Saturday, 31 May 2008

Notta lotta hits

Chicago White Sox 5 - Tampa Bay Rays 1
Chicago White Sox 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

7 hits on Thursday and 6 hits yesterday isn't much to show from the first two games against the White Sox, but fortunately, thanks to some battling performances, and the first run scored against the Chicago bullpen in 30 or so innings we did at least manage to win one of the two games.

The White Sox, like they were when we faced them earlier in the season, are a tough opponent. Possibly the toughest we've come up against so far. John Danks pitched a great game on Thursday, with only an RBI-single from Carl Crawford blotting his copybook. Even four stolen bases (three by Jason Bartlett couldn't get the offense going). Edwin Jackson pitched ok - he kept the team in the game for six innings, but certainly wasn't at his best.

It was a similar story last night as well, with James Shields on the hill. Definitely not at his best, Shields did what he has done all year - battled hard, and refused to get bullied. It says volumes that despite needing double plays to get out of big jams in the second and third, he kept fighting, and only gave up a solitary run, a long ball to Alexei Ramirez in the fifth. The double plays were just another demonstration of our great defense, and it when you play great defense, you start getting the breaks in the field as well. Take an AJ Pierzynski pop-up in the fifth. Aki, Bartlett and BJ Upton all drifted towards it, but all of them just stood and watched as it dropped between them. Fortunately, Evan Longoria was awake enough to move across the cover second, so when BJ saw Pierzynski heading that way, he could just pick the ball up and toss it to Evan to get the out.

After Shields left the game, Al Reyes, JP Howell and Dan Wheeler followed with a scoreless inning each, sending the game into the bottom of the ninth tied at 1. Scott Linebrink came in to pitch for the Sox, facing Cliff Floyd leading off for the Rays. He never got to face another hitter, as Floyd deposited the second pitch over the fence in left-centre, for a walk-off homerun, the Rays fifth walk-off win of the year.

It moves us back to 11 games over .500, at 33-22, and keeps the gap over the Red Sox in the East at 1 game. Tonight, looking to keep up the pressure is Scott Kazmir, who faces Javier Vazquez in what I think should be a pretty exciting matchup.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Net lag: Another series win

Texas Rangers 12 - Tampa Bay 6
Texas Rangers 3 - Tampa Bay 5

Just a quick note on games 2 and 3 of the Rangers series, as I was rather doing other things while I had the two games on, and while Tuesday's loss was very disappointing, Wednesday's was extrememly encouraging.

On Tuesday, Andy Sonnanstine made his second poor start in a row, giving up 7 runs, although only a couple of them were earned, after a rare error by Evan Longoria (on an admittedly tough play). The roll of the ball was off for Evan all night in fact, as a couple of times he let the ball go, almost certain it was going foul, only to see it straighten up and hit the bag at third. Homeruns from Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd gave the Rays a chance, but the game was put out of reach by - who else - Josh Hamilton, hitting a grand slam. He didn't have an outstanding series by any means, but I'm sure that that hit meant a lot to him. And as someone who has followed his struggles and his comeback, I'm pleased for him.

I was more pleased, however, about Wednesday's performance. Matt Garza was on the hill, and pretty much unstoppable in what must be his best outing for the Rays yet. He was perfect through the first three innings, gave up a couple of runs in the fourth, but then bounced back to stop the Rangers from there on in. He threw 8 innings and allowed just 4 hits while striking out a season-high ten.

The key inning for the Rays was a four-run fifth, in which two of our runs scored on bases-loaded walks. We drew 9 walks in total during the game, matching our season high. With a three-run lead, Troy Percival came in for the ninth, but with two outs felt the same tightness he experienced last week in Oakland, and left the game. Dan Wheeler came in, and after allowing one of the inherited runners to score, got the final out and the save thanks to a fantastic diving catch from BJ Upton.

The win kept us top of the pile in the East, but the bad news is that while scans have shown nothing serious, Perci has been placed on the DL. Its a pretty big blow, not just for his work on the mound (which has been excellent) but also because of his leadership. He should be back as soon as the 15 days are up however. To take his roster spot, the Rays have reinstated Willy Aybar from the DL. Its going to be interesting to see how he fits back in. To be honest I don't think he's needed, while he is solid enough, I don't want him taking playing time away from Evan at third, and as a utility backup Ben Zobrist is a better option, for while Aybar has more pop, Zobrist can play everywhere (he made the start in right on Wednesday) including shortstop. Its going to be interesting to see whether we keep the extra position player, or if another move is going to be made soon to fill Perci's spot in the 'pen.

Last night we started a four-game set with the White Sox, with Edwin Jackson on the hill. News on that will, I'm sure, follow soon!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Net lag: K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-Kazmir

Texas Rangers 3 - Tampa Bay Rays 7

Well, its Wednesday morning, which must mean that its about time to talk about Monday night's game.

Which, I think it would be fair to say, I enjoyed a lot. And that is in no small part down to Mr Scott Kazmir. I said a week or so ago that, despite racking up three straight wins he still wasn't at his best. Well, last night he was.

