Results tagged ‘ Scott Cursi ’

Cursi gets ready for All Star game action

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Insight into Joe Maddon

 


Mike Carlson / AP

 

Since the Rays began their trip towards a high flying destiny in 2008, most of the old school baseball world outside of Tampa Bay, or even outside the immediate California area around Anaheim had never really gotten to know Rays Manager Joe Maddon. And to explore into his massive baseball past is such a pleasure. Most fans here in Tampa Bay know of his long devotion to road cycling treks that he does both here and when the Rays take their show on the road. Maddon even takes along his personal bike to Rays away games to explore some of the historic and scenic venues in those cities.

And he has his own sense and realities to his job as a major league manager. He even has a “fine” bowl in his office where guilty players, who are found guilty by the Kangaroo Court have to purchase a bottle of wine for the skipper with the paper divulging their fine. He is one of the only mangers in the major leagues that I know of who has his own wine rack and wine cooler in his office for post game tastings and special occasions. And you know that cooler got plenty of good use with champagne and fine spirits during the 2008 Postseason celebrations.




Some of Maddon’s activities outside of the season might surprise some fans outside of Tampa Bay. But outside of the bay area, most fans do not get to know Maddon, the humanitarian. Maddon is entering his 35th season in professional baseball, and 16 of those years has been at the major league level. But few people know of the community efforts and the compassion this man has for his new adopted community. One of the most visual and celebrated efforts of his generosity for giving back to Tampa Bay is his annual “Thanks-mas” celebration the last three seasons.

Held between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon along with his Rays Coaches and front office staff have personally shopped, cooked and even served special dinners of spaghetti, sausage, pierogies, past and salad for over 1,000 people in the Salvation Army shelters in Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Port Charlotte areas. One of the biggest food hits in this event is the special meatballs Maddon was taught how to make by his mother Beanie back in his home town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania.




Another humanitarian/charitable effort held close to Maddon’s heart is the John Challis Courage for Life Foundation. Maddon even wore a special bracelet during the 2008 postseason commemorating this fine mans courage while battling cancer. If anyone has ever taken a step into Maddon’s office, they will see a jersey case with one of the jerseys signed by Challis before he passed away at the age of 18 last August. Challis, a native of Beaver County in Pennsylvania met Maddon during the 2008 InterLeague series when the team went to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates.

The two immediately fostered a great bond emerged during that series between Maddon and Challis. Maddon has since been actively involved in fund raising for the foundation and in November 2008 when he was named winner of the Chuck Tanner Award as major league manager of the year, he had John’s father Scott, accept the award for him in Pittsburgh.



Another element of Maddon that most people in Tampa Bay do not even want to think about is the fact that he was up for the job in Boston at the same time as Terry Francona, and if things had gone differently, the Rays never would have gained his services, but would have had to plot against Maddon instead of with him. When Maddon won the 2008 BBWAA American League Manager of the Year award, he was only one second place vote shy of becoming only the first AL or NL manager to ever get a unanimous selection for the award.

He get to share that honor with four other managers’ who have come one vote shy of perfection. He even gets to share the honor with a personal member of his staff, Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer, who in 1989 while managing the Chicago Cubs came up short while winning the award.





But more than ever people are starting to remember the charismatic manager for other things besides his vocabulary and situational quotes. On August 17, 2008, while playing the Texas Rangers in Arlington, he became the first AL manager in 107 years to order an intentional walk with the bases loaded. Maddon had reliever Grant Balfour walk former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton with 2-outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Rays winning 7-3 at the time.

After that walk, Maddon replaced Balfour with reliever Dan Wheeler who got the last out to preserve the win for the Rays. The only other time it has happened in baseball history was on May 23, 1901 when Clark Griffin, then a player/manager for the Chicago White Sox intentionally walked future Hall of Fame member Nap Lajoie with no outs in the ninth inning with a 11-7 lead.




But that just goes to show you how he values the past of baseball and brings it alive today in 2009. Some of his current methods come from a meshing of old baseball thought and current cerebral instincts to go “outside-the-box” with the Rays and it sometimes questions baseball logic. And that is one of the things that makes him so refreshing to some people among baseball. His fond admiration for past things that have worked, like the shift for left-handed batters, or the five-player infield have made some other people within baseball begin to question some of our current methods and actions.


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Some people forget he is only starting his fourth season with the club in 2009, and already has the most victories of any manager in Rays history. He passed Rays Inaugural manager Larry Rothchild on August 23,2008 with his 206th win in a game against the Chicago White Sox.




People forget he has had a taste of being a major league manager before he got his first full-time stint in the dugout in Tampa Bay. He first got a taste if it in 1998, when the Los Angeles Angels Manager Terry Collins got an 8-game suspension following a bench clearing brawl in Kansas City. He got an additional turn at the skipper post when Collins resigned on September 3, 1999 and he led the team the rest of the season to a 19-10 record.



But the most unique moment might have been when Maddon was called upon to replace John McNamara in 1996, who was replacing Rene Lachmann who resigned that August as skipper. McNamara had developed a deep vein thrombosis( blood clot) in his right calf. Maddon took the helm for 22 games, finishing with a 8-14 record.
 

Maddon did get another set of circumstances during his tenure as a Angels Bench Coach when current Angels Manager Mike Scioscia had to leave the team for a short period of time. Maddon lead the Angels to a 33-26 record during his stint with the squad.



AP file photo/unknown



But on the personal side of the Rays skipper, Maddon has many fantastic hobby and interests that generally fall outside the realm of most of his fellow managers. He has been a guest at a White House dinner in January 2009 held by former President George W. Bush. And following his marriage after the 2008 season, Maddon took a small adventure throughout Europe with his new bride and at one point during the honeymoon he even found a Rays fan in a train station Italy.

As for his biking hobby, he is a very dedicated biker who puts in 60-100 miles every week. An unknown fact about Maddon in his youth is that he was recruited as a shortstop and pitcher for Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He switched positions voluntarily to catcher midway through his freshman year. At Lafayette, he majored in economics and he will also receive an honorary degree this summer from his old Alma Mater.




But one of the biggest thrills of his life might still be on the horizon when he takes off after the last Rays game this Sunday and heads to the All-Star game in St. Louis, Missouri. As the American League skipper in the World Series, he will get to take the helm in this years All-Star game coaching the superstars of the American League. Fan Voting for his team will end on Thursday, which is also an off day for the Rays. He will be only the second coach to ever appear in an All-Star game with Rothchild being the first when he was selected in 2002 by Joe Torre.

It will be his second All-Star game. He previously got to attend when Sciocsia was the 2003 AL Manager. Maddon is expected to select two coaches from among the AL Managers, and then bring six of his own coaches, along with Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi to round out his 2009 All-Star coaching staff.




Maddon has only been in Tampa Bay for a short time, but the teams and its fans have united around him to show support for his new ways of thinking about the sport of baseball. Along with the fan base uniting to support the manager with the formulation of the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group three seasons ago.

From speaking engagements to small snippets of chats with fans and media members the Tampa Bay community has gotten to know Maddon deeper and closer than he ever imagined. With the 2008 success and the renewed interest in the team during their recent seven game winning streak, the Rays might be the team to watch in the second half of the season.

