Monday, 8 September 2008


What a miserable sporting weekend.

Six major events/sports that I followed, and a positive outcome in two of them. Andy Murray beat Rafael Nadal to make the US Open final, and the Alabama Crimson Tide beat Tulane, despite a pretty unimpressive display.

But the Seattle Seahawks opened with a miserable loss to Buffalo. Lewis Hamilton won the Belgian F1 Grand Prix, only to be demoted to third because of a steward's decision that can only be described as abysmal. And while the English football team did record a win in their opening World Cup 2010 qualifier, they managed just a 2-0 margin against Andorra, a country with a population (about 70,000) that is barely two-thirds as big as Basingstoke. Impressed I was not.

And then there were the Rays.


Last week they lost 2 out of 3 to the Yankees (the one win coming behind an excellent outing from Scott Kazmir). This weekend they got swept in Toronto. And heading to Fenway, where we've lost 6 out of 6 this season so far, we're just 1 1/2 games ahead of the Red Sox.

Now I know that sometimes you're going to lose ballgames. But the manner of defeat, particularly games 2 and 3 against the Blue Jays, has been particularly disheartening.

Yesterday, the hitters couldn't manage to scrape together a single run in support of an(other) excellent outing from Matt Garza, who himself gave up just one score over 7 innings. A 1-0 shutout (against an admittedly hot Jays team), is never a nice way to lose a game.

But even that is a fair way short of the crippling blow that Saturday's loss has the potential to be. Shutout through eight, we trailed 3-0. James Shields had given up a run in the first, second and fourth, before allowing just a single hit over the next four innings. We'd threatened several times, notably against reliever Scott Downs in the eighth, but had come up with nothing.

But then there was that wonderful Rays fighting spirit. With a man on, Rocco Baldelli steps in to pinch hit against closer BJ Ryan, and drills a ball over the fence in left. Willy Aybar walked, and was replaced at first by Fernando Perez. Perez (who has looked impressive so far) stole second, and motored round to score and tie the game on an error by Jays' second baseman Joe Inglett.

Dan Wheeler pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth (with a huge thank you to a stunning piece of defense from Jason Bartlett), and the game headed to extras. 10th inning scoreless. 11th inning scoreless. 12th inning scoreless.

Fernando Perez got on base, showing off his speed to beat out a potential double play ball. He moved up on a John Jaso ground out, and raced home on a Dioner Navarro single to give the Rays the lead for the first time at 4-3. And it stayed at that score going into the bottom half, with Troy Percival coming out of the 'pen.

6 batters later and it was all over. A walk-off Grand Slam by Greg Zaun. A pretty devastating loss.

Now, I don't want to have a go at Troy Percival for making a mistake, for having a bad outing. It's only his fourth blown save of the season, and the first game that he's pitched in that the Rays have lost. For the most part when he's come out of the 'pen with the game on the line, he's got the job done. But since about mid-season, every time he pitches you feel like it's a bit of an adventure. He'll probably get the three outs, but you're almost certain that someone's going to get on base. Probably more than one person. And you feel like there's a pretty decent chance that at least one run is going to score.

Whether or not a team should have one designated 'closer' is a debate for another day. But looking at the Rays' 'pen right now, if someone told me that we had a one-run lead, and needed to get the last three outs, Perci would not be top of the list. Not by a long way. Don't get me wrong, I know he has the ability to do it. But I just don't trust him to do it anymore when the heat is on.

I'd turn to Grant Balfour. I'd turn to Dan Wheeler. I'd turn to JP Howell. Hey, right now I'd feel happier with Chad Bradford or Trever Miller out there.

I'm sure Maddon will stick with Perci. But he must realise the effect that seeing Perci head for the mound has on us Rays fans, and presumably the team. We've got 21 games left, and we cannot afford to blow a lead late on in any of them. Can we trust Perci under that pressue? I just can't anymore.


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