter this season for the Rays.  If Sonnanstine had enough innings to qualify, his ERA (7.66) and .340 opponents batting average would be the worst in the majors for a starter.  But then again, he has been behind the eight ball a few times for the Rays this season. He was the lucky, or unlucky pitcher on the mound for the line-up fiasco game against the Cleveland Indians at home.

In that contest, he had to bat in the 3-hole after Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist were both inserted into the third base position for the game. Because the Rays fielded Zobrist for the first part of the inning, Longoria was disqualified from the Designated Hitter spot, so the Rays lost that AL advantage for the game.   Showing some true grit and conforming perfectly for the situation, Sonnanstine went 1-3 with a RBI-double.  According to the Elias Bureau,in that game he became the first Rays pitcher to bat in an AL home game, and the first to bat at Tropicana Field.  He also threw 5.2 innings that day to post his third win of the season for the team.

Maddon and Friedman will
confer with Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey closely on both pitchers before maybe coming up with a solid decision on who might have the longest shelf life for the Rays. Considering that Niemann is in his rookie campaign with the Rays, and Sonny has had three years to ply his trade, both recently have made strides to have either of them stay with the team. Both pitchers have also been a huge part of the resurgence in the Rays since their 4 game slide in Cleveland. Niemann was not only defeated by the Indians, but robbed by the elements of putting up better numbers. In that series, Sonnanstine ran against his arch nemesis, Ben Francisco, who is now 8 for 9 lifetime against him with 4 homers in his last 4 at bats against him.

 
  Steve Nesius / AP

But we are done with Cleveland this season, so Sonnanstine can focus on other matters for the team. But the upcoming decision could also be made easier if a member of the Bullpen goes down, or if Maddon can see him as a long reliever for the team. That position is currently held by Lance Cormier, who has done an awesome job in that role. But the transition from starter to reliever can take some time and the meetings about Sonny might focus on the fact he might have trouble adjusting to a unconventional and limited pitching role.

 
 
 
But the deciding fact might just be as simple as this fact obtained from the Elias Bureau about Niemann’s effort. Last night was the first time in 20 years that a rookie pitcher threw a complete game shutout against the Royals allowing two or few hits against them.  Right now it might be an uphill battle for Sonnanstine to keep his spot in the rotation when Kazmir returns. But with the show of heart and ability he has, he might not be the front runner to stay, but you can’t count him out yet either.

Oakland Walk to a Win over the Rays

 

             Athletics 5,      Rays 2


Ben Margot / AP

Frustrations Mounting Fast

The worst part of the last couple of games is that the Rays have had their chances to mount sustained drives and have come away either empty-handed, or shot themselves in the foot on multiple occassions.  Some whispers in and outside of the Internet have hinted that it might be due to the large number of strikeouts by the Rays, and the number of walks given up by the pitching staff. I decided to do a little snooping around and see just what might be true or false with those statements.   First I decided to see how the Rays as a team are stacking up against the rest of the American League in those categories before trying to put any scientific or opinionated facts out there.

As of today, the Rays have a total of 151 strikeouts, which puts them third in the American League at this moment, but they are within striking range of again manning the top spot. That position right now is held with only 158 K’s by the Texas Rangers, who also was in the top 3 at the end of 2008. In comparison, the Rays pitching staff is ranked seventh in the AL in walks with 71 this season.  What that shows is that some of the people commenting that the Rays have been giving up too many walks is not completely accurate. But it is more to the fact that the Rays pitchers have been giving up too many walks in a condensed period of time.

Let me use today’s game as a good example. In the fourth inning, Rays starter Matt Garza gave up a lead-off walk to Orlando Cabrerra, then issued a second walk to Jason Giambi. Those kind of beginnings to an inning never seem to work out to the pitchers’ advantage. But after Matt Holliday hit a fly ball out to center field for the first out, it seemed he might have a chance to redeem himself. But he walked the next batter, Jack Cust to load the bases. That led to Nomar Garciaparra’s 3-run double to the left-center field wall on the first pitch he saw from Garza.  That instantly put the A’s up 4-0 on the Rays.

Situational pitching is an artform. Some pitchers seems to come by it naturally, while others struggle with it their entire careers. But what is killing the Rays right now is the fact that the squad is issuing some walks at the wrong moments in the game, and it is costing them dearly in the end. In their games this season, the Rays have issued 71 walks in 17 games, that is good enough for  over 4 walks a game. In two contests the team has issued over 6 walks a game and have gone 1-1 in those contests. The only win was during the Home Opener against the New York Yankees on April 13th.

But the Rays have not done themselves any favors in the offensive numbers either attached to strikeouts. in 6 of their losses, they have struck out over 9 times in a contest. the highest was actually during their Opening Day loss in Boston when they posted 14 strikeouts.  But that is not the only time they have suffered over 10 this season. They also posted 10 strikeouts in their second game agianst the Yankees at home on April 14th, 9 against the Chicago White Sox in a 12-2 loss to close out their last home stand, and 10 strikeouts the first game in Seattle to start this road trip.  In only one game have the Rays won when posting over 10 strikeouts. It was their lone win in Baltimore during their second series when they posted 10 K’s on the day.

Even during this series so far, the team has posted 12 strikeouts in two games. That figure might be lower than their average, which is sitting at 8.3 strikeouts per game right now. With that in mind, the Rays have topped the 8 strikeout mark in 10 of their 17 games, and have won only one of those games. The first thing to try tear apart here is the Hitting Coach. I do not think it is what Steve Henderson wants to see his club do on a nightly basis. I think he would not disagree that the burden here lies on the players for not taking intelligent swings at times. For a short period of time there, it almost seemed like Carl Crawford was just swinging into the air, not even expecting to hit anything.

       
        Ben Margot / AP

It is going to be a big test of Henderson’s patience and his expertise to again get this team to put their frustrations aside and begin to rebuild themselves from the ground up. But these guys are professional hitters’, it should not take long for them to discover and correct some of their flaws in the batters box. I mentioned Crawford above as a guy who seemed to be free-swinging a lot more than usual. This was true, but recently he has begun to see the ball better and is hitting it  as if it was a beach ball. But then you have guys like B J Upton, who have added pressure of being the lead-off man right now for the Rays and is mired in a bad slump.

His average has sunk to .171 this season, with no end in sight of the dismal beginning. His recent game in Oakland came down as an 0-4 with a single strikeout, but after the at bat, he took his bat and cracked it over his knee in visual frustration over the lack of power by himself and the team right now. In that game, Upton did get on base once via a walk in the sixth inning, but he was stranded at third base after a Rays rally was stopped cold by Oakland starter Dallas Braden.  Upton hit the ball three times in this game, but they were at people. 

The frustration level on this team is at an all time high, and it is only going to get worse until the Rays bats begin to strike some fear into opposing pitching staffs. Right now, there is not a staff in the American League that fears the Rays hitters besides maybe Carlos Pena, who is on a homer run tear right now. Over their last two series, the Rays are hitting .243 as a team with 22 total runs and 42 strikeouts. Over the past six games, that puts them 12th in the AL during that time. Only the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s are underneath them, and Oakland is beginning to get hot.

      
       Ben Margot / AP

Is Matt Garza Getting Frustrated?

I am not sure if it is only Matt Garza that is starting to shoe outward frustration right now for the Rays. the enitre team seems to be in a dander, and not their usual confident and energetic selves on the field and at the plate. But Garza is a player who holds his emotion up close to his kin, and in yesterday’s fourth inning he seemed to almost bubble over on the mound. Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey did come out to the mound and seemd to make the right words cool the fires within Garza. He ended up getting back under control after Garciaparra’s RBI double and again pitch like a champion. After giving up that double, Garza retired the five of the next six batters  before getting into trouble in the sixth inning.

But the day did not start like that for him. He got two 1-2-3 innings before giving up a lead-off homer to Travis Buck in the thrid inning. Even after Buck’s shot, he retired the next three in a row to hold Oakland to a single run. Then came that fourth inning when 3 runs were given up by Garza on one hit. He had basically walked the bases full before Garciaparra’s drive to left-center.  Garza is one of this teams pitchers that needs to again regain some of the magic of 2008.  His 5.2 innings of work today yielded 4 runs on 4 hits, with 6 strikeuots. But his 4 walks did make the most damge today as three of those walks came around to score for the A’s.

           
            
Ben Margot  / AP

Aki is the Man

Since he left the lead-of
f spot this season for the Rays, Akinora Iwamura has been kind of quietly having a great season. Including today’s game, Aki is hitting .302 for the year, and has been one of the three consistent hitters on the team so far in 2009. His numbers might not jump out at you, but he has been doing great thing under the surface for the team. His 7 doubles are only one of the AL lead, and he is 5 for 5 in stolen bases this year.  He is 4 for 12 in his last 3 games with 2 doubles.

But since moving down to the bottom of the lineup for the Rays, Aki has not forgotten to be offensively motivated this season. Some players might view it as a bad omen to be figured into the bottom slots in the lineup, but Rays Manager Joe Maddon looks at it more like a “second” lead-off man, or a speedy option in the middle of a lineup. Iwamura has seemed to adopted well to the new spot, and is showing it with his bat. He was the first Rays to get on base today when he hit a single into right field in the third inning. In the fifth
inning, Aki again made his presence known when he stroked a RBI single to center field to begin the Rays coring on the day.

Aki might have cooled down a bit during the game, but his ninth inning at bat will be a controversial play for the rest of the season. With A’s closer Brad Ziegler on the mound, Aki hit a hard ball down the first baseline to Giambi.  the ball hit off of Giambi’s glove and he finally picked it up and tried to race Aki to the bag for the out.  First Base Umpire Mark Wegner called Iwamura out, but replays showed he had made the base in a stride before Giambi made it to the bag. After that play, the Rays went down in order the rest of the inning and lost their first game in Oakland this season.


Ben Margot / AP

Saturday Scrambles

****  The Rays on Saturday tried to win their second game in a row for only the second time in 2009. The only other time they have won two in a row was in their first series of the season against the Boston Red Sox. Up to today, that is also the only series the Rays have won this season.  Speaking of streaks, during their start to 2009, the Rays have now had two 3-game losing streaks and two 2-game losing streaks on the year.

**** With their current record of 7-10, the Rays have also  been at this mark 6 times in the franchise history, with the same record at this point in the season for the last  the past  4 out of 5 seasons. the lone exception since 2004, is the 2006 season, when they were 8-6 at this juncture in the season. Also of importance is the fact that at this point, the team has been in fifth place in the AL East each year, and have been from 3.5 to 5.5 games back of the division leader. The 2009 squad  however has the least amount of runs and errors after 17 games. The team does have their highest amount of stolen bases ( 24 ) in the franchise history at this point.

**** Carlos Pena’s two home runs last night have vaulted him into the major league lead this season.  The only other Rays player to lead the majors in home runs was Jose Canseco, who lead the majors as late as June 26,1999 with 28 homers.  Pena did lead the majors briefly early last season, when he had 6 homers on April 15th.  The 8 are currently tied for third-best in club history for April, and is onl three shy of the team record. Pena now has 14 homers over the past two Aprils, which is one shy of the tops in the majors held by Phillies second baseman Chase Utley.


****
The Rays currently lead the majors with 21 infield hits.
          They also have 24 stolen bases at this time, which leads the majors and are the most since the 1998 New York Yankees swiped 30 early in the year.
          They are currently fifth in the majors with 23 homers, which is their best output ever after 17 games.  

 

Niemann Showed his Good and Bad sides Tonight

 

 
                            Orioles 6,         Rays 0

 
 
              
 

Can I Worry A Wee Bit
 
 

I am not worried about the season, or the aggressive nature, or even the pitching of the Rays right now. But I do have concerns on their attempts to score runs. I mean before tonight, the Rays cored all 8 of their runs off of homers. That is right, no hit-and-runs, no situational hitting of any type, it was just plain slap the ball and hope it hits the holes. now I know that the Rays did manage to get 8 total hits in this game, but  they only got three chances tonight where they either had two hits or a walk and a hit to try and score some meaningful runs without the long ball.

 
 
I am sorry to tell you that Evan Longoria came down to earth a bit tonight and only went 2 for 4, to post a .455 average so far this season. the closest Rays player to him is last seasons team MVP Jason Bartlett with a .333 average.  In the third inning, the Rays did get Gabe Gross to slam a liner past Brian Roberts for the Rays first hit of the night.  Bartlett then did his part by drilling a ball into the gap that one-bounced over the wall for a ground rule double. that put two men into scoring position for the Rays with one out.
 
 

It looked like the Rays might have a chance to get a few runs back on the Orioles, but Akinora Iwamura hit a soft dribbler to Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie. But Gabe Gross guessed wrong on the play and made a break for home plate. Guthrie saw this and spun around and threw to Melvin Mora at third base. With Gross in a run-down, they played the dance for a few seconds before Gross tried to out-smart Baltimore catcher Gregg Zaun. But it was Zaun who got the last laugh. He also did a head fake on Gross to make it seem he was going field-side with his block, then popped his glove to the foul side of the plate and tagged out Gross before he reached the plate.

 
 
That basically made the Rays rally run out of gas, and they went harmlessly down after Carl Crawford popped out to shortstop Cesar Izturis to end the inning. The Rays again tried to mount a rally in the top of the fourth inning when Evan Longoria started off with a single to center. Carlos Pena then tried to keep the rally going by hitting a single down the left field line away from the Oriole shift.  But Guthrie got into a groove and put his pitches in on the Rays hitters and got the first two to pop out before ringing up Dioner Navarro with the strike out to end the inning.

 

 

Longoria then tried again to mount something for the Rays when he hit a double off the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. Longoria has tried to do so much for the Rays this road trip, even getting his 10th hit tonight. But again, the Rays could not figure out Guthrie and stranded Longoria on third base. But one good thing happened in this inning, the Rays moved their first runner of the game over a base when Pena hit a soft liner down to first that Aubrey Huff had to toss to Guthrie to complete the put out.  The in the seventh, Navarro tried to do his part as he hit a looper to right field for a single. Gross then  walked to put two men on base for the Rays again in this game. But the Rays could not convert and stranded both men.
 

Then  in the eighth inning, with the Jamie Walker in for the Orioles Bullpen, Carl Crawford  hit a single to right field to lead-off the inning. It was only the second time tonight the lead-off man got on base for the Rays. The other was Longoria in the fourth inning. But Crawford was quickly erased from the base paths as Longoria hit into a 6-4-3 double play. their last chance in the top of the ninth actually looked like their best opportunity of the night. Matt Joyce walked and then Navarro hit a ball that bounced into the stands for a ground rule double. So with two men in scoring position, both Gross and Bartlett struck out to end the game and the Rays chance to break up the shutout.

 
For the night, the Rays went 0-11 with Runners in Scoring Position. Is this just the effects of a long first road trip for the Rays, or is this offense just feeling a bit anemic right now. Seriously, the team is batting .254 so far this season as a squad, but that might be helped a lot by the hitting of Longoria and Bartlett right now.  Pat Burrell is mired in a bit of a slump, only connecting on 2 of his first 16, or a .125 average. the only other Rays near .300 are Crawford ( .286 ) and Iwamura ( .294).  It is great to know that the four hitter listed above have comprised basically the 1-2-3 hitters for the team. Great to know they are getting their licks, but when is the rest of the team going to catch their winds and contribute nightly…….Hopefully before we head home tomorrow night for a 7-game home stand.

