Thursday, 11 December 2008

Jackson for Joyce

The Rays made their first major move of the offseason yesterday, bringing in outfielder Matt Joyce from the Tigers in exchange for Edwin Jackson.

I'm not totally up on Joyce - I imagine that I saw him play last season, but I can't really remember. From the numbers he looks like he had a pretty decent season, and the Rays are obviously keen on his power potential and defense in right. The impression I get is that while he'll compete for the starting job in '09, he may well be one for the future. I guess my one real surprise is that we've added another left-handed bat - we really could do with someone to hit from the other side!

Obviously losing Jackson is a bit of a shame. He had his best year ever this season, and finally looked as though he was working through his inconsistancy issues. I think that Detroit have picked up a good player there. Still, with the pitching depth that the Rays have, any trade was always likely to involve either him or Andy Sonnanstine. And while Jackson is probably the more talented, I think I'd rather lose him that Sonny - as I've said many times this year, Sonny just has a great knack for winning.

Jackson's departure also dramatically increases the likelihood that David Price will start the year in the Rays' rotation. Its not quite a done deal - Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and Jason Hammel will have a shot as well - but I don't think it would be much of a surprise to see the big lefty win out.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Tampa Bay's other Joe

Possibly the best thing about watching sports live is the connection you feel to the players. You can almost feel like you're part of the team. My current seats at Southampton football games (for when I am actually back down south) are no more than 10 yards from the edge of the pitch. When I shout, the players (and the referee/linesmen!) can hear. I mean sure, I know that they're not going to take any notice of me, but they can hear. And when you're that close, watching them all season long, you get to know them. Not in a personal, go and have a chat way, but you get a feel for their personality, their style - basically of who they are.

Its something you just don't get from watching on TV. And thats what I find sometimes about the Rays. As much as I love watching them, and as badly as I want them to do well, I don't have that connection to the team that comes with seeing them live.

The wonderful thing though about watching baseball on TV is that you can get a connection. Not to the players or the manager, but, thanks to local TV stations showing virtually every game, to the broadcasters. And for me - and no doubt many other Rays fans - that link has always been Todd Kalas, Dewayne Staats and Joe Magrane.

To me, they are as big a part of Rays baseball as anyone who puts on their glove and takes the field.

And as far as I'm concerned, not only are they Rays institutions, they're among the very best in the business.

Which is why I'm doubly saddened with the news announced earlier this week that in 2009, for the first time ever, Joe Magrane will not be calling the Rays.

Its sadness on an entirely selfish level of course - Joe has been hired by MLB network, a fantastic opportunity for him to put his outstanding analytical and personable skills to use in front of a far larger audience (potentially) than he has for Rays games. I'm sure he will do fantastically - he is a brilliant broadcaster - and I do of course wish him the best of luck.

But, at the risk of sounding incredibly cliched, it does make me want to cry out, "say it ain't so, Joe?"

I know from experience, from the time (a few months? It seems more) before offered both the home and away feed, that not all broadcasters are created equal. Some can be patronising, some can be ignorant and ill-informed, and some can be just downright annoying. But Dewayne Staats and Joe Magrane are none of those things. They are entertaining, informative and - something that is too easily overlooked - talk to the viewers, and not at them. I'm piling up the cliches at a rapid rate now, but watching the Rays with them is honestly like inviting a couple of friends into your house.

Now, as far as I know, the legend that is Dewayne Staats is staying on. As is "the strapping young lad" Todd Kalas. And no doubt a new man will come in, and in his own way be entertaining and informative. And we'll still have Staats' to guide us through the action.

But Rays baseball without Dewayne and Joe in the booth - well, for me at least, its never going to be the same again.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Joe's the boss

One more piece of silverware for the Rays in this remarkable season. And the one that is, without question the most deserved. Ok, sure Evan Longoria was head and shoulders above the other rookies, and Carlos Pena was virtually automatic with the glove down at first base.

But if either of those two prizes had gone elsewhere, you could just about have understood it. I mean other first basemen played their position well, and other rookies did have good years. But the manager of the year award?

Well, there was nobody in baseball quite like Joe.

He took the Major League's biggest joke, and turned it into a confident, can-do, must-see team.

He took ten years of losing - and losing badly - and turned it into a World Series place.

He took the league's worst record, and turned it into top spot in the toughest division in baseball.

Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays, American League Manager of the Year.

I like how that sounds.

For once, I'm not going to ramble on about why he deserves it, and the miracles that he has performed for us this year. Instead, I'm going to quote this article from by Mike Bauman. I don't think I could possibly put it any better:
This was the kind of managing job that not only deserves an award, but also merits a textbook. This was a life lesson on how to turn failure into triumph, and in a hurry. Yes, Maddon is the American League Manager of the Year, but even that may be something of an understatement.

Joe said before the season began that 9=8. And then went out and proved it. And you know what, now there is no argument that the boss who wears 70 is number 1.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Longo, meet ROY

Ok, so not exactly surprising news, but it is exciting never-the-less. Tampa Bay have their first ever BBWAA award winner, and it is who else but Evan Longoria. He was named yesterday as the American League's first unanimous Rookie of the Year since 1997.

I hardly need to go over Evan's amazing stats, or indeed his intangibles. Suffice to say he has been the brightest spot in a whole sea of brightness for the Rays in 2008 and the award, for which he was favourite even before he had a major league at-bat, is massively well deserved. Even missing a month through injury, he still dominated all other rookies. And while I would want to take nothing away from the other rookies who received the second and third place votes - Alexei Ramirez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Aviles, Armando Galarraga, Joey Devine, Denard Span, Nick Blackburn, Joba Chamberlain and Brad Ziegler - they simply weren't in Evan's league in 2008. Mind you, nor were many established players.

I think it says something pretty special about Longo that, in his first season in the bigs, he has already been made the Rays' player rep by his teammates. If that doesn't say something about his maturity, and the shear respect that other players have for him, then I don't know what does.

Longo is a superstar. And long may that continue.

But for now Evan, enjoy the prize. You have certainly earned it.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Carlos is Golden

And quite right too.

The firsts just keep on coming for the Rays, even after the season has ended - yesterday Carlos Pena claimed the first ever Gold Glove in Rays history for his outstanding work this year at first base. And although a lot of times the award seems to go to players who are not exactly known for their glovework (Rafael Palmeiro anyone?), Carlos is, in my mind, a truly deserving winner.

All year long, commentators from across the country have been describing Pena as "a Gold Glove-calibre" first baseman. Now they can describe him as a Gold Glover. Its not just the fielding he does himself, its the confidence that he gives to the other infielders. They know that if they can get the throw in his vicinity then, more often than not, he's going to dig it out and make the play. He has fantastic range, great hands, and can turn the 3-6-3 double play as well as anyone that I've ever seen. In short, its very well deserved.

And you know what, it could be the first of many for these Rays. I mean, look around the field and its hard to spot someone who doesn't have a chance of nabbing some gold in the future. Evan Longoria is as close to a dead-cert future winner as you will find, while CC is probably unlucky not to have one already. BJ Upton just needs to cut out a few sloppy plays, and he could get one, while Aki Iwamura must have been very close to winning in his first ever season at second. Hey, even Jason Bartlett and Dioner Navarro are above average defensively...

Thursday, 30 October 2008

They're all heroes

You know, the longer this season went on, the more I thought that I wasn't going to have to write this post. I thought that this was our year. I suppose, in many ways, it still has been our year.

But take nothing away from the Phillies. They played better than the Rays all through the World Series, and they are fully deserving of their championship. Well done Philadelphia. Perhaps we'll make it to a rematch next year.

To be honest, right from game one I wasn't quite as sure of a Rays win as I had been going in to it.

(And before you draw any conclusions, no that's not why I wasn't blogging - I've had a ridiculously busy couple of weeks. And that combined with staying up all through the night has meant that I probably couldn't have written a coherent sentence even if I did have time to... Truth be told I probably still won't get back to something like normal service for another week or so yet, and then you can expect a proper set of season reviews, as well as the much anticipated (by me at least!) RAPAs - the Rays from Across the Pond Awards).

As for the series - well, we didn't perform. We were out of form in pretty much every area, starting pitching, relief pitching, hitting and defense. And though we kept it close even through all that, you can't expect to win against a quality side like the Phillies if you're not playing at your best.

And it's true, that after the amazing first 173 games of this season, not ending the year as World Champions is a disappointment.

But I just want to think about that statement for a second. We can actually have a sense of disappointment that the Rays are not the Champions. The Tampa Bay Rays. A team that's highpoint in its whole existance before this season was winning 70 games.

What a year it has been.

And every single player that has pulled on a Rays uniform is a hero. What they have achieved, even having fallen short of the biggest prize, will not be forgotten quickly by anyone in Rays-world. By anyone in the baseball world come to that.

And even before I have the time to write a proper tribute to them all, I just wanted to take the opportunity to say that. These Rays have nothing to be disappointed about. They should feel only pride at what they have achieved. They have done the impossible. They have dispatched the Yankees and the Red Sox. They have won games that they never should have won, and won series that they never should have had a chance in. They have gone from nobodies to household names.

And more than any of that - they have put Tampa Bay on the baseball map.

Don't get me wrong, I would have liked the big one. But come February when pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the 2009 season will start and the defending American League Champions will have the word RAYS emblazoned on their chests.

I'll settle for that.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

World Series

Five hours from now.

Tropicana Field, St Petersburg, Florida.

First pitch of the 2008 MLB World Series.

Scott Kazmir.

Of the Tampa Bay Rays.


I am very, very excited right now.  Not to mention incredibly nervous.  But, 1am UK time, you can be certain that I will be in front of the TV watching a little bit of history being made.  And hoping that these amazing Rays might just be able to make a little more.

