I was on vacation for a few days in New Smyrna Beach as a threeweek school break began, so I decided to wait until the conclusion of this roadtrip to comment about it. The last two series were not exactly what the Rays ordered, but they did return from the sevengame tour at 43.
They had their bats full with the Red Sox in Fenway Park during the weekend. Friday was a difficult loss featuring James Shields wasting a 30 lead with his magic Boston curse. In fact, the sixth inning had Boston score five times on Jason Bay and J.D. Drew home runs. With nobody out. Good thing I was watching something on my DVR during that inning. For that I still have my living room TV. The Rays never recovered, losing 73.
Saturday was the highlight of the series as the Rays marched to a 145 win, despite the first home runs of the year from Rocco Baldelli and Julio Lugo, both former Tampa Bay starters. Scott Kazmir picked up the victory behind, among other things, Evan Longoria’s 11th home run.
Sunday was an immensely frustrating loss. It could become a DVD titled “Everything Wrong With the Rays.” They held onto a tie until the bottom of the eighth inning, when David Ortiz and Jason Bay manufactured a run with the Green Monster and the Red Sox took a 43 lead. Akinori Iwamura reached second base against Jonathan Papelbon, then Jason Bartlett singled to shallow center field, slowly enough so Iwamura could score… except he didn’t. He held up as he was not entirely sure the ball would drop. I had just finished telling my dad the Rays had tied the game when I saw him standing at third base. Game not tied. At that point, though I certainly didn’t want to, I pessimistically thought “no way this run scores.” Especially when Carlos Pena pinch hit. He can hit boatloads of home runs, but it is either that or a strikeout. And once it gets to two strikes, the third one should just be spotted. Sure enough, strikeout number one. B.J. Upton (translate B.J. into slang and that has been his 2009 season) then became strikeout number two as high fastballs failed him yet again. Carl Crawford pulled the same “I don’t hit fastballs” crap and became strikeout number three. This finished off possibly the season’s worst loss.
After an actual off day (for once), it was off to Baltimore to face the Orioles to find out who belonged in last place. The Rays went down 10 in the first inning, then scored five on a long series of hits to take a fourrun lead against former (Devil) Ray Mark Hendrickson. Andy Sonnanstine proceeded to give every run back and hand the Orioles the game. Adam Jones topped it off with his second home run of the game, worth three runs. Scoring was halted after the third inning as Brian Bass shut Tampa Bay down with four shutout innings in relief. Baltimore won, 75.
The turnaround would begin the next night with Jeff Niemann facing Brad Bergesen. If they couldn’t win this game, they would be in dead last place and their season facing an early crash. Another former Tampa Bay regular, Ty Wigginton, gave the Orioles a quick lead with a home run. He would end up with three hits. Jason Bartlett then hit his fifth home run of the year to tie the game. This also ties his career high for home runs in a season, set in 2007 with the Twins. (Bartlett would later steal his ninth base in 10 tries.) Tied at two in the sixth inning, the Rays took a 42 lead, then put together a monster insurance inning with four runs against Bob McCrory, who was sent to AAA after the game. B.J. Upton had a threehit game for the first time since last postseason, and Pena went 2for3 with two walks and three runs scored. For the first time all season (seemingly, at least), he had no strikeouts. With an 82 lead and Niemann in line for the win, in came Troy Percival. It was time for every fan’s favorite nightmare…
The Troy Percival Tank Show!
It started with a double by lighthitting Cesar Izturis. Then Brian Roberts, one of Baltimore’s notorious Rays killers, hit his fifth home run of the year (third against Tampa Bay) into the right field seats. Then Felix Pie, who hits a home run once per lunar eclipse, smashed a room service fastball about 420 feet over the center field wall. The panic button had to be hit, even after Nick Markakis was retired on a flyout. Aubrey Huff (another former Devil Ray and one of those Rays killers) doubled to right field, advancing when Gabe Gross lost the ball behind him. So much for Percival’s streak of good outings. It was past the time to drag him off the mound, so Joe Maddon did just that and called upon J.P. Howell. Huff scored on a Melvin Mora single. Lou Montanez was then retired on a fielder’s choice. Wigginton came up, looking to tie the game and knowing that he destroys lefthanded pitching. However, his fourth hit would never arrive as he chopped the ball to Longoria, who threw to Iwamura for the longawaited final out. The Rays pulled out an 86 victory.
Here is Mr. Percival after the game:
“I felt good and there was no excuse for it. I was just getting underneath the ball, which I didn’t think I was doing down in the bullpen. But that’s the strongest my arm has felt in two years. And I was just throwing the ball down the middle. I guess I should have treated it more like a onerun game and really focused on hitting my edges and what have you.”
Why, exactly, would he think he is the Percival of 1999 instead of 2009? His 97mileanhour fastball could have been unhittable then, but now all the pitch is good for is a souvenir. I know it was a sixrun lead, but nearly every strike he threw was being hit hard. He can’t even make winning as fun as it should be. Troy should be thankful for the insurance runs and for Howell’s bailout. (Jason Isringhausen has done well in rehab and may be on his way up too, so his spot is possibly in serious danger.)
Now for Carl Crawford watch: he has stolen 22 bases in as many attempts. He also left the last game with a bruised shoulder after making a great diving catch. Ben Zobrist performed admirably in his place.
Pat Burrell was also out with an injury, sent back to Tampa with a neck ailment. This may very well be what has slowed down his performance this season. He has not been fully able to finish off swings and look directly at the pitcher to follow the ball. So it is time for a cure and, soon after, the home runs we have been expecting.
As I noted earlier, the Rays still finished 43 on this roadtrip despite its turbulent nature and bitter losses. Even with the above rants and problems, it is a relief to at least escape with series splits. Now they return home to face the Indians and A’s. I am looking to get tickets to one of these games, but I don’t know which one yet. Please, if you can, get out to Tropicana Field during this homestand. There will be lower attendances expected and fewer opposing fans. This is a great time to catch Rays baseball live. They can use the support and the home wins. Especially against teams they are supposed to beat. Until next time, go Rays.