His fastball was not only up to speed, but had some unbelieveable late movement. And his slider was simply devastating. The Rangers had no answers. He struck out 7 of the first 9 hitters he faced, and 10 overall in a 7-inning outing of brilliance. He gave up only three hits, and one run in the sixth, the only inning in which Texas threatened him even marginally. The run actually scored on what became a sacrifice fly thanks to (yet another) superb running catch by Carl Crawford, saving a sure-fire extra-base hit. The win makes Kaz's record 4-1 on the season now, with a 1.50ERA.

After Al Reyes pitched the eighth, Gary Glover came in for the ninth and had his second successive implosion, allowing two runs and only getting a single out - necessitating Trever Miller to come in and finish the job. Which he did nicely.

It was a cracking day for our batters as well - every starter picked up at least one hit, with Carlos Pena and Dioner Navarro leading the way with 3-4 days. Pena thought that one of his was a homerun, but after selling it to the umpire, he was ordered back to second with a ground-rule double when the final resting place of the ball was discovered - atop the B-ring catwalk. It was only the second ball ever to not come down from there, following a Jose Canseco shot back in 1999.

The only real downside at the plate was the fact that we left 15 men on base - but we did at least get 7 home, the key effort being Eric Hinske's ninth homer of the season, a 3-run blast in the 5th. That stretched the lead at that point to 5, and with Kazmir throwing bullets, it always looked like it would be enough.

The win meant the Rays held (temporarily at least) the best record in all of baseball at 31-20 - the first team in modern MLB history (since 1900) to have the best record through Memorial Day having had the worst record the previous season. Impressive. Trying to improve that record even further last night was Andy Sonnanstine, and more on that will follow tomorrow...

Monday, 26 May 2008

O's sweep!

Baltimore Orioles 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

That, was a better win. Ok, so we allowed Baltimore to score the same number of runs as on Saturday, and we scored fewer ourselves, but believe me it was a better win.

Take James Shields. Like Edwin Jackson the night before, he wasn't at his best. But unlike Jackson, Shields didn't let it affect him. He battled superbly, showing exactly the kind of determination that you want to see from a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. He ended with a no-decision, but make no mistake, if it wasn't for him knuckling down and working through the innings, we wouldn't have been in the position to win. He gave up four runs, including a(nother) homerun to Aubrey Huff in the 6th that looked as though it could be his undoing. Rather, he fought on, pitched two more scoreless innings and kept the Rays in the game.

And when the Rays are in the game, they are dangerous. We'd gotten on the board with a four run third, the highlight being Carlos Pena's team-leading 10th homer, and had had an all-around solid, if not spectacular day at the plate - often threatening, but being held at bay by some nice pitching from the O's. You can't say that we weren't doing everything we could to make things happen though - 3 stolen bases, an outfield assist from Gabe Gross, and a sweet pick-off at first base by James Shields just a few of the little things that can add up big when the game gets serious in the ninth.

And it was very serious with a tie game and Ray-killer Huff leading off for the Orioles. Trever Miller came in to pitch to him, and did exactly what a lefty-specialist is meant to do, exactly what he has been doing all season - he got the out. Troy Percival then came in and got outs 26 and 27.

Move forward to the bottom of the ninth, 1 out, and the O's bring in George Sherrill to face Carlos Pena. Tough lefty-lefty matchup for Carlos, but he sticks with it and works the walk. Up comes Evan Longoria, fresh of his 2-homer, 6-RBI day on Saturday. He sees a pitch he likes and laces it into right-centre. Pena takes off like a rocket, and as Longoria hustles into second Pena crosses the plate, moving faster than possibly he's ever moved before. Walk-off win for the Rays, our fourth series sweep of the season, 10 games over .500 at 30-20 and sole possession of first place in the AL East again.


The Texas Rangers are in town from tonight, meaning the Trop debut of former top-pick Josh Hamilton. After all the problems that he has had to overcome, I'm really pleased that he's finally demonstrating the potential that the Rays saw all those years ago - although I'm sure you'll understand it when I say that I hope he doesn't demonstrate it too well this week. Scott Kazmir gets the start tonight, and he'll be up against Sidney Ponson.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

The sports fan's mentality

Why is it that. despite an excellent win last night over the Orioles, its still the negatives that are annoying me more than the positives are pleasing me? Now, I know from experience at football that I am a far more positive person than most sports fans, but even I am frustrated at many of the little things from last night.

Baltimore Orioles 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 11

Now don't get me wrong, the hitting was great. Absolutely brilliant. Carl Crawford went 2-4 with 3 runs scored. BJ Upton went 4-4 with 2 doubles, a walk, 2 RBI and 3 runs. Evan Longoria went 2-4, hitting a 3-run homerun in the first, a 2-run homerun in the second, and later adding a sacrifice fly to round off an outstanding 6 RBI day. And Carlos Pena went 3-3 with a walk, 3 RBI and 2 runs. But it is with Carlos that my frustration starts. His first three at-bats resulted in a double, a triple and a single. He walked his fourth time up, and was due up third in the eighth, needing a homer to complete what would have been a first-ever Rays cycle.

