Results tagged ‘ Scott Kazmir ’

Pitching changes coming for the Rays


Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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

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

               
                Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

         
          Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

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

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

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

 
  Steve Nesius / AP

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

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

Indian Raindance Ramblings

 
UPDATE:
 
 
Rays Television Network guru Todd Kalas just had Indians Ballpark Operations head honcho Jerry Crabb on the air telling us there is a rain cell heading towards the stadium, then we have some smooth sailing for a period of time. they are hoping to get this game in today and not have to think about alternative dates. The Rays have Lance Cormier throwing in the Bullpen. He will replace Jeff Niemann when play resumes today. Let’s all think dry thoughts.  Johnny Peralta will be on first for the Indians when we resume the game.
 
 


Kensaviation@Flickr.com

 Why is it I hear the BB Thomas song “Raindrops Are Falling on my Head” right now in the background on the stadiums speakers. Can’t we find a better rain song than that for the 21st Century? I am without words right now during this rain delay today in the bottom of the fourth inning with the Cleveland Indians again in front of the Tampa Bay Rays by only a 1-0 score.

My loss of verbiage is not due to the fact we have not had a glorious win in this park since Seth “Big Red” McClung matched pitch-for-pitch with a younger Cliff Lee to take a 1-0 win from the Tribe for the Rays last victory in then Jacobs Field. In that September 28, 2005 contest. Carl Crawford is the only Rays player still on the active Rays roster to be in the lineup for that game. 

He went 0-0 on that day and played a limited left field. Even on that day in September it was 74 degrees and cloudy, but there was not rain in the forecast. There are other still with the Rays who were in the dugout on that day in Cleveland, like Third Base Coach Tom Foley, Pitcher Scott Kazmir, and Senior Advisor Don Zimmer. That day also gave Lou Pinella his last win as the Rays Manager. It was the last sense of normalcy for the Rays in this park. Who would have ever guessed that this streak of doom would stretch to its current 16-game spot. Heck, lifetime the Rays have only seemed to taste victory. Today is our 918th road game of our young history. During that time we have only won 333 times, but only

My first trip to Jacobs Field on May 14, 2004 (There is that date again) was the first time I stepped into your glorious stadium during its 10 year anniversary season. The Sat. game was a rain delayed game, my first time sitting in the rain enjoying the drops hitting my skin. Even during that three game series we left the city of Cleveland wanting more as the home team took all three games from the Rays, with only that Friday night contest being close at all with a 8-7 Rays loss in the bottom of the 10th inning. 


Skurdrafan1@Flickr.com

But there were some reasons for Rays joy before that 2005 game. I mean we did win 3-in-a-row from August 12-14, 2005. That is right, the Rays wept the Indians that weekday series. But we also did it again in 2005 when from September 27-29th, we took two out of three to sweep the away series for the year from the Indians.

It was at that time the curse began. For on that September 29th game, the Rays started their unfortunate streak with a 6-0 loss to the Indians who were lead by a large guy by the name of C.C. Sabathia that day. No one on the current Rays roster was in the lineup for that first pinnacle game to start this streak of disappointment for the Rays. But there were a few familiar faces in the Cleveland lineup. Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez and reliever Rafael Bentancourt were in the line score for the first Tribe victory in the long line of embarrassing losses. But even before the 2005 last win by the Rays, they had only won a total of 12 games before McClung’s last hurrah for the Rays in the Jake. Think about it here, the Rays had a slim winning margin 12-11 before this string of disappointing results by the Cuyahoga River.

So just how bad has the 2009 season been here for the Rays during this four game slide? Well, they are hitting a nice .252 for the season series here (not counting today’s contest), but only scoring only 18 runs on 3 home runs and 5 doubles. But why is it that this stadium has a mystical offensive reversal on the Rays hitters. Well, it might not be a total setting of lack of offense as they have scored 18 runs in 3 games this season.
 

But theRays defense and the pitching have just seemed to implode and erode faster than some of the old steel infrastructure on the mills down by the riverside here.  I mean Carlos Pena hit his American League leading 16th homer in the first game here on Monday. Evan Longoria has extended his RBI total to 51 during this series, and Carl Crawford has stolen his 30th base during the series.

Offense has been online here in Cleveland, but the Rays usual stingy defense has taken a  short vacation during the series this year.  Cleveland has 6 players hitting over .333 in this series, including the main pest this season Ben Francisco, who has gone  5 of 11, with 5 RBI this season at home. But the real menace has been Ryan Garko who is 6 for 12 with 3 homers and 7 RBI. Both of those guys have made a significant dent into the Rays pitching staff this season in this series.  They have scored 28 runs and walked 15 times in the three games. Will today be any different? Can we maybe get some relief and comfort in today’s game to take into 2010 to know we can win in this stadium.

First thing we need to do is maybe get Sports Psychologist Ken Ravizza to hypnotize the Rays starters into thinking this is Fenway Park in 2010. Maybe an additional session will be needed for Andy Sonnanstine to see Ben Francisco as Shin-Soo Choo who was 0-5 against Sonnanstine in 2009. The fact that two of their three biggest blown leads have come in the last three games of this series is not an indication of a solid pitching staff right now.  We all know about the Rays being up 10-0 on Monday, then finally falling 11-10 after suffering through their worst blown lead in team history. So today is the Rays 50th game of the season. the only better record at this juncture in the season was in 2008, when they had a 30-20 record and were fighting for their first AL East title nightly.


RRCollections

The Rays do not currently have the worst consecutive loss record against an opponent yet. That record is still entrenched in a 18-game losing steak by the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Milwaukee Brewers in Miller Park. But with a loss today, they are closing in on that feat by only needing a single loss in 2010 to tie the record. Let’s hope that after this rain delay we can finish this game with a “W” and throw all of this out the window and start a new streak in 2010.  I mean 3-times this season the Rays have scored seven runs on the Tribe and lost the game. They are a combined 15-0 against all other teams in the majors after scoring 7 plus runs.  They are a combined 12-37 lifetime (.245) in Progressive/Jacobs Field. This the Rays worst record against any of their opponents in their short history.

We always thought in the past that divisional foes Toronto or maybe Baltimore had our number during the year, but wi
th the limited amount of games against the Tribe every year, they have owned us the minute we landed at Cleveland Hopkins airport. The Tribe has also been the worst foe in the Rays history in their own house. The combined overall mark of 31-63 is also the Rays worst record against any AL opponent. The Rays might have taken 3 wins recently from the Indians at Tropicana Field, but from 2006-2008, they have only 5 wins against Cleveland at home.  To add insult to injury here, they have not won a seasonal series against the Indians since 2005, thanks to that 5-1 mark against them that season.

          
           Cynthia1091@Flickr.com

Well, it is getting near 2:45, and looking on the Weather Channel radar for the Cleveland area, there is a patch of clear sky coming up after 3:30 pm today.  There is another round of showers heading towards the stadium area set to hit about 4:45 pm, so hopefully we can get the allotted innings in today, or at least maybe get a lead and hold it before heading for the plane back to St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport and a snug, comfortable night at home. I am hoping for a Rays win today to keep the plane ride back from seeming like a funeral wake, but with the history of the Indians versus Rays series.

But if we do not get this game in today and the umpires make the decision to call it a day, it is still not an official game. Both of these teams will have to decide on an alternative date to make up this one game. Both the Indians and the Rays have an open date teams have a open date on June 22. But that would have the Rays coming straight from their Inter League series against the New York Mets to Cleveland, then fly home to open a 3-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Indians would be just completing their weekend series against the Chicago Cubs, and could make a one-night stay in Cleveland before they again have to be on the road to Pittsburgh for a three game series. Right now, that is looking like the most logical spot to get this seasonal series over with for both teams.


Mark Duncan / AP

Another alternative is to play on July 2nd, when the Rays would have an off day coming from a three game series against Toronto, and then fly onto Arlington, Texas to take on the Texas Rangers for three games.  And that date might actually favor the Cleveland team the most as they will be at home for a 9-game home stand. So adding another contest in their off day on July 2nd might fit into their planning perfectly. But we still have not heard an official word from the umpires or anyone in MLB, so the Rays might be there for quite a bit still until an official alternative can be agreed upon by both teams.

I am putting my money on the July 2nd date only because it would give an advantage to the Indians as they can add on another date in the middle of a home stand featuring the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, and the Oakland A’s, plus add one possible Rays game to that mix.

Never have the Rays had an opponent just reach down and take them by the throat than the Indians during this short history. Hopefully we can get this game completed and maybe take one and fly out quickly today knowing we can win in Progressive /Jacobs Field. But the skies have not lightened yet, and the rain is tapering off, but still puddles are forming on the tarp on the field.  And Drew Carey is somewhere doing a little didy dancing to some Tom Tom Club dance music just hoping for another Indian massacre.

Could Maddon have planned this Mistake?

 


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I have to say that the lineup card fiasco yesterday stirred up its own pot of controversy as we sat there in the stands for almost 15 minutes not knowing what was going on at home plate. We could see Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge constantly bickering and arguing a fact from just beyond Dick Vitale’s seat, but even the loud and proud Vitale probably could not have figured this fiasco out in less time. It is not the intention of the Tampa Bay Rays to try and shore up their defense by putting both Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist at the same position.

But you do have to give it to the Cleveland bench for not saying a thing before the Rays took their first time out in the field to solidify Wedge’s argument that Longoria should be tossed off the lineup card in the 3-hole.  It was a measure of stealth that they let the Rays get their 3 outs then protest the line-up card to basically make this an old school National League versus American League game. By showing the error to the umpire crew the Indians did in fact get Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine put into that third spot for the ballgame. But little did they know that Sonnanstine was a .400 hitter and could stroke the ball with authority. Because the Rays play basically a NL-type game with a designated hitter most nights, the loss of Longoria did not take a huge bite out of the Rays scoring machine.

You would have thought it would cause all kinds of havoc and make for a very one-sided contest, but in reality, it boosted the Rays bench confidence in their team, and also got the other Rays pitchers to want to also take a few hacks at the plate. One television camera even caught Rays starter Scott Kazmir taping up his bat on the bench maybe hoping for a pinch-hitter role in the game. But what soon seemed like a huge injustice to the Rays turned into a plus as Sonnanstine put down an incredible bunt to get a fielder’s choice when the Indians instead went to second with the throw to get the speedy Carl Crawford. But later in the contest, Sonnanstine would make the Indians pay with a nice stroke to leftfield that had Ryan Garko doing circles out there in left field.

