Results tagged ‘ Willy Aybar ’

If Pena or Aybar Struggle, Could Blalock Come to the Rays Rescue?

 

 
Bill Koustroun/AP

Coming into the 2010 Spring Training season, the Tampa Bay Rays were optimistic that First Baseman Carlos Pena was going to come into camp perfectly healthy and ready to lead by example for this young Rays team. And all eyes have been on Pena ever since he first told the Tampa Bay media members even before this 2010 Spring Training camp began that he feels healthy and that his two fingers broken when he was plucked by a C C Sabathia fastball in late 2009 were completely healed and the entire situation is totally forgotten.

 

Then early on in this 2010 Spring camp, the Rays announced that First Baseman/Utility guru Willy Aybar sustained a wrist problem during this while playing in the Dominican Winter League, and lingering injury has put Aybar a bit behind the rest of the Rays squad this Spring. To some around the Rays Republic, this immediately sent up a few red flags concerned about Aybar’s ability to be an effective back-up to Pena and Third Baseman Evan Longoria if his wrist injury turned out to be more a nightmare than a simple sprain.
 

And when the Rays made an surprising move and signed Free Agent Hank Blalock, who played a majority of his time at First Base for the Texas Rangers in 2009 to a pretty complex and “convoluted” ( per Andrew Friedman) contract that now smells more and more like a “sure-thing” insurance policy heading into the middle of the Rays Spring schedule. But while the Rays were enjoying winning 9-straight games, it seemed like the Rays front office and Coaching staff was not in the least bit worried about Aybar not getting his first swings in a game until this week, or concerned with Pena’s early Spring struggles as he has now gone 0-18 with only one run scored to begin the 2010 Grapefruit season.
 

And then last week the Rays signed former Cuban National Team member Leslie Anderson who can play all three outfield positions and also First Base to a 4-year contract and the team has been adamant that they want to get him in a uniform as soon as possible. Some might say the Blalock signing is a coincidence, but the signing also a Anderson might signal something might be wrong and the silent treatment is being employed throughout the Rays clubhouse. I guess only time will tell what is really going on with Pena and Aybar this Spring.
 

And with Blalock just seeing his first Spring 2010 action this past Saturday against the Florida Marlins and going 0-2 with a walk and a strikeout, it appear on the surface that Pena and Blalock both have that mysterious .000 average going for them right now, but the reality is that Pena is swinging hard in the batting cages before the games. And maybe he is concentrating too much on his swing and it is transformed into Pena shooting blanks right now in Rays game situations. And with Aybar and Blalock just beginning to get their hacks at the plate, and the next week might speak volumes as to who starts ,or gets the most at bats this Spring.
 

 
Steve Nesius/AP

And with two of the three Rays usual First Base candidates nursing off season trials and tribulations, it is only a matter of time before we find out if there is additional problems at bay, or if Blalock was actually brought here to maybe supplant Aybar as the Rays uber-utility guy since Blalock can effectively play both corner positions. And Blalock might not have put up some impressive offensive numbers ( .234, 25 HR 66 RBI) the last season with the Rangers, but his overall MLB pedigree ( 2 All Star nods) reads like a great sleeper addition to the ball club….on paper.

 

Since Blalock has a unique Rays contract that basically give him the final decision/option to decide if staying here with the Rays is a good thing, or bad, that might also speak volumes as to the Rays cautious level of uncertainty concerning both the health of Pena and Aybar heading into the last week of the Grapefruit season. The Blalock move puzzled me at first, but more and more I am seeing it is a great insurance policy with power by getting a guy who could start, or be an effective back-up DH if either Pena or Aybar go down with additional time on the disable list in 2010, or a viable option if Burrell sinks deeper in the quicksand with a slow start to the regular season.
 

And sure, Ben Zobrist can also play First and Third Base, but Zobrist has been used sparingly at First Base, even during Pen’a injury time in 2009, and might be a significant drop in the defense right now at First Base compared to Blalock who only had 6 errors in over 567 chances in 2009. And you can expect the question marks to get even bigger hanging over First Base with every game that Pena puts up a goose egg, or doesn’t hit the ball solidly at the plate. Sometimes the physical injuries can be healed, but the mental impression of the injury takes some additional plate appearances, or hitting attempts before the mind also thinks you are ready to hit again effectively.
 

And Pena is a total team player. If for some reason, Pena sees something harmful in his swing or plate demeanor towards the last week of Spring Training, you can bet Pena will be open and honest to anything the Rays might want to do to get him back on track again. And sometimes slumps happen to every team’s All Stars and Silver Slugger winners. All you have to do is look back at the horrific beginning to 2009 that happened to Boston DH David Ortiz following his wrist ailments to know that sometimes the body is willing, but the balls doesn’t seem to be going anywhere effective.
 

 
Mike Carlson/AP

And hopefully that is what is going on right now in the Pena’s situation. Maybe his timing is not where he wants it to be and his eye-hand coordination is off a tick or two. That can produce some major contact problems, but Pena also is not striking out in bunches this Spring, so it might just be simple adjustments and Pena maybe watching video of his swing mechanics the next couple of game before he comes back with a bang for the Rays.

 

But it is great that the Rays have made some consolation arrangements just in case something else might be derailing either Aybar or Pena for any amount of time this season. But the Spring clock is ticking louder on Blalock and with him having the final decision on his name being maybe placed upon the Rays roster, it might be time for both Aybar and Pena to show solid contact at the plate and relieve some of the Rays front office and staff from holding their breath this Spring and becoming Rays blue in the face.
 

I seriously would not like to see the Rays take the field in their 2010 Opening Game against division foe Baltimore without Pena on the field. But the reality of the situation might be that the Rays just have to collectively take a step back with both players, and maybe give Blalock a few more at bats while Aybar and Pena work in the cages with Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton and get some more confidence in themselves.
 

Pena is entering his last contract year with the Rays, and unlike the mysterious Crawford situation, I can see the Rays working with Pena to try and keep a guy who is a cornerstone of this franchise with his great power and his leadership on this Rays roster for a few more years. But right now there are big question marks rising every day over near that first base bag, and the Rays need to squash those questions and doubts in the bud as soon as possible.
 

If there is something wrong with either Aybar or Pena, even a small problem, then the Rays need to take a step backwards and work towards taking two steps forward later this Spring. With three guys with Major League Baseball experience at first base right now straddling the line and bag for the Rays something has to give. If Pena and Aybar are healthy and mentally clicking to begin the season, the parting of Blalock might not be a huge thing.