Team Unity goes Western

 


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(Sorry my camera is having major focus issues right now)

The Tampa Bay Rays have been described as a huge brotherhood for their closeness and their ability to stand up for each other in the bad times. I went to a Rays speaking engagement earlier this year where Rick Vaughn,the Rays PR guru told the group about a story following the conclusion of the World Series Game 5 plane trip back to the Tampa Bay area. Vaughn and his wife were seated in the same aisle as Rays reliever J P Howell and his girlfriend and Vaughn  was awestruck by the fact that everyone on the plane made sure to come by and comfort Howell about taking the loss for that final game in 2008.  

And the mood on that late night plane ride was sad and muted, but it also had the unique feeling that everyone was also upset that they would not be hanging out with each other  every day after that loss. That is the  wild and special bond and closeness of this ball club that other teams would envy. If you ever really watch them during Batting Practice and even before a game, you see the connection factor that this team has with everyone on the roster. So it is only fitting that they would also plan events and road trips with themes and costumes or wardrobes to fit the occasion.

And that also has a great effect on this club. For to come out for a farewell to family and friends before a road trip dressed to the theme of the trip shows a great bond of unity and togetherness on this team. The team has conducted their own version of “American Idol” during Spring Training inviting anyone within the Rays organization to step up to the mic and sing. They have held BBQ’s and impromptu events throughout the year that is attended by almost everyone on the roster.

And the team also showed up in force for Carlos Pena’s 30th birthday celebration out on Madeira Beach earlier this season. But that is the magical bond that this team forged in 2008 and is still growing more and more this year. Rays Manager  Joe Maddon has even instilled a theme to every road trip this year, with the last one to start off in South Florida to have an all-white theme. The players all showed up in their best dressed whites, which included some very stylish head gear by Gabe Kapler, Carlos Pena and Joe Nelson.


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So it is only fitting that during their road trip starting today to the Western town of Denver Colorado they promote a “Western” look. I am not privy to the fact if anyone is going to dress up like a gunslinger, but hopefully if the do, airport security will also have a bit of a sense of humor when they go through the security check near the plane on the tarmac of St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport.  I can only imagine what some of these guys are going to pull out for such an event. With a few true Texans on the team like Jeff Neimann (Houston), Carl Crawford (Houston) and Randy Choate (San Antonio).

With a majority of this team actually coming out of the western state of California, it might be a wild sight of all these guys decked out in their country western best  for the trip to Denver. Now I have done a blog recently where I mentioned that Rays reliever Joe Nelson is going to do a personal rendition of the Yul Brenner character from “The Magnificent Seven” with a complete head-to-toe black on black ensemble.

I really wish I could be there to even get a glimpse even without a camera of this outlandish event. But hopefully some one within the Rays organization (Skip Milos) will be on hand to record the event for prosperity. I did however get a few other members of the Rays to tell me how they were going to promote the event. Both are members of the Rays Bullpen and have been great enough to furnish me with their renditions of their scheduled outfits for the flight.

Scott Cursi (Bullpen Catcher) is a very businessman like guy. He is very upfront and doesn’t partake in the designer label game that some of the fashion plates on the Rays team might use for this trip. He is going to wear a black shirt with jeans and a pair of black Ostrich boots he picked up on a past road trip. He is also going to go with a mesh straw-like cowboy hat because of the heat in the Denver area. Very practical, realistic, totally Scott Cursi is going as the every day man.

Bobby Ramos is one of the best people you could ever meet and chat with about anything, even baseball. He is also one of the teams hidden fashion plates evidenced by his outfit he gave me for the trip out to Colorado. Most people might know about Ramos love for Salsa dancing and music, but the guy is also a man who enjoys the finer things in clothes. From head-to-toe Ramos might just be the best dressed Rays Coach on this plane trip. He is going to top his head with a Jack Daniels black cowboy hat.

He plans on showing off his Ely white shirt with the black piping. He is planning on wearing black Levis jeans to celebrate the western look, and will be wearing a cowboy “bling bling” buckle around his midsection. He did not tell me if it was one of those bronco-busting Texas sized buckles, but you can only imagine. He will put his feet in a fine set of black Justin boots with silver toe caps for that special “Uptown Cowboy” look.


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Doing things like this themed road trip traveling party can help bring together everyone on the team. Players like Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler did not get to mesh with these guys in 2008, but they have also come together with the Rays players to form a close knit bond on this team. The one guy who might feel a bit left out on this trip might be Winston Abreu, who comes from the island of the Dominican Republic and might not have gotten a heads up on the festivities today for the plane (Hopefully they will drink Coors Light).

But you can bet maybe Willy Aybar or Carlos Pena will get the recent addition to the Rays roster ready and in style by the time they head to the Trop tonight.  Team bonding is a special time for these guys, and events like this can show outwardly their own commitments to the “Rays Way.”

Rays Fall to King Felix via Rare Feat

 

  
      Mariners 1,        Rays 0


Elaine Thompson / AP

Still the Royalty of King County


Most of us Floridians do not know that Seattle is located in King County, and if yesterday afternoon is any indication, we know who rules with a multi-directional fastball and a beautiful change-up. But the young King is  truly going to be one of the leagues premier superstars once the east coast of the country get a good scouting report on the guy. Felix Hernandez is hyped to the roof top by the Mariners, and for good reason. He has only been on their major league roster since 2005, when he appeared in only 12 games and furnished a 4-4 record.

But the sea-faring fans of the Mariner’s have been waiting for the day that the rest of the league catches on to this hard-throwing Venezuelan product.  Funny, but in that short period of time he has stacked up 42 wins and over  620 strikeouts and still is mostly an unknown outside of the shadow of Mt. Rainer and the west coast. People have said that the Mariners lucked out by having another Venezuelan product on their roster back in 2002. Freddie Garcia was  a childhood idol of  Hernandez, and  it was the fact he trusted and loved the Seattle area and team that finally convinced the young Hernandez to sign with the Emerald City team. In 2002, he then went to play for Aquirre in the Venezuelan Summer League.

From that point on up through the Minor League rosters he has done nothing but impress and persuade the team that he is their next home grown star. Very rarely do pitchers seem to grow up in a team’s minor league system anymore. Most are packaged or brought in via trades  to compete in the minors for a shot in the majors. But Hernandez did his time working up from Class-A Everett to Triple-A Tacoma, then finally to the clay of Safeco Field.  But what is more amazing is the future that this series will hold for him and the budding Rays stars. We all know that Carl Crawford and B J Upton have dealt with him for years, but Evan Longoria and Pat Burrell got their first official look at the man locals have dubbed the “King”.

And of this series is any indication of their fights and battles, we are going to have a fun time watching  the Seattle ace take on the Rays for the next 10 years. Henandez might have won battle number one with a clear margin, but the game seemed like a different story after he left the mound yesterday. Before that, the Rays did manage to claw and fight to get  4 hits off of him in the game. Crawford had the most impact gaining two hits off of him, including  a ball hit to shortstop in the thrid inning that handcuffed him severely into committing a throwing error on the play. Burrell made his presence know early in the second inning by popping the first hit of the night off Hernandez to right field.

Then  in an error-filled play ( 2 errors, one by first baseman Jaimie Burke and the second on catcher Rob Johnson) by the Mariner’s team on Ben Zobrist’s fielders choice, it put a tying score less than 60 feet from Mariner’s catcher Rob Johnson. But the Seattle defense and Hernandez stiffened and  Hernandez got the next two batter retired to save his shutout.  In the fourth inning, after two walks to Burrell and Zobrist, the Rays again eventually had men at first and thrid with two-outs, but the Rays again failed to convert anything to get the run home to tie the contest.