But he never got the chance. Why? Because for some reason Joe Maddon brought in Gabe Gross as a defensive replacement in right, moving Hinske into first base. Now, even if it was a relatively close game, and all other things were equal, that is still a move that I would be unhappy about. But when you consider that it was a blowout, that Carlos was swinging so well and has had such a difficult start to the year, and that Carlos is the best defensive first baseman on the club, maybe in the league, and it is a move that defies belief. Maybe Joe didn't realise that he had the shot at the cycle. That is the only acceptable reason that I can think off for lifting him, but I don't for a second think that it was the case.

It wasn't the only Joe decision that confused me yesterday. While I was pleased that he gave Edwin Jackson the chance of the win (leaving him in through five sometimes tortuous innings), how he used the pitchers after that was confusing to say the least. JP Howell came in and very quickly worked through the sixth and seventh. Great. Its a blowout, he's a former starter and can easily stretch his arm out a little, lets save the bullpen and have him finish the game off. But no, Maddon brought in Gary Glover to pitch the eighth. Glover, who I do like as a pitcher, had a 'mare, getting only two outs, while giving up a hit, two walks and a run. That meant Al Reyes was brought in to get the final four outs (which he did very well). As it was, there was no real harm done - except that rather than using one pitcher, and having a completely fresh 'pen for whatever the next game may bring, we have three pitchers who have put in some hard work in a blowout. To me, that's not sensible managing of the bullpen.

Of course, it would have been nice if E-Jax had pitched some of those innings. He had one of his days yesterday, where he just couldn't throw it over the plate. He needed a beautiful double play turned by Pena to get out of the first, and perhaps the biggest surprise of his outing is that he only walked 5. The Baltimore hitters certainly helped him out by swinging at some stuff that was way out of the strikezone. I hope the irony is not lost that his first win in a month came on what was just about his worst performance of the season.

Anyway, a win's a win, and the reason I'm frustrated is that so often this year Joe and the players have been getting the little things right. Maddon is a great manager, though unorthadox at times, and despite the frustration that he brings at times, I'm certainly happy to have him in the big chair. This evening he sends James Shields to the hill, as we look to get the sweep of the Orioles. We're up against Daniel Cabrera, who we are pretty rubbish against, so it could be a challenge.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Baserunning: Learn with Hinske

Baltimore Orioles 0 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

Solid win for the Rays last night, thanks largely to, of course, some very solid pitching indeed. Matt Garza continued his sparkling record against the Orioles, pitching 7 1/3 innings, allowing only four hits, no runs, and striking out four. He worked out of a couple of jams as well, and was generally pretty excellent. Trever Miller came on in relief in a vital situation in the eighth, and with the help of a controversial call, didn't disappoint. With a runner on, Aubrey Huff was the first batter that Miller had to face. Huff, who should quite frankly be banned or something for the disgraceful way that he has assaulted Rays pitching since leaving Tampa Bay a couple of years ago, had already had a triple in the game, and looked to have added at least a double to that as he laced a pitch down the first base line, only to see it called foul by the first base umpire.

He was not happy! None of the angles they replayed it from on TV really showed whether it was the right call or not, but I will say this - Huff looked pretty convinced he was right. Miller kept his head in the game though, and came back to coerce Huff to hit into the inning-ending double play. Troy Percival then came in to pitch a perfect ninth, collecting his 14th save of the season.

For the O's, Jeremy Guthrie matched Garza out for out until the fifth inning. There, Eric Hinske got on board with a fading line-drive into left-centre with one out, and then proceeded to give a class on how baserunning doesn't have to be perfect in order to get results. With Jason Bartlett at the plate, Hinske took off on what the O's commentators said was a hit-and-run play, although judging by Bartlett's complete lack of any interest in making contact, I seriously doubt that. He had a pretty good jump actually, but then stopped about two-thirds of the way to second as Hernandez's throw came across the infield. It short-hopped Brian Roberts, who hadn't noticed that Hinske was now hung-up, and so Eric simply trotted on into second for the stolen base.

Bartlett eventually walked, bringing up Aki Iwamura. Aki had one of those days where he made great contact every time up, but it just kept going to where the fielders could get it. This time was no exception, as he lined a ball deep to centre, only to see Adam Jones somehow make a play on it. Hinske had taken off with the ball, and so when Jones did spear it, he had to rush back into second. Why he wasn't tagging, I have no idea. The ball was so far back that had it got past Jones he would still have easily scored from second, and otherwise would have had plenty of time to move up to third.

Still, luck was with Eric it seemed, as Carl Crawford stepped in and rapped a hit through the right of the infield, sending Hinske scampering around to score - thanks to a beautiful slide behind catcher Hernandez.

That run looked to be enough, but the Rays added a welcome insurance score in the eighth - in equally unorthadox fashion. With one out, Chad Bradford came in to pitch for Baltimore, and promptly walked BJ Upton. That saw the O's bench coach (their manager had been ejected for arguing the Huff call) bring in closer George Sherrill. And, before he had even thrown a pitch, Sherrill had made a mistake. He threw an attempted pickoff to first, but did so seemingly without warning to first baseman Millar, and so wildly that he couldn't have got it even if he did know it was coming. Upton moved over to third, and Carlos Pena hit the second ball he saw into deep left-centre. It looked like a sure-fire double, maybe even a triple, but somehow Luke Scott caught up and made an incredible play to rob Pena of a hit. Upton scored, but it could easily have been more. Considering the amazing outfield the Rays have, I think it says something about Luke Scott, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis that they each made a play last night that I would rate as good as, if not better than anything I have seen so far this season. They were outstanding.