But if there is the hint of the lingering situation, Blalock might be the ultimate sleeper signing for the Rays this season. Clock is ticking, and soon Pena and Aybar must get on their horse and ride, or the former Ranger Blalock might be the guy wearing the big white hat for the Rays.

Maddon has One More Math Problem to Solve this Spring

         

 

RRCollections

 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 

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

GailBurton/AP

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

 
RRCollections

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

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

 
 

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

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

 

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

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

 
 

 
Steve Nesius/ AP
 

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

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

Could Pena be gone in 2010?

 


Mike Carlson / AP

It is kind of weird to think of this Tampa Bay Rays squad without a few of its veteran players gone before the 2010 season. It is not like with the Free Agent market ready to heat up on Friday the Rays are looking to unload or even sign someone of extreme value to replace a current Rays player, but would you see the Tampa Bay Rays in the same powerful light if they were missing a player like Carlos Pena? 

When I remember back over the last two seasons for memorable Rays moments, or game changing plays, Pena’s name seems to be one of the first ones to pop into my mind every time. His style of cool,calm and collected attitude during the game has taken both himself and this team to new heights since the Rays signed him to a minor league deal several years ago. And Pena’s  laid-back style both at the plate and in the field has risen  his game to extreme heights while he has been here. 

He has been the upbeat and soft-spoken leader of this Rays clubhouse ever since he stepped into it back in 2007. Who can forget his finest moment of upbeat personality  when even after he was told by Rays Manager Joe Maddon that he was being optioned to the minor leagues before the end of Spring Training in 2007, Pena remained focused and clear that he would soon see his Rays teammates. And who can ever forget when Pena disclosed his revelation of a premonition during a night time dream of him being on that charter flight with his Rays teammates to New York to start the 2007 season.

That in itself tells me that this Rays team might have been his squad all along, and we were just passengers on his ride to the top. From the beginning of his rebirth in the MLB by winning the 2007 Comeback Player of the Year award, to his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award, the Rays GQ-styled first baseman has gained not only the respect of the fans, but of MLB players throughout the league. And I have a feeling his 2009 All Star selection is not the last time we will see Pena accepting an award…..not by a long shot.

So when a fellow Rays blog mentioned that maybe it was time for the Rays to consider trading Pena before his contract is up at the end of 2010, it kind of shocked me that we might be seeing the end to another era here in Tampa Bay. That after all the growth we have seen by Pena and this team, we might end up seeing him traded away late in the 2010 season, or maybe even packing up and saying goodbye at this time next season.


Bill Kostroun/ AP

And right now both those notions do not seem like a logical, rationale thing to happen, but the reality is that Pena is in the last year of his contract ( $10.125 million), and his agent is Scott Boras who is renowned to being hard pressed to seeing even a dollar squeeze past his clients. That at some point from today on we might have to consider that Pena might not start, or even finish the 2010 season wearing a Rays jersey.

It is an unfortunate fact of baseball life that players leave or get traded at points in their careers. But you got the feeling here that maybe Pena might have finally found a comfortable spot to place his glove and bat every day, and maybe selfishly I wanted him to retire a Ray. But the stark reality is that Pena has a few years left in his tank, and maybe he will not be within the Rays budget restrictions in 2011. Just like Crawford, it might be an instant reality check that the team will have to find options and create fluid change if Pena were to leave the squad.

But is this the right time to be considering such a drastic change like this? I mean the guy is about to finally get that cast and those pins pulled from his hand and begin some initial hitting drills. Can he have any real high-side trade value before he reports to Spring Training? And even if a team did consider him before the 2010 season, isn’t his $ 10 million contract a monetary distraction to most teams?

But considering the offensive awards and the defensive accolades Pena has received the last few seasons, his contract might be considerably an extreme value right now in comparison with his colleagues around the Major Leagues. I would think Boras for one thinks Pena’s current worth is “out of whack” when considering his talent level and potential.

Pena rebuilt his baseball career when he signed with the Rays in 2007. He came to us as a player who was released by the Yankees and Boston farm systems as a secondary player, and maybe both of those franchises at the time felt Pena might not reach his potential again. But the stark reality is the correlation of Pena and the Rays up-surge happened at the same time. Both the player and the team began to excel and blast past expectations.  Ahh, what a difference a year can make in a players career.

I do not want to consider a 2010 season without Pena’s solid defense at first base. No disrespect to Rays players Willy Aybar or Ben Zobrist, but it is hard to replace a diamond with cubic zurconia and feel the same sparkle off the ring. Zorilla could be a solution, and could grow into the position in 2010, but why test fate now? Why would you consider trading the top offensive weapon on your team the last few years when the corner has finally been taken by the Rays.

And hasn’t Pena been a great piece of the puzzle to put in the lineup behind Evan Longoria and make teams pitch to the young star. If Pena was not in the Rays lineup, would Longoria get the same pitches if Zobrist or even Burrell followed him in the lineup? I would think Pena was the perfect piece to put in that spot because of his potential to turn on any pitch and send it deep.


Mike Carlson / AP

I really hope that at some point in the 2010 season I do not have to write a blog telling people why I am going to miss Pena. But we all know with the realities of this baseball business, anyone can be replaced in a moments notice. 2010 is not even here yet and I can feel the winds of change in the air. This coming season is an important one in the Rays development. Changes is in the air, but hopefully it will be later and not earlier in the season.

But in this ever changing business of baseball these days, you never know what will happen. And with the completion of the fast and furious trade of Rays veteran starting pitcher Scott Kazmir right before the end of August 2009, we know that no one is safe, not even an offensive/defensive weapon like Pena. But hopefully we will be able to say goodbye this time. Hopefully if something was to happen and Pena was to leave the Rays before the end of 2010, we will get to see that smile and maybe even see Pena do that dance one more time.

Rays #5 Moment of 2009: Welcome to Zaunbe Nation

 


RRCollections

Usually about this time of the year we try and look back and celebrate and remember some of the great moments of the Tampa Bay Rays season. As we begin to enter the sunset of the year, we should remember just how far we really have come as a franchise, and the players and people who have emerged this season to make its memories and tales light up like the brightest day.

Over the next several days I am going to revisit some of the Top 5 moments for me personally during the 2009 season. Now I am not going to throw them down as isolated moments, but as key moments I think happened during the season to change the outcome of this team. Also not listed will be the in-game foul ball catches by me ( May 29th vs Twins @ home), because those are personal moments of triumph, and not Rays moments. 

