Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Rocco question

Hmmm, its almost a whole week since my last post, and for once its not because I've been terribly busy. Rather, its because of the particularly unispiring run of performances that have been put in. A four-game series split on the road in Kansas City, and the first two in Toronto also shared.

Its all been the same old story to be honest. Solid pitching, dazzling defense, and no hitting worth speaking off. Actually, a couple of bits, such as a couple of homers from Carlos Pena, and a 2-triple game from Carl Crawford (who added another last night), were pleasant moments, but by and large its been a struggle. The highlight of the trip so far has without question been in the field - Jason Bartlett returned and showed right away just what we have been missing, making difficult plays seem routine and impossible plays look comfortable. I honestly don't think that there is a better defensive infield in the majors than Longoria, Bartlett, Iwamura and Pena. They are outstanding.

Also outstanding are James Shields and Matt Garza. (I mean, Kaz is to, but his start in KC got abbreviated due to rain). Shields pitched excellently, but was outduelled by AJ Burnett on Monday night. Then last night, Garza went up against Roy Halliday for the second time in just over a week, and once again came out on top of the Cy Young-winner. The Rays managed only 3 runs on 6 hits, but Garza was so lights out it was plenty. He went the distance, for his first career complete game shutout, giving up only 5 hits while striking out 5.

So thats the whirlwind week-in-review, now onto the big story. The trading deadline. A day and a half to go, and as yet nothing for the Rays. Possible targets are moving left, right and centre. Nady and Marte to the Yanks. Teixeira to the Angels. Actually, I never understood that rumour to be honest. Apart from the fact that he hits leftys well, we really don't need a first baseman. Anyhow...

So, who's left? Brian Fuentes. Huston Street. Will Ohman. They're the names that are being mentioned the most. Bullpen help would be welcomed. But, from what I've read the price is quite high at the moment - everybody needs reliable arms in the 'pen after all! With plenty of arms in the minors (admittedly mainly young starting pitchers), it will be interesting to see what moves are made.

Since last week, and specifically since Nady was traded, most of the Rays-talk has moved away from a right-handed bat to play rightfield. Ok, there is still some chatter (Jason Bay still, and Randy Winn are among the names being thrown about), and I wouldn't be totally shocked if we were to make a move for an outfielder, but for the most part it looks as though we are looking at who we already have.

Justin Ruggiano was up with the team a couple of times earlier in the year, and acquitted himself very well indeed. He is an option. And of course there are still those of us who believe(/hope?) that Jonny Gomes can find his swing and contribute.

But there is another guy, a guy that during Spring Training many Rays fans resigned themselves never to seeing play at the Trop again. That man is Rocco Baldelli.

I pretty much haven't mentioned Rocco since the spring. I've seen him struggle with fitness in the past, and I've proclaimed his return. This time I don't want to get over-excited, I don't want to tempt fate. But, it has to be said, the signs are promising. We finally know what the problem is. Its not going to go away, but there are ways to works around it. Is he going to be the everyday star centrefielder that everybody saw back when he first arrived in the Bay? No. Can he be the right-handed DH, occasional rightfielder, pinch-hitter and defensive replacement? If the answer to that is indeed yes, then without making a trade at all we may be able to add the best available player around.

Down at Double-A he's currently hitting .333 with 3 homeruns and 8 RBI in 11 games. He's DH-ing. He's pinch-hitting. He's playing some late-inning outfield. On friday he's slated to play 7 innings in right. If he comes through that, then it could be next stop Tropicana Field.

I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much. I want Rocco to make it back to the bigs more for himself than anything else. If he can overcome everything that he's faced, and play regularly and contribute once again at the major league level, then that will be some achievement.

But it sure would be nice to have his bat right now.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The irony is not lost

There's no doubt about it, I'm afraid. The Rays are struggling right now. We are right in the middle of a serious mid-season malaise.

The main reason behind it is obvious for all to see. We can't hit. Our bats are asleep. The biggest culprits (if thats the right word) are Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and Carlos Pena, but with the exception of perhaps Evan Longoria (who homered in three straight games over the weekend), no-one has exactly been shining recently.

So don't think that the irony of optioning Ben Zobrist back to Durham has been lost. I'm a big fan of Zobrist, and while he's never going to be a star, his contributions over the last couple of weeks have been important - as demonstrated again last night as he homered to put the Rays ahead, and then added an RBI-single that provided what turned out to be the winning run. Of course having provided that rare burst of Rays-offense, he was then asked to pack up his things and head back to Triple-A. Thanks Ben, I'm sure we will see you back in St Pete before too long.