Then in the fifth inning, with Crawford up for the third time tonight, he hit a screamer back towards the mound that Hernandez tried to bare-hand with his pitching hand and throw to first base. He ended up doing a spin and dump to the turf instead of getting balance and throwing the ball towards first base. But with Crawford’s speed, it might have been a blessing that he did not wing the ball towards Burke at first base. Burke was only playing the position for the first time in his career because of injuries to Mike Sweeney ( back) and Russell Branyan ( back ). Plus usual fill-in Jose Lopez could not switch over to first base since his sub, Ronny Cedeno had a bad hamstring from the previous night’s game. Dioner Navarro did get a worm killer single to left field in the seventh inning, but a rally-killing double play by Jason Bartlett ended the Rays chances.

The Rays did fight and claw back all night long with Burrell making the most trouble for the Mariners and Hernandez. For the afternoon, he went 1 for 1 with three walks and always seemed to get into scoring position for the Rays. But the Rays usual lack of hitting with men in scoring position doomed their day. The Rays ended up leaving 15 men on base, and also struck out 7 times against Hernandez. They had their chances against the Mariners, but let every one of them slip away. The Rays did not lose this game for lack of effort to get on base, but lost it for lack to the killer instinct needed at key time in this contest.  But the Rays came into this series wanting to set the tone, they did in the middle game of the series, but got out-played, and out-hit in both their losses in Seattle.

           
           
Elaine Thompson / AP

Shields Make only One Mistake

The  oddity of throwing your second pitch of a baseball game and it landing into the right field stands and becoming the winning margin in a game is rare, but not unknown in baseball annuals.  Ichiro usually gets his two hits a game no matter who is pitching, but those who have seen the Japanese product take Batting Practice know he has the power and the ability to take a bad pitch and deposit it into the stands at any point in the game. Ichiro’s lead-off home run accounted for the game’s only run. He’s the second player in Mariners history to hit a lead-off homer in a 1-0 game. Greg Briley did it in 1992 with a home run off the Twins’ Kevin Tapani.

But how rare is it really in baseball? Does an early mistake happen as much as we think, or is it just a twist of fate that doomed the Rays early in this contest? Well, according to Stats Inc.,it was just the third time since 1994 – most recently by the Cubs on May 9, 2007, against the Pirates ( Alfonso Soriano homered ) and before that by the Mets on
May 12, 2004, over Arizona ( on Kaz Matsui’s homer ).  A rare feat, but also a rare omen for the Rays. It had been 12 days since they suffered their last shutout, and the team had ample time to get back that elusive run because of the pitching of James Shields. His one mistake should not have been the margin of victory today.

Shields did everything in his power to keep the score close and also crush any potential Seattle rallies throughout the game. After Ichiro’s blast, Shields and the Rays defense  sat down the next 7 hitters until Endy Chavez hit a single to center field to lead-off the fourth inning. But the Rays quickly erased that threat by getting Lopez to hit into a 6-4-3 double play to again empty the bases. Even in the fifth inning, after Shields walked Johnson, a hard hit ball to Longoria by  Yuniesky Bentancourt provided the 5-3 putout to end the inning.  But in the sixth inning, the Rays defense reared its ugly head and put its mark on the game. The only blemish was a bloop single over Bartlett by Ichiro, who now had two of Seattle’s 4 hits in the game.

Shields did  pitch deep into the game finally giving up the ball after throwing 102 pitches in 7.1 innings of work. His lines score would usually show a victory, but in tonight’s wild and unusual battle he was given the loss after only surrendering 4 hits himself and giving up the lone run. Tho his efforts were valiant, he did give up only one walk to Johnson in the fifth inning and posted 4 strike outs on the day. His pitching matched Hernandez’s pitch-for-pitch. And except for that lone one pitch that he might have known would spell doom the minute it left his hand, he was to suffer his second loss of the year to even his record to 2-2 on the season.

Twice this year Shields has been opposite a “hot” pitcher when he took the mound. Even if Shields was as effective in this contest as he was for the Opening Day game in which Red Sox starter Josh Beckett pitched a masterpiece, it is the underlying problem of pitching in the number one slot. You always face the premier pitcher of the opposing staff, and even if you are on your game, situation can take it from you. But Shields has the inner confidence and the stamina to know that karma and things can change in an instant and go for the Rays. Tonight it was just one swing of the bat that took the wind out of the Rays sails. Just less than 16 hours from one of their best road wins of the young season. Games can shift one one pitch or moment, and unfortunately Shields know that all too well tonight.


Elaine Thompson / AP

Pat Burrell is Heating Up

Burrell is in a weird situation for the first time in his career. He is having to take a crash course in the American League hitters and also the tedencies of the leagues infields to get a firm grounding in the batter’s box this season. Consider how hard it is to not only adjust to the fact you are no longer in the flow of the game by being out in the field, but now you have to sit a majority of the time on the bench and observe your team taking their defensive licks, and you can do nothing but cheer and clap for them. I think that would be the biggest adjustment he has to make since signing with the Rays this off season. Jonny Gomes found it difficult  the last few seasons, and it might have cost him his spot. Cliff Floyd was a great addition to the clubhouse in leadership and mentoring young players, but his bat did not surface to save him either.

It is as if the Rays Designated Hitter spot is the place where hitters have gone to die or retire for a long time. I am not even going to get into the Greg Vaughn or even the Jose Canceso days as a DH, because the formula has changed since their times. Now the DH has to be a run producer and a cheerleader second. Burrell also had the second horrific duty of having to digest and memorize the pitch selections and tendencies of every pitcher in the AL in a compressed manner. No longer can he just go up there and take his swings like in the Spring, but now he has to adjust and compensate for tailing breaking pitches on the fly, and catching up to fireballs coming in at his hands. 

It has been a tough first few weeks for Burrell evident by his average, but the last week of game have also given a sign he might be  gaining on the AL pitching staffs and being more selective at the plate. In yesterday’s game he was only 1-1, but his 3 walks showed he is seeing the ball and making great judgments at the plate for the Rays. In the entire three-game series, he went 4 for 9 , with 4 walks and 2 RBI’s to raise his average to .265 this year. He is beginning to come to terms with the American League. Some hitters who have spent their entire careers in the National League do not adjust fast, but Burrell  is hitting even better on the road ( .276 ) than at home  ( .250 ) this season and he knows that for the Rays to be successful again in 2009, he has to be on his game. It might have taken a bit longer than either he or we wanted for him to adjust and come to terms with the different hitting in the AL, but in the next few months, it is the Rays that will benefit from it all.


Elaine Thompson/ AP

Navi needs to Trust Hitting on the Ground

Dioner Navarro is beginning to heat up a bit at the plate. In the last three games he has gone 2-13, but the true fact is that in the last two series he has garnered only two hits a series. I am not about to cast him under the  ships rudder, because his two hits recently have been down a bit and not the usual rocket fly balls that have plagued his average this season. the last few days, Rays Manager Joe Maddon has been stressing the fact of ground hit balls might be the ticket for this team to survive right now. And for Navarro, that might be the right ticket. He is not going to beat a ball hit in the infield 9 out of 10 times, but the lone time could make for a scoring opportunity.

Not since the Baltimore and Yankees home series has Navarro had two hits in a single game.  Navarro hit 6 fly ball outs in this series and 3 ground outs in addition to his two singles to right field. But in yesterdays game, he  hit two long fly balls out to center field with men in scoring position. He did get Burrell to tag up and go to third base on his fly out in the fourth inning, but his fly out with Gabe Kapler on second in the ninth inning finished the Rays in that contest. Navarro seems to be the lone holdout still hitting the ball primarily into the sky for outs for the team. Because of his defensive abilities, it would be a down grade to sit him right now. He is calling a great game behind the plate, and is getting into a groove with his throws to second base on steal attempts. His peg of Ichiro in this series will be a the highlight of the year for him.