 

 

Tale of Two Pitchers
 

Jeff Niemann might had a bit of nerves welling up in him when Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey and Navarro met with him to go over the strategy for the first inning and the game tonight. Niemann probably had the situation totally under control and knew what he wanted to do on the mound. But little did he know that even with the best preparation for a game, if your stuff is not there early, it is going to be a long, long night on the mound.  Brian Roberts lead-off the game for the Orioles by watching the first strike go by him before connecting on a screamer into right-center field that skipped once and went over the wall for a Ground Rule Double.

 

But Niemann might have just thought he had just hit a good pitch and went about his usual pitching style. But little did he know he was about to implode on the mound by throwing B P balls to the Orioles in the first inning. Adam Jones came up and was hit by a pitch to but two men on quickly in the contest. Nick Markakis then hit a long drive over the head of Matt Joyce that also skipped once and scampered over the wall for an RBI Ground Rule Double. But the inning was far from over at this point. Huff then came up and walked on 5 pitches to again load the bases full of birds.
 

Rays Manager Joe Maddon went to the mound, with the entire infield also in on the group conversation, but he was the only one chatting in the circle. You know that must have been quite an intense conversation, with Maddon pointing out they needed this game to pull out the series against the up-start Orioles. Maddon can be a great communicator and is well respected for his mind and situational guesswork. But tonight, for at least two more pitches, his magic did not work at all. For on the second pitch to Mora, he drilled the ball into the left-center field stands for a Grand Slam and all Joyce could do is look up at the ball.

 
                 
 

Niemann gave up a single to right to former Rays/Astro Ty Wiggington  two pitches later, then I think the light bulb went off in Niemann’s head. He then  seemed to turn into a different pitcher and got three quick put outs to get out of the inning, but the Orioles were spotted a 5-0 lead.  From the bottom of the second inning until he left in the sixth inning, he shut down the Baltimore hitters. In those innings, he only allowed two hits, a single to Markakis and a single against the Rays shift by Huff in the fifth inning.

 
Neimann threw a total of  25 pitches in that first inning. But in the next 4.1 innings he threw on 69 total pitches. He showed the promise again that the Rays had in him when they traded Jason Hammel and handed the fifth slot to him last weekend. I wonder if Maddon verbally questioned his manhood, or just brought up Hammel’s name as a motivator?  Either way, Niemann was a completely different pitcher after Mora’s homer. He did get charged with another run after walking Zaun before he exited, and Rays reliever Brain Shouse could not shut down the Orioles But at that point, he was looking like a completely different pitcher. If you subtract his first inning stats of 4 hits and 5 runs, with a single walk and a hit batsmen, his final stats would be a pretty good night on the mound. Without to implosive inning, he would have only given up 2 hits and a single run, with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts. A completely Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde kind of night.

 
               
 

Brian Shouse’s Website 
 

I had heard before Brian Shouse signed with the Rays that he had a wild cult following since he broke into the major leagues. Little did I know just what kind of following it truly was until I went out and checked out his website. I mean you have to go to www.brianshousefanclub.com and see it for yourself. The photos totally cracked me up, but if you really want to see some magical moments, click on the links near the right bottom of the page and see what else his followers have in store for fellow Shouse sect.
 

I mean the guy has his own Brian Shouse fan Myspace page and also they have included links to articles and stories based on their head guy throughout his MLB career. I am beginning to become a bit of a follower, but not like these people. I love the fact that he was basically signed as a leftie specials like Trever Miller had been in 2008 for the Rays. But he threw 2/3rd of an inning tonight on 12 pitches. His sidearm delivery can make you question his ability, but the guy has the stuff. I am curious to see if a Rays fan will redesign or even start their own Brian Shouse online shrine this season. If I ever get down about his abilities,  I can always go to his website and again click on the Shousegandi photo and all will again be right in the world. Well, at least in Brian Shouse’s world.

 

 
 

Hairless Birds on the Field

 

No I am not implying that the Orioles have lost their hair or their feathers tonight, but I am noticing a certain different look to them this season. I mean Huff has always seemed to have a bit of a goatee and beard going his entire career, but tonight he did not have a stitch of hair on his chin or face. I also noticed the usually  mousy moustached  Jamie Walker also was missing his signature hair follicles under his nose.
 
 

Could Orioles Manager Dave Trembley have instituted a clean shaven look, or was this maybe a bonding agreement by the entire team to get some confidence and karma going their way. Either way, it seems to be working for the Orioles who are currently half a game back of the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East lead. I know it is too early to make remarks about the AL East leader board, but the Orioles have been famous for making fast runs at the top in April in years past. Could this hairless look be a great indicator th
at they are all about business this year?

 

David Price Short-changed in Durham Debut
 

For the last month or so people have been harping and complaining about the Rays sending their budding star David Price back down to Durham for a bit to start the season. I am thinking after tonight performance, they will be a bit more understanding of what the Rays might have saw this spring, and maybe they do know what they are doing with the young pitcher. Price did not get to make his debut on Friday night as originally planned since the game was rained-out, but the Bulls let the leftie take the mound today and he showed why he was there.
 
 

Price ended up only going 3.2 innings and was taken out after reaching his pre-determined pitch count for the outing.  In his short time on the mound, Price gave up 4 hits and 2 runs, but did get 4 strikeouts today. He did not have a chance for the win, but the Bulls did pull out a 8-5 victory over the Norfolk Tides today.  Rays Olmedo and Justin Ruggiano both homered for the Bulls. A early surprise is the low average of Jon Weber ( .125 ). Weber was tied with Pat Burrell as the Rays RBI leader this spring with  15 RBIs.
 
 

Some people seem to forget just how fast and easy he came through  the Rays system last year. He mad the leap from the Class-A Florida State League all the way up to the major leagues last season.  He did post impressive numbers, but did not get the repetition and game experience he needed before taking over the reins in the fifth slot for the Rays. It is always better to be careful and nurture a young pitcher than to try and force feed him at the major league level. In the minors he can tinker with his pitches without destroying his confidence in himself and his pitching.  The Rays made the right choice.

 
 
Photo Credits:          1)  Gail Burton / AP
                                  2)  Gail Burton / AP
                                  3)  Gail Burton / AP
                                  4)  Gail Burton / AP
                                  5) www.brianshousefanclub.com
                                  6) Gail Burton / AP

Rested Staff might be key to Rays 2009 Success

Repost from November 2008.

 

Sorry, I am a bit under the weather this week. I think I got the tail-end of that Flu epidemic that was running through the Rays locker room. I was chatting with ine of the pitcher’s on Sunday who was trying to beat this bug, and I think he gave it to me. So I decided to go back and repost an old blog today. I have some Nyquil in my system right now and will be popping on and off all day long to see how I am doing on the Max blog tourney. Sorry I could not give you anything more interesting today. I will make it up to my readers in the next few days.

 

 

 

Have you ever wondered what you favorite pitcher might  be doing in the offseason? Besides the regular answer of relax and enjoy the family, would you travel, take up a hobby or maybe help coach a local baseball team? Or maybe you want to just learn a new skill like racquetball or maybe even golf. All of the above would be a great answer to an offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays  youthful starting 5 after their successful and long season. 2 members of the 5 have young ones, Matt Garza and James Shields. So you know Dad is taking a little time with the young ones doing the things he can not do with them during the season. One of the biggest complaints I have heard from major leaguers is the time away from family while the little ones are growing bigger and bigger. It is a bitter sacrifice they make to push the financial envelope for their families competing for a spot in the rotation.