While it is a shame to see Zobrist leaving, it does mean that Jason Bartlett is back, and not a moment too soon. I had been commenting on the 'spark-plug' qualities that Bartlett brings just before he got injured, and the lack of that has been all-too evindent over our recent struggles. I am certain that it is no coincidence that our season-high losing streak happened when we were without Bartlett. He may not exactly be a huge hitting threat, but on the basepaths, and in the field he has been the absolute stand-out of the season so far.

The encouraging sign though, through the course of this slump, is that we have actually managed to grind out the wins. Despite harldy being able to hit anything, we have won four of six, and both series since the All-Star break, and are still a half-game ahead of the Red Sox.

After winning the first two against Toronto, we lost the finale against the first of four consecutive left-handeders who would start against us. We have struggled hugely against the southpaws, so it was nice that we managed to win the opener against Oakland on Monday. That W came almost entirely courtesy of Scott Kazmir, who was outstanding, throwing 7 innings of 2-hit shutout ball. If he can carry on with that form for the rest of the year, then we will be laughing.

We then put together a very meek performance with the bat on Tuesday, only getting one run (on a sacrifice fly), and going down heavily. Andy Sonnanstine pitched fairly well, but things got a little bit away from him in one inning, and then the bullpen allowed the score to become a little more lopsided late on.

The wrap-up for the homestand yesterday saw James Shields at his best. He actually gave up back-to-back homeruns in the second, but got right back on it from there on in, pitching into the ninth for his ninth win of the year. As well as the contribution from Zobrist, Jonny Gomes got the important hit, belting a two-run shot off one of the catwalks to tie the game. Jonny clearly enjoyed the run of leftys that we faced - getting a few consecutive starts is massive for his confidence, and he showed why - going 3-8 with three walks and the aforementioned homer. He's still only hitting .197 on the year (though with eight homeruns and a .310 OBP), which is below what the team (and Jonny himself, I'm sure) would expect. With the trade deadline approaching, the two big possibilities for deals appear to be getting bullpen help, and a right-handed bat to play rightfield. I think that everybody around the Rays would love that right-handed bat to be Jonny's, but he might just be running out of time to show that he can contribute successfully in a part-time role. I really hope not, because he is a great player to have around, but I guess when you're in a tight race, you need contributions from everyone on the field, as well as off of it.

Personally, and despite the overwhelming success of our 'pen so far this year, I feel that an extra arm could be vital down the stretch run. We've got Perci back now (he got the save last night), and frankly I'm fairly happy having him in the closer role. And JP Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour are not really showing any signs of slowing down. But beyond that, with Al Reyes, Gary Glover (on the DL at the moment), Jason Hammel, and, most concerningly Trever Miller, things don't appear quite so sure-footed as earlier in the year. Miller in particular has struggled massively since the break - in three appearances he has recorded only one out, and walked six. I'm sure he'll get it back, but its worrying none-the-less. I'm also fine with Hammel in the long-relief role, but I'm not totally convinced whether he could cope well if he had to be moved up into more pressurised situations.

Then there are Reyes and Glover. Workhorses both, and experienced with it, but Reyes is, I fear, past his best, while Glover's best isn't that high anyway. Don't get me wrong, its not like I go and hide behind the sofa when they come in to pitch, but there definitely exists the possibility of an upgrade.

And I think that an uprgrade there would, over the rest of the season, pay the most dividends. The St Pete Times makes a telling point today in discussing our problems against leftys - its all very well looking for a platoon rightfielder (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Casey Blake are the most oft-mentioned names), but in addition to the limited number of times that we will face leftys over the rest of the season, they point out that Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and Carlos Pena are hitting just .233, .262 and .204 respectively off left-handed pitching. Even with the best right-handed bat available, if those numbers aren't improved then we're going to continue to struggle.

An extra arm, on the other hand, would not only take some of the pressure away from Perci, JP, Wheeler and Balfour, but could be a consistant difference maker late on in tight games. And I think that in the last two months of the season there are going to be a lot more tight games than there are games against left-handers.

Anyway, its going to be an interesting week for Andrew Friedman. And I for one am looking forward to seeing what he will make of it.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Not the answer you might expect

The question? You have two pitching duels, AJ Burnett against James Shields, and Roy Halladay against Matt Garza. Who is going to come out on top?