Go Rays!!!

Monday, 20 October 2008

ALCS game 7 - American. League. Champions.

Say it slowly.

Say it again.

Believe it.

The 2008 American League Champions are the Tampa Bay Rays.

Playing for the 2008 World Series title will be the Tampa Bay Rays.

Boston Red Sox 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 3

Seven outs away, and coasting to a five-game win, to a game 7 decider against the defending World Champion Red Sox. I cannot begin to tell you how nervous I was last night. As it turns out, I was far more nervous than anyone wearing a Rays uniform.

And you know what? After all they have done this year, that doesn't even surprise me anymore. They have taken on the best all year long, and they have never waivered and never faltered. They are unbelieveable.

And last night, no-one was more unbelieveable than Matt Garza. He gave up a homerun to the second batter of the game, and then nothing. He simply powered through the dangerous Boston lineup time and time again. He didn't allow another hit until the seventh inning. He left after 7+, having struck out 9 and given up just the two hits. It was a magnificent display of pitching under huge pressure. And nobody could possibly argue that he wasn't a worthy choice for the series MVP.

Garza's performance was just one of a littany of storybook tales that helped sned the Rays to their storybook World Series. The relief effort might have been even bigger. Dan Wheeler, JP Howell and Chad Bradford all pitched to a batter or two in the eighth, as Boston loaded the bases with two out and JD Drew coming to the plate. Who does Joe Maddon call from the 'pen? David Price. A 23-year-old rookie with just 5 regular season appearances. Crazy?

Nah. Because David Price was clearly the coolest man in the Trop. Slider, slider, fastball, fastball. JD Drew struck out, inning over. Price comes back out for the ninth. He walks the leadoff man, but again shows his remarkable calmness - strikeout, strikeout, ground ball. His first ever save. In game 7 of the American League Championship Series. This kid is something special.

So is Evan Longoria, whose impressive battling at-bat was responsible for tying the game up in the fourth. He fought off several pitches before flipping a pitch down the right field line for an RBI-double. And the way Garza was throwing, even against Jon Lester, only one team looked likely to win it.

Move on to the fifth, and Willy Aybar is on second. Rocco Baldelli comes to the plate with an 0-6 career mark against Lester. This is a Rays' fairytale right? Well then, how about a game-winning RBI for a long-tenured Ray who had earlier in the year been diagnosed with a condition that left him in a constant state of fatigue, and which meant that he wasn't certain whether he would ever play Major League Baseball again. Sounds good to me. Rocco slapped the ball into left for a single and Aybar came motoring around to score the go-ahead run.

Aybar has been a bit of a hero for the Rays this season as well, and he gave the team some breathing room in the seventh, going deep for the second time in the series..

And now the Rays are going to another series.

The World Series.

I'm not quite sure I can believe it.

ALCS games 5 & 6 - Sucked

Tampa Bay Rays 7 - Boston Red Sox 8
Boston Red Sox 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

Ok, so a Boston comeback of some sort was almost inevitable. The manner of it was potentially devastating. I am honestly not sure that I could have faced writing about these two games - although that is not the reason I didn't. I was travelling back to Basingstoke on Friday, and out all day on Saturday and Sunday. I'm sure I will look back at these two games at some point, but for now lets just say that they sucked.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

ALCS game 4 - Wow, just wow

Tampa Bay Rays 13 - Boston Red Sox 4

I just don't know how we are doing this. I mean, I know this Rays team is good - very, very good - but still, this is the first ever postseason for most of them, and they're playing at Fenway against the been there, done that, got the t-shirt Red Sox. The defending World Champion Red Sox.

But man, are we playing some good baseball. And while the Sox are most definitely not out of it yet - their ALCS comebacks of recent years are still fresh in the memory - if we can carry on pitching, hitting and fielding like we have in the last few games, then there is no reason why the first pitch of the World Series couldn't be thrown at Tropicana Field. We need one win in the next three games to get there. That is a scary thought.

Now I am stupidly tired this morning (game finished at 4.18AM, I went to bed and set my alarm for 8AM...), but I don't care. Last night's game was totally worth it. Three hours and seven minutes of pure Rays-world joy.

It started in the top of the first. BJ Upton walked (and stole second), and Carlos Pena - who had homered in the ninth to round out game 3 - carried on where he had left off by drilling a Tim Wakefield floater the other way and into the Monster seats. That brought up the Rays' own monster, Evan Longoria, who promptly followed suit, relocating another pitch high above left field. The third consecutive game that Evan has homered in, and the fifth of his postseason. Setting a new record for a rookie. Have I mentioned before that Evan is quite good?

The Rays couldn't add any more in the first (although there was still time for Carl Crawford to double and steal third before Wakefield got out of it), but they didn't let their 2008 dominance of their (former!) nemesis end there. With 2 outs in the third, CC reached on an infield single, stole second, and then was able to jog home as Willy Aybar connected for his second homerun of the year off of Wakefield - again batting righthanded, and depositing the ball over the Monster and into the Boston night. That was all she wrote for Wakefield, and after allowing Dioner Navarro to single, his day was done - 2 2/3 innings, 3 HR, 5 runs.

Kevin Cash pulled a run back for Boston in the bottom of the inning with a solo homer, but the Rays just had to wait for the dynamic duo of Crawford and Aybar to come back to the plate to get that 5-run advantage back. That happened in the fifth, as Crawford drilled his second double of the night and was then singled home by Aybar.

One inning later, and the 5-run lead became a 10-run lead. Fernando Perez made the first and last outs of the inning, but everything in between turned to gold. Jason Bartlett tripled. Aki Iwamura walked. BJ Upton singled home Bartlett. Carlos Pena walked. Evan Longoria walked in Aki. Carl Crawford singled in Upton. Willy Aybar singled in Pena. And Dioner Navarro grounded, out scoring Longo. That's the way things have gone these first two games at Fenway. Blink and you risk missing a whole bunch of Rays runs. This team is (as are most) at its most dangerous when stringing good at-bats together. And boy have they done that in games 3 and 4.

The Rays scoring was completed in the eighth, by - guess who - Crawford and Aybar. After Pena walked to lead off the inning, CC tripled to right - his fifth hit of an extraordinary night. Considering that he missed the last month and a half on the regular season, and indeed prior to game 1 of the ALDS had not swung a bat in anger since early August, Carl has been nothing short of amazing. For the postseason, he is hitting .429 with 3 extra-base hits, 6 RBI and 5 steals. This is the Carl Crawford that is the envy of General Managers across the league. When CC is on, he makes things happen.

While CC's night may have been more running-intensive, Willy Aybar quietly put together a superb show of his own. He rounded out things with an RBI-single to score Crawford, taking his line for the night to 4-5, HR, 5 RBI. I think along with other Rays fans I can't say enough about Willy. I guess we were all quietly pleased when he got injured in early April, as it meant Evan arrived sooner than possibly expected, but since his return Aybar has been a key piece of this club. The super-sub extraordinaire. What a great (and unheralded) pick-up he was last winter. Just one in an ever-growing list by Andrew Friedman and the Rays' front office.

While the hitting spectacular was going on in the tops of the innings, in the bottoms Andy Sonnanstine was doing what he does best - winning. He pretty much coasted through the game. His final line was blotted by a couple of excuse-me runs late on when the game was already effectively over, but even so it is not to be sniffed at - 7 1/3 IP, 6 H, 4 R (3 ER), 1 BB, 2 K. And the big W. Trever Miller and Edwin Jackson got the final five outs, and that was that. I actually feel I should right more about Sonny, because he was excellent, but really there's not that much that you can say about him. He's just so understated, but so good with it. Through 6 innings (by which time the Rays had scored 11), he had given up just 2 hits, and had retired 12 straight. That's 12 straight Sox. Ok, so they're not hitting well at the moment, but that is impressive in any context.

Also impressive was the Rays defense. We actually committed three errors (the first of the entire postseason), but they were all excusable - Longoria was charged with two on a play he was trying to make whilst avoiding a flying piece of Jason Bay's bat, and BJ with one when he overran a ball late on. Upton was the star of the show in the field though, chasing down fly balls with ridiculous ease. You often hear commentators talking about his gliding stride, and sometimes it is hard to believe that he is moving fast. But watching him cover the ground in deep left-centre at Fenway, and you'd find it hard to believe that there is a better centrefielder anywhere in baseball. It was remarkable. And he topped it all off with a frankly un-human throw from against the wall in the triangle, all the way to Carlos Pena at first base as Jason Bay returned there following a deep fly out. It was amazing. Seriously, I have seen clean-up hitters hit line drives that aren't as straight, hard and true as that throw was.

So, that makes it 3 games to 1 in favour of Tampa Bay. One win needed with possibly three more to play. The feelings that I mentioned in anticipation of that first ever postseason game are back with avengance. Nervousness, impatience and excitement. I've got to believe that we can do it, that we can get to the World Series, but at the same time I know that the Red Sox have come back from here before. I know they could do it, I've just got to try and convince myself that we won't let them do it. It is not going to be easy.

Game 5 at Fenway is on Thursday night, and the Rays will be facing Dice-K again. A big improvement over game 1's hitting performance will be needed if we are to get a result. James Shields is scheduled to take the mound for Tampa Bay, but I have heard some reports that Joe Maddon may be tempted to go with Scott Kazmir instead. Kaz has a better track record than Shields at Fenway, and Shields would then be free to go in a potential game 6 at the Trop, where he frequently dominates. It'll be an interesting decision, but either way I know that they will be desperate to get the win. How sweet it would be to clinch the pennant at Fenway... But I'm not getting ahead of myself just yet.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Jonny Gomes rules

Ok, so Jonny had a poor year at the plate. He got optioned down to Triple A in the summer, and didn't make much of an impact when he came back up in September.