But for some reason, the post-game interview with Rays Manager Joe Maddon saw him take complete blame for the line-up blunder. He said it was basically his signature and that he was responsible for the error and that no one else’s fingerprints are on the decision to submit the wrong lineup card before the game. Okay, I am not a huge fan of conspiracy theories or even the mixture of intelligence and character building in reference to his team. But if I was, then Maddon is a true genius. For some odd reason I see his smiling face not at all too upset on the reversal of losing Longoria, who even got up off the bench and penciled in Sonnanstine’s name himself before putting on a sweat top and sitting on the bench.


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How much of a true warrior statistician would you be if you pulled the wool over the eyes of not only your team, but the opposition.  I truly think that Sun Tzu would be proud of Maddon right now. I think he meant to do that yesterday. For some odd reason it makes sense that starting on Friday, his pitchers would again be taking the plate in Inter League contests against the Florida Marlins. Here we had the best hitting pitcher on the Rays having to take hacks today against a guy making his MLB debut.  It doesn’t take a wise man to see that the simple fact of Sonnanstine hitting can give the Indians a false set of confidence in at least one quick out in an inning.

It also doesn’t seem too far fetched to think of Maddon as using this “error” as a tool to motivate his pitchers who are now chomping at the bit to get time at the plate. That makes for more focused Batting Practice swings by the pitching staff, plus a bit of covert action by showing the pitchers’ one of their own going 1 for 3 with an RBI in Sundays win. I can see Maddon sitting in his office trying to devise his own “Trojan Horse” situation to boost not only the confidence of his pitching staff, but for his players to believe again in 2009. After the rough start to the season, and the last two nights emotional and building confidence levels, this move could make them take on a army of Transformers.

I sat down near the Bullpen and even joked about Joe Nelson and Dan Wheeler getting some hacks today at the plate. But in the back of my mind, I knew that Sonnanstine might get three chances, and by then it would be the seventh inning or beyond and the bench could be put into action. The last few days I have seen several members of this pitching staff take to the batting cages, and some of them have more focus than last season. So if Maddon did indeed do this to instill a sense of magic and power to his pitchers’ they got the message loud and clear. For the pure fact that he is the last one to see that lineup card before he gives it to either Dave Martinez or Tom Foley to submit, you have to think they also check it out while walking out there.

But for the fact that no one questioned it before the middle of the first inning is in itself a bold move by both benches. It could have been decided that Longoria’s name not being put under the “DH” moniker was just a clerical error and he would have been inserted anyway. But the umpire crew did its job and made the right decision. With a bit of luck, and skill it worked perfectly into the Rays favor. This is not to mean that Pat Burrell has been replaced by a pitcher, but it is a great thing to know that the pitchers want to contribute at the plate too now. That can lead to all sorts of plays and chances for this team to get additional bats in the lineup in the coming Inter League games.

I can truly see the mind of Joe Maddon cooking up this scenario and even making alternative plans in his head if it did not work well. That is why I like Maddon. He is one of those managers that actually manages during the game. Situational hitting, double steals and also watching for routine flaws in the other team is his style of play. Maddon is a great lover of the strategies and moves of the game. I am really thinking he just played the best joke on all of us, and only himself and maybe his Coaching staff know the truth in this matter.


Rienhold Matay / AP

So for now, the Rays as a “NL” team are 1-0 in the season. We will find out just how good this play of events evolves when on Friday night the pitchers again take to the plate in Miami.  Not to truly say that the Rays skipper did do it on purpose, but if he did, it would be one of the best coaching moves to motivate a sector of your team since the bat sc
ene in “Bull Durham”. Sonnanstine is now in the history books, and the Rays turned a visual mistake into a confidence-boosting exercise. Sounds just like something Maddon would cook up in the kitchen too.

 

 

 

Bird is the Word Last night

 

                Orioles 7,      Rays 5

           
                   Mike Ricigliano/www.baltimoresun.com

During last night’s game, a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, The Birds kept going through my mind.  You might remember the scene where they were stuck in the gas station and the pumps were about to blow up and the anxious and terrified adults were looking for options, but none came to their minds. That is the same rationale that was floating through my head after watching seven innings of the Tampa Bay Rays scrambling for answers and coming up blank.

I mean I could have only had to watch the game from the first pitch just past 7 pm until American Idol began on Fox Television at 8 pm, and I would have seen all the Rays offense in that contest.  I know there were more scoring chances in the game after that huge second inning, but the Rays did not execute or even seemed to have the ability to provide any additional show of consistent offense after that inning.  The wildest play of the night had to be on a fly ball hit by Ben Zobrist and a wild game of “catch me if you can” in centerfield by Adam Jones and Ty Wiggington.

That play was a negative Web Gem all its own. Jones came in for the ball and Wiggington stood to his right to watch him glove the ball for an easy out. But instead we had a Three Stooges (Wiggy was playing the part of Curly Joe) routine where Jones misplayed the ball and it popped off his glove and smacked Wiggy in the chest and he had a chance to be the hero, but the ball finally fell to the grass.  For his efforts, Jones did get an error on the play.

From the third inning on tonight the Rays only got five additional hits in the game. Unfortunately the Rays did provide the Orioles defense with 2 strikeouts and two double plays in those last 7 innings to secure their 14th win of the season. Missing were Akinora Iwamura and Pat Burrell from the Rays lineup tonight. Rays Manager Joe Maddon had decided to give Aki the night off since he has been working extra hard recently and did play extensively  and looked a bit fatigued coming off the field after the Red Sox series. And Burrell has been battling a neck situation that had come and gone for the last week or so.

Considering this might have been a perfect match up for Burrell tonight, one has to wonder if the Burrell injury might be a little more than advertised by Maddon. And it is a shame he could not even use him as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning when George Sherrill, the leftie closer for the Orioles was on the mound. Both Sherrill and Hendrickson might have been great pitchers for Burrell to get some needed hit and confidence at the plate from in this game. Hopefully, we can see Burrell again at the plate in Wednesday nights contest.

 
Nick Wass / AP

Rays Did Have Offense..Early

As I stated before, the top of the second inning was a great display of what the Rays can do against a struggling pitcher. They seemed to be putting pressure on the jugular in that inning and never let Hendrickson get any reprieve until Carlos Pena finally flied out to Nick Markakis to end the inning. But the damage was already done by then by the Rays, who had a 5-1 lead at that point. In that inning Gabe Kapler hit a nice sacrifice fly to deep left field to score Willy Aybar, who had singled to lead-off the inning. It was Kapler’s first RBI as a Ray.

Dioner Navarro then hit a RBI-single up the middle to score Jason Bartlett, who had doubled down the third baseline earlier in the inning. B J Upton then walked to put men on the corners with Carl Crawford coming to the plate. Crawford, who had doubled in his first at bat, took a hanging breaking pitch and hit a 2-run double to deep left that Orioles leftfielder Felix Pie tried to dive for, but came up short.  Evan Longoria then extended his RBI streak when he put a pitch off the out-of-town scoreboard in rightfield to drive in Crawford.

Carlos Pena then hit a long fly out to  Nick Markakis to end the inning with the Rays now up 5-1. In that inning, the three outs recorded against the Rays were also hit balls.  But a few great thing did happen for the Rays. Crawford moved past Aubrey Huff with his 2 RBI in the inning to become the All-Time Rays RBI Leader for the young franchise. And Longoria, after the Orioles announcers were debating if he could keep up his RBI pace, hit his ball off the scoreboard with the next pitch. Longoria is still the MLB RBI Leader, now with 45 on the year.

               
                Nick Wass / AP

Sonny is No Longer Money

Man how it pains me to write that last line. I really like the lunch pail work ethic of Andy Sonnanstine. I can see that he has the drive and passion to go out there ever five days and throw until his heart gives out, or his arm falls off. But when is enough going to be enough here. At this time last year he had a 4-1 record, not the 2009 version that sports a 1-4 record with a inflated 7.27 ERA. Is there something wrong here, or am I just be too critical of a guy we had total faith in last season and might have a few struggles on the mound in 2009.

I am not a Pitching Coach, so my opinion is based solely on what I see and what I know about pitching, but there is something tell tale about him in 2009. I am not saying he is tipping his pitches, but something is tipping off the hitters more this season than in 2008.  Or could it just be something a simple as he is not re-inventing himself a bit every start. Maybe the team Volvo has finally hit the point where team have scouted him so much they can even tel
l when he is exhaling now.

That does happen in the pitcher’s career, and they have to re-adjust or re-invent their pitching style to confuse and make hitter get back off their heels waiting for his breaking ball. I am not going to call for a change just yet because it might be fixable, but it will have to be fixed at this level and he can not go down to the minors and work on it. It either has to be done up here, or he might just be on his way out the door in Tampa Bay. Coming into the 2009 season, you looked at Sonnanstine as a consistent pitcher, but so far in 2009, that consistency is based more in the negative than positive so far.

Last night, he lasted only two innings, or 69 pitches before getting the hook with the Rays behind 7-5. Every one of the Orioles runs were attributed to Sonny last night. That second inning only paled in comparison to Hendrickson’s by two great plays by the Rays outfield. If not for those plays, the Orioles might have tacked on two additional runs.  I know the minds in the Rays dugout are spinning right now trying to figure out what to do with this situation.

Like I mentioned before, it could be a simple mechanic adjustment like Scott Kazmir, or it just might be the end of Sonny’s run as a start with the Rays. Either way, the bleeding has to stop. The Rays had a killer inning in the top of the second and had no reason to have to stand out there and see all their hard work go bouncing by them in the bottom half of that inning. Change has to happen……….either good or bad, but it has to begin starting today for Sonny.


Nick Wass / AP

Wednesdays Wild Writs

****  The Rays got a huge boost from their outfielders’ in the bottom of the second inning.  After Designated hitter Lou Montanez hit an RBI-double to right-centerfield. Greg Zaun hit a single to rightfield that Gabe Kapler quickly got a hold of and sent a rocket to Dioner Navarro at home to easily get Montanez trying to score. The ball was a one-hopper that came up to Navarro perfectly to secure Kapler’s third outfield assist of the year. That ties the part-timer with Carl Crawford for the team lead.

The second outfield assist came from centerfield as B J Upton got Cesar Izturis and second base for his first outfield assist of the year. Upton, who was the Rays leader in outfield assists in 2008 with 12 assists. This play, along with Kapler’s earlier assist in the same inning, kept two more runs from scoring for the Orioles in the second inning.

