Monday, 11 August 2008

Banged up, but not giving up

What a week.

I literally don't know where to start.

I mean, if something could happen it has happened. Comebacks, injuries, improbable heroes, trades, demotions - you name it and the Rays have experienced it since I last wrote a proper entry a week ago. Unbelieveable.

And, on top of it all, we've somehow managed to increase our lead at the top of the AL East to 4 1/2 games over the Red Sox and 8 1/2 on the Yankees. And we did that by recording our franchise-record 71st win of the season. But more on that in a bit. Probably.

Ok, lets rewind to the start of it all, back at the Trop against Cleveland. Last week I had been pondering Jonny Gomes, and he was given one final shot against Cliff Lee, went 0-4, and was sent down to Durham afterwards (evidently he did have an option remaining). With Aybar making the start at short (his first ever appearance there) in place of Jason Bartlett, who if you remember was hit on the finger during that crazy 10-inning win over the Tigers last Sunday, we lost our fifth-straight to the Indians, 5-2. Incidentally, injuries and the like meant that backup catcher Shaun Riggans, a day removed from his own scary HBP-moment, played the ninth inning in leftfield.

Then the fun really started. With Bartlett injured, but not too badly, we couldn't activate Rocco in place of Jonny Gomes as was, presumably, the plan. Instead, sailing back (again) to the Trop in a time of need came Ben Zobrist. If there was an MV-yo-yo-P award, then Ben would surely win it. Anyway, a sound, if not spectacular start from Edwin Jackson, and homeruns from Evan Longoria, Cliff Floyd and Dioner Navarro led us to a 8-4 victory. Our first against Cleveland since (it felt like) about 1998.

Not that the game passed without incident. Oh no. Late on, BJ Upton drew some plaudits for a superb chase-and-catch to stop an Indians threat. He then followed that up by not hustling out of the box on a grounder. Considering Joe Maddon's calling the whole team out a couple of weeks ago for a lack of hustle, it probably wasn't the smartest move.

Maddon took it very seriously, and come Wednesday, BJ could be found riding the bench. Aybar was back at short again, and Zobrist was making his first-ever big league start in centrefield. Meanwhile, Carl Crawford was sitting out for the third-consecutive day with the hamstring strain that has been bothering him for most of the season following long homestands. So, with a lefty on the hill, Jason Bartlett found himself as one of the less-likely DHs you will find.

Clearly, the groundwork was in place for some magic.

We actually took a 3-1 lead out of the first, thanks to a 2-run homer from Dioner Navarro (his second round-tripper in consecutive games, having not hit one previously since early June). But, with Scott Kazmir again shaky on the hill, we found ourselves going into the bottom of the ninth down by a score of 7-4.

Then the fireworks began.

Bartlett led off with a double (his second of the game). Eric Hinske followed with a double of his own, scoring JB. 7-5 Indians, nobody out. Step-forward Gabe Gross. Already boasting a franchise-record tying 3 walkoff hits this year, Gabe has, as you may have noticed from my post below, now been officially renamed Mr 9th Inning. He is possibly the clutchiest person I have ever seen. Every hit is a big one.

And on Wednesday night, his hit was the biggest of all. A huge (and I mean HUGE) homerun, off the back wall of the Trop over the bleachers in rightfield, a 2-run shot, tie game, nobody out. Mr 9th Inning delivers yet again.

The Indians changed tack, and brought on a new pitcher. Didn't make a difference. Massive hustle on an infield single for Aki Iwamura. A walk from Ben Zobrist. And then Carlos Pena. First pitch, swing, over the fence in centrefield, 3-run homerun, ballgame over, 10-7 Rays. Wow. Just wow. Never has a 2-1 series win over a cellar-dwelling AL Central team tasted any sweeter.

After that, the Rays headed out on the longest road-trip of the year, across the country to Seattle. CC and BJ were back in the lineup, but Bartlett was not. Still, Andy Sonnanstine made an outstanding start, but again got no support from the hitters (who were up against the equally good Felix Hernandez). 1-1 game going into the bottom of the ninth, and the Rays were handed a tough walkoff loss on a Raul Ibanez homer. Ouch.

There was, though, a bigger ouch. Evan Longoria got hit by a pitch on the hand in the top of the ninth, and subsequently didn't play on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That's a big loss.

