Wednesday, 30 April 2008

This just in: Cobb in "cheat" accusations

Well, as can probably be expected, I didn't watch last night's series opener in Baltimore, but I shall be doing so this evening and thus have no idea what happened. So rather than talking about all things Rays, and having enjoyed last week's look back so much, I thought that I would bring you the second installment of what may or may not become a recurring feature, 'Baseball history from across the pond'. That's a catchy name isn't it?!

Today we are winding back the clock to April 30, 1922, and revisiting Navin Field, home of the Detroit Tigers and player-manager Ty Cobb. For once, on this day 86 years ago, it seems that Cobb wasn't the target of the cheating accusations, but rather the chief accuser. So what was the accusation? As reported on May 2 by the NY Times -

"There were intimations that Robertson had tampered with the ball, it being hinted that oil was used to make the ball hop freakishly. Ty Cobb, manager of the Detroit team, wrote a letter to (American League) President Ban Johnson regarding the matter."

In fact, there were more than intimations. One of the games umpires, presumably at the request of the Tigers, had presented two of the balls used during the contest to President Johnson for examination. His verdict? "I consider Robertson one of the cleanest pitchers in organized baseball today."

So why were Cobb and the Tigers so up in arms over the performance of Robertson? Ok, so the spitball, and many other foreign substance-related deliveries had been banned two years previously, but I'm sure that its elimination wasn't yet universal in 1922. (Some would argue that that remains the case even today...).

Might it have something to do with the games result, a result only seen four times previously in Major League Baseball (and two of them under outdated rules), and only 12 times since? Very probably. Because, in just his fourth Major League start, Charlie Robertson of the Chicago White Sox was perfect. 27 batters up, 27 batters down. 0 runs, 0 hits, 0 errors, 0 walks, 0 hit by pitches, 0 missed third strikes, 0 catchers interference, and 0 any other ways of getting to first that I might have overlooked.

The 26-year-old righty was joining some fairly impressive names with his achievement. You might have heard of the two people before him to have thrown perfect games under modern rules. Cy Young and Addie Joss. Hall of Famers both.

I know its hardly a revelation, but I love the perfect game. It has to be the best 'inidividual' achievement in baseball. Ok, so you need a lot of help with it, but 17 times in 100+ years tells you something. But even compared to those other perfectos, Robertson's is quite an achievement. Consider that he had only made three previous starts (one of those three years previously). He would finish the season with a 14-15 record - which would turn out to be his best ever season in the majors. His lifetime win total (49) and win percentage (.380) are the lowest among all of those who achieved perfection. And apparently (though I haven't checked this) his was statistically the most unlikely - the opposition Tigers got on base at a rate of .369 in 1922 - best among all victim teams.

So maybe Cobb's accusations of cheating were understandable, if not justified. Though, and maybe this is just me, if you were accused of cheating by Cobb, the words pot, kettle and black would leap quickly to mind.

Robertson's effort is worth noting for one other reason - the length of time that would pass before the feat would be repeated. If you couldn't name Robertson as one of the authors of a perfecto, I'm willing to bet that you could name the next man who did it. 34 years, 5 months and 8 days later. Don Larsen.

Normal service should be resumed tomorrow. Who knows, maybe last night the name of Jason Hammel was added to the list of seventeen. Ok, well you know already. I don't. Don't tell me in the meantime. You wouldn't want to be the one to ruin that surprise would you?!

Monday, 28 April 2008

Sox sweep!

Boston Red Sox 0 - Tampa Bay Rays 3

Don't worry, I'm changing the record - last night wasn't a battling performance by the Rays. It was a simply brilliant performance. And it rounded off one of the best series I have ever watched - not just because the Rays swept the BoSox; not just because of how well the Rays played; but because it was some of the highest quality baseball you will see.

Ok, so the bats for both teams were somewhat quiet. But that was for no other reason than the outstanding pitching that was on display.

And in that regard, it would be totally amiss of me if I were to start anywhere else than with Mr James Shields.

As I've mentioned before, Shields has been far from at his best in his first few starts of the season, struggling at times, and really having to fight to get decisions. Well, I think it is safe to say that last night he was at his brilliant best. He simply dominated the Red Sox from first to last, taking just 98 pitches to throw his first career complete-game shutout. He gave up just two hits and a walk, and faced only 29 hitters. He struck out 7. The win takes him to 3-1 on the season, and lowers his ERA to 2.54. But none of those numbers describe just how good he was yesterday.

Giving a bit more of a hint to that is the pitcher he had to face, Josh Beckett. Beckett too was outstanding, striking out the first five Rays hitters he faced, and going on to collect a personal best 13K's in 7 innings work. He only gave up 4 hits himself, but thanks to a bit of luck, and to a star in the making, that was all the Rays needed to ensure that Shields' masterpiece was rewarded with a W.

The bit of luck came in the third inning. Jason Bartlett singled to lead off the inning, and got the chance to set off around the bases when Beckett threw wildly trying to pick him off. The ball bounced up into the right field bullpen, and Bartlett dashed round to third, where Tom Foley was showing the stop sign. Bartlett showed himself to be a good heads-up baserunner though, as rather than stopping at the bag and catching his breath, he rounded it and looked back across the diamond to find the ball. And when he spotted it, he liked what he saw, as JD Drew had thrown it nowhere near any other Boston fielder, and it was rolling back towards the infield, letting Bartlett take off once again and easily make it home to put the Rays one up.

In a game like yesterday's one run always looked like being enough, but its nice to give your ace a bit of a cushion when he's throwing a game like Shields was. That cushion came with Evan Longoria leading off the seventh. In his first two times up, Evan had looked a bit overmatched, striking out both times. But third time's the charm, and he stuck with it, found a 2-2 curve to his liking, and belted the ball into the seats in left-centre. It was a pretty good day all round for Longoria, as he also continued to excel with the glove at third, making a few nice plays including two in the ninth as Shields sealed the shutout.

The Rays third run came in the eighth, after Jason Bartlett was hit on his helmet by a pitch from Manny Delcarmen. He stayed in the game, stole second, and one out later made the win safe as he scored on a Carl Crawford double.

That's six in a row for the Rays, and back-to-back series sweeps for the first time since 2005. And I hope you will forgive me for including the AL East standings here, but I shall make the most of it while I can, and point out to anybody who's listening that the Rays are currently tied for FIRST place in the division. Ok, so I don't imagine its going to last for very long. But if we carry on in this sort of form, anything is possible!

Day off today, and then its off to Baltimore on Tuesday to take on the Orioles. Jason Hammel will be making the start, one of three of our pitchers whose place in the rotation is very much on the line. He's worked hard so far this season, and definitely has a real shot at staying. And, if his attitude is anything to go by, then he may well do it - this quote from the Rays' site to me sums up the perfect attitude for a pitcher under pressure to perform: "I want to be a part of this, this is awesome. But I'm not thinking about that, I'm thinking about keeping the ball down." Wise words.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Aki picks his moment

Boston Red Sox 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

I kind of feel this morning as though I need to set up an auto-complete for the blog, where I can just press a couple keys and make a whole paragraph about a battling performance appear...