I'm betting most people would pick the Jays' hurlers to get the better of things nine times out of ten. Well, not this week. This week, two out of two have gone to the Rays.

Toronto Blue Jays 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 2

Friday night, it was James Shields on the hill, looking to end our 7-game losing skid, and get the second half off to a good start. And boy did he ever do it. He allowed a third inning homer to Adam Lind, but that was it, going seven innings while giving up only four hits and that solitary run. Having thrown 105 pitches, those seven were his lot, and as he sat down he was facing the possibility of a super-hard luck loss.

But, fear not, because as was the story so often in the first half, an unlikely hero with the bat picked up a starter's great effort. In the bottom of the seventh, Eric Hinske worked a one-out walk to bring Ben Zobrist to the plate. Now, much as we have missed Jason Bartlett (and we have missed him a lot), Zobrist has done a solid job filling in for him. And he continued on with that solid job, taking the first pitch from Burnett and depositing it over the fence in rightfield for his fourth homer of the season.

JP Howell and Grant Balfour got the final six outs without allowing a hit, and just like that the streak was over and the Rays were back on top of the East.

Toronto Blue Jays 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 6

And if the performance that had moved us there was good, the one that stretched the lead to 1 1/2 games was simply awesome.

I think most people are agreed that Roy Halladay is a very impressive pitcher. Well yesterday he was simply outpitched by Matt Garza.

Garza was completely dominant, pitching 7 2/3 innings, striking out 6 and giving up only 2 singles. Toronto simply didn't have a chance.

Not that the Rays had much to show off of Halladay. Until the sixth inning, that is, when we pieced together one of the more unusual rallies that you will see - but then thats what you need to do sometimes against a top class pitcher. The inning started with Friday's hero Ben Zobrist giving a perfect demonstration of the classic Baltimore Chop, as he made contact and cut the ball almost straight into the dirt in front of home plate, from where it leapt over the dispairing jump of Scott Rolen at third. Aki Iwamura followed with as perfect a bunt as you will ever see, not only moving Zobrist up to second, but beating out the throw as well.

Next up was Carl Crawford, who made a terrible attempt to bunt, before eventually sending a slow dribbler along the first base line. He was easily going to beat out any effort to field it, so Roy Halladay watched as it trickled along the line, and, when he thought it had momentarily drifted into foul territory, he picked it up, only for the umpire to rule it fair. He was not happy. Now, I have two points here - 1) even I know that balls hit along the lines at the Trop tend to roll fair; and 2) Halladay may have been almost 4000 miles closer to the ball than me, but it looked as though it was just touching the line when he grabbed it. It was a tough call to be sure, but the umps had already made several great close calls during the came, so I am (obviously) more than happy to back them on this.

So, that was three hits that had travelled about 150 feet combined, as Carlos Pena stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out. And he continued the scrappiness by blooping a single barely over the head of the Toronto second baseman, scoring Zobrist to put the Rays on the board. Eric Hinske tried to add some more, but struck out swinging.

Step forward Evan Longoria. As if he needed to do anything more to impress, well, everybody really. What followed was a great battling at bat in which he worked the count full, fouled two balls painfully off of his ankle, and finally belted the 10th pitch he saw over the fence in left-centre for his first career grand slam. Off of Roy Halladay. That is the sort of spectacular thing that has just become par for the course watching Evan. I think one of the Toronto commentators summed it up perfectly a little later in the inning when he said, somewhat unconnected to what the rest of the conversation was about, "Evan Longoria is special". I couldn't have put it better myself.

That inning chased Halladay from the game, and in the eighth, Cliff Floyd added a sixth run for the Rays with a homer off the first pitch from Brandon League to straight-away centre. It should have been a pretty meaningless run, but come the top of the ninth, it looked pretty vital. Trever Miller came out and, unusually for him, gave up hits to two straight leftys. That brought in Al Reyes, fresh of the DL, he managed to get an out, but gave up a couple of hits himself and generally looked pretty ineffective. What should have been a coast to victory was suddenly getting tense. Step in Dan Wheeler. He actually allowed a hit, and Reyes' two runners to score, but came back to get the last two outs and preserve Garza's well deserved win.

This afternoon, Edwin Jackson is on the hill as the Rays look for the sweep. He'll be up against John Parrish.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

All-Stars? Really?

