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.

1 comment:

Michael Norton said...

The Rays aren't folding. This could get really interesting.

Michael Norton

Some Clubhouse