Results tagged ‘ WBC ’
I guess the secret is finally out on a global scale. Everyone who watched last night’s Team USA victory over our friends from the Great White North truly saw what everyone in Tampa Bay has known for a long time. Ben Zobrist is a heck of a ball player both at the dish and in the field and provides an unseen element to the game I have come to know as the “Z-Factor”.
Maybe it is a slice of karma that Joe Torre is the Manager of the Team USA World Baseball classic squad because he got to see firsthand that MLB maturation process of a young Tampa Bay Ray named Ben Zobrist as he cut his teeth on the most competitive division in Major League Baseball. And we all know the respect and admiration Rays Manager Joe Maddon has for the player he affectionately calls “Zorilla” for his monster plays in the field and at the plate for the Rays. Zobrist firmly is a player who has embraced Maddon’s “Rays Way” and is a firm Rays and MLB symbol of a player playing his life right on and off the field.
We all know Torre got a front row seat as the Manager of one of the Rays biggest rivals, the New York Yankees just as Zorilla was beginning to show his potential to everyone in baseball. Maybe a few of those vibes and moments stuck in Torre’s mind and he knew possibly tossing Zobrist’s name on the lineup could muster a few more special moments and possibly turn the Team USA tide onto the Second Round of the World Baseball Classic.
You got to think there are many reasons Zobrist got a spot on the Team USA roster, not only because of his versatility to play anywhere at anytime, but also the fact his offensive game is also filled with that same unbridled versatility and variables. From Zobrist’s fine display and precision in the use of small ball tactics to move runners over or score runs to his potential to produce power from either side of the plate making him one of Team USA’s most versatile secret weapons, and one any Manager would drool over to have hidden on his roster.
It did bother me a bit that Zobrist did not get a chance until the third game in the Team USA World Baseball Classic, but if you really wanted to see Zorilla come alive and show his potential to everyone throughout the World, Sunday night’s contest showed why he is one of Team USA’s secret weapons and why Zobrist is a true asset no matter what game plan you envision for your squad. It was evidently apparent to Torre that Zobrist, who sometimes has as many as 5 gloves in his bag, was ready willing and able to do whatever it took to help Team USA fight off elimination last night.
Zobrist responded by showing the rest of the baseball World last night both at the plate and in the field why he is a vital cog in the Rays machine and could translate that same magic for Team USA in their “must have” contest. Zorilla showed his small ball proficiency with his bunting early on in the game and ended up gathering 3 hits in 5 trips to the plate including scoring a run for the victorious Team USA squad that sealed their trip into the Second Round meeting with Puerto Rico on Tuesday evening in the big MIA.
Zobrist could have possibly had a 4th hit last night if not for his bat being a bit under an attempted bunt and watching as the Canadian backstop clutched the ball in his glove for an out. But last night the rest of the baseball world got to see the type of player we have enjoyed here in Tampa Bay ever since he came here along with former P Mitch Talbot from Houston in exchange for Aubrey Huff.
Not only was it a great night for Zorilla at the dish, but he also gunned down Canada First Baseman Joey Votto at Second Base with a precision throw that nailed him, but also prevented a Canadian rally with his outfield assist. Most people in the American League do not run on Zobrist when he is stationed out in the Rays RF, but Votto took a chance and Zobrist made him pay. I have a link on my blog of just how determined Zobrist is when tracking a fly ball as he hit the low retaining wall in RF just to the left of my usual seat and tumbled into the area after a huge thud. That is the kind of play and player that can act as a vat of emotional glue that can help tie together wins and brings the confidence of a team to a zenith.
Hopefully Torre has seen enough of Zobrist in this critical game to warrant another shot in the lineup as Zobrist responded to the Team USA challenge with flying colors and hopefully he did enough against Canada to warrant another right field start, or at least a late inning appearance against Puerto Rico.
Zobrist also has that special gift off the field and in the Clubhouse that inspires and gets people motivated not only by his style of play, but by his exuberance for the game and his passion to succeed.