**** Every one was curious what had happened to the missing left fielder for the Orioles in the top of the fourth inning. It seems that during the bottom of the third inning after Pie had struck out looking against Grant Balfour, he reportedly was sent to the University of Maryland Hospital complaining of stomach discomfort and after a CT scan, he will be in the Orioles dugout for tonight’s game.

Orioles Manager Dave Trembley was not aware of the situation in the top of the fourth inning and went into the Oriole’s clubhouse looking for Pie, but had to send out Ty Wiggington to play left field for the inning. “We thought it was just a temporary thing, that he had a stomach ailment or virus, upset stomach,” Trembley said. “I went to the home plate umpire and told him and he said, ‘I’ll give you a couple minutes.’ And I told Wigginton to get ready and Pie couldn’t come back, so that’s why we had to make a change.”

Pie, who is hitting .180 right now  has essentially lost his starting left field position to Lou Montanez after being brought over from the Chicago Cubs in the off season to shore up that spot in the outfield. Ex-Ray Joey Gathright was recently traded also from the Cubs to the Orioles for infield/outfielder Ryan Freel. Gathright does have major league experience, and could be a nice speedy option in left field for the Orioles to consider for the position.

**** I give Sunsports some credit for at least giving us the audio feed from Oriole Park at Camden Yards as they were trying to fix their video problems last night. We got to hear the pre-game voices of Brian Anderson and Dewayne Staats as they ran down the match-up and only missed Upton long drive to the 364 mark in centerfield, and Crawford’s ninth double of the season. We got back into the 20th Century right as Longoria began his first at bat of the night, which ended up being a liner to center field to move Crawford to third base.

**** After the game, Todd Kalas interviewed both Aubrey Huff and Kapler about their feelings on the recent demonstrations by players and pitchers in the league. Huff told Kalas that he had ” gotten several text messages”.  I still thin it is a bit humorous that Huffdaddy had to wait two years before he got a chance to rub that fist pump back at Joba Chamberlain before Sunday;s 3-run homer. But it was Kapler’s comments that showed the best representation of what most of the league might be thinking on this subject:
 

“Personally,my standpoint is is that if the fans enjoy it.  And it is good for all of us, and as long as it is not, you know, completely over the top and out of line, I think that anything that makes puts fans in the seats, ends up paying all of our salaries. media folks included, So I do not mind seeing a little bit of showboat or something good roots out there.”

I think Kapler has a great grasp of this whole situation having played with the Boston Red Sox for several seasons, then taking off for the Japanese League, which views cheering and also displays of showmanship completely different than in the United States. Then he comes back to the MLB and managed in the minor leagues for a year before deciding in 2008 he still had the desire and passion to play the game.

Long Day for Red Sox against Rays

 

             Rays 14,       Red Sox 5

          
           Mary Schwalm / AP

Just Wasn’t Their Day

Every once in a while a game comes around that reminds you that nothing is guaranteed in life. Well yesterday, in front of a Fox Television audience, the rest of the country found out what we already knew in the American League East division. Ever game is a battle, and even when you think you can win, you can lose. I really never thought we might have “parity” in baseball the way the NFL has weaned its teams towards. But in the AL East, even with the gigantic payrolls and the talent for days, the division is probably tighter today than it has even been.

There is not clear cut winner or loser anymore, it has been refined and designed down to the simple fact that the team with the highest score will win in the end. And that is the way it should be, it should not be decided by the pencil pushers or even the guys with the microphones protruding out of their faces, it should be decided by those 9 men on the field against that guy at the plate every at bat of the contest.

We are closer to that in the AL East. When you have a team that was predetermined to be a cellar dweller manning the second spot just a click away from the favorite, it is time to believe everyone is equal until the last out. When you have a pitching staff that has been destroyed by injuries but rebuilds itself within its own minor league system to emerge with more victories than you can count on your two hands, it is time to believe in parity. Who care if $ 2 billion dollar stadiums still need fine tuning, these squads within our division are hungry, and the plate is full for them right now.

With the AL East getting center stage in the East of the Mississippi for most viewers, it was a time for either the Rays or the Red Sox to proclaim dominance in the division. Even though Red Sox Nation might be mourning a loss, they should also rejoice in the game gave more validity to the fact we might have the ultimate division in baseball right now. The Rays showed why they can not be taken solely on their record by bashing 17 hits on the day. They also continued their stranglehold on Red Sox starter Jon Lester, who used to handle them like a rag doll.


Mary Schwalm / AP


The bevy of teams in the MLB also have this passion and skill, but still lack that personal challenge stage that besets every Red Sox vs Rays battle lines. Both teams know that to win this division, you have to conquer the elite first. The Rays have yet to even play their first contest against the Toronto Blue Jays, and some say that is why they are off to their big start in 2009.  The Rays do not play their first game against the Blue Jays until June 29th. Here we are in one of the most closely competitive divisions in baseball, and the defending divisional champs do not play one of their first games of the season against their nemesis divisional foe until almost the All-Star break.

Not to be outdone is the fact that the Blue Jays also are coming to Boston on May 19th for their first run at the Red Sox in 2009. So as you can see, even if we do have the division right now, the aspects and the smoke-and mirrors designed by the MLB schedulers make the division look a bit more one-sided than it truly is right now. The Blue Jays only played the Baltimore Orioles from our division in the first month of games. They have been set up against mostly A L Central and West divisional foes before finally taking on the Orioles in the beginning of May. Even though they did sweep the three-game series against Baltimore, they do not go against another divisional foe until this week when they play a mid-week series at home against the New York Yankees.

So even though the Red Sox might be currently sitting in the catbird’s seat, they also know that their work is just beginning in 2009. With every Red Sox loss to the Rays, they give a valuable key to the division to their southern brethren. And since the Rays have now won 5 out of the first 8 contests, giving them an early leg-up, but it is a long season. Today’s game was an abnormality in these two teams game over the long haul. Every year their is a small segment of games that show a huge disparity of scoring, but so far in 2009, neither team has set a dominance in that category against each other.  The only other game this year that featured any type of dominance by either team was the Rays 13-0 shutout the last time Matt Garza met the Red Sox.
 

For the first time in their divisional match ups, these two teams come in with defined roles, and lofty expectations. No matter what happens tonight, the game will be have a national audience so that the rest of the country can see what all the fuss is about in the A L East. From shore-to-shore, baseball fans will again see the rivalry that some say only exists in our own minds. That these two teams just hate each other and that nothing but a win will do for either team’s skipper. That might be true, but if the Rays do take the game tonight, it will be their seventh straight series they have defeated the Red Sox, both home and in Fenway Park.

That will not sit well with Red Sox Nation. They are accustomed to winning these games, and not settling for the Rays to gain any momentum towards the top of the division this early in the season. People have talked about the dismal start of the Rays as if they were 25-5 at this point last season. After 32 games, they are only minus two wins from their 17-15 record last season at this time. So much has been written, and so much has been anticipated of either team in 2009. For both of these squads to be within 4 games of each other after their collective starts is amazing on its own…but what else would you expect in the A L East. 


Mary Schwalm / AP

Rays put on a Hit Show

Coming into the game the Rays were t
he fifth best hitting team in the American League with a .274 team average.  Considering they were taking on the second best team in the AL in the Boston Red Sox, it might seem like a tall task. But the Rays have made their living the last two seasons out of beating the odds and winning the game people think they should lose on paper. So coming into yesterday’s game against the Red Sox leftie Jon Lester, the consensus might be a Red Sox victory. This is the first game that Lester will have thrown against the Rays in 2009.

I am not going to dive into the inning by inning blows of this game, but might just pick up on some of the highlights of this contest. We all know the score by now, and that Lester had an early dominance on the Rays before their bats awoke in a big way. Every hitter in the Rays lineup got a hit in yesterday;s game but Gabe Gross, who was on deck for his first at bat of the game when Evan Longoria flied out to left field to end the top of the ninth inning.  Five members of the Rays had multiple hits in the game. Carl Crawford led all Rays batters by going 3 for 4, with a walk in the game. 

But the biggest winner of the afternoon had to be B J Upton, who went 2 for 5 and had two nice hits during the game. Considering that Upton came into the game with a .156 average, which was the lowest average in the MLB for a starter, the game was a huge success at the plate. For if he is about to breakout and contribute to the Rays offense like he did in 2008, the sky is truly the limit for this team. We have seen a lot of frustration out of Upton at the plate, maybe trying to do too much at times, but his defensive plays have shown he is mentally on his game, and he only needed some plate confidence to get rolling this season.


Mary Schwalm / AP

Kazmir finds his Groove

A lot has been written lately on the good and bad side of Scott Kazmir’s 2009 season. He has always seems a bit out of sorts and fighting something within himself on the mound. It might be a small adjustment to his release point, or maybe a different grip on his slider, but he has always looked a bit off on the mound.  During todays game, he finally had a sense of confidence and mound presence we have come to know from Kazmir. His day might not have started on the right foot, but his first inning looked more productive and more controlled then usual.

Even his second inning lead-off slider that Rocco Baldelli put out of the ballpark for his first Red Sox homer was put in a nice spot, but Baldelli made a great swing to take it yard. But there was a small thing I did notice on the mound with Kazmir. He made a effort to look down and always check his footing after releasing the pitch. If you noticed on the television screen, after every pitch he glanced down to see where his landing point was on the mound. Maybe that was the small mechanical point he spoke of after his last outing. He voiced a displeasure in a level of his mechanics in his last post-game interview, and maybe they figured it out and he was just trying to maintain that level of consistency in the start.

But for whatever reason, Kazmir did look good today. He showed composure and also a sense of dominance we have seen missing from him this year. Oh, he has had great starts in 2009, but this one felt different for some reason. He seemed to be watching himself more, testing his stuff and throwing like he did in 2007 with more sliders and that wicked change-up that compliments his fast ball so well. He only threw 5 innings in the game, and only 100 pitches, but he did display a great work ethic today. His strikeout ratio have gone down since his huge numbers a few years, but maybe he is becoming a more complete pitcher who doesn’t have to win every game anymore by extreme measures.