Yesterday, I wondered whether the good or the bad Edwin Jackson would turn up. Well, he was wild, but the good kind of wild, definitely putting his last two starts behind him in impressive fashion. He worked 7 innings, and allowed only five hits to the potent BoSox lineup. He gave up just a solitary run in the fifth - an unlucky run at that. After Coco Crisp reached first, a wild pitch eluded Shawn Riggans long enough for him to go all the way to third. With two outs, Jacoby Ellsbury then ripped a ball down the third base line. Evan Longoria made an awesome diving stop, but couldn't quite get it to first in time. It was still a great play though, very much in keeping with our recent defence.

As good as Jackson was, that one run looked as though it was going to be enough for the Sox. The reason - Clay Buchholz. Now, the Rays have had some good pitching performances this year, but that was something else. He was, for most of the game, simply unhittable. Through 7 innings, the Rays had but a single hit, a BJ Upton double in the fourth. But, and I think I've mentioned this before, we have some serious battle this year.

So, one out in the eighth, and up comes Dioner Navarro to pinch hit. He fights through his at-bat, and eventually finds a pitch he can stay with and bloops it into right for a single. One out later, and Aki Iwamura to the plate. Aki looked for a curveball, and when it came he didn't need asking twice. He belted the ball over the fence down the right field line - his first homerun of the season. 2-1 Rays.

Cue some rapid action in the bullpen. Trever Miller and Scott Dohmann had pitched the eighth, and after a very quick warmup, Troy Percival came in for the ninth. And he looked good for his day off Friday, forcing two quick fly outs, before striking out Varitek on a nasty changeup to seal his fifth save of the season (and fourth this week).

That's five straight wins now, a 13-11 record, and I tell you something - I am enjoying this. We are playing some superb baseball, and even when we're up against things, we are still working, still fighting, not giving up. And thats the way it should be.

This afternoon's series finale is one that you do not want to miss - James Shields against Josh Beckett as the Rays go for the sweep. There'll be a different Ray in uniform, as infielder Andy Cannizaro was called up from Durham after the game, Elliot Johnson being optioned back to make room.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Have I mentioned the battling?

Boston Red Sox 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

Wow, that was quite a game. A proper big-league battle. It went well into the night over here, but was more than worth staying up for - the Rays' first extra-inning game of the season was also the best contest so far.

It started out in the bottom of the first with Carl Crawford doing what he does best, tripling to centre. There is just no better sight in baseball than CC rounding first, looking up, and turning on the afterburners. Its just flat-out fun. He scored on a sacrifice fly by BJ Upton, and the Rays were off.

Unfortunately, so were the Sox in the top of the second, as Matt Garza, making his first start back from the DL, struggled mightily, allowing three runs and throwing 40 pitches by the time he got out of the inning. Still, I think that Garza could fit in well at the Trop if the battling qualities he showed are anything to go by, as he shut out the Sox for the next three innings, leaving after five with a respectable line of 5IP, 5H, 3ER, 3BB, and 1K. Not amazing, but satisfactory for his first start back.

By the time he left, the Rays were back in the lead, thanks to more of that battling hitting I've been talking about all week - and you know that when you're up against Tim Wakefield you need to battle! We pulled one back in the third, an RBI-single from Evan Longoria (who then added his second stolen base of the season). That scored Jonny Gomes from second, but it ought to have been a two-run effort, as BJ Upton had just been called out stealing third, despite having comfortably beaten the tag. Two more runs came in the fourth, CC adding his second triple of the game (he obviously heard of my surprise that Thursday's was his first of the season!), scoring Aki. CC then scored himself on a fielding error by former Ray Julio Lugo.

Turning it over to the bullpen, unfortunately the lead didn't last long, as JP Howell gave up a run right back in the top of the sixth. He settled down though, and pitched 3 good innings, before turning it over to Dan Wheeler in the ninth. And talk about handling big-time pressure. Wheeler has been the pick of the 'pen so far this year, and showed that again last night. Catcher Kevin Cash singled to lead off the inning, and then one out later Dustin Pedroia reached on a mental lapse from Aki Iwamura - charging a softly hit grounder, Aki was caught in two minds about which out to go for, and ended up getting neither as Cash stopped on the basepaths, and Aki paused, double pumped, and threw late to first, rather than flipping it to second for the easy force out.

Not that that phased Wheeler of course. Nor did the fact that he now had to face David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez with two men on. A pop up from Ortiz, and then one of the best-pitched at-bats you'll see this year against Ramirez, who came to the plate 3-4 on the game. Two beautiful sliders that Manny got out in front of made it 0-2. A fastball up that Manny took brought the count to 1-2. And then with Manny sitting on the slider, Wheeler went back upstairs with the heat, getting the huge strikeout.

The Rays then left the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth - but only just, Eric Hinske ripping a shot to deep right-centre, only to see it fade and JD Drew catch up with it on the edge of the track.

So, extra innings, and the bullpen get another chance to star. And star they did. Gary Glover comes in in the tenth with a couple of men on. Ground ball, double play, nicely done. Scott Dohmann comes in in the eleventh with a couple of men on. Ground ball, double play (a 3-6-1 beauty at that), nicely done.

Step forward the batters. CC adds his third hit of the game, a single, to open the inning. He steals second (his second steal of the night). BJ Upton walks. Nathan Haynes steps to the plate, having earlier entered the game as a pinch-runner. The BoSox are thinking nothing but bunt. Haynes takes a massive swing at the first pitch, but misses. The Sox are still thinking bunt. Haynes takes a swing again, this time ripping the ball through the infield, allowing CC to motor around for the winning run.

With so many outstanding performances on the mound and at the plate, it might surprise you to hear that my player of the game went 0-5. Jason Bartlett still hasn't got his swing in gear this season, but his play at shortstop last night was simply outstanding. His range is superb, and two of the backhand plays he made last night are up there among the very best that you will see all season. The Rays defense in general was excellent, particularly in the outfield, where both CC and Upton made awesome full-length diving grabs.

The win takes us up above .500, at 12-11, and ahead of the Yankees in the AL East. To be honest though, its not so much the record - though considering all the injuries we've had, it is impressive - but rather the way we're playing that's the real positive. We're getting the fundamentals right, and not giving up when the going gets tough. That is a good combination.

Tonight is going to be very interesting, as Edwin Jackson makes the start against Clay Buchholz. Which Jackson will turn up? Who knows?! But he needs a good one, so I hope he can deliver.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Disney Sweep!

Toronto Blue Jays 3 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

Everything, every single thing that I have said about the Rays over the last couple of days is going to be repeated now about last night's game that I have just finished watching. Because it was yet another battling performance against a pitcher who looked as though he had his good stuff early. It was another perfect example of stringing together good at-bats. And it was another case of a job well done by the bullpen.

I shall start with the pitching, and while Andy Sonnanstine was not in the kind of form that saw him shut down the White Sox in his last start, he was certainly solid. He allowed the Blue Jays just 3 runs in 6 1/3 innings - one of those scoring on a wild pitch, and another on a mental lapse that saw him and Navvy leave home plate unguarded with a runner on third. Relieving Sonnanstine was Gary Glover, who retired all four batters he faced, Trever Miller and, for the fourth game in a row, Troy Percival. Percy let the first two batters he faced get on base, but then showed the value of his experience as he came right back to retire the next three, and pick up his fourth save of the season.

He was in the position to get another save mostly thanks to the hitting of Evan Longoria and Eric Hinske. Longoria went 2-2 with a double, a triple, a walk, a sacrifice fly and a steal of third. I honestly could not be more impressed with the start he has made to his big league career. Hinske only went 1-4, but picked up 2RBI pushing his total for the season to 13.

