Tagged: B.J. Upton

Late Recap of Rays FanFest 2010

Well, for the first time in my second decade of MLBlogging, I’m back. And just as it began in the previous two years, the 2010 Rays season kicked off with FanFest on February 20.

I arrived at around 8:30 at Tropicana Field, much later than that 7:00 arrival last year. The line was still short, maybe just a few dozen people. FOX 13 interviewed the first people who got there (they couldn’t do this last year?), then the doors finally opened around 10:10. It felt good to escape the cold winds, and just as good to escape into center field. I promptly gathered my cards for the autograph lines as I checked the schedule. My brother went out to FanFest for the first time since 2001, so we could double our autograph intake. I noticed that Table 2 featured Desmond Jennings and Dan Johnson at noon, then Carlos Pena at 1:00. I had both Jennings’ and Pena’s cards, so Table 2 it was. My brother headed off to Table 5 with a Matt Joyce card. Table 1 with Evan Longoria was not happening by the time we reached the lines.

So after playing the waiting game, during which time I pulled up several pieces of the field as souvenirs, it was time to approach the tables. Of course, they didn’t start right at noon, which I’m sure angered people in the Longoria and B.J. Upton lines. I had a good spot in line, about halfway up from the end where the line curves around. Plus it just so happened that many of those ahead of me were there to see Pena, while I was comfortable with Jennings. So I jumped ahead and took my shot. I talked to Johnson first, asking him how Japan treated him.

“They treated me well,” Johnson told me. “But I did more work there in two weeks than I did in a year here.”

We also agreed that Japan (where Johnson hit .215 with 24 home runs for Yokohama in 2009) promotes a vastly different culture. After he signed my program and I thanked him for the 2008 home run in Boston, I moved on to Jennings. I didn’t have many words, but he did sign my 2007 Bowman Sterling card. That will be money in the bank many years down the road — at least as long as Jennings himself cashes in on his potential.

After eating (expensive) Checkers food in the right field seats, I returned to the field and caught up with Jennings again. This time I visited the Metro PCS Call a Friend booth, where I had Jennings call my dad. They talked for a minute about everything Rays, and it made their days. Well, at least Dad’s.

At 2:00, it was town hall meeting time. This is always one of my favorite events, being able to listen to broadcasters and other notable names discuss the game and the team, plus asking them questions. The first round starred Dewayne Staats and Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. Roberts may be 83 years old, but his baseball memory remains perfectly clear. Plus he signed my program. A Hall of Famer’s signature is worth every dollar and every minute I spent at FanFest. Anyway, Roberts spent a lot of time on the differences between his era and today, and the dynamics of pitching. I asked him how far he thought baseball went to protect the hitter in today’s game. His first sentence spoke volumes.

“When I started, hitters didn’t even wear helmets.”

Then he made it a point to discuss the controversy over hitters wearing body armor at the plate, which never happened 50 years ago. He told a few more stories, littered with details — this guy knows the count on which he gave up a home run in a memorable game in 1954. And, of course, pitch count was a major point of contention. Roberts suggested that a pitcher’s mechanics determine injury risk more than the amount of throwing. He has a point.

After they wrapped up, 3:00 meant time for round two. Radio broadcasters Dave Wills and Andy Freed (whom I had spoken to earlier in the day) made their way up on stage at the Batter’s Eye Restaurant. Joining them was the man who will hopefully turn the Rays’ strikeout–prone, foul–bunting woes around: new hitting coach Derek Shelton. His focus is on situational hitting, which I think is essential to any championship team. In discussing this topic, Shelton made a valid argument.

“If Carlos Pena is up with a runner on third base, less than two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, I want him putting the ball on the ground. If it’s two outs and nobody on base in the same situation, I want him taking his three swings and trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Shelton’s main points were that it’s not striking out often, but striking out at the wrong times, that kills run production, and that they just needed to play to win the game. He also mentioned his work with most of the team’s hitters during the offseason, notably with B.J. Upton. He says Upton needs to cut down on the “moving parts” in his swing, and his extremely fast hands could do the work. He added that it could take as long as 18 months to recover from the shoulder surgery Upton went through in November 2008, which would explain his epic fail 2009 season. Speaking of which, Pat Burrell is also in shape and ready to hit under Shelton’s guidance.