The win moves us to 28-20, a game and a half back of Boston in the East. Edwin Jackson goes for the Rays tonight, as we look to carry on our hot home-form. He'll be up against former Ray Steve Trachsel.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Two games, and another game

Tampa Bay Rays 3 - Oakland Athletics 2
Tampa Bay Rays 1 - Oakland Athletics 9

Last night I managed to watch two baseball games, without seeing the end of either. Or, for that matter, really paying much attention to what was going on. Because, you see, I was watching the Champions League Final, and a belting good game of football it was as well.

Still, I saw enough of the baseball to know that on Tuesday Scott Kazmir made an excellent start (7IP, 4H, 1R, 8Ks and the win), and that yesterday Andy Sonnanstine did not. In fact, pretty much the only highlight yesterday for the Rays was an eighth inning homer from Jonny Gomes.

That means there was no sweep of the A's to take back to St Pete, but still a 27-20 record and second place in the East is a pretty good place to be. The Orioles are coming to town over the weekend, after an off-day today, and Matt Garza will be getting the ball first up, looking for his third win of the year.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Net lag: Lucky 13

Tampa Bay Rays 7 - Oakland Athletics 6 (13 innings)

Watching Monday night's game yesterday, I was struck by just one single thought as the game neared its finish - "please, not another walk-off!" And, after falling to two consecutive walk-off defeats in St Louis, the bullpen was indeed back on form yesterday, denying Oakland 5 opportunities to wrap up the game with a single swing.

The early going made it look very unlikely that the 'pen would ever get the chance to save the game, as James Shields came out very shakily, allowing homeruns in the first and second inning to give the A's an early 3-0 lead. But, the battling batters fought back for him, starting in the fifth, when Eric Hinske belted a two-run homer. An inning later and the Rays had the lead, thanks to an RBI-double from Evan Longoria, and a run-scoring groundout from Cliff Floyd, only for Shields to surrender another homerun (Frank Thomas' second of the night) to tie the game again.

Still the batters swung though, and in the seventh Aki Iwamura doubled home Jason Bartlett to put the Rays back on top. Shields got through the seventh, and through 2 outs in the eighth, before Oakland once again tied the game up, and finished his afternoon. 7 2/3 innings, 8 hits, 5 runs and 4 strikeouts isn't Shields best outing ever, but considering how the afternoon started, its pretty decent.

So, 5-5 game, bottom of the eighth, enter the bullpen. First up, and Gary Glover gets the final out of the eighth. JP Howell pitches a scoreless ninth. Extra innings. Jason Hammel comes in, making his first appearance for 11 days. He got off to a shaky start, allowing a couple of walks, but then really knuckled down, with three excellent scoreless innings.

Still 5-5, top of the thirteenth, Pena is aboard, Longoria steps in and blasts a shot to deep left-centre, his fifth homer of the year, 7-5 Rays. Longoria had an excellent day, going 3-6 with 3 RBI, as well as a stolen base. Troy Percival came in for the save, which, after letting one run score on a triple that only barely stayed in the park, he collected - his 12th of 2008.

After the tough series in St Louis, a game like this is exactly what we needed - a battling win that included a solid start, excellent relief pitching, and clutch hitting. It was even more important with Boston winning their fourth straight - and I should like to offer my belated congratulations to Jon Lester for his no-hitter. I don't think there is anybody, not even Royals fans, that would begrudge him for it, not after all that he has been through in the last year or so.

Last night, we sent Scott Kazmir to the hill, so I hope that went well. All will be revealed (to me) tonight and then (to you) tomorrow. Unless of course you know already...

Monday, 19 May 2008

Our own worst enemies

Just a quick note today on our two games with the Cards over the weekend, both of which I half-watched while doing other things.

Tampa Bay Rays 8 - St Louis Cardinals 9 (10 innings)
Tampa Bay Rays 4 - St Louis Cardinals 5

And, while St Louis played very well in both games, I think it would be fair to say that we played a very large part in our own downfall. On Saturday, we lost despite collecting a season-high 18 hits, in large part due to some catastrophic baserunning. We managed to make five outs on the basepaths, but even so managed to come back from four runs behind to tie the game up and send it to extra innings, only for Dan Wheeler to surrender a walk-off homerun for the bullpen's first loss in a month.

That became two in two days yesterday, following a solid, if not outstanding start from Edwin Jackson. E-Jax went only 5 1/3, but only had his scoreless streak ended after he had been removed from the game. The reason for his removal mirrored the downfall that was to follow for the Rays - after not walking a batter through the first four innings, he then walked 4 in the next 1 1/3 (he also racked up 7 strikeouts). Even after JP Howell allowed an E-Jax runner to score, and despite Wheeler giving up his second homerun in as many days (and as many pitches!) to Ryan Ludwick, we still should have been on for the win, thanks to a season-high 7 doubles and a Carl Crawford homerun.

