Friday, 20 June 2008

Cubbies Sweep!!

How 'bout dem Rays?!!

I've just finished watching last night's finale, and don't really have time to write anything substantial now, but I just had to jot down how impressive a series that was. As I've said before this year, its not just the winning, but rather its the way we're doing it. Last night Shields made an excellent start, but ran into trouble in the seventh, giving up three runs and being chased from the game.

Up until that point our hitters had been quiet, and had just a solitary run - and in years gone by a rough inning for our starter would all too often signal the end of the game as a competition.

Not this year. Bottom of the seventh, two walks, two hit by pitches, and Carl Crawford facing a lefty with the bases loaded an nobody out. Second pitch, swing, Grand Slam!!! That was followed by a BJ Upton triple, a double and steal of third from Eric Hinske and an Evan Longoria sacrifice fly. 7 runs, 8=3, game and series over.

A sweep of baseball's best team. I think it is time to take these Rays seriously.

Astros in town tonight, Matt Garza on the hill. Lets go Rays!!!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Net lag: Gold Gloves all round

Chicago Cubs 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 3


What a play that was.

So, last night I just about managed to watch the whole of Tuesday night's series opener against the Cubs, and boy am I glad I did. It was a truly fantastic game of baseball that had just about everything. I mean, the first eight innings were entertaining enough, but the top of the ninth... Wow, just wow.

Scott Kazmir got the start, and was pitching pretty well - he didn't allow a hit through the first four innings, but was throwing a lot of pitches. By the time he came out for the fifth, the Rays were 1-0 up thanks to a Cliff Floyd homerun. Unfortunately, Kaz couldn't get out of the inning, allowing three hits and a run, and leaving with two outs and the bases loaded, having thrown 110 pitches on the night.

Thats ok, here come the cavalry. Grant Balfour, who has been solid since getting called up, came in and successfully stranded the Cubbie runners. Then he pitched a perfect 6th, and was put in line for his first W of the season when Evan Longoria snapped an 0-14 skid in the bottom of the frame with a mammoth homerun that hit the side of the Rays tank in centre field. An RBI-single from Eric Hinske in the seventh moved things to 3-1 Rays, and it was up to the bullpen to come through. And it was the three relievers who have been there when it matters all season long who took the responsibility. JP Howell pitched a scoreless 7th. Dan Wheeler pitched a perfect eighth. And Troy Percival came in for the save opportunity.

And that is when things got really interesting. The first hitter (Soto, I think) hit a drive deep to left, over the head of defensive-replacement Justin Ruggiano. And while Rays-world may be spoiled by usually having CC in left, Ruggiano again proved just how much he is willing to give for the team. Over the weekend, I commented on a play where he ran head-long into the low wall in left chasing a foul ball. Well this time, he ran head-first into the left-field wall, making an awesome over-the-shoulder grab to rob the Cubs of extra bases. It was a fantastic play, worthy of the number 1 spot on any best plays list. Normally. Tuesday night, it wasn't even close to being the best play of the half-inning.

Perci was clearly not at his best. DeRosa singled, and Fukudome followed with a pinch-hit double. Runners on second and third, one out. Hoffpauir up to pinch-hit. Perci throws one in the dirt, Dioner Navarro doesn't have a chance. One run scores, Fukudome moves to third, 3-2 game, still only one out.

Perci fights back. He strikes out Hoffpauir. Jim Edmonds comes to the plate to pinch-hit. Perci lets another one get away from him, to the backstop - but this time the bounce goes straight to Navvy, and with Perci getting in position to block the plate himself, Fukudome stays put. But its not over yet, Edmonds draws the walk.

First and third, 3-2 game, 2 outs in the ninth. Reed Johnson at the plate. The Rays coaches notice Evan Longoria playing a bit too deep at third. They try to tell him to move in, but over the atmosphere (yep, you read that right!) at the Trop, they can't get his attention. Johnson has noticed it too, and, first pitch, he bunts it towards third. Fukudome is coming home.