Zorilla is that type of guy you must have on your team, that motivator through his style of play that brings everyone’s level of play to the top, and boosts not only morale but the belief the game and a victory is firmly within their grasp. The Z-Factor has been rampant in Tampa Bay for years, maybe it was just time for the rest of the planet to also admire this truly gifted ballplayer as we do.
Kazmir did have some good news in the first half of the season as he was selected to his second All-Star game. But the Rays sent strict directions to American League All-Star team Manager Terry Francona that Kazmir was not to pitch extended innings and be kept out of the contest at all costs. That seemed to work into Franconas favor when in the top of the 15th inning, with everyone else used in the Bullpen and the bench as pitchers, he had to call upon Kazmir to throw at least one inning for the American League. Kazmir came in and on 14 pitches got one strikeout and give the American League a chance to win the contest. For his efforts, Kazmir became the first Rays pitcher to record a victory in the All-Star game. With that positive momentum, you would think it would have worked in his favor to boost both his confidence and his ability on the mound.
Rays Manager Joe Maddon gave Kazmir a couple of extra days off after that All-Star game appearance before finally using him for his first start of the second half on July 21st. In his first start after the All-star game, Kazmir went 7 innings in a 2-0 shutout of the Oakland A’s at home. In the contest, Kazmir only gave up 2hits, but he also posted 9 strikeouts and gave up 4 walks in the contest. He was not back yet with his control, but the contest helped him boost his record to 8-5 for the Rays. Kazmir then went 3 starts with a no-decision before finally losing on August 12th against the Oakland A’s. Over his next 4 starts he averaged only 4.5 innings of work and gave up a total of 21 hits, but only surrendered 11 runs in those games.
Kazmir was also starting to show signs of sporadic pitching in which he was exiting the game earlier than usual and not hitting his spots again. He was trying to hit the outside corners more, and the umpires were not giving him the corner and the frustration was evident on his face during his time on the mound. Finally in his 3rd start of the year against the Rangers, Kazmir got back on the winning side by throwing a 4-hit, 2-run 7 strikeout game on August 17th. But in that contest Kazmir again was showing a wild side as he also surrendered 4 walks to the Rangers in the game. Kazmir again took the mound on August 23rd against the Chicago White Sox and was rendered a no-decision after only going 6 innings in the game.
Kazmir finally got back on the winning horse when he won on August 29th in Baltimore with a 5.1 innings stint that produced a 3-hit shutout on 102 pitches. Also important on this day was the fact that it was the Rays 63rd victory of the year and it secured their first winning season in history. Kazmir seemed to be riding the upward slope on his roller coaster year as he again blanked the New York Yankees on September 4th in a 1-hit shutout. Kazmir only lasted 6 innings in th contest, but again he posted 7 strikeouts in the game to go along with 4 walks. But it was the September 9th start against Diasuke Matsuzaka in Fenway Park that set the stage for the Rays claiming the American League East title.
In the contest, both pitchers showed early dominance until after 6 innings and surrendering 5-hits and only 2 runs Kazmir left the contest. The significance of this game was that it was the game in which Rays pinch hitter Dan Johnson took Jonathan Papelbon deep into the Red Sox Bullpen in the 9th inning before Dioner Navarro hit a double to win the game for the Rays. This victory snapped a win less streak in Fenway that had eluded the Rays all season long. With the curse at Fenway now lifted, the Rays ended up securing the series and keep their lead in the A L East race.
5 days later Matsuzaka and Kazmir again squared off at Tropicana Field and Kazmir lasted only 3 innings giving up 9 runs on 6 hits and only surviving 72 pitches in the contest. This was by far the worst appearance for the young leftie this season for the Rays, and it dropped his record to 11-7. For one of the first times in his Rays career, Kazmir gave up as many walks as he got strikeout in the game…..4. But it was his start on September 20th that he showed the big game presence and confidence for the Rays. In this contest against the hard charging Minnesota Twins, Kazmir threw 6 innings of 5-hit ball and shutout the visiting Twins to secure the Rays first playoff berth. Not only did he improve his record to 12-7, but Kazmir looked amazing in the game starting to use his slider more and confused the Twins hitters at the plate.