Unfortunately however, our pitchers lost the strike zone completely - in all, 6 pitchers combined to give up 10 walks from the fifth inning onward - and it came back to bite us as the 10th one came round to net St Louis a second consecutive walk-off win in the 9th.

It was a good weekend at the plate for the Rays, making the pitching and baserunning struggles particularly frustrating - hopefully we can put it all together in Oakland starting tonight (James Shields on the mound). Particularly enjoying St Louis were our two shortstops - Jason Bartlett went 4-5 on Saturday, and Ben Zobrist got on the board for the year with a 2-4 day with a pair of doubles on Sunday.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

"He was Mr Everything tonight"

So said Joe Maddon. "It was the Sonny show. Thats all it was."

I don't think he could have summed up last night's game any better.

Tampa Bay Rays 3 - St Louis Cardinals 1

Because Andy Sonnanstine was completely outstanding last night. And not only when on the mound.

That's where I'll start though, and 8 innings pitched, allowing 8 hits, no walks, striking out 4, and giving up just a single run, on a homer for Chris Duncan in the eighth, is a very impressive outing by anyone's standards. Add to that the fact that he stopped Albert Pujols streak of 42 consecutive games getting on base, and its clear to see how good he was. His control was absolutely top quality - 76 out of his 98 pitches were strikes.

Then, there was the fielding. Not so much here admittedly, but he did make one excellent play moving off the mound to his left, saving an almost certain base hit.

I mentioned yesterday how he had done at the plate in interleague last year. Well, he didn't disappoint last night. He singled in his first time up, moved to second on a wild pitch (showing he can run the bases too, with a nice slide) and came round to score. He singled his second time up as well, and on his third trip to the plate put down a perfect 2-strike bunt. In fact, so good was he yesterday, that I would imagine he will be disappointed to have struck out on his fourth trip to the plate.

And, while Sonnanstine virtually did everything needed to win the game on his own, he did get plenty of help from his teammates - both in the field and at the plate, as well as from Troy Percival who pitched a perfect ninth for his 11th save of the year.

A 12-hit day marks one of the better recent offensive efforts, but unusually we didn't do such a great job of stringing them together. The exception was the third, where following Sonny's lead-off single, Aki Iwamura, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena all followed suit, the latter two picking up RBIs. The Rays added a third run in the fourth, Dioner Navarro walking and, following Sonny's second single, coming round to score on another single from Aki. Aki went 3-5, and joining him and Sonnanstine with multi-hit days were Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria - both of whom flashed some nice leather on the left hand side of the infield.

With Boston being rained out, that win moves us a game and a half clear at the top of the AL East, and 8 games above .500 at 25-17. Trying to improve that record further for the Rays this afternoon will be Matt Garza, fresh off his best start so far for Tampa Bay.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Getting used to the view

New York Yankees 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 1
New York Yankees 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

So it wasn't quite a sweep of the Yankees this week, but despite losing on Wednesday, last night's win makes it three straight days that the Rays have been looking down on the rest of the AL East. And you know what, I like the view.

So, it might not last. Who cares when you're playing such good baseball. And I'll tell you something for nothing - if the Rays actually start hitting, then we are going to be unstoppable.

Take Wednesday's game. One solitary run, on a seeing-eye single from Navvy (who's hitting .387 right now), but that was almost enough to beat the Yankees. Now how often can the Rays have said that over the years? Of course it helps to have James Shields on the hill. Unfortunately he couldn't manage a third-consecutive Trop shutout, but 9 times out of 10, 7 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs allowed and 6 strikeouts is going to get you the W. As it is, Shields slips to 4-3, albeit with a solid 3.05 ERA. Compare that with Wednesday's winning pitcher, Mike Mussina, who is 6-3 with a 3.99 ERA, and sometimes you feel there's no justice. Not that Mussina didn't deserve the win. He was outstanding.

Having watched that game as a warm-up, I moved on to yesterday's main event, Scotty K's third start of the season. And he started paying the team back for his new contract right away with a solid outing. Kaz still isn't quite at his sharpest, which, judging by the results yesterday, is very exciting indeed. He went 6 innings, gave up just 3 hits and no runs, striking out 3, and despite clearly not having his best stuff, really didn't give the Yankees much of a chance.

Following Kaz, Gary Glover was responsible for a rare bullpen-blip, giving up 2 runs in 2/3 of an inning - but the threat was soon shut down, by Trever Miller, Dan Wheeler (of course) and a tenth save of the season from Troy Percival.

The Rays themselves only managed 5 hits, but pieced at-bats together to tally five runs to earn the win. Aki Iwamura led off the game with a homerun, and later doubled and scored on a CC sacrifice-fly. He was joined having a two-hit day by Shawn Riggans, who was, thanks to Dioner Navarro's hot-hitting, making his first start behind the plate in over a week. He didn't waste any time either, lacing the first pitch he saw for a single, and then belting the second way over the fence in left for a two-run homer. Cliff Floyd went hitless for the first time since coming off the DL, and Ben Zobrist made his first appearance of the season, getting the start at short.

