Results tagged ‘ Kelly Shoppach ’

What is Your Favorite 2010 Rays Moment?

 


 

As I was waiting for the Tampa Bay Rays plane to arrive Sunday evening at St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport Rays game day emcee Rusty Kath was asking a few smaller Rays fans an important question for possible bobbleheads and assorted prizes. It was a simple question: “What was your biggest Rays moment in 2010?”


The question seemed so simple at first thought, but instantly there became a avalanche of special Rays moments throughout the season, including about 10 Rays moments that kept appearing again and again in my mind based on their place in the Rays scheme of things this season, and their importance to the overall Rays clinching their second American League East title in three seasons. And I guess the best place to start is in April and work our way back towards today.

 

April 6th

This was the Rays home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, and was set with pomp and circumstance normally associated with the first home game, but something felt different this year. It was not the two-colored flaming spirals in the Rays infield before the game, it was something brewing beneath the surface of this contest.

It was Carl Crawford’s eight consecutive Opening Day spot in the line-up, and possibly his last as a member of the Rays. But it was his play on the field that separated this day from any other this season.

Crawford sealed the Rays victory with a 2-run walk-off double that tore the feathers from the Orioles for a 4-3 loss. It was classic Crawford, and instantly this image came to mind as the reason I am going to miss C.C.


 

 April 17th

Was a special moment in Rays history as the day I truly began to believe that Rays closer Rafael Soriano was going to be something special in 2010. Not only did Soriano help save the Rays completion of the prior night’s suspended game, a 3-1 Rays victory. Soriano also got his second save of the day in the Rays 6-5 win in the high cap of the unexpected doubleheader . To win one game in Boston is a great thrill, to win back-to-back within 12 hours of each other is a moment to remember.


 

May 2nd 

This game evolved into a special home moment for the Rays Republic as Rays starter Wade Davis and Royals starter Zack Greinke both threw 7 scoreless innings each with Greinke only making one mistake. But that one mistake ended up being the only run scored in the ballgame when Greinke left up a fastball to Evan Longoria that he deposited in the Leftfield stands for a 1-0 Rays victory.


 

June 8th

This contest displayed the versatility of the Rays as a great offensive and pitching team as Rays starter Jeff Niemann 2-hit the Toronto Blue Jays in a 9-0 shutout of the birds at Tropicana Field. The night was highlighted by 2 Home Runs by Carlos Pena., one a Grand Slam. Niemann has his bid for a No-Hitter broken up in the top of the sixth inning by Toronto shortstop Mike McCoy.



 

June 19th

This road game during the InterLeague schedule will be remembered for a lot of reasons. First it was an away contest against the Florida Marlins in which 15,000 Marlin Air Horns tortured the Rays players eardrums for the entire contest. But it might have been the true signal that the Rays patience at the plate was beginning to return dividends as the Rays got 4 walks in the 11th inning, including 2 with the bases loaded to secure a 9-8 win.


It was also the night that saw the debut of Rays usual starter James Shields as he came in for one scoreless innings of relief and picked up the win on this night. Rays reliever Andy Sonnanstine also got his first Major League Baseball save on this especially extra noisy night (I am bringing my Marlins Air Horn to Game 1 of the ALDS tomorrow).

 

July 26th

This date will probably be set in stone by many among the Rays Republic as the most important night in Rays pitching history. On this night, Rays starter Matt Garza produced the Rays first No-Hitter against the Detroit Tigers. More amazing was the fact Garza and Detroit starter Max Scherzer were trading No-No bids until Rays slugger Matt Joyce hit a Grand Slam to provide the needed punch to seal Graza’s gem.


Garza threw 120 pitches on the night with 6 strikeouts and one lone walk to Tigers Rightfielder Brian Boesch in the second inning to eclipse the chance for a Perfect Game. The entire night Garza seemed on a different plane and was constantly bombarding the strike zone pushing 80 of his 120 pitches across the plate for strikes.

 

August 1st

This extremely exciting Sunday afternoon game against the New York Yankees where Alex Rodriguez was still hunting for his 600th career Home Run. He did not start in the contest, but came on as a pinch hitter and was struck out looking to end the 7th inning by Rays starter James Shields. It also signaled the coming drama between the Yankees and the Rays as the Rays pulled within one game of the Yankees after this 3-0 victory at Tropicana Field.


 

August 10th

During this road game start the Rays Republic got to see some of the immediate future for the Rays on the mound. Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson took the mound in this contest at Comerica Park against the Detroit Tigers and gave up a lead-off hit to Austin Jackson before he then retired 18 straight Tiger hitters enroute to his second straight Rays win. Hellickson threw 7 inning and got 7 strikeouts and the Rays countered by getting 8 runs on 9 hits, including 4 doubles, to defeat the Tigers 8-0.


 

August 28th

This game was the contest at Tropicana Field against the Boston Red Sox that saw both Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria flirt with a possible cycle in the same game. It was also the game that B J Upton hit a tying Home Run in the 8th inning, then Dan Johnson hit a walk-off Home Run that pushed the visiting Red Sox to 5 ½ games behind the Rays for the American League Wild Card. It signaled the beginning of the end for the Boston club as they never got closer than 5 ½ game again to the Rays in 2010.


 

September 13th

In this premier contest we saw two of the American League’s best left-hander going against each other to try and prop each other up as favorite for the 2010 American League Cy Young candidate. Both Yankee starter C C Sabathia and Rays starter David Price traded zeros for 8 innings each before each left the ballgame.

It wasn’t until the bottom of the 11th inning when pinch hitter Reid Brignac sent a solos shot into the Rightfield stands that either teams blinked in this 1-0 walk-off victory.


So there are 10 possible candidates for my greatest moment in Rays 2010 history. I truly think Garza’s No-Hitter is the top pitching moment of 2010, but as a team, there is still another moment I truly feel has to be added to this list.

October 3rd, might be the biggest team based moment of 2010. As a team the Rays stood solid and would not break after going down early to a 2-0 deficit. With the bases loaded, Rays reliever Chad Qualls got a well deserved double play ball that got the Rays out of the inning without further damage.


The Rays ended up scrapping together an impressive top of the 9th inning rally when pinch hitter Rocco Baldelli single to leftifield, then stole second base ( his 1st SB of 2010). Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach then put down a great ball down the Third Baseline that Royals Third Baseman Wilson Betemit misfired a throw to First Base for an error and Baldelli scampered in to score. Rafael Soriano then converted his 45th save of the season as 8 Rays pitchers combined for the 3-2 victory.

 

The win cemented the Rays clinch of the 2010 American League East title with an exclamation point needed going into the playoffs instead of question marks. The victory solidly put all discussion to bed that the Rays backed into the post season as A L Champs, plus gave the Rays Home field Advantage throughout the American League segment of the post season. 

The gutsy extra inning win completely embodies the Rays mantra of “WIN- What’s Important Now”. It also helped send the Rays homeward so they could host the Texas Rangers instead of travel straight to Minnesota to begin the American League Divisional Series tomorrow afternoon.


Those are my special Rays moments of 2010 so far. With the post season about to get into full swing in 24 hours, possibly more fantastic Rays moments could be added to this list before the Rays take their last at bats, or final place in the field in the 2010 Playoffs.

Hopefully I have 3 more champagne celebrations to cover, and a parade downtown to photograph. The time is upon us for greatness to arrive. It is time to show the rest of the country what Rays Republic fans have known all season long, it is never over against the Rays until that last Umpire’s call.

 
 
 
 
 

Could Jaso be a AL ROY Dark Horse?

 

 

Some of the Tampa Bay Rays fans might have known that rookie catcher John Jaso plays guitar in the Rays team garage band, but how many of you knew if he was not playing baseball, he wanted to be a Mathematics teacher? I can honestly attest to not being the best at mathematical statistics and logistical probabilities, but I sure can predict with some clarity that Jaso will be a hard person to overlook when it comes down to voting for the 2010 Rookie of the Year in the American League.


Most people have two Detroit Tigers players high on their list as the potential one and two most likely candidates in rookies Austin Jackson and Brian Boesch, and they are excellent players to consider, but usually when two players on the same team go head-to-head against each other, there can be a secondary lapse of them cancelling themselves out in the process.

Other names to consider like M’s rookie Justin Smoak, and Indian infielder Jason Donald have also has solid years for their respective clubs, but if you truly consider how far Jaso has come since the beginning of Spring Training this season, he has out performed all of them. All this chatter about a possible ROY candidacy might not have even happened if Jaso had not impressed the Rays brass enough to get them all to collectively reconsider sending him back Durham (Triple-A) this season after Kelly Shoppach came back from his knee injury.