Elsewhere in the lineup, CC moved his batting average above .300, going 3-5 and in the process moving his hitting streak to 11 games. He also added a pair of steals and an RBI. Aki Iwamura and Carlos Pena are still stuggling at the plate - Aki just looks like he needs to take a few more pitches, whereas I have almost lost count of the number of called third strikes that Pena has taken recently. Not like him at all. Meanwhile, Gabe Gross made his Rays debut in right, going 0-3 at the plate, and making a few decent plays in the outfield.

Back to the Trop tonight, and a three game set against the Red Sox. Matt Garza has been reinstated from the DL, and will make the start - outfielder Justin Ruggiano being optioned to Durham as expected to make room on the roster. I'm looking forward to the game tonight, and seeing a (hopefully) healthy Garza go up against the Red Sox hitters.

The only downside is that Tim Wakefield is making the start for Boston, and he has a quite ridiculous record against the Rays - 19-3, with a 3.12ERA. And at the Trop he's 9-1 with a 2.41 ERA. Ouch. Still, now is a good a time as any to get hitting against him!

Stick it out, and the runs will come

Toronto Blue Jays 3 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

Continuing my day-behind blogging for the week, last night I watched Wednesday night's game - the second of the three at Disney. I imagine I shall watch the series finale this afternoon unless I get a mad rush on at work, and jot down something on that this evening.

So, Wednesday's game, and Roy Halliday on the mound for the Jays. Pitching superbly, which is, well, what you'd expect from him really. He breezed through the first five innings, allowing just 3 hits, and only throwing about 50 pitches. He looked really on form. And by the time the Rays came to bat in the 6th, Matt Stairs had given him a 3-run lead to work with, with a pair of homeruns.

But, the 2008 Rays are nothing if not battling. Bottom of the 6th, a double from Navvy and a single from Bartlett, and Carl Crawford comes to the plate with one out and runners on the corners. A single from him, pushing his hit-streak to 10, and the Rays are on the board. Upton walks, loading the bases, and Pena strikes out. Step forward Evan Longoria. He's up to the task, and slaps a 2-RBI single. Tie game. Next up is Eric Hinske, who has been swinging a really hot bat lately. He makes contact again, a single, scoring Upton and giving the Rays the lead. Stringing good at-bats together. Thats what I like to see.

The scoring was rounded off in the 8th, as CC hit a lead-off triple (amazingly his first of the season!), and scored on a sacrifice fly from BJ Upton.

On the mound, Jason Hammel more than matched the hitters in the battling stakes. Six strong innings, in which he only gave up 4 hits - the only downside being that two of them were round-trippers for Stairs, resulting in three runs. He did walk four Jays, but all-in-all he did very well, and certainly won't have harmed his chances of keeping a spot in the rotation. The majors' best bullpen (I know!! I'm making the most of that while I can!) shut the game down for him, Dan Wheeler pitching two scoreless innings, and Troy Percival getting the save for the second night in a row with a perfect ninth.

That's the first two from Disney, I hope we did well last night - but either way I shall be writing about it just as soon as I know!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

I blame the time difference...

Toronto Blue Jays 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 6

For those of you keeping score, its Thursday morning here as I write this, I don't know what happened in Wednesday's game yet, and this is about Tuesday's action which I watched last night. Confused? Welcome to the world of a baseball fan in Europe.

Still, I am never someone who lets being a day and a half late with my thoughts on something stop me, and so here is the Disney opener recap.

We won.

Not that that seemed particularly certain in the early going. James Shields still hasn't found the groove yet this season, and he struggled big-time early on. He wasn't helped by a particularly bad play in the second, on which both he and Hinske committed errors - and Hinske was somewhat fortunate not to be charged with two. Still he got out of the second only allowing the two unearned runs, and eventually settled into the game a bit more. His final line of 7IP, 6H, 4R (2ER), 2BB, 5Ks and the win is certainly respectable. Actually, its pretty good. He was relieved with perfect innings from the continually-impressive Dan Wheeler, and Troy Percival notching his second save of the season.

An even bigger help to Shields than the 'pen were the bats, and the bottom half of the order in particular. Evan Longoria got the Rays straight back on the board in the bottom of the second with his second homerun, a shot to straight away centre that just kept on carrying. That was followed by a double from Eric Hinske and an RBI-single from Dioner Navarro on his return from the DL. Hinske then tripled home Longoria in the fourth, and then scored himself on another seeing-eye single from Navvy. One out later, and Jason Bartlett drove him home to push the lead to 5-3. The Rays scoring was rounded off by a solo-shot from Hinske in the 6th.

Twelve hits in total for the Rays, and what was particularly nice was the fact that they were strung together, rather than spead out. Anyone keeping count will have noticed that by the 6th, Hinske had himself a double, a triple and a homer - unfortunately he struck out his last time up, so there was no cycle to put the cherry on what was an excellent day at the plate.

Transactions coming thick and fast now for the Rays - As I've already mentioned, Dioner Navarro returned from the DL (and went 3-4 with 2RBI). That meant designating for assignment Mike DiFelice, who I'm sure everyone is sad to let go. If he does clear waivers and go back to Durham, then I for one will not be worried if either of our catchers have problems or injuries later in the year.

Then we have the sad saga of Dan Johnson. If you remember he's the 1B/DH we claimed off of waivers from Oakland at the weekend. Well, he arrived on the bay on Monday, found himself locked out of the Trop when he went to get some hitting practice, was in uniform for the win on Tuesday, and then found himself designated for assignment on Wednesday. So long Dan, we hardly knew ye. Instigating that move was a trade on Tuesday, in which we sent a minor league pitcher to the Brewers in exchange for outfielder Gabe Gross. Now, I'm not entirely sure that we need another outfielder, but I do think that Gross is an upgrade over Nathan Haynes, who has done little to impress me so far this season. Either Haynes or, more likely, Justin Ruggiano will be sent down when Matt Garza comes off the DL (possibly Friday), setting up a likely Gross/Jonny Gomes platoon in rightfield, with Gross and Haynes backing up in centre as necessary.

Kaz also made another rehab start at Vero Beach yesterday, and will make one more at Durham before returning to the Rays, likely on May 3. Kaz and Garza returning is obviously going to mean that one of the current rotation will have to miss out, and at the moment its too close to call between Hammel, Jackson and Sonnanstine. My heart says that Jackson should stay, but my head says that its two years on, and he's still showing no signs of consistency. But we shall see.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Hammer, two slams, and the win that started it all

Nothing to say on last night's series opener at Disney because, well, I haven't seen it yet. I'm planning to watch it after work this evening, so don't tell me what happened in the meantime. It has to be said that the best part of following baseball from over here is that it is really easy to avoid seeing the scores when you want to! Though I do have to be careful when opening my own blog, thanks to the Rays news widget on the sidebar...

Anyway, in lieu of that, and thanks to my iGoogle 'Today in history', I thought I'd jot down a little on this day in baseball history.

Its pretty unusual for something sporting to come up on the today in history panel, but there it is today, April 23rd 1954 - Hank Aaron hits his first home run. He went deep off of Vic Raschi in the 6th, and finished the day 3-7 in a 14-inning 7-5 victory for the Braves over the Cardinals.