 

Bachelor Scott Kazmir is one of the guys who has set down roots in the Tampa Bay area in the offseaso. From his Harbour Island shangra-la he is right in the kidlle of Tampa nightlife with the Channelside District just a short walk away from his abode.  I have seen and talked with Kazmir when he has wandered out to do the occasional bowling adventure on Friday nights at Splitsville. An off season hobby or sport can make the time go fast and also give them an alternative relaxation during their down time. Most people take to competitive sports or activites becuase it mimics the adrenaline and rush you get every time you hit the pitching rubber during a game.

 

 

Andy Sonnanstine has mapped out plans for his offseason. He’ll be heading to a celebrity poker and golf tournament in Las Vegas later this month, and he’s going to find a place in Tampa. He’s  is also planning on hanging out with friends, and enjoying his time away from the Rays. And he’s going to sleep in, day after day — the kind of sleep where you roll over, glance at the clock and then close your eyes for another cycle or three of rapid eye movement, like a college kid back home right after exams. “I’m probably going to take it pretty easy,” said Sonnanstine. “This is definitely the longest season I’ve ever been a part of.”

 

 

 

 

When Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey hears  about this, he will be thrilled, because above all else, he wants his young starters’ to recover this winter. He doesn’t want them throwing at all , doesn’t want them running marathons ( Balfour ), doesn’t want them to discover their inner triathlete. He wants them working very hard at resting and recovering after a long, hard season. The Rays pulled off a minor miracle last season of not having a regular starter  go down for a huge amount of time. All 5 starters went through the season with aches and pains, but none went down for ae tended period during the season, or suffered any effects during the long season. That is a true feat in today’s baseball world. Most teams have  at least one of their starters down for months at a time. Sometimes it is a yearly long shutdown for Tommy John’s or shoulder fatique.  The grind of the baseball season can wear and tear at a pitcher worst than a fielding player due to the stress and mechanics needed to throw a sphere over 90 miles an hour consistantly during the season.

 

 

Because the Rays  Coaching staff are well aware, recent baseball history is littered with teams that suffer a physical hangover from a playoff run that takes them deep into October. The Red Sox had all hands on deck in winning the World Series in 2004, and many parts of the staff broke down in 2005.  And the Rays were witness to first-hand sightlines as the 2007 World Series winners went down in Tropicana Field after a bitterly fought 7-game series against their team. The White Sox’s championship staff of 2005 significantly regressed in 2006. Chris Carpenter led the Cardinals to a title in 2006, and he’s never been the same. The Tigers’ pitching staff was fractured by numerous injuries in 2007, with staff members convinced that the team paid a heavy toll for the remarkable success of 2006.

 

 

The Rays’ biggest challenge for 2009 might not be in identifying who their right fielder will be for the openers. The critical factor might be the ability of the Rays’ young pitchers, whom all but Kazmir, set career-highs for innings in 2008, to recover strongly and repeat their collective performance in 2009. Their health might be one of the true keys to their defense of the AL East crown and the AL pennant. With a healthy staff and a productive Bullpen, it might be possible  to see advancement beyond the magical dreams of 2008 and claim a world title.

 

 

Among the members of the young staff, James Shields is the elder by age ( 26) , but not by  overall game time experience. That medal still hangs around Scott Kazmir’s neck as the All-Time leader already in several of the Rays pitching records as such a young age.  In 2008, Shields threw 240 total innings. Which is amazing for such a young star, but it was still only 25 more inngs or 3 starts more than 2007. Shields is one of the guys who will have to be truly aware of his body in 2009. Throwing that many innings can break down a pitchers body over time, and if he listens to his body respond and even send a pain signal, it could save the Rays alot of time and energy trying to replace his persence in the rotation.

 

 

Throwing alot of innings can weaken the body the following year. Some say that is why Scott Kazmir might have had the problems he did in 2007. He pitched almost 207 innings in 2007, and had a set back early in Spring Training. Because he listened to the signs and did not push himself beyond a point, he was able to repair and bring himself back from the injury. In 2008, becuase of the injury, Kazmir only threw 190 innings for the Rays.

 

 

                             

 

That is rare in a young pitcher to disregard pain and  most just keep throwing knowing their spot in the rotation or even on the team might be in jeopardy if they go down. Matt Garza had a sense he was hurt early in the season, but tried to play with the pain in his forearm and hand. The nerve situation that Garza suffered is an example of a pitcher ignoring the pain until someone else makes him realize he is only hurting himself and the team by not going to the mound 100 percent. Garza and Kazmir situation were the only episodes for the Rays in a short term injury situation for the team in 2008. With both of them more aware of the team’s committment to them and their own committment to acheiving more in 2009, they will know the problem signs now and can make good decisions on their health.

 

Even before the end of the Rays’ regular season, Hickey said, the staff had discussed how they planned on preparing the pitchers for 2009, knowing that Spring Training in 2009 will begin a week early. “Spring training is only 12 weeks away,”  sighed Hickey . “I want them to flat-out rest. I want a whole 4 or 5 or 6 weeks of nothing but healing and resting up. … Whether they know it or not, they’ll be a bit weary.” Hickey would love if his pitchers did some low-bore physical conditioning over the next 6 weeks or so, before easing their way back into their preparation for 2009. There is really no need for them to pick up a baseball, for example, until the turn of the year, as far as Hickey is concerned.

 

 

 

Then, in spring training, Hickey already has loose plans to reduce the number of pitches and innings thrown by his starters. Typically, starting pitchers will have built up their arms by the end of spring training to where they are throwing 105 pitches over seven innings. Common knowledge among the team is that they will probably reduce the number of outings for his starters by one, and his relievers will make fewer appearances. The build-up before the exhibition season begins will be more gradual, with the throwing sessions staggered. It’s possible, as well, that Tampa Bay will have more pitchers in camp in 2009. With the great corp of pitching prospects in the Rays; minor league program, they might get deeper looks and more work in the exhibition season to rest the entire staff a bit in 2009.

 

 

 

The alterations may not sound like much, Hickey says, but he is cognizant of saving wear and tear whenever and wherever he can, after his young starters worked for the first time in a postseason, when every pitch is thrown with much more duress, as he said. It may be that the Rays’ young starters will be OK because — well, because they’re young, and can bounce back. But Hickey will work specifically to guide Rays pitchers, because unlike the veterans he’s worked with in the past — Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, among others — the Tampa Bay starters may not know their bodies as well, this early in their careers. “You’ll rein them in a little bit more than you would old guys,” he said. Sonnanstine will embrace the opportunity to rest. Pitching five innings in the postseason, he said, was like pitching 10 during the regular season. Because of the early start to spring training, he said, “I’ll have to factor that into my plans.”

 

 

Others like Shields and Garza will have a little less time with family and doing thing this offseason, but all that will melt away when the 2 banner are raised during the Home Opener  against the Yankees. But between now and then, all they have to do is relax and enjoy off season life. Kazmir, meanwhile might be toeing the wood sliding a nice ball towards a 7-10 split and smiling from ear-to-ear.

 

 

Photos credits: RRCollections

 

Rays get Blasted by the Long Ball

 

 
 

Boy I can tell you that it was a beautiful day in Clearwater, Florida today for at least one team. But the atmosphere was electric and the Tampa Bay Rays kept looking in the stands during Batting Practice smiling and waving to some of the Tropicana Field faithful who came up to Bright House Networks Field to see the boys on their first trip back to the home county. Most of the team’s starters did not make the trip up, but a few of them were greeted and applauded all the same. Ex-Phillie Pat Burrell made sure that he and Elvis, his English Bulldog/Security Guard made the rounds in the Phillies locker room before the game.
 