Shelton answered my question about which young player would break out by explaining Upton’s progress and saying he would be that guy. Dave Wills told me this last year too, so maybe it’s not a lock. My brother asked Shelton about Kelly Shoppach, with whom he worked with the Cleveland Indians. He said Shoppach was “closer to 2008” than his injury–riddled 2009 season. 2008 was when he hit 21 home runs and rendered Victor Martinez nearly irrelevant. He also loves Tropicana Field, a rarity in this league.

That ended my 2010 Rays FanFest on a high note. The autographs were an automatic win for us, and of course talking to these people up close and personally is a rare treat that should always be capitalized upon. The only problems: the people running the show had little sense of timeliness, and there is no possible way to do everything one can do in seven hours. They need to make this a two–day event. Overall, I would say FanFest hit the line between B+ and A–.

I will end here by announcing my annual journey to Champion Stadium in Kissimmee to see the Braves. It is happening March 13 when the Braves face the Blue Jays, who I saw there in 2007. Hopefully Jason Heyward gets some playing time. He’s rated the number–one prospect, ahead of Stephen Strasburg, and has already sent shockwaves around Braves camp. Hopefully he and Jennings become the game’s two most dominant outfielders.

Until next time, go Rays.

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.

Citrus Series Sweep

The annual Citrus Series ended with three games at Tropicana Field, in which the Tampa Bay Rays swept the Florida Marlins by scores of 7–3, 3–2 and 5–2.

The crowds for the weekend games were not bad — 35,790 for Saturday’s game featuring Pat Benatar, then nearly 30,000 Sunday. That is a good sign, right along with the five–game winning streak.

The pitchers did very well throughout the series. James Shields earned a quality start Friday night and his bullpen shut it down for the win. Scott Kazmir returned Saturday and went back to throwing 92 MPH fastballs. He wasn’t horrible, which is an improvement. He allowed two runs in five innings with one walk and five strikeouts. David Price allowed two hits, but five walks, in more than six innings on Sunday. Chad Bradford and J.P. Howell teamed up to give the Marlins loaded bases with just one out, then a walk forced in a run. Howell realized where he was, then struck out Ronny Paulino and Ross Gload to end the sweep.

The bullpen has been great since June 8, as they have allowed seven runs in about 55 innings. Howell started out slowly, but has reverted to last year’s success. Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour have also improved following bad beginnings. Balfour is even striking out hitters with the slider now. By comparison, the Mets bullpen has lost nine games this month. I knew they were due to implode.

Speaking of imploded teams, the Toronto Blue Jays will host the Rays for the first time this season, which has been a long time coming. Roy Halladay returns from the disabled list just in time to face the surging Tampa Bay lineup. This concludes our five–game winning streak. It’s been fun. Well, maybe a loss is not entirely automatic, just probable. Jeff Niemann needs to bring his two–hitter A–game tonight. Until next time, go Rays.

Mixed Roadtrip Ends in Victory

The Rays hit the road for six games in Colorado and Queens, New York, winning just once in Coors Field but taking two out of three in the new Citi Field.

The Rockies were very difficult to beat (though the losses were close) largely because they are on a streak nearly matching their huge run in late 2007. They have now won 16 of their last 17 games. The one loss was in the Rays series opener when five home runs helped beat them 12–4. Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Kapler and B.J. Upton — quite a diverse group — hit the thin air for home runs. Zobrist and Upton hit long tee shots into the left field seats and Pena hit his about 400 feet to left center field, a hefty shot for a left–handed hitter.

New York was the next stop, not to face the hated Yankees, but the equally hated (by me) Mets. The Mets won the opener 5–3 because Andy Sonnanstine is just not that good this year. I think it should be him that loses his starting job when Scott Kazmir returns. He has been strong in rehab and Andy with his 6.60 ERA and 15 home runs allowed is just the odd man out. We shouldn’t be screwing around with David Price by sending him up and down. Just move Sonnanstine to the bullpen.

Thankfully the Rays won the Saturday and Sunday games by scores of 3–1 and 10–6. Saturday’s game on FOX with Thom Brennaman and Tim “Watch Darren Daulton use his mitt like a glove” McCarver showed once again that the Rays play better on network television. James Shields outdueled Johan Santana, pitching seven outstanding innings and picking up the win. Pena tagged Santana for a long straightaway home run and, after a rain delay, Zobrist joined the party with a shot over the right field wall.