Anyway, being the history geek that I am, I immediately wanted to know what else this day has brung through the years. Which led me to Today in Baseball history, a site that is immediately being added to my bookmarks. And so now I can also tell you that April 23 is the day that in 1999 Fernando Tatis became the first player ever to hit two grand slams in a single inning. The day that in 1939 Ted Williams hit his first major league homerun. The day that in 1952 Hoyt Wilhelm won his first major league game, and hit the only homerun of his 1070-game career. And the day that in 1964 Houston's Ken Johnson became the first pitcher ever to lose a 9-inning no-hitter.

But of more interest to me are two other firsts. In 1962, a first ever win for the New York Mets. And, 105 years ago, on this day in 1903, a first win for the newly-relocated New York Highlanders. The first of 9275 and counting (if my maths is right) was a 7-2 victory over the Washington Senators. The winning pitcher was Harry Howell, who helped his cause with a triple and a run. And if you ever find yourself wondering about the quality of modern sports reporting, I present to you this offering from the New York Times, of how it used to be done:

It has to be said that I love baseball history, so maybe I'm a little biased, but how can you read that and not wish that you were there to see it? Old style baseball fascinates me, as does the old writing style. When was the last time you heard reference to a fielder making bungles? That is a phrase that ought to make a comeback. Just in case any of you are interested in reading the last paragraph of the report, or seeing the awesome old-style box score, I've uploaded it here. Enjoy!

Just as a quick by the way, I feel that I should mention that April 23rd is also St George's Day, the national day of England. So get your St George's cross flag out, and have yourself a pint of ale on me. NB. You will have to pay for the ale yourself...

Monday, 21 April 2008

Off to Disney on a downer

Chicago White Sox 6 - Tampa Bay Rays 0

As is so often the way, a great outing from one of our pitchers, Andy Sonnanstine on Saturday, was immediately overshadowed by a poor one from another. Edwin Jackson made his second consecutive below-par start, allowing 6 runs on 7 hits in 4 1/3 innings of work. He walked four, and looked just like last year - good stuff, but oh-so-little control. Its really frustrating, because he's already demonstrated this year just how good he can be when he has it.

Of course he wasn't helped either by the Rays at the plate - after racking up 12 hits on Saturday, a combination of John Danks and Nook Logan shut us down on just 4 yesterday. Danks was mighty impressive, striking out eight in 7 innings.

In fact the only real highlight for the Rays was a beautiful 4-6-3 double play they turned. It would have looked good turned by anyone, but considering that Aki - who started it with a lovely shovel toss - only moved to second this spring, Elliot Johnson - who turned it with a great bare-hand grab - was making only his second start at short, and that Eric Hinske - who stretched to make the catch at first - was only playing there because of Pena's injury, it was extra-sweet. Our defense has been pretty impressive for the most part this season, and no-one moreso than Aki Iwamura, who, far from seeming new to second, looks like he's been playing there his whole career.

Roster bits and bobs now, and to make room for Dan Johnson on the roster we have optioned Jeff Niemann back to Durham. One good start and one poor one for Jeff while he was up here, but all-in-all I was fairly impressed, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him in the rotation come the end of the season. Taking his place in the rotation on Friday should be Matt Garza, who made a rehab start at Vero Beach yesterday. We'll obviously have to move a position player off the roster to bring him back, and I would expect that Justin Ruggiano will be that man.

Dioner Navarro should be back with us on Tuesday, assuming that a DH appearance for Vero Beach goes without a hitch tonight. Whether it is Shawn Riggans or Mike DiFelice who makes way is not as clear as might have been, thanks to some outstanding work both at the plate and behind it from DiFelice. Personally, while I am rooting for Riggans to stick - as much because I think he deserves the chance as it is because I think he's the better of the two - I wouldn't be terribly unhappy if we keep DiFelice.

Off day today, and then its down the road to Disney on Tuesday night, for the first of three against the Blue Jays. James Shields will be getting the start against a Frank Thomas-less Toronto team. Is Thomas someone we might be interested in picking up? Assuming Cliff Floyd isn't going to be out too long, then probably not. But you never know...

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Turn around

Chicago White Sox 9 - Tampa Bay Rays 2
Chicago White Sox 0 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

If you had told someone not familiar with the Rays that the two pitchers from the two games so far against the Sox were the same two in the same order as had pitched last Sunday and Monday, I think you would have a pretty hard time convincing them.

Jeff Niemann, coming off a stunning major league debut last weekend, found that pitching in the bigs isn't all plain sailing on Friday, giving up 8 hits in just 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't helped by some shaky defense and a distinct lack of hitting by the Rays in a fairly meek loss. Jim Thome put the cherry on the White Sox win with a huge homerun off one of the catwalks.

Contrast that to last night. On Monday, Andy Sonnanstine had been pounded out of the game early by the Yanks. Last night the only thing the White Sox hitters were pounding was the bench, in frustration. Sonny was absolutely brilliant, tossing a complete-game, 3-hit shutout. He walked just 1, didn't allow a Sox hitter past second base, and thanks to a couple of double plays faced only 2 batters more than the minimum. It was, by some margin, the best pitching performance by a Ray so far in 2008.

He was backed up by a Rays offense that was in an odd vein of form. 12 hits in total, without ever really stringing that much together. The win was pretty much secured in the second following a bizarre play and some heads-up hustle from Jonny Gomes. Mark Buehrle had already picked CC off from first base in the first, and looked like he had done the same to Jonny in the second. Jonny had been hit by a pitch with two outs in the frame, and was caught by Buehrle's excellent move a few steps from the bag. What followed was an example of how not to execute a run-down, and how you should never give up. Jonny dashed back and forth, forcing the White Sox infield to throw three times, before executing a superb slide under and around the tag for a steal of second. It was actually the second successfully avoided run-down in two games for the Rays - Evan Longoria had successfully made it back to third after being caught too far down the line on a safety squeeze play on Friday.

Jonny's huslte, as is often the case, proved the spark the rest of the lineup needed. Eric Hinske singled him home, Jonny clapping and celebrating as he rounded third. That was followed by a single from Shawn Riggans and RBI singles from Jason Bartlett and Aki Iwamura to make the score 3-0. We added another run in the fourth, with Jonny scoring on a sacrifice fly by Riggans after leading off with a triple that missed being a homer to straight away centre by a couple of inches. Upton doubled home CC in the 7th to push the final score to 5-0.

Not only was Sonnanstine's performance a pleasure to watch, but it also meant that I got to bed the earliest I ever have after staying up to watch an evening game. Fast work by both pitchers meant that the game was finished in a Trop record of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

This afternoon Edwin Jackson gets the start, looking to bounce back from a poor outing last time and secure a series win. Over in Vero Beach, the fans will be getting their second treat of the weekend, as Matt Garza makes a rehab start, following Kaz's successful return on Friday.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Rays mean business

Big news as the Rays announce that we've signed Evan Longoria to a 9-year deal worth $44,000,000 (including options). That is one good sign that the front office are serious about building a contender. I for one am very pleased.

Slightly stranger news is our claiming 1B/DH Dan Johnson off of waivers from Oakland. Ok, so Pena has a sore hamstring, but why do we need to pick up a bit-part player to cover? We have plenty of options in the short term - Hinske can do fine at first, with Jonny DHing. I really don't see the need.

Anyhow, I'm sure that more will follow on both fronts over the weekend...

A frustrating week

Moreso for the Rays than me personally, though it has to be said I have not really been in a blogging mood for some reason. Its actually pretty hard to work out when you can write something when you are watching games at the time that I was watching them this week - I watched Monday night's game on Tuesday evening, Tuesday's game on Wednesday and I didn't see either of the two in Minnesota. Which, by the way, was a ridiculously scheduled two-game road trip.