But he has contributed as much to the Rays getting to where they are, 2 games to 1 up in the ALCS, as almost anybody. For what he has lacked with the bat, he has more than made up for with hustle, heart and determination. The whole feel-good factor began in Spring Training when Jonny sprinted half way across the field to stand up for his teammate, Aki Iwamura, when he was (almost brutally) taken out by the Yanks' Shelley Duncan. And he's been a big part of keeping it going ever since.

I've gone on plenty of times in the past about how Gomes is a great guy to have around the clubhouse, and I won't repeat that now. But I just wanted to highlight this story on ESPN, as another example of why he's a great player to have for the community as well. Jonny Gomes is one of the real good guys.

ALCS game 3 - You ain't never going to keep them down

Tampa Bay Rays 9 - Boston Red Sox 1

I'm not even sure why I still get surprised at games like last night's. I mean, this is just what the 2008 Rays do. They take a situation where they're supposed to fold, supposed to be overwhelmed, and they come right out swinging their bats, making their pitches, and generally taking the game right to the opposition. And they keep winning. Its a crazy, crazy thing that these Rays have got going on.

With Jon Lester making the start for the Sox, the prospects for a Rays win weren't exactly promising. Not only had Lester not been beaten at Fenway since April, but he had never lost to the Rays (indeed, Boston had never lost a game to the Rays in which he pitched) and he was working on an impressive 20+ inning streak of postseason baseball without allowing an earned run.

But its the Rays. The 2008 Rays. So you can throw all that out the window.

It all started fairly innocuously. After a first inning that Lester sailed through 1-2-3, Evan Longoria led off the second with a walk. After CC struck out, Willy Aybar singled up the middle. Dioner Navarro stepped up, and watched as Jason Varitek failed to handle a fastball, allowing the runners to move up on the passed ball. Navvi then fought off a grounder to second, allowing Longoria, going on contact, to trot home without a throw. And just like that the Rays were on the board.

And an inning later, they were even more on the board. Jason Bartlett led off with a single (continuing his impressive hitting year against leftys), and Aki Iwamura followed with a double of the Green Monster. Runners on second and third, nobody out, BJ Upton comes to the plate. I think it would be fair to say that BJ has found his power swing. He connected in a big way, launching the ball clear over the Monster, over the seats, and into the car park across the road. Another postseason homerun - his fifth in seven games. When BJ is hitting well, he is as good as just about anyone.

Of course when you are looking for super-talented youngsters to compare Upton with, you should make sure you don't overlook his teammates. One of them in particular. Evan Longoria. And just to make sure that you don't, one out later Evan connected with a Jon Lester pitch of his own. It wasn't quite as mammoth a shot as Upton's, but it was still a no-doubter. Not only that, but it was perfectly placed, making a bee-line right into the hands of perhaps the only Rays fan sitting in the Monster seats. Ok, so he dropped it, but it was pretty good aim nonetheless. That makes it four playoff homers for Longo, tying Miguel Cabrera's rookie mark. Impressive.

Meanwhile, Matt Garza was quietly pitching beautifully for the Rays as he sailed through six scoreless innings. The biggest threat came in the second, when the Sox got runners on second and third with one out. Garza didn't get fazed, and came back, getting Varitek out on a perfectly placed called third strike, before retiring Cora on a fly out to Upton.

The score was still 5-0 Rays when Garza came out to start the seventh. Already at over 100 pitches, he allowed a walk and a single, finally leaving after 6+ innings, having given up 6 hits while striking out 5. JP Howell (Mr Clutch the Reliever) came in with the runners on first and third and nobody out. He gave up a sacrifice fly to right to Jacoby Ellsbury, but ended the threat right there, thanks to a beautiful double play ball against the dangerous Pedroia. Evan Longoria showed off just why he's going to win plenty of Gold Gloves in his career, making a running scoop and perfect throw to Aki at second, who then turned it as perfectly as ever.

Then the Rays, not content with what had become a four run lead, did what they do best. They came back again and kept on hitting. With Paul Byrd on in relief, Crawford and Aybar led off with back-to-back singles. Navvi followed with another grounder to second, but this time the throw came home and despite CC's best efforts Varitek held on to the ball and made the first out. Still, never mind, it merely set the stage for the feel-good moment of the entire postseason.

With two on and one out, up stepped Rocco Baldelli. A New Englander (he's from Rhode Island) and a Sox fan growing up, appearing in a playoff game at Fenway would have been huge enough. But having comeback from his myriad of injuries and illness, to even have a chance at being there is a testament to Rocco's unbelievable perserverence and dedication to playing the game. And he got his reward for all his hard-work in the biggest possible way. He turned on a pitch inside from Byrd and mashed it high above the Monster for a 3-run homer. Even Sox fans had to feel a little bit pleased for him. As for me, I couldn't be more delighted.

That made it 8-1, and in the top of the ninth Carlos Pena, probably feeling a little left out at all the homerun hitting, joined in the party himself. He went the other way, to deep left-centre, hitting his first longball of the postseason. After hitting 30-odd in the regular season, he must almost be wondering whats going on - he's trailing in the wake of Upton's 5 homers, despite the fact that BJ hit only 9 during the whole regular season. On the other hand, Pena put down a perfect bunt single in the fifth, and proceeded to steal second - his third swipe of the playoffs, putting him comfortably ahead of speedster BJ.

That blast rounded off the scoring for the Rays, while JP Howell coasted through the eighth and Edwin Jackson made his playoff debut with a scoreless ninth to wrap up the win, and edge the Rays ahead for the first time in the series, 2-1.

Game four is tonight, and has intrigue written all over it. Starting for the Rays will be Andy Sonnanstine, fresh off a quality effort in the ALDS clincher. He pitched fantastically against the Sox this year, so no doubt will be looking for similar results tonight. Going for Boston will be long-time Rays' nemesis Tim Wakefield. He's actually 0-2 against Tampa Bay this year, but still 19-5 for his career. I hope we can continue our recent success against him, but he's one of those guys (ie a knuckleballer!) who you just don't ever know what sort of form he's going to be in. Expect to see another funky lineup from Maddon, probably righty-heavy, and very possibly with our switch-hitters batting righty as well. Unusual maybe, but it worked last time out. Lets hope it does again.

Monday, 13 October 2008

ALCS game 2 - ...But they get up again

Boston Red Sox 8 - Tampa Bay Rays 9 (11 innings)

The old football (soccer!) cliche says that it's a game of two halves. Judging by game 2, baseball may need to adopt it as well.

The game was almost ridiculous in its pattern. So much so that I don't really know where to start. I guess the best thing is to start at the beginning, but you have to understand that by the time the game finished, 5 hours and 27 minutes after Scott Kazmir threw the first pitch, I was already struggling to remember back to that first inning. A (sleep-deprived) day and a half later, and I'm still not that much clearer. But start at the beginning I shall.

Top of the First. 2-0 Red Sox.
Scotty K actually got off to an encouraging start. Unfortunately for him, the Red Sox had an at-bat with 2 outs. Actually they had several. And they score when there are two out. Kaz eventually got out of the inning with just 2 on the board, but after throwing 38 pitches.

Bottom of the First. 2-2.
Before the game, all the talk was about Evan Longoria's hitting slump. Evan turned 23 last week, but he has a maturity of someone who just turned 33. Pressure, what pressure? He promptly answers the nay-sayers by depositing a Josh Beckett offering over the fence in left for a two-run shot, his third of the postseason.

Inning Two. 2-2.
A scoreless inning!

Top of the Third. 3-2 Sox.
Dustin Pedroia belts a solo homerun off of Kaz.

Bottom of the Third. 4-3 Rays.
BJ Upton continues his power renaissance, connecting for his fourth homerun of the playoffs. Three batters later Carl Crawford raps a single to score Evan Longoria and give the Rays their first lead of the night.

Bottom of the Fourth. 5-3 Rays.
Cliff Floyd leads off the inning by mashing a ball off of the front of the batters eye in straight away centre.

Top of the Fifth. 6-5 Sox.
Dustin Pedroia connects off of Kaz for his second homer of the night. After retiring Ortiz, Kaz then gives up a third homerun, to Kevin Youkilis. End of the night for Kaz - his line of 4 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 5 ER, 3 BB and 2 Ks is not impressive. But its not the worst pitching line of the night. To relieve Kaz, Grant Balfour comes in. And promptly gives up just his second longball of the entire year, a solo effort for Jason Bay. He then walks Lowrie, necessitating the introduction of JP Howell, who finally gets the last 2 outs.

Bottom of the Fifth. 8-6 Rays.
Keep on keeping on. RBI single from Carlos Pena. RBI-double for Evan Longoria (his third extra-base hit of the night). Josh Beckett is pulled. He also went 4 1/3 innings, and would be charged with 8 runs on 9 hits with 5 K's. Lopez comes on in relief, and gives up another RBI-single to CC. Manny Delcarmen finishes off the inning.

Top of the Sixth. 8-7 Rays.
Uh-oh. Not safe yet. JP Howell gets into trouble, and in comes Chad Bradford. He promptly allows a RBI-double to Youkilis, but stops the damage right there.

Bottom of the Sixth/Inning Seven. 8-7 Rays.
No runs!

Top of the Eighth. 8-8.
Eights are wild. Bradford allows the lead-off hitter, Pedroia, to get on base. Trever Miller comes in and walks Ortiz. Enter Dan Wheeler, and with the runners having moved up, he sails a pitch way over Dioner Navarro's head, allowing the tying run to score. He finishes of the inning.

Inning Nine. 8-8.
A scoreless frame from Wheeler. Masterson gets two outs for the Sox before Papelbon comes in and sends it to extras.

