Results tagged ‘ Matt Garza ’

Brignac is the Rays Heir Apparent at Shortstop

 


 
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

More and more it seems that the fulcrum of the events concerning Tampa Bay Rays players Reid Brignac and Jason Bartlett has seen more and more movement recently. With the extended power now being displayed by Brignac in recent Rays games, plus another Arbitration raise this coming Winter for Bartlett, somewhere the fulcrum will shift and the Rays might have to make either a difficult decision, or one made easier by the maturation process.


But that is what happens on teams that are deep with farm systems that supply players as variable rates like the Rays. Player suddenly begin to reach their fiscal top ends, like Bartlett’s expected $ 5.5 million dollar question for 2011. Plus the fact that Bartlett will be 31 during 2010,while Brignac will celebrate his 25th birthday might signal a change in the middle infield for the Rays.

It is not like we have not seen this coming in the last few years as Brignac has made huge positive adjustments in his hitting, plus gotten his feet underneath him enough that when Bartlett got hurt earlier this season, the Rays did not panic and make a trade, they trusted the winner of the 2010 Al Lopez Award as the top rookie in Rays camp to fill-in with no true signs of weakness or vulnerability.
And maybe that is what might hasten this change to come into motion between now and the Winter. With Brignac gaining ground every day on possibly being the Rays 2010 starting shortstop, more and more the possibility of Bartlett being expendable is coming to light. And it is not for his abilities or even his decrease in his hitting for average this season.

Bartlett might have finally outgrown the Rays financial security blanket and might be wearing a new uniform in the future. And Bartlett will not be the only player that the Rays make a hard decision on between now and the Winter.


Within the next few months there will be additional thoughts, ideas and even plans put in place for players like Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and maybe even Rays starter Matt Garza. People sometimes forget that even though fiscal and physical sound a bit alike in their phonic pronunciations, they are very different scenarios in how the Rays will plan their future rosters. It might come down to the $ 5 million dollar question of if Brignac can do Bartlett’s job with the same intensity and performance for a huge fraction of the cost.
Nothing personal, nothing to be ashamed of, the nature of the business of baseball. And with the team dedicated to removing a hefty portion of their 2010 payroll out of the 2011 equation, we might see the Rays soon begin to trim the fat possibly before the Trade Deadline, or if the team falls out of contention for a Playoff spot.

Unlike their divisional foes the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays have to reload and reconstruct from a minor league system instead of spend dollars to make sense. That puts the Rays at a disadvantage in terms of veteran experience, but give them financial flexibility for a few seasons as their player mature into their roles.


 
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Nothing has been formally announced as to the Rays intentions with Bartlett following the 2010 season, but the writing is firmly on the wall. With a viable option in the system and able to take over the day-to-day duties, it is a matter of time. And with Brignac showing more and more confidence in both ends of the equation, the decision might just be weeks away from fruition. And that is the general evolution of the today’s professional baseball player. As you grow through the system and become more financially secure, you make yourself expendable to teams like the Rays with fixed incomes or revenues coming into the team.


Bartlett is a smart player, and he can definitely see the writing on the wall for himself. That might be one of the reasons we are seeing him fighting right now to show he has the great ability to help not only this 2010 Rays squad, but showing some signals to a potential future employer that he can be the perfect man for the job. Brignac is definitely the man of the future for the Rays at the shortstop position. That is the way the Rays system was designed, and has worked for years. Pieces have been mended and shaped to form a cohesive unit and Brignac is a perfect example of the Rays molding a player for greatness.

Bartlett could survive until the Winter, or possibly be gone as soon as the end of the month, but he has been a total professional and has carried himself perfect while with the Rays. For years Bartlett was in the same position as Brignac while with the Minnesota Twins. He was that supoer utility guy who seemed to possess the abilities to play at any position the team put him at in the field.

The chain is about to again come full circle, and Brignac, who is now in that super utility role will assume the top spot until the next Rays comes to challenge for his spot. It is the natural progression of baseball, and one that the Rays will keep seeing revolve and evolve for a long, long time. Change is on the horizon, and Brignac’s future looks extremely bright as a starter for the Rays.

Does Jobu Make Housecalls?


 
Chris O’Meara/AP

I now know how it feels to be “that other guy”. You know the one I am talking about right now. The “guy” who somehow does it right, works his tale off doing his job day after day, dating the right girl for him, polishing up that 1969 Camaro hood to a shine like the Sun, then as Jackie Gleason once said: “Pow!, right in the kisser.” He gets smacked in the teeth by reality. And just like that, he has to rebuild and recharge to pull himself off that canvas to answer the bell.


It is that same sense of realism that the Tampa Bay Rays are facing right now. Three games ago no one in their right mind could of, or would have predicted this horrific outcome. Some of the Red Sox Nation in attendance who came down to root for their visiting team never envisioned something like this series sweep when they boarded those flights from Logan to TIA. If this series were to emulate a boxing match, it would have been called by the referee in the third round by TKO. It was a classic Northeastern beat down plain and simple.

The Rays have to immediately rebuild after their customary 30-minute grace period to try and refocus and re-institute Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s main mantra of the 2010 season. This team needs to rise from this horrid beating the Red Sox put to them and push that anger and emotion within their offense and reclaim what is rightfully theirs……A first place squad doesn’t give up, doesn’t lay down, and doesn’t show fear…It stands tall, even if bloody and tired, and asks for more please.