 
But to Burrell’s amazement and his astonishment, the loud clap and screaming for him as he came up for his first at bat simply took his breath away. That was a very classy move by the Philly fans, and I loved the he was given the accolades he deserved today. Something I also found amazing was the changes at the old ballpark since I was there last Spring. When I sat in the Tiki Terrace last year, millions of kids could stroll down and snag foul balls and B P  fly balls then scamper up to a player and get them signed. This year it would take a wristband and a bright red stamp on your ticket to get you even into this section.

 
 
I took my little spot at about 10:45 am right on the rail near the Bullpen door and got two quick balls, but I gave them both to people beyond the netting near the Tiki Bar. I get about 5 balls a game at the Trop.,  and I seem to always give two away minimum, so why mess with tradition in some else’s ballpark. I also got to chat with a few people on the Rays about some thing that were going on in the franchise. Usual Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey were traveling together to the game today and did not get there in time to see Mitch Talbot warm-up. But Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi and Assistant Pitching Coach/ TV Announcer Brian Anderson got everything under control and there did not even seem like there was a missing cog in the works.

 
Before I talk about the game, let me tell you that there was an amazing breeze that seems to keep you from sweating or even consider a hint of sweat. I was an amazing breeze coming out if the south and was blowing an easy 10-15 mph during most of the game. Now I am not complaining about it, it kept me nice and cool the entire game and provided a great conversation point later in the day. But before I start I have to say that I had a fantastic time chatting with a Bachelor Party that was attending today’s game. Their ” Down Goes Frazier” T-shirts were amazing, and the guys even talked to a few Rays fans during the game. Except for the odd Pina Colada or Margarita, these guys were having the time of their lives. So I wanted to thank them for being so cool and really making my day feel better after looking at the scoreboard.
 
 

The Philadelphia Phillies sent pitcher Kyle Kendricks to the mound today to stake his claim on their fifth rotation spot for 2009. You might remember that in 2007, he was the subject of an incredible practical joke thought up by the devious mind of pitcher Brett Myers. They had poor Kendricks convinced he was being traded to a Japanese team in exchange for a player named Kobayashi Iwamura. When the practical joke finally fell to it conclusion, you could hear Meyers yelling, “You got traded for a Hot Dog eater!” If you have not seen it, be sure to check it out on www.Youtube.com. I still check it out when I am in a bad mood.  The funny part is both the media and the Phillies front office played along with it until someone could not help but laugh out loud and the gig was up.  Classic Spring Training fun!

 
 

 

So, Kendricks took the mound and had a bit of a rough time in the first inning. Justin Ruggiano, who was playing center field today got on the board in the first inning on a error by Phillie Miguel Cairo at second base.  Ruggiano then tried to steal second, and Phillie catcher Ronny Paulino cut him down for the second out of the inning. A few pitches later, second baseman ( for the day) Willy Aybar hit a ball that one-hopped to the wall in center field for a double. With Aybar is scoring position, Pat Burrell came up for the first time today to an explosive ovation and proceeded to pop out to Cairo to end the inning.  The Rays sent minor league prospect Mitch Talbot to the mound. Talbot, who was making his second appearance of the spring, is still in the running for the Rays fifth rotation spot.

 
 

But after the first inning against the Phillies normal starters, he might have hurt his chances a bit because of the wind. Talbot has a very heavy sinker ball that usually produces some great fly ball outs. But in today’s game, those pitches were added by the up force of the wind and made for an interesting afternoon. Jimmy Rollins came up first today and hit a soft floater that was heading for the third base foul line before falling in between left fielder Ray Sadler and Ray Olmedo. Shane Victorino then came up and stroked a nice ball down the third baseline that Gabe Kapler could not get back into the infield in time to catch the speedy Rollins from scoring. This was an interesting point because Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel wants to use Victorino in the second slot in the lineup. One of the main characteristics of this spot in the lineup is hitting to the opposite field to help get the man in front of him into scoring position. He did a prefect job today of that in his first at bat.
 
 

But that was not the end of the inning. After Raul Ibanez hit a nice long fly to Ruggiano to left-center, the fun was only about to begin for the Phillies. Ryan Howard then came up and hit a 2-run shot into the chair area of the Rays Bullpen for a 3-0 Phillies lead. The opposite field homer was never in doubt once it left his bat. John Mayberry Junior then came up and slapped another ball 5 rows above me in the Tiki Terrace to add another run in the inning. But that was not the end of all the fun yet either. After Greg Dobbs hit a nice fly ball to Kapler in right, Miguel Cairo came up. Cairo was brought into camp to fight for a utility position, and might get added playing time until Chase Utley comes back into the Phillie lineup. Cairo hit a long towering ball that cleared the Tiki Bar for another homer, and staked the Phillies to a 5-0 lead.

 
 

 

Kendricks came out again in the second inning and got Chris Richard to hit a foul pop-up that took third baseman Jason Donald into the stands, but he held on for the first out of the inning. Morgan Ensberg, who is trying to get some exposure hit a grounder to Howard at first and he took care of it unassisted for the second out. The Sadler came up and hit a monster into the Phillies Bullpen to give the Rays their first run of the game. Shawn Riggans then hit into a 4-3 to end the inning with the score 5-1 Phillies.  Talbot might be guilty of not making the correct adjustments during the innings, and because of it, got hit around pretty good.  Talbot did come out with a better mindset in the bottom of the second inning, and he sent down the Phillies 1-2-3 to finish the inning with no more damage.

 
 

In the third inning, Kendricks started the inning by giving up a infield single to Olmedo on a ball hit to Cairo. Olmedo then tried to advance on a hard hit ball by Kapler that was caught by Rollins, and got doubled up on the play to produce two quick outs. Ruggiano then came up and hit a nice dropping ball to center field that eluded Mayberry and ended up with a triple on the play. Kendricks was then replaced by reliever Drew Naylor, who got Aybar to hit a grounder to Cairo, who threw to first to get out of the inning. Rays Manager Joe Maddon let Talbot take the mound for the third inning and he got Ibanez first with a sharp fly to Sadler in right for the first out. Howard then came out and beat out a throw from deep shortstop by Olmedo for an infield single. The Talbot produced two straight ground ball outs from both Mayberry and Dobbs to end his pitching day.
 
 

In the fourth inning, the Rays again has Naylor on the mound and Burrell put a slicing ball down the third baseline to the corner for a lead-off double.  But Burrell got not help this inning as Chris Richards flew out to Ibanez, Ensberg popped out to Howard, and Sadler was caught looking for a called third strike to end the Rays rally. Rays reliever Lance Cormier then came on to replace Talbot and Cairo quickly took advantage of him for a double down the right field line. Donald then hit a nice looper to center that scored Cairo. Cormier then hit Paulino with a pitch, and Rollins put down a nice bunt that Cormier picked up the threw to Richards for the second out. Victorino then struck out, and Ibanez hit a grounder to second to get Cormier out of the inning with no problems.

 
Naylor still remained on the mound for the fifth inning and the first batter, Shawn Riggans hit a sharp liner to Cairo, but he held onto the ball for the first out. Olmedo then hit a single to center field. Naylor tried to pick off Olmedo, but the ball went off Howards glove and he went into second base on the error. Olmedo then stole third base and put himself in scoring position. Ruugiano then produced his second hit of the day to drive in Olmedo for the Rays second run. Adam Kennedy and pinch-hitter Fernando Perez quickly produced the last two outs to get Naylor out if the inning with only one run scored on him.  Cormier again came out and got the Phillies 1-2-3 to finish off the 5th inning. At that point, it was the Phillies leading 6-2
 
 

The Phillies then  sent out non-roster invitee Mike Koplove for the sixth inning. Richards got a walk to lead off the inning, and after  a fly out to center field, Sadler hit into a 6-4-3 double play to make quick work of the Rays in the inning. The Rays countered with sending reliever J P Howell out and he quickly got Donald to hit a grounder to Ensberg at third who threw him out easily at first base. Howell then  tried to sneak a curveball by Paulino, who hit the ball beyond the Tiki Terrace for a solo home run. Ozzie Chavez then struck out to end the inning for the Phillies.