So today I felt it was only right to throw down my personal 5 favorite moments of the Rays 2009 season. And there is surely more than 5 that come to mind quickly, but I would hate to write a 125 paragraph blog on the excitement and the adventures that this team experienced daily in 2009 from the first reporting date on February 15,2009.

The fifth memory of the 2009 season has to be the way that the Rays newly acquired catcher, Gregg Zaun introduced himself to the Rays hometown fans during a game against the one of his old teams, the Toronto Blue Jays on August 16th.  Most Rays fans remember that in 2008, it was Zaun that hit a Grand Slam HR against the Rays to garner a victory for the Jays.
 


RRCollections


This Sunday afternoon contest had all the makings of a tight game with Rays starter Matt Garza taking the hill for the home team. And it was a tight game until the bottom of the eighth inning when  Jay reliever Brandon League came on with the score knotted at 1-all. 

League got the first out of the inning quickly when he got Evan Longoria to fly out to rightfield on the second pitch. But then League gave up a single to rightfield to Ben Zobrist, and Carlos Pena quickly countered with a double to deep centerfield to put 2 men in scoring position for the Rays with still only one out in the inning.

Toronto then Intentionally Walked the next batter Willy Aybar to load the bases, and  the Rays decided to pinch hit Gabe Gross for Gabe Kapler. League and Gross had a classic pitcher-hitter confrontation throwing 10 pitches before finally striking out to produce the second out of the inning.  With catcher Dioner Navarro due to come up next, Toronto must have felt like they had dodged the bullet in this inning.


Mike Carlson / AP

But Rays Manager Joe Maddon was not done with his mind games and instead sent up Zaun to pinch hit for Navarro with the bases still juiced with Rays runners. League got behind in the count early and finally got back to a 3-2 count before throwing the sixth pitch of the at bat. The next ball he would get would be a spanking new ball after Zaun smacked the ball a good 10 rows deep into Section 140 for a Grand Slam home run, and to post the Rays to a 5-1 lead in the game.

The crowd and the players in the dugout both went totally nuts and Zaun as he circled the bases did not even look into the Blue Jays dugout. But you could see his wide grin as he stepped on home plate and was mobbed by the three other base runners that had scored before him.  It was a great way for the “Zaunbe Nation” to begin its quest to win over the Rays fans. The pitch effected League so much he hit B J Upton with the next pitch and was taken out of the game by Toronto Manager Cito Gaston.

The reason it was my fifth best moment of the year was the introduction of a player I hope the Rays decide to have on their roster again in 2010. Zaun brings a nice energy and professionalism that seems to be working great with the Rays starters. The team will have to pick up his $2 million option, but considering that Dioner Navarro is also arbitration eligible, and might get a raise to about $ 2.5 million, my gut tells me that Zaun would be better in the long run for the franchise.


www.greggzaun.com

Also, if you get a chance, please go to www.greggzaun.com and check out his very slick and very entertaining website that he developed for his fans and to promote his many charity efforts. It also has both his “walk-up” tunes on the site.

The 2009 season has so many great memories and moments it has been difficult to even get them down to a possible 20. But I sat there for a few days this weekend with my list and a big sharpie and wrote notes in the margin and in between the lines to try and get a pretty concise and complete list. Of course we will not have the number 4 reason posted on Sunday as we have the “Sunday Rewind” already in the works to preview some of the classic blogs postings of the last few seasons.

But you can bet that on Monday night we will again begin posting the rest of my list from Monday to Thursday night baring any important MLB news. So hopefully you will return back and cherish some of these awesome Rays 2009 moments with me during the next few days as we celebrate the second winning season of the Rays, and just a small step backwards in our journey to walk tall among the teams in the American League East.

 

 

Every day until I reach my number # 1 moment of the 2009 season, I will be posting a link of that event on the sidepanel to the right of the blog entry. This will give other people a chance to also check out the event as it happened during the Rays 2009 season. You will see the Number # 5 moment is currently already on the sidebar so you can relive Gregg Zaun introductory moment to the Rays Republic.

 

 

 

Rays Decision on Iwamura is Complex

 


Duane Burelson / AP

With the beginning of the 2009 off season upon us, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays will soon have to begin to make some serious personnel decisions for the 2010 season, even before they hit the MLB Winter meetings in Indianapolis, Indiana. Everybody and their brother already know about the Rays impending decision on Carl Crawford’s $ 10 million club option, and his public eagerness to sweeten the deal and possibly sign another extended contract.

But there is another Rays player who has made it be known to the Rays front office through the media that he would entertain a contract restructuring, and maybe give the team a local discount because of his family’s love for this area. Iwamura informed the Tampa Bay media during his May 29th press conference about his successful knee surgery that he wants to “come back for the fans” in 2010, and the teams holds a $4.85 million club option.

One thing working into Iwamura’s favor is the fact the Rays have seen him work totally with the team in mind in the past to do whatever is needed to make this Rays team better. When he first came to the Rays, he was their third baseman, and he quickly showed his defensive skills at that position. After the end of the 2007 season, Iwamura was asked by the Rays Coaching staff if he would consider a move to second base to open the door for the Rays top prospect Evan Longoria to maybe move into that position in the Spring of 2008.

Without hesitation, Iwamura  began to work on the switch during the off season both  in Japan and with the team at the Rays complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. Iwamura was hoping for a smooth seamless transition to his new spot at second base. During that off season, the Rays traded with the Twins for Jason Bartlett to also add more defensive power to their two weakest spots in the infield.
 


Michael Dwyer / AP

Iwamura stated to the St. Petersburg Times on February 17,2008 that he was “Proud of my play at third base but at same time if the team needs me to be at second for team reasons I more than welcome it,” he said through new interpreter Bori Uchibori. “It’s a challenge to me anyway. I know I can do it. Wiggy can do it so I can do it.” During that season’s Spring Training, Iwamura and Bartlett  worked out together and formed a quick bond and a second sense for each others actions and reactions, and it became a flawless fit for the team.

Even after his knee surgery to repair damage received during a May 29,2008 game against the Florida Marlins where Marlins rookie Chris Coghlan came in hard to break up a double play and Iwamura went down in a heap after getting caught between the bag and Coghlan’s foot. Iwamura was encouraged by the surgeries prognosis and vowed to be back with the team before the end of the season. On August 29th, Iwamura returned from the disabled list after 60 days.