This Boston series was a vivid reality check for the Rays that their starting pitching might “set the tone” for their rise this season, but it can just as quickly be their slope to falling too. The offense can not afford to take a single inning, a plate appearance, or a single swing off, or the offensive machine could break down just as it did the last three nights. Even with the power display put on by Rays slugger Carlos Pena with a long solo blast that came only feet short of the Trop’s back wall in that first contest, only five other hits sprinkles Tropicana Field’s turf during that initial Monday loss.

The Rays early Spring mantra of GTMI, or “Get The Man In” fell on hard times as the Rays went 1-6 with RISP, and stranded another 5 souls on the base. This statistic alone firmly stuck the fork deep into the Rays flesh and the fact the Red Sox pitching staff sent 17 consecutive hitters back to the dugout after Jason Bartlett’s double in that same contest , it twisted the fork harder into the Rays underbelly for their first loss to Boston this season.

GTMI had become instantly an anemic message of CWGaH (Can We Get a Hit). As the Rays fans walked to our cars for that long exhausting ride home after Monday night’s loss, we instantly gave that night’s win to the Red Sox knowing the “terrible two’s” ,Rays starters James Shields and Matt Garza were throwing the next two nights. With that great thought and vision of victories in our minds, that first loss seemed easier to swallow. The intense bitterness of that loss seemed less salty and diluted with the possibilities of “Big Game” and ” El Diablo” getting redemption for “WD-40″. A betting man would have wagered his salary easily on the duo with a high probability of a “W” on the left side of the Rays record column. Losing either of those match-ups would have entered his mind as he pluck down his wagers.

 
Mike Carlson/AP

Tuesday night, Shields posted a “quality start”, and set the tone by only giving up 4 hits and 2 runs over 8 innings,. But the odd mixture of an ever widening strike zone by Home Plate Umpire Bob Davison and the trickery of Boston starter Jon Lester taking that extra 6 inches off the plate proved to be the Rays recipe for disaster. Lester gave up only a single to Rays Designated Hitter Willy Aybar in the fourth inning to spoil his night. The Rays again were faced with another “slumber of the lumber” epidemic as the Rays went 0-5 with RISP, and stranded 7 Rays on base in their second loss in as many nights.


The invisibility of Maddon’s offensive mantra GTMI, or “Get The Man In” might have become a broken tooth on the spoke of the Rays hitting machine and it brought the whole she-bang to a screeching halt. When the Rays have shown their offensive pratfalls this season, the team has stranded countless men on base, or forgotten where those bases were located. Without a solid smack, slap or a tickle off the Rays bats, this team will feel that bitter taste of losing again. And we knew after that second smack down this second divisional series would go to Boston. But we still felt strong in knowing the Rays were sending their own demon to the mound for the finale, and he could already taste the sweetness.

And in this final swing at the Red Sox you knew that something had to give for the Rays. Something had to be discovered or uncovered that had boosted the Rays chances at failure the previous two nights. But just as quickly as the sixth Red Sox hitter, you saw Garza instantly show the frustration behind the mound, and some sort of implosion was definitely on the horizon. After that first blast by Adrian Beltre, Garza seemed to second guessing his strategy and try to change his team’s outcome in one sweep. Garza’s 5 walks and 3 home runs allowed last night showed his mind along with his control was not as sharp as the whiskers on his chin.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

Garza was having his own purgatory moments on the mound, the Rays hitters found a reoccurring theme of inconsistent hitting. They did string together an early scoring opportunity in the second inning after Blalock lead-off with a single. Blalock then advanced along the base paths and came across the plate on Reid Brignac’s grounder and tie the game and gave the Rays a boost of renewed confidence.
A second costly mistake to Beltre, which quickly deposited 388 feet into the Leftfield stands and the Red Sox quickly took this game solidly out of the Rays grasp.

As the game ended the frustration and the angst was visible from the Rightfield stands as the Rays players began their trip towards the dugout tunnel to the Rays clubhouse. Some chins were down and you wonder what the final remedy or cure will be for this anemic offense situation to rebound. For immediately on Thursday night, the Chicago White Sox will venture into Tropicana Field and after seeing the Rays recent struggles, they might also be smelling fresh blood.


The Rays need to resoundingly wake up their slumbering offense that went a combined 1-14 with RISP in their Wednesday night debacle. Soon the mantra of GTMI might be dead in the water if the team doesn’t institute a lifesaving move to save this home stand. People will point fingers from the stands towards certain Rays players who have failed to connect or contribute lately, but the stark reality is all 25 members of this Rays team are accountable right now. You win as a team, and you lose as a team.

Somehow some way this spell of offensive despair has to end. Hopefully it is a simple attitude or minor adjustment and again we can cheer and say hello to victory soon for the Rays. Either that, or is it going to be a long, long Summer, and we do not want that!

 

The Red Sox are Coming, The Red Sox are Coming!

 
 
Chris O’Meara/ AP

I love it when one of our biggest pesky rivals, the Boston Red Sox heads into Tropicana Field for the beginning of our yearly “Southern” segments fielding a possibility of a few “fights-to-the-death” steel cage matches on our own home Field Turf. This series in 2010 brings a new special glint into my blue eyes to know that the Boston are coming into Tampa Bay Rays in a unusual and foreign position that they had not encountered in a very long, long time.

The Red Sox media has had to hedge their harsh words towards the Rays and endured their own sets of unexpected challenges to find themselves sitting in a unfamiliar position of posting up in fourth place and looking up at the evolving wunderkind Rays. But that fact itself also worries me a lot about the unknown explosive potential of this series from either sides of the coin.


Biologists say that when you first cage an animal taken from the wild, you get to see them at their meanest and also their most vulnerable states. When this wild beast is confronted with obstacles and unexpected actions, their innate reactions are not to curl up, but to regroup for their future attacks. I see this incoming Red Sox team beginning to uncoil and ready to strike right now. This scenario might put the Rays firmly within Boston’s clutches right now and we could see some intensive collateral damage over the next three games by either of these squads.

The Red Sox are coming into this series of games with the heartbeat of a lion after starting the year licking their early wounds and might finally be looking for their own set of baseball redemption for the Rays sweeping them in April on their own hallowed grounds. And with a few of their Boston gunslingers beginning to get their true sight bearing at the plate finally on the sloping sliders might be a prelude whistling loud and clear that the Red Sox are on the verge of a rebound and might be smelling blood in the air.

Boston comes into the Rays series knowing that they have to make a stand now to gain some lost ground and take steps towards moving out of their state of basement darkness and emerge into the sunlight again amongst the top tiers of the American League East.

 
Chris O’Meara/ AP

It is either going to a joyous series at the expense of the Rays, or a prelude to the realization that they need a few more hired guns to make a resurgence towards respectability and whispers of possible Fall hopes. This Rays series might just be the most important series of the next few weeks for Boston because of the implications of falling deeper within the losing well of despair or finally posting some needed wins. That is why the analogy of the caged animal seems to fit the Red Sox right now.

This is not to mean that the Rays will go into uncharted waters here and become totally oblivious to the destructive forces that could surface from the Rays taking for granted the awaking Bostonian giant. The team sitting across from them in the Third Base Visitor’s Dugout is itching to regain some of their glory at the expense of the Rays record. For when you have a active and bitter rivalry like this emerging gem, the little things can mean the sharpened edges between winning and losing.


This does not forecast three straight pitcher’s duels in this series. On the contrary, we are going to see each team’s hitter’s provide a bevy of challenges during this 3-game fandango. We are going to see if the hard hitting Rays, who have either eaten up the base paths, or laid dormant can find a resurgent level of consistency that will be needed to send the legions of Red Sox Nation questioning their path and ending of the year pecking order in the AL East.

 
Chris O’Meara/ AP

But just as easily, the Boston trio of the wily Leprechaun ( Dustin Pedroia ), the grumpy Orge (Kevin Youkilis ) or the ever present missing enchilada (David Ortiz) each could extract their own hitting consistent barrages and set this unflappable Rays pitching staff on their collective heels. For when you play someone 17 times a year, you even know their pre-game meal.


The Red Sox have begun to showcase a level of consistent hitting and a lethal dose of pitching to rival some of their former glory days. And because of that, the Rays should tread lightly, but also hit the Red Sox like a steaming locomotive to test, pressure and bring about their own style of “Rays Way” into this 3-game battle. The Rays will again try to revive those old base running nightmares over the course of this series to the Red Sox catchers of the Rays putting untold extra pressure on the Boston pitching staff to finish off their pitches. The Rays might just stick to their simple game plan of having an uncanny ability to string together hits, move runners over and push the Red Sox mistake envelope upwards tri-fold.
 
I think that this series might not come down to the two pitching staffs, but to the accumulation of timely hitting and defensive errors that can be unfashionably forced upon either opponent. When the Rays get their opposition to provide defensive lapses or untimely throws, they tend to be on cruise control towards a eventual victory.
For when Boston makes mistakes in the field and at the plate, it gives the upper hand to their opposition. And that is how the Rays took the first three meetings in 2010.

Persistent pressure, and an aggressive running game produced runs, forced errors and put the Red Sox on their heels during the chilly series in Fenway Park. Even if the Rays heed this simple formula, the Red Sox have the mental and physical fortitude to contain, dismantle and crush their opposition by forcing their own will of base running, timely hitting and pitching. In their last series in Philadelphia, the Red Sox left the Phillies a bit flustered after dismantling an old familiar ace ( Roy Halladay ) and brought to life the mystical mystery that is Boston and provided some key victories for Red Sox Nation.

And with the Boston again getting the taste of blood in their mouths, this series could turn on a single play or mistake during each game. And with the Rays countering in Game 2 and 3 with their top two gunslingers ( James Shields and Matt Garza) it might just come down to both team’s 32 ounce bats to decide this series. One thing I love about the Red Sox coming into town is their droves of fans flying in, or the closet Tampa Bay Red Sox ex-patriots who come sporting Red Sox jerseys until after Wednesday night, then they will again don their Rays colors for the Chicago White Sox series.


This is going to be a fun weekday series and hopefully will see 20,000+ hit the Rays stands each night for this Monday through Wednesday series. Even as the red colored sea begin to filter around the Trop like that encircling red hued oil sitting in the Gulf of Mexico, hopefully the Rays have the right solvent to eradicate this latest obstacle to their run at another A L East crown. The winner of this series will have an edge going forward, not in the overall seasonal series wins or losses, but in a push of emotional momentum that could push either team upwards.