So what's been going on in Rays-world?

Well firstly, I was very pleased that I saw Evan Longoria belt his first big league homerun. Six games in and he's hitting .300, with 3RBI and looking every bit like he belongs.

Pitching-wise, Andy Sonnanstine had a nightmare on Monday, giving up 7 runs (including 3 homeruns) in only 3 1/3 innings. He actually didn't get tagged for the loss, as the hitters battled back nicely with 3 homers of their own (CC, Upton and Evan). Al Reyes gave up the winning run, and has since been added to the dis-Ray-bled list. Kurt Birkins has taken his place, after finishing his rehab assignment.

On Tuesday, Edwin Jackson had his first poor start of the year, having one of those days where he just can't find the plate. He's always been a little bit wild, so lets just hope that those days are going to be the exception rather than the rule this year. Up in Minnesota, James Shields and Jason Hammel both had solid starts - Shields getting a no-decision, and Hammel a his first W of the season. JP Howell also had a solid outing in relief - I've been impressed with how he's looked coming out of the 'pen so far this season.

Onto the hitting front, and things are still something of a mixed bag. Carlos Pena hasn't found his groove yet - although you can't deny his power. He's only managed 10 hits, but 6 of them have been homers. Thats a pretty good ratio! Worrying though is the fact that he left last night's game with a tight hamstring - hopefully its nothing serious.

Aki and CC meanwhile slowly seem to be finding their rhythm, though I will be happier when their averages have pulled up more towards BJ Upton territory. He hit his first couple of homers of the season this week. Eric Hinske also went deep twice, in consecutive games against the Twins. Shawn Riggans added his second homer of the season, while Mike DiFelice has been rolling back the years - he's 6 for 18 with 4RBI at the plate, and behind it he has been just as impressive calling excellent games for the young pitchers.

This weekend its three games against the White Sox at the Trop, and I shall be doing my best to catch all of them. Jeff Niemann is starting tonight, and I'm hoping he can match the performance from his debut where he gave up just one run in 6 innings.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Score one for the farm

Baltimore Orioles 3 - Tampa Bay Rays 2
Baltimore Orioles 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 6

A couple of weeks into the season, and the offense that we know the top of the Rays' order is capable of is still yet to appear. Saying that, there have been some isolated sightings.

Saturday night, and Daniel Cabrera did a nice job for the O's in stifling the bats. Evan Longoria, making his much anticipated debut, was the only player to drive home a run against the ever-entertaining righty. Carlos Pena tied the game for the Rays with a homer in the 8th, only to see Dan Wheeler give up his first hit of the year - a homerun - in the ninth to give the Orioles the win.

Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon. On the mound is former top pick Jeff Niemann, making his debut. He loads the bases in the first, but works out of the jam, and settles down, holding the O's scoreless through the first five. Unfortunately, its the middle of the fifth, and the Rays haven't even registered a hit yet. Still, never fear, the farms all here! Longoria (who for the second consecutive game batted 1-3, and showed some excellent defense) led off with a walk. Justin Ruggiano, getting the start in right, and Mike DiFelice followed up with singles, loading the bases. Follow that with a single by Aki, scoring one, and another by CC, scoring two, and suddenly the Rays are in command. One out later, BJ Upton drives a pitch out of the park to left, his first homer of the year, a three-run shot, and its 6-0 Rays, and we're coasting.

Niemann put the only blemish on his afternoon in the sixth, giving up a solo-shot to Nick Markakis, but finished with a great line of 6IP, 6H, 1ER, 1BB and 5K's. He is the first Ray to get the win on their debut since Scott Kazmir did it three years ago. Lets hope the similarities don't end there! Getting the final three outs took a combination of JP Howell, Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller, Al Reyes and Troy Percival, which I guess means it would be nice if tonight's starter could last a few innings.

Speaking of whom, it is now Andy Sonnanstine who is suddenly under a bit more pressure to perform. With Kaz and Garza not too far away from returning, there are in very short order going to be two men losing out in the battle for rotation spots. Edwin Jackson has been the star so far and James Shields is the number one right now. Niemann was excellent yesterday, and while he will have to do a fair bit to stick around, its certainly possible. Add to that Jason Hammel's excellent outing on Saturday (7IP, 5H, 2R, 1BB, 6Ks), and its now Sonnanstine who needs to step up. I just love the situation, where suddenly its about who's going to miss out on the rotation, rather than who on earth is going to fill in. Its a good place to be.

Its the Yanks in town tonight, 7.05pm EST, though I expect that I will be watching tomorrow evening sometime - so don't tell me what happens in the meantime!

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Heeeeeeeeeeere's EVAN!

So I'm not exactly happy that we have had to place a ninth player on the DL. But the fact that that player is Willy Aybar does mitigate the frustration of all these injuries somewhat. I don't have anything against Aybar - far from it in fact, he has made a nice start to the season - but the player who has been called up in his place is the one we've all been waiting for...

Welcome to Tampa Bay Mr Evan Longoria.

I am excited.

Add to that Jeff Niemann being called up to make his debut tomorrow, and a big part of the future is arriving at the Trop this weekend.

Not that the present should be discounted just yet. Take a bow Carl Crawford, who rapped out the 1000th hit of his career last night. May there be many more where they came from.

Baltimore Orioles 5 - Tampa Bay Rays 10

I watched the game from last night this morning, and very enjoyable it was too. James Shields hasn't locked in yet this year, but that was more than made up for by the hitters, and particularly Calos Pena. He belted two homers and accounted for 6 runs batted in. Nice. BJ Upton and Nathan Haynes both went 3-5, while Glove, Miller, Reyes and Percival all pitched very nicely in relief.

Hammel starts tonight, though I have this feeling that all eyes (including mine) are going to be on Longoria.

Friday, 11 April 2008

E-Jax the stopper

Seattle Mariners 0 - Tampa Bay Rays 7

Finally I have written something that didn't immediately come back to haunt me! Yesterday I remarked that Edwin Jackson had looked the best of the rotation the first time through, and attempting to halt a 4-game skid, he showed it again yesterday with what must go down as one of his best ever outings in a Rays jersey.

Despite what the final score may suggest, the game was a real pitcher's duel, with Miguel Batista matching Jackson strike for strike through most of the early play. Neither team got their first hit until the fourth, but while the M's could muster only a single, in the bottom of the frame Eric Hinske belted a 3-1 pitch over the fence in right-centre to give the Rays a lead that frankly we never looked like conceding.

Jackson just kept on throwing strikes - even the pitches he missed with didn't miss by much. The signs are very encouraging - we all know he has great stuff, but all too often its his control that lets him down. Not last night. While he did give up four walks, as I said they were almost always good pitches that just missed. His final line of 8IP, just 2 hits given up, no runs, 4BB and 6Ks just underlines how impressive he was. Trever Miller came on to get the final three outs, helped by the second of two Bartlett-Aki-Pena double plays. That is a DP combination that is already looking like it could become one of the best in the league.

With Jackson's fantastic effort on the mound, the offense really didn't need to give him that much help. But as so often seems the way, a good pitching performance can help wake sleeping bats. Mike DiFelice blooped a single in the sixth, scoring Jonny Gomes, and then repeated the trick almost exactly in the 7th, this time scoring a pair to round out the scoring. Those were the last two of 5 runs in the 7th, following a two-run single from BJ Upton, and the first, and easiest, RBI of Justin Ruggiano's career - a pinch-hit, bases-loaded, four-pitch walk.