All of which gives us an AL-best 24-17 record going into interleague play tonight. To start, the Rays will be making their first ever visit to the new Busch Stadium to take on the Cardinals. Andy Sonnanstine is starting tonight, and, I have to say that as much as I would be looking forward to watching him, and the game in general, the real excitement is definitely getting to see the pitchers hit. Sonnanstine has a lot to live up to, having gone 2-5 last season to lead the Rays' pitchers at the plate.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Best. News. Ever. Plus, Net lag: of Perci and E-Jax

The first thing I do every morning when I get in to work is, as I'm sure is the case with most people, check my e-mails. And then delete most of them. Including the one from the Rays saying 'Postgame alert for the Tampa Bay Rays'. I mean, I don't want to know what happened in last nights game until I watch it!

But this morning there was a second e-mail from the Rays. And its subject made me very happy indeed.

'Rays sign Kazmir to four-year deal'

Oh yes.

Honestly, regardless of what the score in last nights game actually was, I don't think I could be much happier about baseball-related things this morning. Because no-matter how good we are getting, the gaping hole in the long-term plan was the signing of Scotty K. We'd locked up James Shields, CC, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena et al. But our crown jewel, the pitcher that every team would like to have, the pitcher that the Mets traded away for Victor Zambrano (what?! Thats always worth a mention!!) had not been signed up.

Well, not any more. A deal worth up to $39.5 million will keep Kaz in Rays blue until 2011 guaranteed, with a team option for 2012. And just think what our rotation could be like then. Kaz, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Mitch Talbot, Jeff Niemann, Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson... Look out baseball.

Which brings me nicely on to:

New York Yankees 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

And I'm afraid there is not much I can say about the game. Not because it was boring or anything, but rather because, for some reason, it still hasn't been archived on No idea why. Last night's game is up already - I checked - but Tuesday's still isn't. Oh well, thems the breaks.

Still, I don't need to watch to know what happened - Edwin Jackson was outstanding, again, allowing just 5 hits and no runs while striking out 5 in 7 innings work. But, once more the Rays gave him minimal run support - this time just a solitary score in the fourth. And, once more, Troy Percival blew the save - two consecutive E-Jax starts, two consecutive Perci blown saves. Tough break, especially considering how lights out Perci has been the rest of the time. Jackson has now thrown 15 scoreless innings without getting a decision. Lets just hope that doesn't frustrate him.

But, as you will know by know from reading this blog, the Rays are nothing this year if not battlers. Two scoreless innings from JP Howell followed, and, as Mariano Riveira, unscored-upon in 2008, started his second inning of work, Cliff Floyd steps in. He belts a single. Jonny Gomes pinch-runs, and swipes second base (his third steal in 2 games). And Gabe Gross laces a single, sending Jonny hustling round to home - another walk-off, another win.

And first place all on our own in the AL East.

Last night, James Shields made the start, and I intend to watch that (or as much as I can) after work tonight, and before the series finale starts at 4.10 EST (9.10 BST). I assume that Kaz is on the hill tonight. Shields and Kaz back-to-back? What a treat for me. I think I could get used to it...

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Net lag: Five straight

You'll be pleased (or somewhat indifferent, as the case may be) to know that my cold is now pretty much gone, and so last night (Tuesday) I could enjoy watching Monday night's series opener with the Yankees at the Trop.

New York Yankees 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 7

And enjoy it I certainly did! Matt Garza was on the mound for the Rays, and had his best outing in blue so far - going seven strong innings without giving up a run. He gave up only five hits, striking out three, and was well deserving of his second win of the season.

The win looked secure fairly early, thanks chiefly to a demonstration of hustle from Jonny Gomes. He singled in his first at-bat in the second inning, before stealing second base and scoring on a Dioner Navarro single to put the Rays on the board first. Next time around in the fourth, he furthered his challenge to Joe Maddon for more playing time, hitting an RBI-single, moving to second on a bunt, stealing third, and then scoring on a 2-RBI triple from Jason Bartlett. Bartlett then scored himself on a single from Aki Iwamura, who, with a 2-5 day, pushed his hit streak to 10. A couple of insurance runs came in the fifth and seventh, and by the time that Gary Glover, back off the DL, gave up a run to New York in the eighth, the Rays were already out of sight.

The win moves the Rays winning streak to 5, and their home winning streak to 10 - and at 22-16 we are six games above .500 for the first time ever.

That is to say, of course, that we were six games above .500 for the first time ever after Monday's game. We are either 5 or 7 games above now... all this delayed-action blogging gets confusing! I was hit by a bolt of inspiration while walking to work this morning, and thought that its kind of like the internet equivalent of jet lag - because of being 5 hours ahead of EST over here, I can't watch the action until about 18 hours later... net lag! Genius. Or not...

Anyhow, tonight Tuesday night's game beckons, and another chance for Edwin Jackson (if I remember correctly) to show what he can do.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Two from the Jays, and an Angels sweep

What is it, a week since I last wrote something? Well, while I basically haven't seen the Rays play in that time, we have, I think it is fair to say, had a good week.

It started with the Rays taking two of three up in Toronto, the third game a 13-inning spectacular that, despite Troy Percival blowing his first save of the season, saw the players keep on battling, finally being rewarded with the win thanks largely to a grand-slam from Dioner Navarro (who is still swinging a hot bat).

Then the AL West-leading Angels came to the Trop. And, well, they're not leading it now they've left. Here's the game highlights, in reverse order.