Cursi Magic Runs Out

My buddy Scott Cursi
is one of the best people you will ever meet in the Rays organization.  It has been a thrill for me to see him get some extra recognition that last few days in taking out the line-up card and also doing double duty as the “Jobu” of the Rays. Cursi has been the Bullpen Coach pro tempre before, and also been know to celebrate with the best of them during the Rays run in 2008. By Maddon picking Scott to have the honor again last night of handing out the line-up cards shows that Maddon respect streaks and anything that can make them roll on for another game. I hope he again get a chance to redeem his karma tonight when the team hits the field  in Oakland at 10:07 pm.

During last night game, the line-up card that Cursi presented to Home Plate Umpire Sam Holbrook had a Chinese Proverb written on it by Maddon. I am unclear if this is the exact verse, but this is the only one I could find with that phrasing in an old Chinese Proverb quotation book at the library. It might have said, ” Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.”   The saying has been found in two references, one in Chinese lore and the other in Native American. Which ever is the true origin of the proverb, it might be a unique key to the Rays success this season.

  

Extra Pre-game work bring Rays a Win

    Rays 9,  Mariners 3


Elaine Thompson / AP  

C C Comes Alive 

To say that Tampa Bay Rays fans have been waiting for Carl Crawford to warm up at the plate might be a bit of a lost moment in time. The slugger had been mired in a bit of a slump where he seemed to be just swinging kind of flat to just make contact with the ball. It has been a increasingly difficult time to see our Second guy in the order struggle like this when the team really needed his bat to come alive. But he finally did come out of that slump and he did it with gusto going 4 for 5 last night, while crossing the plate 3 times for the Rays. It looked like the Crawford of 2008, when he used to use his speed and the playing surface to get hits based on his speed and played upon the agility and performances of the opponent’s infield players.

He started showing his renewal early by hitting a ball straight at Seattle first baseman Mike Sweeney, but the ball was hit so hard and also took a nice hop right before it got to Sweeney and it handcuffed him to give Crawford his first hit of the night.  Crawford ended scoring on Carlos Pena’s 2-run double to the wall to help the Rays take an early lead in the game. Crawford again got a chance in the second inning on a slpa single to left field, but he was overly aggressive and Mariner outfielder Endy Chavez was able to cut him down trying to advance to second on the throw. I understand the aggressive nature of the team, but sometimes it just runs your team out of a potential rally.

Then in the fourth inning Crawford put his speed again to the test as he hit a ball hopping over the mound after hitting right in front of the plate and  second baseman Ronny Cedeno had no play at first base to give him his second single of the night. Crawford again came around to score on Evan Longoria’s double to right-center field gap. That would be his second plated run of the night. In the sixth inning the Mariner’s went to the Bullpen and Crawford got a walk out of reliever Roy Corcoran to lead-off the inning. That marked the fourth time tonight he was on base.  Longoria again hit a screamer into the right-center field gap and crawford scored from first base to score his third run of the night.

The Mariners finally got Crawford off the base paths in the seventh inning when he struck out against Seattle reliever Miguel Bastista to end the inning. His final chance came in the ninth inning when Seattle brought in reliever Mark Lowe to finish out the game. With two-men on base at second and third, Crawford hit another single up the middle to get his only RBI of the night when Jason Bartlett crossed the plate.  The inning ended two batters later when Pena hit a ball to Ichiro in right field, but you want to think that Crawford looked skyward and loved his night at the plate. Sometimes a slump at the plate can follow you into the field and it gets into your head when making plays in the outfield.

I truly think this did happen to him during the Chicago White Sox series and during a few fly balls in this series. In the White Sox series he seemed to give up on balls hit in front of him a few times, including at least three on Sunday afternoon. But when you confidence is growing, you will stride faster and take a few more chances on balls. Crawford’s night at the plate saw his average rise from  a suspect .224  to a more .270. All that in one night. Crawford might have been one of those guys that Rays Manager Joe Maddon worked with before the game with extra B P  today trying to instutue more ground balls and using their team speed and abilities to test a defense. It paid huge dividends for crawford and the Rays last night as they broke out of their slump of scoring and putting their aggressive nature to the test against the Mariners last night.


Elaine Thompson / AP

Evan Oh Mighty!

Who would have thought more than 135 games ago when Evan Longoria finally made his Major League debut we would be talking about this feat at such an early juncture in his career. But the pure fact is this guy has risen above expectations and is now moving at his own speed towards the top to be spoken in the same sentences as some of the greats who have played third base in the majors. Considering this guy makes it look so easy only compounds the fact he might just become a true force on the Rays for many years.  First off, only two other players have stroked the ball like Longoria to post their 100th RBI earlier than him. And neither of those guys even plays on the same side of the field as him.

Cardinal Superman Albert Pujols and Brewers Home Run wonder Ryan Braun are the only players to reach this feat faster than the Rays hot corner guy. Not let’s just take a peak at this a bit here. He is in the company of Pujols, who was the 2008 National League Most Valuable Player, and a true superstar in the making  with his fellow State Farm Home Run Derby participant Braun. No predictions or forecasting here, but the future is so bright, he better wear shades. And all of this is coming in a time when the media and writers are forecasting a sophomore slump for the slugger. But Longoria is also taking a shot at putting his name up there for early consideration for his second All-Star bid with a some impressive offensive numbers.

Coming into tonight’s 6:30 start, after a great 3 for 4 night , with 3 RBIs, he is currently sitting in the number 3 spot in hitting with a .415 average. But that is not his only posting in the League Leaders right now.  His 3 RBI’s last night put him in a 3-way dogfight in third for the RBI’s with 16.  Of course he is trailing team mate Pena, who is sitting in the two spot with 17 this season, But that puts a total of 33 RBI’s into the thrid and fourth slot of the Rays lineup. That is impressive because with Longoria getting on base, it increases the chances for Pena to be able to produce runs and get the Rays into the Wins column.  And his record 100th RBI in the fourth inning came off his 7th double of the year. Oh, and by the way, he is tied for the lead in that category too.

Longoria might have thought last season was the magical one, but so far in 2009, he is exceeding expectations and also seeming to just be letting us all go along and enjoy the ride. I am not saying the Rays should hitch their wagons to this star, but you always ride the hot hand, and right now Longoria
is as hot as the sun.  And if all the above was not enough, he is still the top dog in Slugging Percentage, hitting a robust .830 right now with hard hitting Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler right behind him. How much of a compliment is that, Kinsler is a hitting machine and is trailing Longo. I do not know about any of you, but I am truly enjoying watching this guy hit, field and also wreck havoc on the base paths this year. I  compared him to Mongo last year played by Alex Karras in “Blazing Saddles”. Not for the character’s brain power,or lack of it, but for the brute force and ability he showed.  Longo is making all of us rethink third base, and maybe even that sophomore slump idea.


Gail Burton / AP

Navi reverting to Old Habits?

I really like Dioner Navarro. The guy has been a force behind the plate for the Rays for several years, but his current hitting struggles make you again question what is going on with him. Granted it has been almost two years since he started off like this, but if you remember back at the All-Star break in 2007 when he was  hitting an anemic .177 for the Rays.  I am seeing some of the same swings and desperate slices at the ball hoping for contact again this year. He is currently not at that mark, but after last night contest his average has dipped to .184. But what is more upsetting is this might creep into his defensive work soon, and the Rays do not need that to happen. 