           
            Mary Schwalm / AP

Sunday’s Smatterings of Thoughts 

**** Yesterday’s Fox broadcast of the Rays versus Red Sox game seemed to be riddled with some mis-guided  comments and observation by the broadcast team. I have always liked Tim McCarver and Dick Stockton as a duo, but yesterday they did make some very smartsy comments that I hope other people also heard during the broadcast.
1) Dick Stockton called Red Sox Jon Lester a “rightie” at one point when discussing the pitcher’s performance in the top of the second inning.
2)Tim McCarver in the top of the third inning said that Boston was the only team that had a winning record against the Rays in 2009. Well, Baltimore currently has a 4-1 record against the Rays in 2009 after winning their first series against the Rays, and splitting the last series against the team.
3) McCarver called Jason Bartlett “Evan Longoria” in the bottom of the sixth inning after he scored on Akinora Iwamura’s sacrifice fly.


**** 
The Rays are now 7-3 in their last 10 games and have scored 65 runs (6.5 runs per game average). They have combined for 304 hits this year and scored a total of 166 runs. They have also now hit 76 doubles this season, only trailing the Toronto Blue Jays by a single double for the A L lead.  On the negative side, they have also now struck out as a team 258 times in 2009 to lead the American League in that category.

**** Jason Bartlett is currently leading all MLB shortstops in batting average (.355) and only one AL shortstop has less errors than Bartlett’s two ( Marco Scutaro , 0 errors). He is also hitting 69 points higher than any other AL shortstop right now.  Combined, Bartlett and Longoria are hitting . 359 this season. That is the highest combined average for the left-side of an infield in the majors this season. 

**** You might notice a small blurp in the box score today in which the Rays Lance Cormier received a save during his 3.2 innings of work in Saturdays 13-5 win. Even though there was not a threat of him losing the lead, the aspect that he pitched three innings and did not give up a run constitutes a save in the MLB rule book. This is his first save with the Rays for the former University of Alabama closer.  in the MLB Rule book under section 10.19, the offcial scorer can give the relief pitcher a “save” if he complete three innings of work on the mound.

Rays Sing Flat against the Orioles

 

                     Orioles 8,      Rays 4

      
     
Chris O’Meara / AP

Kazmir Doesn’t Set the Tone

If last nights game would have been an audition for American Idol , the Rays would have been eliminated for lack of harmony and pitchy performance. Simon Cowell would have directed his most venom-filled tirade towards Rays starter Scott Kazmir who did not seem to have any type of rhythm, or a even a sense of direction in the game. Rays Manager Joe Maddon has a favorite saying that” “Pitching sets the tone of the game”. If that is truly the case, then last nights game was played by a group of tone-deaf athletes who seemed to be boring and very karaoke on the field.

I know that seems a bit harsh, but the fact of the matter is that the team just got over a huge emotional series against the Boston Red Sox, and they did not need to take even a one-game vacation now against the team we are fighting to stay out of the American League East cellar. It is not like the Orioles are a bad team. Quite the contrary, they have been our biggest pest for several seasons taking wins that used to fall our way. But last night’s contest was in doubt from the first pitch from the mound.

Kazmir threw the first pitch to lead-off man Brian Roberts behind him, and both Roberts and Home Plate Umpire Tim McClelland looked at each other in utter amazement.  It would have been great if from that moment on we did not have the feeling we were watching “Nuke” Laloosh from “Bull Durham” fame throw balls everywhere but over the plate. But we had the leftie that used to dominate the plate and send a chill down your spine with that great slider of his. Tonight the only thing scary about Kazmir was where the ball was going on every pitch. Control was not in his forte last night.

But then maybe I am being a bit too critical?  Maybe, but if you walk the first two batters in a game on 9 pitches, doesn’t it open the opinion door wide open. Even the fact that the first two guys basically only had to have their bats on their shoulders to enjoy a short stroll down to first was not the major issue here. It was the 1-1 count and the hanging slider that Nick Markakis decided needed to go into the right field stands for a 3-run homer that peaked my concern. That gave the visiting birds a 3-0 lead after only three batters.

But the Rays have been great at digging out of holes this year?  That is true, but usually those holes do not find themselves dug as early or as deep as this one in only the first inning. To Kazmir’s credit, he did get the next three Oriole batters in a row to get out of the inning with only the 3-0 damage inflicted on the Rays. Now we all know that Kazmir has been difficult his entire career early in his outings, and maybe this one is a prime example of his woes. But I know the Rays have tried various solutions to try and combat that early wildness on the mound.

They have tried to get him to throw his pre-game warm-up session like a simulated game to maybe get rid of the cobwebs faster and warm him up to game situations. But that had mixed reviews. They have even tried to get him to do more stretching and mental imaging before the game to stimulate his mind towards the actions of the first three batters. If he did do a pre-game simulation or visualization on the bench, thank goodness someone bothered him before he got down deep into the order yesterday.

In his post game comments, Kazmir eluded to the fact he did not” feel right tonight. Some thing was off mechanically.” I have to agree with you there Scott. Something did look a little off. When you were on the side throwing before the game you looked rushed and a bit flustered. But that has sometimes led to great things, so I do not read too much into it anymore. But you are right, something is off a bit with your delivery. Or maybe you are trying to bite on the plate corners too much and the umpires are not giving it to you based on your lack of control most of the game.

Whatever the reason, we need to get our leftie asset back under control before Kazmir get into his own head and begins to doubt himself or his purpose to this team. People forget that this guy is still only 24, and will not even hit 25 until August. Just because he is the longest tenured pitcher, and hold numerous Tampa Bay Rays records, he is still a guy who is growing as a pitcher every start.  There is no doubt in my mind that he is a star on this team. But his recent problems have casted a shadow on him that might be deserved at times.

But remember, there are a huge amount of pitchers this year who are also having sub-par years in the both leagues. From New York to Los Angeles, young pitchers are getting rocked and having their control situations. I know most people will just say that is the other team’s problem, but maybe we are hitting a mental or mechanic pandemic that is effecting our young pitchers right now. The only cure to such a virus is to study film, check location placement and maybe even do some side work to try and pinpoint the problem. Usually it is something simple that can ruin a pitching outing. Hopefully for Kazmir it is a simple case of maybe his foot placement on the rubber. But then again, I will leave that to the experts.


 
Chris O’Meara / AP 

Navarro is Doing Some Great Things

For the past few days I have heard a few grumbles and rants from the stands about the Rays current option at catcher. Dioner Navarro has had a history of starting slow before, but people still point towards last season as the barometer for his hitting. They do not take into consideration that we might have seen his best season last year, and this is an example of a average season for him. Catching has never been a position that a team look towards for a huge offensive outburst of power and average.

Usually a .240 hitter with power outbursts is what you find in the catching realms. What they are on the roster for is their defensive excellence and their ability to control their pitching staff. But with Rays current back-up Michel Hernandez having a career night this past weekend, it put the grandstand prognosticators on high alert. They are calling for a change, and there is not current Rays solution. The Rays normal back-up catcher, Sha
wn Riggans is getting ready to head out to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits for his rehab assignment and might not be back for a week to ten days.

But why are people calling for a change when Navarro is still acting like an All-Star catcher behind the plate? The voices seems to bring up the fact he is increasingly getting more and more prone to not putting his glove to the ground for balls that skip before or on the plate. This has lead to numerous passed balls and wild pitches in the last two weeks. Some of them have been costly to the team in moving up runners into scoring position, but some of that also has to be put on the pitcher’s shoulders. Navarro is not the one throwing the ball in the dirt, but is the one chasing them around the backstop.

But I do see the rationale here for that thinking. It does at times seem like he is giving 75 percent, but he might also be looking back runners at the corners and also trying to do too much at one time behind the plate. He has grown by leaps and bounds behind the plate as a team leader and the controller of multi-personalities that hit the mound. You have to think it might be difficult to pull in a emotional pitcher like Grant Balfour at times, or even try and figure out a character like JP Howell when he cool, calm and collected out there with the bases loaded and no outs.

But considering that in the recent games, Navarro has gunned down Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and  he got the Orioles Adam Jones at third base last night. For the year he is 4 for 19 this year throwing runners out. That 21 percent might not be lights out, but it shows he is trying to get them, and that speaks volumes. When a player is showing up defensively on the field, his hitting is considered a slump, not a lack of confidence. Navarro will be back on track again.  He got to the 2008 All-Star game based on the entire package behind the plate.

He had great coaches who used to catch like Maddon and Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos to guide and watch his mechanics. Navarro will again be stroking the ball hard for the Rays. The entire team has had a few pieces that have been slow to rise to the top this year. That happens some times, but why is it he is single out right now as the problem? Sometimes when you dip below that Mendoza line people doubt your offensive abilities.

He hit .295 last season and set numerous personal highs. The guy can hit, and we have seen it. But let’s give the guy a bit of a break because the Rays do not have huge options to even consider replacing him right now. “Stay the course and the ship will right itself” is an old nautical saying. It is Navarro’s time to sink or swim. Let’s give him the opportunity to rebound before we throw a great talent away for instant success.



Chris O’Meara / AP

Longo and El Presidente


Where would the Rays be this year without these two tearing up the base paths? You have to think of the possibilities of where we would be if not for their offensive thumping so far in 2009.  Based on his past weeks heroics, Evan Longoria again garnished the American League Player of the Week honors. Longo hit .379 with an A L  best 14 RBI during the past 7 days and  21 total bases. His 2 homers and 4 doubles were included in his 9 runs scored and  a .724 Slugging Percentage. This is his third overall Player of the Week honor, and his second this season.

Carlos Pena (28) and Longoria (31) are the first teammates since Duke Snider (31) and Roy Campanella ( 28)  with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 to have 28+ RBI through the first 26 games of the year.   Longoria and Pena are also the current MLB home run duo with Longoria (8) and Pena ( 11) combining for 19 homers this season.  There 58 combined RBI also have them number one in the MLB right now, 8 RBI ahead of their nearest competitors, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick of St. Louis who have 50 RBI.


Chris O’Meara / AP 

Tuesday Tidbits

**** As everyone knows, the Cowbell Kid will be making his annual road trip this week up for the New York Yankee two-game series and into Boston and Baltimore during the next road trip. He has even compiled a little didy entitled, ” The Cowbell Kid is coming to Town” that plays upon that Christmas classic, “Santa Claus is Coming to town.” He has even gotten  a few sound bytes from members of the Rays Bullpen that will be included in the video file he intends to sen to the media members in all three cities of the next road trip. Let’s hope the blue-haired one takes heed in Boston and remains calm when things come flying towards his Marge Simpson hair.