Ok, so if you haven't lost track yet, that's Bartlett and Longo out, BJ and CC in, Aybar now at third, and James Shields on the hill. And, while it wasn't Shields' best start of the year, it was plenty good enough to earn his 10th win of the year. Carlos Pena's 21st homer of the season was the hitting highlight, but the key to the 5-3 win was a four-run third, in which 2 runners scored on a throwing error by the M's shortstop. Following Shields, Grant Balfour and Troy Percival were excellent in 2 1/3 innings of combined relief.

In between St Petersburg and Seattle, the front office had made a move for an extra reliever, getting submarine-throwing righty Chad Bradford from the Orioles in exchange for a player to be named later. With his groundball-centric style, he should fit right in. To make way for Bradford, Al Reyes was designated for assignment. Considering his inconsistant form this year, it certainly couldn't be considered a surprise, but I for one would like to offer my wholehearted thanks to Al, particularly for the wonderful effort he put in last year in being pretty much the lone brightspark in one of baseball's all-time worst bullpen. It was a cracking contribution, and we won't forget it!

Anyway, Bradford arrived in time for Saturday's game, and, following a handful of runs, a shaky start from Matt Garza, and a second consecutive poor appearance from the usually reliable Dan Wheeler, he came on to make his Rays debut in a tie game in the ninth. He got through that, and through one out in the tenth, before the Mariners loaded the bases with Adrian Beltre at the plate. Groundball pitcher, despatate to get a groundball and, hopefully, the inning-ending double play, so what does the manager do? Well, Joe Maddon is nothing if not inventive. He calls for BJ. To play at second base. The unusual 5-infielder setup works to perfection as Beltre battles Bradford before sending a sharply hit grounder down the line at third to Willy Aybar, who flawlessly begins the threat-killing 5-2-3 double play.

That gave the Rays a chance in the eleventh, and they took it as Dioner Navarro came up with the clutch sacrifice fly, allowing Perci to once again shut things down for the save, and the Rays franchise-record equalling win number 70, 8-7.

But, again, it came at a price. Carl Crawford injured his finger on a check swing in the 10th. And it could be bad. He's getting it assessed back in Tampa today, but he went straight on the DL, and initial reports from the Mariners' team doctor says that he'll be out for 6-8 weeks, and might even need season-ending surgery. I hardly need to tell you that that is one HUGE loss.

CC's injury meant that we needed another outfielder for yesterday's game. Fortunately, we had one with us on the road trip. Yes, he's back. For the first time since May 2007, number 5, Rocco Baldelli was in the lineup yesterday, playing right and batting clean-up. Obviously he, and indeed everyone in Rays-world would have preferred his call-up not to come because of an injury to CC. But, and I think I can speak for just about everyone associated with the Rays, seeing Rocco back on the field is just fantastic. Don't get me wrong, he's probably never going to be able to be the all-star everyday outfielder that we all used to hope, but just to make it back to the big leagues is testament to the guy's character and perseverence. And I can think of nothing better than for him to play a part in helping us get to the post-season.

Anyway, for anyone who has lost count (and I would include myself in that number), we were playing yesterday with no Barltett, Crawford or Longoria. Baldelli is time-limited when playing the field, and Navvy was having the day game after the night game off. And we were against a knuckleballer. Not the most ideal ingredients for success.

Or so you might think. Because Edwin Jackson pitched superbly (7 IP, 7 hits, 1 run), and the batters scored in every inning except the first an eighth on their way to a comprehensive 11-3 victory - that very special win number 71.

Willy Aybar hit two homeruns, good for 4 RBI, Shaun Riggans had a three-run shot, Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske both had 3-hit days, and Rocco came through with an RBI-single of his own, going 1-4 at the plate and making a great sliding catch in rightfield before leaving in the middle of the sixth.