I have lost count of the number of times so far that I have praised Evan's defense. It is truly remarkable. Indeed, he had already flashed the leather with some style several times earlier in Tuesday's game. But this was something special. Perci wasn't going to be able to get to the ball and make a play. Evan comes flying in from third, scoops, barehand and on the run, and rifles a one-hop throw to first. I defy anyone, anywhere in the majors to make a better play on a bunt like that. It was awesome.

But it wasn't complete yet. It was a tricky hop for any first baseman, but for one who only made his first ever major league start there a couple of weeks earlier, it was just plain nasty. But Willy Aybar belied his lack of experience and made a superb play to hold on and get the out.

What a game. Simply amazing.

And I'm telling you right now - if Evan Longoria doesn't end his career with a trophy-room full of Gold Gloves, then the award should be scrapped. He is just about the best defensive third baseman I have seen.

I shall probably be watching last night's game later this evening, but, after Tuesday's barnstormer, I fear it will be unable to live up to expectations. Still, fingers crossed that we did well...

Monday, 16 June 2008

2 of 3 from the Fish; next up - Sweet Lou

Blitz recap from the weekend (and last week actually), before I get on with what I'm supposed to be doing... I am going to be super busy at work for the next couple of weeks (boo!), but then super un-busy for the following two months (yay!), so blogging might be a stop-start affair until then.

Right, here we go. The Angels series (and road-trip) ended with a hard-luck loss after another outstanding start from Scott Kazmir. Then it was back to the Trop for a three-game weekend series with the Marlins. Andy Sonnanstine started Friday, pitched fairly well and got the win. Matt Garza started Saturday night, pitched outstandingly and got the win. Edwin Jackson started Sunday night, pitched not great and was tagged with the loss. And Troy Percival made his return from the DL with a scoreless inning on Friday and a another to pick up the save on Saturday.

That was the story of the pitching.

At the plate, Jason Bartlett was the star of the weekend, going 5-9 with a handfull of RBIs and a couple of stolen bases. Jonny Gomes marked his return from suspension by hitting the first pitch he saw for a homerun and then, in true Jonny style, striking out his next three times up.

On the basepaths, we ran amok, with BJ Upton (2), Willy Aybar, Aki Iwamura, Justin Ruggiano (his first ever) and, magnificently, Cliff Floyd joining Bartlett in swiping bags over the series. Floyd's was particularly sweet, not just because he can hardly run, and not just because he was (apparently) wearing a pair of Carl Crawford's shoes, but because he drew a wild throw from the catcher, allowing him to make it all the way to third. Beautiful. Actually, speaking of which, I also caught some of the Cincinnati-Boston game on Saturday where Brandon Phillips was thrown out trying to steal two bases on one pitch. It was beautiful - although it would have been even better if he had made it!

In the field we were, save for one flyball that Upton and Gross left for each other, brilliant. I've been saying ever since he arrived, but Evan Longoria is just a joy to behold playing at third. Some of the plays he made are simply outstanding - on Saturday he made possibly his best yet, diving across the foul line behind the bag to grab a hard-hit grounder, and making the long throw across the diamond from his knees in time to make the out. Class. In fact, even when we weren't getting outs we were playing sparkling defense - two cases in point from Saturday, in the first inning Justin Ruggiano, making the start in left, chased down a fly ball that was twisting foul, and chased it hard. All the way to the low wall where the party area is at the Trop. And he didn't stop there either, barrelling over the wall and into the fans in an awesome effort to make the play. The second was later in the game, when Dioner Navarro somehow managed to stay with a towering pop that had bounced around in the catwalks high up in the roof to make the catch. Of course, as the ball had hit the catwalk in foul territory it was already dead, but it was a quality catch none-the-less.