Sunday was a back–and–forth affair with several lead changes. After Brian Schnieder, he of zero home runs all season, hit his second three–run home run of the series to give New York the lead, Tampa Bay stormed right back thanks in part to another long Upton home run. When he hits them, they come late in the game and travel far. They added insurance runs and won the game and the series. J.P. Howell did a good job closing out both games. Maybe he can be a closer now.

Next is the World Series rematch at Tropicana Field as the Rays host the inferior Philadelphia Phillies. Pat Burrell, who so far has hit more like Adam Everett, will be facing his former team for the first time. Hopefully that will set him off. I love seeing the Rays beat the Mets and I may even take greater pleasure in seeing them avenge last year’s losses to the Phillies. Until next time, go Rays.

Nationals Three Up, Three Down

Tropicana Field’s turf was not about to be sullied by the horrendous Washington Nationals, who despite having a few good players, entered this series at 16–42 with manager Manny Acta on the chopping block.

The Nationals’ ineptitude showed in droves against the Rays as Tampa Bay took the sweep to extend its winning streak to five games.

Friday night saw Matt Garza spot Washington three first inning runs, two of which were driven in by Elijah Dukes in his first at–bat against his former team. I wish he was banned from baseball. The Rays, however, shut them down after that and slowly came back. It culminated with a two–out, two–strike home run by Gabe Kapler of all people. He entered the series hitting .173 with that one home run in Yankee Stadium. He basically doubled his productivity for the entire season.

The great part about the home run was the event that led up to it. The usually reliable Nick Johnson, who had let the game–tying double bounce over his glove earlier, overran Kapler’s foul pop–up and dropped it. The very next pitch gave the Rays the lead. From that point it was game over as they won 4–3.

Early trouble hit Andy Sonnanstine on Saturday night. Ryan Zimmerman’s first inning home run (my annual salary says he’s on the All Star team) gave Washington a 1–0 lead. The Rays entered the bottom of the sixth inning down 2–1. Not for long. After starter Jordan Zimmerman was pulled following five good innings, Jason Bergmann came in. Just as I do to him in video games, the Rays teed him off. Ben Zobrist launched a three–run home run after hits by Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. Then Gabe Gross promptly hit a two–run blast. Five runs, no outs. Longoria later hit a two–run double off former (Devil) Ray Jesus Colome. The Rays won 8–3.

The series finale should have been a lock as James Shields faced Ross Detweiler. But it certainly was not automatic. Again thanks in part to Dukes, Shields put the Rays in a 4–0 hole in the fourth inning, which quickly became 4–2. Two innings later after a Gabe Gross walk, Kapler struck again as he lined a game–tying home run over the short wall in left field. Now he’s finally hitting like Popeye — he already looks like him. Two more innings later, Carlos Pena doubled, then pinch hitter Willy Aybar stepped up. His routine ground ball bounced off third base and rolled into left field, becoming an RBI double. Since they are the Nationals, they got nothing done against J.P. Howell and the Rays won 5–4.

This was a sweep the Rays needed and should have earned. Sure enough, they did. Though Howell downplayed it after the game (“It’s difficult to sweep any Major League ballclub”), this just had to happen. It was a key series at home against possibly the worst MLB team ever assembled. Good thing they got it.

Not only did they get it, the bullpen rolled right through it. For the entire six–game homestand, in more than 20 innings pitched, the relievers’ ERA was 0.00. No earned runs for six full games. That entire crew did an outstanding job. For that we thank you.

I would also like to point out that B.J. Upton stole six bases in this series. He took two in each game, which is an amazing feat. Especially seeing as he was never caught. Carl Crawford also stole his 36th base, Zobrist his eighth, and Reid Brignac his first in the Major Leagues. The Rays are the fastest team to reach 100 stolen bases since 1991. I enjoy watching this team run. It’s arguably their greatest strength.

Now it’s off to Colorado, where the Rockies will enter having won 11 consecutive games. It’s like that epic 2007 streak cut in half, and it’s still great. Maybe this is a sign that they are due for some losing. The Rays are on a streak themselves. Can they keep it going? As Joe Maddon said after today’s game, “I was a power hitter when I played in Boulder.” So the power bats can certainly use the altitude. Until next time, go Rays.

