So, of course, Saturday was my time to take my annual weekend vacation to Kissimmee to see the Atlanta Braves in live Spring Training action. This year, they played the Tampa Bay Rays, so I couldn’t lose either way. The game took place in a hot and humid Champion Stadium–on one hand, I hate the heat and need to hit the shade in that weather, but if it meant watching these two teams battle while the ladies in the crowd didn’t have to cover themselves up in anything besides sunscreen, fine with me. I didn’t play Braves trivia this year, though I did say hi to quizmaster Suzi Q during the game. I have pictures from this game that will be uploaded as soon as I can find the USB connector to my computer. Once they’re up, I’ll have even more to say than I already do. By the way, the Rays won 11-10 after leading 10-3 in the eighth inning. Early post-game thoughts:
-John Smoltz was his usual mound master self in the first four innings, but didn’t he ever tank that fifth inning. He got up to 0-2 on Evan Longoria, then lost him and allowed a walk. At this point, my dad said Smoltz was "laboring" on the mound, and I got the same thought. It intensified after he walked John Rodriguez on four pitches. I knew the Braves needed bullpen help ASAP, but Smoltz was allowed to deal with shortstop Reid Brignac, hitting around the Mendoza Line this Spring. Big mistake–the AAA shortstop lined a two-run double to right center field and put the Rays on the board emphatically. Jason Hammel executed a perfect first-pitch sacrifice bunt to move Brignac over, and Elliot Johnson sacrifice flied him home to make it 3-0. Second hitter Jon Weber hit a hard ground ball to first base…off the glove of Mark Teixeira. E3, and Carlos Pena steps up. Smoltz falls behind, and bam–Pena takes him the opposite way into the wind for a home run, just off the glove of leaping left fielder Josh Anderson (who had tumbled into the bullpen chasing a foul ball earlier in the inning). 5-0 Rays, and John Smoltz is done after 4.2 innings pitched, five runs (three earned) surrendered. The Rays scored five times on two hits in one inning. As my dad casually stated, "two walks and an error will do that." Well said, indeed.
-On the other end of the spectrum, Jason Hammel was as good as I have ever seen him. He allowed three hits and no runs in his five innings of work. He hit the outside corner like nobody’s business and threw good low-90s fastballs mixed with the occasional changeup. From my point of view, it looked like he was just catching or just missing the black edge of the plate and getting the calls every time. He couldn’t have done much better. If he can pull that out of the hat occasionally this season, we’ll have quite an effective long reliever/spot starter.
-"Cowboy" Joe West umpired at third base in this game. I actually have a personally signed baseball addressed to me from him in my room. I got it Christmas Day 2004.
-The best hitter in batting practice? Shawn Riggans, the Rays backup catcher. He hit a home run and another warning track fly ball in pre-game warmups. He hit it hard in the game, too. Maybe he was just on Saturday. That is, until he got hit by Blaine Boyer’s fastball.
-Jeff Francoeur has one of the best arms I’ve ever seen. After a flyout, he nearly doubled off Dioner Navarro going back to first base. Don’t even test him on your best day.
-Chipper Jones made two strong defensive plays that could qualify as "Web Gems" on Baseball Tonight. He got robbed in last year’s Gold Glove balloting. It’s his time again now.
-The Rays’ third baseman, Evan Longoria, is as good as advertised. Beware, all division rivals–he’s also learning more plate discipline and still maturing.
-I saw great effort from guys like Josh Anderson and Elliot Johnson, who drag bunted and beat it out at one point for a base hit.
-I would have more on that exciting finish, but we left the game during the top of the eighth inning. The need to check into a hotel, shower, and make it to 6:30 dinner reservations will do that sometimes. And so will the heat. But apparently, I missed Corky Miller blasting a grand slam.
-I saw a nice turnout of both Rays and Braves fans, which I think could only mean good things for the baseball market in the area. With the Braves needing a strong Spring fanbase in Kissimmee and the Rays looking to expand their market, I like to see these fans show their support in large groups.
-I have thoughts on just about everyone I saw at this game, but posting them all here takes too much space. The most impressive people there were Jason Hammel, Carlos Pena, Chipper Jones, Rafael Soriano, Evan Longoria, and Suzi Q.
-After the game, we ate dinner at Kool’s Oakfire Grill (AKA Key W. Kool’s), which makes an amazing strip steak. Then I spent my night at the hotel. I paid visits to the game room and the pool areas, which were hopping with people up until at least 11:00. And, of course, I watched the infamous loop of Stacey’s Top Seven Must Sees at Walt Disney World. "Stacey" is actually 38-year-old actress Stacey J. Aswad, who has done a few national TV commercials. I just thought I would point that out.
That’s about it for my quick game thoughts, as I have college projects to get back to. More, including pictures, coming shortly. Until then, go Rays.