 

To even consider sending their long time starting catcher and former All Star Dioner Navarro down to the minors instead would have been out of the question if Jaso had not made his numbers at the plate and behind it pop out at you compared to Navarro or Shoppach. I would definitely say Jaso has already beaten some amazing odds to even still be wearing his Rays uniform every night.


Even if you think Jaso is not putting up the usual romantic offensive power numbers associated with most rookies who are considered for this ROY Award, Jaso has brought a great offensive level back to the Rays catching position, and his defensive skills get better with every pitch.. We already knew that Jaso possesses a big bat, but the Rays fans were a bit shocked, but pleasantly surprised to see an almost 180 degree shift in his catching defensive skills since his first Major League call-up in September 2008.

Jaso has basically had drastic changes made to his defensive stance, throwing motion changed by the Rays this Spring. Sure Jaso is still a little rough around the edges and learning behind the plate, but his mass improvement can be directly attributed with his extra time spent with Rays Bullpen Coach and former Catching Instructor Bobby Ramos and Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi. They both worked to simplify Jaso’s approach and skills behind the plate, and they made an immediate positive change in Jaso’s career path.

 
J. Meric/Getty Images

With Jaso’s skills behind the plate beginning to shining brighter with every start, his offensive numbers have been consistent and a huge upgrade for the Rays in their quest for a second American League East title. Even though Jaso has less than 500 plate appearances ( 268 as of Sept 3), the left-hand hitting Jaso has amassed a .280 batting average with 4 HR and 42 RBI while seeing limited action, mostly against right-handed pitcher this season.

But the power aspect of this young catcher is firmly in hand when you notice in his brief plate appearances in 2010, he also has 75 hits and 15 doubles and has been extremely patient at the plate in getting 47 walks this season. Amazing still is the fact Jaso has hit out of the lead-off spot in 28 Rays contests and the first Rays catcher to every attempt the feat. According to Baseball Reference, no other rookie has ever started as many games as a catcher and batting lead-off in one season. To put it more into prospective, the previous record was 13 games by Philadelphia A’s Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane in 1925. Jaso was also the first rookie catcher to bat lead-off since Tiger Bruce Kimm in 1976.

 
J. Meric/Getty Images

I know it doesn’t take a math wizard right now to see that Jaso has firmly planted himself as a vital cog in the Rays machine this season. To further boost up Jaso’s offensive display as a rookie, his .388 On Base Percentage leads all A L rookies, and would currently tie him with Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner for the 8th overall spot in the American League. And wouldn’t you know it, Jaso is also hitting .328 (22-67) since July 28th.


But before we finish this, let’s see where else he would rank among the A L Rookies. These numbers fully explain and demonstrate the pure fact that Jaso has been a prime ingredient in the Rays surge towards the top of their division, and has shown consistent offensive firepower for the Rays. Jaso is currently 3rd in batting average ( .280 ), 3rd in hits ( 75 ), 5th in doubles ( 15 ) 2nd in RBI ( 42 ), 2nd in runs scored (47) and the icing on the cake, Jaso leads all rookies with 47 walks against 32 strikeouts. This figure puts Jaso alone at the top in the Major Leagues as no one else with as many plate appearances has a better walk-to strikeout ration.

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

When it is all said and done, Jaso will probably get a handful of votes for the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year. But like I stated above, with two Tigers expected to be the frontrunners in the race, Jaso could be the dark horse who could come charging to the front and snatch the award. Jaso has played this season like he has been here before.


He has not let the nerves or the stress of his position even taint him in any way as he charges forward with his team towards a playoff berth. But not winning the award probably will not phase the young catcher . Jaso has a special job to do, and a possible playoff berth in the balance right now. And anyhow, I would not bet on Jaso failing, so fair he has beaten the house consistently.

Never Play Cards with Friedman

Navarro’s Rays Clock Ticking Faster

 


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Somehow I knew the writing was on the wall for Tampa Bay Rays catcher Dioner Navarro. And not just because of the emergence of John Jaso, but because the once “stealthy” catcher had now become predictable. There was a time when Navarro would provide offensive mastery and blocks ball behind the plate like his dinner depended on it. But those days became far and end between in 2009, and beginning in 2010, you knew it was a make it or break season for Navi.


And with a Minor League option still attached to his name, it seems that a travel visa( ticket) is in the near future for the Rays former All-Star. But it has been a long time since Navarro has acted like his former All-Star self as his batting average and defensive skills have somehow diminished and all but guarantee his departure when Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett can come back off the disabled list on June 15th.

But is sending Navi down to the Triple-A Durham Bulls going to ravish his career, or will it be an immediate wake up call to either fight his way back to the Rays come September, or be vanquished to the minors and possibly traded later this year. It is truly a human gut check time for Navarro, and we might just see if the Rays own version of the Stay Puff Marshmallow man has the killer instinct and determination still in his belly to fight for his Major League Baseball existence.

Navarro has been down this road before after being signed as a free agent by the New York Yankees, he was thought to be the future catching star of the Pinstripes before his work ethic and his weight went different directions and the Yankees tired of his yo-yoing tendencies. He was quickly dispatched via a trade to the West Coast and the Los Angeles Dodgers where he was thought to be a buffer before current Dodger starter Russell Martin was ready to take the throne.

Even there, the effort and the talent seemed like polar opposites and he was again jettisoned to the Rays where it almost seemed like his last tango in Tampa Bay might be his last chance to show he had the talent and the ability to match up as a Major League catcher. And this team has never been known for their catching prospects, or even its starting catcher providing offensive numbers that make you take a positive second glance. Navarro had a middle-of-the-road beginning with the Rays before his 2008 explosion put him front and center in the company of the elite.

But just as fast as he risen to the top, he adamantly fell from grace in 2009 showing the “old” Navarro tendencies again and a lack of defensive fortitude in even remotely blocking balls bouncing all over the plate. He had relinquished the “stealth” side of his nature and again fell into the predictable mode.

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But the question now might just be which direction will he turn towards if demoted to the Bulls? Will he take it as a moral imperative to improve, reevaluate and resurgence to his career, or languish in pity and remorse for a bit before again striking out to rebuild?


This time June 15th might be the defining date of Navarro’s career. And the steps he takes from that moment on will define his Major League Baseball chances, or be the beginning of his demise. I have been a conscientious observer of Navarro over the last several months and have seen his bat come alive at moment, but also seen him falter when needed in the clutch. But with this Rays team striving now to revisit the “Promised Land” again, can Navarro regain his former self to rejoin and step with his Rays teammates into that hallowed ground again?

It is up to Navarro right now to impress a certain former catcher, Rays Manager Joe Maddon, that this decision was not needed. That he had the heart and soul of this team vested close to his own heart and hit the ground running in Durham. Most important might be his indication to the team of his sweat and grit while down in the minor so if Kelly Shoppach or John Jaso fall to fall to injury or their own offensive woes, he is ready to don his catching gear at this level with the full confidence of his Rays Manager.

Gail Burton/ AP 

This truly is going to be a gut check time for Navarro both as a person and as a professional athlete. How he reacts and interprets the final decision of Maddon and the Rays front office on June 15th will be critical to if they see him in the Rays future in 2010. I can end this with a few hundred different baseball cliché’s as to what Navarro needs to accomplish in his time left with the Rays. But in the end, it will be how, and what Navarro does with this last few impressions that will set deep within the Rays organization’s minds as to his viable future with this team beyond June 15th.

How Navarro carries himself out of that Rays clubhouse on that date could be the true telling point to his Rays career. Navarro can either stand tall and stride out of that Rays clubhouse with honor and a plan of action, or he can saunter out with bitterness and angst and hit Durham with a chip on his shoulder. This might be the biggest moment of Navarro career because it will define his future….even if it is not with the Rays.

Could Jaso Stay Up with the Rays ?

 
 
J Meric / Getty Images

I have to be honest here. I have never really considered Rays current Catcher Du Jour John Jaso to be a Major League catcher. I always heard a huge bunch of baloney about his erratic bat motion that even frustrated ESPN analyst and ex-bat wiggler himself Joe Morgan. That the motion Jaso wastes in his swing just before the pitcher releases the ball would tire him out after 4 at bats. And wasn’t it some Rays website somewhere who was throwing the fear of God almighty that Jaso’s defensive indifference would also be a burden if he ever became a full time fixture with the Rays.

Isn’t it great that all that noise about Jaso for some reason has instantly disappeared after he came up and started to produce like a true back-up catcher trying to fulfill a full-time spot with the big club. And I have to say I am not only pleasantly surprised, but I was touched enough by his fine bit of offensive and defensive adjustments that I popped him instantly as the starting catcher in my ESPN Fantasy League. But with Jaso currently sporting a hefty .455 Batting Average and the ability to not only produce runs, but also showing a great amount of plate discipline for a guy on the edge of a roster spot.