I should probably make it clear right away that I'm not a huge fan of the All-Star game. I like the homerun derby, and the general concept of celebrating the best players each year.

But I don't like the fact that the result of the game decides home field advantage for the World Series. Probably not alone there.

And, unfortunately, I think that while the concept is good, the practicality of celebrating the year's best players is where the whole thing falls down. Let me explain.

Ok, giving the fans a say as to who they want to see play is a good idea. To a point. But the simple truth is always going to be that more fans=more votes. This year is a case in point. I'm trying not to be overtly Rays-orientated here, but they are who I know best, and so its easier for me to draw an example from them. Terry Francona said, on the Rays having only two representatives (and I paraphrase from memory), "at some point if the Rays want more representatives, then their fans are going to have to go out an vote."

Its reasonably logical, I suppose. But how many fans do the Rays have? Even including displaced fans (such as your author) and part-time fans and well-wishers, would we ever be able to outvote even that small percentage of Yankee fans who regularly attend 2 or more games a year at the Stadium? I think not. So already that plan has fallen by the wayside.

So what next? Ok, so we need the neutrals, and fans from National League teams to give our guys the vote. There's plenty of them, after all. It is possible that, with a good season, and lots of media attention, that a Ray could pick up enough votes from them to have a serious shot at making the team.

But here's the kicker. You can vote 25 times. Why? Why, oh why, oh why? I challenge anybody to come up with an election where you are allowed to vote for the person you want up to 25 times. Lets face it, its a system that could totally revolutionise democracy.

And it renders the neutral vote more or less useless. Why do I say that? Ok, I'm a Red Sox fan and I love David Ortiz. A big stretch of the imagination, I know. I want him on the All-Star team. What am I going to do? Yep, I'm going to go an vote 25 times. Big Papi 25-Everyone else 0. But what if I'm one of those neutrals. I'm thinking that Cliff Floyd (for example) is more deserving. So I vote for him. But do I care enough to go and vote for him 25 times? No. So its Big Papi 25 - Everyone else 1. Ladies and Gentlemen, democracy in action.

All of that is even before we get to who everyone is voting for. I could live with everyone having 25 votes if someone could guarantee that it was the best players who were being voted for, and not the most popular. But just look at the lineups. Someone please make the argument to me that Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Ichiro or Ortiz have been the best at their positions so far this season? Someone tell me how Joe Mauer only squeaked home barely ahead of Jason Varitek? Carlos Pena came in the top five for first basemen. Not even I would have voted for him based on his first half (if I had voted). I literally do not understand the point of the All-Star game if it is not the players who are playing best that are selected. Especially not when the result of the game actually counts for something.

Of course, I don't really have an alternative suggestion. The other possibly acceptable one is for the players to choose. But look at their votes this year for the reserves. They voted on Scott Kazmir, who while I think he's great, missed the first month of the season, had 6 awesome starts in a row, but otherwise has actually been some distance off of his best form. And while the fans did eventually manage not to pick Jason Varitek, the players went right ahead and gave him the nod. Yep, the same Varitek who is hitting .220 on the year, and a bruising .133 over the last 30 days. The NL pitchers must be quaking in their boots.

Its a bit sad then, that for all this I am still ecstatic that Dioner Navarro got the nod. He truly deserves to be an All-Star this year. Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased for Kaz as well, but I could think of at least 2 or 3 other Rays pitchers who I think deserve it more than him this year. Sorry Kaz.

And I am certain that Evan Longoria is worthy of winning the final vote. He is an immense talent, and deserves the recognition that being an All-Star brings. And I'm enjoying the campaigns that are going on for the various players. Well, some of them. I like the fan-orientated, fun ones. I liked Giambi-tache night yesterday.

But I read this article on and it actually made me feel a little ill at the whole All-Star experience. The final vote could be, should be - in fact, probably was meant to be - a way to get the fans really involved in the week, a chance for lovers of baseball to give a reward to a player who would otherwise have just missed out. I could cheer for that. Anyone could.

But sometimes the MLB, and MLBAdvancedMedia are just in their own little worlds. I quote from the article directly -

"...take the Giants as just one example. Their front-office people have been voting non-stop for Rowand online. Employees have been encouraged to vote as often as possible and have their families vote on their behalf. There are contests among employees to see who votes the most. Winners of those contests receive "cash prizes" and "memorabilia." Staci Slaughter, the club's senior vice president of communications, said the first time they counted how many times the employees had voted, some had already registered 10,000 votes."