And that kind of team-oriented qualities need to be welcomed by the Rays Coaching staff and Front Office as they consider if they want to include Iwamura in their future plans.  You can bet there will be more than a few discussions before the team announces if they will pick up or refuse Iwamura’s 2010 option. And the team can go a few directions here.  There is some doubt right now if recently acquired infielder Sean Rodriguez, who might have outgrown Triple-A is ready for every day duty in the major leagues.

And that has to be the biggest question mark surrounding Iwamura right now. Can Rodriguez be an every day MLB level player for the Rays, or even a valuable utility man like Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist? That might be the big question in mind as the Rays roll the dice before the team reports to Port Charlotte on February 19,2010.  Can they afford to refuse his option and resign him for a reduced salary and incentives, or risk letting him test the free agent waters?


Ben Margot / AP

And you know there are a bevy of teams that might want to lure Iwamura away from the Rays. A team like the New York Mets could benefit from the Rays confusion and would use his speed and flexibility to compliment their infield. But this is putting the cart before the horse. The Rays have not let their intentions known yet to the general public, but you know it is a high priority of the Rays Front Office to try and get both a financial and  team suitable arrangement that can benefit both sides.

And with Iwamura being a bit of a fan favorite, the team might have to tread a bit lightly right now considering the fallout from the Scott Kazmir trade in late August 2008. To make another trade so quick without a solution in hand might again send up some unwarranted red flags amongst the Rays faithful. The Rays best solution might be to sign Iwamura to a extended contract with the stipulation that if Rodriguez is ready, Iwamura could be traded to another team during the season. 

That would show a level of good faith by the Rays along with some future considerations in place if Rodriguez provides another option piece for the team.  The worst part of this decision is that it is going to be more of a financial than personal decision about Iwamura. You know the team would love to keep someone like Iwamura on their roster, but his payroll number might make it unfeasible. But the team has been sure to note that an exit visa is not in the cards right now to jettison Iwamura from the Rays.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

But  his $ 4.85 million club option is also pretty affordable by most of the teams within the MLB, and the Rays could shop Iwamura maybe for some Bullpen help that the team desperately need right now. I actually hope they come to an arrangement prior to accepting or declining his option that would benefit both sides.  And maybe an “out” or trade revision will have to be added to any contract. But since Iwamura has announced he would do some shifting in money and conditions, this negotiation is going to be tricky for the Rays.

There is a slippery slope here that the Rays have to be careful and move gingerly or fall prey to some past decisions. But that is one of the drawbacks of being an successful club. Sometimes hard line financial decisions have to be made without personal feeling involved. Best case scenario has Iwamura staying with the team and maybe moved at the Trade Deadline when Rodriguez could get some extra time at Triple-A.

But no matter what the team does between now and February, you know this is going to be one of their toughest decisions of this offseason. Hopefully they make the right decision with the team and its future in mind.

“Dead Ball” Found near Bobby Ramo’s bag.


Dirk Shadd/ St Petersburg Times

I
am one of those people who love to learn something new every day. It
can be a simple as a new recipe for pasta, or maybe even a simple way
to save money on my car insurance, but the information is given out and
I like to decipher if it can be used in my every day life.

But
every once in a while I have the opportunity to learn a different
interpretation of the rules of baseball. I mean I even went online
about 10 minutes ago and purchased a 2009 MLB Rule Book from a online
bookstore so I can have it on my desktop ready for easy and future
reference.

And you might ask why I did such an
adventure today. Well, if you saw the eight inning of the Boston Red
Sox versus Tampa Bay Rays game, you already know the answer to that
question. It was a play that I begged to differ with at the moment, but
put into a secondary reference,  it made total sense to me and was the
right call at the time.

Let me first run down the play
from my perspective about 5 feet from where the play happen from my
little nook and cranny in rightfield of Tropicana field. At the plate
Rays hitter Willy Aybar puts a perfect bunt down along the third
baseline. Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard picks up the ball with his right
hand and attempts to throw the ball to Victor Martinez at first base
for the out.

The ball skids underneath his glove and
trickles down into the right field corner in front of the Checkers
Bullpen Cafe where it takes a odd right turn after rolling over the
Bullpen mound and sit up against Bullpen coach Bobby Ramo’s equipment
bag. Not in it, but against it. So Red Sox rightfielder J D Drew being
the guy he is immediately throws his hands up both in the air imitating
a football touchdown signal.

This is to furiously
motion to First Base Umpire Tony Randazzo  that the ball is in a dead
situation and that he can not get to the ball in a timely matter. I was
talking to a Rays outfielder after the game who mentioned that if a
ball goes into an unusual place, or hits into an odd-shaped cubbie hole
or under a outfield wall they are immediately instructed to throw both
hands up.


Steve Nesius/ AP

Well
Umpire Randazzo in his correct wisdom and great knowledge of the rule
book, immediately agrees with Drew after coming down a good 15 feet
down the line from his spot on the first baseline. He did not step to
the bag, or even merit a discussion if it had indeed been in the bag at
any time. The ball was ruled dead by him also putting up the same
double arms above the head signal. Case closed, discussion over, time
to confer with the other umpires to award bases and get the play right.

The
disagreement I had with them at that time was that when Umpire signaled
the ball dead, the Rays Ben Zobrist was rounding third base and heading
to home for a possible 3-2 Rays lead. What I did not understand at
first was the way that rule was being interpreted on the field. Of
course when you are in the stands you do not get a great explanation
to the play, or even a rule to search up on the Internet at that moment.

But the rule in question was MLB Rule 7.05 G and it goes like this:

 Two
bases when, with no spectators on the playing field, a thrown ball goes
into the stands, or into a bench (whether or not the ball rebounds into
the field), or over or under or through a field fence, or on a slanting
part of the screen above the backstop, or remains in the meshes of a
wire screen protecting spectators. The ball is dead. 
When
such wild throw is the first play by an infielder, the umpire, in
awarding such bases, shall be governed by the position of the runners
at the time the ball was pitched; in all other cases the umpire shall
be governed by the position of the runners at the time the wild throw
was made.
 

So
let me see here. The element of Bard throwing the ball past Martinez is
applied in this rule. The Umpire in his view saw the ball in a place
that was deemed ” not of the field” and called for a “dead ball”
situation. Because of this “dead ball” situation, the runners are given
two base from the beginning of the play, not the signalling of the
“dead ball.” So in essence, the runners are given two bases from their
initial starting points before the play began.

That
means Zobrist is awarded third base, and Aybar is situated at second
base, but it is not a ground rule double. Okay that makes sense, it is
the same rule as if the shortstop had taken the throw in his normal
position and threw the ball over Martinez’s head and into the stands.
Both are considered “dead” at the moment the ball leaves the friendly
confines of a usual playing surface.

