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...

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