 
Chris O’Meara/ AP

You do not want to think that a divisional rivalry series towards only the end of May could be pivotal, but this series could define the directions of either franchise. One is sitting with an extended lead in the hardest division in baseball, while the other is clawing and trying to climb out of a hole that was not even imagined as a joke on April 1st.


As the Trop’s doors open today and the parting of the seas of red and blue begin to move into the seating bowl to their seats, it is imperative that one of the Rays take control of these games and guide this series. This series currently does not have the intensity of a Yankees/Red Sox skirmish, but as the underlying pressures and the overall motivation grows this once lowly Rays rivalry will begin to escalate and again cause shock and awe to the supposed hierarchy of the baseball world.

And with a hard fought series, the Rays could garner more of the National spotlight for their talents for the game, and not the media propaganda machine that hides their Major League best record, but dwells on their current 20th spot in Major League attendance.

Rays are a AL/NL Hybrid Squad

 


 1080theFan.com
 

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Nelly Made the Trop Smolder with Heat

 

 

 I headed to the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday afternoon game wearing my jeans, an old Disney character polo and of course, my old Air Force Ones. It wasn’t Nostalgia Day or even 80’s Day, it was my own way of celebrating Hip Hop Night at Tropicana Field. Think about that wording for a minute…Hip Hop at the Trop…..Word to your Mother!

 

People seem to forget if it wasn’t for Nelly’s emerging talent at the mic he, Nelly might have made his way someday onto the Field Turf of the Trop on his own as a baseball player. He had some mad skills in the middle infield growing up and could turn the corner on a double play like his idol, former St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

 

And as soon as the ball settled into the Tropicana Field stands, and the team concluded their on-field Team Meeting with Aybar as the guest speaker, then it was Aybars turn to get a ceremonial shaving cream pie to his face and head and begin getting in Nelly mode.  I was already feeling the rhythm and the pulse of the bass to get out on the field and take a spot where the photos would fall like rain, and the crowd would swing in unison to the verses and song of the minstrel named Nelly. But I made a cardinal sin ( at least in my book).

 

I had a photographer’s pass from the Rays and I wanted to get deep into the action, so I posted up on a L-shaped corner in the right end of the “Mosh Pit”. At that moment it just seemed like a natural move and perfect move going from shooting the Rays first concert from the middle sections for John Fogerty, to right behind the VIP section during ZZ Top, to down in the pulsating action and sea of motion of the proverbial front row. It seemed like a natural progression….But a hasty mistake on my part.

For I had put myself in the eye of the swallowing storm on the wrong side of the steel barriers. I have been in the front rows tons of times before, but not with a camera, and surely not with a group of most teens to 20-ish fans who wanted to move and groove to every single sound wave of beat or vocals coming out of the supercharged bass system right in front of the assembled mass. From the first deep drumbeat from the DJ, there was pushing and shoving from the side and back as people began to crush forward wanting a taste of Nelly and the music.

 

But then again, I would have done the same thing myself 20-odd years ago. Well, I know I did. And the audience was definitely transfixed as the beats got deeper, and the crowd behind me got more animated and pulled into the rhythm and music. Out of the 480 photos I took that night, I had to trash about 200 photos due to the hands in front of the camera lens or  small waves of motion around me that caused the photo to appear out of focus produced by my arm and shoulder constantly getting hit during filming. But I took the commotion and the frustration in stride as I got popped like a pinball for a few songs but within me I now wished I had taken a position on the stage side of the barrier.

But the music was the center of everyone’s attention tonight as even some of the Rays players like Carl Crawford,Dioner Navarro, Reid Brignac, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Garza and B J Upton swayed and rocked to the beats while doing their own version of Nelly Karaoke on the West side of the stage region. Upton seemed to be totally into the concert as you could see him singing the words and doing his own set of dances to the beats. It was great to see the players having as much fun as the Rays fans that night.
 
 

And it is sometimes weird that Hip Hop has now been around long enough to have Nelly “classics” like Ride Wit Me , “Air Force Ones” and “Batter Up“. I still remember watching the first broadcast of MTV at a college viewing party complete with free MTV swag and music until we left transfixed by this new style of selling the music to the public. How much we have all grown accustomed to this video and music combination that now most of us never hear the song without also seeing a video interpretation of the song at the same time.

 

And from the moment Nelly first emerged wearing a stylish white Rays T-shirt, the crowd on the field and in the stands were immediately consumed by the tunes and the chatter from Nelly.  From his classic Nike Air Force Ones on his feet, to the diamond-encrusted dog tags, and glittering diamond watch bevel, Nelly was quickly transporting us to a part of St. Louis with his music we would never venture into alone. We were taken instantly into Nelly-ville, and he was the Mayor and the man that was definitely large and in charge.
 
 

And the Trop almost seemed to take flight the moment Nelly as his crew began to sing ” E.I.” as well as “C
ountry Grammar
“. The moment the first beats hit the speakers, the entire crowd began systematically swaying and singing to the tunes. It was definitely a well needed audience participation segment, and the assembled crowd did not disappoint as it rang out loud to an almost deafening level all around me. But people forget, it was not all about the music tonight.

But people forget it was not entirely about the music tonight as there was a large amount of young and older women inching towards the front of the stage area hoping to catch an eye glance with Nelly or getting some sort of savoring trinket to take home and cherish forever. At that moment you knew the focus and the attention was firmly bulls-eyed on Nelly as the player of the moment. When one of his crew announced he had a gig later that night at a local St. Petersburg nightclub, it was the assembled women who screamed and quickly asked the surrounding people the 5 W’s of finding this club. Nelly was in full effect, and the ladies were going to be in massive tow tonight at the Push Lounge.
 