**** Again last night a mysterious orange ball came out of the right field stands after the home run by Nick Markakis in the first inning. People know my opinion on this trend. I know of the old tradition started by the 142 Crew where everything but the kitchen sink used to come out of the stands into the small right field corner, but this orange ball incident might bring about an odd group of copycats that will prolong the game.  The 142 Crew did their actions with the Bullpen knowing that the actions would happen and they used to send the ball boy out there to collect the balls and foreign items in a timely manner. To just throw countless balls back onto the field is a time-wasting effort and might be looked upon by the Rays as an insult, not as a fan energy booster.

**** Do not forget that today is Cinco De Mayo. The Rays plan on having their own celebration in the Power Alley Pub above centerfield today before and during the Rays afternoon game. I expect to see a multitude of sombrero’s and festive outerwear throughout the stadium. I will try and get a few photos of the festivities and post them tomorrow.  I am expecting to see at least a few Rays fans in ponchos and selective Corona-based wear in the stadium.

Rays Hungry in Win in Oakland

 

              Rays 8,     Athletics 2


Ben Margot / AP

Dr. Devilrays and Mr. Ray

The beginning to the 2009 season began another chapter last night as the  Tampa Bay Rays evened their road record in 2009 to 5-5 with a wild shootout in O-town. Now in the past, a game like this would not be possible with the dominance the last few years of the Oakland A’s pitching staffs. But this is not the same pitching staff your older brother was salivating over in his Fantasy Draft. It has come on a few seasons of wheeling and dealing as the A’s are going through a self-imposed rebuilding of their staff. But in this game, even the Barry Zito’s or even the Dan Haren’s might have been hard pressed to keep this Rays team under their thumbs.

In their usual Dr. D-Ray and Mr Ray fashion the Rays took control of the game from the onset and did not let up the entire contest. This is the type of game we hoped and prayed for during their 2-5 home stand last week. They did have a few minor base running mishaps, but the overall ability of the offense to take control of a struggling pitcher was a thing to be seen with your eyes. The team did what you are suppose to do when a pitcher is having control and command issues. they sat waiting on their prized pitch and drove it endlessly into the California skies to post their seventh victory of the year. 

The fact that Mother Nature was also working in the Rays favor to begin the game was not lost on just the players. Rays Television Commentator Todd Kalas was quick to alert the fans at home to the 31-40 mph winds that were swirling in and around the stadium at game time. This just added to the Rays offense as they  went on in the contest. But considering they were facing  Oakland rookie Trevor Cahill today, the 21-year old, who was drafted by the A’s in the 2006 Player Draft, got his first look at Tampa Bay in his career. In his fourth start of the year, Cahill might have wished he had missed it after the Rays took an early 1-0 lead after B J Upton scored on a Carl Crawford RBI-double to start the game.

To put the Rays offense emergence into perspective, they put their lead-off man on base in five of the nine innings tonight, and in three of those innings, the lead-off man scored for the Rays. Gabe Gross and Carlos Pena lead-off two of those innings with solo home runs to pace the Rays offense tonight.  In all, the Rays hit 4 doubles and 3 homers against the A’s, and only Upton and Pat Burrell did not have hits in the Rays 13-hit explosion. This is the type of Rays confidence that was so familiar with them in 2008. The Rays were hitting the long balls, but also concentrating on extending rallies tonight.

In their first inning, they strung together three straight base runners to put early pressure on Cahill. Then in their  5-run third inning, they got two early base runners before Pena hit a 3-run shot over 388 feet for his first homer of the night.  After Burrell hit a fly ball to Mark Ellis for an easy out at second base, they again strung together  5 straight base runners before Crawford hit a sharp fly to Matt holliday in left field for the final out. But by that time they had exposed the young right-hander and paced to a 7-0 lead.  In the fifth, the Rays again tired to mount an extended rally, with Akinora Iwamura getting a lead-off single into the gap in right-center field, then Jason Bartlett hitting a ball to Eric Chavez at third base that he beat for an infield single.  But Upton hit into a 6-4-3 double play to prematurely take the Rally down.

From that inning on, the Rays only extended one inning to multipule base runners. In the eighth inning, both Burrell and Gabe Gross got walked by A’s reliever Maichael Wuertz, but were stranded on base after a Dioner Navarro fly out to center field ended the inning. At that point it was 8-0, with the Rays in control of the contest. For the night, the Rays got 13 hits, 8 of them off the Oakland starter and also  gathered  8 total walks on the night.  The Rays did leave 7 runners in scoring position, which is still the Achillie’s heel of this team. If not for the A’s starter getting into early trouble tonight, the Rays only sustained two rallies all night long after Cahill left the game, and both of those were off of reliever Dan Giese, who Oakland got on waivers after the New york Yankees released him.


Ben Margot/ AP

El Presidente Issues a Statement

Carlos Pena has been the vocal leader of this Rays team now for several years. He is one of the first people to speak up for the Players Only meeting the other day in Seattle, that lead to a Rays victory, and tonight he let his lumber do the talking. It is great to see a Raya slugger let his bat do the talking in this contest. But Pena has always been someone who will “walk the walk, and talk the talk.” It is one of the reason the Rays took a chance on him several years ago and signed him to a Minor League contract. He did nothing more than surprise and rise this team by hitting the daylights out of the ball and make his love for this young team know.

The Rays made their committment to him by signing him to a multi-year contract, and since that day, he done more and more to take and portray a leadership role on and off the turf for the Rays. Tonight he took two pitches and made his statement in this game.  In the third inning, he took a letter high ball and deposited it deep into center field to send the Rays in front 5-0 at the time.  Then  in the the sixth inning off Giese, he took a 3-1 pitch and drilled it into the first row into right field, about 333 feet from home to provide the last run of the game for the Rays. His two homers tonight puts him into the American League HR catbird seat with one more than Carlos Quentin of the Chicago White Sox.

His 4 RBI’s tonight also puts him at 21 for the year, which also puts him currently  2 RBI’s ahead of Nick Markakis of the Orioles for the American League lead. Pena went 2 for 5 in the game, and moved his average up to .254 tonight. For the Rays to be successful in 2009, they need their big hitter to remain consistent and producing.  In their 1
0 loses this season, Pena is a combined 7 for 36, or a .194 average with 13 strikeouts. He has a total of 21 strikeouts so far in 2009, which is good enough for second in the American League. But the Rays seem to feed off his energy, and his success has been key to the team rebounding and rebuilding their oen confidence this season. El Presidente is a leader, and the young Rays seem to play better and with more consitent nature when their leader is setting the example on the field and at the plate.

 

Ben Margot / AP

Kazmir Adjusts Mid-game for Great Start

Rays starter Scott Kazmir did not start the game in great fashion he again seemed to be a bit off the mark, but adjusted correctly and posted one of the most impressive night of the year for him. He did not use his fastball to set-up hitters, but used a greatly improving slider and change-up to keep them guessing at the plate. When the game first started, you would not have thought he was going to go 6 innings and thrown only 96 pitches in the game.  But coming into this game, he has always been extremely good against the A’s. He was a combined 6-2 against them with a 2.70 ERa in 11 starts.

During tonight’s first two innings, you did not see the dominating Kazmir stuff, but it was showing itself throughout those innings and gaining momentum. Kazmir did not start out the night in impressive fashion as he walked lead-off man Ryan Sweeney with four pitches. He neded up throwing 22 pitches just in that first inning. In the second inning, he surrendered  a quick single to Jack cust to lead-off the inning and then walked Kurt Suzuki before taking control of the inning and sending the next 3 hitters down in order to strand both men on base. In that inning he threw 26 pitches. It looked like another early night for Kazmir.

Then in the third inning he again gave up a lead-off walk to Sweeney, his second of the night. At this point, Kazmir has given the lead-off hitter a chance in all three innings. But then he ended up getting Orlando Caberra to hit into a double play to erase Sweeney after a difficult 10-pitch at bat. At this point it seemed that Kazmir regained his command and ended up striking out Nomar Garciaparra to end the inning after 21 pitches. Up to this point, Kazmir had thrown 72 pitches in the contest and was heading for another early night.

But between the innings he discovered his small mechanical error and then took the mound in the fourth inning and went right after the A’s hitters. He only threw 7 pitches in that inning, getting Matt Holliday, Cust and Suzuki in order for his first 1-2-3 inning.  In the fifth inning, he again took control and sent the A’s down 1-2-3 for the second inning, but this time threw only 15 pitches. He was beginnig to take full control of the game. In his last inning, the sixth, he again got the A’s down in order 1-2-3 to put an exclamation point on his night. In that inning, he had retired 11 straight hitters and did his last inning on 6 total pitches. For the night he had given up only two hits, and had held the A’s hitless from the second inning on tonight.


Ben Margot / AP


Gross Doesn’t Waste Opportunity

Gabe Gross did not get an opportunity in the last few games to contribute anything to the Rays. He had not been in the field since the Rays 4-2 loss to open the series in Seattle at on Tuesday night. and in that contest, he only came on to pinch-hit for Gabe Kapler in the ninth inning and popped out in that appearance. His .130 average was cause for concern among the Rays faithful. People had been calling for Ben Zobrist to get more time since the left-handed Gross was struggling at the plate. But tonight he got a start against the A’s right-hander and did not waste his chances. He not only made a mark at the plate, but made sure the Rays did not forget what he brings to the table as a defensive expert.


In the bottom of the first inning when Holliday hit a hard ball to right field and Sweeney tagged up at third base to try the arm of Gross, he quickly got his feet set before the ball reached him and threw a missile to Dioner Navarro in front of the plate for an easy tag-out and to end the A’s rally and inning. But he did not let the momentum end there. He then was the lad-off hitter in the top of the second inning and blasted a 0-2 pitch into deep center field for his first home run of the year.  Gross rode the energy to again in the third innig when he hit a double to the left-center field wall to start another Rays rally after Pena’s three-run shot. 

He ended up crossing the plate in that inning to then put the Rays up 6-0 at the time. He again got on base in the fourth inning on a  5-pitch walk to put two men on base for the Rays. He did not get an opportunity to put anymore runs up for the Rays in that inning, but his offensive struggles seemed to be behind him. After a hard hit ball to center field for an out in the sixth inning, he again got on base in the eighth inning after a 5-pitch walk by A’s reliever Michael Wuertz.  That was his last time on base for the game, but his 2-3 performance had made his average take a positive turn to end up at .192 for the night.

