Tagged: Akinori Iwamura

Iwamura Traded to Pirates

It is now official: Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In return, we received relief pitcher Jesse Chavez.

Iwamura had been with the Rays since 2007, their last year as the Devil Rays (and as a bad team). He scored the winning run in his first home game and played very good defense at both third base and second base. He also became enormously popular with Rays fans for his enthusiasm, including helping to pioneer the “Rayhawk” of 2008.

Of course, Iwamura also made the final defensive play that sent the Rays to their first World Series. Hopefully he kept that ball in good shape.

He did have his negatives (too many strikeouts, hit .217 with runners in scoring position), but added to all the other positives was an ability to hit timely home runs. His two–run shot off Clay Buchholz in April 2008 turned a 1–0 deficit into a 2–1 win. He also led the Rays to victory in the Division Series against the White Sox, hitting a home run late in game two.

Iwamura could run well, play the field, even hit for power occasionally. But with so much money (nearly $5 million) on the table to possibly become a glorified bench player, this trade was justified. Ben Zobrist stole his job and had a massive breakout season, and Sean Rodriguez (the young guy from the Scott Kazmir trade) and right fielder Matt Joyce will also be competing for starting jobs. That effectively squeezed Iwamura out of the Rays’ plans.

Meanwhile, Chavez can give the Rays some necessary bullpen help. The 26–year–old right–hander appeared in 73 games and gave the dismal 2009 Pirates some good work. His 1–4 record doesn’t match up with his decent 4.01 ERA or his mere 22 walks allowed in 67.1 innings. He looks like a one–inning Lance Cormier (who I hope stays, by the way). With the declining Chad Bradford leaving and possibly retiring, Chavez could be the right man to take his spot.

The man known as “Aki” and celebrated by almost every Rays fan on Earth is now in Pittsburgh, also known as Purgatory. In my blog archives is my favorite Iwamura story, and a big reason this team’s culture will never be the same. It was 2008 Rays FanFest and I showed him his Japan rookie card from 1997. He looked at the guy next to him and said “Rookie! Rookie! Twelve years ago! Twelve years ago!” Then he eagerly signed the card.

Make Pittsburgh fun, Iwamura–san.

Rays Beat Phillies Twice to Win Series

After the shellshock of the Rays’ 10–1 series–opening loss, the World Series rematch turned around in favor of the home team and Tampa Bay ousted Philadelphia with victories in the final two games.

David Price got hammered for six runs, five earned, in the very first inning of the series on Tuesday night, capped off by a three–run home run from John Mayberry, Jr. From that point on it was over. Once again Price threw strikes, but once again threw them right over the middle of the plate and got hammered. He should soon discover the balance between walking everyone and getting hit hard. Location becomes very important at this level. Though I still don’t think he should be sent back to AAA when Kazmir returns.

Matt Garza put on a show in Wednesday’s game, only allowing one run in eight strong innings. Pat Burrell greeted ex-teammate Joe Blanton with a towering two–run home run in the second inning. He now has just two home runs this year, but both have been long. And he hit one or two balls high off the Green Monster earlier this year as well. Maybe this series sparked his flame. The Rays also poured on five insurance runs in the eighth inning, all with two outs, against J.C. Roidmero and Chan Ho Park.

The rubber match started out as a hitters’ duel. Andy Sonnanstine further jeopardized his job status by surrendering four first inning runs. Not to be outdone, the Rays scored three times in each of the first two innings against the unluckiest name in baseball, Antonio Bastardo. Sonnanstine settled down back into good form and shut the Phillies down for the remainder of his start. Ben Zobrist (16) and Willy Aybar (6) hit big home runs in the Rays’ 10–4 win.

Jason Bartlett has broken the team record with a 19–game hitting streak. The previous record was held by Quinton McCracken, the Devil Rays’ first leadoff man, who hit safely in 18 consecutive games in late 1998. Bartlett proves time and time again that he is money in the bank and that the Twins were wrong to trade him. Had the Twins played Bartlett in 2008, they would have been in the playoffs and not the Rays, guaranteed. Keep it going, just stay in that comfort zone and keep on hitting.

As was reported a few days ago, Akinori Iwamura’s days in Tampa Bay might not be over yet. His ACL tear was discovered to have been partial, not complete as initial MRIs indicated. He had arthroscopic surgery and is now out 6–8 weeks. This means he could return in September alongside Fernando Perez. Even though Zobrist has effectively taken the second base job with his incredible season, Iwamura gives the Rays more options. We know how much Joe Maddon loves lineup options. And he had been hitting .300 prior to the injury, so this is very good news.

The Rays play the Marlins tonight in a battle of Floridian aces. James Shields faces the 7–1 Josh Johnson. Get some runs for your top pitcher, Rays. We know we can use all the wins against teams like this. Until next time, go Rays.

All Stars: Vote Today and Vote Ray

The 2009 All Star Game is quickly approaching. Live on July 14 from St. Louis, we will see the best (and most popular) players in the game on one field. So, as a Rays fan, I am heavily voting for my team’s players, especially Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford and write–in Ben Zobrist.

Pena leads the American League in home runs, yet he trails the elite Chris Davis in the voting. Yes, the Chris Davis who is hitting .194 with 101 strikeouts and just 14 walks, with nine fewer home runs, who plays for the Rangers of all teams, is ahead of Pena. This is a travesty of the highest order. Pena is a much better player than Davis. He deserves more respect.

Longoria should be leading the league in votes. Until recently he was. He has been a key catalyst in a somewhat disappointing lineup. If he got in last year, why shouldn’t he start this year? He will… just keep on voting for him.

Bartlett should start too based on his stats and reputation as a winner. He is hitting .373 with a career–high seven home runs and 14 out of 15 stolen bases. He has also been a defensive wizard and the anchor of the infield. Derek Jeter leads him by a landslide in voting. Is he having a good season? Yes. Does he deserve to be there? Probably so. But he will be the starter solely based on his reputation and Yankee fandom. Bartlett should be this year’s starter, no question.

Crawford is currently fifth among outfielders. Several of them deserve to start, so Crawford should at least get into the game. His incredible 37 stolen bases and counting, added to his .307 batting average, make him a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year and for All Star consideration. The most exciting players should get in. Crawford is one of them.

Even though he is not on the ballot, the legend of “Zorilla” needs to go to St. Louis and be honored as he should be. Ben Zobrist has single–handedly won or sealed the win on several games this year for the Rays. His on–base percentage of .400 and 15 home runs only begin to tell the story. He has driven in 42 runs and hit most of his home runs with runners on base and/or in late, close game situations. He has played his best defense despite being moved around the outfield and middle infield. At age 28, he’s even running better (8–for–10 in base stealing). Most importantly, he has been the Joker card in the Rays’ deck. He can be placed in there anywhere at anytime and get the job done. With World Series home field advantage on the line, Zobrist is exactly the kind of player the American League wants. Take him, Joe Maddon — you won’t regret it.

I’m also voting for a few of my favorite Braves, notably Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Nate McLouth. I am absolutely not voting for any Red Sox, Yankees, Mets or Phillies. I would encourage you to follow my lead.

Don’t forget to vote for the 32nd member of each league’s roster in the days leading up to the game. Then watch the game July 14 on FOX. I’ll be watching it the night before I leave for a six day trip to San Diego. Until then, vote today and vote Ray.

And watch the epic World Series rematch at Tropicana Field. Rays vs. Phillies starts tonight with David Price vs. Jamie Moyer. If you can get there (I can’t), please buy tickets and support your American League champions. Until next time, go Rays.

Iwamura Out for the Season

The Rays received the terrible news today that second baseman Akinori Iwamura will miss the remainder of the 2009 season due to a torn ACL.

Iwamura, 30, hit .310 with eight stolen bases in his first 44 games of the season.  His last game was Sunday afternoon in Miami, when he was hit by Marlins baserunner Chris Coghlan as he turned a 1–4–3 double play.  He tore his ACL and suffered less serious damage to his MCL and his ankle.  One of the most popular Rays players’ season ended as he was hauled off on a cart usually reserved for football injuries.

Now that the Rays no longer have Adam Kennedy, they must resort to Plan C.  This involves starting a rotation of Ben Zobrist (who started twice for Iwamura this year), Willy Aybar and recent call–up Reid Brignac.  Brignac may be a legitimate long–term solution, being a natural shortstop and having that spot blocked by Jason Bartlett.

We will all miss the guy commonly known as “Aki.”  My favorite story of his came from the time I met him at the 2008 FanFest.  I gave him a card to sign — his Baseball Magazine rookie card from 1997.  He smiled and shouted “Rookie, rookie!” to the delight of everyone around.  Then he said “12 years ago!” in his semi–broken English, and proceeded to sign the card.  He could play fundamental baseball and make everybody laugh.

David Price starts tonight for the Rays in Cleveland.  And manager Joe Maddon has signed a three–year contract extension through 2012.  Until next time, go Rays.

Rays Up 2-0, Headed Off to Chicago

Our Tampa Bay Rays, America’s new team, have taken a 2–0 lead in the Division Series, knocking off the White Sox in a 6–2 classic.  Rays starter Scott Kazmir was starting to have a “here it goes again” night by promptly loading the bases (hitting Orlando Cabrera was unintentional, Harold Reynolds) and allowing two runs before his team even hit.  The Rays got one back with a Dioner Navarro single while narrowly avoiding more Chicago damage.  Kazmir pitched very effectively after the early runs scored, but was down until the bottom of the fifth inning.

After a Jason Bartlett single, Akinori Iwamura brought out a slice of his Japanese years.  He took a 1–1 fastball out and over the plate from Mark Buehrle and drove it deep to left center field… carrying… carrying deep… and gone for a lead–changing home run.  That’s classic Iwamura power out into the opposite power alley, where he hit at least half of his regular season home runs.  He took a well–deserved curtain call afterwards.  Kazmir left after 5.1 innings pitched with two earned runs surrendered, pitching well for a guy who threw 37 pitches in the first inning.  Grant Balfour came in for an epic rematch with Orlando Cabrera, whom Balfour quickly silenced with a groundout, going on to get out of the inning with the lead.

It remained 3–2 Rays until the eighth inning, when Buehrle allowed a leadoff triple to B.J. Upton, who ran full speed the whole way as he always should.  The White Sox starter would be chased out by Carl Crawford, who dinged a little opposite field single to score Upton.  He then stole second base without a throw off Octavio Dotel, proving once and for all that good old Carl is back in full swing.  Rocco Baldelli lined his first playoff hit into center field to score Crawford.  With two out, Dioner Navarro came to the plate to set up another great 2008 Rays highlight.  With the count at 1–1 against Matt Thornton, Navarro lifted a popup to shallow center field.  Alexei Ramirez lost sight of the ball and the outfielders didn’t get there in time.  The ball dropped in the triangle as Rocco ran like a cheetah after its dinner.  Not quite as great as he once was, but as good once as he ever was, he flew around third base and surprisingly scored without much of a play to make it 6–2.  Vintage Baldelli running all the way home was just another embodiment of this Rays team, not to mention another dagger to the White Sox.  It was as if he was 22 years old again.  Chicago did get another runner on base after a hideously atrocious call at first base on a tag by Willy Aybar, but Chad Bradford spared the umpire and his team with a 5–4–3 double play.  He followed that brilliantly with a three pitch looking strikeout of Jim Thome to make it 2–0 Rays and send Chicago back home against the wall.

The Rays will now take a nearly insurmountable advantage into enemy territory, where Matt Garza will get the ball on Sunday at 4:07 P.M.  This is the same time as kickoff for a big Buccaneers football game in Denver, but I think my priorities will lie with the baseball team this week.  Many others’ should too.  Why not?  We had great crowds at those home playoff games and continued showing doubters up.  Let’s keep riding this tidal wave of success, and until next time, go Rays.

Down, Down in a Later Round

The beloved Rays may be choosing the worst possible time of the season to suffer a monumental collapse.  They lost Saturday night to the Yankees thanks in part to an error by Ben Zobrist (who did hit a grand slam earlier in the game), and again Sunday on a barrage of hitting against Edwin Jackson.  Tonight, once again, they dropped the ball, this time at home against the arch enemy Boston Red Sox.  Scott Kazmir was trounced en route to the worst start of his MLB career, giving up four home runs in 3+ innings.  It was trouble from the second his first pitch flew to the backstop.  Amazingly, there are actually some positives sorted out of all this.  As I became accustomed to doing in the Devil Rays era, I try as hard as possible to focus on those.  Here are a few:

–David Price made his Major League debut in Sunday’s game and looked like a star on the rise right out of the opening gate.  His first pitch was grounded out to third base, then his first strikeout of his third hitter — future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez — came on three killer fastballs.  His fastball regularly hit 97 MPH, and his cut fastball moves tremendously at about 90.  He did give up a home run to Derek Jeter, one of two runs (the other an inherited runner allowed home by another reliever) in 5.1 innings pitched.  He struck out four and walked exactly zero Yankees.  And it looks like the Rays have no problem letting him go deep into games if it means preserving the veteran bullpen core.  Not to mention giving him valuable experience.