 

And with that announcement, Nelly had just found the perfect segway to pop into his classic “Hot in Here” as he quickly removed his Rays  white t-shirt and threw it straight into the teeth of the crowd as people frantically pulled and yanked and finally separated the t-shirt into two sections before it fell into someone’s hands firmly encasing the prized possession for the night like a prized jewel. It was a white Rays gift from one of the Hip Hop chosen ones, and it now had to be guarded and cherished from that moment.

 

And as Nelly let the crowd know about his forthcoming album to be released some time this Summer you could feel the crowd letting go a bit knowing their dream might end soon. Usually when a singer or group mentions this tidbit, it is nearing the end of the concert. And when he asked for three volunteers from the audience the sound was deafening as every woman within reach of the stage began cheering and more than eager a chance to be on stage with the Hip Hop icon. Three women were finally selected and it was the beginning of some interesting final moments to the concert.

Nelly even gave one of the chosen ones a photo opportunity of a lifetime as she snapped a photo with her phone of Nelly facing her with the screaming crowd behind him. Then he quickly quizzed them as to their singing abilities and then broke into his tune “Dilemma” which he did originally as a duet with former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland.

 

The girls instantly fell into the rhythm and the rhymes of the song and began to sing and dance along with Nelly and his crew. It was one of the slowest moments of the concert, but helped the crowd recharge a bit before the night ended too soon for so many in the crowd. People wanted to hear every song from all his album in his unique styling that some have called a “Missouri Twang”.

 

The night quickly condensed into a meandering of unforgettable song hooks based on schoolyard songs with double-dutch chants. But what is amazing is the simple fact most people do double dutch lyrics as a rap, while Nelly has primarily done them in song, which is a major reason so many see him as a Hip Hop icon. The night was truly an adventure into Nellyville (also the title of his 2nd album) that I will not soon get out of my head.
 

 

But that is the thing about great music no matter what the format or lyric style. If it is good, it stays with you for a while and maybe drills into your subconscious for a future moment or even visual stimulation brings it out again for a great memory. People say that Rap or Hip Hop artists are this generation’s storytellers. They give their versions of the action and stories of life through their musical lyrics and prose. Nelly is a great example of this sage of wisdom and urban existence being told through music. And through it all, we also get a chance to see life through Nelly’s eyes.   

Rays Pitching is Setting the Early Tone

 
Elaine Thompson /AP

So far it has been a very interesting year for the Tampa Bay Rays with teams wanting to visit Tropicana Field instead of hosting the red-hot road trip Rays. And it is a great additional weapon to have in the Rays arsenal that they can now boast a almost perfect road record (11-1) while their home record (9-6) has been less than stellar so far in 2010. Coming into the 2010 season, the Rays Coaching staff and Front Office wanted to stress to their Rays players that their road record this season had to be a priority to provide a softer cushion toward achieving their goal of going deep into the 2010 Playoffs.

One well respected mantra from Rays Manager Joe Maddon has been at the forefront this season alive, and might just be a great fulcrum point for the Rays early sucess. Maddon strives to the fans and the media all the time that “pitching sets the tone of a game”, and in 2010, that tone has been  a lot quicker, more decisive and definitely  lethal to teams the Rays have played so far this season on the road.


And if the last month has been any clear indication, I suspect there are teams that winch a bit when they see the Rays on their upcoming home stand schedule. What the Rays have accomplished so early in 2010 is take the stigma of the road and present it as a challenge and an obstacle that can be conquered nightly.

I am not sure of any big changes to the itinerary that would produce such instant positive results, but you can be sure there will be a lot of discussion within baseball circles trying to figure out this new Rays formula to road victories.


Coming into tonight’s game (Thursday), the Rays have started off with not just an impressive road record, but currently hold the best record in baseball, and were the first Major League baseball team to hit the twenty win mark this season. Their current start is the best in the last 5 years since the 2005 Chicago White Sox started out 21-7.

What is even more amazing is the Rays not only have posted their best start in franchise history, but they have five more victories after 27 games than their 2008 American League Pennant winning season.

An added push of incentive might also be that the Rays are currently nine games ahead of their pace from the 2009 season when the team did not win their 20th victory until May 18th. In their 40th game of the season. And since April 22,2010, the Rays have now held sole possession of the American League East for the last fourteen days with the New York Yankees lying in wait for a Rays loss.

 
Ted S. Warren /AP

Currently you could realistically argue that the best two Major League Baseball clubs are located in the highly competitive division.

With the Rays currently garnering two win in their three games against the Seattle Mariners, it is totally conceivable that the team will win their fourth straight road series tonight, and have won or tied every series but their first series of the season (April 9-11,2010) against division foes the New York Yankees.

So besides that hiccup in the Rays plans, the team is on a miraculous start . But there are a few perils on the horizon for the Rays in their next two series against the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim because of past mix results for the Rays.


Coming into tomorrow’s series against the Athletics, the team does have a few great rays of light in that the team has a winning record against Oakland at Oakland Coliseum over the past three seasons (7-5) and are .500 (9-9) in since Rays Manager Joe Maddon took control of the Rays ship.. The Angels have not been as kind to the Rays in past, and have bullied the Rays to a 1-13 record under the Rays skipper’s tenure.