Last night was not his night in several ways. First he is the only Rays hitter to not get on base last night going 0-5. A good sign id that none of those 5 at bats resulted in a strikeout, so maybe his salvation is only a stroke away. But his night was hampered by another play that he should not have been pegged with an error last night. In the fifth inning, Seattle catcher Rob Johnson hit a ball high into the sky underneath the roof of Safeco field and Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann was pointing it out to Navarro, who came from behind the plate and was camped under the ball for the easy out.

But at the last moment, Rays first baseman Pena came in and bumped into Navarro causing him to lose focus and the ball fell to the grass. Luckily for the Rays, Home Plate Umpire  Larry Vanover called the ball foul, or it would have been Johnson standing on second base after the play.  Navarro was given an error on the play, which I do not agree with, but he did seem to have a clear shot at the put out, and for that fact he should have been given the error. But here is the place that the official scorekeeper can also have given the error to Pena for his interference in the play.

It did not work to the Rays disadvantage, but was an example of the piling on right now of Navarro’s woes. He did however have a bright moment in the sixth inning when he mowed down Ichiro, who was trying to steal second base. Niemann, becuase of his large size can be a bit slow to the plate, but Navarro got the ball and sprung up throwing and got the tag perfectly online so that Bartlett could apply the tag to his left shin for the out. That might just be the one thing that could spark confidence in him and he could again begin to rebuild his hitting, just like in the last part of 2007 when he went .289, or in 2008 when his .295 average showed everyone he had the abilty to hit and play great defensive catching for the Rays.

                    

                     Elaine Thompson / AP

Niemann looked Golden in Victory

Rays starter  Jeff Niemann must have thought he was in a dream before the beginning of the fifth inning. He was sitting on a chance to put an exclamation point on the reason he should be the fifth starter for the entire year. He had been able to work out of the wind-up the entire game and did not have any worries about base runners. Since those first five batters he faced in 2009 in Baltimore, Niemann has ressurected his season by posting a 2.61 ERA in the last 10.1 innings for the Rays.  But coming into the fifthth inning, he was facing a blank slate in hits and runs, but that soon would change for the 6 foot 9 inch right-hander.

In the matter of a few batters his night would completely change dispite an impressive and entusiastic outing in Seattle.  In the fifth inning he seems to begin to show signs of maybe second guessing himself and the fatigue of the night.  The inning started off with Adrian Beltre hitting a hard ball deep into the hole to  Jason Bartlett at short, but Bartlett was high with his throw and Pena could not come down with the tag in time to get Beltre on the play. It went in the books as an E-6 on the play saving Niemann’s bid for the moment.

But the next hitter, Ronny Cendeno, who had come in after Mike Sweeney went down with a back strain, gave Seattle only their second base runner of the night when he walked on 4 pitches. Niemann was beginning to show signs of letting this game get away from him when Jose Lopez came to the plate. Lopez had hit 18 home runs in 2008 and had the ability to ruin Niemann’s bid in one stroke. After working the count to 0-1, with a called strike, Niemann tried to put a ball on the insdie corner that Lopez turned on and hit into the Mariners’ Bullpen in left field for a 3-run homer. 

After the inning, the scoreboard showed only one-hit on the night for Niemann, but the three runs put the Mariner’s in striking range 7-3 at the time. Niemann ended the night in the sixth inning when Rays Manager Joe Maddon came out and got him after going 5.1 innings and giving up 3 hits and 3 runs on the night. Niemann’s effort lowered his ERA to a more respectable 5.40 this season, which is the same ERA as Scott Kazmir this season. That might put some emphasis to just how far he has come in his last few starts on the mound. He has a better ERA than Andy Sonnanstine and is equal with Kazmir. If you take away those first five batter, he might even be the most productive pitcher this season for the Rays. Not bad for a guy who was fighting for a chance not less than three weeks ago to even be on this team’s roster.


Elaine Thompson / AP 

Hump Day Happenings

I thought it was great that the Rays let Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi take out the official line-up card to the umpires before last night’s game. The guy has been one of the hardest working people on this Rays staff for years. The guy does a hard job with a smile and it was a great sight seeing Scottie at the plate before the game. With that in mind, do you again send him to the plate with the line-up card tonight? Do you toy with the Baseball gods and break from superstition, or do you ride the karma of Cursi and his aura of professionalism to the bottom of the wave. I hope he again gets shot, because you might remeber that he did it also during the 2008 season and team also won that contest. Cursi is 2-0 in that position, can we go for 3-0 Joe?

Another Rays blog, the Rays Index came up with this gem that current Rays DL candidate Fernando Perez is doing a column for the New York Times.  As many Rays fans know, Perez is a graduate of Columbia University and is a well-versed guy on the bench right now rehabbing his wrist injury. You can still see him before the Rays games doing his running in the field with his light blue foam cast hoping the days come fast that it can be removed and he can resume baseball activities.  Here is a link to that column for those interested: http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/fernando-perez-rays-fandom-up-close/. You will not be disappointed in his style or impressions of life as a Ray. I look forward to more of his writings this year for the publication.

I still think it is funny when something goes wrong with a uniform or a team plays a joke on a player with mis-spellings or an alteration on their jerseys. I remember when the Rays put only “Rocco” on Rocco Baldelli’s jersey a few years ago to play a joke on the center fielder that he should be like Ichiro and have only his first name ob his jersey. Baldelli actually played an inning before it was pointed out to him by an umpire at second base as he was running into the dugout. I could see guys falling off the top seat rail in the dugout and it was a priceless moment in Rays history. 

But I do have to say that the recent embarrassing moment for Majestic, who make all of the  formula game issued jerseys for MLB really did show a huge vulnerable situation in their Quality Control department when two Washington Natinals players were spotted with grammarical errors on their jerseys during a game. I can see it getting by the QC department and getting shipped to the team, but the teams put their own names and numbers on the jerseys in-house, so the blame has to also go with the Washington Clubhouse staff. I would think you would double-check your work before you hang it up in a professional player’s locker for game use.

I know the job is some times bang, bang in the Clubhouse, but to let something like that get to the field is a major problem. I mean,there have been names wrong on jerseys before, and even patches upside down or even wrong. But to put a jersey out on the field that displays your teams name wrong is a huge insult to the organization. I bet from now on there is going to be a huge amount of double-checks and balances in place to keep this from happening again in Washington. And by the way, Majestic should not have issued  such a huge apology, it should have been caught before it hit the player s back, or at least before the beginning of the first inning.

Rays get Blasted by the Long Ball

 

 
 

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

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

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

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

 
 

 

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

 

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

 
 

 

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

 
 
 

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


 

 
 

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

 
 

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

 
 

 


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

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

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

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

 
 

Top Rays Memory of 2008………………..Playoffs Baby!!!

 

 

 

Everyone remembers the magic of your first time. The first time you had a bubbly ice cold soda, or maybe even tried that ride at the fair that scared you to death a year earlier. But the fascination and the excitement of trying something, or achieving something for the first time can be a rush that can not be beat.

 

 

It is for that reason that my Top Moment for 2008 for the Tampa Bay Rays includes a new “first” for the franchise. As I said before, we always remember our first time entering the ballpark, checking out the sounds, smells and the atmosphere of this new electric-charged dome. You still think about the first Batting  Practice or your first foul ball catch, or even the first autograph you ever got at the game. And who could ever forget the taste of that first stadium hot dog. I know all of these are still fresh in my mind, and it has been over 40 years since my first game at Al Lang Field watching the St. Petersburg Cardinals.