 
 

 

The seventh inning saw reliever Scott Eyre come out and get a quick out from catcher Michel Hernandez. Olmedo then came up and hit a soft grounder to third base that Donald could not handle in time to get the quick runner. Elliot Johnson them got a quick out and give the Rays little hope in the inning. But Jon Weber hit a double down the left field line and scored Olmedo to bring the Rays within 4 runs. Kennedy popped out to third base to end the rally for the Rays. The Rays then sent prospect Dewon Day to the mound and Eric Bruntlett got a quick single off him to lead-off the inning. Bruntlett then stole second base and got into scoring position for the Phillies.  Geoff Jenkins and Andy Tracy both struck out to give the Rays hope with two outs. But Mayberry hit a broken bat single that scored Bruntlett and put the Phillies up 8-3 in the game.

 
 
 

In the 8th inning, the Phillies brought on reliever Clay Condrey. He quickly got Perez to strike out looking, then got Chris Nowak to hit a grounder to third that was easily handled by Donald for an out at first. Ried Brignac then hit a soft grounder to second that was thrown to first to end the Rays inning. Dewon Day stayed on the mound for the Rays after a single by Pablo Ozuna, Donald hit a long fly ball to Nowak in center for the first out. Then Phill
ies catcher Lou Marson hit a sharp grounder to Brignac, who quickly got the throw off to first base.  Chavez then hit another sharply hit grounder to Brignac that handcuffed him and the Phillies quickly had two men on base. Bruntlett then hit a low liner to center field that scored Ozuna. Jenkins then hit a fly ball down the left field line that Sadler took his eye off and it fell to the ground for an error, but both Chavez and Bruntlett scored on the play. Tracy then hit an RBI single that scored Jenkins and gave the Phillies a 12-3 lead.
 


 

 
 

Jake Woods came out for the Phillies in the top of the ninth inning and made quick work of Sadler getting him to hit a high fly ball to center field. Hernandez then hit a hard ball deep and over Bruntlett’s head for a double to start a Rays rally in the inning. Olmedo then struck out to give the Rays only one more out in the game.  With the end in sight, Woods left a breaking ball over the plate and Johnson crushed it for a 2-run homer into the Rays Bullpen. But the Rays rally ended as quickly as it began as Weber struck out to end the game and begin the celebration in the Phillies dugout. It was their first win in the Grapefruit League this spring, and it came against the team they had beaten just a few months ago for the World Series title.

 
 

I was trying to find our MLBlogger Phillies Phollower before the game, but I got mobbed by a few fellow Rays fans that I knew from the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group at Tropicana Field.  Yes, I did hear a few cowbells in the stands, but it was not the loud and vocal group that usually owns the Trop during the season. I know I was not hassled for bring mine in, but I only hit it during the home runs and scoring chances by the Rays and did not abuse the musical instrument.

 
 

 


But I did have to explain the origins of the cowbell and why we use them in games. People know the reasoning that our Owner, Stuart Sternberg is a devote SNL fan, and loves that Christopher Walken skit where he wants “more cowbell”. That is the primary reason, but there are secondary reason that make total sense too. An additional great one is that it tends to frustrate and drive the Boston and New York fans in the Trop. nuts. They can not finish their chants or even do their New York “name roll call” during the game without being interrupted by the blanky blank cowbells. And third, it give the Rays fans a audible image. I am sorry, I really can not see over 25,000 fans blowing on kazoo’s making more noise than those pesky Latin percussion cowbells.

 
I just want to take a second to let local Rays fans know that the Team USA squad that will be reporting to Clearwater, Florida on Monday morning have opened the first practice to the public at Bright House Networks Field at 11:30 am. So if you have nothing planned, and might want to take in some sun and maybe get some autographs or just come cheer for Team USA team before they leave for Toronto. So come on down to the field and show your spirit on Monday. I am thinking of coming on down and seeing Rays reliever J P Howell, who told me he will definitely be here on Monday. Also, the Rays will be without the services of Willy Aybar starting tonight since he will be leaving to report to the camp of the Dominican Republic squad.
 
 

The Team USA will face its first test against Team Canada on March 7, 2009 in the Rogers Centre, in Toronto.  The Dominican Republic team will face the  Netherlands team on the same day, but in Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But they will not be the first teams to take the field for the 2009 World Baseball Classic. That honor will fall to the squads from China and Japan, who take the field on March 5, 2009 in the Tokyo Dome, in Tokyo, Japan.

Photo credtis today go to: RRCollections and Eric Mencher of the Philadelphia Inquier.

 
 

Rays Last 3 Arbitration Eligible Players…..Outfield and Pitching

 

 

 

The  huge celebrations has died down to the point that now we remember them only by using the glossy pictures and video to remind us of the time, place and who we were with when the Rays climbed the  postseason mountain in 2008. Little remains of the celebrations at the vacant Trop. But the stadium is full of activity as the crews are rapidly moving to transform the Dome into a viable football arena, The pitching mound is missing, base paths are gone, and the field is being fitted and lined for the St. Petersburg Bowl, which will debut this year in the stadium. It will be odd to sit there and watch a  college football game at the Trop., knowing that in less than 90 days after the game, baseball will be back at the Tropicana Field.

 

But not gone is the fact that the team was in line for  huge shares of the playoff booty from MLB, and they got the  fantastic news about their bounty on Tuesday. According to MLB, the Rays will distribute over $ 12,278238.61 in a 43-way pile to players and other Rays personnel. You have to hope that Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi got a nice chunk of change from the playoff pie and will not have to umpire as much this off season. The Rays split was about $ 223,390.05 per share, a nice chunk of change for a months worth of sweat and tears. To put that into consideration for players playing under a minimum MLB salary, they will receive almost half their yearly salary for a month of playoff baseball. 

 

        

 

It is totally amazing to me the amount of money flowing out of the baseball coffers after  the complaints being thrown throughout the newspapers and blogs during the  2008 playoffs.  MLB was huffing and puffing about the lack of viewership on Television and the weather situations surrounding the World Series, but in the end, even the first ones eliminated in the AL, the Chicago White Sox, who lost to the A L Champion Rays in the ALDS, got to take away  over $ 27,828.33  each in players’ shares. Not a bad gig if you can get it. That is more than I made in 2008 so far.

 

 

Okay, back to the  main issue here. Today I am going to highlight the last 3  Rays players’ who are eligible for  non-tendered arbitration for the Tampa Bay Rays. They are as  pretty diverse group. You have a devoted church-goer and all-around good guy, an aggressive extrovert  Aussie who moonlights in the World Baseball Classic, and a guy struggling to get respect for his talent, but is a better pitcher than advertised.

 


Each has a place on this team that was  exciting and unique. All three helped set the tone in positively different ways for the team in 2008. But I am again going to put myself into Andrew Friedman’s head and try and divulge and dissect the players into rationale pieces. Will these three guys be the foundation of another great Rays team, or do they need to be jettisoned to make the team better in 2009. By my evaluations I will decide if I would grant or deny any of these three an opportunity to upgrade their salary and continue playing for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009.

 

 And now, on with the show:

 

 

                            

 

Gabe Gross:

 

Gabe Gross had one of the best seasons of his major league career after he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. He hit personal highs in hits, home runs and RBI’s as well as getting 5 outfield assists for the team, second only to B J Upton’s 12 assists. But beyond that, Gross also became Mr “Big Time” for the Rays.  Not only could he be the defensive player they needed down the first baseline for the Rays, but his bat had magic in 2008.