Good days at the plate for DiFelice (2-4 with 3RBI), Aki Iwamura who was 2-3 with two walks, and for Jonny Gomes who was 2-2 with 2 walks, one of them intentional, and two runs.

The Orioles are coming to town next, with James Shields starting tonight (which I won't be watching), Jason Hammel on Saturday (which I probably will), and a player to be named getting the nod on Sunday afternoon. Its looking likely that that man is going to be Jeff Niemann, which I am naturally looking forward to. A roster move will have to be made before that can happen, which I presume will see Jae-kuk Ryu returning to Durham.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

And more...

So now we can add Cliff Floyd to the Disabled List. But of course. That makes it 8 players on the DL, including our starting catcher, DH, and two of the top three in our rotation. Not good.

In Floyd's absence, we lost 7-1 to the Mariners last night in a game that I didn't watch any of. Prospect Justin Ruggiano made the start in right field, having been called up to replace Floyd, and Jae-kuk Ryu pitched an inning and a third in relief on his return. I'm looking forward to seeing Ruggiano, as he seems to be pretty well thought of within the organisation - though I would imagine his arrival could lead to even less playing time for Jonny Gomes. Ok, so Gomes is only hitting .200 right now, but thats the same as Carlos Pena, and better than CC and Aki Iwamura. Our bats are struggling badly, and, with some fairly solid pitching displays, are the main reason that we've slipped from a 3-1 start to the current 3-5 record.

Series finale against the M's this afternoon - a 12.40pm EST start, which is a very reasonable 5.40pm for me, meaning that if I leave work pretty quicksharpish then I should be home in time for first pitch. Good stuff. Edwin Jackson, who put in the best performance first time through the rotation, makes his second appearance of the season for the Rays.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Rays have battle, more bad luck

Seattle Mariners 6 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

Not quite the home opener that the new, improved Rays had been after, methinks. I watched the first 5 innings last night, before tiredness and the thought of getting up for work got the better of me, and while it was an enjoyable game, it was also one of those where you have the feeling that its just not going to be your night.

The bad news first is that Matt Garza had to be taken out in the third with a sore arm, and has been put on the 15-day disabled list. Which is not good. Jae-kuk Ryu has been called up from Durham, but won't be taking Garza's place in the rotation - that is likely to go to either JP Howell or possibly Jeff Niemann. I'm hoping that we finally get the chance to have a look at Niemann.

Good news was the excellent, battling display of hitting off of Eric Bedard. Shawn Riggans homered in the second (his first ever in the big leagues), and Carlos Pena followed in the third. It was the fifth however that showed the all-round game that we need to see this year. Carl Crawford and Pena had excellent at-bats, fighting off pitches really well, which is still all too rare a sight for the Rays. BJ Upton worked a nice walk, and then he and Jonny Gomes showed some great hustle to force an error on a broken bat grounder to short. That set up a play that I just love to see. Jonny took off for second, and had the bag stolen easily. Johjima rushed a throw across to second anyway, and BJ took off from third, stealing home unchallenged. I don't care how its done, there is just something so satisfying about a steal of home. We actually scored 2 runs in the fifth without getting a hit, which is always a nice trick to turn.

That was that though for the hitters, and the Mariners re-took the lead for good in the sixth. The bullpen did a nice job all-in-all though, Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler in particular. Very encouraging sign - Scott Dohmann and Wheeler inherited 3 and 2 baserunners respectively when they came in, and let none of them score.

Meanwhile Kaz threw a bullpen session, and reported feeling good afterwards. Here's hoping he's back soon. Andy Sonnanstine makes his second start of the year tonight, and will be hoping to carry on where he left off in the last few innings of his first start.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Series split, now back to the Trop

Tampa Bay Rays 1 - New York Yankees 6

For the first time this year, I didn't watch the Rays last night (snapping an impressive 5-game watching streak, which may well turn out to be my longest of the year!). I had intended to watch some at work today, but the computers here disagree with Windows Media Player, so I shall just have to catch the highlights when I get home.

Not that there were that many highlights to be honest. Three hits, one of which was a Jonny Gomes homer. And that was it. Jason Hammel looks like he did ok, but unless he can really break out soon, I've got to believe that he will be departing the Rays (either to the minors or elsewhere via waivers) when Kaz is ready to return.

So a 2-2 split of the series at Yankee Stadium, and a 3-3 road trip to open the year. Not bad, but I think that the players are a bit disappointed not to be returning home with a winning record. Which is a very encouraging sign indeed.

Bad news, which considering my entry yesterday will come as no surprise, is that Cliff Floyd was a late scratch from yesterday's game with a sore knee. No word yet on how serious, but hopefully it isn't too bad. Elsewhere, Ben Zobrist has also had a setback in his return from a broken thumb, and it will likely be at least another 3 weeks before he is ready to rejoin the team.

Today's home opener will see Matt Garza go up against Eric Bedard and the Seattle Mariners. Ordinarily I would be very positive going into this game, but looking at the numbers that some of our players have put up against Bedard in the past, and well... Lets just say that I'm holding out hope that sometimes stats don't mean anything!

Monday, 7 April 2008

(Opening) week in review

But first, yesterday's game:

Tampa Bay Rays 0 - New York Yankees 2

And while its obviously a shame to see even a mini winning streak snapped, you can't help but admire the way it happened. A pitching duel between a couple of the best starters that the American League has to offer. Ok, so James Shields didn't have his best stuff, and scattered 8 hits in 5+ innings of work, but he kept on working, and aside from a solitary mistake that Hideki Matsui belted for a two-run shot, could easily have shutdown the Yanks completely.

Unfortunately for the Rays, those two runs were all New York needed thanks to an outstanding effort from Chien-ming Wang, doing exactly what a staff ace is meant to. He held the Rays hitless for 4 1/3 innings, and left two batters into the seventh, with a line of 6IP, 4H, 0R, 2BB and 6Ks. And as if that wasn't enough, in relief they sent in Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera. Its the first time I've seen Chamberlain pitch, and wow. He is very impressive.

There really was nothing doing for the Rays on offense, a blown safety squeeze play aside, but in a game like that, you've just got to accept that the opposition pitchers have their best stuff, and get your swing back for the next game.

SO, one week down in 2008, and the Rays sit with a 3-2 record. Which, but for a disastrous Al Reyes inning on Wednesday, could easily be 4-1. So plenty of positives all round. Here's just a quick selection:

Cliff Floyd - Early days I know, but the signs are good that Floyd is going to be just what we were hoping for - a good presence in the clubhouse, and a big bat in the DH slot. A .333 start with a couple of homers and 5 RBI is definitely a welcome return, and hopefully not having to play the field will allow him to keep it going throughout the season.

Eric Hinske - A non-roster invitee coming into spring, Hinske made the team, and the opening day start. He's hitting 4-10 through the first week, with two 2Bs and a homer, and has played some nice defence as well.

Jason Bartlett - Ok, so Jason has had a slow start with the bat, but I am already a convert thanks to some superb play at shortstop. The difference in range and sure-handedness is already there for everyone to see compared with previous incumbents, and he's already saved the pitching staff a hit or two.