Day off today, but tomorrow the Chicago Cubs will be making their first-ever visit to the Trop, meaning the return of Sweet Lou Piniella. If that wasn't enough anyway to make it a series worth watching, its going to be a real test of our potential play-off hopes, to see if we can match it with the best team in baseball. Scott Kazmir is on the mound first up, so we shall be giving them the best we have to offer. Should be a fun series.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Net lag: Monday Night Rays go back-to-back-to-back

Tampa Bay Rays 13 - Los Angeles Angels 4
Tampa Bay Rays 1 - Los Angeles Angels 6

I hope that no-one will mind that I am only mentioning last night's defeat to the Angels in passing - I didn't watch it live (with a 3am start time, I think I am excused that), and I won't have the chance to watch it tonight. But its another road loss for James Shields, and it sounds like a tough one, where he was making his pitches, but just got beat by good hitting a couple of times. Thems the breaks.

Monday night's game, on the other hand, I did watch, and so saw all the breaks going the Rays way. Actually thats underselling things a little, because against the in-form Joe Saunders our hitters really found their swing.

It all started in the second inning, when Evan Longoria led off with another mammoth homer to left field. He was followed to the plate by the hot-hitting Willy Aybar, who I must admit has surprised me since he rejoined the team. He followed Evan exactly, belting another ball clear over the head of the leftfielder, and into the bullpen. Step forward Dioner Navarro. Navvy works a 3-2 count and, on the pay-off pitch connects just like Evan and Willy have done before, over the fence in left, back-to-back-to-back homeruns for the first time in franchise history.

Still, things are often interesting with Edwin Jackson on the hill, and indeed by the time the fourth was over, the Angels had moved into a 4-3 lead.

Still, not to worry. From there on in, it was all about the Rays hitters. 5 runs in the top of the fifth. 2 in the seventh. 1 in the eighth. And, just for good measure, 2 more in the ninth. The charge was well and truly led by Navvy, who with a 2-run double, an RBI-single, and another double continued his mighty form at the plate. That 4-5, 4RBI, 3-run day was almost matched by Evan though, who added another homerun in the ninth (his tenth of the season), as well as an RBI-double, to go 3-4 with 3RBI and 4 runs scored.

Indeed, nobody wanted to be left out, with all nine starters getting at least one hit, for a team-total of 18. Everybody except Aki Iwamura and Justin Ruggiano picked up an RBI - and Ruggiano, making the start in centre to give BJ Upton a rest at DH, made up for that by collecting 2 outfield assists. We turned three double plays, CC stole two bases, Edwin settled down and pitched a scoreless fifth, sixth and seventh, and all was right in Rays-world.

The loss last night though meant that we missed out on the opportunity to move back level with the Sox atop the East, and guaranteed a losing road-trip. Still, if we can win tonight's finale, we will have won 2 of the 3 series, which wouldn't be too bad at all. Trying to make it happen on the hill will be Scotty Kazmir, and he's going up against John Lackey, in what should be a cracking pitching matchup.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Getting heated in Texas

Tampa Bay Rays 3 - Texas Rangers 6

So, no sweep of the Rangers, and I think that this game will have to go down as one of those days. I guess that as a team, things are going to go wrong over the course of the season, and its just as well to get them all out of the way in one game. Well, we did that yesterday, and still were within shouting distance right up until the final out.

Actually, it was shouting that seemed to be a major problem all over the field last night. There was BJ Upton running into Gabe Gross while the latter was camped under a lazy fly ball - with both seemingly oblivious to each other's calls for the ball. There was CC backing off from another lazy fly that Jason Bartlett was going for - but, called for or not, ultimately couldn't catch up to. There was Eric Hinske objecting rather too much to a called third strike in the sixth, and getting ejected. (In Eric's defense, the pitch tracker showed that the ball was way outside).

And then there was Matt Garza. He was having one of those days. Things were going wrong in the field behind him, and he didn't seem to be agreeing too much with Dioner Navarro's pitch-calling. Things came to a head in the fourth when Garza let forth a tirade into his glove during a trip to the mound from Navvy, prompting a swift visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey. He calmed things down the best he could, and Garza got the next two batters to end the inning (though not before sailing a pitch out all the way to the backstop). He obviously wasn't happy though, and as he got to the dugout, he got back into it with Navvy, prompting a bit of a shoving match that had to be separated by other players and coaches in the tunnel. Unsurprisingly, Jason Hammel came out to pitch the fifth.