Some people have commented it seems like I do not like Gross. It is not that at all here. It is the fact I know the team is struggling right now, and when you are in a hole, you go with your best horses. At that time Zobrist was the hot bat, and also deserves some playing time considering his early season successes at the plate and in the field. Both guys have a single outfield assist this year, but Gabe Kapler is leading the Rays with two so far in 2009. I like the way Gross played in 2008. Maybe I got spoiled by his banner year and he is showing his more stable hitting average. No matter what, I think the Rays should ride the hot bats this year in right field. If that means Zobrist and Gross get the bulk of the turns, then so be it.

        

www.tradewinds
resort.com

 

Rays Watch Parties with Rich Herrera

Coming up in the next few days will be two Rays watch parties, with Rays Radio pre game and post game announcer Rich Herrera hosting the events in two great local locations. Both of these locales are not foreign to Rays fans as they have already hosted past events and will again be awash in the Rays blue and white and loud with the cheers and excitement of the Rays Revolution members.

The first will be held on Sunday, April 26th at the Tradewinds Resort on beautiful St. Petersburg Beach, Florida.  The resort is a key spot on the Gulf of Mexico and fans are invited to come out early and enjoy the beach and the resort before the Rays afternoon contest against the Oakland A’s. Your usual Rays host,Rich Herrera will be broadcasting the pre- and post game shows live and on location starting at 3:30 p.m., with the first pitch at 4:05 p.m.

Before and during the game, be sure to stop by and register for your chance to win an autographed baseball, tickets to a future Rays game, TradeWinds merchandise, and much more! The Rays  energetic Street Team will also be in attendance, passing out prizes and giveaways. So come on by the TradeWinds Island Resorts, soak up the sun, enjoy the beach, and watch your Rays on Sunday, April 26! The resort is located at: 5600 Gulf Boulevard, and you can get  more directions on their website www.tradewindsresort.com.

 


The second Rays Watch Party will be held in a location that Upper Pinellas County fans know well for their outstanding food and open dining areas. The Rays will again be holding another event at the Clearwater location of Smokey Bones located at 2693 Gulf-toBay Blvd in Clearwater, located in the north section of the Clearwater Mall complex. So if you are a extreme Rays fan like the “Maddon’s Maniacs”, or just a casual Rays fan who loves great BBQ ribs, we invite you to come watch the Rays play the Twins in Minnesota on Monday, April 27, from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill in Clearwater!

Come out and watch the game with fellow Rays fans and enjoy  great drink specials.  Rays Radio pre game and post game guru Rich Herrera will  again be live as the Rays play in the Metrodome. We hope to see you there, and GO RAYS!

Saturday Scattered Thoughts

**** Former Rays reliever Jason Hammel, who was traded just prior to the beginning of the 2009 season has been moved into the Colorado Rockies rotation. So far in 2009, Hammel has appeared in 3 games for a total of 6.2 innings with an 2.70 ERA and 5 strikeouts on the season.

The Rockies obtained Hammel thinking he could be effective as a starter or a reliever. Starts haven’t been available, so he’s made three relief appearances. All Colorado knows is that if he pitches the way he has in his last two outings, there is a place for him — possibly a prominent one.

**** Rays Commentator Brian Anderson has been a trip so far in the broadcast booth for this west coast road trip. Anderson who also doubles as the Rays Assistant Pitching coach has been a breath of fresh air in the booth in relation to the  finer pitching aspects of the game.  He has shown awesome insight and also techniques that a pitcher might use that have been missing since former Rays commentator Joe Magrane left for the MLB Network in the off season. 

Also a great aditon is the use of his own key phrase he like “cookie” to demonstrate a pitch that is just eaten up by the hitter. I was afraid the Rays commentary might be a bit dry and stale for the first season with Kevin Kennedy. But both Kennedy and Anderson have injected a different viewpoint into the every day workings of this team. Kennedy shows a perspective from the catching side of the game, while anderson is focusing on his expertise……..pitching. The Rays hit a blast with the occasional pairing of Anderson with award winning Dwayne Staats in the booth. I can hardly wait for Todd Kalas to get his turn in the booth and see what magic can happen.

**** I can imagine the grumbling and the grunts from the Rays as they entered the Visitor’s Clubhouse yesterday to no food choices in the clubhouse before the game. I could see Rays Clubhouse Manager Chris Westmoreland on the phone scrambling to get something, even a bag of pretzels into the clubhouse at that moment.  But even more entertaining in my mind would be the sight of the Rays getting back on the busses and maybe going ala minor league style to a local restaurant and having Westy and maybe Traveling Secretary Jeff Ziegler tossing bags of food up through the windows to the hungry Rays.

Maybe that was the motivation of the team in last night’s contest. They were hungry in more ways than one prior to the game. But you know that they did finally get some neded calories in their stomaches, but that would have been a sight of them trolling into maybe In-and-Out Burger with 35 chicken sandwiches and healthy wrap meals, with a small prize in the sack for their kids. Ahhhhhhhh, that would have made them cherish their old minor league roots.

  
 

Rays Taken Down by Yanks

 

 
                      Yankees 4,           Rays 3
 

 
More than just Tax Day
 
Branch Rickey is a very special person to the city of St. Petersburg, Florida. It was his St. Louis Browns squad that first began the Spring Training ritual in this area more than 100 years ago. At that time the notion was that this small hamlet would be perfect for baseball. Funny how here we are more than 100 years after he might have said this same words celebrating our first American League Pennant this week with “Championship Week”, and also get to remember him and two of his crowning moments in baseball history.
 

Spring Training in the fair city might be special to Florida, but his second historical note changed the face of the sport. How much pressure he must have felt at the time he was considering this move. He would be the first owner to open his clubhouse doors to this minority, and he had to find the right ambassador to usher in this new era.  As his luck would have it, he found a educated, smart and tolerant individual named Jackie Robinson to be the first black player to step upon a major league field. Now he could have made the choice a bit more controversial by picking the slick tongued Satchel Paige, or the power hitting Josh Gibson, but each of those two came with a little baggage that might have derailed the notion.

Rickey did something most baseball businessmen might not have done at that time, he forced history’s hands a bit, and also made the sport open to all players after that incident. But what pressure those two men must have endured. Rickey was lucky enough to spend most of his time in his Press Box where writers where more apt to kiss your behind than talk behind it. But Robinson had to take the abuse and treatments in a full frontal attack. But his grace and his baseball ability soon made the voices and the catcalls die down and people began to see his skills and talent for the game.  So here I sit tonight and see one of his sister teams from New York play the Rays, with each member of both teams wearing that famous “42″ on their backs today.
 

If there truly is a place called heaven, and if you can see down from it, I hope Jackie Robinson can take pride that in all the torments and the pain he had to endure in Brookyln, that today the game is better for his initial sacrifice and his courage to press on, even in the worst environments. I have not been alive long enough to truly hear all the stories and the great plays by Robinson, but his best play ever might have just been that first step out of the dugout to take his place in the Dodger’s infield. Thank you Jackie Robinson for being a special part of this game we all know and love so much.

 
 

 

Early Distress Calls

 

I can not still believe that I heard this kind of stuff out a fans mouth this early in the season. I mean we are only 8 games into the 2009 season and already I have heard the first word of doubt in the air at Tropicana Field. How can anyone be so far-sighted to even bring up the word “2001″ and the word “losing” in the same breath in this short start to the season. Sure we might be 4-4 right now and tied with these same Yankees in the division, but think about it this way. We are tied with the team that is suppose to crush our dreams this season, and the ” media darlings”, the Boston Red Sox are in the cellar right now.
 

Come on people, do you really think that 8 games, or 1/10th of your Home Games can be a true determining factor to your negative thoughts right now. So what if the offense is slow to wind up and get going.  Sometimes this sort of thing happens during a year. Maybe we are lucky enough to have it happen now rather than in 2008, right before the All-Star break when we lost 7 in a row. To even bring up any negative thoughts right now is the sign of a true bandwagon fan, or just an uninformed fan at best. So what, we have now lost two game at home. Did you expect to win all 81 before the year? I know I did not.

 
But what is so frustrating is that people are throwing the season under the bus after 8 games, and they do not have valid reasons to do it. I mean if you had a valid reason, and can prove it, I might be willing to see your side of the argument. But to just throw the Bullpen, and the line-up under a general heading of ” going south” is a bit  premature right now. I mean, let’s throw a positive vibe out here right now. We started the year taking 2 out of 3 in Fenway Park, our toughest place to play. We only took1 of 3 from the usual April darlings, the Baltimore Orioles to come home to a 3-3 record. And now we have a 1-1 record against the Yankees, and a few uninformed Rays fans are crying we are not 8-0.
 

Patience people. Seriously here, there is not a team that is 8-0, much less 7-1. That is the great thing about baseball. A team that was a losing franchise before 2008 can rise from the ashes and take on the big boys and fight all the way to the World Series. Is that not the same thing that can happen again in 2009?  And if I remember, it did not bode well for the Rays after 8 games in 2008, we were 3-5. We also lost our Home Opener against the Seattle Mariners and went on to have one of the best home records in baseball. So put away the doom and gloom hats for a few months. My Gosh people, there is some great ball being played on this field and you are only looking at the score. Just remember, the Rays finished April with a 14-12 record on the way to a 97-
65 total. We have plenty of baseball to play before throwing in the towels people…..plenty.

 
             
 
 

Sonny Days
 
 

Andy Sonnanstine has been portrayed by me before as a Volvo.  He asked me a few days ago during batting practice what I meant by that. I explained to him that the Swedish car is considered the safest and most reliable car on the face of the earth. And that I in turn think he is one of those pitchers that you can predict good thing from, and expect the best from in every outing. He doesn’t have the external flair glowing from him that  James Shields,  Matt Garza and  Scott Kazmir eludes right now, but he can be the guy to get the win without the pomp and flash.

 

I told him come on Andy, you were the guy to get to 12 wins first on this staff early on in 2008 and no one knew your name. Sometimes that can actually help you as a pitcher. You can sneak up on teams and take that win without them remembering who did them in on the mound, and that is special.  I also explains I could have called him a pair of old comfortable shoes, but thought that analogy might be a bit hindering on him. But seriously, Sonnanstine had multiple chances to also rise to 14 wins in 2008, but hit a wall. Just because he did not post 14 wins doesn’t mean this guy should ever be discounted as a key to the Rays rise again in 2009.
 