 

 

So it is with great pleasure that I introduce my number one memory of 2008. It occurred on September 20, 2008 with 36,048 other believers in the stands and jumping up and down like madmen. It was a time for rejoicing and for remembering all the things we loved about the Rays. Not only did the team play a hard fought 7-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, but the team secured its first EVER playoff berth.

 

Considering this team had never won more than 71 games a year, and for most of the year fought hard to keep its top spot in the American League East race, this was the moment for the home fans and the players to salute a great season, and the celebrate together. I know a lot of people might consider one of the many I picked as a number 2 moment for this top spot. This was personal to me. I got to celebrate with a few friends as they wandered and cheered around the stadium,

 

I got to remind a few of them that the journey has just began and they made sure I knew that it was us, the fans that drove this bus to the playoffs as much as the players. And I got to drink from the champagne bottles and taste that sweet nectar that went down like cool rainwater and tasted like spun honey. It was one of the biggest moments for me as a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays…………….and hopefully you got to enjoy it too that day…………….

 

Basking in the Moment………..1st Playoff Berth 

 

 


It might have looked like a mob scene out of your favorite sports movie, but believe me, the energy in that place yesterday was so severe that it sometimes seemed to choke you from the intensity in the air. From the energy and the explosion of emotion in the stadium atmosphere yesterday, this game was won by the time they  even first stepped  on the turf.

 


Seriously folks, I have never felt so drained emotionally and mentally in my life. I was literally crawling out of the Trop at 9 P.M. after celebrating in the stands, near the clubhouse with a few friends, and in the Budweiser Brew house having a few brews with the old crew from the last 10 years. This was a night were everyone in Tampa Bay would have a peaceful nights sleep.

 

 


This is a day/night/weekend that will sit up there with the best memories I have involving sports in my life. I have been to a few wild celebrations, like the Baltimore Ravens victory party in Ybor City after they won the Super Bowl in Tampa, or even a late night cocktail party at Reign after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a few ex-Rays players.  I am so spent right now and I have not come down from this yet. And I have a  Season Ticket holder Picture Day in 6 hours with the players. Well, the ones who are awake at 10 am.

 

 

All I can say is this is going down in my memory banks as one of the greatest day in my fan life. How can it get any better………….oh, wait WE could have THREE more of these great celebrations before the playoffs are all over with this year!  And then the real party will begin!  But let’s not get too far in front of ourselves here, there is a long road to go to even think of that situation right now.

 

 


THREE more chances where these guys pay as much attention to their team partying as they do out with us, the fans.  From interview to interview last night, the guys to a “T”, talked about the Tampa Bay Rays fans. They included the fans in their celebrations. Getting up on the dugout and spraying the masses with champagne and beer. Throwing 9=8 playoff hats and T-shirts to them all, and relishing a moment that will live in this franchises history books  and memory forever.

 

 

 


You always remember your first time. You remember where you were, Who you were standing with, and what you were doing at that exact moment. When the guys came running down into the Bull Pen Cafe area and I was standing on the railing, I can not remember how many of those guys came up there and slapped my hand and gave me a fist bump. But the ones that were special were the Hugs from J P Howell, Jonny Gomes, Chad Orvella and Scott Kazmir.  I have chatted almost daily with  a lot of these guys on their way to the Bullpen, or back in the right field area, and they are some of the best guys you will ever want to meet.

 


Howell for instance used to be one of the quietest guys on this team when he was a starter. He was moody and never seemed to want to talk. Now since he has found his calling in the bullpen,  he is one of the friendliest people I have ever encountered on the Rays. Dan Wheeler is not known to smile a lot, but he does when we chat back and forth during the games. There is a unique bond there between the Bullpen and the fan here that I have never seen before in my life. But then again, they are living the dream this year.

 

 

From the first champagne bottle out of the clubhouse, to the two bottles that Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos had ordered for himself and the close fans down there, it was a magical night. The parade around the Trop outer perimeter was a show of the love and respect these guys have for the fan base. I have been lucky enough to know a few of these guys off the turf in private. And I have to tell you this in total confidence, not one time this year did any of these guys take this responsibility to the fans or to the community as a  job or work.


 

                        

 

This group actually enjoys interacting with the fans. From the time they walked out at the Spring Training complex in mid-Feb. to now has been a long and rewarding journey. There have been player injuries and players have come and gone from the roster, but the core of this team have been strong, mentally tough and been an inspiration to the fans. Not many groups have a tie to the fans that these guys have. The Rays community can honestly say the have the team’s back at any moment.

 

 

The funny thing about this celebration is that about 25 percent of it was outside the locker room in the field where these guys have toiled and struggled and left themselves bleeding and wounded some nights. To say this battle did not end with a fairy tale ending is totally accurate. This season has now almost come to a close at home, but in the next wek they might have a Divisional Crown celebration either in Detroit or Baltimore, then sprint home and get ready for the First of many October games in the Trop.

 

 

I really need to hit the sack for a few hours before I fall down, but the adrenaline is still pumping hard in me right now and I have tossed and turned for about 5 hours since I got home. I am a emotional wreck right now, but I would do it again in a New York moment. If you have never been to one of these defining moments, you know how the Rays Republic is now feeling. If you have not, I truly wish it upon yourself and your team sometime in the future. It is a roller coaster ride fitted with some great ups and downs that is not even over yet.

 

                                

 

 

I just want to repurchase my “E” ticket so I can climb aboard the coaster again and roll through another three of these celebrations with the Rays and this truly spectacular group of guys.  I actually now know what other team’s fans have talked about when the y remark about the feelings and the intensity of the moment. I can see why New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fan yearn and seek thin moment in their lives yearly. But I have to almost admit, I do not want to share it with them anytime soon.

 

 

So As I finally slink out of the stadium, and check out that bright orange roof, I am reminded of all the glory and the sweat and tears that have blanketed this great dome in the past 10 years. But tonight they all seem like a distant memory as we have a new found tradition of winning and are celebrating the success of our boys’ tonight. I can’t wait to get back into my seat tomorrow and see how much of the energy is still trapped in this building…………….9 am is coming fast to me tonight.

 

ALCS Celebration…………My Third Choice of Rays Memories in 2008

   



I was sitting here today trying to figure out which one of the over 320 blogs that I have done in 2008 might even be in the top 3 when it finally occurred to me that it is rather simple. I guess i am going to use the next three days to select  a few of the blogs that meant the world to me in 2008.  From the moment I saw the guys come out of the Spring Training complex field house for the last time, to the meeting of the buses’ at Tropicana Field after the last game in Philadelphia, it has been a wild and truly unforgettable ride for the Rays in 2008.



For me to even try and fathom 3 moments that could be included in a listing is beyond my comprehension for a bit here. But I have decided that the third one has to be the wild and crazy celebration right after the Tampa Bay Rays clinched their first ever American League East title. It was one of two picture blog entries I popped online that night, but it was the one I also felt a part of while the rest of the team celebrate a few feet away from me. It was a night of believing in yourself and your team. Of realizing that miracles and faith can have a huge push towards achieving and obtaining your goals.


It was also a night for the long time fans of the Rays to point to as the reason we sat in those stands for the past 11 seasons and took the abuse and the catcalls from Boston and Yankees fans. It showed why we cheered and clanged those pesky cowbells to show the team we were behind them late in the game, or even when those other team’s chants began to ring through the stands. It was a night where the past and the future meshed so well. Gone was the loser moniker that the Rays had fought so hard to overcome. In front of them was a frontier of new beginnings and unlimited potential to strive for the best and the highest goals obtainable in the sport.