Still, it wasn't all doom and gloom. BJ Upton hit his fifth homer of the season, and Evan Longoria continued his incredible defensive display at third, making a full-stretch diving grab in foul territory to end the first that will be right up there among the best plays of the year.

And even with the loss, its still another series win, and we head to Anaheim now with a chance (all beit a small one) of a winning road trip. Which would be some achievement. Edwin Jackson is on the hill tonight, looking to bounce back from a rough start last time out in Boston.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Don't mess with us

Due to various things going on (the most significant being my return to footballing action after a couple of years of not playing - a decision that my leg muscles are still not convinced was a good one) I got to watch exactly five innings of the Rays-Red Sox series. And, considering it resulted in a second Fenway-sweep of the year, thats not a bad things.

But one of the five innings was inning two of game three, perhaps the most significant of the series. I had seen, of course, the highlights of the controversy in game two. Now, maybe I'm biased, but Coco Crisp's slide on Aki was completely unjustified. It was out of order.

Just in case you haven't seen it, let me recap. Crisp had stolen second earlier in the game, a play on which, in receiving the throw, shortstop Jason Bartlett had blocked the bag with his knee. Maybe it was intentional, but Bartlett doesn't strike me as that sort of player, it looked to me more as though he was just getting in position to catch a slightly off-line throw. Whatever. Crisp jammed his thumb sliding in, and did not take it well.

So, fast-forward a couple of innings, and Crisp is stealing again. This time, Aki is covering the bag, and the throw has Crisp out comfortably. But he slides through, taking out Aki with a raised forearm, the sort of slide that would be over-the-top if he was trying to break up a double play. Understandably, the Rays were far from impressed, and Joe Maddon let everyone know when he went out to the mound later, getting in a shouting match with Crisp in the Boston dugout.

Now, game three, and everyone knows whats coming. Even Crisp. At some point, a pitch is coming inside. (This is a part of baseball, by the way, that I find rather childish, and that it is accepted by all does not reflect well on the sport as a whole). Anyway, Crisp comes up in the second inning, and the pitch from James Shields does indeed hit him. Now Shields, even the NESN commentators (who managed to completely overlook the Sox players misdemeaners) acknowledged, did it the right way - he kept it low, well away from Crisp's head. It was intentional, but meant to send a message, and not to injure.

So that should have been the end of it, warnings all round, controversy over, on with the game.

But Crisp, showing himself to be a petulant child, decided that while it was ok for him to take out our (innocent) second baseman, no-one is allowed to come after him in return. He took a couple of steps up the line, and then charged at Shields.

I imagine you've all seen what followed - Shields took a swing and missed, Crisp connected, before being taken down by Dioner Navarro. Then came the cavalry, led by, who else, Jonny Gomes. As he demonstrated in the Shelley Duncan incident in Spring Training, Jonny is not one for letting his teammates get targeted. He led the charge, and along with Aki and Carl Crawford got some shots in on Crisp. Elsewhere, evidently, Edwin Jackson and a couple of Sox got into things, while the Boston third base coach slammed Shields to the ground (an action for which he has escaped punishment).

Now, I'm not one for encouraging fighting, but I for one could not be happier with the way the Rays reacted. It sent a clear message - mess with us, and we will stand up for ourselves, and stand up for each other.

I hope Crisp is pleased with himself though. He turned a minor incident (if you can even call it an incident) into a full blown fight and 8 suspensions. That his is the longest, at 7 games, hardly makes up for that. I would be entirely happy if I never have to speak of him again.

The suspended Rays are - Shields (6 games), Gomes and Jackson (5 games), CC (4 gamess) and Aki (3 games).

That all rather overshadowed the baseball, which as I said I saw little of, so can't really comment on where the Rays came up short. But it is a disappointment - we're going to have to win at Fenway eventually, and with them missing Big Papi, this was a prime opportunity.

