The Devil Rays looked to be sliding away to a sweep at the hands of the Tigers at Comerica Park after dropping the first two games. "Not so much," said Joe Maddon and Friends. They salvaged a split with big 7-1 and 8-1 victories by top starters James Shields and Scott Kazmir, keeping Detroit tied with the Yankees one game back of the Wild Card lead behind (of all teams) the Seattle Mariners. See, the Devil Rays can impact the playoff race. (Ask the 2005 Cleveland Indians.) Seeing Shields and Kazmir put up consecutive dominant performances against a top team is really a confidence booster. Not that they can do too much to make this season look good, but why not prepare for next year and beyond? Don’t leave the team hanging because they’ll never see the playoffs. I hope they don’t.
Rising From The Ashes…
-The team had a rough start to the series, losing the first two games in Detroit. Edwin Jackson pitched the opener against Justin Verlander, and didn’t do so badly for a 2-11 guy (6 IP, 2 ER). However, Gary Glover, one of the more reliable relievers on this team, blew a gasket and allowed four runs in just 1/3 of an inning, leading to a 6-4 loss. Carl Crawford’s 36th stolen base, B.J. Upton’s three-run home run, and former Tiger Carlos Pena’s first-inning double in his return to Detroit were the highlights. Speaking of Pena, after that double, he went hitless the rest of the series, highlighted (lowlighted?) by an 0-5, four strikeout performance in the finale. His batting average has freefallen to .270. This seems like just another one of baseball’s valleys on its never ending wave. I believe a peak is forthcoming. It was the bullpen’s problem again in game two, as Jonny Gomes’s grand slam tied the game at six in the eighth inning, only for Dan Wheeler (we’re running out of "reliable" pitchers) to give up three more to lose 9-6. We also got a home run out of Dioner Navarro, just his 4th of the season. But the losing continued.
-Winning, however, was just up the road. Navarro added another home run in the third game of this series, his 5th of the year. Navarro was hitting as low as .173 earlier in the season, but is all the way back up to .200 thanks to a string of solid hitting. Cheers to the catcher for pulling himself together and drawing closer to his potential and actual abilities. James Shields pitched masterfully in the 7-1 victory (7 IP, 1 ER, 0 BB, 9 K), even striking out Placido Polanco twice. The most difficult hitter to strike out in the American League, and Shields struck him out twice in a game. Though, between them, he hit a home run. Other than that, it was a great game all around. Three guys and three hits and every starter had at least one. Grant Balfour struck out all three ninth inning hitters to close it out. This one was fun to watch and probably even more fun for our players. The staff ace is now 9-7, and things are looking up for him.
-The previous statement can be echoed for left hander Scott Kazmir, who is now 9-7 following the series finale, played Thursday afternoon and won by the Devil Rays, 8-1. They scored seven runs off Tigers starter/playoff hero Jeremy Bonderman, including a two-run home run from Carl Crawford. He also added stolen base number 37 to his season stats, and he is now hitting .316. B.J. Upton went 2-for-3, and leads the team at .327. Ben Zobrist had two hits and two RBIs in a spot start for Brendan Harris. And Kazmir was the main event with a great stat line (6 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 7 K), and the bullpen wasn’t bad in preserving it, though Glover allowed another run. Scott Dohmann has become surprisingly good lately, as he pitched a scoreless eighth inning, and the one and only Al Reyes closed the game out. If only Kazmir could go longer and deeper into starts. His high pitch counts have held him down, though he could still have time to adjust that given his youth. He has still been a phenom, almost a prodigy, in his last two starts. The momentum gained here should carry over to Texas, where we next find the Rangers.
And The Home Of The Braves…
-The Braves lost a big, tough game to the Mets 4-3 on Wednesday on a Moises Alou home run. They almost let it get away again on Thursday, before quite possibly the play of the year saved them from further agony. Up 7-3 in the ninth inning, Atlanta’s Tyler Yates, a former Met, allowed three runs to make it 7-6. On came Oscar Villarreal, and with two outs, up stepped Carlos Delgado. He hit a long, high drive deep to left field…back…back…and Willie Harris leaped at the wall and triumphantly robbed the game-tying home run. This was the ultimate in highway robbery, and a major morale killer for the Mets. But what a huge lift for the Braves. I can see this going up there close to the 1992 Otis Nixon catch on Andy Van Slyke under the greatest home run robberies in franchise, and maybe MLB, history. In such a key game with so much riding on the outcome, to make that catch makes Willie Harris a cult hero in Atlanta forever. Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira added home runs without which Harris’s catch wouldn’t have meant so much.
Bonus: Rick Ankiel?
-Everyone who watched baseball in 1999 and 2000 remembers Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a dominant young pitcher destined for superstardom. His blazing fastball, evil 12-6 curveball, and all-around athletic talent made him one of the most exciting pitchers to come up since Mark "The Bird" Fidrych with the 1976 Tigers. Unfortunately, his career on the mound had another parallel to Fidrych’s: it ended early. Far too early. Against the Braves in the 2000 playoffs, the meltdown began. He threw five wild pitches in a Game 1 start and didn’t make it out of the third inning. At first, he laughed it off as a fluke as the Cardinals reached the next series. There, he only went 1 and 1/3 innings and threw four more wild pitches. It continued into 2001 as everyone seemed to disagree on the cause of this collapse. Mechanics? Mental health issues? Injury? Possibly everything rolled into one. He went MIA until 2004 following arm surgery, when he managed to pitch decently, but not like the top prospect from the 2000 regular season with the 3.50 ERA. The next spring after another meltdown, Ankiel (a .207 hitter with two home runs as an MLB pitcher) announced that he was leaving the mound for good and pursuing a career as an outfielder. In 2005, between A and AA ball, he hit 21 home runs and drove in 75 runs. Still in his mid-20s, he showed more potential in his new spot. But then something went horribly wrong, again. He injured his knee in 2006 Spring Training and, ultimately, was out for the season. Some people feared the end of his career and one of the most dismal endings in sports history. However, he returned in 2007 to AAA and wasted no time making up for it all. He hit 32 home runs as of early August and became one of the top minor league players anywhere. Cardinals fans everywhere called to see him return to St. Louis, and due to an unfortunate situation with infielder Scott Spiezio, he got the opportunity.
In his long-awaited grand return to St. Louis, Ankiel played right field and consistently drew standing ovations from the crowd. In the first inning against Padres All-Star Chris Young, he popped it up for an out. Not exactly a climactic return. Things only got worse as he struck out the next two times he hit. Then the seventh inning rolled around, and Doug Brocail worked him up to a 2-1 count with two runners on base. With the people still behind him, Ankiel found a pitch out and over the plate and drove it deep to right field…and gone. A three-run home run, a prolonged ovation, a curtain call, and national media coverage brought Rick Ankiel’s return to a dramatic, exciting finish. The Cardinals went on to win 5-0 on a dominant start by Joel Piniero, and Rick Ankiel has officially made an impact and announced that he is back. As a long-time follower of his story, I think this is one of the highlights of the season. It definitely rejuvenated the Cardinals and their fans during a disappointing season. And I think Rick Ankiel is there to stay as a power-hitting outfielder, one the fans will love and appreciate for years to come.
It’s been a very exciting week in Major League Baseball, and it’s not even over yet–who knows what may roll around tomorrow? Keep watching and find out–don’t miss a day, you might miss something. The Devil Rays now have a weekend series with the Rangers…there may not be history there, but maybe Tampa Bay can just continue winning. That’s all I want out of them. Until next time, go Devil Rays.