Inning Ten. 8-8.
Wheeler moves into heroic territory, pitching his third inning, scoreless. Papelbon holds the Rays without scoring though.

Top of the Eleventh. 8-8.
Wheels amazingly comes out for a fourth inning's work. He gets one out, before handing over to David Price. Wheels final line - 3 1/3 IP, 1 hit, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 Ks. His longest outing for something like 4 years. Price walks the first man he faces, but comes back to get the next two and holds the Sox without adding.

Bottom of the Eleventh. 9-8 Rays.
Wheels went 3 1/3, but Papelbon could only manage 1 1/3. So in comes Mike Timlin. Dioner Navarro draws the lead-off walk, and is replaced by pinch-runner Fernando Perez. Ben Zobrist follows, looking to bunt, and he draws a walk as well. Jason Bartlett grounds out to third, but the runners, both moving with the pitch, successfully move up. Aki Iwamura is intentionally walked to load the bases. Up steps BJ. Two strikes on him. A blooper down the line in right. JD Drew has a bead on it, and its not deep. He makes the catch and comes up throwing. Perez has tagged. The throw is up the third base line. Perez flys down towards home slides around Kevin Cash and slaps home plate. The marathon is over, and the good guys have won.


One of, if not the best game I have ever watched. Just pure, unadulterated baseball entertainment. 15 runs in the first 5 1/2 innings. 2 runs in the final 5 1/2. And every single inning as enthralling as the last.

It was an absolutely massive win for the Rays. Go to Fenway at 0-2 down, and the series would have been all but over. Going there at 1-1, and everything is still to play for. We've got to win at least one game there. But we can do that. We CAN do that.

I can barely begin to mention everybody who came up big in game 2, but there is no doubt that the hero was Dan Wheeler. He could so easily have been the villain, allowing the Sox to tie the game on a wild pitch, but he didn't let it get to him. With just Price and Jackson left in the 'pen, he knuckled down and kept pitching. It was a truly amazing effort for any reliever, but for a guy who is pretty much a one-inning man normally, it was phenomenal. If we go on to win this series, there is no doubt that his effort will be looked at as one of the key turning points. Well done Wheels, I hope you enjoyed your off-day yesterday!

This evening, the Rays have their toughest opponent, in Jon Lester. He has dominated the Rays this year, so getting a result against him is going to be very unlikely. That being said, if we could it would be a huge boost to the confidence and belief of the Rays. We're sending Matt Garza to the hill. He faltered against the White Sox last time out, so will want to bounce back with a strong outing this time. Here's hoping he can.

ALCS game 1 - They get knocked down...

Ok, some delayed blogging going on here, and for once its not because I didn't stay up to watch the games live, but rather because I did. I went to bed a 7AM on both Friday and Saturday night (should that be Saturday and Sunday morning?) and believe me the lack of sleep was not conductive to writing of any kind, let alone highly polished (hmmm...) baseball analysis. To be honest I'm still incredibly tired this morning, but I remain totally committed to not missing a single pitch of the Rays' postseason! Anyhow, here's my game 1 recap, game 2 will follow shortly:

Boston Red Sox 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 0

The story of Friday night's game one was simple. James Shields was outstanding. The Rays' hitters were not.

Ok, so they did have to deal with an in-form Daisuke Matsuzaka, but despite him holding Tampa Bay hitless through six innings, we still had plenty of chances. Indeed thanks to Shields' performace we had chances to win.

The first of those chances came in the first inning when Dice-K walked the bases full of Rays. Cliff Floyd couldn't come through in the clutch, and then Matsuzaka settled down. He eased through the next five innings (aided by some very un-selective Rays swinging), until Carl Crawford led off the seventh with a single. Floyd followed with a single of his own, and the Rays were threatening to tie the game up with runners on first and third and nobody out. No help. Pop fly, strikeout, groundout and the Red Sox were out of the inning.

The final chance came in the eighth, and rather summed up the Rays' day at the plate. Singles from Aki Iwamura and BJ Upton led off the inning, and finally chased Matsuzaka, with Terry Francona bringing in Okajima to face Carlos Pena. Pena took 3 straight balls, and then swung at the 3-0 pitch, getting it off the end of the bat and flying out tamely to right. Justin Masterson then came on to pitch to Evan Longoria and continued Longo's miserable run at the plate by getting him to ground into a threat- and effectively game-ending double play.

James Shields (7.1 IP, 6 hits, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K) can feel rightly proud of his effort on the mound, but ultimately left with the loss. In total the Rays managed just 4 hits, while striking out 11 times. And just like that, their homefield advantage was gone - to get to the World Series they'd have to win at Fenway.

And they would absolutely HAVE to win game 2.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Rays and the Red more time

The Rays and Red Sox have played a lot of games since 1998. The Red Sox have won most of them. There's been some important ones (mostly for the Sox). There's been some controversial ones. And there's been some fighting ones.

But there has never been one as big as tonight's game.

8.37 EST, Tropicana Field, St Petersburg. The Rays will start playing for a place in the World Series.

It is almost unbelieveable.

And it's fair to say that as excited as I was throughout the regular season, and for the ALDS, I am even more pumped right now. Gametime is 1.37 AM here in the UK, but you can bet your house that I will be staying up to watch it. James Shields against Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first step towards the American League pennant. How could I miss it?!

And it is only right that, after all the battles (with the bat and ball, and with the fist) this season, the Rays' route to the World Series should come down to a final matchup with Boston. It was the fight for the toughest division in baseball all season long, and it was hard-fought. Not to mention close. 8-1 to the Rays at the Trop, 7-2 to the Sox at Fenway. I think it is fair to say that the two teams are pretty evenly matched.

Actually, typing that last sentence still makes me laugh a little. I mean, if you look at the two rosters there's no question that in terms of name recognition, the experience, and perhaps even the individual talent, the edge goes to the Red Sox. Yet somehow the Rays have kept up with (and indeed ahead of) them all season long. It's almost beyond belief. And now we just need to continue defying belief four more times, and we'll be in the World Series.

The fact that we are four wins away from the World Series also almost defies my own belief, hence the fact that I have typed World Series so many times - if I say it often enough, I might actually start believing its true!

Rays' roster news is that Joe Maddon has decided to bring in an extra pitcher for the longer series. And, perhaps surprisingly, Edwin Jackson is the man. E-Jax was unlucky to miss out on the fourth starting spot for the postseason, and now will be in the 'pen for potential long relief situations. I'm happy he's going to get to be part of things, but I'm sure he will understand when I say I hope we don't see him pitch at all - as it will likely mean one of our starters has been knocked out early!

Making way for Jackson will be Eric Hinske, which must have been a terribly tough decision to make. Hinske has been a bit out of form recently, and didn't get any play in the Division Series, but he has been a key part for the club all season long. Unfortunately as things stand Gabe Gross is the preferred choice to start in right, and Fernando Perez and Willy Aybar offer more possibilities off the bench. Still, it's tough when someone who has been a big part of us getting here has to miss out. Also still out are Troy Percival and Shawn Riggans. Perci has been pitching well in instructional league, and would almost certainly be the one in line should anyone get injured. Meanwhile Riggans has recovered well from the surgery that ended his regular season, but just not quite quickly enough to make it for this series. If we get to play another one though...

Talking of which, I've been trying to work out what I think is going to happen in the series. You know, hoping to give you some kind of prediction. But while you can all guess what I hope will happen, the truth is I just don't know. I haven't got a clue. The Sox could put their experience to good use and overcome the Rays. The Rays might use their lack of fear and battle past the Sox. It might be one-sided. It might be nip-and-tuck. I literally have no idea. I'm massively excited. And incredibly nervous.

And I can't wait for it to get started.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

ALDS game 4 - "He is a winner"

Tampa Bay Rays 6 - Chicago White Sox 2

Andy Sonnanstine over Edwin Jackson?

I think it would be fair to say that there are not many managers in the big leagues that would make that call. Fortunately for the Rays, Joe Maddon is one of them.

So it was Sonny who went last night in Chicago for game 4, and by the time he left with two outs in the 6th, Joe Maddon was once again looking like the smartest man in baseball. Ok, so 5 2/3 innings isn't the longest outing of the season, and he did give up 2 homeruns. But the way he was pitching, it was almost as if those homers were peace offerings so the White Sox hitters didn't feel too bad about getting totally out-played by a man who doesn't trouble 90 on the radar gun.

Apart from those two longballs, all the offense that Chicago generated in those first 5 2/3 innings was a single and a walk, neither of which would damage the Rays in any way. Sonny was at his brilliant best, getting ahead of the hitter, painting the edges, daring them to put the ball in play. And they did. And the Rays defense ate it all up. Truth be told, there wasn't even that many difficult plays to be made - the highlight was a leaping catch at the wall from Gabe Gross to rob AJ Pierzynski in the first. Otherwise, it was soild, steady and surefooted. Indeed, had this not been a potential series-clincher, then it is very likely that Sonnanstine would have carried on after giving up a first-pitch homer to Jermaine Dye. He'd only thrown 75 pitches, and was still looking good.

But when you've got a bullpen like the Rays, why take the risk?

So in came JP Howell. And then, four outs later, came Grant Balfour. And six outs later the Rays were celebrating again. Over the series, the Rays 'pen pitched 11 2/3 innings and gave up 1 run. Just one.

Such quality pitching allowed the Rays to win a best-of-5 series against the hardest-hitting team in the AL while scoring a total of just 21 runs. Each of their three wins needed just 6.

Last night the mantra was score early and score often. Rays had a runner cross the plate in the first, third, fourth (2), fifth and seventh. Persistance pays off. Both times the Sox pulled a run back, the Rays came right back and cancelled it out in the top of the next frame. They never let the Sox feel like they were getting close. It was glorious to watch.