And it has been a great surprise, and even a godsend that he has shown the maturity and the ability to make some nice adjustments to his defensive game while he has been up with the Rays to get an extended look by Rays Manager Joe Maddon as he handles every member of this Rays young pitching staff. And this is all from a guy that most people within the organizations stands thought would never be able to produce at this level and might be a Triple-A lifer at best. And I can honestly say I am one of those guys who is glad I was wrong, because Jaso might actually make a decision hard for the Rays after Shoppach gets back behind the dish again soon.

But that also raises a good question as to if he could be a great addition to this Rays team, or is one of those guy who might be a nice plug-in piece for the future, or at least get an extended look in Spring 2011. But with Rays current starter Dioner Navarro in a bit of a slump both offensively and showing some lazy tendencies on defense, could Jaso just be the piece of the puzzle that might click without forcing or taking any momentum from this team. It offers up a good question as to if Navi might have to sweat it out and provide some impressive numbers to remain a fixture on this Rays roster.

And this might be a decision or an idea that the Rays have had in the back of their mind for a bit, but not thinking it might crop up during the season, but in the 2010 off season. With Shoppach in the fold with a two-year contract, and Navarro possibly showing a upper price in the mid $ 2 million range in 2011, could this be the right time for the Rays to dangle Navi to a few teams that are currently in a bit of upheaval over their own catching department.

 
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We saw one of those teams recently when the Oakland Athletics came into Tropicana Field and had to use Jake Fox who they got in a trade with the Chicago Cubs this off season behind the dish, and everyone in attendance was looking all throughout the dugout for Kurt Suzuki. Bringing in a experienced backstop would be beneficial to the A’s, and might not take more than a high left-handed reliever in the A’s farm system, and maybe a prospect or two considering the package. It could be a “win-win” situation for the Rays and A’s as they both get some benefit from such a deal.


But then there is another catching carousel going on in the same American League West division as the Texas Rangers are currently playing their own version of musical catchers with the recent demotion of both od their Opening Day catchers Taylor Teagarden and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to their Triple-A affiliate, the Oklahoma City Redhawks. And with the Rangers then picking up the option of Triple-A catcher Max Ramirez, the team is hoping that the tandem of Ramirez and old timer Matt Treanor can finally shore up the Texas backstop. But this might just be a temporary fix, and there might need to be a further look maybe towards Tampa Bay.

And in the 2010 Spring Training Grapefruit League season I was whispering about the Rangers potential problem with the young Teagarden maybe not ready for the full-time MLB reins, and Saltalamacchia maybe too fragile with his curvature of the spin situation to see him do prolonged duties behind the plate more than four starts a week at the most. It might be about time for the Rangers to stop trying to bluff the rest of Major League Baseball and admit they might have been backing the wrong horses.

 
J Meric / Getty Images

Enter Navarro into the Rangers possible catching equation. He would provide instant credibility and endurance to their line-up, plus get a chance to start again fresh and contribute to a young team and pitching staff that might benefit from his experience. For some reason when I think of Navarro and the Rangers I do see a marriage maybe not made in heaven, but of necessity and mutual want for a clean slate. Again, the price might not be a huge burden here in terms of prospects or maybe even a reliever like Darren O’Day or C J Wilson (lefthander) straight up for Navarro.

It is not like I would be foolish enough to consider a great developing prospect like fireball reliever Neftali Feliz… that would just be plain unimaginable a price for Navarro. But I do think that at some point in 2010, the Rays will consider offers for Navarro considering his salary will jump, plus the Rays would not probably be willing to bank about $5 million dollars in two catchers who basically are bookends offensively, with Shoppach showing a bit more defensive prowess.
 
And an additional point might be which of them would be a positive mentor for the young Jaso? Instantly the eyes wander straight to Shoppach’s name and the job he did in Cleveland after Victor Martinez headed East with Cleveland’s young catcher Lou Marson.

So maybe when Shoppach completes his rehab assignment and shows he has a healthy outlook for the Rays in 2010, their attention might not be in returning Jaso to Durham for the remainder of the season, but possibly be to find a new home for Navarro and his gear.

And this might just happen due to the extent of the development that Jaso has shown during his short time up with the Rays. If he remains “hot” and can both produce a offensive firestorm at the catching position while also diving on balls and throwing out base runners, Jaso could honestly get a chance to retain some MLB service time in 2010.


Considering he is making the MLB minimum even if he does stay up with the team for the rest of the season, his jump in pay scale will not break the Rays bank, or cause any alarms to go off in Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedmans laptop when considering his salary under the Rays 2011 payroll limits. The Rays have always committed towards fiscal respectability and holding each member of the Rays roster responsible for their actions and production. After Shoppach returns, it just might be time for the Rays to consider cutting the cord with Navarro and letting him find a better suited future somewhere else.

 
Chris O’Meara/ AP

Catching has never been a position that the Rays could ever say they have been over abundant with talent or power, but right now there might be an indication of a crossroads for one Rays catcher, and who know which direction he will wander next. No matter if Navarro stays and Jaso is returned to Triple-A Durham when Shoppach returns, or a trade keeps Jaso here and sends another catcher to fresh surroundings, this is a huge stepping stone for this franchise to finally know they have the talent and the in-house abilities to even consider such a move well within the season.


I like Navarro as a person. I have talked to him several times and get a good vibe from him most days. But right now it seems that Maddon is trying to let Navarro out himself from this situation or possibly this team. So far Navarro has been a team player who realistically sees that Jaso has the “hot hand” and respectfully gives him the chance to strive.

But with each passing RBI or walk, it also seems like another small seed of doubt or even confidence in Jaso to do the same job without the offensive woes or the defensive catnaps behind the plate. Hopefully no matter what happens, Jaso knows he can finally be considered MLB worthy.

 

Yankees “Team Effort” Slams Rays

 
 
Mike Carlson/AP

It was kind of funny how everyone around me, including Rays fans, wanted to see me shouting and spouting out sports metaphors all over the place on Saturday afternoon after the New York Yankees used a bona fide “team effort” to dominate during their 10-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays. But the stark reality of MLB-style baseball is that these types of lop-sided, miscues, one-sided baseball contests happen several times a year to every one of the 30 Major League Baseball teams.

With only 5 Rays games in the 2010 books, you might not expect, or want it to happen today, but I knew this type of rude awakening was hovering on the distant horizon. Most baseball fans call these types of games “emotionless”, or that the “team didn’t seem to not have their heart into it tonight”. But the honest truth is that no matter how hard The Rays played today, no matter if the Rays go on to either win 100+ games a year or just sit at .500 with 81 wins, these types of nightmarish games come up and bite even the World Series Champions when they least expect them.

But do not think I have totally losing it here, but sometimes a game like this can be an early “wake-up” call to a emotional team like the Rays who seemed to dominate the Grapefruit League this Spring Training season, and might have forgotten for a moment some of their basic situational hitting skills that have made them great in the past several years.

 

Sure I wish this type of stagnant offensive contest did not happen against our division rival, the Yankees, and give their biggest rival even one day of an early season emotional advantage going into the rubber match on Sunday, but it happened. Now it is time to take stock, repair the damage and get ready for a brighter tomorrow. But I hate that these types of game can give a team like the Yankees even a slight idea of thinking the 2010 season might be more of a cake-walk than a rough and tumble set of series against these same feisty Rays.

But then again, if the Yankees do want to get over-confident and cocky, that is also fine with me because then it will make their eventual downfall in other Rays series games during the 2010 season a bit more…..tasty.

 

So you just have to rise from your blue Rays seat and salute the overall team effort by both Yankees starting pitcher C C Sabathia and his Yankee defense behind him today who got 18 of those key outs for Sabathia on ground or fly ball outs during this contest. And how amazing that earlier in this game it was scoreless and we were watching a budding pitchers’ duel between the Yankees 2009 19-game winner Sabathia and Rays Rookie Wade (WD-40) Davis.

 
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Even with Sabathia pinpointing that small white baseball within the Umpire’s small strike zone all game long, it was really the Yankee defense that made sure the game remained scoreless until the Yankees exploded for four runs by the beginning of the fifth inning.

 

And from that point the Yankee defense showed its solid backbone and helped carry Sabathia to his first win of the season. But this not to suggest Sabathia was inconsistent on the mound, but he only got two strikeouts from that point in the rest of the game as he relied on the Yankees defense to bring this win home. A key moment in securing this shutout win might have been when Sabathia got Pat Burrell to strikeout to end the bottom of the fifth inning with Evan Longoria standing on Third Base. Sabathia’s effort starved the Rays of a certain run that inning, and paced the way for the rest of the game.
 