How is that giving the fans a chance to reward someone who they think deserves it? If I sat at home and voted non-stop for the entire time that I wasn't working this week, could I vote 10,000 times? No. Nobody could. So my vote doesn't count. Your vote doesn't count. But hey, it is a nice job if you can get it, being paid to vote for someone. I believe that, in some democracies, it is considered illegal, but in the MLB it's positively encouraged.

I hope Evan wins. But I can't support a game that is created through this farce. And I can't believe that the MLB's own website is actually praising what I can only describe as vote-rigging.

What a joke.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

And Sonny makes 10

Kansas City Royals 0 - Tampa Bay Rays 3

As it turns out, Zack Grienke is a pretty good pitcher indeed. Not quite good enough to stop the rolling Rays, however.

From a offensive show friday night, we moved to a pitching spectacular last night, with probably the rotation's biggest surprise this year, Andy Sonnanstine, on the hill. I don't think Sonny would be offended if I were to say that he was the least of the Rays' five, in terms of pure natural ability. But he does have something really very special. A knack of getting the job done. At 4.31, his ERA is the highest of our rotation (rather impressively so, considering the relative respectability of the number), yet he has now become just the third Ray ever to win 10 games before the All-Star break. Somehow, he manages to give up his runs in games when we score plenty, and in games when we don't, he shuts the opposition down.

It was a case of the latter yesterday that brought him number 10. Painting the corners, pitching to contact, and trusting the defense (and rightly so!), Sonny went 7 strong innings, giving up just 5 hits while holding the Royals scoreless. JP Howell came in for the eighth, and after giving up a lead-off walk, struck out the side. I can't begin to tell you how much I hope that JP gets the call for the All-Star game. He is easily the most deserving on the club, and while I think that Navvy is the more likely to make it, nobody should underestimate just how valuable Howell has been this season. Top class.

Grant Balfour came in the pitch the ninth, taking his turn in the current closer-by-committee bullpen. And he carried on his excellent form, picking up his 3rd save with two K's and a soft liner to Upton in center.

That sealed our 8th shutout victory of the season (3 complete games, 5 combined), which was safe thanks to some hustle, patience and clutch hitting in the second. Cliff Floyd led off the frame by chopping a ball towards short. He took off down the line, and made it to first safely for his fourth infield hit of the year. He was followed by a single to right by Dioner Navarro, before Hinske and Zobrist were retired without advancing either runner. Step forward Aki Iwamura, who battled Grienke before stroking a double that scored Cliff and Navvy.

With Sonny on form, that was enough, but in the seventh Ben Zobrist added an insurance score, belting a homerun just over the fence in left - his third consecutive start with a longball. After Reid Brignac's encouraging debut on Friday, the short-term shortstop-by-committee looks to be coping pretty well, and its very encouraging to see the power that Zobrist has been developing recently. He belted the homer right-handed, having drilled a triple left-handed a couple of innings before, an effort that only just fell short of making a splash landing in the Rays tank.

With Boston losing, the win puts us 4 games clear now at the top of the East, and this afternoon James Shields will go to the hill looking to continue our 6 game win streak.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

"That all men are created equal..."

Well I hope that everybody on the other side of the pond had a very enjoyable Independence Day. Its not exactly something that is celebrated over here (I can't imagine why!!!), but I enjoy it, as it always gives me a good reason to re-read the Declaration of Independence, which in my mind is one of the finest written pieces of political text - of any text, in fact - ever produced.

Kansas City Royals 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 11

Still, whatever the Declaration says, it's demonstrated time and time again that, as far as baseball is concerned, all men are not created equal. In fact, some are just so unequal that it is almost ridiculous. Take Evan Longoria, for example. Last night he went 3-5 with a double, meaning that over the last 13 days, he has batted .438 with 4 homeruns and 15 RBI. That's almost not fair to other teams. Or take Carlos Pena, who has not been, it is fair to say, at his best this year. Well, he went 2-4 with a sacrifice fly and 5 RBI, 3 of which came on a homerun that can only be described as prodigious, striking half way up the batters eye restaurant in straight away centre.

Then there was CC, who went 3-5 with another stolen base; Dioner Navarro who went 2-4 raising his average back up to .315, and practically daring everyone not to pick him for the all-star game.