But this is putting the problems of the cart before the horse here and the Rays need to post a victory tonight to provide a catalyst going into hostile territory on the last two legs of their nine day, nine game road trip.


But getting back into the positive here, the Rays current mark of 11-7 on the road to begin the season is the second best start by an American League squad in the past twenty-five Major League Baseball seasons. Not since the 2003 Yankees started 11-1 has there been such a lightning bolt start to the season by an American League team.

The reality that the Rays are only one of four other teams overall to start 11-1 in the last 25 years is solid proof that this Rays team comes to play every night. This Rays squad is also one of only seven Major League Baseball teams to start 11-1 or better since the beginning of the Expansion Era (1961). And with a victory tonight over the Mariners, the Rays would become only the fourth team since 1961 to start the season 12-1 or better on the road.

The Detroit Tigers lead the way with a Major League Baseball best 12-0 start in 1984. But I think a few statistics that stand out in bold letters truly shows why the Rays have been so dominating on the road to start the 2010 season.

 
Elaine Thompson /AP

Going into tonight’s series ending game against Seattle, the Rays pitching staff has held its own with a 2.19 ERA (111 innings, 27 Earned Runs) and have held their opposition to a .203 Batting Average. Both figures are currently the top marks in the Major Leagues for a road team.

Another interesting note is that if the Rays do win tonight, it will only be the Rays second series sweep of the Mariners in Franchise history in Seattle. Considering the Rays won a total of three games against the Mariners in all of 2009, the 2010 season is already providing special moment with each game.


A quick example of the dominance the Rays staff has provided on the road is best illustrated in the last two nights in the starts of James Shields and Matt Garza. Both Rays starters have combined for 16 innings, struck out 15 batters and only given up a solo walk. Add onto that the solid stat that the Rays have defeated two former Cy Young winners in their past three games, and you get a Rays pitching staff that is molten hot right now on the mound.

So maybe we need to provide a few bulletpoints of reference here to truly illustrate how red-hot the Rays pitching staff is right now:


** The Rays boast the American League’s best ERA (2.94) since the 2005 Chicago White Sox at this point in the young season.

** Rays starters have only lost 3 decision over the course of their first 27 decisions games and are 16-3 with a 2.61 ERA. Currently, only the St. Louis Cardinals (2.52) and the San Francisco Giants (2.59) have lower ERAs in the Major Leagues this season at this point.

** In their last seven games, the Rays rotation has a 1.64 ERA.

** Rays starters have not lost since April 23,2010 (Matt Garza lost to Toronto 6-5) and are 7-0 with 3 no decision since that loss.

** In their last 19 games ( since April 14th at Baltimore), the Rays Bullpen is 3-2 with a 1.86 ERA

** Matt Garza going eight innings last night is the sixth time this season a Rays starter has gone 8.0+ innings, second to Philadelphia (7).

 
Elaine Thompson /AP

And I have not attempted to talk about Rays Third Baseman Evan Longoria’s 11-game hitting streak or early offense and mentioned their MLB-leading .319 average with runners in scoring position this season. It is a really good time to be a Rays fan right now.

The way this team has come out of the gate on the road and provided the needed explosion of runs and shutdown innings by their pitching staff has been key to their current MLB-leading 20-7 mark. But there is a long way to go, and with 135 more games to be played, anything can happen…. And probably will.

 
 
 
 

Giving the Rays Some ZZ Top Lovin’

 

With Texas Rockers ZZ Top set to perform after the Tampa Bay Rays play the Kansas City Royals tonight, it only seemed appropriate that maybe I should try and pair up a few of the Rays players with some classic ZZ Top songs. Every once in a while it is fun to just take a moment out and sit back and relax and either poke fun or show the respect I have for this Rays team and their stable of workhorse style players.

I could have rambled towards a posting of Kentucky Derby hopeful candidates that currently play for the Rays, but we already know that coming in one-two in that race might be the sprinter Carl Crawford and the long strides of B J Upton neck and neck at the wire. Honestly might come down to if CC has a forward neck bob at the moment he hit’s the finish line. But it only seemed fitting that I take a few names and personalities off the Rays roster and give them a one-night only ZZ Top song. I can tell you that I-Tunes is going to love me today with this research.



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Sharp Dressed Man:


Now this one might seem like a pretty self explanatory song choice for Rays fashion plate and G Q model in residence slugger Carlos Pena. But I actually have two Rays figures in this choice. The first is of course Pena who has been the fashion sensible member of the Rays since day one. But my other selection might fool a few people, but he is trying with what he’s got, and for that I got to give Rays Television announcer Brian Anderson an Honorable Mention in this song choice.

Anderson might not have the fashion runway swagger of Carlos Pena, or even the handsome looks that make more than a few women faint, but Anderson is a budding fashion police poster child who seems to get better with every road trip. Maybe Pena is secretly taking Anderson out on road trips and getting him a new tie or stylish sports coat or tie to go with his daily ensemble on the Rays broadcasts. No matter what the true story is, we all know Pena is the true fashionista on the Rays roster, but Anderson might be raiding his closet if Pena is not careful…maybe.


 
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Gimme All Your Lovin’:

I got to go classic tongue-in-cheek here and give this royally down to Rays All-Star and female heartthrob Evan Longoria. For during the last Rays road trip while the team was in Boston for a 4-game series, Longoria made the Boston papers with complaint letters that he was sending multiple texts to a unique collective group of women in the Beantown area. What was so amazing is that people somehow seemed a bit shocked about all of this.