And sure I felt a relieved when the pinstriped fans in the stands began to bellyache, moan and groan in the bottom of the eighth inning when with two outs, Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach ruined their world dominance scenario with a sharply-hit single through the 5-6 hole for the first hit of the game. It was as if Shoppach had hit a Grand Slam the way the Trop’s Rays-colored crowd visualized this lone drone hit to new Yankee Marcus Thames in Leftfield as a emotional release of all our stress and pent-up emotions that day.

The hit seemed to bewilder all those wearing pinstriped jerseys as they actively were counting aloud each and every Rays out like a countdown of an actual Space Shuttle launching, and throwing around “Yankee legend” banter around about Sabathia’s performance.

 

I have to admit, the pain is still there from the last No-hit bid by Chicago White Sox hurler Mark Buerhle, and I did not want to feel that same pain again today, especially at the hand’s of the Yankees. I was one of the Rays fans in the stands willing to take a deep inhale and exhale every particle of the air molecules in my lungs to try and help propel a Rays batted ball to the wall, or even visualize the speeding ball going through the hole by mentally trying to hold up a infielder’s glove for that first whiff of a chance today.
 

But at that point it was an 8-0 Yankee lead and the end was within sight even after Shoppach was balked to second and then this Rays chance to rebound was squashed six pitches later when Rays pinch hitter Gabe Kapler fouled out to Leftfield to extinguish another Rays possibility to pull themselves off the canvas in this game. It was great to see Ben Zobrist just an inning later hit a long fly ball that just seemed to run out of fuel on its flight path to going into the Rightfield stands and ended up one bouncing off the outfield wall towards ex-Ray Randy Winn, who was manning Rightfield at that point.
 

 
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These type of emotional train wreck games happen in a 162-game season. But with only 5 games in the 2010 MLB books, this type of game should not have happened against a divisional rival. It instantly put us a game behind them not only in the standings, but also in the hole towards winning the 2010 yearly series against the Yankees. In 2008 when the Rays had their most productive season, the team had a dominant year against their divisional rivals taking it to them every game and eventually pulling out the yearly series, which ended up being the difference between a American League East title and a lower spot in the standings.

 

A MLB team stubs its toes more than a few times during a season, but it how they rebound or answer the call the next contest that shows the stamina or the short-coming of a team. I expect a better game on Sunday, a more physical contest and one where the fight will come early to the Yankees and Rays pride will shine again. And even if a loss does happen, if the team leaves it all out on the field, and comes to play aggressive and emotional baseball, then they might conquer that Saturday set-back, which might have done more damage behind the scenes than between the foul lines. How a team rebounds from a game like this can be a clear indication of the unseen character of a squad.
 
 
 

Rays Bang Out an Opening Night Victory

 

Got to admit, that was the way to throw an Major League Baseball Opening Day gig last night. From Tampa Bay Rays players coming out and meeting us at the Rotunda Gate 1 location at 4 pm, to the explosions on and off the field, if this doesn’t get Rays fan excited…then this region is in for a heartache. But what better way to get a community pumped up for the first journey into the Trop. of the Evil empire than to have a Walk-off 2-run double produced by one of your marque players.

So with that in mind, and with me still emotional tired and drained from the whole episode, let’s take today as a “photo blog” day and I will throw a few photos up for the fans who were not at the Trop. to see what might have happened in their absence. I have to admit to everyone, when I moved in October 2009, I think I lost my 3.5X Telephoto lens, so you will have to squint and look at thing s a bit out of focus until my new lens arrives from Miami (hopefully by Friday).

 
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But it was all about the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day today with several new additions to the Tropicana Field scene, and even a few new looks to the ballpark that I will show you in the next few days. But different this season is the fact I will not have my laptop with me during games at this time, but that might change in the near future if a few good things happen, like a real job (lol).

 
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When I got to the stadium at 3 pm today, I was the first person standing in the Season Ticket holders line at Gate 1, and was quickly bombarded by Rays friends and ballpark buddies talking about the uypcoming season and just renewing friendships. I even got yelled at by a friend who sit in the Upper Deck for my April Fool’s Day joke, and another baseball buddy in the Rays front office commented on that post too later in the day. But today was all about seeing the 25 members of the Rays surge towards their goal of getting back to the playoffs in 2010.


 
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But there were also some new sight on the field during the Rays Batting Practice as Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler was showing off his new glove that featured a Columbia Blue dyed “U-pocket” on his fielding glove, and a bit of Columbia Blue trim along the inner seams of the glove. It reminded me of the color scheme that ex-Rays infielder Akinora Iwamura did with his glove over the past few seasons. I will try and get a better shot of the glove today as Kapler was in a bit of a hurry yesterday and I did not get an “up close” look at his new mitt.

Rays RP Grant Balfour was also sporting a Columbia Blue T-shirt under his BP sweatshirt that read “Defend The Trop” with a black AK-47 situated in the middle of the shirt. It was produced by the Cowbell Kid in 2009 and given to Balfour, who is an honorary member of the Cowbell Security Force now. Another example of the right attitude can produce amazing results.

 
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I liked the way that the Rays today incorporated the smoke and fire elements in their pre-game festivities, but it ended up producing a smoke and haze within the Trop that had to be a definite obstacle for both teams outfielders during the game. At one point, it seemed early in the game that Rays centerfielder B J Upton had to make an instant change in his path to the ball before collecting it over the shoulder that would have had Willy Mays shouting his name.

 
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Over the past two Rays seasons they have used the propane fire pots more in a vertical display before the Opening Day festivities, but this season that had some very interesting variations on the flames paths, and also a nice addition of the Rays blue and yellow to bring out a different feel, but also a collaberation of the Rays color scheme.

 
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And Rays injured reliever J P Howell even came out for a little bit today to sit with his Rays Bullpen mates before going into the Rays dugout and watching the rest of the game. I was talking with Howell before the game and he is feeling the shoulder getting stronger and the wrokout program developed by Rays Strength & Conditioning guru Kevin Barr and Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield is showing fast imporvement in Howell’s mobility, but he is still on track to be out until possibily May 15th.

 
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So glad to see that Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos is again down in the Bullpen area for the 2010 season. During most of the Rays Spring Training schedule, Ramos was either doing Third Base duty, or helping out on the Rays bench learning some more tricks of the trade. Ramos would not tell me if he is heading towards a possible Bench gig in 2011, but he is still taking out the Rays line-up cars every game, since he is riding a 12-game winning streak when he performs that pre-game duty.

 
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Also something new at the Trop. this year is Raymond, our faithful Rays seadog has produced a new coat over the Fall and Winter and came out tonight with a shiny new coat that produced multiple sparkles and shimmering highlights. Either that or the Seadog finally began using conditioner on his coat for a healthier look in 2010.

 
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Rays new $7.5 million closer Rafael Sorinano did have a rude awakening tonight against the Baltimore Orioles as he got into trouble early and got bailed-out on a brilliant play at the plate on a throw by Rays Third Baseman Evan Longoria. Soriano was releived as Longoria’s throw kept the Orioles from again tacking on a few runs and gave the Rays a chance to come back in the bottom of the ninth for the victory.

 
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I had my camera going nuts last night and thought I might have caught Rays pinch-hitter Kelly Shoppach’s blast that popped off the Baltimore outfielder mitt and moved towards the yellow line on the railing in Left-Centerfield. But as you can see, it did not come out perfectly, but it did put two men on base, and if it had gone above that nice little yellow line on the fly…The game would have ened 15 minutes earlier.

 
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Got to admit, I am getting slower in my old age becuase I did not pick up the ball in flight here on Carl Crawford’s 2-run Walk-off Double, but then again I was trying to keep moving to get around the errant Rays ballboy that did not want to stay in one place while I tried to gather in a picture that would sum up the game’s event….I will try again. Dang you Ballboy!

 
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But really this picture says it all. And what was so amazing is the discussion I had with Rays Radio Host Rich Herrera before the game about we need to again get those “magical small moment
s” back into the Rays game plan in 2010 to get off to a great start and force someone else to hustle and keep up witrh us in 2010. And the way the Rays employed their confidence and their strive to produce those runs last night shows that maybe a few sparks fromn that 2008 spirit might still be alive and well within the hearts and souls of the Rays players.

 
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I do not have a photo of the event, but again Rays catcher Dioner Navarro is getting pretty stealthy when it comes to the post-game shaving cream pies. Carl Crawford was doing a interview with Todd Kalas by the side of the Rays dugout when a swiftly moving Navarro came out of the tunnel and just missed planting the towel filled with shaving cream onto Crawford’s face. Navarro ended up pushing most of it onto Crawford’s uniform right shoulder, but you can not discount his effort.