Considering some of
the odd and unusual calls tonight by the Home Plate Umpire Jerry
Layne on balls and strikes, and the first impression of this play, it
was viewed for a bit as a “Boston advantage” play until this rule
surfaced on the Internet for all of us to see for ourselves. 
Considering how this game was going, I thought i might still be there
right now (1:58 am) and be heading home with the rest of the people
after Last Call at our favorite saloon.


Steve Nesius / AP

It
was a play that frustrated me until I got a second opinion on it from
Rich Herrera of the Rays Radio Network right after the game wo told me
the umpires got it right and to be sure to listen to the post-game show
on the way home so he could explain it in deep, dull detail. I have to
admit, I did not have my camera tonight, or I would have snapped off a
few pictures to show right where the ball was situated.

But
I understand now that players are drilled with the facts that in
Wrigley Field, if the ball hits the ivy and even if you retrieve it
with little struggle to throw your hands up high in the air. The same
thing has happened to the Rays a few seasons ago in Baltimore when the
ball just nestled under the outlaying of the outfield plastic coating.
It can be a home field advantage, but this time the opponent got to
play the cards.

I do not have issues with
Drew trying to get it called and not moving the bag to the side and
throwing the ball. I do not have issue with the call in general, but
sometimes I do wish I could see the rule on the big screen or maybe
have some sort of vocal acknowledgment so I can understand without
cursing and pointing.

I guess I was lucky to be on
Twitter at the time and got the scoop from the Red Sox faithful like
Julia @ Werbiefitz who let me know what was going on in NESN-land on
the play. So there is a fast and hopefully simple exclamation of that
odd and confusing play in the eight inning tonight/today/whenever.


Brian Blanco / AP

It
is 2 am and if you have seen a picture of me, I need my beauty sleep. I
will throw up some more bad facts and figures from this game sometimes
during the day tomorrow. For the Rays this was a plus/plus win with
pulling a game closer to the Red Sox in the AL East, and picking up a
game on the Texas Rangers in the AL Wild Card race. Things will get
interesting tomorrow since both Bullpens basically emptied themselves
in this contest.


Sink or Swim Time for the Rays

 


Jim Prisching / AP

I am beginning to think I will need to bring some Dramamine to the game with me this week. Considering the offensive wave swells the Rays ship the last few weeks it is a common place to feel a hint of motion sickness. The Rays recent offensive rollercoaster is beginning to feel more like an oceanliner stuck out to sea in rough weather than a smooth ride along the Tampa Bay area’s Intercoastal waterways. Change need to begin now to right the balance of the ship before it is too late.

For this team to even visualize a remote boarding pass to the 2009 Playoff islands, it  will have to become a more consistent and reliable scoring vessel. People it is past that “Crunchtime” phase. With less than 60 days left in the season it is past the “do not worry yet” phase of the cruise.  And it is surely time to make a some changes before the ship begins to take on water (losses) and we are all left watching it sink under the waves.

Not meaning to make it so dramatic that this team is  headed for disaster like the HMS Titanic, or even the USS Minnow, but consistent run producing and timely hits are the ballast needed right now to secure this ship’s balance. I know Rays Manager Joe Maddon like to take these games one game at a time, and that is admirable from a deck officer’s standpoint. But right now this team needs a shakedown cruise more than any battleship in the MLB Navy.

They need to re-focus, re-energize and re-evaluate their  short term goals right now. The horizon is getting darker by the moment because of their  shifting of powers among the other fighting ships in the Rays division. Those “it’s only one loss” optimistic thoughts of the last few months are now biting at our stern to almost push us to a “win at all costs” mentality. But to even go all-head full speed right now, a few subtle and responsive changes need to be made to right the ship and keep all of us sailing into the first days of October.


Paul J Berewill / AP


Maddon spoke last night of going on a long bike ride today around the Tampa waterfront before heading to the ballpark. Hopefully some fans have decided to put posters and suggestions along his bike path to help him along with his thought process.  There are a few things that could help this team tremendously in the coming months. Some are right in front of us, but have not been made. Others might take a bit more finesse.

The first  measure to undertake is the shifting of power at the Rays Designated Hitter and First Base.
This idea might not go over well at first, but even to use it only a weekly basis then take the data in and then proceeds from there might be the right course of action. I am not making either Pat Burrell or Carlos Pena walk the plank, but might give them some needed time to refocus and find that fighting spirit we saw so much of in 2008.

The Rays have a huge asset in Willy Aybar. He was one of the unsung heroes of 2008 for what he did in his limited roles during the season. But he was consistent and reliable, which is missing right now at DH. I heard it said once when I was in Kuwait that a good leader can make decision on the fly, can make a drawback into a victory with good though processes and though out moves.

Well, here is my devised plan for good or evil to get the Rays ship balanced and ready for the fight. Take Aybar and his ability to play both the DH and first base roles and combine them into a well executed plan. Since Maddon is such a spreadsheet and sabermetrics fan, use those figures pertaining to Pena and Burrell and formulate a plan of using Aybar at either position to utilize his switchhitting  bat.

In essence, if Pena has a weak average against a pitcher, let Aybar take the first 6 innings of work at the plat and at first base, then make a defensive change after the opponent’s Bullpen get involved in the game. By using Aybar in three at bats a game where Pena might have shown weakness against that pitcher in the past, you could produce three chances to succeed.

Do the same with Burrell. If Aybar has a good showing against a pitcher in the past, and Burrell is struggling against him, then Aybar should get the nod right now. You can always insert Burrell into the lineup later in the game to still get him at bats. Basically, I am asking Maddon to go with the hot hand right now. Be it a back-up, a starter, or a guy struggling to get out of a rut.


Steve Nesius / AP

Let’s take tonight’s Red Sox starter Jon Lester as an example.  If you take the two games that Lester has faced Burrell and Pena this season you will see the opposite ends of the hitting spectrum. Burrell has gone 2 for 5 (.400) against Lester this season with 2 RBI. But Pena has gone 1 for 6 (.167) with 3 strikeouts, plus a HR and 2 RBIs.  Bit to throw a monkey wrench into this one, Aybar has not gone to the plate against Lester in 2009.

But take into account that during the 2008 regular season Aybar did face Lester in 2 games. In those contests he went 2 for 6 (.333) with 2 doubles and a run. So while we are bring up Aybar’s 2008 stats, lets check out Pena’s stats against Lester. Pena went 2 for 7 (.286) with a double and a HR against him. With those facts in mind, it might be a good idea to start Aybar at first base, give him a few at bats, then switch Pena as a defensive move later in the ball game.

