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.

No comments: