On Again, Off Again

Lately the Rays have paralleled what I have done to this blog: on again, off again. I don’t know why I’ve been gone for so long. A big part of that had to do with me traveling out of and back to Tampa for a few weeks, though I have had Internet access and have been following the Rays. Some big moves have been made and big games won and lost in recent weeks, so let’s just cut to the good news.

–Gregg Zaun, recently acquired from Baltimore, has become one of my favorite Rays players. He blocks pitches, something I saw Dioner Navarro put very little effort into, even with nobody on base. He also refrains from throwing the ball into center field. He’s even better than Navarro offensively now, which was never true last season. If he were a bit younger, I would go ahead and trade Navarro and keep Zaun for a few years. He has been big with this pitching staff and the bottom of the lineup.

–I also like the pickup of Russ Springer. The veteran relief pitcher has been good everywhere he’s been in his long career. He can bring yet another dimension to the Rays bullpen and teach the younger guys some new things. His experience is valuable as much as Zaun’s.

–Pat Burrell… hitting home runs? It looks like he stopped being Adam Everett and finally went back to being Pat Burrell. He has nine home runs since the All–Star break, even hitting two in consecutive games. If he finishes at this pace, he may eclipse 20 home runs for the season — a distant thought after those first three atrocious months.

–B.J. Upton has also homered in two straight games and brought his season total up to nine, matching last season. He needs to finish this year like the 2008 playoffs all over again or he may be out. This is a good start.

–If Upton fails to deliver, I have the perfect guy to replace him: Desmond Jennings. Not a big name… yet. But he is a 22–year–old center fielder with the Durham Bulls who is rising like a comet through the Rays’ system. Between AA and AAA this year, he’s hitting .315 with nine home runs, 43 stolen bases, 56 walks and just 62 strikeouts. After missing most of 2008 with injuries, he is back on the map in a big way. I would consider calling him up in September, if at all possible. There is at least an outside chance he can start somewhere next year. I am a big fan of his, so I’ll be cheering for him.

–How about the work of Jeff Niemann? I knew in Spring Training that he was the man for the fifth starter spot, and he has proven to be at least number three, if not better. After his latest win, he is now 11–5 with a rotation–best 3.71 ERA. His fastball and curveball are starting to work very well together and that top Draft potential is shining through. Jason Hammel is having a decent season with the Rockies, but Niemann blows him out of the water.

–J.P. Howell is turning out to be a very serviceable closer. Even though he gave up an inexcusable walk–off to home run to Ryan Freaking Langerhans in Seattle, he has generally been shutting hitters down lately. As long as they give him good pitching in front of him, and preferably a multiple–run lead, he can finish out every game if they let him.

–I need to attend more games. I’ve only been to one this year, watching the Rays beat the Red Sox. Money shortages and my time out of town have prevented me from attending more often, but I think I’ll be going to Friday’s game against the Texas Rangers, who stand in the Rays’ path to a Wild Card berth. I’ll be looking for intriguing September games as well.

I could also rant about the Rays’ numerous problems, which include: Leaving the bases loaded, striking out too often, giving up big hits and home runs to every team’s lightest hitter, allowing line drives into center field with runners in scoring position, leaving the bases loaded and striking out too often. But I can save it for the next losing streak. We need a sweep of the Orioles and then the Rangers to cap off Joe Maddon’s Johnny Cash phase. Until next time, go Rays.

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