I do not see how this could be a surprise to anyone. Major League Baseball players get handed cellphone numbers and even room keys all the time for prospective romantic interludes, but most disregard them as “groupies” or even trouble waiting to happen. But the fact that is totally humorous is that these same women had Longo’s digits in their cellphones, so they can not play as innocent either here as they might have had conversation with Longoria either before they met their current squeezes, or during their courtship.

Either way, it really has just up the ante and further advanced the mystic and allure of Longoria to women from coast-to-coast. So the next time your “significant other” gets a text message that she either smiles at or giggles like a schoolgirl, just ask her point blank is it from Longoria. It probably is not, but you never know, some guys might think it was an ultimate compliment if Longo was texting his girl….Not me, but there might be someone like that out there in the Rays Republic.


 
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Legs:

This actually might have been the easiest song to place with a Rays player basically because I seem to smile and chuckle every time I see him attempt an extra base or turn the corner for a try at a triple during a Rays contest. Carl Crawford has streamlined his glide around the base paths over the last several years to provide more energy and push to accelerate his speed within a few strides. But still when he rounds the First Base bag and he seems to be leaning at a 45 degree angle and chugging those arms back and forth, his legs always seems to come out in my photos as magical blurs or looking like time lapse photography.

So it was a perfect choice to include Crawford’s name as the player associated with “Legs”. And even if this song ultimately illustrates a love for the female form, I hope Crawford can take that I am using a bit of literary license here to portray this song towards his burst of speed and not the way his lower lips seems to drag like a English Bulldog when he is pumping towards an extra base. And I want to apologize in print if you read the lyrics to the second verse and think I am referring to Crawford with hair down to his fanny….I am not….Seriously ( My Grey’s Anatomy voice)….Seriously!

 
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Cheap Sunglasses:

You might think this would be a natural for Rays Manager Joe Maddon, but I have another victim, I mean choice for this classic ZZ Top tune. To me this song screams out Rays starting pitcher Matt Garza. Maybe it is just me, but Garza sporting that James Shields T-shirt during his side Bullpen session yesterday showed me that he is ultimately the “Too hip for school” guy on this team. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Garza has always had that persona to me. The one where he seems to display and cool and clam demeanor under that bundle of emotions and inner frustration sometimes with himself on the mound. He usually can wear those cheap sunglasses as a outer shield to keep him from actually showing his highly charged confidence and emotions. But then again, Tom Cruise pulled it off with the same pair of cheap sunglasses in “Risky Business” and it turned him into a movie superstar. Maybe Garza can turn his cheap sunglasses into a Cy Young?

 
Rob Carr/ AP

Blue Jeans Blues:


I am not sure why this next one seems to fit just by the title of the song, but I see Rays fifth starter Wade Davis as the perfect poster child for this song. Maybe it is that outer shell he has that eludes most strife and controversy as he seems to glide through his starts even against some of the opposing teams top pitchers. Davis has provided some interesting performances already in 2010, and has been totally in control and often times kind of in his own personal zone of tranquility while attempting to provide pitching brilliance so early in 2010.

And I am not trying to play on his nickname “W D-40″ to provide some raw angle of southern gentleman meets ferocious beast, but the guy is from Lake Wales, Florida and is as calm as a cucumber and soft-spoken as they come. But then again, when things are clicking like they are right now for Davis, there is nothing to worry about anyways….really.

 
Steve Nesius/ AP

Got Me Under Pressure:

For some reason I think this song actually could apply for most of this Rays team this season. Sure I could of thrown this out as a Rafael Soriano selection based mostly on his new role as the Rays closer, but in actuality, I think this entire Rays roster is feeling the pressure this season. Most of them know that this might be the last season that this collective body of players get a chance to revisit or remove some of the pain and feeling of not completing the task at hand that still lurks within some of their minds from 2008.

It might be the last time Crawford, Pena and even Dioner Navarro and possibly Jason Bartlett all hit the field at the same time to try and right a situation that seemed to melt them apart like the cold weather on that unusual October night. Maybe it is the mantra adopted by Maddon for 2010 that no longer uses mathematical situations, but asks the simple question: ” WIN or What’s Important Now”. Maybe it is that urgency of completing the mission, of finally breathing a sigh of relief that will act as the whistle from this pressure cooker called the MLB season.

ZZ Top is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member. They got their start just like so many other musicians did struggling in the small bars and honky tonks in the Texas landscape. But their telling of the stories and the message in their lyrics, they got the rest of the country to not only experience a bit of Texas, but of their own personal cultures and rituals.

But hopefully in the next several months the Rays can duplicate the success and get the admiration of the rest of the Major League Baseball world to again see them for the hardworking and diligent team that they are….And maybe after it is all said and done, the Rays could actually shadow another ZZ Top song as a team.

 
Chris O’Meara/ AP

For if the Rays hit that desired pinnacle they seek so dearly in 2010. If this Rays team can climb that last rung of the ladder and stand proudly at the top with a golden trophy in their mitts, then maybe they can all collectively sing “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” on the pitching mound as they shower each other with praise, champagne and memories just like ZZ Top has given all of us over their long career.