 
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But in the end what was important was the “W” last night. And in an interesting twist of fact here, Crawford’s 2-run double was the Rays 13th hit of the night to highlight a victory in the start of their 13th season, and of course, Crawford wears number 13 for the Rays. Nothing unlucky aboiut that number last night, and i have a feeling Rays fans will be looking for that 1 and 3 combination ( Sean Rodriguez (1), Evan Longoria (3), plus the always swifty number 13 to bring another win tonight as the Rays send starter Matt Garza to the mound. God I love this game!

Rays Possible 2010 Batting Order

 

 
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With the regular season just a stones throw away now, I thought it might be time to explore the possible Tampa Bay Rays 25-man roster that should be standing on the chalk lines during the Rays Opening Day on April 6th 2010 against the Baltimore Orioles. And of course, the first thing that has come out of many people’s mouths is what the possible Rays line-up card might look at on that Opening Day. 

And sure there are still a few battles to be won or lost before the team finalizes their 25-man roster, but this is just one Rays fan’s educated guess, a “guestimation” if you will, in what might actually mirror the line-up cars presented to the Umpires prior to the beginning fo the Rays 2010 Major League Baseball season.

Accompanied with my personal thoughts on the Rays 2010 starting Batting order will be some great Rays player photos that were taken after the day’s workouts on February 28,2010 by photography image giant, Getty Images. I really like the sequences photographer’s use of the Florida late afternoon sunshine to  peek and poke between spot surrounding the poses and stances of the Rays player’s to put an exclamation point on the Rays ever evolving “rays of light” concept .
 
 
And the final images of the 2010 Rays squad really drives this Rays persona home.  Got to admit, it was a great feature to use the natural elements of the Florida sun, then combine them with the white Rays jersey clad team. But that is enough about the photos. Let’s get this party started off right today and begin with the one player I truly think derserves to be the Rays lead-off hitter in 2010.
 

 
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Jason Bartlett has been thrown under the bus a few times over the last few years as having the defensive chops, but not the offensive firepower that sometimes is needed from the Shortstop position. In 2009, Bartlett rose high above those comments and showed why he should be considered in conversation when you discuss the top tier of American League shortstops. And some have whispered that he might go into a short offensive funk during 2010, not unlike the downward spiral in statistics that Rays Catcher Dioner Navarro had in 2009. But the MLB.com Fantasy projections have Bartlett hitting in the Rays lead-off spot, where he seems extremely comfortable.
 

The MLB.com Fantasy projections have Bartlett going to the plate over 500 times this season, and sporting a .320 Batting Average with 14 HR, 66 RBI and 30 stolen bases. But the one figure that jumps out at me is not the Batting Average, but the fact he could plate 90+ runs in this high-powered Rays offense hitting in front of Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. If Bartlett does get on base, even via the walk (54), Bartlett could be a thorn in the side of opposing pitchers’ in 2010. And with Bartlett showing early power this season in Spring Training, these stats might just be a launching pad for him this season.
 
 

 
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What can you say about the Rays second hitter that has not already been said either in Baseball Fantasy passages or prose. Carl Crawford might just be one of the most exciting players to simply watch during a plate appearance based solely on his unpredictable nature of mixing the infield hit with his power stroke. And the added ammunition of possibly adding a drag bunt to his arsenal in 2010, You could see him get his highest seasonal Batting Average as a Ray in 2010.

 
Crawford is one of the Rays players that is feared if he is on the base paths, by both infielders and outfielders. And throw in the another “tweak” to his base-running stride that he picked up this off-season, Crawford might go “lights out” again early in 2010 with stolen bases. MLB Fantasy projections have Crawford posting a .305 Batting Average with 15 HR, 68 RBI and another 60+ stolen bases season. But like Bartlett, if Crawford is on first base with a ball down the line, you could see some great coast-to-coast running by Crawford to produce some extra critical Rays runs in 2010.
 

 
 
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Some people are calling Ben Zobrist a ” man without a position”, and also downplaying his 2009 slugging campaign to the pure fact American League pitchers’ were conned early by his extra power and base running abilities. But 2009 was the first full season Zobrist actually has been healthy in his short career with the Rays. A small list of nagging injuries kept him bouncing in and out of the line-up before 2009 when Zobrist finally got a chance to show his abilities after an May knee injury to ex-Rays Second Baseman Akinori Iwamura. And maybe all Zorilla ever needed was a chance to shine after showing rays of brilliance during pinch-hit and spot duty during games in 2007-2008.
 

And we know that Rays Manager Joe Maddon will do everything to get Zobrist’s bat into the Rays line-up, even considering batting Zobrist in the 3-slot to begin the 2010 season. This is Spring Training swap in line-up spots for Zobrist has shown great results, and might be the answer to provide RBI-opportunities with three straight Rays hitters who can get on base and mix power and speed effectively to get rival pitching staff into early inning troubles. MLB.com Fantasy Projections have Zobrist hitting .297 with 27 HR , 97 RBI and 17 stolen bases. But his key moves in 2010 might be his position flexibility to give the Rays options at Second Base and Rightfield throughout 2010 based on game day match-ups and possible late inning position shifts.
 

 
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What can you say about Evan Longoria. He has shown in his two season up with the Rays that he is not a fluke and can match-up power and plate discipline. And with the possibility of Maddon moving Longo into the “Clean-up” spot in 2010, the young stars legend might just grow a few more paragraphs before the end of 2010. Longoria won the 2009 Silver Slugger Award for Third Base in the American League, and barring an injury, should be able to reserve a spot on his fireplace mantel for another nice piece of hardware this Fall.
 

This might be the next step in the evolution of Longoria as Maddon will push more offensive pressure on the young player’s shoulders. But I have a feeling Longo will actually welcome the chance to produce and also be a key leadership component of this 2010 Rays squad. MLB.com Fantasy projections have Longoria posting a .281 Batting Average with 33 HR, 113 RBI and getting 72 walks during the season. If Longoria gets off to a solid and hot start, this might be the season he sees more walks, and could easily pass that 72 walk mark easily.
 

 

 
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Early this Spring I was worried about Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena. After he had two of his fingers broken by a fastball pitch by New York Yankees starter C C Sabathia, there were early Spring concerns that Pena, who went over 21 plate appearances before finally getting back into the groove with a Home Run to start his 2010 Spring hitting regiment. But lost in the confusion was the fact he was hitting the ball solid during that time, but the new heavily padded batting gloves might have been more of a mental change and adjustment for Pena than a physical one.
 

With his fingers healed and ready to go, Pena has recently begun to show more selective plate selection and getting his average moving towards the Mendoza Line this Spring. But you can not discount the sheer power and ability of Pena in this line-up, and he has been working hard this Spring on pulling the ball more towards the Third Base-Shortstop hole to fight off the game day shift that some American League teams employ against him. But the MLB.com Fantasy projections have Pena hitting .227 with 39 HR ,100 RBI and 87 walks. But a key for Pena might be to show an avid decrease in strikeouts since he will be hitting in the 5-spot and might see more different pitch selections in 2010.
 
 

 
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I am actually thinking this sixth slot might be a possible second lead-off position for the Rays in 2010.
And who better than speedster B J Upton to be at the plate in this situation. In Spring Training 2010, Upton is showing he has fully recovered from his off season 2009 shoulder surgery, and his bat stroke has looked real clean at the plate. But some of that credit might also rub off on new Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton who spent more than a few moments with Upton in the off season working on his front foot placement and swing follow through. The results are early success this Spring for Upton.

 

Upton might finally have that breakout season Rays fans have been waiting for in 2010. Upton has the ability to be one of the best Centerfielders in baseball, and with some additional pop in his bat, he could possibly meet his brother Justin in Anaheim for the 2010 All Star game. MLB.com projections have Upton hitting .241 with 11 HR and 55 RBI to go along with 42 stolen bases. Upton’s presence on base will also give pitching staff fits in 2010, and I actually see him hitting more like a .265 Batting Average with 16 HR and 70 RBI and posting 50 stolen bases. As you can see, I am expecting Upton to have a nice ” coming out” party in 2010.

 
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This is the one huge question mark to me right now. I want to believe in Pat Burrell’s just having an “off year” in 2010. I really do, but Burrell has to show more than just neck pain and inconsistent plate appearances, because “The Bat” has to perform this season, or be instantly labeled a flop with the Rays. Hopefully in 2010 Burrell can again live up to his moniker and provide some needed hitting from the 7th position in the Rays line-up. This season definitely needs to be a good season for Burrell to help provide some protection for Longoria and Pena, or pitchers will not fret knowing an anemic Burrell is in the On-Deck Circle.