And that's it. The last week in Rays-world. We're off today (thankfully!) and should be closer to full strength tomorrow, with both Bartlett and Longoria expected to be back. In the meantime we are going to have a very important decision to make. Clearly with Rocco not being able to play full-time, we are going to need an extra outfielder. But who, and to replace whom? The options to go down are Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar (though I believe Aybar would have to be waived, and consequently almost certainly lost). The options to be the extra outfielder are Zobrist, Justin Ruggiano, Jonny Gomes or a new man through a waiver-trade. My ideal scenario would be to keep Zobrist and call up Justin Ruggiano. He can play all across the outfield, and showed some good flashes with the bat earlier in the year. That option though, would mean almost certainly losing Willy Aybar, which I would be loathe to do, and in fact he has proved himself to be such a good bench player that I just cannot see it happening. Which means that if Ruggiano (or indeed Gomes or a new player) is to come up, then Zobrist will be going back down. I've been singing Zobrist's praises all year - he is so versatile in the field, and while perhaps not the most dangerous in the world with the bat, he can certainly contribute. Maybe the management will decide that he can do enough to be the extra outfielder (as well as the utility infielder that we are already used to seeing). Only time will tell. Its going to be a tough call - but then Friedman, Maddon et al have been making them all year. And making them well.

Long may it continue.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Name change

Public Service Advisory:

Gabe Gross will henceforth be known as Mr 9th Inning.

That is all.

Actually, I will have more to say on the many interesting stories coming out of the Indians series, but I just don't have the time right now. So you'll have to wait.

Go Rays!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Tigers swept, now questions to answer

Detroit Tigers 5 - Tampa Bay Rays 6 (10 innings)

There are certainly easier ways to a sweep.

Not letting a (admittedly impressive) rookie one-hit you into the seventh inning for one. Not having your closer blow a save with his first pitch, and then give up the go-ahead run to the first batter in extra-innings for another. And not having your shortstop get hurt in trying to put together a second comeback after the first two have occurred.

But who wants the easy way, right?

2-0 down, and nothing to show apart from an Evan Longoria infield hit is where the Rays found themselves at the seventh-inning stretch yesterday. But, then the fight kicked in. A run was pulled back in the seventh. But then Grant Balfour gave up a hit (surprising enough) that went over the fence (shocking - his first homerun given up all year), and it was a 2-run lead again.

No worries. Kyle Farnsworth on to pitch for the Tigers, and Eric Hinske takes him deep, 3-2. An out later, and its BJ Upton batting with a man on. He takes a pitch and drives it over the fence in deep left-centre, his first homerun for over a month, 4-3 Rays lead. Sweep on.

Not so fast though. Troy Percival comes in, and on his first pitch gives up a game-tying homer. He's still 24-27 in save opportunities this year, but has become rather prone to the longball. Still, he gets through the rest of the ninth. The Rays can't score in the bottom, however. Perci comes back for the tenth, and its deja vu all over again, as he gives up a second lead-off homerun. The Rays must come from behind again.

So they did. Willy Aybar draws a lead-off walk. Then came a nasty, and potentially costly sequence of events. Jason Bartlett tries to bunt Aybat over, but gets hit on the finger. He had to leave the game, and although x-rays have showed that there is no break, its certainly a big worry. Our run of form around the All-Star break showed just how big a loss he is when injured. Shawn Riggans took over the at-bat for JB (as the last position player on the bench), and first pitch gets drilled in the chest by a fastball from Rodney. Ouch. He went down, and things looked really nasty. But catchers are tough, and he eventually made his way down to first. And next batter, he made it to second, as Aki bunted the runners over. Upton walked to load the bases, and Carl Crawford shot a single through the infield to tie the game. Evan couldn't get the run home, but Carlos Pena worked Rodney to a full count, before taking ball four to walk in the winning run.

An important win, with both the Red Sox and Yankees also victorious, but one that was a lot tougher than it ought to have been. I don't lay the blame for that totally on Perci, but his recent trend of giving up homeruns is definitely worrying. And blowing saves has consequences - not always losing games, but with Bartlett getting hurt in extras, the knock-on effect is potentially huge. Evan Longoria will play shortstop tonight, and I guess possibly tomorrow as well, but hopefully Bartlett won't miss any more than that. Fingers very seriously crossed.

One interesting titbit from the game - Trever Miller came on to get the last two outs in the tenth, and so was the pitcher of record. The win was his first w/l column number in 121 appearances - a MLB-record span of games without a decision. Congrats on a long awaited W Trever.