Burrell has shown some offensive might against Lester, and it could trigger a nice showing by him tonight. So let’s play Devils Advocate here and check out the statistic for Weds. night Red Sox starter against all three players. Brad Penny did not play for the Red Sox at all in 2008, so Aybar and Pena do not have any data against the right-hander for that season.

But in 2009, The Rays have already faced him twice this season. Burrell has gone 1 for 6 (.167) with a RBI and 2 strikeouts. And in almost a mirror image, Pena has also gone 1 for 6 (.167) against Penny this season with a double an RBI and 2 strikeouts. Again Aybar has not had an at bats against Penny so far in 2009. In this scenario you could use him at DH in the game with the possibility of using Burrell either as a pinchhitter, or put him in at DH after a few innings for Aybar.

The 5 and 6 hole in the lineup right now needs a bit of tweaking. In the opening 3-game set against the Yankees, that the Rays lost two of those games, Burrell and Pena went 2 for 21 in the series. Add onto that the 10 strikeouts and only 1 RBI produced and
you see a dark hole beginning to form in that spot in the lineup.

Now against the Kansas City Royals in their 4 game set the pair did look a bit better, but still below par. In that series the duo went a combined 6 for 23, with 6 RBI and decreased to only 9 strikeouts in the series.  But to overshadow both of their days was the fact that Aybar saw action in all three games in which he went 3 for 8 with 3 runs scored and 2 RBI.


Steve Nesius / AP

What was even more impressive from Aybar was the fact he hit a homer on Monday afternoons game from each side of the plate. So to say that Aybar is not a needed piece right now for this Rays vessel is to have a false sense of security that the ship will right itself with no changes. Aybar getting a chance at the wheel might just be what this team needs right now.

Things happen for a reason. Sometimes they happen for us to adjust out thinking to steer clear of impending dangers. But other times they happen to make the trip more enjoyable and more smooth for everyone involved. So hopefully as Maddon was cruising over the bridge into Davis Island today some kid had a sign that said, “Let Willy Aybar take the Wheel Skipper”. And with that hopefully it can bring about change, a shifting of the ballast, and bring this Rays season back into its natural balance.

Team Unity goes Western

 


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

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

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

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

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


RRCollections


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

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

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

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

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

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


polishedtwo@Flickr.com

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

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

Rays Bullpen Struggling

 


Kathy Willens / AP

You have to think sometimes that the new item out in the Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen has to be an hourglass. You know that simple time measuring device that is simply turned over the minute you want to restart the clock and readjust time. And with the recent problems in the Rays Bullpen, who do you even attempt to point the blame at when the ERA is bouncing up and down like a EKG chart. 

I mean how can the most improved part of the Rays defensive alignment go so north and south in such a short time. To begin with, in April you knew that this was not the same unit that dominated the American League in 2008. You saw that in the type of spring a few of the guys who held it together for the Rays had coming into the season. Grant Balfour, one of the most improved Rays in 2008 went through the spring with an uncharacteristic 5.63 ERA in only 9 appearances. 

In a total of only 8 innings he gave up 12 hits and  6 runs , but he did get 9 strikeouts. Can it really be true that in this 2009 season it might be feast or fathom for the Aussie? So far in 2009, he has not always looked like his old self, but he has shown improvements recently before his recent outing again put his name in the whispers of the fans.

On Saturday, Balfour gave up his first homer to a left-hander when Mark Teixeira took him yard during his one inning of work.  He also set-up the run scored by Jorge Posada before he left after a pitching change. But then on May 30th, against the Minnesota Twins, Balfour was on fire as he threw 2.2 innings and dominated his 7 hitters he faced in that appearance.

It was the longest he has been on the mound since July 20, 2004 when he faced 3 innings of work against the Detroit Tigers when he was with the Twins.  Balfour is also currently tied for 4th in the AL with only 15.4 percent of his inherited runners scoring on him. But is this the same Balfour this season that lead all MLB relievers last season with a 12.65 strikeouts per 9 innings ratio, which also ranked 9th best all-time among AL relievers.  I mean last year he struck out 36.6 percent of the batter he faced, and his .143 opponents batting average was the best in the game.

Could a pitcher change that much in such a short period of time? Well, if you have watched the radar gun in the Trop. during his 2009 appearances, this question might be easy to answer.  He has consistently been a few clicks below his former self, but was this done as a camouflage for his high and hard fastball by throwing some a bit under his usual blazing speed, or is there something else going on here.

It is understandable that a pitcher, especially a reliever can impose some tricky maneuvers to try and disguise either a flaw in his arsenal, or even try to hide a change in his delivery. Could Balfour be toying with some new angles and pitch placements and just be getting beat right now? Both could be happening, but they are beginning to happen at the wrong time for the Rays and their Bullpen.

Right now as the team is close to the .500 mark and about to reel in a few of the big fish in front of them in the A L East division, they need all hands on deck to eliminate any chance of defeat in the late innings. So far in 2009, the Bullpen has been a bit inconsistent at the wrong times.

And Balfour is not the only culprit that has been manhandled so far in 2009.  One of the brightest emerging stars and most surprising pitchers in the Rays Bullpen last season was J P Howell. He was trying to make that difficult transition from being a starting pitcher to a reliever, and in essence fell right into a perfect flow in the transformation. 


Getty Images

And his last 7 appearances this season made you think more and more of his 2008 glory.  He has gone 7.1 innings with only 2-hits, 2-walks and 12 strikeouts to post a 0.00 ERA. He was beginning to show the same promise in 2009 that he used to dominate and establish himself in 2008. I mean the guy has been a iron man for the Rays this year appearing in 29 game so far this season. Is this number deceiving in that he has pitched great, but been the victim on the mound too much in 2009? Or could it be hiding another fact that his inherited runners are scoring on him.

Howell is also currently second in the AL in strikeouts by a reliever with 36 this season.  So why is it that I picked these two guys to chat about if their numbers are so consistent for the Rays. Well, mainly it has seemed in the last two years, as these two guys go, so does the team. So when during Sunday’s game both of them suffered a bit of a one-game meltdown defensively, it brought about a certain element of worry. 

Balfour threw only 19 pitches in the game on Sunday, but he also let the Yankees bully him for 2-hits and a walk to basically take the Rays out if the game. I am not going to throw him totally under the bus here, but he did have the steering wheel at the time of the accident.  And that sort of pitching brainfart can not happen against a divisional foe who we are chasing to secure another divisional title.
 