 

But I see a vigor in Burrell this Spring. But he has still heard more than a few “Boo-birds” chirping this Spring, but his bat is showing more speed through the hitting zone, which hopefully projects into more hits or scoring chances for the Rays. MLB.com Fantasy projections have Burrell hitting only  for a .221 Batting Average with 14 HR, 66 RBI with a p[ossible “healthy” 412 plate appearances. But the key to 2o1o might be that Burrell excedds these conservative expectations and shows us his old 30-HR, 100RBI form we saw in Philadelphia for all those years with the Phillies. The Rays do not have much wiggle room to go out and seek a big bat if Burrell should falter at all, or if his neck injury come back to bite him again in 2010.


The eight spot in the Batting Order definitely be an “insert here” platoon situation depending on where Zobrist is situated on the field. Both Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce have the offensive abilities to play every day in Rightfield, but they will be in a platoon situation with Zobrist depending on where skipper Maddon positions Zobrist that night.

 
 

 
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And then again, this spot could go to Rays newcomer Sean Rodriguez who was a main piece of the Scott Kazmir trade last July and has been on fire at the plate this Spring and might actually see extended time at Second Base if he gets off to a hot start at the plate in 2010. So with that possibly in the cards, let’s check out all three players projections for 2010. Kapler will definitely get spot starts against left-handers and also time as a late inning defensive replacement in 2010. Kapler no longer seems to have the power potential he had earlier in his MLB career, but MLB.com Fantasy projections have him getting at least 205 plate appearances while hitting .239 with 8 HR and 32 RBIs. Not a big power threat anymore, but a solid hitter who can also still run effectively on the base paths.
 

Matt Joyce might not even make the Rays roster straight out of Spring Training due to some extra time working on his conditioning because of a early Spring elbow ailment. But Maddon has shown extreme confidence in Joyce’s abilities, and he might be realistically destined for an early rehab or DL visit to begin the season. But projections have Joyce seeing limited duty in 2010 possibly as a fifth outfielder and his ability to rebound might take his stats off the charts in regards to early 2010 season projections.
 
 
Sean Rodriguez might make it difficult for Maddon to not use him as an every day Second Baseman or spot utility guy. He has come on like gangbusters this Spring and might have a solid chance to break camp as the penciled-in everyday Second Baseman. And even if Rays fans do not know his name, Rodriguez has built a solid MLB experience base over spot duties over the past two MLB seasons, and could propel his MLB.com Fantasy projections past the presets that show him hitting only .200 with a total of 25 plate appearances. It seems that most projection sites do not portray him as a starter right now, but Rodriguez is making people redefine their position with every Spring game.
 
 
 
And lastly, we have the two guys who will battle with each other in the Rays Catching corps, which is solid in experience, but definitely lacking in power and hitting consistency. And even though it was not so long ago (2008) that catcher Dioner Navarro was an AL All Star for the American League, it seems like so long ago after he fell from grace in 2009 with sub-par hitting and questionable moves behind the plate. So it was little wonder that the Rays traded minor league pitcher Mitch Talbot to the Cleveland Indians this off season for veteran Catcher Kelly Shoppach.
 

 
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On paper it seems that Shoppach might have a slight advantage on game day preparations and ability to block balls in the dirt with more regularity than Navarro, but the starting job is not going to be easy as both have been told it might end with both being measured up for possible match-ups based on certain Rays rotation members in 2010. We might definitely see Shoppach being Matt Garza’s battery mate in 2010. But in MLB.com Fantasy projections, Shoppach get the early edge based on power showing a possible .214 Batting average with 12 HR , 40 RBI and you can bet a boatload of Hit By Pitches again in 2010.

 

But the same MLB.com Fantasy projections show Navarro having a slight edge in average( .218), but lacking the power element that Shoppach will bring to the Rays. And Navarro was given the early edge in plate appearances, where projections have him coming to the plate 376 times compared to Shoppach’s 271 appearances. But the main contribution factor might be who will get an early hot hand and show a firm foundation with the Rays pitching staff. Both players come with their own sidelines of good and bad abilities, but both can throw out runners and have a good knowledge of American League hitters.
 

 
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But do not be surprised if one of the Rays catchers is injured that the Rays do not quickly pull up minor league catcher Nevin Ashley from the system over minor league veteran John Jaso. Ashley has shown the abilities and stamina that Maddon likes to see in his catchers’ and could be in line to fight for a back-up catching slot in 2011.

 

The potential is there for this 2010 Rays team to produce and score runs again at another record pace, but the key will be the health of the Rays. Even one key member out of the top of the Rays line-up for an extended time might throw some of these MLB.com Fantasy projections right out the window.
 

But the stark reality is that this is the most talented and athletic Rays team to ever step onto Tropicana Field. And with that comes inherent dangers of severe injuries, and the possibilities of extended hitting slumps or offensive lapses. Most Rays Republic remember the awful start the Rays got off to during April 2009 (9-14), and the Rays were constantly playing “catch-up” while the rest of the American League East played out their season. But the unsuspecting hand injury to Pena in September took the Rays down a dark path and they quickly fell out of contention for the AL Wild Card. Each piece in this Rays line-up carries a extremely important piece to the entire Playoff puzzle in 2010. One piece missing could cost them dearly in 2010.
 

With New York and Boston not “reloading” as extensive this off season as they did in 2009, this division instead went ” defensive” and because of that, it might be closely contested into the final weeks of the season. For the Rays to uncork a bottle of bubbly again in 2010, the Rays will have to see a few of these projections shoot skyward and maybe even see Burrell or one of the Rays catchers’ catch fire early and spring the team onto some early success. Only a handful of days and nights before our MLB dreams become a new season of realities. Maddon key phrase for the year is “W.I.N.” which stands for “What’s Important Now”. For the 2010 Rays, it will be getting out of the gate fast and furious and taking no prisoners in their first month battling mostly divisional foes

 
 

Maddon has One More Math Problem to Solve this Spring

         

 

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With Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon seeming to go (on the surface) from genius to deflated mathematical slogans over the last two Rays seasons, it will not be the last time Rays fans see Maddon hits upon a numerical formula for the formulation of his young Rays squad. Just on the horizon, there will be another call for a numerical sequence to shape and ultimately sort out his final 2010 Rays 25-man roster.

And the final direction this 2010 Rays team takes in 2010 will be heavily based on this mathematical breakdown, even before their Home Opener on April 6,2010. And this simple math problem might say a lot about how solid and confident this Rays Coaching staff, and Maddon feel about the key elements of their 2010 squad before firmly heading into the Rays 13th Major League Baseball season.

 
 

One statistical breakdown remains unsolved, and it will definitely define the early roster of this team. This one still undecided simple mathematical conclusion could become the balancing fulcrum towards the realizations of multiple scenarios for possible failure, or ultimate success going into the 2010 season. For these two sets of simultaneous and sequenced numbers will decide the final set-up of the Rays roster. How the Rays split their 2010 roster into their “13 & 12″ segments will be a huge indicator of how the Rays perceive their team’s strengths coming out of Spring Training, and into the early divisional firestorm with American League East ramifications starting with Game 1.

How Maddon and his staff decide if they want to start the season with 13 pitchers and 12 bench players or vice versa will be an early tell tale sign to the confidence level this Coaching staff has with its roster, and its solution towards early challenges.

 
 

For the Rays can not have a downward spiral in the month of April, like in 2009, when the Rays went quickly towards an unpredictable 9-14 early record, and put themselves in “catch-up” mode for the rest of the season. How this Rays squad separates their personnel into those “13-12″ splits might be a instant indication if the Rays organization believes their pitching will need to get the “upper hand”, or if the hitting/fielding players will get the chance to man that “13th seat” at the table.

But you can count on more than a few players trying to force the Rays hands and have their names put in ink onto that “13th” numbered roster spot this Spring. These young and hungry players will do everything humanly possible to make the Rays staff’s decision tougher, and hope to make it lean towards their names with an impressive performance during Spring Training. And the ultimate reward just might make their first Opening Day MLB roster.

 

If the Bullpen pulls it together and borderline relievers like Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer make the roster, it could tilt that invisible line towards the team ultimately carrying 13 pitchers. And even the addition of former Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine thrown into the pitching mix, either in the Bullpen, or as a possible fifth starter. This could throw the whole equation quickly into the pitching sides favor early on this Spring. But that in itself presents an interesting and complex decision all by itself.

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With returning fifth starter Wade Davis and Sonnanstine squaring off in the only battle this Spring for a starting job, could the eventual loser of that battle just be sent packing to another team like Jason Hammel in 2009, or could they just be sent down to Triple-A Durham knowing they might be the first call-up of the season?