 

Even on the night he was acquired by the Rays, the former Brewer scored his teams go-ahead run to win that game before heading to Orlando to meet up with his new team. Since he has gotten here, he has lit up the clubhouse with positive comments and actions, and totally won over the crowd in right-field with his play. But his bat is the thing that set him apart in 2008.

 

 He was one of the only guys on the roster who was money with guys in scoring position in 2008. And because of that, a lot of his RBI’s came in the later innings in games when he was put in as a defensive specialist for the Rays.  He had only one walk-off homer against the Chicago White Sox on June 1, 2008, but 4 times he teamed up with team mates for back-to-back homers.

 

 

 

That went a long way for the Rays establishing leads and putting the game out of reach. Gross also hit 7 solo homers and 6 2-run shots during 2008. To say he was clutch would be an understatement.  He played in only 78 games in 2008 since being acquired for a minor league pitcher, Billy Butler. But along the way he hit a tape measure 437 foot homer against the Cleveland Indians to tie that game on August 6th.

 

14 of his 38 RBI’s were either game-winning or game tying in 2008.  He has 3 walk-off  RBI’s, matching the Rays team record. One of those was a walk-off homers against  White Sox reliever Matt Thorton, which was his first career homer off a left-handed pitcher. 

 

 

 

 

Gross has been a model Rays from start to finish and the team would be truly rewarded if they granted arbitration to Gross for the 2009 season. With the flux of not having a designated right-fielder in house, Gross is also a huge advantage for the Rays in that they do not have to be desperate seeking a outfielder, and would be totally confident to give the position to Gross for 2009.  His 2009 salary could bump up to $ 1.3 million dollars, which is well within the range of a competent 4th outfielder who can hit and play defense with the best of them.

 

 

 

 

Edwin Jackson:

 

Anyone who knows me knows that this one will be personal. I am a huge fan of the guy ever since I first met him at a Spring Training game a few years ago and told him he will love it here. Funny how people can be attracted to certain types of ballplayers. Jackson is the type of player I enjoy watching pitch and learn the game of baseball.

 

He was a former sixth round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers as an outfielder, but was converted to a pitcher by the Dodgers’ staff. This is only his 4th season as a pitcher and I have seen improvement every year he has been in our system.  He is also one of those guys who is humble enough to chat and sign for fans as long as he can for the joy of it, not because it is his duty.

 

Now that Jackson has turned 25, we can finally cal, him a veteran on the rotation.  But did you know that he has now made 77 career starts as a pitcher, 63 of them for the Rays.  This season he tied the Rays record for wins with James Shields and Rolando Arroyo with his 14th win. His previous best was his 7 wins in 2007.  He also posted only his 2nd winning season as a professional. He was 2-1 in 2004.

 

 

 

 

He threw a total of 183.1 innings in 2008, which was over 22 innings more than any other time in his career.  He ended the month of August with a 2.27 ERA, the best on the staff and 4th best in the American League. He also tied a Rays record for 4 wins in August.  He had a 4- straight game win streak earlier in the season from July 25- August 10th.

 

He also won 6 out of 7 starts up to August 10th posting a 2.59 ERA during the streak.  He had a streak of 20 straight scoreless innings over the span of 3 starts from May 8-18th.  That set a record for a Rays starter, and was only 1 inning off the all-time Rays record of 21 set by Joe Borowski in 2005. 

 

Jackson is known for his high-powered fastball that can reach the top 90′s with a slight dip, but his curve and slider can sometimes just rumble through the strike zone and has been his problem pitches this season. Jackson was also involved and suspended for the Boston-Tampa Bay fiasco in Fenway Park because of his run towards the mound during the scuffle.  It was said he was punching and hitting  Coco Crisp at the bottom of the pile, but photos show he lost his shoe on the way to the mound and did not arrive until late in the event. He served a 5-game suspension from June 22-27th.

 

 

 

If I were Andrew Friedman, I would first sit down with Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey and see what the Rays have in store for Jackson in the near future. With the aspect of David Price coming into the rotation, the Rays must make some adjustments to either Jackson or Andy Sonnanstine in the starting rotation.

 

If the Rays think that Jackson would be valuable in either the rotation or the Bullpen, then they should offer him arbitration and get him settled for 2009. Also on the horizon is interest by several clubs in Jackson over the past 2 seasons. The New York Mets, Seattle Mariners have expressed interest in the developing right hander.

 

Remember, that this guy is still learning the art of pitching, and 2008 was his best season to date, with unlimited potential and growth in the next few seasons.   Jackson could look forward to a salary in the $ 2.5 Million dollar range after an arbitration hearing.

 

 

 

Grant Balfour:

 

I did not know what to expect in 2007 when the Rays sent my buddy Seth McClung to the Brewers’ for the Aussie reliever. He came into the Rays Bullpen and was average at best in 2007. He lacked a certain intensity and velocity to his pitching, but all that changed after Spring Training in 2008. Balfour was not selected to the Rays Bullpen losing out to Scott Dohmann for the last spot in the Bullpen.

 

Balfour did not stress it and went down to the Durham Bulls with a chip on his shoulder and fire in his belly. When he came back up to the Rays Bullpen, he made it very difficult for the team to even consider sending him back to the minor leagues. Down the stretch, Balfour and J P Howell were the core of a Bullpen unit that shut down some of the best hitter in the entire league.

 

Balfour down the stretch pitched in 17 of the team’s last 34 games.  In 15 of those outing he pitched scoreless frames for the Rays.  Overall in 2008, the Rays went 32-19 in ballgames he came into from the Bullpen.  He also tied for tops in wins in 2008 in the Bullpen with 6 wins, tied with J P Howell.  He leads all MLB relievers with a 12.66 strikeout per 9 innings ratio, pitching 58.1 innings and recording 82 strikeouts on the year.

 

 

 

Balfour also was tops in the majors by fanning 36 percent of the batters he faced, and  his 1.54 ERA was also the  4th best ERA posted by a reliever in the majors this season.  His .143 opponents batting average was best in the AL, and second in the MLB to the Cub’s Carlos Marmol.  He also allowed only 3 homers and 11 extra base hits all season long.

 

He also had a .230 slugging Percentage against him, second lowest in the majors. Balfour also provided support as the Rays closer during Troy Percivals’ many DL trips in 2008. During this time he preserved 3 out of the 4 save opportunities for the Rays.

 

 

 

Put all these statistics along with a on-mound intensity not seen in the past by the Rays and you have the total package for the Bullpen. It is a sure bet that to invest in Balfour would be a great investment for the Rays. So to offer him arbitration might be a moot point. If anyone deserved a raise in 2009, it would be the members of the Bullpen who kept the teams in games all year long. With an arbitration hearing, Balfour could increase his salary to about $ 1.2 million dollars. Every penny of it will come with emotion and energy, just what they Rays need in 2009 to defend their A L East crown.

 

Next Class of Arbitration for the Rays:

 

The next group to hit the arbitration ranks for the Rays will boost the payroll in a major way. Players like infielders Ben Zobrist, Willy Aybar will have their first go at the process. Catcher Shawn Riggans will be eligible. And B J Upton will also be presented with his first arbitration decision as a professional.

 

In the pitching department, we have people like J P Howell and starter Matt Garza.  You can see several of the above players maybe being offered long term or even extension to combat the arbitration process. It was said that in 2006, the Rays wanted to make a long-term deal with B J Upton, but the deal was not formulated or completed in time.

 

I could see Matt Garza and maybe even Ben Zobrist getting an extension to cover a few of their arbitration years. and maybe even a year or two of their free agency like the deals given to James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Evan Longoria in the last several seasons.  So we have that to look forward to in 12 months time.