In his last start of the regular season, Kazmir again had the chance to put his name in the Rays trivia book as he took the mound on September 25th against the Detroit Tigers in Comerica Park to secure the A L East for the Rays. Kazmir was not sharp and got handed a loss while going 5 innings and posting 6 strikeouts in the game. The Rays would have to wait another day before finally securing the AL East title, but Kazmir was visibly upset after the game. But with the playoffs staring them in the face, the Rays knew that they needed their young ace confident and ready to handle almost anything.
He got his first postseason start in the American League Divisional Series against the Chicago White Sox on October 3rd and posted his first postseason win in a 6-2 victory over the White Sox to take a 2-0 lead in the best of 4 series. Kazmir went 5.1 innings and threw 98 pitches while surrendering 8 hits and 2 runs in the game. The Rays took their 2-0 series lead to Chicago and came back with a ALDS series victory. Kazmir then began to get ready for a rematch against divisional foes, the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship series. Because of Tampa Bay’s securing the A L East title, they got to host the Red Sox in the first two games.
Kazmir again got to face the Red Sox hitters on October 11th. But in this match up, it was the Red Sox who dominated Kazmir who only went 4.1 innings and threw 98 pitches before bowing out of the contest. He had given up 3 walks in the game and only posted 2 strikeouts, one of his worst pitching statistics of the season. His ERA skyrocketed to 10.38 for the postseason, but the Rays did come back in the contest to score the winning run on a B J Upton sacrifice fly to right in the 9th inning to win 9-8.
On October 16th, Matsuzaka and Kazmir met again and this time it seemed as if Kazmir had the upper hand in the game. In the game Kazmir did his part by going 6 innings and throwing only 2 hits in shutting down the Red Sox offense. But after he left the contest, the Rays Bullpen had troubles and Kazmir ended up with a no-decision for his efforts that night en route to a 8-7 Red Sox win. Kazmir did get to lower his ERA to a more respectable 4.35 with the outing. Kazmir did not get to pitch again in the ALCS, but with the Rays clinching a victory in Game 7 at Tropicana Field, they were heading to their first World Series berth.
Kazmir got the call for Game 2 at the Trop., and he proved up to the occasion as he go the start during the first game of the series. He was pitted against Cole Hamels, and the two pitcher were throwing a fantastic game until the Phillies broke loose in the game after Phiilies catcher Carlos Ruiz grounded out to Jason Bartlett to score the third run of the game and put the Phillies up 3-0 on the Rays. Kazmir ended up throwing 6 innings of 6-hit, 3 run ball, but he also had control issues in the contest as the Phillies were waiting for his pitches outside and took advantage of his wildness. He ended up posting 4 strikeouts and 4 walks in the game on 110 pitches. That was the last time he took the mound for the Rays in 2008.
After starting his season later than usual, Kazmir did end up starting 27 games and going only 152.1 innings. He did end up giving up the least amount of earned run on the staff with 59 for the year, but also threw less innings in the season. Kazmir did not have a banner year or post season, and people were beginning to question his pitch selection and placement at the plate. Some even thought that he lost his confidence in his slider, and that he might not get it back in time to save a great career. But in the last two post season series, Kazmir did indeed use his slider more and more and it was pretty effective against hitters once again.
In the off season, Kazmir went to work on a strength program where he added about 20 pounds to his frame to help him endure the rigors of pitching more in 2009. When he came into camp earlier in the year there was a sizable difference to him in that his forearms and shoulders did have an added depth and his overall body core looked more lean. He was also selected to be a member of the Team USA squad for the 2009 World Baseball classic. Kazmir was looking to represent his country and maybe even pitch during the first round action against Team Canada in Toronto. But the Rays expressed their desire that he not participate in the WBC because of the workload he endured in 2008.