And it had gotten started in a very pleasing way indeed. BJ Upton, fresh off a homerun sunday, came right out swinging again last night, and connected with one out in the first for his second homerun in three at-bats. Two innings later he made it 3 from 4 as he belted another Gavin Floyd offering over the fence in straight away centre. BJ has been playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder this year, which goes a long way towards explaining his power drop-off compared with last season - but he looks like he might be finding his stroke at just the right time. Which could be absolutely huge for the Rays.

After the Upton power outburst, we got back on with scoring in the conventional Rays way - get on, run the bases, clutch hits. An RBI-double from Cliff Floyd, an RBI-single from Dioner Navarro and a pair of RBIs from Carlos Pena, and the Rays were sitting pretty. Carlos had quite a day, going 3-4 with his 2RBI (one particularly sweet, having come after BJ was intentionally walked so that the Sox' lefty could get to Pena), as well as his first two-stolen base game for, well probably longer than he can remember. He also managed to get picked off once as well - its not often that the name Pena dominates the baserunning section of the boxscore! Fortunately some semblance of normality was also around, as Carl Crawford also swiped a pair of bags. CC hasn't missed a beat this series despite his hasty return from the DL. Its great to have him back.

But despite all the great contributions, and the headlines that BJ will undoubtedly get, in my mind game 4 belongs to Andy Sonnanstine. Kaz, Shields and Jackson have the stuff, Shields has the consistancy and control. But don't overlook Sonnanstine. He has something perhaps more important than stuff, consistancy or control. He has the knack. The knack of getting the W on the board. Joe Maddon made sure everyone knew it in his post-game interview - "This is typical. He's been a winner all his life... He is a winner. He is well thought-out. And again, you have a lot of faith in him. The guys love playing behind him."

Sonny is a winner.

And so are the Rays. A 97-game winner. And now, a postseason series winner. Their first, but hopefully not their last.

Next up are some more Sox. We know these Sox well. They are the Red Sox. Game one of the American League Championship Series is on Friday night. It's at Tropicana Field. And it's Boston against Tampa Bay. Who would have thought it?!

Monday, 6 October 2008

ALDS game 3 - Not over yet

Tampa Bay Rays 3 - Chicago White Sox 5

The recipe was almost the same. An early deficit. A battling comeback. All that was missing was the happy ending.

Winning at the Trop against an experienced Chicago team is one thing. Doing so at a raucous US Cellular Field is quite another. Yet, that being said, the Rays made another good go of it last night in a rain-delayed, must-win game for the Sox.

We actually got on the board first thanks to an RBI-infield single from Aki Iwamura in the second. Perhaps a sign of things to come had already been shown at that stage however, as we left two men aboard in each of the first two innings against an impressive John Danks. We didn't take the chance to really get on top early and ultimately paid for it.

On the hill for the Rays, Matt Garza was mostly solid. He allowed the Sox to tie the game in the third, but generally had made a good start. Then came his bogey inning, the fourth, and a breakout for Chicago. Garza gave up a lead off double to Thome, and the Sox took advantage, eventually scoring three times in the frame to move into a lead that they wouldn't lose. They added another in the sixth to complete their scoring for the day.

Garza's final line (6IP, 7H, 5R, 4BB, 4Ks) wasn't his best, but was the sort of start that more often than not gives the hitters a chance. And, considering the power of the White Sox lineup, it can probably be counted as a successful start for a game in which he was lacking his best stuff.

The Rays' hitters though struggled against Danks. Nothing to show from the third, fourth, fifth or sixth.

But the battling remained. Rocco Baldelli led off the seventh with a walk. Bartlett and Iwamura couldn't get him in, but with 2 out BJ Upton stepped to the plate and crushed a prodigous homerun into the seats in left. 5-3, and the game was back on. Carlos Pena followed with a single, bringing the tying run to the plate in the shape of Evan Longoria. Ozzie Guillen went to the 'pen and brought in the veteran Dotel, who proved his worth ending the threat with a called third strike to Longo.

And that was that. Nothing much doing for the Rays in the eighth or ninth, and a first ever postseason loss to cut their series lead to 2-1. Considering the early pressure the Rays put on Danks, it was a disappointing showing in the end. Some impatient hitting, admittedly combined with some impressive pitching, meant that to be honest even after BJ's homerun you never really got that special Rays' comeback feeling.

Still, two more chances to wrap things up. The first of which is tonight in what is a MASSIVE game for Andy Sonnanstine. He has been great all year, and I'm a big fan, but this is going to test him like never before. While a loss isn't the end of the world, going back to the Trop for a winner-takes-all decider is a far from ideal position to be in. Add to that the homerun-hitting lineup to the power nature of the park, and its a huge challenge. Perhaps even moreso for a pitcher like Sonny who relies on making hitters put the ball in play. He's going to need to pitch just about his best game of the season, with more pressure than he's ever experienced.

It's a big ask.

Go on Sonny, we believe!!!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

ALDS game 2 - Perseverance, thy name is Rays

Chicago White Sox 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 6

Scott Kazmir was asked in the lead up to yesterday's game which Scott Kazmir would show up for game 2 of the American League Division Series.

"Hopefully the good Scott Kazmir"

Uh-huh. With the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the first, the good Scott Kazmir was looking like a distant dream. (Just for the record, I don't agree with Harold Reynolds' assertion that Kaz hit leadoff man Orlando Cabrera on purpose in retaliation for Thursday's war of words. I think it was a pure lack of control early on.).

By the time Scotty K had gotten out of the first, he had thrown 37 pitches and faced 8 White Sox hitters. The good (nay, amazing) news was that he had limited them to just two runs, a fine effort given the start he made. Still, things didn't look too good. He struggled again through the second, but this time held the Sox scoreless. David Price and Chad Bradford had both already been up in the 'pen, but Scotty kept going.

A scoreless third. A scoreless fourth. A scoreless fifth. He eventually left having battled through 5 1/3 innings, allowing 8 hits and 2 walks, but crucially just those two early runs. Kaz may not be at his best (or indeed anywhere near it) this year, but he has got a lot of heart, and he really showed it yesterday.

And, by the time he left, thanks to the ever-ready-to-fight Rays hitters, he was in line for the W. Dioner Navarro had pulled one back with an RBI-single in the first, before Aki Iwamura came to the plate with a man on in the bottom of the fifth.

During the regular season Aki had hit 6 homeruns, all of them off of rightys. But yesterday he stayed with a pitch from the lefty Buehrle and drilled it into the seats in left-centre. 3-2 Rays, and I think judging from the reaction in the dugout it was a moment that the whole team enjoyed rather a lot!

From there on in, it was up to the 'pen to protect the lead, and protect they did. With a threat brewing in the sixth, Grant Balfour came in and extinguished it big time, as he has done so regularly. He came back out for the seventh, and gave up two singles before Joe Maddon made another call to the 'pen.

Enter Mr Clutch the Reliever. If Kaz had been hard-working, and Balfour explosive, then JP Howell was simply brilliant. As he has done so often, he stubbed out the threat with the minimum of effort, setting down Thome, Ramirez and Pierzynski with ease. He came back and pitched a scoreless eighth as well. JP Howell is simply awesome out of the 'pen.

And that performance gave the hitters the chance to add some insurance, which they did with style in the bottom of the eighth. BJ Upton opened up with a triple to centre. Carl Crawford follwed with an RBI-single, then stole second and moved up to third on a groundout as Rocco Baldelli stepped in. He duly followed with an RBI-single of his own, and proceeded to steal the show when Dioner Navarro stepped in - demonstrating the epitomy of 2008 Rays baseball. Navvy lifted a blooper into short right, and with two outs, Rocco took off. The ball fell between the three converging White Sox, but as it was picked up Rocco was just approaching third. He didn't stop though as he rounded the bag at full throttle and flew across the plate, scoring on what had become an RBI-double for Navarro that had travelled about 160 feet. Awesome hustle for Rocco, and a four run lead to take into the ninth.

Not that such a big margin was needed though, as Chad Bradford breezed through the heart of the Chicago order, with the help of a nicely turned double play and a called third strike to Jim Thome.

So, a 2-0 series lead heading up to Chicago for Sunday evening's game three. Its a great position to be in, but I'm under no illusions that its going to be easy - US Cellular Field is a tough place to play, and the Sox will be sending another lefty to the hill. We'll be countering with Matt Garza, who I'm sure will be extra pumped up. Let's hope he can use it to his advantage!

Friday, 3 October 2008

ALDS game 1 - Welcome to the postseason Mr Longoria

Chicago White Sox 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 6

I'm willing to bet that there's not many people out there who had remembered that Gary Gaetti hit homeruns in each of his first two postseason at-bats.

Something tells me that you're going to remember that Evan did it.

Because this 22-year-old rookie is a bit special. I mean, he missed a whole month of the season through injury, yet still led all rookies in homeruns. He hit three longballs in one game, just a couple of weeks after his return from a fractured wrist. And now this.

First pitch - homerun. Third pitch - homerun. Then an RBI single, a walk and just for good measure a stolen base. Just your average sort of day when your name is Evan Longoria.

Needless to say that, despite the nerves, I enjoyed last night's first taste of Rays' playoff baseball. Taking the lead on Evan's first homer really settled things down, although they were unsettled again in the top of the next inning thanks to some patented White Sox offense. James Shields had started well, but worked into a little bit of trouble in the third and paid the price, giving up a 3-run homer to Dewayne Wise. Add to that the fact that Carlos Pena had been taken out of the game already due to some blurry vision (he's expected to be back and fine today), and the nerves were full on again.