Tonight, Matt Garza starts against the Indians, and is up against Cliff Lee. That is going to be one tough game for the Rays. But, with all due respect to everyone else involved, the biggest matter of interest right now for many Rays fans is whether #5, Rocco Baldelli will be in the lineup. We do need a right-handed bat... Truth be told, I'm not sure whether he's going to be activated or not. But having him in the lineup would be a huge boost for the team.

If he is activated, then of course someone will have to make way for him. And it is pretty certain that that someone will be Jonny Gomes. I'm not sure if Jonny has any minor league options left, or if he will have to be waived, but either way no-one will be more disappointed than me to see him depart. He is such a likeable player - a true feel good story in every sense, combined with hustle and the epitomy of team-spirit. His presence will definitely be missed in the clubhouse - and around the city I think as well. It can't be a coincidence that the Rays annually run a 'Take Jonny to School' competition for local kids. But he just hasn't done it with the bat this year, and I fear that watching a called third strike as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter last night will be his last action as a Ray.

I hope it isn't, a clubhouse can never have enough Jonny Gomes.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The rookie marches on

Detroit Tigers 2 - Tampa Bay Rays 5
Detroit Tigers 3 - Tampa Bay Rays 9

So, the Tigers have had to wait until August to get a firsthand look at Evan Longoria. Two games into the series, and I think that it is fair to say that they now believe the hype. He followed up a homerun on Friday night with a 3-5, 3 RBI effort last night, including his team-high 21st homerun of the season, a number that ties Jonny Gomes' team rookie record. He obviously continued his sharp play in the field as well, and swiped his seventh base of the season to boot. If you haven't jumped on the bandwagon yet, then seriously, whats stopping you?!

That steal came on the back-end of a double steal, led by Carl Crawford - his first stolen base for 18 games. But while he hasn't been swiping much of late, CC has found his bat stroke a bit more, not to mention his wheels out of the batters box. He tripled on friday night, to make it 5 three-baggers in 6 games, and move his AL-high mark to 10. I've said it before, but there is no play in baseball that is more fun to watch than CC flying around the bases on his way to a triple.

Truth be told, its been a bit of a funny series so far. We've looked reasonably comfortable in winning the first two, thanks largely to some nice, timely hitting. Having said that, the number of runs that we've scored is somewhat down to some slightly wild Detroit pitching. Indeed, Ivan Rodriguez apparently couldn't have picked a better time to get traded, judging by the tough time that Brandon Inge has had behind the plate. So far, we've scored twice on wild pitches, and once on a passed ball - and even with those stats, I'd rate Inge as their best player so far. Without his excellent effort behind the plate, we could easily have scored 4 or 5 more over the two games without ever swinging the bat.

Kenny Rogers yesterday was the picture of wildness. He struck out 8, but threw 109 pitches in just 3 1/3 innings, giving up 6 hits, 4 walks and 7 runs.

It was a performance, actually, that somewhat mirrored Scott Kazmir's start on Friday. He lasted just 4 2/3 innings, thanks largely to 6 walks - four of which came in the first inning, letting the Tigers on the board early without the benefit of a hit. He did settle down, and struck out five, only allowing 3 hits, but his pitch count was already out of control by that point. He was though picked up superbly by the bullpen - Grant Balfour, JP Howell, Dan Wheeler and Troy Percival allowing just one hit between them over the last 4 1/3.

Yesterday's start from Andy Sonnanstine was much better. He's struggled a little bit of late (and not been helped by a lack of run support) but was solid yesterday. He scattered 7 hits over 6 innings, but allowed just two runs, and struck out 6, thanks mainly to an absolutely awesome curveball that he had working. I think it is the best I have ever seen him throw the breaking stuff - he was making the Detroit hitters look simply awful much of the time - Matt Joyce almost swung himself off his feet trying to make contact, while veteran Edgar Renteria took such a wild swing that his bat ended up being fielded at short.

The well deserved W moves Sonny's record on the year to 11-6, and was preserved by Al Reyes and Jason Hammel. Reyes was very shaky indeed, giving up a run on three hits in one inning, but Hammel, making a somewhat rare appearance, was excellent, giving up a solitary single in his two innings.

As of right now, the Rays are 21 games over .500 at 65-44, and are sat 3 games ahead of Boston and 5.5 ahead of New York. James Shields is on the hill this afternoon trying to wrap up a sweep of the Tigers.