Still, on with the action, and while I have been typing this, I have been watching the first game (from last night) of our weekend series in Arlington:

Tampa Bay Rays 12 - Texas Rangers 4

And Scott Kazmir clearly picked up in June where he left off in May. He went 8 excellent innings, giving up 6 hits and 2 runs, striking out 6 and looking really on top of his game. He is just a joy to watch. Al Reyes came in to pitch the ninth, and gave up a couple of runs - but by then our hitters had put the game out of reach.

It was a story of timely offense early on, giving Kaz plenty of room to work with. A massive homerun from Evan Longoria tied the game up in the fifth, before BJ Upton also sent one over the fence an inning later to put the Rays ahead for the first time. The lead was extended when Cliff Floyd scored on a wild pitch, and then further by an Eric Hinske sacrifice fly, and another big homerun, this time a two-run shot from Dioner Navarro.

Things were really blown open though in the ninth, when an RBI-triple from CC, a Texas error, a two-run homer from Hinske and a two-run single from Jason Bartlett added six more runs to give the score a far more lopsided final than might really have been warranted.

Still, it was a great way to bounce back from the Boston series, against a tough Texas team. I really don't think I can overstate how good the Rays' team spirit is.

Elsewhere this week, you will have course seen the Rays took high-school shortstop Tim Beckham with the number one overall pick in the draft - and then followed a few rounds later by taking his older brother as well. As always, its a bit of a lottery, but the scouts seem to be very excited about Beckham, so I shall be following his progress with interest.

Tonight, the Rays send Andy Sonnanstine to the hill for game two against the Rangers. I doubt I shall get a chance to see any of it, and I'm not too sure about tomorrow's game either, as I am playing in my work's football tournament - wisely or not. Hopefully I will both manage to last the whole tournament without collapsing, and get home in time to watch some baseball as well. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Casey's first at-bat

Oh Wikipedia, what wonderous nuggets of information you bring!

Yep, sitting there on the front page, "On this day..." informs me that it was 120 years ago on June 3rd 1888 that that brilliant poem, Casey at the Bat was first published, in the San Francisco Examiner.

I think thats worth a link to the Baseball Almanac's page on the poem, which has a recording of De Wolf Hopper's famous delivery - well worth a listen if you've never heard it before (though presumably as baseball fans, anyone reading this will have!).

I was going to copy my favourite stanza here, but reading it again, I just can't decide which one I like best. So I shall go for the first one, and invite everyone back to Mudville to watch Casey's big moment...
The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

Quick links - Mr May

Well done to Scott Kazmir who was yesterday named the AL Pitcher of the Month for May. Its the first monthly award that a Ray has ever won, and it was hugely deserved, as Kaz went 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA and 38 strikeouts.

Kazmir named AL Pitcher of the Month

Meanwhile, down on the farm in Vero Beach, David Price is continuing the torrid start to his professional career. For the third consecutive start he didn't allow a run, and has now pitched 18 scoreless pro innings, giving up only 8 hits and 2 walks, while striking out 19.

Price extends scoreless streak to 18 frames

Finally, here's a story that I read a couple of days ago that just underlines why Jonny Gomes is such a fan favourite. He must be so frustrated at his lack of playing time this year, and the struggles at the plate that it has caused, but he never loses sight of the bigger picture. Good for you Jonny.

Gomes gives young fan special day

Monday, 2 June 2008

Keep on walking off...

Chicago White Sox 3 - Tampa Bay Rays 4 (10 innings)

At the moment, its really fun to be a Rays fan. Really, really fun. And its not just because of the winning either. I mean sure, thats a very nice bonus after 10 years of losing, but it is just a bonus. Because this team is just flat out great to watch.

Its a very strange combination that we've got going at the moment. Its part never-say-die battling, and part super-clutchness. I can't think of any other way to explain it.

We're 57 games into the season now, and still our offense isn't working at its best. Carl Crawford is hitting comfortably below .300. Carlos Pena hasn't seen .250 yet. And our tendency for leaving men on base is alarming.