It was a night of redemption. A moment of clarity in a sea of doubt for a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area. It showed that even a small market team like the Rays could upend the status quo of the league and strive to be great for that one moment. So I hope you enjoy this first look back into what I think was a huge point in the Tampa Bay Rays 2008 historical run and clinch of  current dreams and future aspirations.

A fan-tastic day

                                      

I swear this is the last Photo
blog of the American League Championship Series I am doing this year. I
had too much fun last night and still can not find my car keys. But
anyhow, here are the last few photos that I have gotten since I got
home from a vastly unprepared road trip to Tampa with some people who
felt like it was 1999.

 


I am glad there is not a Game 8,
because I know a few people who will not be awake until almost 6 p.m.
tonight. This is something that will change this town forever. Some
people have called my hometown a “Sleepy little hamlet”, “God’s waiting
room”, and my new personal favorite, “Where Bums and Benches meet in
perfect harmony”.

 


But to be a part of a World Series
against a fellow Spring Training site-mate is spectacular and  will
make the area more energized than usual. So enjoy my little photo fest
and I will see you all on Wed. night when the champagne stains should
be out of my new ALCS Champs cap, and my brain is ready for another
exciting series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

 

 


Akinora Iwamura and “Big” Cliff
Floyd. Cliff has been here before, but you can tell it never gets old
for the veterans either. I saw people like Dan Wheeler and Floyd, and
even Trever Miller acting like kids in the candy store
tonight……………and I like it. It was the leadership of such players like Floyd and Carlos Pena that the Rays clubhouse began to gel early in the season and reached its boiling point tonight on the turf at Tropicana Field.

 

 


I am starting to believe that Rays
Rookie David Price is starting to like all the celebrating in the
clubhouse this postseason. He deserves the save tonight, and he will
surely be on the World Series roster when it comes out in a few days.
Price became the first rookie pitcher in MLB history to get a win and a save in his first post season action. Amazing how far this guy has risen in one season. He began the season down in low Class-A ball, and rose through the system to get to the major league level at the September mark in the season.

 

 


I can tell by the broad shoulders
that this is Rays Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi getting the crowd into
the celebration tonight at the Trop. Scott is a huge reason these guys
are psyched and ready to go every night coming out of the Bullpen.  He
is the Enforcer. Cursi surely got either a share or a monetary bonus from the Rays for his work this season, and he rightly deserves it and more from the team.

 

 


James “Big Game” Shields is also
known as the true master of champagne bursts and celebrations. Shields
is one of the big 4 starters that will try and bring home the Rays
first World Series title. Sheilds will end the season ranked as one of the top 20 pitchers in baseball. He made great strides in 2008, and further cemented his cahnge up as one of the best in the league
.

 

 


Scott Kazmir is becoming an old
professional at this celebration stuff. He is now known as one of
the true cork popping experts in the Rays clubhouse. Kazmir is also one the
premier lefties in the game today. Kazmir might have had a down season of you lokk at his statistics, but he was there when the team needed him and was always up for the challenge for the team. Even at his young age, Kazmir showed why he is the most experienced on this staff, and the “go-to” guy in the future for the team.

 

 


Edwin Jackson is cooling down the
“Old Man” on the Rays, Carl Crawford. He was here during the lean years
in Tampa Bay, and to see a winning team and a playoff berth was a dream
to Carl before this season. Now the Rays can go beyond any of their
wildest dreams and contend for a World Series title starting on Wed.
night.
Edwin Jackson has been maligned and beaten up in the press this year as not being the great pitcher for the Rays. But in the end result, he tied for the team lead in victories, and inproved throughout the entire season. He still hit rough patches, but he fought through them and became a extremely aggressive pitcher in 2008.

 

 


One last photo of Rookie David
Price getting a cold shower to go with his first professional save
tonight in the game against the Boston Red Sox. Price has a huge future in front of him in baseball. The guy was one of the final picks in the “Next competition for ESPN in 2008. No matter what the magazine decides, you can truly see that he is one of the bright spots for baseball, and not just the Rays in 2009. We saw just a small bit of the talent and the ability of this young pitcher late in the season ans during the playoffs.  In 2009, he will get a change to claim a spot on the Rays rotation as a starter, and from there…..the sky is truly the limit for him.

 


Okay, that is the end of all three
blogs, I swear.  But I truly hoped you enjoyed going into the picture
world of the Rays celebrating their first American League Championship
tonight.  Be sure to tune into FOX starting this Wed night at 8 p.m.
when the Rays take on the National League Champs, the Philadelphia
Phillies in the best-of-seven series for the World Championship.

 


Also, if either team steals a base
during a World Series game, Taco Bell will be rewarding every American
a spicy beef crunchy taco for FREE the next day. Considering that the
Rays stole 10 bases in the ALCS, we all might be eating tacos for a few
days.  Go to www.stealabasestealataco.com for more information.

 

 

How cool is that, a rookie like
David Price comes in and set down one of the best lineups in the
American League and now he gets to hold the AL Championship Trophy.

 

Sp_296220_shad_rays_7c

 


Aki again among the Rays faithful
who stayed beyond 1 a.m. to help celebrate another Tampa Bay Rays
victory and their first run at the World Series. Something I found truly remarkable about this guy in 2008, is his interaction with the fans and his love for both this area and our style of baseball. I do not even remember what time I got home that night because I did not sleep a wink as I got into traveling mode after Game 2 of the World Series.


 

                  Sp_296217_cass_rays_17c

 


I had to add one more photo of
that world class dog pile that David Price and Dioner Navarro are on
the bottom of here. I know it hurts, but it also feels so good guys. 
Congrats again to a great team, and a great set of human beings. You
are our heroes and our inspirations guys. By the time that the Rays had won the ALCS, they had celebrating on the field down to an artform. So many times this year the team had late innings rallies and walk-off victories that just added up to the final prize of winning the American League Pennant tonight.



 

Shop Now!



I have not even left the ballpark
yet and they are almost out of the Rays American League merchandise
sent in the first wave by MLB. How crazy is that.  I am so glad the
fans are excited about the World Series. I hope at least 25 percent of
them come back to the ballpark in 2009 and fill the stadium.  Oh, news
flash here people………..We play the Phillies in Philly next season
as part of the Inter-League schedule.  How cool is that!!!!!  


Road
Trip.


 

 


The entire team getting some personal personal time with
the AL Championship trophy. Do they pass it around and can keep it for
one day like the Stanley Cup? I hope at some point either in the off season or during 2009, the Rays Season Ticket holders and Maddon’s Maniacs can pose for photos with our first real trophy in franchise history.  It was all a total effort of the Rays Republic and the team and staff to secure our place in history tonight.


 

                   

 



This Photo is going to be firmly
planted in my mind for a long, long time. This is the final out of the
game…………a force out of Jason Bay by Akinora Iwamura to seal the
deal for the Rays. If there was one photo to show the joy and the celebration of winning the pennant, it has got to be this picture right here.


 

 


Carlos Pena getting ready to do
that dance he loves to do at celebration.  Maybe Carlos can teach the
entire Tampa Bay area that dance some time.

 

 


Tell me that is not one proud
owner. He promised us a winner and he delivered ahead of
schedule…………he could run for President right now and get
elected on the Rays ticket.