Game three last night saw Andy Sonnanstine struggle a bit on the hill, allowing 5 runs on 8 hits in 5 innings. But our hitters seem to appreciate that the pitchers have been keeping them in the game when the bats have been cold so far this year, and saw yesterday as an excellent opportunity to pay them back. Cliff Floyd, back off the DL, went 2-4 with 2RBI, and Aki Iwamura, Carl Crawford and BJ Upton all rapped out 3 hits a piece. CC was the star of the show, stealing 2 bases and belting a sixth-inning 3-run homerun to put the Rays on top for good. JP Howell pitched 3 innings of scoreless relief to get the win, and Perci picked up his 9th save of the season to seal an 8-5 win.

Game two on Saturday was more in keeping with most of our wins of late - great pitching complimented with just enough offense to get us over the line. And the guy throwing strikes for the the good guys was Scott Kazmir, which just makes things even sweeter. Kaz put his shaky season debut behind him, and threw 6 strong shutout innings, giving up only 3 hits while striking out 6. He was backed up with some outstanding relief from Trever Miller, Troy Percival and, in particular, Dan Wheeler, who really continues to impress. All the runs that the pitchers needed came on an Evan Longoria groundout in the first and a Carlos Pena sacrifice fly in the eighth.

Now game one, and this is the game that I intend to watch this evening. Because if James Shields' previous start at the Trop was outstanding, then this one was simply phenomenal. Shields took just 92 pitches to throw his second consecutive complete-game shutout at home. Having allowed 2 hits last time round, this time he gave up but a solitary single in the third. Only one other batter reached base, a hit-by-pitch in the fourth, but he was then wiped out on a double-play, meaning Shields faced only 28 batters in his gem, one over the minimum. He racked up eight strikeouts, and moves his record to 4-2 on the year.

He was made to sweat on the win though, and was getting ready to pitch the tenth when Evan Longoria came to the plate with a man on in the ninth. Jon Garland had pitched 8 shutout innings for Anaheim, but reliever Speir threw a pitch that Longoria liked the look of, and one-swing later it was game-over. Evan's first walk-off homerun. I saw a great stat in (I think) the St Pete Times - apparently it was just the 4th time in MLB history that a pitcher has got the win thanks to a walk-off homerun in the ninth after allowing no more than one hit. And he deserved it.

All that takes us 2 1/2 games clear of Baltimore and New York in second place in the East, and at 21-16 just a game and a half back of Boston. We are 5 games over .500 for the first time ever. And I know its still early, but it sure is fun to be winning!

The test though comes to town tonight in the shape of the Yankees. Matt Garza gets the nod for the Rays, and he will go up against Andy Pettitte. I probably won't watch the game until tomorrow, because while I would like to stay up, I am feeling pretty dreadful with a good ol' case of man-flu, and I don't think a late night would help that much!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death...

So goes the famous old quote from Bill Shankly, "...I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Well, while I might not go so far as the Liverpool legend, football (yes, yes, soccer) is a very important thing indeed. And it is the reason why, after work on Friday, I took a seven hour train ride from Edinburgh back home to Basingstoke. Sunday, you see, was a big day for Southampton - the team that I have supported, and, up until my move north, been a virtual ever-present at home matches since the age of 6. It was the last match of the season, and the Saints, as Southampton are known, needed to win and hope that other results went their way in order to avoid being relegated to the third level of English football for the first time since 1960. Such importance, I felt, warranted a second trip home in a week (I am already flying down this coming weekend for my grandfather's 70th birthday).

Anyway, 90 minutes of tension, agony and, ultimately ecstasy started at 2pm on Sunday, during which I shouted so much that not only did I get a sore throat, but I also gave myself a headache. But a 3-2 win was enough to keep the Saints in the Championship, and it was all worth it. A 20,000-fan pitch invasion followed as celebration, and my ridiculous 14-hour round trip was not it vain.

I tell you this not because I think that a Southampton match will be of a great deal of interest to anyone reading a Tampa Bay Rays blog, but more as an explanation of why I didn't see any of the Rays series with the Red Sox over the weekend. Well, actually thats not entirely true, as I did half-watch some highlights from game 3 when I got back last night.

It doesn't seem like I missed an awful lot, three distinctly underwhelming performances, and three defeats. Still Scott Kazmir made his long-awaited return, and while he only lasted 4 innings and got tagged with the loss, it sure is nice to have him back on the mound again.

The Rays have now headed off to Canada for three against the Jays, and then return home for 3 against, I think, the Angels. I have another travel-filled week ahead, so I doubt I will be able to watch more than one of the six, and I doubt that will be live. Still, normal service will be resumed just as soon as I am sure what is normal anyway.

Friday, 2 May 2008

The plot thickens...

Tampa Bay Rays 4 - Baltimore Orioles 7
Tampa Bay Rays 8 - Baltimore Orioles 1
Tampa Bay Rays 4 - Baltimore Orioles 2

The fun in Rays-world continues! Three games at Camdem Yards, 2 wins, and suddenly its May 2 and the Rays are sitting in first place in the AL East (on percentage points) at 16-12. How 'bout that?!