And there was Reid Brignac, just 22, who was called up (along with Ben Zobrist) after Jason Bartlett was placed on the DL with a sprained knee, sustained while stealing third in the series finale against Boston. It probably says something about how well Bartlett has played that we felt we had to bring up two shortstops to replace him, but... Brignac though, making his major league debut, didn't let the pressure get to him. He went 0-3 at the plate, with a walk and a run scored, but any doubts about whether he would be able to cut it were dispelled in the top of the first when he made another in what has been a long line of top quality Rays defensive plays this year. Taking a shovelled feed from Aki, he grabbed, spun 360-degrees, and fired a perfect throw down to first to complete the double play. Score one more for the farm system.

Far from a 4th July firework display, last night was much more about consistency and taking the opportunities that were presented. 11 runs on 12 hits is a pretty nice return, but with the exception of Pena's blast, it was more solid than spectacular. Still, after the intensity of the Red Sox series, it was encouraging to see that there was no let up as the Royals came to town. Lets hope it stays that way over the weekend.

Edwin Jackson on the hill had one of his better outings on the year, giving up just 2 runs on 4 hits over 8 excellent innings. He only struck out two, but seemed to have the confidence in his stuff to pitch to contact - a confidence that, along with his control, is all too often lacking. But it allowed him to easily go deeper into the game, something that can only be a good thing. Lets hope he can keep it that way next time out.

Tonight, Andy Sonnanstine takes the ball, looking to become just the third Ray ever to rack up 10 wins before the All-Star break. It won't be easy, as he's up against Zack Greinke, who, by the numbers at least, would appear to be one of Kansas City's better hurlers.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

So much more than just another Sox sweep

You know something? You just can't not watch this team. You can't stop, you can't look away, not even for one second.

Because every pitch, every swing of the bat, every bit of glovework could be the one. It could win the game. Even a game that looked out of reach. And maybe even a series against the World Champions.

At 3AM last night (UK time, obviously!), the Rays were 4-1 down. Kaz had lasted only 5 innings with an elevated pitch count, and through 6 innings the hitters had picked up only 3 hits between them. I had to be up for work at 8. I was only watching live at all because well, lets face it, Kaz v Dice-K, Rays going for the sweep, how can you not watch live? And as Jonny Gomes struck out, leaving a man aboard to end the 6th, going to bed looked a pretty good option.

However, before I get to my good decision, and those last 3 innings, lets have a quick recap of games 1 and 2.

Boston Red Sox 4 - Tampa Bay Rays 5

A solid start from James Shields (6 1/3 IP, 5 hits, 2 ER, 5 Ks) was backed up nicely by some timely hitting - a BJ Upton homerun on the first pitch of the game was complimented by a two-run shot from Gabe Gross in the fourth. RBIs from Carlos Pena, and a hustling Jonny moved the lead to 5-2 heading for the ninth. Then things got interesting. In came Troy Percival. And back came the Sox. Three hits, including a double off one of the catwalks in right, and things were looking shaky. One run scored, and then another on a sacrifice fly to right. As the throw came back to the infield, Perci ran to back up third. Or rather, he limped to back up third. He did not look good at all. Out came trainer Ron Porterfield and Joe Maddon.

The discussion was, shall we say, lively - Perci understandably didn't want to come out, but Joe was looking at the bigger picture, stuck to his guns, and called for Mr Clutch the Reliever - aka JP Howell. Quite a situation for the erstwhile inconsistant starter - one run game, a man on, two out and Julio Lugo at the plate. But fear not. JP did what JP has been doing best all season long. He made the big pitch at the big moment, and got the soft liner to short to end the game and earn his second save of the year.

Boston Red Sox 1 - Tampa Bay Rays 3

Game 1, I had watched knowing the score already. Game 2, I watched yesterday evening, with no clue what had happened. Its more exciting that way - though knowing that the outcome has already been decided doesn't make it any less nerve-wracking!

And when the Rays face Tim Wakefield, it is doubly so. Well, the 1998-2007 versions of the Rays at least. For Tampa Bay v2008 are something else. They've got the battle. And the hustle. And the will to win. A run on a wild-pitch got us on the board. And when the Sox tied it in the 4th, we got right back on it again, with the first of two super-clutch RBI-singles from Dioner Navarro, who must be in with a real shout of making the All-Star team.

Pitching wise, we got 7 outstanding innings from Matt Garza, who allowed just one unearned run on 5 hits, and moved his record to 7-4. JP Howell got a couple of outs in the eighth, and Grant Balfour got the final four to record his second save of the year - including 3 strikeouts in the ninth.