A Swing and a Sweep

The Rays went 0–for–13 with runners in scoring position.

They left 11 men on base, as opposed to the Royals’ three.

James Shields received very little run support through his first seven innings.

Yet the Rays managed to win today’s game 3–2 and complete the sweep — their first sweep of 2009.

The victory can be attributed primarily to three men: Shields, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton.

Shields picked up the victory, allowing only a two–run double to Billy Butler in eight innings of work. He walked nobody and struck out eight Royals.

Crawford, in addition to his 34th stolen base, hit his fourth home run of the year to cut the Rays’ deficit to 2–1 in inning number seven.

And then there’s B.J. With two outs in the eighth inning, he smashed the first pitch more than halfway up into the left field seats to give his team the lead. This homestand was his turning point. His batting average jumped up to .218, and his third home run of the season single–handedly won a game. Upton should now be feared once again.

We can’t forget Ben Zobrist, who stole his sixth base of the season; Joe Dillon, who picked up three hits; or Michel Hernandez, who scored on the Upton home run.

Nor should we forget former Royal J.P. Howell. He saved the game 1–2–3 against the 3–4–5 hitters. Despite his great stats, he has had trouble late in close games. Thankfully, this was 2008 Howell revisited. He did an incredible job. So did Matt Joyce catching Butler’s deep fly ball to start that ninth inning.

So now it’s off to New York, where men become legends and rats become roadkill. The Rays performed admirably in the last two series, so they better not screw it up now. Until next time, go Rays.

National TV Works Magic Again

The Rays have had a tendency to play better in nationally televised games.  Whether FOX, TBS or ESPN, they have had success on the networks.  Today’s game with the Indians at Tropicana Field was actually more of a regional telecast, but Tim McCarver (A.K.A. the reason to own a radio) was in the booth with Dick Stockton, so it was big enough for us.

The Rays were rolled over by Carl Pavano in the first three innings, but B.J. Upton led off the fourth inning with a line drive home run off the foulpole just over the short wall.  It looked cheap, but it was a home run anyway — B.J.’s second in as many games after being kept off the board for nearly five weeks.  The next inning saw a daring double steal on a missed bunt that sent Gabe Gross to third base and Akinori Iwamura up to second base behind him.  Third baseman Jhonny Peralta was playing in for the bunt and could not receive a throw (which is the only way Gross can steal third base), and would end up kicking himself when Jason Bartlett decided to swing and laced a two–run single to center field.

In the bottom half, another recurring issue came up: the Rays gave the runs back.  Three consecutive hits brought a run home with nobody out, and the damage was limited to one more on a sacrifice fly.  Ninth hitter Luis Valbuena, who is barely hitting half his weight, coaxed 11 pitches out of Matt Garza before a pop–up ended the inning after a total of 40 pitches.  Needless to say, Garza did not go too much longer, throwing six innings (five great ones) with two earned runs.

Down to their last chance for an insurance run, Ben Zobrist came up with two men on base and two out.  No home run this time, but a double down the left field line scored Carl Crawford and made it a 4–2 game.  A good play off the wall by Matt LaPorta prevented the second run from scoring.  But the Rays had their two–run lead heading to the ninth inning, which means it’s time for…

Joe Nelson.  Swerve!

Nelson mixed up well–located fastballs and the trademark vulcan changeup to induce a flyout by Valbuena, a called third strike to Grady Sizemore and one more flyout from Asdrubal Cabrera.  Rays win, 4–2.  They need one more win and they can take this series and win four of five games overall.

Speaking of Zobrist (better known as “Zorilla”), MLB.com has an article on the new trend of “super utility players,” a term I first heard from Joe Maddon describing Zobrist, who is interviewed for the piece.  Also mentioned: the Indians’ Mark DeRosa, Kansas City’s Willie Bloomquist, the Reds’ Jerry Hairston, Jr. and Alfredo Amezaga of the Marlins.

The Rays will see if Andy Sonnanstine can still throw strikes as he goes for the series win against… David Huff?  I don’t know who he is, but apparently an average start at AAA was enough to get him promoted to make his Major League debut against the Rays.  He sounds beatable to me.  We can only hope so.  Until next time, go Rays.