But hey, this is the Rays. Battle, battle, and battle back some more. Bottom of the inning, Jason Bartlett singles. Aki Iwamura follows and drills a ball over Ken Griffey Jr's head for a RBI-triple. 3-2. Upton can't get him home, but Pena's replacement at first, Willy Aybar, can, with a sacrifice fly to left. 3-3. And next up? Well, its Evan of course. 4-3. And just like that, Shields is back on top and we're laughing.

The Rays tacked on a couple more in the fifth through RBI-singles from Longoria and Carl Crawford, while Shields breezed through until the seventh where he again hit trouble. He had loaded the bases with one out when the the call went to the 'pen for the Aussie. And a good call it was too. He struck out Juan Uribe, and then, after a bit of a shouting match, struck out Orlando Cabrera too. You've got to give credit to Cabrera, I don't think I'd want to get Grant Balfour mad (well madder...), but the Aussie had the last laugh.

Balfour's 2/3 of an inning were huge, but JP Howell's perfect 8th was just as important, striking out Anderson and Dye, before getting Thome out on a weak grounder. Howell doing what he has done best all season long.

That took things into the ninth, and Dan Wheeler. Wheels seems to have learnt the art of closing from Troy Percival, delighting in making things interesting. And he did that, battling a long at-bat with Paul Konerko, which saw the White Sox first baseman try to walk on ball three before eventually connecting for a crushed homerun down the leftfield line. Credit to Wheeler though, he didn't let it get to him, and came right back after the next hitter (Griffey!) and the next and the next, setting them down confidently and preserving the Ray's first ever playoff win. Oh yeah.

Tonight, Scott Kazmir faces off against Mark Buehrle in game two. Its going to be a massive test for Kaz - going up against the majors' biggest homerun team, having given up four longballs in two of his last three starts. Here's hoping that Scotty will thrive under the playoff spotlight and perform at his best. You know I'll be watching and cheering him on.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Today's the day

Actually, scrub that and start again. Today is the Rays' day.

No matter which way you look at it, today is all about the Rays. The story is well known by now, but it still trumps all the others, at least in my (biased!) view. No offence to the other playoff contenders, who have all earned the right to take their shot at the ultimate goal, but the Rays are the story. Manny reinvigorating the Dodgers? Meh. Phillies' first playoff win in 15 years? Who cares. Brewers's first playoff appearance in 26 years? Nice, but still. Both Chicago teams in the post-season since, well since before Wrigley (and thats saying something!). Good, but not all that. The Angels and the Red Sox? Pfft, seen it all before.

But the Rays?

10 years of misery, and a break-out like never before. 9 last place finishes and one fourth place. A best of 70 wins, and an average of 97 losses. No fans, no wins, no hope. Right?


The past few years, I've watched a couple of hundred or so Rays games on TV (well, the internet). And I've been to one Rays game live (a 4-3 defeat to Seattle at Safeco back in 2003, in case you haven't read my profile!). I've seen a good deal of pretty bad baseball. Sure, I've seen some excitement, some young talent and a few big wins. But mostly I've seen losing. Lots of losing. Lots and lots and lots of losing. With no end in sight.

At least I have the opportunity to turn my computer off and forget about things. If I don't want to know whats happening in the world of baseball, I simply don't go to my bookmarked baseball websites for a while, and I'm completely in the dark.

But the fans in Tampa and St Pete? They've had 10 years of losing. And 10 years of everybody, every newspaper, every magazine, every TV report reminding them of the losing. It doesn't worry me that attendances at the Trop are so low, it amazes me that they're still so high. I've sat through plenty of bad football (soccer) in my time, and I know that watching losing is not fun. So for the season-ticket holders who have sat through everything thats gone on at the Trop over the Ray's first decade have nothing but my respect.

And now they have their reward. For their patience, their belief and their support. As excited as I am about today, I can only imagine what it is like for the good people of Tampa and St Pete. This is their day. They've earned it.


I haven't written anything since Monday, and for once its not because I've been too busy. Its because I literally don't know where to start. This week I must have read over 100 articles on the Rays combined between the St Pete Times, the Rays' site and ESPN. Not to mention the random ones that crop up in the various other baseball related sites I visit. This is how big this week is - the Rays have even had a mention on the BBC website. Wow.

And now, with 6 hours to go until James Shields makes a little bit of Rays' history, I still don't know where to start. The rotation is set. The lineup is set. The roster is (more-or-less) set. The White Sox are in town. Playoff baseball is about to hit St Pete.

It's a strange feeling that I have right now. I mean, excitement and anticipation are the overriding things, but thats not all there is to it. There's the hope - we could go all the way. There's the fear - what if we fade without a trace. And there's the confusion - what should I be expecting? Should I be reckoning on a month's worth of games, or will it be all over this weekend. I mean, I want us to win it all, I don't think there's any reason that we can't win it all - but at the same time I don't want to be disappointed if we fall at the first hurdle. This is a young team, who have already outperformed all expectations. There's no reason they can't continue to do that. But if they don't, then I don't want to criticise, I want to celebrate them getting even this far. Its not an easy balance to maintain.

So I've decided. When its all over, I'm going to look back on the season as one of triumph and success. But for now I'm treating it the only way that a playoff team's fan (and isn't that an unusually feeling) can. The only outcome is a World Series win. That's what I'm gunning for, because that's what the Rays are gunning for. We're in it to win it.


And the quest starts with the ball in the hands of James Shields. Of the guys on the Rays rotation, he probably has about the fourth-best pure stuff. But he is the ace. He has earned that mantle. As much as I love Kaz, and as good as Garza is going to be, Shields is the right person to start this all off. Scotty K will get game 2, Matt Garza game 3, and, if we get that far, Andy Sonnanstine will start in game 4. While the first three were no-brainers for Joe Maddon, the last choice was anything but. Both Sonny and Edwin Jackson have been inconsistant at times this year, but for the most part excellent. Ultimately, I think Sonny is the right choice - but that doesn't make it any easier on E-Jax, especially because he won't be in the 'pen either. Missing out on the roster altogether after the huge contrubution he has given this year is a tough pill to swallow. But unfortunately Joe's decided to go with a 6-man bullpen, and Edwin is just a little too inconsistant in relief to be relied on. I feel bad for E-Jax, gutted even, but you never know - fate is a strange thing and he may yet have a role to play for the Rays this year.

Also missing out on a job in the 'pen are (and as I write this is still unconfirmed) Jason Hammel and Troy Percival. Perhaps neither decision is a surprise, but both are tough ones. Hammel could not make a claim to be the most talented pitcher the Rays have. But he has come up big on more than one occasion this year, while playing the crucial mop-up role out of the 'pen. And then there's Perci. I don't have anything that I can really add to the debate on Troy, other than to say that leaving him off (if indeed it is the case) must be about the most difficult decision that Joe Maddon has had to make all year. Perci was awesome in the first half. He was injured and ineffective in the second half. He's looked back to strength his last couple of appearances. But to back him would be, especially in a 6-man 'pen, a huge risk. For the first round at least maybe it was just too big a risk for Joe. Perci is the ultimate pro - he'll be disappointed, maybe even angry, but I'm sure that it'll make him work even harder, just in case he is needed later on.

The hitters missing out on the post-season are less of a surprise. Jonny Gomes, Justin Ruggiano, John Jaso, Dan Johnson. All had a part to play in us getting here, but none can have been expecting to make the final cut. Guys, thanks for your effort, and stay sharp just in case.

The biggest news among the hitters is, of course, the news on our starting leftfielder for game one. Almost defying the odds, it will be Carl Crawford. I cannot begin to tell you how happy that makes me. Not just because, even having a down year, CC is one of the best outfielders in baseball, but because if anybody deserves to be on the field for the Rays' first ever playoff game, it is him. He's been here all through the bad times, and now, just as much as the fans do, he deserves a share of the good. Plus I'm sure that there isn't a manager in baseball who would rather face a lineup with CC in it that one without.

The starting lineup today will be, for almost the first time I can remember, at full strength. Aki (2B) leading off, followed by BJ Upton (CF), Pena (1B), Longoria (3B), CC (LF), Cliff Floyd (DH), Dioner Navarro (C), Gabe Gross (RF) and Jason Bartlett (SS). Its fair to say that I'm pretty confident in that bunch of players right there.

The players on the roster who I haven't mentioned are: Ben Zobrist, Willy Aybar, Eric Hinske, Rocco Baldelli, Fernando Perez and Michel Hernandez (hitters); and Chad Bradford, Dan Wheeler, JP Howell, Grant Balfour, Trever Miller and David Price (pitchers). Yep, David Price. He has come. What role will he play in the post-season? Possibly a big one. I wouldn't have a problem giving him the ball in whatever situation, and I don't think Maddon will either. And in my opinion (one that I am sure is shared with everyone who has watched the Rays in September) keeping Perez on the roster could prove a master-stroke. His speed on the basepaths and in the field is scary, but he's shown a very welcome knack of timely hitting as well. Keep an eye on him.

Right, well thats a long and rambling post even by my standards, but like I said, I'm excited. So I think I can be excused.

I'm sure I will have more to say tomorrow morning, either applauding victory, or staying positive in defeat. In the meantime - James Shields, 2.30pm ET. Watch it happen. 9=8. And, I hope, 9=4.

Monday, 29 September 2008

The little team that could

How else could the season end?

Its like the team squeezed down the essence of the year and filled it all into game 162, just to show the world, if they didn't know already, what these Rays are all about.

A come-from-behind, battling, never-give-up, blown save, extra innings, come-back-again, amazing defense, unlikely hero win. A story that has almost become the norm rather than the exception this season. Indeed, I can barely remember a single win out of the 97 (yes, ninety-seven) this year that hasn't either been come-from-behind, battling, or involved an unlikely hero. Its just the way things happen these days when you're watching the Rays.