Got to go people. Got a small errand to do since I am getting Photo Credentials to shoot the ZZ Top Concert tonight. And yes, tomorrow will be a ZZ Top post Concert Photo blog. See you later Gator…

Rays Have No-Hitter Pitching Options

 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

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

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

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

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

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

 
Duane Burleson/AP

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

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

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

 
Brian Blanco/AP

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


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


 
Elaine Thompson/AP

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

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

 
 
 

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!

Remembering the Rays and Gameworks Events

 
Gameworks2009 | www.RaysRenegade.com
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Over the past couple of Tampa Bay Rays seasons that Rays Season Ticket holders have seen some of their past ” advantages” going by the wayside. We used to get one of every promotional item, plus had an end-of-the-season Team Photo Day with the Rays players to get memorable photos to put on our face book pages or computer screensavers. We were a bit spoiled at times and got used to getting the “star” treatment from the Season Ticket Sales Department at every turn.

 
But in the last several years the goodies have gotten pushed into bag “A” or Bag “B”, with limited promotional items, plus the omission of most of the kid’s items tend to make a few of my nephews and distant cousins sad that they could not get special Rays toys for their Christmas stockings. But with the recent closure of a Centro Ybor institution, another Rays budding tradition is left by the wayside…never to happen again.

 
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When the Gameworks family-friendly arcade closed their doors after spending 10 years upon the landscape of the small cultural center of Ybor City. So I want to take today’s blog posting to remember some of the events and times I remember at the Centro Ybor landmark that I will miss more for the faint echoes of young Rays fans and their familes taking a night out with Rays teammates and celebrating as a true Rays Republic.

I can still remember attending a long ago Rays Christmas party for local youth from the Boys and Girls Club at Gameworks where ex-Rays Toby Hall and Seth McClung spent most of the afternoon playing carnival type games and race simulation events with the kids laughing, smiling and giggling at the big players trying to keep up with them both on the screen and running around the arcade area. With presents and food and games galore, I do not think anyone, including the Rays players went home without an ear-to-ear smile on their faces.
 
The Gameworks arcade became a Rays Season Ticket holder staple during the Rays “magical” 2008 season when the Rays Sales department tried out the distant East Tampa arcade as a way to have both fans and players celebrate the Rays season by attending an invitation-only party. I still remember during the August 2008 get-together when Rays outfielder Justin Ruggiano came out to the special event even though an hour earlier he was informed by Rays Manager Joe Maddon that he was being shipped out to Triple-A Durham in the next morning. But Ruggiano and Rays pitcher Edwin Jackson both played pool with me in the back pool room and fan and players both meshed together for one night through fun, laughter and a little bit of slick pool stick work
 

 
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But the scene that still stays deep within my mind is not the photo of me helping myself to the yellow chocolate sauce fountain, but of Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes holding court at the end of the bar just to the left as you entered the arcade. Gomes was in hid element that night, shaking hands and hugging friends, plus raising a toast or two to the Rays success. And hidden just a few feet behind Gomes was Maddon who was sitting there with several fans discussing all kinds of things besides baseball and seeming to really enjoy himself. But the best part was seeing Rays players like Scott Kazmir playing an NBA video game with a younger Rays fans and getting his booty kicked, but loving every minute of it.

 

And the 2009 event was a standing room only affair with almost double the crowd, and double the fun as most of the Rays players from that day came out including every member of the Rays rotation. From Matt Garza trying to be slick and getting beaten time after time on the Dance, Dance Revolution machine, to Grant Balfour’s fiancee’ kicking all comers’ brains-in on the Dance, Dance Revolution machine, including reliever Randy Choate. It was a great time where fans and players got to mingle and bring some of that special chemistry that Rays have with their fans.
 

And maybe it is true that all good things come to an end sometimes, and that you got to truly treasure your moments within the game of baseball for the future telling of great tales and adventures. And you can bet Gomes, Kazmir and Jackson have taken these memories of Gameworks with them as they left for other Major League Baseball venues, and hoped that their new teams would also embark on these same types of great inter-mingling player/fan activities.

 
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It is a time I that is near and dear to my heart, because as an ex-football player, I always cherished these special times with the team’s fans to not only take photos and talk about other things outside of baseball, but to show the “human” side of ourselves to those same fans.

Sometimes the lines get muddled between the green outer wall of the Trop and fans and player develop misconceptions on themselves and their interaction with the fans.

But this Rays team is certainly one of the most open and fan-friendly teams I have ever seen around baseball. They respect the way the fans support and try and use noise either by cowbells or their voices to show audible support for the team. And the many home-made or professionally-made signs by Rays fans show they have their players back.

 
Some say that the Gameworks staff could not update and bring new technologies and gaming machines into the establishment fast enough with the recent gaming explosion brought on my X-Box, PS-3 and Wii systems. That the gaming community could play just as sophisticated games at home and did not need to venture out into the video arcades anymore for their gaming fix. But with the locked doors at the Gameworks location came the end of another Rays era.
 

Who can forget the Rays mascot Raymond sitting in a race car simulator racing against younger fans, or seeing Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler with his two boys enjoying the multiple games and interacting with young Rays fans . Something you wish could stay the same forever. Something you just do not want to see change, but that is life. And you can bet the Rays Sales staff is eagerly trying to piece together another great event in the not-to-distant future where the Rays and their fans can also cheer, laugh and enjoy each other away from the field of play.
 
 
 
BTW, This is my 750th MLBlogs.com posting. Can you tell I really do love writing (lol).

 
 
 
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