The big play though was, as has been the case so many times already this year, made down at the hot corner with the Rays on defense. Alex Cora came up with 2 outs in the seventh, and slapped an offering from Garza hard down the third base line. Surefire double, and a major threat, right? Not so fast. Are you forgetting that Evan Longoria is the guy with the glove down there? Not me. He dived full-stretch to somehow make the stop on the line, got to his knees, and threw a one-hopper across the diamond for Carlos Pena to expertly dig out and stop the potential threat in its tracks. If it hasn't already, then the Evan for a Gold Glove campaign starts here.

All of which brings us back to last night's game, which when we left it was unpromisingly poised at 4-1 Sox heading for the top of the seventh. It wouldn't finish that way though. Oh no...

Boston Red Sox 6 - Tampa Bay Rays 7

Let's be honest. On the face of it my decision not to go to bed at that point was an odd one. Work in the morning, already looking at less that 5 hours sleep, and no sign of any comeback.

But this is the 2008 Rays, remember. The never-give-up Rays. The best-in-baseball Rays. How sweet that sounds.

Gary Glover held the Sox scoreless in the top of the seventh, just as Trever Miller had done in the sixth. Manny Delcarmen comes in to pitch for Boston, and leading off for the Rays is Jason Bartlett. Jason came over from the Twins in the Delmon Young trade in the winter. And while Garza was the prized piece of the trade from the Rays perspective, Bartlett has shown himself to be far, far more than just a make-weight. He has become a key contributer with his magnificent range at short, and a pesky hitter who, in his own way, has been just as big a sparkplug for our offense as anyone else in the lineup. And you will find no better demonstration of that than last night.

Facing the new pitcher, Bartlett raps a double down the rightfield line. That was all the Trop (the filled-to-capacity-with-more-Rays-than-Red-Sox-fans Trop) needed to come to life. But not satisfied, Bartlett did that little bit more. Aki up, JB takes off for third. He makes it safely - his 8th swipe of third base (18th total) this year. He has got it down to a tee. I can give no greater praise than that which Joe Magrane and Dewayne Staats heaped on him at the time - "If you were holding a seminar on how to steal third, you would want him as the keynote speaker". Coming from a couple of guys who watch BJ Upton and Carl Crawford run the bases everyday, that is a compliment indeed.

And oh, what a stolen base can do for an offense! With Bartlett just 90 feet away, Aki grounds one to first. JB motors home, while Aki takes off down the line, flying past the slow-to-break Delcarmen, and beating out the infield single. Game on.

Next up CC, and he knocks a single to right-centre. Runners on first and third, no outs, game over for Delcarmen. Calling Craig Hansen, come and take your shot. BJ Upton up next, and he draws the walk. Bases loaded, nobody out, Carlos Pena stepping in. Balls one, two, three and four followed. Aki strolls home. 4-3 game, bases still loaded, no one out, Evan Longoria at the plate. As if there was any doubt he would deliver. Having already knocked a run home in the first, Evan waited for a pitch he liked, and then laced it into right centre. CC scores, BJ scores, Carlos to third, a stand-up 2-RBI double for the boy wonder. His 49th and 50th RBI of the year - just the third rookie in the last 50 years to have 15 homers, 50 RBI and 20 doubles before the all-star break. And he didn't get called up until a couple of weeks into the season. If it hasn't already, then the Evan for Rookie of the Year campaign starts here.

5-4, and the new pitcher is David Aardsma. He finally gets Boston an out - Willy Aybar - but then walks Dioner Navarro. Step forward Javier Lopez, the fourth BoSox pitcher of the frame. He strikes out pinch-hitter Gabe Gross. So its bases loaded, 2 outs, and a 1-run Rays lead. Guess who's back at the plate. Jason Bartlett. Swing. Massive hit. 2-run single, 7-4 Rays lead. Believe MLB, believe in the Rays.

Still things aren't over, not against Boston, and not with the Rays depleted bullpen. Glover gets two outs in the eighth, but gives up a run. 7-5 Rays. In comes Dan Wheeler who along with JP Howell has been the relief star all season long. He gets the 24th out. The Rays can't add anything in the bottom of the frame, so its Wheeler back to the hill, the 25th, 26th and 27th outs all down to him, with a 2-run lead to work with. Manny reaches on an error to lead it off. Mike Lowell singles, moving Manny to third. Danger signs are looming large.