Even if he did throw less innings, they were worried that the short off season might have after effects on his pitching. So yesterday it was announced that the WBC was taking Kazmir off the Team USA roster because he spent 44 days on the disabled list in 2008. Tampa Bay had filed a request with Major League Baseball that would effectively prevent him from playing in the classic. Players who were on the disabled list for 45 days can be blocked from playing. Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman told Bill Chastain of MLB.com that, “We felt with the health issues he had at the beginning of last season, coupled with playing the extra month, we felt the prudent thing to do is to push him back a little bit this spring.”
I am going to tell you how it is in my world about this revelation by the Rays to prevent him from playing in the classic. I am appalled that the Rays will not let this guy participate. The WBC has pitch counts set, and also have precautions in place to help prevent injuries and problems that could linger into the regular season. you might only get one chance to represent your country, and it is a great honor to even be considered, much less told you will be a valued member of the staff. The Rays took a huge opportunity from Kazmir here that would be a highlight of his career.
Ken Griffey Jr, and even Chipper Jones have stated in the past that this is one of the most memorable honors of their careers. For the Rays to take that from Kazmir is showing that management is not afraid to overstep the boundaries to secure their wishes. Considering that the Rays are going to split their pitching staff into two groups during the Spring Training games shows that they plan on monitoring their pitching staff and also giving them minimum innings before the regular season. Why not let Kazmir play for Team USA, you are letting Rays reliever J P Howell play without any reservations to your Bullpen setup guy maybe getting hurt in the classic.
Photo credits for today’s blog go to RRCollections and the Associated Press Corp photo pool.
One of the biggest questions that I am either emailed or asked in public is what will the Rays be like in 2009? It seems to be on the minds of any baseball fan, not only those wearing the classic “TB” on their caps. I have had New York Yankee and Boston fans ask me the same things, ” Is the offense better?”, or ” Will our pitching stay healthy in 2009?” These questions are right up there with the ” Is there life on other planets?” questions right now in my mind.
I actually think it is too early to even consider any type of prediction or even attempt to find those answers until they begin to hit and throw the ball in a few weeks. People forget that a bulk of some teams, including the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and the Rays will not be presenting 100 percent of their their true lineups this Spring because of the World Baseball Classic. The classic this year will take a measurable amount of players from all 30 MLB teams rosters, but there are three teams that train in Florida where the bulk of the eyes of the American League will be from Feb. to late March 2009.
That is because the three teams that have a shot at either retaking or defending the American League title will not be up to full potential strength until after teams have begun to be eliminated from the classic. We all know that their are certain teams that might not make it out of the first round, but people thought that about Korea in 2006, and they almost shocked the world by beating Japan. So with the “borrowing” of some of their starting players for a short period of time during the spring, the Rays and others in baseball, might use the time wisely and bring up some of their prized prospects to give them some needed seasoning and work against the major league players still in attendance.
This is not to mean that the two leagues, the Cactus and the Grapefruit will be water down at all, but it will suffer from some identity crisis in the beginning of the spring games. And would it really be so bad if an unknown pitcher took advantage of his situation and totally made a name for himself in the absence of his team’s dominating pitchers. But isn’t that what Spring Training is really all about, to give the rookies and the minor leaguer’s a chance to change the minds of those people in charge about sending them down and make them sweat the fact that they might have to keeping them around until the last moment.
That is the great thing about baseball. A guy like the Rays prospect Rhyne Hughes can come in and fill in some games for Carlos Pena while he is with the Dominican Republic squad and maybe turn some heads. We all know that Hughes had an outstanding Arizona League season, and might be able to turn his off season playing time into a shot at an upper level of the franchises minor league system. But it can also go the opposite way for a team. It could further show the defects in their system by showing their depth is actually pretty shallow in comparison to their anticipation of their minor league system. But like I always say, that is why we play 162 games before we even think of championships.