This is the one team you do not want to give scoring chances to in the AL right now. I mean they are only a few runs behind the Rays as a run producing machine right now, and to give them any daylight is almost suicide right now. 

Balfour came out to relieve Joe Nelson in the bottom of the eighth inning with a fresh slate, but he allowed 3 out of the 4 hitters to face him get on base. So Howell was brought on to clean up the mess with one out in the inning,  and Balfour left Howell with Yankees on every base and a slim 2-run Rays lead. Howell did not make matters any better after he got a 1-1- count on Robinson Cano, he threw three straight balls to walk a run in and give the Yankees a chance by trimming the lead to 1-run. 

It was at that moment that someone else actually committed the final blow to the Rays chances by not thinking quickly and clearly to prevent another run. Willy Aybar, who was again at third base as Evan Longoria rested his hamstring took a grounder at third base beyond the bag and sort of hesitated enough to lose the force out at home, and had to throw to first for the sure out in the inning.

It was only the second out, so Teixeira stepped on the plate to tie the game at 3-all. In review, it was shown that Aybar would have gotten Teixeira at home if he elected to go that direction instead of trying to get Posada at first base. He was also too far away from third base to even try and complete a double play to end the inning.

Hideki Matsui then hit another fielder’s choice to second base  that got Posada for the second out if the inning, but it also scored Alex Rodriguez with the eventual game-winner. But the damage could have been worse as Howell walked Nick Swisher on 4 straight pitches to again put two men o
n for the Yankees. But he did get Melky Cabrera to strikeout for the last out if the inning and stem the bleeding.


Ted S Warren / AP

But the damage was already done as the Yankees now had the lead 4-3.  Howell threw 15 pitches in his 2/3rds of an inning, with only 6 going for strikes. Some people might say I am nitpicking right now into the recent loss to the Yankees, and I might agree with you. I am trying to find a reason for a loss to a divisional foe that might come back and kick us in the butt in September or October.

You bet your life I am trying to sort out if there is a problem with the match-up system right now that other teams might have finally figured out for the Rays. Matching up hitters to pitchers has been a new fangled invention for only, what 20 years or so and has seemed to work at times, but also blew up in a managers’ face too. Well, this one might have been more of an example of reading the charts more than you were trusting your pitchers.

Some one said to me on Twitter last night, “You go with your hot guys”, and the more I thought of that last night I began to agree with it. Nelson was looking good, and maybe the idea of using Randy Choate instead of Howell last night would have made a bit more sense. Not only because Choate has three saves this season and has only had to face 4 batters to earn them, but he has a bit of familiarity with the Yankees system having pitched here. 

I might be important that he spent the first 7 years of his career in pinstripes, and even if some of the hitters were new to him, he did know the hitting styles of some of the Yankee long time guys, which is always a plus.  So did the Rays match-up system doom them yesterday? I am not sure if I can give a definitive answer to that because the Balfour appearance might have been the only real question to the loss. 

We can pint to Aybar’s mistake, but if Balfour had dominated the Yankee lineup, we would never have gotten to that situation in the game.  The Rays have lived and died by Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s match-up system both this season and in 2008. But you have to agree that the system might have been flawed a bit last night in not using your hot reliever Choate or even extending Nelson a few more hitters into the eighth inning.



Steve Nesius / AP

Of course this is truly speculation that either pitcher could have made a huge difference. But I guess I was in a New York frame of mind today. You know, the Yankee bloggers and newspaper reporters love to dish and bury the team at any moment based on their own observations during a contest. I might be guilty of the same today, but with a twist. 

I hate to admit it, but I am seeing a trend in this year’s Bullpen that is going to spell more trouble in 2009. This is not the same unit as 2008 based on Balfour’s 5.68 ERA or Dan Wheeler’s 5.50 ERA. The Rays might be beginning to tread a bit of water right now with their late inning guys, but confidence and stamina will be the key right now.

The team got an unexpected rest during their last series at home, and it might have relaxed the guys a little too much this early in the season. The Rays Bullpen in 2009 has gone a combined 6-7, with 15 saves, but has a modest combined ERA of 3.89 this year over 171 innings. The Rays have surrendered 35 runs in the eighth inning this season, which is a great indicator of bad thing happening on the mound.

Combined with the 28 given up in the ninth inning, the Rays have surrendered 63 runs in only those two frames this year. That is not playoff quality Bullpen effort right now, but there is still ample time to fix the problem. Or maybe to consider just tossing the match-up idea away for a bit and letting your Bullpen gets its legs back under it and thrive again before it is too late……..just a thought.

 

Explosion, Implosion, Devotion

 


Tony Dejak / AP

EXPLOSION


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word explosion as: ” To burst or cause to burst violently and noisy.” Another definition shows it as:” To give forth a sudden and noisy outburst of emotions. ” Now that did sound like the last few days for the Tampa Bay Rays.  Since their Friday night game against the Florida Marlins here on the road, the Tampa Bay Rays have scored an amazing 39 runs in 4 games. 

That is just below a 10 run a game clip, which is unheard of for a team battling for the fourth spot in their division. But these Rays have always been about surprises and sudden bursts of emotion both this season and in 2008.
Coming into this game the Rays have scored a total of 273 runs. That is over 12 runs more than their closest rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

And with that  kind of explosion of runs  the Rays have won 7 out of their last 11 games and a rise towards the .500 mark for the first time since the team was 4-3 in April 2009. But the team is not just relying totally on their hits, no this squad also has a beady eye at the plate and  currently have 200 walks this season, which trails those same Dodgers by 8, but they are the leader in the American League right now.

The team has used a good formula of strong base running along with a keen eye at the plate to turn their walks into legitimate scoring chances almost every inning. The Rays are also seeing more pitches per at bat than any other team in the MLB right now. But they are still trolling dangerously at the sub .500 or .500 mark for most of this explosive time. Why would the team leading the majors in RBI with 259 this year be struggling to hold onto wins? Can the explanation be simple, or is there a underlying problem here we do not see yet.

Heck this Rays team has gotten 44 free passes (walks) in the last 4 games. They have tied the season high mark of 9 strolls to first three times during this road trip. Carlos Pena has even walked in 11 consecutive games now, a new Rays record. Pena now has 35 walks this season and is only one shy of Toronto’s Marc Scutaro who is tops in the AL right now.

And worst part of it all is that this is the Rays second best record after 47 games in their young history. There has to be a reason for the fall from grace of this team. Can you really throw all the blame on the pitching staff, or are there team effort mistakes that are making this a season to remember with mixed emotions right now?