The Rotation - Speaking of which, while the returns haven't been spectacular the starters have begun the season nicely. Only Matt Garza really had any major problems; Shields and Sonnanstine didn't have their best stuff but battled fantastically to keep the team in the games. Star of the four though is Edwin Jackson, who pitched like we've all been hoping he can in giving up just a single run in 6 innings against the Yanks.

Dan Wheeler - I've saved the best till last though, as Dan Wheeler has simply been the star of the early going. Four relief appearances, 4 innings, and not a single run, hit, walk, or anything much else given up. The Rays gave him a pretty big new contract just before the season, and he's already putting the work in to show that he deserved it.

I write all of that, of course, safe in the knowledge that I have now jinxed everybody mentioned and that they will immediately fall to pieces. I know how it works, but I shall just have to cross my fingers and hope. First test will be the series finale in New York tonight, where Jason Hammel will make his first start of the season. He's likely to be the odd man out when Kaz returns, so he needs to make a good impression while he can - which won't be easy considering he hasn't pitched for well over a week now.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

A Jonny Gomes story

Tampa Bay Rays 6 - New York Yankees 3

For most players, an inning like Jonny Gomes had in the second yesterday would pretty much set the tone for the entire game. Within the space of ten minutes, Gomes had been embarrassingly thrown out at second while in his home run trot - believeing his line drive to right had cleared the wall, not bounced off the top of it - and then missed a routine fly ball, losing it in the wind and shadows. You would have excused him for thinking that it was going to be one of those days.

But Jonny is not really one of those sort of players. Next inning he came back to the plate, and delivered a sacrifice fly to give the Rays the lead for the first time at 2-1. Next time up in the fifth, he found another Andy Pettitte pitch to his liking and belted another line shot, this time to left, and this time clearing the wall by inches for a 3-run homer and a 5-1 lead. That would be extended in the eighth with a solo-shot by Willy Aybar, before the Yanks completed the scoring in the bottom of the frame.

On the hill, Edwin Jackson struggled early on, but ended with a fine line of 6IP, 5H, 1ER, 2BB, 4Ks and the win. It really was very encouraging to see him work through the first couple of innings without giving up the big runs, and then settle down - he breezed through the last 9 hitters he faced with relative ease. He was followed by another perfect 7th from Dan Wheeler, a shaky 8th resulting in two runs given up by Trever Miller and requiring Al Reyes to get the third out. Troy Percival then came in for his first appearance of the year, and earned his first save since 2005 with a 1-2-3 ninth.

Other good news yesterday was that Scott Kazmir had a strong mound session as he works back from injury. If everything goes well there is a chance he could be back with the Rays at the end of the month - which would obviously be great news all round.

Today's matchup is James Shields against Chien-ming Wang. You may want to watch this one!

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Taking advantage

Tampa Bay Rays 13 - New York Yankees 4

After the frustration of wednesday night, last night's game at Yankee Stadium was a joy to watch for a Rays fan. It wasn't just a question of getting a W in the books against the Yanks (though that is always nice), but it was the way we went about it.

It started off well in the top of the first, with CC stealing second, moving over on a ground out, and scoring on a Cliff Floyd single.

The third was probably the most pleasing inning we'll see for a while - with Ian Kennedy struggling, the Rays hitters properly took advantage. All too often it seemed last year that when the opposition starter didn't have his best stuff we would score maybe one or two, but miss out on a big inning through impatience at the plate. Last night was different though. Aki Iwamura (who reached base all five times he came up) led off with a single, CC grounded out, Pena walked, Upton singled home CC and Floyd walked, loading the bases.

That should have brought Dioner Navarro to the plate, but instead up came backup catcher Shawn Riggans for his first at-bat of the season, and his first ever with the bases loaded. Far from being over-awed, Riggans worked a 3-1 count, and then belted a bases-clearing double out to right centre. That knocked Kennedy from the game, but Eric Hinske greeted his replacement with the first of his two doubles, scoring Riggans and pushing the Rays lead to 6-0 after 3.

Maybe that should have been that, but with the Yanks getting back at the Rays on the bottom of the inning the win was far from secure. Until the eighth that is, when, with two outs, we put the game well beyond the reach even of the big Yankee bats. The inning started innocuously, Cliff Floyd adding an insurance run with his second homer of the year, sandwiched between two groundouts. Then things got fun. Hinske doubled. Haynes singled. Jason Bartlett singled, scoring both. Aki singled. CC singled, scoring Bartlett. And for the final exclamation point, Carlos Pena ripped a three-run upper decker. 13-4, game over. Adding runs when the pitcher is struggling. That has got to become the rule rather than the exception for the Rays.

Our pitching, on the other hand, was a delight. Andy Sonnanstine was quite exceptional - save for a very shaky bottom of the third. Sitting watching our scoring seemed to knock him off his stride as he gave up four runs straight back. But he regrouped, and retired the last 10 batters he faced, ending with a line of 6 IP, 6 H, 4ER, 4K, and the W. In relief, Trever Miller was solid, while Dan Wheeler and Scott Dohmann were superb. Wheeler took just 4 pitches for the three outs in the 7th, and Dohmann was simlarly efficient in shutting down the 9th. Very pleasing all round, and I hope that there will be plenty more to come from them.

The only downside of the night was the bizarre incident that was the cause of Riggans' pinch-hitting exploits. Apparently, Dioner Navarro slipped going into the dugout, badly cutting his throwing hand. So badly, in fact, that he's been placed on the DL, promoting Riggans to starter, and seeing the return of original-Devil Ray Mike DiFelice, after an absence of 7 years, as his backup.

Day game at the Stadium today, Edwin Jackson will be making his season debut for the Rays, weather permitting. Also worth looking out for - Jonny Gomes will be making his first start of the year, while young utility infielder Elliot Johnson will be making his ML debut.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Threw it away

Tampa Bay Rays 6 - Baltimore Orioles 9

Wisely or not, I decided to stay up and watch last night's effort - partly because I wanted to see Matt Garza's debut, but mostly because I'm just plain excited at having baseball to watch again.

By the time that Jonny Gomes popped up to end the game however, I was left with a distinct feeling of deja vu.

If I'm honest, it wasn't the greatest all-round performance by the Rays anyway. Two nicely timed homers (a 3-run Cliff Floyd shot, and a 2-run blast from Carlos Pena) aside, and it was a story of missed opportunities at the plate. Twice we loaded the bases - once failing to score with only one out, and once scoring only once despite having nobody out. You've got to convert in those situations.

That being said, in truth the six runs we did manage looked like they would, and indeed should have been enough. Garza pitched nicely without ever completely getting on top of the Orioles' hitters, and, as often seems to be the case with the Rays, was hurt by the longball - a two-run shot by erstwhile Ray Aubrey Huff being the blow that saw him lifted in the sixth. But with a one-run lead, and Gary Glover and Dan Wheeler shutting down the rally through the seventh, and things seemed ok.

Despite all the changes, we are still the Rays, however. And I was wary of the way things were going from one (non-)decision in the top of the eighth. I suppose that the choice that Joe Maddon had was in a way a question of baseball philosophy. One run up, two innings left, do you want a good hitting outfielder or a good fielding outfielder in the game? Perhaps I'm biased because one of the players in question is Jonny Gomes. But look at the situation. One out, facing a difficult lefty (Jamie Walker), Nathan Haynes coming up. Now Haynes was in the team because left handed hitters beat up on Daniel Cabrera, the O's starter. But now its a lefty - and of Haynes' 48 ML plate appearances before last night, all but two had come against right handers. Which, while far from conclusive does indicate that maybe he's not so good facing the lefty.