Consider that the Rays, in a final warm-up before the playoffs (how great does that sound?!) used 8 pitchers and 14 position players.

Consider that Detroit took a 5-0 lead in the fourth.

Consider that the comeback started with Rocco Baldelli breaking up what was a four-inning perfect start from Zach Miner with his fourth homerun of the season, a 432-foot bomb.

Consider that it continued with platoonists such as Eric Hinske (a 2-run homer), Jonny Gomes (a 2-run double) and Ben Zobrist (an RBI-single) getting the key hits.

Consider that David Price, Dan Wheeler, Troy Percival and Trever Miller pitched a combined 4 2/3 innings out of the 'pen and gave up but a solitary hit.

Consider that Edwin Jackson made a relief appearance for the first time this year, blew a save, and was rewarded with a team-record tying 14th win.

Consider that Jason Hammel came in for the 11th to claim his second save of the year.

And consider that the winning homerun was hit by a shortstop who, in the first 280 at-bats of his career had connected for 3 longballs, but, in 193 trys this year has mashed 11 of them. Ben Zobrist has been a phenomenally important backup this year. We all expected him to be useful off the bench for his versatility, but I really don't think anyone expected him to become a threat with the bat.

But then none of this was really expected. How could a bullpen that, a year ago, put up numbers that were the worst the majors had seen in 50 years, become one of the league's best by adding an out-of-retirement, oft-injured closer, a (no-offence to Mr Miller) journeyman lefty, a failed, soft-throwing starter and an inconsistant 30 year-old Australian? That's not your typical recipe for success. And yet somehow, for these Rays, it worked.

The last few days have been great for me, reading article after gushing article on how amazing these Rays are, how they have come from nowhere, how this story is as unbelieveable as any baseball story has ever been. I think that to say the 2008 Rays have turned some heads would be the understatement of the century.

But what else can you say?

Perhaps the baseball world didn't believe it was possible. Perhaps us Rays fans didn't believe it was possible. But Joe Maddon believed. And he wasn't afraid to show it. He went public, and instilled that belief in the team. A team that has no super-stars (although a few with the potential to become super-stars) has outplayed the big boys. They've finished atop the East, ahead of the payroll-pacesetters in New York and Boston. They've done it with a payroll that is not only the second-lowest in baseball, it is less than half of the average payroll.

So yeah, this little team has turned a few heads.

Here's hoping we turn a few more this October.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Thanks Yanks

Ok, so its not quite the way that we wanted to clinch it, but...

Thursday, 25 September 2008

One is the magic-est number...

Or perhaps even the magic-eAst number.

One win in Detroit (or a Red Sox loss) will do it. One single game between the Rays and the AL East crown. If that doesn't get you a little bit excited, well, I don't know what does.

A four game sweep of the Orioles, including the franchise's first ever sweep of a doubleheader (in fourteen attempts), means that with four games to go the Rays have a three game lead over Boston and the top is within touching distance. Today we have a tough 1.05 ET start time against the Tigers, and, if we can't pull out the win there then we have another shot at claiming the top spot tonight, if the Indians can beat Boston at Fenway.

But I'm pretty sure I know how the team would prefer to win it. For themselves, on the field in Detroit. With all their heroics so far this year, it would be the most fitting way.

How we came to be in this position today is a perfect dichotomy the Rays' season. Long odds, but a never-give-up attitude. Its amazing the results that it can achieve.

I was torn whether to stay up and watch last night's game. I really want to see us clinch the Division live, but I was shattered and having to be up for work at 7am does not make staying up through the night watching baseball the best of ideas in any case. Still, although the chance was an outside one, I thought I would at least see how things started out before I made my decision. After an inning and a half, at 12.40am, I went to bed. The Rays were 5-0 down in Baltimore and the Red Sox were 4-0 up at Fenway. Edwin Jackson had struggled massively in the first (again). The win-loss combination needed to cinch looked very unlikely.

As it turns out, I just about made the right decision. I'm tired enough this morning anyway, so who knows what I would have been like if I'd watched the whole game. Although, I missed out on something special. Another special Rays performance in a season filled with them.

Because, after Jackson gave up another run in the bottom of the second, the Rays bats got to work. 5 runs in the fourth. 2 more in the sixth. And a four-spot in the eighth. E-Jax, after giving up 6 consecutive hits to start the game, got the win. An 11-6 final, and one step closer. Meanwhile, the Red Sox just about held on to win 5-4, meaning I should (hopefully) be good from here on in. Today's game starts at 6pm UK time, so I will probably miss the first inning on my way home from work, but otherwise I'll be watching the Rays every step of the way. How could I not?!

It hardly needs saying, but the series against an O's team that looks like its started the off-season already went as well as could have been hoped for. Monday night David Price made his much heralded first MLB start, and far from being overawed, was simply outstanding. He left with a no-decision after 5 1/3, having given up a couple of runs on 4 hits with three K's. But that doesn't tell the whole story. He held Baltimore hitless through the first four, and looked every bit the big-leaguer. He is, I would think, an absolute lock for the rotation next year. As for this year, he'll pitch a couple of times in relief over the weekend, and how he does will likely determine whether he's on the roster for the ALDS.

Tuesday's double-header was a case of the expected. Certainly in game one. James Shields went his almost metronomic 7 innings, holding the O's to just 2 runs and striking out 8. A combination of Fernando Perez and Jason Bartlett did most of the offensive damage as a 5-2 final gave Shields his franchise record-tying 14th win of the year.

The nightcap wasn't nearly so comfortable, but was refreshingly familiar. Mitch Talbot made his first major league start and went 4 1/3, giving up 3 runs. Then the bullpen stepped in, and although they allowed a couple more O's to score, kept things close enough until the Rays hitters found their stroke. Which, in a bout of deja vu, they did in the eighth, scoring 6 times to equal the final 7-5 margin - the deciding runs coming on a 2-run Dioner Navarro single. Jeff Niemann got the win in relief, and pitching MVP JP Howell picked up his third save of the year.

And so that's where we are. Four games left. Magic number 1. And two games behind the Angels if we want guaranteed homefield throughout the playoffs. That'll be the tough one - but if you can be certain about one thing, its that these Rays aren't going to give up.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


"Its about 9 guys, playing hard for 9 innings, to take one of the 8 playoff spots."

So said Joe Maddon of his t-shirt design, back in Spring Training. And we laughed. Sure, we admired his ambition and his coinfidence, but frankly I think we'd have been happy with a season in which we didn't lose 90 games. A .500 season would have been awesome. And a winning season the stuff of dreams.

Joe Maddon is a smart man. He thinks before he speaks, and he doesn't go in for hyperbole. But he knows baseball.

And I will never doubt him again.

'Cos the Rays are going to the playoffs.

And the win that sealed it was a perfect example of the mantra that the Rays have lived by all season. It saw 5 pitchers limiting the Twins to two consolation runs late on. It saw 6 batters drive in runs. And, of course, it saw a myriad of sparkling defensive plays, from Evan Longoria, from Fernando Perez, from Rocco Baldelli, from Dioner Navarro and from Carlos Pena.

Before the game, the local chapter of the BBWAA announced their team award winners. Their selection of team MVP pretty much sums up the way the season has gone. It wasn't Pena with his 31 homeruns and 98 RBI. It wasn' Longoria with his 25 homers, 82 RBI and spectactular defense. It wasn't Navarro with his team-best .292 average and immense play behind the plate. It wasn't any of our starting pitchers, all with at least 11 wins.

No, it was a guy who has hit .280 with 1 homerun and 33 RBI. Jason Bartlett. A guy who, along with Matt Garza, we received in a trade last winter for Delmon Young. And you know what, without his defense, and without his spark, I don't think we'd be in this position right now. And I guess that makes a pretty good definition for the Most Valuable Player.


The way this week started though, you wouldn't have been betting on the celebrations that the Trop saw last night. Monday's loss to Boston wasn't just ugly, it had the potential to be mentally destroying. When your ace takes the mound, in a huge game, and gets tagged for 6 hits, 4 homeruns and 9 runs in just 3 innings, you've got a long way to bounce back. By the time the 13-5 defeat was done with, Scott Kazmir's confidence was shattered, and the Rays were in a virtual tie for first place in the East for the first time since the All-Star break.

So how do you come back? You send your number 5 starter to battle with your rival's ace. As it turns out, its a masterplan. For the second time in a week, Andy Sonnanstine went toe-to-toe with Josh Beckett, allowing just a single unearned run in 6 innings. Balfour, Howell and Wheeler did their thing, kept it shutdown, and let the walk-off happen like it has so many times already this year. Tuesday night it was the turn of Dioner Navarro, his walk-off single (it would have been a ground-rule double had he not been mobbed on the basepaths) the margin in a 2-1 win.

So, Wednesday, and a massive game. Heading out, the Rays would either be tied with the Sox, or have a 2-game lead. And, perhaps more importantly, it would decide the season series - a Rays win would seal the matchup 10-8, giving them the edge if the AL East were to go to a tiebreaker. And the Rays would have to deal with their nemesis, Tim Wakefield.

Unfortunately for the Sox, they had to deal with Joe Maddon. After the success of the non-switch hitting switch hitters against Mike Mussina last weekend, Joe had Willy Aybar and Fernando Perez repeat the act against Wakefield. They responded by both hitting homeruns off the knuckleballer - according to Elias, the first pair of switch hitters to both hit homeruns from the wrong side (ie righty v righty) in the same game since division play started in 1969. Gabe Gross went deep as well, and the Rays coasted to a 10-3 win. Yeah.