Tony Dejak / AP

Implosion

The same dictionary shows the meaning of Implosion to mean: ” To burst or collapse inward.” Is that the problem with the Rays right now? Are the competition bursting some bubbles and exposing some of the weaknesses we have currently in our pitching staff. The Rays pitching staff after the fourth inning is going through a state of internal implosion in their minds and on the mound right now. You have to admit in last night’s game, both teams did their own special takes on the word implosion. 

Combined we saw over 19 walks in this game. Granted, these are the top two squads in the AL with walks, but it was downright annoying at times to see the strike zone get smaller at times during the contest. Not to be outdone by the walk total, both teams also combined to throw 422 pitches last night, which is tops in the majors this season by two squads. The Rays had their own share of 230 tosses in the game, which is the third highest total in team history. 

The game was an abnormality for both teams, but you can not let the history of this ballpark come up and snag you either.The Rays have now lost 14 consecutive games in this ballpark. The steak is the longest consecutive streak in any ballpark for the Rays.You have to go back to the days of ex-Rays pitcher Seth McClung as a starter to find the last win in Progressive/Jacobs Field. That was back on September 28, 2005, when McClung beat Cliff Lee.

But the implosion, for the second game in a row by the Rays Bullpen is starting to signal a  weakness in the Rays Way of relief pitching. I am not going to throw the Bullpen under the bus here totally, but someone has to take some of the past  two games failures under their skin and boast this Bullpen back up again. Is the way they are being used the culprit, or is this Bullpen right now not as good as the 2008 model? I mean we did lose another cog in Brian Shouse to injury in Sundays game, but can one guy be the key to the implosion experienced during last night’s game. Some sort of change might be needed, but where do you look first?

But if you look at the players who have been inserted in both the 5-4 walk-off loss to the Marlins, and in this contest, they are the regular guys mixed with a few of the “newbies”.  There is not a consistent plus or minus from any of the pitchers in either game to instill or conduct a massive witch hunt for a scapegoat here.  At least in Sunday’s loss the team was battling back and forth throughout the game until the Marlins plated the winning run in the 11th inning. In that contest, the word implosion is not fitting to use. The Marlins only came back from a single run down to tie the game, not 9 runs like the Indians did to the Rays last night. 

The implosion started with three quick singles to load the bases in the eight inning. The Rays defense did their part by getting a 6-4-3 double play and get two quick outs on the board. Considering the Indians got 4 hits in that inning and only scored 2 runs, it can be a minor “atta boy” for getting out without surrendering more. But the ninth inning is going to be the poster boy of implosive actions for this Bullpen for quite awhile.

Not only did the Rays use 4 pitchers to try and get three outs, but they used some of the tried and true veterans along with recent call-up Randy Choate. But then again, you had Choate and Thayer, the newbies in the Rays system as the first two guys on the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning.  As a bookmark for both of these guys to separate what the rookies did and the veterans accomplished was a nice high,wide and not very handsome throw by Ried Brignac at short to make the inning drag on more for the Rays.

Willy Aybar could have been LeBron James and he could not have had enough reach to get that ball from Brignac. Funny we are in the town of LeBron this week, and more people have seen Cavaliers’ basketball this year than an Indians game, and their complexes are right next to each other. Anyways, The Rays bring on the first of two vets in Grant Balfour with one out and a 10-5 Rays lead.  Hearing the Indians faithful beating the tom tom drum in the background Balfour get Mark DeRosa to line out to Evan Longoria.

Two outs and a 10-5 lead is still intact for the Rays.  Tom tom gets louder and Ryan Garko cracks a 3-run shot to left field that clears the high wall with ea
se. Now the stream of runs are beginning to flow for the Indians. They have gotten to within two runs at this point, 10-8, but have only one out left to play with here. From that point on, Balfour gives up a walk to Asdrubal Cabrerra to start the run carousel all over again.

He is replaced by former St Louis Cardinals’ closer Jason Isringhausen who the Rays signed as protection in case of some Percival problems this season. Izzy comes to the mound with the determination of Job, but issues three straight walks to score another Indians run and get the lead to within one run 10-9. Then the Indians protagonist for the Rays, Victor Martinez is up to the plate for the second time in this inning. His first at bat ended with the first out of the inning on a pop out to Longoria.  Izzy gets him to a 2-2 count before he hits a ball  on the ground between B J Upton and Ben Zobrist, and neither player can get the ball before the two runs score and the Rays go down again in Cleveland.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

DEVOTION

This is a word that can have many meaning to many people. It will depend on the way you have been brought up what this word means to you. Different religions and cultures have many interpretations of this word. But I like the fourth definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary : ” The fact or state of being dedicated or loyal “. I also think a great parallel word is fandom here.

I truly think this is the time we either go for gusto supporting this team, or you abandon the bandwagon and go about your life until football starts in August. Seriously here people, this is the time we can send a message to other fans around baseball. The Rays are having their second best season in team history after the 47 game mark, and people want this team to be comparable to 2008 (27-20). Look at that record. 27-20 last season is only  4 more wins than this season currently. Is that a good enough reason to bring out the “D(evil)” word again in referring to this team?

I hope not. Devotion and support of this team will be the hidden treasure in 2009. They told us last season if we had a winning season the fans will show up. Well, so far this season they have shown up in moderate numbers, but we still have huge teams coming in future home series that will spike the attendance marks higher and higher.  This is not the time to even think of digging out those other jerseys to wear, or caps to adorn your head. That famous phrase, “When the going get tough, the tough get going” really needs to shine right now in Rays-land.

The last two game have been disappointing and miserable during our Memorial Day weekend, but it is only the cusp of the season to come for the Rays. People use this as a benchmark for if you will be successful the rest of the season. Well, Toronto has finally fallen from the top of the grid, and the Rays are sitting only one game below .500 right now. Just to give you some insight, at this point in the season in 2007, we were 19-28, or 4 games worse than 2009. This is the time to rally and show we can beat those Indians in their stadium.

We will send the most consistent of our pitchers to the mound tonight to try and spark the Rays and demolish the Indians hold on the Rays.  With a win tonight, we will still be 4 games off the 2008 pace, but baby steps will get us back in line soon enough to again take on the top of the division.  I will leave you with a few words from the modern baseball philosopher Bruce Springsteen who said, : “Some guys they just give up living, others start dying little by little piece by piece, some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the streets.”

Play Ball!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 279 other followers