So what do you do? Do you pinch hit with Gomes, who hits 70 points better against leftys than rightys, and is actually a much better outfielder than people either realise or give him credit for. Or do you leave in Haynes, which is all but surrendering an out, because he plays superior defense. Now I don't know about you, but I always do whatever I can to go after that insurance run.

Maddon of course saw things the other way, and Haynes struck out rather pathetically on three pitches. And, just to rub salt in the wound, he went on to make an error, misplaying a Huff drive of the wall in the bottom of the inning, ultimately leading to another Baltimore run.

Not that I'm blaming Haynes for the loss. Or Maddon for that matter - although once again he showed his rather worrying habit for leaving a pitcher in when it was clear he didn't have his stuff. The guy in question last night was Al Reyes, who coming into the game in his new setup role, walked the first hitter he faced on 4 pitches. Even watching on TV it was obvious that Reyes just could not find his groove, and by the time there were two men on and Huff was at the plate, the right course of action was pretty clear. Bring on the lefty from the 'pen (we've got two of them this year!) and look for the ground ball double play to escape the inning.

But he didn't, Huff doubled, and by the time the inning was over the O's had turned a 6-5 deficit into a 9-6 win.

If I sound overly frustrated about all that, then its most probably because I'm tired. And I know that its early days, but if the Rays are serious about progressing up the standings, then we absolutely have to be able to close out games when we have a lead going into the home stretch. Especially against teams like the Orioles.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Crawford back for more

Expected news from the Rays yesterday, as the announcement was made that Carl Crawford's option for 2009 has been picked up, while Rocco Baldelli's has been declined. Obviously given his situation, the decision over Rocco's option is no surprise - though like many fans I'm sure I do hope that we haven't seen him in a Rays uniform for the last time.

Of course picking up CC's option was an even bigger no-brainer. At $8.25million, he will still be one of the biggest bargains around, and I for one hope that he will be in St Pete for years beyond this current contract. Though for the stat-watchers there is obviously a big question mark hanging over him this year - his 5-year streak of increased batting average is getting tougher and tougher to keep going. It was up to .315 in 2007, and you know what, I think the smart money could be on a .316+ year in '08!

We've also signed Dan Wheeler to a 2 year extension which, considering the cost - $10m - is an encouraging sign that the bullpen is a serious focus. Its one of the last pieces of the puzzle, and Wheeler is the sort of solid pitcher that we need to have around for the late innings.

Meanwhile, tonight Matt Garza makes his Rays debut, and I am looking forward to it. Midnight first pitch UK time, so whether I watch tonight or tomorrow is still to be decided - it will probably depend how awake I need to be for work in the morning!

A second home for 'Rays from across the pond'

And hello everybody! To those of you who have read my blog over the past couple of years on MLBlogs, and to those of you who are finding me for the first time now that I have opened a parallel Blogspot blog - you are all very welcome.

I'm sure that many of you will be aware of the relaunch and redesign of MLBlogs - and the many problems it has caused. I'm not planning at the moment to close down my original blog, and I'm still hoping that the issues will be sorted, and that MLB Advanced Media will stop ignoring regular users in the hype over their 'celebrity' bloggers. But just on the off-chance, I figure I may as well set up shop and get things rolling here.

For now, I'm going to be cross-posting a lot off stuff between the two RAPs (that's Rays from Across the Pond for the uninitiated), although if I have the time I am planning to post some more general baseball bits and pieces over here in addition to the Rays-centric stuff on MLBlogs. We'll see how it goes. In the meantime, here is my post from yesterday with my thoughts on the Rays' opener, and

EDIT: I've also reposted a few of my recent posts below, and put in a link post for some of my favourite older ones.  I don't like the new blog emptyness!

A new, good start.

Ok, so here we go. 2008. So many things to talk about.

Baseball first, as it should be of course. And I would firstly like to thank the Orioles (and in fact baseball in general) for scheduling openers as day games. This meant that I could watch the Rays take on the O's at a very reasonable 8.05pm start time. Nice.

As I'm sure you know, James Shields got the nod for the Rays in Kaz's absence, and a very good job he did too. After a somewhat shaky first inning (understandable in the circumstances) in which he threw 28 pitches and gave up two runs, he was lights out from there on. Final line - 7 innings pitched, 5 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks and 2 K's. And perhaps most encouragingly, despite not having his best stuff, only 86 pitches in total - if he can keep that up once his arm is stretched out more then several complete games are sure to follow.

Coming in behind Shields, Trever Miller, Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler pitched 2 innings for just a solitary hit, which while not indicative of anything is of course a positive start considering the shambles that was our 'pen in 2007.

Then we come to the hitting. And I will start on a slightly disappointing note for me. As anyone who has read this blog in the past will know, I was looking forward to Jonny Gomes getting regular play out in right. But while I wouldn't swap him for anyone (and scroll down to number 18 on this list for just an example of why), even I recognise that he is a little bit too all-or-nothing. I still think he can achieve big things given the chance, but once again he will be sharing playing time this year.

And the man he will be splitting right with is something of a surprise - Eric Hinske. A non-roster invitee, Hinske had a great spring, and deservedly got the start on opening day. He didn't disappoint either, belting a fourth-inning line drive homer. That shot extended what had become a Rays lead in the second thanks to a swinging-bunt by CC and a 2-run single by BJ Upton. Jason Bartlett and Dioner Navarro added RBI-singles in the 6th to round off a 6-2 win to put the Rays proudly atop the AL East. Navvy had a very strong day at the plate, going 3-4, as well as collecting a stat that I'm guessing we won't see very often from him - caught stealing at home plate! Part of a double-steal of course, but still...

All in all, it was a very encouraging start - nothing to get too excited about of course, but with the exception of a shaky first the all round performance was very solid. Hopefully its going to stay that way!

As its the start of a new season, there are of course many things changing, and one of them is, I'm afraid, going to result in one of my semi-regular complaints about Now don't get me wrong, I love that I can watch the Rays from an ocean away, but seriously guys, you don't do yourself any favours. My complaints today are twofold - firstly I assume that are hoping that people switch to the Silverlight media player. Well, I would be happy to try it, except that it won't install on my old computer. Fine, I can live with that. Except that the Media Player no longer has the nice options for resizing the picture. Last year (and during Spring Training) you could watch it at the standard half-window size, expand it to the full window, or make it full-screen. Now the full window option has been removed and the full screen option is the native media player zoom, resulting in poorer quality. Why take options away?

The second issue is that judging from last night's game, is now presenting its games in widescreen. Ok, so I don't have a widescreen monitor, I'm going to have big black bars at the top and bottom of the picture when I watch fullscreen. I can just about live with that. But when, as was the case last night, the game isn't shown in widescreen anyway, that means I have the black bars on both sides as well - leaving me with a picture that takes up maybe 70% of the screen rather than all of it. Now I don't know how many games are now transmitted in widescreen, but I'm guessing that most of the ones that are shown on local networks are not. Which means I'm going to have to put up with small pictures and big black borders this year. Nice.

Still, baseball is back, and for that I am thankful.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A trip down memory lane...

Here are some of my favourite posts from the past two years of MLBlogging:
You'd never guess that I missed most of last years blogging action because of work, would you?!