 

            

 


Carlos and Ben Zobrist a few
minutes after the final out of the game. This team is more like a
family than the Pittsburgh Pirates teams in the
1970′s……………..We Are One Team!!!!!   Tell me the marketing
department is not proud of that slogan now!

 

 


This is what the Trop. looked like
2 minutes after the last out. Rays players running everywhere looking
for a teammates to hug and slap some fist bumps on them.

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

        

 

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

 

 

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

 


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

 

 And now, on with the show:

 

 

                            

 

Gabe Gross:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Edwin Jackson:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Grant Balfour:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Next Class of Arbitration for the Rays:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

2008 Rays Team Photo……..No Where Else but Here

 

 

Finally I got my picture from theTampa Bay Rays today from the day that I took my  Team Photo with the 2008 American League Pennant winning Tampa Bay Rays.

 

All year long I had this weird feeling about this years team, but  not until the Rays Radio Pre-game host Rich Hererra started calling it a “Miracle Summer”  did it dawn on me how special it could become in 2008. It seemed different, but I could not place the vibe in the air at the time.

 

I have been wanting to work in the Rays clubhouse for about 3 years. I missed the fun and the charades that went along with being in a loose locker room. Some of my fondest moments happened in locker rooms on teams I played with in high school, college and beyond.  It is that feeling when you step into the room that this was your peaceful and energetic focuepoint. That this locker room was the beginnig of the whole sha-bang. There is truly nothing like the spirit and the bond  that pulls together by a team on a streak, or a winning season.

 

                                      

 

Sitting there watching them come out in Feb. 2008 at the St. Petersburg  Namoli complex for the first workout of the Spring, I had a gut feeling it was going to be one to remember. I yelled over to Chris Westmoreland, the Rays Clubhouse Manager and shook his hand and just chatted a bit about the upcoming year. The guys as they came out to the fresh mowed grass had a different air about them. Something felt different about this workout, and about 2008 in general.

 

A few days earlier, the Rays had their annual Fan Fest at the Trop., and as ususal I was there bright and early and checking out all the auctions and the items up for sale around the stadium. One thing caught my eye. “A photo opportunity with the 2008 team during the Team Photo Day.”

 

I jumped at the opportunity to jot down my name and have a chance to be positioned in a keepsake between these great baseball players.  I went about my day and came back a few times before putting down my final bid and heading home for the day. I got a call the following Monday that I had won the auction and they would call me when the team had a opportunity to all get together and take the picture. That day turned out to be May 10, 2008.

 

 

I got out there around 3 pm on that day to get down to field level and get a  white Rays jersey and chat a with a few of the guys I knew before everyone got into place for the pictures. I took these pictures as we were getting set into position for the photo.  As the guys came out to the field, a few saw me sitting there and were laughing and wondering how I could of wrangled this opportunity. I had been the Pepsi rep for the team for several years and had worked around the clubhouse in the spring and during the year. Everyone who knew me knows how much this baseball team means to me personally. 

 

Chris Westmoreland and Dave Barr, the Rays  Strength and Conditioning guru came over and shook my hand before PR Direcotr Rick Vaugh started arranging everyone for  the photo. By that time the guys were all chatting amongst themselves and just enjoying the moment. But little did all we know just how special this photo would end up meaning not just to me, but to each and every one of the team on that stage.

 

 

I was a bit nervous before getting out there and getting into position. Not because of the guys around me, I knew enough of them to know that they are a great group of guys and would make this picture a true treasure for my collection.  I had seen alot of these guys come up as rookies ans now they were taking on verteran leadership roles for the first time and truly leading this club by example.

 

But what I truly found amazing was a few facts surrounding the picture that if you did not know the team well, or the players, you might miss the subtle differences in the picture.

 

 

So I had a few minutes to just take in all the surrounding before getting into the photo and saw some of these funny situations:

 

1) Usually in a team photo you try and put the tall trees in the back row or above the height-challenged members of your roster. In the back row today were Rays’ back-up catcher, Shawn Riggans and Reliever Al Reyes. Both are over 6 feet, but seem a bit short compared to the height of  Reliever Gary Glover on their left and Outfielder Rocco Baldelli on their right. So becuase of this height ripple, it looked like a wave going across the front row and rolling up and down.

 

                    

 

2)  One of my favorites, Rocco Baldelli was in this picture on May 10th with a full on Grizzly Adams look-alike beard. The beard was a wild look for Rocco. But since he was the disabled list at this time, he used it as his own measure of coping with his situation. Little did wqe know at the time to what extent Rocco would play in this teams playoff push.

 

3) If you notice the two groups on the left and right of the players, you have the Clubhouse crew to the left, and the teams’ trainers and physical staff to rhe right. And among the characters to the right is Kevin Barr. He is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the team, and refused to wear the  dark carolina blue polo tops that the rest of the staff wore that day. He stands out real good in his white top and black long pants, while the medical staff wore their dark blue tops and tan shorts.

 

Kevin is not a fan of the University of North Carolina, and it would be a personal insult to wear those colors.  Kevin, I understand, you could never get me to ever wear any FSU colors even on a threat of death. You sometime have to make a moral decision on things. He stands out real good in his white top and black long pants, while the medical staff wore their dark blue tops and tan shorts in the picture,

 

4) in the  official Team Photo, but not with the team much longer after the photo were: Rays reliever Kurt Birken and Elliot Johnson.

 

 

So then it is my time to get situated in the photo somewhere in the middle of everyone. You can definitely tell where I am in the picture, because I did something that intially looked a bit dumb at the time, but it makes it easier to find me because of it.

I have heard in the final picture that I am making into a 11X16 photo with a lettering spelling out “2008 American League Champions”  I will look the same as everyone else.

What I did was cross my hands in front of me instead of behind me in the picture. Yes, that is me right behind Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who was laughing that I  must have paid someone off  to get that close to him. But he knows me from the “Maddons’ Maniac” group and we have chatted many times in rightfield during BP.

 

They decided to put me between Akinora Iwamura and Willy Aybar for the photo. Great choice considering we are all three about 5 10-ish and would make a better height blend for the photo. To get into that spot I had to cross over the feet of Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria and Gabe Gross. The chairs in front of the risers were right on the shins of the guys in the second row and it was a tight space to get in there for the picture.

 

As I was passing by them, my Bullpen buddies Scott Cursi and Bobby Ramos were giving me a bad time as to not step on their toes since the guys had to play that night.

 

As if to curse me, I then stepped on Evan Longoria’s right big toe. I did not hurt him, but went gentle into position for the photo. Skip, the team photo guy then took about 3 picture before I pulled myself out of the picture for the official team photo in the media guide.

 

I did not get in that photo, but I do have a wall photo that is as orignal as the guys in the picture. We might never have a team like this in Tampa Bay again. Not because of talent or event ability, but the personalities from the Coaching staff up to our closer was one of the best I have ever seen on a field.

 

This team not only were impressive on the field, they were even more impressive as to how they reacted to each other off the field.  This photo might have cost me a bit in money, but the experience was priceless.

 

And I know it took some time to get this photo finally up and posted, but Tricia Johnson, who works in the Community Relations department for the Rays did a great job hunting down the photo and getting it to me. She tried to get it to me by e-mail, snail mail, and finally we just put it on a disc and I came and got it after the World Series. I love the photo and the memory will be one that will be told over barstools for a long long time.

 

It is a memory not only of spending time with a team of champions, but watching friends mingle as they took a photo that would be priceless in the annuals of our team’s history.

 

 

 

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