After those two feel-good wins, Thursday was another loss that threatened to be disheartening. We knocked the Twins starter out in the first, putting up a 5-spot, but couldn't shake the pesky Minnesota hitters. Evan Longoria became just the second Ray (after Jonny Gomes) to hit three homeruns in a game, but it wasn't enough as closer de jour Dan Wheeler had a rare meltdown, allowing four runs as the Twins fought back to a 11-8 win.

Still, if at first you don't succeed, and all that. Friday night the Rays took until the second to knock the Twins starter out the game, but thanks to a great start from Edwin Jackson (7 IP, 7 hits, 5 Ks, 1 run), this time there were no late game fireworks. Evan Longoria added 3 RBI to his series output, while Carlos Pena had four of his own, three of which came on a history-making homerun - originally ruled a fan-interference double, it became the first ever call to be overturned by video replay. An 11-1 win, and a game away from history.

And, wouldn't you just know it, that it was Scott Kazmir, after getting shellacked in his last start, who came up big yesterday. 6 shutout innings, 5 hits and 5 strikeouts, and the Rays' winningest ever pitcher was rewarded with the W. The win that sends the Rays to the postseason for the first time ever.



Joe Maddon had it right all along.

Well, not quite. The nine innings and eight teams is right. But the number of players, well he was way off. This season has been the ultimate team effort. And its been even better to watch as a result of it. From the mohawk-fever thats sweeping the clubhouse, to the beards for Rocco earlier in the year, to the never-ending stream of shaving foam to the face victims, its been a joy. There was a great quote from Scott Kazmir in the St Pete Times yesterday - "We got Mohawks and everything. We might as well do dugout chants." And you know what, he's right. Rather than the highly-paid professional athletes that they are, the Rays have played more like a bunch of mates playing for some high school team, wanting to win not for themselves, but rather for their friends. Its a great attitude to have, and no small part of the Rays' success this year.

And its architect? Joe Maddon of course.

Thursday, 18 September 2008


The Rays have it.

A lot of it.

And I love it.

I'll do a full series recap over the weekend at some point, but for now all you need to know is we won.


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Ugh (again)

Yes, I did watch the game (well most of it).

And no, I don't want to talk about it.

Monday, 15 September 2008

The future arrives...but the present is disappointing

First the good.

David Price.

Major league debut, your team's last ever game at Yankee Stadium, in the middle of a pennant race. Nervous?

Price certainly didn't look it as he came out of the 'pen to start the third inning against the Yankees. He retired the first big league hitter he saw, Xavier Nady, with his first pitch, and retired the next five straight before giving up a homerun to Derek Jeter. He didn't let that affect him though, and eventually left after throwing 5 1/3 innings, striking out four and allowing 3 hits.

Not perfect, but given the time and situation, just about as good a major league debut as you could hope for. I think David Price is going to do good things for us.

Still, overall the Rays' final trip to Yankee Stadium was a disappointment. Game one was a solid 7-1 win behind a great outing (8IP, 5hits, 6Ks, 0R) from James Shields. Evan Longoria returned to the lineup with 2 hits and 2RBI, while Justin Ruggiano took advantage of a rare start by going 3-4 with a pair of doubles. Joe Maddon's plan of stacking the lineup with rightys against Mussina (to the point of having switch-hitting Ben Zobrist and Fernando Perez bat right-handed) worked a treat, as he was knocked out after 5, and beaten by the Rays for the first time this year.

The evening game however was not quite so good. It started well, as Ben Zobrist hit his second grand slam in a couple of weeks to give us an early lead. Unfortunately he then turned from hero to villain late on, as his throwing error on what should have been a routine double play let the Yankees get back on terms, and go on to win 6-5.

Then there was yesterday, and as good as it was to see Price, there was a reason why he came into the game to start the third.

Edwin Jackson had, as we say in England, a 'mare. 2 innings (his shortest outing for over a year), 6 hits and 6 runs. A grand slam to Alex Rodriguez in the first and, after Fernando Perez had gotten the Rays back in the game with a three-run shot of his own (a first big league round-tripper for the increasingly impressive centrefielder), he surrendered a two-run blow to Jason Giambi. And that was pretty much it. We had a few chances to get back into the game, but just couldn't capitalise, and so now we head back to the Trop with just a single game lead over Boston.

Which should make the upcoming three game series with them pretty interesting... It kicks off tonight with a fascinating matchup between two aces who can't keep their pitch count down - Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka. I am already tired this morning due to listening to the Seahawks past midnight yesterday, and I'll have to be up early again tomorrow for work, but, never-the-less, I am extremely tempted to stay up and watch that one. If ever there was a time for Scotty K to come up big, this might just be it...

Saturday, 13 September 2008

I like the Price...let's play two!

Rainout last night. Day/night doubleheader today, with the first game starting in about an hour and a half. James Shields will be pitching game one, and Matt Garza in the nightcap. Thats a pretty good 1-2 punch right there.

But, if that is good, then what about the trio of arms that the Rays added to the bullpen last night.

Joining the team on Monday will be Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann. Not bad. I think there are many teams who would be happy enough to have that pair of arms in their 'pen.

But, and no disrepect at all as they are quality pitchers both, their recall is hugely outshadowed by the guy who has joined up with the teams ahead of today's contests in The Bronx.

He is here.

David Price has arrived.

He'll be available from the 'pen today, and with the doubleheader I would not be surprised to see him make his Major League debut. Exciting.

Also rejoining the Rays in New York is Jonny Gomes, and he's gone right into the lineup for game one against Mike Mussina. You know how big a fan of Jonny I am, and I would like nothing better than to see him play a big role for the team down the stretch.

Oh yeah, and theres the small matter of Evan Longoria being back in the lineup.

With a Rays-Yankees doubleheader and a Boston-Toronto twin bill, today is going to be a big day. I could not be more excited.

Joe Maddon's lineup for the opener (according to the St Pete Times) is stacked with righties to face Mussina - Bartlett (SS), Zobrist (2B), Pena (1B), Baldelli (DH), Longo (3B), Gomes (LF), Perez (CF), Hernandez (C) and Ruggiano (RF).

Lets go Rays!!!

Friday, 12 September 2008

Net lagged: The Rays effect

You know the story. A nightmare start to the roadtrip. More injuries. A struggling offense.

And then the Rays effect takes over.

Due to one thing and another, I've just finished watching Wednesday night's game three of the Boston series. I watched games one and two on Wednesday and Thursday, hence the longer than usual net lag delay. But, in the end, it was worth the wait.

After arriving in Boston, things started with a scare as reliever Juan Salas had an epileptic seizure. He's fine, and back with the team, but its harldly a calming way to start a crucial series. Then the game came, Edwin Jackson gave up three runs in the first inning, and things looked grim. E-Jax knuckled down though, and went 6 more scoreless. Unfortunately, the hitters couldn't get anything going against Jon Lester, and a 3-0 loss was the result. Making things worse was BJ Upton leaving the game with a tight quad - he missed games 2 and 3, and its unclear when he'll be back in the lineup. With a bit of luck, it might be tonight. Also heading for injury central was Shawn Riggans, who has had to have an operation on his knee, possibly ending his season.

Game one over, and things were not looking good.

But thats where the Rays effect kicked in.

To cover the ever-increasing list of injuries, Dan Johnson and catcher Michael Hernandez were called up. Johnson would have made the game 2 start against Dice-K, but arrived in Boston just 20 minutes before gametime.

Still, things started well. Scotty K was pitching nicely, and the hitters knocked Matsuzaka out after just 5 innings. We took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, where Dan Wheeler faced Jason Bay (1-18 off of Wheeler in his career) with a man on. Homerun Bay was the result, and a 4-3 Red Sox lead. It looked for certain as though we were going to lose top spot in the East.

But, the 2008 Rays bring a different hero every night. And Tuesday it was the turn of Dan Johnson. First Rays at-bat, facing Jonathan Papelbon, pinch hit homerun, tie game. That was followed by a double off the Monster from Fernando Perez, and an RBI-double by Dioner Navarro.

And that was it. Suddenly the Rays had won, and restored their lead to 1 1/2 games. You just can't keep this team down.

And so to last night's game. Andy Sonnanstine going toe-to-toe with Josh Beckett. And Sonny did his part superbly, 7 innings, 1 run, 4 hits, 7 strikeouts. His best outing for quite some time.

The game was tied at one when Sonny left, and there it stayed. Through the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth. Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford, JP Howell (2 innings) and Trever Miller. One by one they took their turn and sent the Red Sox back to the dug out.

And finally our hitters got the breakthrough. With 2 outs in the fourteenth, and Mike Timlin on the mound, Aki Iwamura lined a 3-0 pitch up the middle for a single. Rocco Baldelli followed with a single of his own. And then Carlos Pena ripped a ball to opposite field, over the Green Monster, a three-run homerun. 4-1 Rays.

Hey, but if you thought the fun was over, you'd be wrong. Because in came Perci for the save opportunity. The previous night he had battled for the save, giving up just a walk. Wednesday, he had nothing. A hit, 2 walks and nobody out was the line when Joe Maddon came to get him with the bases loaded. A stiff back was apparently to blame, but I will repeat myself from last time, and say I just don't trust him out there anymore.

Still, its the Rays, so time for another hero. Enter stage left Jason Hammel. Hammel has not been pitching well of late. He had never recorded a save before.

He has now. A sacrifice fly scored one run, but a strikeout and a shallow fly followed, and the Rays had sealed a 4-2 win, a 2 1/2 game lead in the East, and our first series win at Fenway since 1999.

What a series. The belief is back. The Rays Rotating Hero policy (tm) is back. And we're off to New York tonight. Let's go Rays.

Incidentally, I see that from tonight will be letting you choose between the home and away TV feeds. I cannot tell you how pleased I am (assuming it works properly!) that I'm going to be able to watch the rest of the season with Dewayne Staats, Joe Magrane and Todd Kalas. Awesome.