But when the game is close, when its on the line late, time after time after time we are coming up with the big hits. Yesterday it was the turn of Gabe Gross. He was making a rare start against a lefty, partly, according to Joe Maddon, because of his defense, but in my eyes solely because CC was getting a day off. Well, he made the most of his opportunity. The Rays had gotten on the board in the fourth, thanks to a triple by BJ Upton and a single from Pena. But, come the bottom of the fifth, we were trailing 3-1.

Jonny Gomes leads off with a bloop single into right. Shawn Riggans follows with a double. Up steps Gross, 1-9 on the year against leftys. He slaps the ball into the gap, and motors round for a 2-RBI triple, tie game.

Fast-forward to the bottom of the tenth, game still tied at 3, and the Rays haven't had a hit since that triple. It is Gross who is leading off, facing another lefty, Matt Thornton. Fastball, fastball, 0-2. But he stays with it, gets a curveball next up and connects, sending the ball over the fence in right, another walk-off, another win.

Of course, if not for great, and at times battling pitching, our hitters wouldn't keep getting these opportunities for glory. And it was no different yesterday. Andy Sonnanstine was still a bit out of form. But he went 5 2/3 innings, and while he gave up 10 hits, he kept working and only allowed 3 to score. Then he handed over to the bullpen.

And this season, for the first time ever, that isn't something that Rays fans dread. Grant Balfour pitched 1 1/3 scoreless, with 3 K's. Al Reyes pitched a scoreless eighth. And then came JP Howell, erstwhile inconsistant starter, in his new role as Mr Clutch the Reliever. He gave up a lead-off single in the ninth, but it didn't affect him one bit, as he got the next three, including a strikeout of Nick Swisher to end the frame. And when the hitters couldn't get it done in the bottom of the ninth, he came back and pitched a perfect 10th, earning himself a well-deserved W. It makes his record 4-0, and in 20 appearances out of the pen (37 1/3 innings) he has worked to a 3.38 ERA, giving up only 27 hits, while striking out 33. It is fair to say that he has taken to his new role well.

A seventh-straight series win keeps us a game clear of the Red Sox in the east, at an AL-best 35-22. We're off tonight (while the Sox take on Baltimore) before heading to Fenway for what could be a big series. Last time there, we were swept comprehensively, which in many ways fired us up for what has come since. I cannot wait for it to get started on Tuesday night (well, Wednesday evening when I watch game 1). Matt Garza will be on the hill to kick things off.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Maybe hits are overrated anyway...

Chicago White Sox 0 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

Our series of ever-decreasing hits continued last night, as we racked up only five against the Sox and Javier Vasquez. To be fair, Chicago only managed four themselves, and our five looked as though they would be plenty, thanks to having number 19 on the mound.

Scott Kazmir continued his fantastic start to the season, throwing 7 innings, allowing only 3 hits and striking out six. With the win, he becomes the first Ray to win five in a month, and moves his record on the season to 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA. In fact, excluding his first, shaky start off the DL, he has pitched to a ridiculous 0.55 ERA. And you know the scary thing? He's still not quite at his best - yesterday he was plagued by foul balls, ramping up his pitch count prematurely. When he really gets his slider going, he's...well, I can't wait.

The last six outs to complete the shutout of Chicago came courtesy of five pitchers in the temporary closer-by-committee. Actually, I somewhat suspect that Joe Maddon would have preferred to use fewer, but both Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler were a little shaky, getting one out, but allowing baserunners. Trever Miller and Grant Balfour (making his first appearance since being recalled, and earning his first save) got the final two outs, following Wheeler in the ninth, but the key effort was from JP Howell in the eighth. He came in with a runner on second, and struck out Jim Thome and Carlos Quentin to end the threat.

Thanks to the great effort by the pitchers, the two runs that our hitters put on the board were more than enough. The first scored on a groundout from BJ Upton in the third, and the second on Cliff Floyd's second homer in as many games in the fourth.

That moves us 12-over, at 34-22, still a game ahead of the Red Sox. Tonight, Andy Sonnanstine is on the hill against Mark Buerhle. Sonny needs to put in a good display after two consecutive weak outings - with so many pitchers on good form, and more waiting in the wins, the pressure is on in every start. Its a great situaion to be in!