I watched games one and two of the series, but missed the finale yesterday afternoon - but all-in-all I liked what I saw. Just like I have done pretty much all season.

Tuesday night things didn't get off to the best of starts, as the O's got to Jason Hammel early and pushed themselves into the lead. JP Howell initially did very well in relief, but he and Scott Dohmann then gave up a couple of runs a piece, giving Baltimore a nice cushion for when the Rays finally found their bats. That happened in the seventh, with a four-run outbreak - the big blow (literally) being a BJ Upton two-run homerun. Unfortunately the O's bullpen then did what is was supposed to, and shut the game down from there on in.

Wednesday was a different story. Andy Sonnanstine was excellent, and the bats were working all game long. Well actually it was as much our batters' eyes, as we drew 7 walks - a very high total for the Rays! We already had the lead when the big seventh inning came around this time, and the five runs we added there were merely the icing on the cake. It was Eric Hinske's turn to get the important hit, as he blasted a fourth-inning two-run homer (his 6th of the year) way over the wall in right that put the Rays on top. Dioner Navarro kept up his good form, going 2-5 with 2 RBI, which leaves his average for the year at an even .400. That is, of course, somewhat artificially high because of the time that he spent on the DL, but regardless his early hitting is very welcome - and a far cry from his struggles in the first half last year.

Yesterday's game was a bit closer, as Matt Garza made his best start so far to get his first win (and, in fact, first decision) of the year. Dan Wheeler and Troy Percival were excellent as ever in relief. With the bat, Jonny Gomes pitched in with his third homer of the season, while the decisive runs came in the seventh on a two-run single from Carl Crawford.

Right, so that brings us up to date with the action, but not on the big decision that is coming the Rays' way this weekend. Who should stay and who should go?

Here is the Rays' pitching staff as is currently stands: Rotation - James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel; Bullpen - Kurt Birkins, Scott Dohmann, Gary Glover, JP Howell, Trever Miller Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler. And between them they are doing a mighty fine job.

But, coming back this weekend are Al Reyes and, the man himself, Scott Kazmir.

Of one move we are fairly certain, and that is that it will be Birkins who is bumped from the 'pen to make room for Reyes. Who goes to make room for Kaz however is far from clear. So here is my run-down of who's done what so far, and who I think deserves to stay:

James Shields - 3-1, 2.54 ERA, 2-hit shutout of the Sox and AL Player of the Week? No-brainer. He stays.

Matt Garza - Injured early, and has struggled a bit. But last two starts have been much better, and his upside is very high. He has options remaining, so could be sent down with no risk, but I can't see that particular move. He stays.

Andy Sonnanstine - Probably has the least impressive stuff of the whole rotation, but he knows how to make the most of what he does have. The first ever Ray to win four games in April, if it wasn't for a single start against the Yankees his ERA would be even better than its current (and still fairly respectable) 4.42. Also has options, which could potentially be the deciding factor. But on performance alone, he stays.

Edwin Jackson - 3 excellent starts and 2 horrible starts. That could sum up E-Jax's whole career up to this point. 2-2 with a 3.86 ERA is pretty decent, and there is no doubting his explosive talent. There is doubt, however, over his control. No options, he would be lost if he was sent down, and we've seen before that he is not well suited to the 'pen. He's worth the risk, he stays.

Jason Hammel - Possibly the most frustrating of the five. I want to like him, but compared to who he's up against he just doesn't have the same upside. He doesn't have the stuff of Jackson or Garza, and he doesn't have the control and pitching know-how of Sonnanstine. 2-2 with a 4.88 ERA is ok for a number five guy, but he's up against two guys who are pitching better and are better pitchers. Like Jackson he is out of options and probably would be lost on waivers, and would likely be of little value in the 'pen at the moment. I'd hate to lose him completely, but at the moment, for me at least, he's the weakest link. He goes.

Whether or not that will be the decision that is ultimately made by Joe Maddon and the organisation, we shall have to wait until Sunday to find out. I can't help feeling that Sonnanstine could be the one to miss out purely because he can be sent down with no risk. But, in all honesty, I think that would be the wrong decision. It wouldn't be a disaster, but it would be wrong.

That's a couple of days away still, and we have important things in the meantime. Such as the battle for first place that kicks off tonight, the first of a three-game series at Fenway. Edwin Jackson makes the start for the Rays, and, bearing in mind what I've just said, I still think he needs a good one. The pressure is well and truly on. BJ Upton is doubtful for the start, after leaving yesterdays game with a sore shoulder. I don't think its too serious though, and he should be available for pinch-hitting, which is good news. I may be staying up to watch tonight - I have to spend pretty much the whole afternoon on a train, so it rather depends on whether I get any sleep or not while travelling!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Quick Links

So Jason Hammel, as it turns out, was quite a way away from throwing a perfecto on Tuesday. I watched the game (a 7-4 Rays loss) last night, but don't really have time to post anything at the mo. Instead, I shall do a whole O's-series bonanza-post tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, here's a link you should check out from ESPN Page 2 - The new, big rivalry in the AL East. You can relive the day Wade Boggs was the Rays' best pitcher, as well as one of my all-time favourite Rays, Esteban Yan's moment of fame. Enjoy.