Take tonight game for example, he fought long and hard against another “hot” pitcher tonight and held his own.  I put the other Andy ( Pettitte ) up there in the top lefties still playing in the game.  To stay toe-to-toe with him tonight on the mound is a testament to how far he has come as a pitcher in such a short time. Sure Sonny might have given up  2 runs on four hits, but it was not his hand that dealt the loss for the Rays today.  He has his usual reliable night on the mound. Not big numbers in strikeouts, but  he did face 20 batters and did not give up the long ball. But that is something you come to expect from Sonnanstine. Nice innings with no huge drama and a bit of excitement thrown in for good measures. Sometimes a great baseball game is just a boring Chess match and not the huge roller coaster that some pitchers throw at you for the Rays.  Sometimes the old comfortable shoes fit snug and welcoming, even on the baseball diamond.

 
Longoria Gone Until the Weekend

 
The Rays will be without Rookie of the Year winner Evan Longoria for at least the next two days as he needs to head to California to attend to a  personal family matter. All out thoughts and prayers go out to Longoria and his family at this time.
 
 The third baseman hopes to be back for Friday night’s game against the Chicago White Sox at 7:38 pm.  Willy Aybar is scheduled to take his spot in the outfield and be placed in the fifth slot if the lineup. Aybar began 2008 as the starter at third base before a hamstring injury brought Longoria up, and he never again left his spot until a wrist injury forced him to miss time near the end of 2008. 
 

Friday Night Games

 
I want to take this moment to remind everyone that Friday night game are going to start at 7:38 pm this season.  This gives Rays fans more time to get to the ballpark, plus can be a better starting time due to work and family events. This experiment by the Rays might be the best change in 2009 because it will give an extra 30 minutes for people traveling from outside the St Petersburg area ample time to get here before the first pitch. I know some people complained in 2008 that they were stuck in I-275 traffic, or even trying to get into the stadium’s parking lots before the old 7:05 start times. Hopefully this new start time will help eliminate a lot of that trouble, and also give other fans the opportunity to come out and see a Rays game.
 

Gold Glove for Pena

 
Before today’s game, Rawlings presented Carlos Pena with his 2008 Gold Glove for his outstanding play at first base for the American League. He is the first Rays first baseman to win the ward, but not the only one who could have won it. The Rays have been blessed with a great bunch of first baseman in the past, but in 2008, Pena was simply amazing on the bag for the Rays. He only had 2 errors the entire season, and one of those was a throwing error. At the presentation was his wife and darling young daughter.
 

I found it kind of cute that she did not seem to happy to be out there in the spotlight with mom and dad yesterday. She did not cry or pout, but you could see she either did not understand the moment, or that the camera flashes might  have frightened her a bit. But she was cute as a button and by mom’s side as dad picked up that awesome piece of hardware. embedded in the middle of the base was a picture of Pena in silver and black, with a gold plated first baseman’s mitt on the top. I always wonder if they get a new glove and dip it, or if the player donates an older mitt to be plated and set on top of the award.

 
 
Photo credits:      1) Chris O’Meara / AP
                             2) Chris O’Meara / AP
                            3) Chris O’Meara / AP
 

Tampa Bay take First Series from Red Sox

 
 
                            Rays 4,  Red Sox 3

 

 
 
Strutting like a Proud Turkey
 

Okay, I am going to shout loud and proud tonight for the Tampa Bay Rays. I do not care if you like it or not, because we have sent the message that we are for real again in 2009, and we want to win the American League East again. This was the kind of game that the Rays used to lose all the time up in Boston. It was the type of contest where the Rays let the Red Sox get back into the game, then let something happen that took the game out of the Ray’s hands. But that was almost the case this afternoon in Boston, but the Rays instead bent, but did not break to win the first series between the two powerhouses in the AL East.

 


The game was not in the bag until Gabe Kapler, who came on and pinch-hit for Gabe Gross in the top of the ninth inning, took a long fly ball in the triangular area of center field for the final out of the game. Boston did not sit down and die in this game, but played like a lion waiting for their chance to snatch the win away from the Rays. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Boston Captain, Jason Varitek tried to get the rally going strong by hitting a solo shot into the Rays Bullpen in right field. The shot was almost brought back into the field-of-play for an out, but Ben Zobrist, who had just come on to play right field, could not pull the ball back from beyond the fence.


It was that close. Seriously, it was a few inches that separated the Red Sox getting back into the game, or the Rays taking it without a fight. Instead, Varitek awakened the Boston crowd with hid lead-off homer off Rays closer Troy Percival on a bad pitch down and in. Boston did not sit back after that blast. After two quick outs, David Ortiz walked to give the faithful some hope. That in itself was a major thing since Ortiz came into this game 1-12 ( 0.83 average) against Percival lifetime. So with a man on base, and the winning run at the plate with two outs, the hard hit ball by Kevin Youkilis  seemed to take forever to reach Kapler’s glove and end the rally.

 

If this is going to be the type of games that we are going to see in this series this year. I think I am going to get some Pepto and aspirin for the home crowd. This is what baseball is all about. It had the excitement of a late rally, and the back-and -forth pitching by one of Boston’s best pitchers. This is the type of game that will be the talk of the water cooler in Tampa Bay and Boston tomorrow for different reasons. In Tampa Bay, they will be talking about the powerful display put on by the Rays in this game. But in Boston, they will be talking about Kapler’s play and the pitching of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K was all over the plate early, allowing a lead-off homer, and also throwing 100 pitches in 5.1 innings.
 

It was a great game to watch for either teams fans. That is going to pay dividends for both teams during their next home stands featuring these two teams. We know that Boston will be sold out, but it will drive up the demand for tickets and also make the  people selling tickets a nice return. Even in Tampa Bay, where most Boston fans can take a plane ride and even buy tickets cheaper than getting into Fenway Park most nights, the ticket sellers will have a field day. But that is what playoff baseball felt like this past October, and hopefully when the Red Sox come to town the rest of the year, we can experience it over and over again.

 
 
            
 

Riggo to the Rescue

 
It was great to see Shawn Riggans get a start today against the Red Sox in the matinee. Anyone who knows me will not doubt know I am going to be happy to see him getting some time behind the plate. But I might not be the only one. During today’s FSN telecast, Rays analyst Kevin Kennedy, who is a former catcher, and a major league catching instructor, also talked glowingly about Riggans today. He made a point to show the way he would go down and block the ball correctly. That he was fundamentally sound, and also seemed to call a great game behind the dish.

 
Kennedy also noticed the great  confidence that Garza seemed to have in the back-up catcher, and that Garza had a winning record last year ( 5-2) when Riggans caught him. Not lost was the fact that Riggans was the catcher that caught Garza during his one-hitter against the Florida Marlins last season. The only blemish on that day was a home run to Hanley Ramirez.  During the game, with the center field camera focusing in on Riggans, you could see him give encouragement and calm Garza down after strikes were not called on a few close balls off the corners.

 
But that is why I like this kid. He had taken to this job after the Rays have thrown people at him to pressure him for the back-up spot in previous years. But this spring, the Rays did not bring in any one with a huge amount of experience because of their confidence in Riggans. That is the ultimate compliment to a back-up catcher. And Riggans did not disappoint the Rays today. He might have only gone 1-4 today, but his solo home run shot to right center field that went over the Red Sox Bullpen put them up 4-0 in the fourth inning.  Riggans, who has had his share of injuries the past few seasons is poised and confident this year. And with him and Dioner Navarro taking care of this pitching staff, the Rays know that they have the right guys behind the plate this season.

 
 

 
 
Rays do some funky shifting in the Infield
 

During last season, the Rays employed a few unusual plays during game designed to intimidate hitters by moving players to spot that show a huge spray pattern in a hitting chart. We saw the shift used against David Ortiz and other left-handed batters last year that looked like something out of an old fashioned managerial scrapbook. But Rays Manager Joe Maddon is a student of the game, and computer generated charts showing hitting patterns and also tendencies can be a useful weapon to beat opponents. Some times they work like a charm, other times they still sneak a hit through a hole somewhere in the defense.

 

Most people know the left-handed shift where first baseman Carlos Pena will play off the bag ( unless there is a runner on first) and Akinora Iwamura will play about 10 feet off the clay into shallow right field. Then you have shortstop Jason Bartlett either right behind the second base bag, or more towards the inside of the bag. All this time third baseman Evan Longoria is the man on an island in this formation. He usually lines up in the shortstop position, but sometime has to hug the bag because of some batter faking bunt attempts down the third base line. But then th
ere is the new formation we saw today.

 
 

It is a bit different, because before today it was foreign to see them also do a shift for right-handed batters. It was not used all game long, but they did employ it numerous times today, and it had mixed results.  Mostly the Rays used it against Dustin Pedroia and Jason Bay today to make them hit over the defense. Unlike the left-handed version, in this new variation you saw Pena more between first and second and not guarding the right field line. Iwamura basically played right behind second base, and the right side of the infield stayed at their positions.
 
 

Using this new formation today, the Rays seemed to be adjusting on the fly, but got Mike Lowell to hit a sharp liner to Iwamura behind second in the sixth inning that would have been a single to center if the shift was not used. Pedroia and Bay went 1-8 on the day, with Bay getting a single over Joyce’s head in center field into the triangle near the 420 sign in center field. It will be interesting to see this formation used again and again this year by the Rays. But like they always say, if it is not broke, don’t fix it. But in this case, if it shuts them down, keep doing it.

 

 

Evan Almighty to the Monster

 

I know it is crazy to think that Evan Longoria is going to keep hitting homers at this pace. I mean he has a few unusual streaks going on here. First off, this is the second game in a row where he has hit a double in his first at bat of the game. and both times they have been down the third base line into the corner.  Put that together with the fact he is hitting .429 so far this season, and you have a guy who is not showing any sophomore slump at this time. And that is great for the Rays. While Pat Burrell finally got his first hit of the season today, Longoria has been consistent at the plate so far for the Rays.

 
 

But it might be his other streak that people want to talk about in Tampa Bay. Not the fact that he has made awesome defensive plays so far this year. Stealing a few hits off the lines so far in the Boston series and turning them into easy outs. He did get beat fully on the lead-off bunt single down the third base line by Jacoby Ellsbury today, but he rebounded by taking a ball headed for extra bases by Pedroia in the ninth inning for the second out. No people want to talk about his second  home run in as many days into the Green Monster. Today’s slam went into the third row of the Monster seats, and he almost had another in an earlier inning, but the ball curved foul into the Upper Deck seats to the left of the Monster. Longoria is making people believe he is the real thing. Another good indicator that he is seeing ball well is the fact that he missed hitting for the cycle today by not getting a triple.  If Longoria was not seeing the ball the size of beach balls right now, the Rays might have been in a bit of trouble in this series.