But the true tradition established the last few years with the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees will not be on display until late in the spring when all the teams have their usual guys back in house and hopefully physically able to compete the rest of the spring. For example, the Boston Red Sox have a total of 15 players that will compete in the classic. Almost their entire starting infield and designated hitter will play in the WBC, and then you include players like Daisuke Masuzaka and Hideki Okajima who will be competing for the 2006 champion Japanese squad. Boston will also only be missing one outfielder for the classic, Jason Bay who is playing for Team Canada.
Then you have the Yankees, who will send 13 total players throughout the classic’s rosters, and also will be 3/4 of their starting infield during the classic. Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are already committed to playing for their countries, but besides Melky Cabrera and two relief pitchers, the Yankees have a larger contingent of minor leaguer’s going than most teams. They will have 7 players in their minor league system going to the classic, including Zhenwang Zhang, who will be playing for Team China.
The you have the current American League champion Tampa Bay Rays who will be sending 8 starters to the classic. You have 3/4 of their infield also participating, with Akinora Iwamura playing for Japan, and starter Matt Garza throwing for Mexico in the classic. Grant Balfour will be throwing for the Australian team, and Dioner Navarro will catch for the Venezuelan team. Out of the Rays roster, they will be missing two starters as Scott Kazmir has also committed to playing for the US team along with Evan Longoria and J P Howell.
But what about those questions posed to me earlier in the post, what do I think at this moment. Well, we all know what happened in 2008. Will this team be able to effectively defend their American League crown knowing that the big boys in the A L East not only reloaded, but outspent and out hustled everyone else in baseball to again try and take the top spot away from the Rays. Will the huge money spent on pitching and hitting in New York be enough to overtake the confident team in the south. And if you are a Yankee fan, the pitching right now looks superior to everyone, but not one pitch has even been thrown yet.
It might be too early to claim victory with an entire season of games still left to play in the season. I admit that the Yankees will not be the shell of a team that we saw in 2008, but at what cost will they be more powerful. A lot of things have to gel for this squad to really propel itself past the top two current ” Beasts in the East.” that is not to say that even in Boston they are done making changes or acquiring the rights pieces to fight for their title. Believe me when I say that the Red Sox pretty much have a stacked arsenal of pitching arms that even make the Yankees jealous.
Some people predict a close A L East, with the second team not even making the playoffs because of the parity of the division might make then winner only post about 92 wins in 2009. I can see that scenario happening without a problem. This division is not all Yankees, Red Sox and Rays though. Toronto and Baltimore also will have a huge say in who will represent this division in 2009. Toronto will still have a great pitching staff that will defy and derail a few winning streaks , and the Orioles will be young and hungry, and that is a bad team to have to play 17 times a year.
Predictions can go out the window for this division in 2009. No one will be able to predict the amount of wins, or the team that will rise to the top. This might be the best fight for a right to play in October that baseball has seen in the long, long time. Will the money enhanced team be the final winner?, or will it be the team with a heart as big as the dome they play in nightly?. Or could it be the squad that just added pieces and did not rehash or even redesign itself in the off season to fit it’s division?.
After the next 50 days, we will begin the prelude to 2009′s MLB season. With all of the AL East contenders playing in Florida, it will be a fun month of March watching the battles and the adjustments by every squad. But until the teams get their guys back from the classic, we will not be able to fully comprehend or even evaluate the team with any true clarity. But the great thing is that this spring we will be able to see a lot of the future stars for these teams compete and maybe even show us what is in store for the next 6 years coming out of their minor league systems.
This years spring training might not be about the stars getting ready to play the season. It might belong to the guys who are struggling at the minor league level to show that they belong and maybe make a few roster decisions harder come April. But then again, you have to love watching the young pups playing hard, working for positions, and fighting for their collective lives on the diamond. Spring is going to be fun this year. Hopefully the hottest action is not in the air, but on the turf this year. We will be better fans for it.