But this is the 2008 Rays, right? Someone will come up big, won't they?

Too right they will.

Kevin Youkilis launches a shot, deep to straight-away centre. Upton is running back, still running back, looking over the shoulder, and making the unbelieveable basket catch. Manny scores, but thats a big, big, big out. And its still a Rays lead. Up comes Jason Varitek, mired in a huge slump and 0-3 so far on the evening. Terry Francona is so desparate to help him, he puts on the hit and run. Only one problem. Varitek can't hit. But Navvy can certainly throw, coming up with as perfect a toss to second as you could wish for, nailing Lowell by a good five feet or more. Nobody on, two out, 7-6 Rays. Wheels deals, Varitek looks, strike three called, see you later Boston, thanks for playing.


3 1/2 games ahead of Boston.

20 games over .500 for the first time ever.

The best record in the whole of Major League Baseball.

All-in-all, a pretty successful series.

And, just in case you haven't noticed it yet, a pretty good team...

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Number 50

Over a week since I last posted anything, but things at work have now pretty much moved into laid-back summer mode, so hopefully I shall be getting back to something like normal here. In the meantime, lets try to get up to date with all things in Rays-world.

I shall start very briefly with yesterday's game, which I haven't watched yet. In fact, I had intended to avoid the score until I sit down and watch it this evening, but the problem with being the story in baseball is that it is now all do easy to accidentally see a headline giving away what happened... So all I shall say for now is that win number 50 is in the bag, and the Rays are happy atop the AL East. And indeed the whole of Major League Baseball. Its a nice place to be.

And the way we've gotten there? That's been pretty nice as well. I've managed to catch a fair bit of the action - squeezed in between various other things, not always neccessarily in the right order - and it has been largely encouraging.

Actually, the first series since my last post did not really turn out that way. After sweeping the Cubs, the Astros came to town and took two of three - a real anticlimax after a fantastic series with Chicago. The highlight was Saturday's game, partly because of another Gabe Gross walk-off hit, but mostly for the awesome St Pete Pelicans throwback unis that the Rays were wearing. Very smart indeed!

Still, the Rays have overcome one setback after another this year, and so headed on over to Miami with the disappointment put to one side - and left three days later with it completely forgotten, thanks to a comprehensive sweep. Standout in that series was unquestionably Matt Garza's stunning one hitter - unfortunately the one hit he did give up was a seventh-inning solo homerun, denying him a shutout, but it was a real display of what Garza is capable of. Top class.

Then it was off to Pittsburgh, and two more wins (out of three) to round out the first half of the season. There, James Shields became the first Rays pitcher for quite a long time (I would imagine!) to get a chance to pinch-hit. He was also the only Rays hurler to pick up an RBI during interleague, though the best batting effort was again from Andy Sonnanstine, who went 2-5 with a couple of walks. Meanwhile in the Pittsburgh series, Jonny Gomes had his (and probably the team's) best at-bat of the season so far, fouling off pitch after pitch with a full count, before finally drilling the 15th pitch over the fence for his 6th homer of the season. Its when he has at-bats like this that you get all the more frustrated at his mammoth fresh air swings. He's got such great power that he really needs to realise that he can get results without screwing himself into the ground through over-swinging.

And though, Jonny, Garza, Gross et al all had their moments, it was without doubt Evan Longoria who was the key factor in the Rays move back to the top. What a week he has had. Homeruns, hits, runs batted in, a stolen base, great defence - seriously, with the skills that he has demonstrated I don't think there is anything left that he can do to surprise me. What a star he is going to be. Over the last week, he's taken the team lead in homeruns (15) and RBI (47), and raised his batting average to .267. Oh yeah, and he's become the first Rays rookie (and second Ray of the year, following Shields) to win the AL Player of the Week award. All-star, Gold Glove, Rookie of the Year to follow, perhaps?!

Anyway, as things stand, the Rays are 50-32, a game and a half clear of Boston at the top of the East, and sitting pretty with the best record in the bigs. Our 49 first half wins are the most ever by a team who finished with the worst record in the previous season. We've got a winning record at home, against the National League, against the AL East, against the AL Central, against the AL West, in extra-inning games and in 1-run games. The only split we don't have a winning record in is road games - where we're 19-19. And just if you were wondering, our magic number is 78.

Garza on the hill against Rays' nemesis Tim Wakefield tonight. I hope to manage to avoid the score until tomorrow evening, wish me luck...