 
 

I have a feeling right now Maddon and his Pitching Coach Jim Hickey might be leaning towards extending that “13th slot” towards a pitcher, but there are also going to be some tough and interesting decisions to be made in the Rays infield and outfield mix that might make that entire pitching situation moot.

We already know that outfielder Matt Joyce is going to try to prove once and for all to the Rays Coaching Staff and Maddon that he deserves that Rightfield slot going into the season, and maybe for the next several years. And even if Joyce wins that spot (which I think he does), it is small factoring process compared to the highly competitive dogfight that will ultimately decide the fate of the Rays second utility guy between Reid Brignac and newcomer Sean Rodriguez.

 
 
And right now, I am basing this opinion solely on drills and exercises I have seen at the Rays complex, it seems at this moment that the Rays staff’s eyes are focusing tightly on Rodriguez’s defensive abilities more and more every day. But real soon we will see just how slick Rodriguez is at second base when Grapefruit League games begin on Wednesday with the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Florida.

And maybe Brignac’s roster “pop-ups” to the majors in 2009 might have given the Rays staff more of an comprehensive book on Brignac’s abilities coming into this Spring, and possibly Brignac’s scorecard already has a few penciled-in notes and scratches from the Rays Coaching staff, while Rodriguez is a blank slate with everything to gain heading into the Spring Training games.

Sure Rodriguez was a key trade component of the Rays trading left-handed starter Scott Kazmir to the Angels in late July 2009, but this will be the first time most Rays fans and the Tampa Bay media will get an extended chance to see what the kid can do……now or in the near future for the Rays.

 
 
And if you realistically count the Rays bench players right now, with players like Carlos Pena, Kelly Shoppach, Dioner Navarro, Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B J Upton, Gabe Kapler, Pat Burrell and the injured Willy Aybar, you already have 11 Rays players penciled into that first 11 possible bench slots ob the 25-man roster.

If more than one of these young players like Joyce, Rodriguez, Brignac or even Elliot Johnson makes a lasting impression that they “have to be” on this roster, this could ultimately shake up the preconceived notion of 13 pitchers and twist the equation quickly towards 13 bench players. And that scenario has a very distinctive possibility of happening this Spring. These numbers games for the first time in Rays short history, might effectively come down to total game day performances and not the foresight predictions on their talents, or a daily growing maturity in their abilities to play at the Major League level.

 
 

But, the wrist injury to Aybar might be one of the biggest question mark still unanswered totally into this first set of Grapefruit League games. If he is down and out for an extended time, or even gets put on the 15-day Disabled List to start the regular MLB season, the Rays could keep an extra bench player down with the Rays instead of sending them to the minor league camp or even up to Durham.

So there might be a lot of day-to-day evaluations and recommendations discussed with Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield in the next week or so to see if there is a viable option of Aybar playing before the Major League season begins, or they shut Aybar down from hitting drills and let him effectively rehab back into game shape before pressing this same numbers issue again during the Rays season.

 
 

And if Aybar does go on the D L, it could also be a bit of a last gasp of making this roster for one of the reliever fighting it out to become a Rays Bullpen member, or could evolve into a chance for the loser of the Sonnanstine/Davis battle to be kept on the Major League roster as a possible long reliever like Lance Cormier.

My personal gut reaction is that the Rays seem to want to do everything in their power to try and keep Sonnanstine up at this level, but if he falls into that 13th slot and Aybar comes back, he would be the first to fall from the 25-man roster. You already know that Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Cormier, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate (leftie specialist), J P Howell along with Wade Davis, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann take up 11 pitching spots before even considering Abreu, Thayer or Joaquin Benoit as a Bullpen option.

 
 

 
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That would leave a possible one viable slots, with a second up in the air right now if the Rays want to carry 13 pitchers. You could pencil in Sonnanstine into one of those two spaces, but with him and Davis both having minor league options, they could always be sent down with the adage that it came down to that “13th ” spot. And even with Thayer and Abreu showing mixed results at this level, you have to think of the two, Abreu would get a longer look based on his 2009 MiLB.com designation as the Triple-A Reliever of the Year.

But not going in Abreu’s favor is his short stint with Cleveland in 2009, when he seemed to imploded a bit on the mound and almost started an all out brawl in a game versus Seattle. But both relievers have paid their minor league dues and could force the Rays hand and send Sonnanstine to Durham, even with great outings this Spring.

 
 

This is only my scenario of the whole situation and is only my personal glance into the Rays possible decision on this issue. I see the loser of the Davis and Sonnanstine battle to be immediate trade bait offered before MLB rosters finalize and if a good trade option can not be found, the loser of the fifth rotation battle will be sent back to Durham knowing they are the first starting pitcher recalled by the Rays.

I think there are a few NL teams that would jump on Sonnanstine if he has a great Spring, but there is still time to see about his 2010 situation. I truly feel that Joyce will win his battle for Rightfield, and will platoon with Ben Zobrist to begin the season until Joyce shows he can hit left-handers with consistency, then it open another can of worms for the Rays as to a final playing position for Zobrist.

 

Out of the infield battle, I see Sean Rodriguez maybe having a slight edge right now, but I feel it is Brignac’s job to lose since he has the confidence and skill level to play at the Major League level. And if Aybar does go on the D L , they both could get a realistic shot to make the initial Rays 25-man Opening Day roster. But I also think in the end, the Rays will shop Brignac and he could be somewhere else either before the 2010 season, or within the first few months of the season.

It is funny how two of the Rays past “utility” guys, Aybar and Zobrist based on their great seasons in 2008 and 2009 will play a part so deep into the Rays decisions in 2010. But that just goes to show you the improved depth and wealth of talent sitting in Port Charlotte right now, just at the Major League camp level.

 
 

 
Steve Nesius/ AP
 

Some people consider the number “13” to be mostly evil with no redemption for any good. But that same number “13” for one Rays player this Spring Training season will be a blessing, and a chance to show they have what it takes to survive and play daily at this level of the game. Whoever gets that coveted “13th” spot in 2010, no matter if they are a Rays pitcher, or field player, they will know internally that they survived one of the most competitive Rays Spring Training camps.

It might not seem so tough to some of the Rays fans watching the workouts and drills, but this Spring’s competition level has been raised very, very high, and the final Rays player to grace that “13th” spot decision has to consider himself lucky indeed, for they get a chance to grow with this Rays team as they again set their sights on games in October.
 

Rays 2010 Fan Fest Photo Blog 2 of 2

 

 


One of the biggest reasons so many fans came out to the Tampa Bay Rays 2010 Fan Fest on Saturday was a chance to chat and get autographs from their favorite Rays players in advance of the 2010 season. Also on hand were a few of the Rays minor league prospects invited to the Major League camp that started on Friday. The number of fans seen entering the building on Saturday definitely showed that the enthusiasm and the excitement is very much still alive within the Tampa Bay area for their team.

And there were a few big name players like Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, new comer Sean Rodriguez sent to the Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade in 2009 and Rays 2009 scapegoat Designated Hitter Pat Burrell. The autograph day went pretty uneventful accept for some late arrivals from players, and some people grumbling about the absence of Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett and leftie Jake McGee. I still have not heard a word on Bartlett, but McGee missed the event due to his wife Morgan going to a local hospital, but she has since been released and McGee is back with the team at the Port Charlotte complex.

 

But there were more than whispers from a few of the Rays Season Ticket holder I spoke to on friends not renewing their seats or even people downgrading from multiple seats to singles for the 2010 season. But the reality is also there that a small bulk of that inflated number in 2009 was for people who wanted to secure 2008 Playoff tickets and bought seats in the inexpensive sections of Tropicana Field to get guaranteed seating for the Rays playoff run. But there is a anticipated hope of people getting into the flow after Fan Fest and purchasing one of the many ticket packages or options for the upcoming season.

And there were members of the Rays Sales Department all over Tropicana Field ready and willing to discuss or show seating options to people all during Fan Fest. There are options starting as low as $ 273 (Friday or Sunday plan) and rising depending on the seat location. And beginning this Friday, February 26,2010 at 9 am, individual game tickets will go on sale to the general public for the first time in 2010. Another popular option is the Saturday game package that will include every game for the Hess Express /Rays Concert Series that start at $ 331 for T.B.T. Party Deck or Upper Deck Reserved seating.

And again in 2010, the Home Plate Club prices seems to have gone down a tab, so if you should win the Florida Lotto in time for the Rays season, you could purchase a seat in the All-Inclusive area starting at $ 13,256. And even as the Rays season Ticket numbers have dropped, it had to be anticipated by the local economic struggles and also the 2009 Playoff package ticket holders not renewing their seats for 2010. You can be sure within now and the beginning of the season, the Rays will announce some additional ticket options and also attractive promotions and events to get the Tampa Bay residents to come out to the Trop. for more games in 2010.  