–Evan Longoria returned to the lineup in Saturday’s first game, a Rays 7–1 victory, and got two key hits as well as making a diving stop saving two Yankee runs late in the game.  He’s been defensively ready for weeks now, but to see him both making web gems and swinging the bat like he should tells me that he can be the key contributor to the stretch run that this team needs.  They played well in his absence, but given the choice, I would have him out there every game.  And why not?  He is the undisputed Rookie of the Year and on his way to an amazing career.

–Tonight’s game did feature three Tampa Bay home runs, all from those who needed to spice up their stat sheets in the losing effort.  Akinori Iwamura took his countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka deep over the left center field wall, just like he did in Fenway Park early in the season.  He has done well this season in hitting home runs to all parts of the field, and half of his six this season are against the Red Sox.  Justin Ruggiano and Dan Johnson each hit two run home runs to double their totals to… two.  These blasts will look good on their resumes, but the Rays still lost 13–5.

–The Minnesota Twins lost to Cleveland tonight, making it two losses in a row for them and pushing the Rays’ magic number for the playoffs down to seven.  While the divisional magic number remains at 14, the Rays at least have an excellent, if not nearly 100%, chance at a playoff berth of some sort.  They can still take one or two games from Boston and then beat Minnesota in the next series to clinch themselves a spot.  The ultimate goal would be home field advantage, but just getting into October is a great sign of how far this organization has come in just one year after all those years of buildup.  So if you want to potentially see a playoff clincher, get your tickets to some Rays–Twins games now.  I have, so please join me in supporting the cause.

Tomorrow night Andy Sonnanstine and Josh Beckett get their rematch, followed by Tim Wakefield vs. Matt Garza on Wednesday night.  Wakefield doesn’t quite own this team like he once did anymore.  Garza, meanwhile, is an All Star in the making.  So Feel the Heat, go out and support our team until elimination do we part, and go Rays.

Break Out The Brooms, It’s Sweep Time

Well, well, well…the Rays.  What better could they have done this
weekend against the Red Sox?  Not much from what I saw.  They kicked
the Red Sox (and all their infiltrating fans) right out of Tropicana
Field with a three-game sweep, highlighted by excellent pitching and
some timely hitting.  Saturday night’s game saw Edwin Jackson pitch
extremely well, but still leave down 1-0 against a dominating Clay
Buchholz.  After a pinch-hit single from Dioner Navarro put the tying
run on base in the eighth inning, Akinori Iwamura–one time Japan’s
home run champion–blasted a 1-1 hanger from Buchholz over the right
field wall for his first home run of 2008
The offense lacked a lot of hits or walks, but still escaped with a
win.  That’s what championship teams do–if they aren’t on top of their
game one way or another, they find ways to escape in victory.  They
completed the sweep in an excellent game today, the best pitching
performance in the young career of James Shields.  A complete game
shutout (2 H, 1 BB, 7 K) of the powerful World Champions highlighted
the day, as Josh Beckett gave up two runs, one a home run by Evan
Longoria (who was also a defensive wizard), before Manny Delcarmen allowed Jason Bartlett to score (after
he was hit in the head by a pitch) on a Carl Crawford double that was
almost a triple.  Beckett was good, but Shields was absolutely
phenomenal and had his A+ game all day today.  Cheers times six for the
Rays piling on a winning streak that has vaulted them into a
first-place tie in their division.  And we get Scott Kazmir back next
weekend at Fenway Park.  Then there’s no telling where this team is
headed.

Yes, I know this is a Rays/baseball blog, but I would also like to add
a bonus for those who may care…the 2008 NFL Draft.  Football is my
other favorite sport, and of course the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are my
team.  So I figured that here and now were as good a time and place as
any to briefly break down their draft picks.  So here we go with your
NFC South Champions:

1.  Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas – This guy was considered the premier
shutdown cornerback in college football last season.  He is 6’1″ and
can get physical in addition to his coverage skills.  As Ronde Barber
gets older and Brian Kelly is gone, Talib is coming in competing for a
starting job as a rookie.  And he can return punts, too, if need be. 
On the flip side, he admitted to marijuana use in college, which can be
alienating in today’s NFL.  I don’t think it’s a huge concern, so I
think he’ll be a good player from day one and the off-field issues will not derail
him, especially with the way Roger Goodell lays the hammer down on troublemakers in his league.