 
 Today’s Rays Ramblings
 

I am curious on this new Rays promotion I was hearing on the radio last night.  It was announced that if the Rays score during the fourth inning of a game, a local eyeglass company Innovision will give 10 kids eyeglasses and examinations. How cool is that! Seriously, in this time when a lot of parents can not afford the medical insurance for kids, eye insurance and benefits might not be the first thing on their minds. So it is an great idea for this kind of promotion to take some of the worry and financial burden off some Tampa Bay families.

 
 

I also found it quite amusing last night during the game to catch a glimpse of the Red Sox scoreboard that kept track of pitches for the respective pitchers from both teams. It was kind of funny to see that when Scott Kazmir left the mound on Tuesday night, that he had thrown 445 pitches according to the board.  I am not genius, but to thrown that many pitches might take at least 3 1/2 games for a normal pitcher. I know it seems like when Kazmir pitches, he is throwing a huge number, but last night he seems to be finding that control that missed him a few times in 2008.

 
 

Not lost is the fact that the Rays plated all four of their runs via the long ball today.  They started in the top of the second inning when Matt Joyce got his first hit of the season by sending a ball over the head of J D Drew and into the right field stands. Dice-K had left a 2-seam fastball high and towards the middle of the plate, and Joyce made him play for the missed location.  Then in the third inning, after Iwamura walked to lead-off the inning and stole second base, Longoria connected on his shot into the Green Monster for a 3-0 lead.  Then in the fourth inning, Shawn Riggans got his first hit of the year by blasting a ball into the Red Sox Bullpen to complete the Rays scoring for the day.

 
        
 

Is Garza the New Red Sox Killer?

 

I know that might sound a bit premature to use that kind of terminology concerning Matt Garza, but considering he has now won his last three starts against the Red Sox it might be becoming more hip. In 2008, the Red Sox hit .250 against him both at home and at Fenway Park. In those games he only gave up 13 runs. And that is only during the regular season. It doesn’t even include the 2008 American League Championship Series when he started two games and held the Red Sox to  a .170 average, with 8 hits and 1 run in those games.

 
That would show that he is beginning to take an active role in being a key figure in stopping the Re
d Sox for his team. It is not to say that he was without any problems today. He did get called for going to his mouth in the bottom of the first inning and it gave Pedroia a free “ball” in his at bat. But it did not come back to haunt him as Pedroia hit a fly ball to Joyce in center field for an easy out. But today he did get his third victory in a row against the Red Sox, while only allowing them to hit  .154 today.  In his 7.0 innings today, he gave up 4 hits and a solo run in the sixth inning. In that inning he gave up a lead-off double to the left-center field gap, then two batters later gave up the long double to Bay that scored Youkilis.

 

All in all, Garza is beginning to show the signs of what the Minnesota Twins envisioned from him when they drafted him from Fresno State. He is gaining more and more control  of his pitches and is beginning to let the game flow and not get too upset on the mound. When he was called for the infraction in the first inning, the old Garza would have argued with Home Plate Umpire  Jeff Nelson and might have been thrown from the game. But today he just had a frustrated look and let it slide off his back and struck out Ortiz next. The maturation process might not be complete on Garza, but he is showing a huge improvement on the guy we saw on the mound early in 2008.

Photo Credits: All today’s photos are from the Associated Press and taken by Michael Dwyer.

Rays Begin Taming Fenway

 
 
Update  5:19 pm :
 
The Tampa Bay Rays have now started the season by defeating the Red Sox  today and taking the first series of the year. Tampa Bay won an emotional and close game today with the outcome decided on a Kevin Youkilis long fly out to ther triangular part of centerfield for the final out of the game. With this win, the Rays have now won 2 out of the last three games in each of the last three series in Fenway Park, or are 6-3 in Fenway since September 2008.
 
 
 


 
 
This season might feel a bit different to the Red Sox faithful when the Rays come to town. Unlike in 2008 when the Boston Red Sox seemed to own the Tampa Bay Rays at home, 2009 might have a different feel to it. And the reason for that is that the Rays have finally conquered a common fear when young teams come to one of the oldest ballparks in baseball. They see beyond the cramped and elbow-to-elbow visitor’s clubhouse to the real reason it is heard to win here. They have overcome the fear of the aura of this ballpark.
 

I know that seems funny to say, but let me just show you the difference between 2008 and 2009, and it might make a bit more sense here. It all started in 2008 on  May 2nd when the team made their first trek to Fenway. The Rays dropped all three of their games in the historic park by a combined score of  26-10 in favor of the home team. That is not a typo, the Rays surrendered 26 runs in 3-games. At that time the Red Sox still held the Rays at bay based on mystic and their ability to pile on the runs when things began to implode. In this first series, the Rays best offensive output was 4 runs in the Saturday game, but they lost that contest 12-4.
 

Then in early June they again came a-courting to Fenway and again left with three losses after surrendering 19 runs to their own 6 runs in the series.  In that series only the opening game, which was a 7-4 loss had any closeness at all to it. The other two games the Rays only scored a solo run in both contests. The Boston mystic had a firm grip on the young Rays.  But a strange thing happened while the Rays were holding that top spot in the American League East. Their confidence and  offensive power came to the forefront. They began to win games they used to lose by unsuspecting plays and offensive outbursts. But could they shake the Fenway curse?
 

The first judgement on if they could tackle the curse came on September 8, 2008. In that contest the Rays were fighting to keep their top spot, and the Red Sox were within striking range of ruining the Rays party. The first game of the series saw James Shields again not able to crack the curse when they dropped the game 3-0 to the Red Sox But with Scott Kazmir taking the mound in the Wednesday contest, the Rays stood a chance. For years Kazmir had been the best weapon against the Red Sox at home for the Rays, but in 2008, they had lost the previous 7  home games in Fenway Park against Boston.
 

But on that faithful night, after beating Boston 5-4 in a 14 inning contest, the curse was set aside and the Rays finally could celebrate a win beneath the Green Monster. It was again the Red Sox killer Kazmir who might have pitched his heart out, but a Ray making his first at bat of the season set the tone for the victory. Dan Johnson, who was just called up to the Rays was late to the ballpark after fighting traffic to the game. It was his battle against Jonathan Papelbon that pushed the game into the Rays favor. With one swing Johnson deposited a Papelbon fastball into the Red Sox Bullpen and tied the game. That one swing set up one of the biggest emotional win on the road of the year for the Rays.

The next night, With Matt Garza on the mound, the Rays again left Fenway winners after a 4-2 win. For the first time in a long while, the Rays had taken a series in Fenway Park from the Boston Red Sox. Also in this series, the two teams each scored 9 runs. the gap in offense had begun to even out between these two powerful teams. For the first time in a long time, the Rays knew they could win under the Green Monster with some consistency.  We all know what happened the rest of the season for the Rays.

 

 
 

The Red Sox faithful had to settle for a Wild Card berth, but they still had faith. Then in the American League Championship Series, after the Rays topped the Chicago White Sox, they again took aim on the Red Sox. After the first two games of the series, the teams came back to Fenway Park tied 1-1 in the best-of-7 series.  The October 13th game is one that the Red Sox faithful want to forget about after the Rays stun the Red Sox  9-1 in a game that saw their leftie Jon Lester take an odd loss to the Rays. But that was not the worst of it yet. In the next contest, the Red Sox sent their sly slinger  Daisuke Matsuzaka to the mound to try and salvage the series.

 
 He did not fare better than Lester, failing to stifle the Rays offense and the Red Sox again saw defeat by a score of  13-4. After an off-day for each team to regain some power and confidence, the Red Sox did manage to take the fifth game at home 8-7 to force the Rays to end the series at their home to keep their playoff dreams alive. But the tide had shifted in this series. For the Rays, who did not begin the year with any type of confidence in Fenway Park, now seems to control the diamond. In the ALCS, they out-scored the home town Red Sox 29-13. The shift of confidence and swagger showed that the Rays now knew they could win in Boston.
 

The young team no longer tried to find ways to win, they knew they could win without gimmicks and tricks. Their pitching got better and better throughout the year against the Red Sox. Matt Garza in the playoffs became a second evil weapon against the Red Sox. From losing 7 straight games in Boston, to winning 4 out of 6 contests, the Rays finally could say they might have a Boston answer. So we begin 2009 a day later, but still with total dedication and ability to again take it to the Red Sox.   Unfortunately we did not see a victory in Opening Day against the Red Sox, but there were moments that hinted of a confidence lingering about winning in this hallowed grounds.
 

The 5-3 loss might have been their first loss in Boston in 2009, but it a
lso was a game that they fought back in, and almost got enough to shake the rafters in Beantown. For the Rays were matched against a superior pitcher that day and almost still pulled the rabbit out of the hat. The 5-3 loss was still a loss, but the way the young team scrapped and fought to get their 3 runs showed they had no fear anymore in Fenway. So then we pan to last night game, which saw the Rays killer Jon Lester on the mound against the Rays. The game was in Lester’s hands until the third inning when the Rays finally broke through with two straight hits to put a man in scoring position at third with  no outs. It is funny, the Rays scored their run after Evan Longoria hit into a double play.

 

The Red Sox knew that getting the double play on the young hot shot Rays was more important that one measly run. They were the Red Sox, they would get that one back. And they did in the bottom of the third inning.  And the game teeter-toddered until the Rays came up in the top of the fifth inning.  In that inning the Rays finally got to Lester and plated 4 runs to get their margin of victory against the Red Sox. So, does this mean that this series is finally going into the book as a “must win” for the Red Sox. For years they could count on at least 2 out of 3 against their southern rivals. they knew that a game in Fenway Park held a 10th member of their team on the field, the stigma of Fenway.
 

But with this now being tossed by the wayside by the young and confident Rays, is the time ripe for each team to finally admit that every game in Fenway will be decided on the field from now on, and not in their minds. Fenway is a beautiful ballpark with history in every crack and seat bolt. But now the Rays no longer seemed to be bothered by the history and the famous address. They now know that their abilities in the field and at the plate might be enough to win in Boston. It has been a long time coming, but since September 2008, the Rays are 5-3 in Fenway, and for the first time in the Rays history, they know each game can be won.
 
 

Photo credits:     1) Associated Press / Elise Amendola

                            2) Associated Press / Elsie Amendola

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