 


And as usual, the autograph lines seemed to begin to get congested almost immediately as people bought their silver wristbands then stood in line almost two hours before Evan Longoria first stepped onto the first table location just after 12 pm. By the time he had stepped into his seat, the line formed around the white plastic chain links and circled out into the Rightfield Street hallway down past the Dipping Dots booth and almost to the Rays Carnival Games for the kids.

And there were all sorts of interesting items brought up to the players to sign this year. One fan, Christin Manfredo actually had new Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach sign her 1,000th autographed baseball during Fan Fest, with Rays prospect catcher Nevin Ashley becoming the 1001st autographed baseball in Manfredo’s collection. And there was the usual oversize baseball bats and  small scale batting helmets for players to sign, but the one item that caught my eyes was the oversize World Series ticket that were given to several players during the day. 


 

 

Everyone always asks who is sitting right there with me in my section. Well, here we see Michael, who sits in Section 138, Row C Seat 1 giving Evan Longoria one of the State Farm Home Run Derby balls from 2008 to sign.  Longoria took some time looking at the ball and remarked that it looked like it was actually hit, possibly by him during the event. It is a great collectible ball for Michael’s collection. Another item that came up just after Michael to Longo was an actual gold-colored fielding glove that looked a lot like the Golden Glove model glove on the trophy that Longoria will be presented at a Rays game in 2010. One of the great things about this event is seeing some of the fantastic collectible items fans have obtained during the past season from auctions, sales and even events like Fan Fest for the guys to sign.
 


 

 

People were complaining all day long about players getting to the Trop. late for their signings and not staying past their times to appease fans. I know that certain players had transportation delays on their travels up from Port Charlotte, while others had logistical situation going on with their belongings and equipment getting to Port Charlotte ahead of them on Saturday. For some reason, B J Upton took a huge blunt of this backlash, but he was not the only player who was delayed and did not stay any additional time to sign for fans.

And some Rays fans were quick to notice he was texting between signatures and also checking his phone a bit not aware of his transportation logistic situation. But then again,
when you are sitting at a table above the general public, they can see you every move and action and can develop negative opinions and reaction quickly based on your overall mood and attitude to the fans. Upton is excited to begin a new chapter in 2010 and is healthy for the first time in a few years. He has reached out to new Hitting Coach Derek Shelton for advice and has seen the errors of his ways in the past with his nonchalant base running and quiet demeanor. I think he is going to have a breakout year in 2010.

 

 

Gabe Kapler to me has become one of the greatest ” at ease” fashion sense guys on this team. And I mean that as a compliment. Here we see him in a great black hat and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers that seems to show his laid-back attitude and approach to this team. But he is also one of the guys who get into a “zone” during game day and is a constant figure helping other players both on and off the field. Kapler is one of those guys on the edges of the Rays roster in 2010 who could be beneficial to the Rays return to the playoffs in 2010.

 

Most people know these two guys as one of the best First Basemen offensively and defensively in the Major Leagues, and the other is the Senior Director of Promotions for the Rays. But Carlos Pena and Brian Killingsworth also have another “Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of Separation” moment”. Both were also members of the Wartham Gatesman who won the 1997 Cape Cod Baseball League Championship.  Funny story, Killingsworth actually called me on my cellphone the day we got Pena and told me about the signing. I still marvel at that moment I knew the Rays were bound for the playoffs with a guy like Pena behind the scenes.
 

 

One of the great thing I love about Rays Fan Fest is the way Rays Radio Network guru Rich Herrera gets time with the players to talk about the upcoming season, or even put an exclamation point on some issue. It was great how he started chatting about the limited edition Carlos Pena T-shirt being sold by the American Red Cross and the Save The Children Foundation.

Herrera told the crowd how the back of the T-shirt lists all the accomplishments Pena has accumulated since his arrival here in 2007.  About Pena’s 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Award and Silver Slugger Award, his 2008 Gold Glove, and his 2009 selection to the All Star game. But Herrera was quick to mention the one award Pena is most proud of is his selection as the Tampa Bay recipient for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award.

Most people know that this award is given annually to the player who combines outstanding skills on the baseball diamond with their devoted work within their team’s community. Pena was actually honored to be presented his nomination by Roberto Clemente Junior during a ceremony at Tropicana Field on September 3,2008. As part of the Roberto Clemente nomination, Major League Baseball made a donation in Pena’s name of $ 7,500 to Fundacion Lumen 2000, a Christian Foundation which provides foster care for children. Pena and his wife, Pamela, also donate school supplies, medicine and equipment to this foundation annually. 

I have notice a weird pattern lately in the family units of players within the Rays roster. It is fascinating to me the number of “twos” associated with Rays players and their children. There seems to be a wild Rays parallel, especially in the Rays Bullpen where 4 players have two children. Included in that list is Dan Wheeler (2 boys),Randy Choate (2 girls), Jeff Bennett (2 girls) and Dale Thayer (see above photo).

But the duo’s do not end there as First Baseman Carlos Pena (1 boy,1 girl), Outfielder Gabe Kapler (2 boys), Starting Pitcher Matt Garza (1 boy,1 girl) and Catcher Dioner Navarro( 2 boys) all celebrate the “2’s”. But it can go one step further as First Base Coach George Hendricks, Senior Advisor Don Zimmer and Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn also have two children in their broods. 
 

 

 

There was also a another wild moment behind-the-scenes as several members of the Rays showed up wearing some unconventional head gear for the autograph signings. From Rays starter James Shields, who should get the nod for the 2010 Home Opener against the Baltimore Orioles rocking a white cap, to new closer Rafael Soriano coming down the aisle dressed in black and gold and listening intently to his I-pod on the way to the signing table. Some websites around the Internet did not see his ensemble in its entirety. So the above photo is what he wore into Tropicana Field before he took the stage wearing the Rays new “Sky Blue”-themed alternative jersey.

 

 

And most of the Rays were in a really giving mood during Fan Fest. At one point, before Grant Balfour went over to the Season Ticket holder Photo area, he came down from the table and signed for a few minutes with a few more fans before heading over by the Leftfield foul pole to participate in the photo op for the Season Ticket holders only. But even as they were coming and going, several Rays players,including Upton posed with fans for pictures as
they were ascending the aisle to go back into the Clubhouse area following their autograph signing times.

 

Fernando Perez even took a moment out to come by my seat and tell me he read a bit of my posts during the off season, which really caught me by surprise. I had forgotten I told him about my blog following his poetry article back in 2009, and he advised me he likes my “personalized” view of the game and the actions. Got to admit, when you have a graduate of Columbia University in Creative Writing tell you he likes your stuff… I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Fernando, in advance, got to tell you, I am also a huge fan of your articles and I am still going to push you to join MLBlogs.com and submit some stuff….You can count on that!
 

 

 

But this was also a time for some “old Friends” to reunite as former Rangers teammates Jaoquin Benoit and Carlos Pena chatted for a bit before Benoit and Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos made their way to the stage for their 4 pm autograph times. There were a lot of chuckles and writing down of information between the three of them before Ramos and Benoit descended for their time at the autograph tables. And as was custom for every Rays game since he got here, Ramos gave me a salute as he entered the blue-screened area for the signing. I am a lifetime fan of Ramos, and it is not just for the sideline Salsa displays either.
 

 


And the Rays organization has to be proud of its fan base that still had the roped off areas full and awaiting autographs at 4 pm. This is a great sign of the energy and the commitment this region has towards Major League Baseball. And it is also fitting that Maddon did not leave the signing table until everyone in the “Table 1″ line had their chance to come up and get their signatures. Even as the overhead lights began to dim within Tropicana Field, Maddon and his two Coaches stood their ground until the last fan got their items signed. Maddon did the same thing in 2009, and I suspect he will do it every season he is here with the Rays. And that is another reason to love him as this team’s manager.

  

 

 

 

As you can see by this last photo, the time is quickly upon us to begin our nightly patronage of all things Rays related. And those 45 days will seem to simply fly by as the Rays begin game within the next week or so. Once the team begins their Grapefruit schedule the days will pick up steam until that last Florida Home game at Tropicana Field against the New York Mets. And then with one more trip up to Durham, North Carolina to play the Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls, it will be only a matter of hours before we again assemble for another Major League Baseball campaign, and a drive towards playoff glory again.

Even with all of the outside distractions and riff-raff going on within this Tampa Bay area, the one constant is that the Rays play a brand of baseball other teams are now adapting for their own squads. They always say that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. If that is true, then the “Rays Sky Blue” jerseys might be a great addition as expectations rise and the sky is the limit in 2010.

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