2.  Dexter Jackson, WR/KR, Appalachian State – As I sat in front
of the TV during the second round, I said, “It would be nice to get
that guy, Dexter Jackson from Appalachian State…why isn’t anybody
talking about this guy?”  And then, out of nowhere, the Bucs took him
at 58th overall.  I saw him in that infamous Michigan game, running
right up the middle and killing that defense with pure speed.  He’s an
NCAA track and field champion whose speed alone can make him a huge
returner in this league.  Undersized at 5’9″, he may be best suited to
occasionally hide out in the slot and split the defense for big gains. 
They’re looking for their Devin Hester, and while he may not be on that
level, he’ll at least serve as a compliment to Talib and Micheal
Spurlock.  One more ironic note that could score him a few karma points: he shares his name with safety Dexter Jackson, the Super Bowl XXXVII MVP from the Bucs.

3.  Jeremy Zuttah, OG, Rutgers – A tackle in college, this guy
is known for his versatility.  He can play anywhere on the offensive
line, so in case anyone goes down, the Bucs will have a good third
round guy to plug in.  He’s a perfect pick to add depth to a good, and
improving, offensive line featuring two 2006 day one picks, Luke
Petitgout returning at left tackle, and new free agent signee center
Jeff Faine.

4.  Dre Moore, DT, Maryland – Moore would have been picked
higher if he was more consistent in college, but he does have the
natural abilities and tools that could make him a key defender.  At
6’4″ and 305 pounds with both strength and speed for his size, he’ll be
a good addition to a line featuring a few good defensive ends, notably
Gaines Adams, last year’s first round pick.  He could be more motivated
at this level, and thus become the force the Buccaneers have lacked
since they lost Anthony McFarland.

5.  Josh Johnson, QB, San Diego – A small school quarterback
gets the fifth round pick.  Johnson is called a good scrambler who can
improvise, but not a great passer.  Those skills could be honed and,
best case scenario, he can be a future starter.  While they claim that he may not be a great passer, check out these 2007 stats: 43 touchdowns, 1 interception.  I don’t care which college this was at, that’s the greatest ratio I’ve ever seen.  He was also the Offensive MVP in the East-West Shrine Game.  With Jeff Garcia aging
and no really young QBs on the roster (except Bruce Gradkowski, who has
almost run out of chances), he could learn as a backup and get good as a dual threat
with a little maturation if he does make the team, or even the practice
squad.

6.  Geno Hayes, LB, Florida State – The top player on the
Seminoles’ defense in 2007, this linebacker was a steal as a sixth
round draft choice.  Potentially a day one pick on some draft boards,
he slipped through teams that didn’t need him and fell right into Tampa
Bay’s pockets.  Hayes is 6’1″ and 235 pounds, and while he played on
the inside in college, he can be either an ILB or OLB at this level. 
Hayes looks like an excellent late-round pick, with Derrick Brooks
likely to retire before too long and a growing need for a third man to
play alongside Ryan Nece and Barrett Ruud.

7.  Cory Boyd, RB, South Carolina – This pick can be questioned
to some extent, but seeing as it was the seventh round, it can’t be
harped on.  Boyd played well in his senior season under Steve Spurrier,
rushing for over 900 yards.  If he’s better than the draft billing, he
could possibly make the team as the inside power runner that the Bucs
need.  With four speed guys (Earnest Graham, Michael Bennett, Carnell
Williams when he returns, and veteran Warrick Dunn) already on the
depth chart, he doesn’t have much of a chance.  Only if the need for a
Marion Barber-type runner emerges and roster space clears up, he might
play.  Otherwise, he might want to put on a little weight and try out
for the Tampa Bay Storm.

The Bucs only missed one need–a big possession wide receiver that Jon
Gruden covets.  Hopefully Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton have big
enough years to fill that gap.  Not to mention Joey Galloway and all
these rookies.  I think they had a good draft this year, better than
most people think.  They can easily, with the combination of
slowly-aging older players and increasing youth, contend for another
NFC South championship.  Good luck to all these guys, and I’ll see them
in July.

Now it’s time to get back to more relevant news for this blog, such
as…baseball.  The Rays are tied for first place in their division
thanks to the winning streak, and now we can ride the wave of momentum
to uncharted territory.  They should make unlike the Braves in this
weekend’s series against the Mets and keep sticking it to all rival
teams until they wave white flags and their fans stop attending our
home games.  Well, that’s the best case scenario, but I’m pushing for
it as a more optimistic fan.  So until next time, go first place Rays.