 

 

 

 

Relaxed Staff is Key to Early 2009 Victories

 

 

Have you ever wondered what you favorite pitcher might  be doing in the offseason? Besides the regular answer of relax and enjoy the family, would you travel, take up a hobby or maybe help coach a local baseball team? Or maybe you want to just learn a new skill like racquetball or maybe even golf.

 

All of the above would be a great answer to an offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays  youthful starting 5 after their successful and long season. 2 members of the 5 have young ones, Matt Garza and James Shields. So you know Dad is taking a little time with the young ones doing the things he can not do with them during the season. One of the biggest complaints I have heard from major leaguers is the time away from family while the little ones are growing bigger and bigger. It is a bitter sacrifice they make to push the financial envelope for their families competing for a spot in the rotation.

 

 

 Bachelor Scott Kazmir is one of the guys who has set down roots in the Tampa Bay area in the offseaso. From his Harbour Island shangra-la he is right in the kidlle of Tampa nightlife with the Channelside District just a short walk away from his abode.  I have seen and talked with Kazmir when he has wandered out to do the occasional bowling adventure on Friday nights at Splitsville. An off season hobby or sport can make the time go fast and also give them an alternative relaxation during their down time. Most people take to competitive sports or activites becuase it mimics the adrenaline and rush you get every time you hit the pitching rubber during a game.

 

Andy Sonnanstine has mapped out plans for his offseason. He’ll be heading to a celebrity poker and golf tournament in Las Vegas later this month, and he’s going to find a place in Tampa. He’s  is also planning on hanging out with friends, and enjoying his time away from the Rays..

 

And he’s going to sleep in, day after day — the kind of sleep where you roll over, glance at the clock and then close your eyes for another cycle or three of rapid eye movement, like a college kid back home right after exams. “I’m probably going to take it pretty easy,” said Sonnanstine. “This is definitely the longest season I’ve ever been a part of.”

 

 

 

When Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey hears  about this, he will be thrilled, because above all else, he wants his young starters’ to recover this winter. He doesn’t want them throwing at all , doesn’t want them running marathons ( Balfour ), doesn’t want them to discover their inner triathlete. He wants them working very hard at resting and recovering after a long, hard season.

 

The Rays pulled off a minor miracle last season of not having a regular starter  go down for a huge amount of time. All 5 starters went through the season with aches and pains, but none went down for ae tended period during the season, or suffered any effects during the long season. That is a true feat in today’s baseball world. Most teams have  at least one of their starters down for months at a time. Sometimes it is a yearly long shutdown for Tommy John’s or shoulder fatique.  The grind of the baseball season can wear and tear at a pitcher worst than a fielding player due to the stress and mechanics needed to throw a sphere over 90 miles an hour consistantly during the season.

 

Because the Rays  Coaching staff are well aware, recent baseball history is littered with teams that suffer a physical hangover from a playoff run that takes them deep into October. The Red Sox had all hands on deck in winning the World Series in 2004, and many parts of the staff broke down in 2005.  And the Rays were witness to first-hand sightlines as the 2007 World Series winners went down in Tropicana Field after a bitterly fought 7-game series against their team.

 

The White Sox’s championship staff of 2005 significantly regressed in 2006. Chris Carpenter led the Cardinals to a title in 2006, and he’s never been the same. The Tigers’ pitching staff was fractured by numerous injuries in 2007, with staff members convinced that the team paid a heavy toll for the remarkable success of 2006.

 

The Rays’ biggest challenge for 2009 might not be in identifying a solid closer, or  even determining who their right fielder or DH will be for the openers. The critical factor might be the ability of the Rays’ young pitchers, whom all but Kazmir, set career-highs for innings in 2008, to recover strongly and repeat their collective performance in 2009. Their health might be one of the true keys to their defense of the AL East crown and the AL pennant. With a healthy staff and a productive Bullpen, it might be possible  to see advancement beyond the magical dreams of 2008 and claim a world title.

 

 

Among the members of the young staff, James Shields is the elder by age ( 26) , but not by  overall game time experience. That medal still hangs around Scott Kazmir’s neck as the All-Time leader already in several of the Rays pitching records as such a young age.

 

 In 2008, Shields threw 240 total innings. Which is amazing for such a young star, but it was still only 25 more inngs or 3 starts more than 2007. Shields is one of the guys who will have to be truly aware of his body in 2009. Throwing that many innings can break down a pitchers body over time, and if he listens to his body respond and even send a pain signal, it could save the Rays alot of time and energy trying to replace his persence in the rotation.

 

Throwing alot of innings can weaken the body the following year. Some say that is why Scott Kazmir might have had the problems he did in 2007. He pitched almost 207 innings in 2007, and had a set back early in Spring Training. Because he listened to the signs and did not push himself beyond a point, he was able to repair and bring himself back from the injury. In 2008, becuase of the injury, Kazmir only threw 190 innings for the Rays.

 

 

                             

 

That is rare in a young pitcher to disregard pain and  most just keep throwing knowing their spot in the rotation or even on the team might be in jeopardy if they go down. Matt Garza had a sense he was hurt early in the season, but tried to play with the pain in his forearm and hand. The nerve situation that Garza suffered is an example of a pitcher ignoring the pain until someone else makes him realize he is only hurting himself and the team by not going to the mound 100 percent.

 

Garza and Kazmir situation were the only episodes for the Rays in a short term injury situation for the team in 2008. With both of them more aware of the team’s committment to them and their own committment to acheiving more in 2009, they will know the problem signs now and can make good decisions on their health.

 

Even before the end of the Rays’ regular season, Hickey said, the staff had discussed how they planned on preparing the pitchers for 2009, knowing that Spring Training in 2009 will begin a week early. “Spring training is only 12 weeks away,”  sighed Hickey . “I want them to flat-out rest. I want a whole 4 or 5 or 6 weeks of nothing but healing and resting up. … Whether they know it or not, they’ll be a bit weary.”

 

Hickey would love if his pitchers did some low-bore physical conditioning over the next 6 weeks or so, before easing their way back into their preparation for 2009. There is really no need for them to pick up a baseball, for example, until the turn of the year, as far as Hickey is concerned.

 

 

Then, in spring training, Hickey already has loose plans to reduce the number of pitches and innings thrown by his starters. Typically, starting pitchers will have built up their arms by the end of spring training to where they are throwing 105 pitches over seven innings. Common knowledge among the team is that they will probably reduce the number of outings for his starters by one, and his relievers will make fewer appearances.

 

The build-up before the exhibition season begins will be more gradual, with the throwing sessions staggered. It’s possible, as well, that Tampa Bay will have more pitchers in camp in 2009. With the great corp of pitching prospects in the Rays; minor league program, they might get deeper looks and more work in the exhibition season to rest the entire staff a bit in 2009.

 

 

 

The alterations may not sound like much, Hickey says, but he is cognizant of saving wear and tear whenever and wherever he can, after his young starters worked for the first time in a postseason, when every pitch is thrown with much more duress, as he said.

 

It may be that the Rays’ young starters will be OK because — well, because they’re young, and can bounce back. But Hickey will work specifically to guide Rays pitchers, because unlike the veterans he’s worked with in the past — Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, among others — the Tampa Bay starters may not know their bodies as well, this early in their careers. “You’ll rein them in a little bit more than you would old guys,” he said.

 

Sonnanstine will embrace the opportunity to rest. Pitching five innings in the postseason, he said, was like pitching 10 during the regular season. Because of the early start to spring training, he said, “I’ll have to factor that into my plans.”

 

Others like Shields and Garza will have a little less time with family and doing thing this offseason, but all that will melt away when the 2 banner are raised during the Home Opener  against the Yankees. But between now and then, all they have to do is relax and enjoy off season life. Kazmir, meanwhile might be toeing the wood sliding a nice ball towards a 7-10 split and smiling from ear-to-ear.

 

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