Tagged: Carlos Pena

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.

2009 Season Retrospective: Part One

Now that the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2009 season has been completed, here are some facts and figures from the season, including the good, bad and completely miserable:

  • Record: 84–78 (Third place)
  • Home Run Leader: Carlos Pena (39)
  • Stolen Base Leader: Carl Crawford (60)
  • Best Starter ERA: Jeff Niemann (3.94)
  • Batting Leader: Jason Bartlett (.320 — Franchise Record)
  • Best Bullpen ERA: J.P. Howell (2.84)
  • RBI Leader: Evan Longoria (113)

Longoria also led in runs scored (100). B.J. Upton was second in stolen bases (42). Matt Garza finished just behind Niemann in ERA (3.95). Howell led the team in saves (17), but also in blown saves (8).

  • Pat Burrell: .221, 14 HR in 122 games
  • Dioner Navarro: .218, 8 HR, 18 walks in 115 games
  • B.J. Upton: .241, 11 HR in 144 games
  • Andy Sonnanstine: 6–9, 6.77 ERA in 22 games (18 starts)
  • Grant Balfour: 5–4, 4.81 ERA (1.50 in 2008)
  • Scott Kazmir: 8–7, 5.92 ERA with the Rays in 20 games; 2–2, 1.73 ERA with the Angels in six games
  • James Shields: 11–12, 4.14 ERA

So without six busts and a mediocre season from Shields, this team probably would have made the postseason. Every one of those guys could have done much better, as they have before. Thankfully, they were aided by the surprising Ben Zobrist (.297, 27 HR, 17 SB) and Bartlett (30 SB, 14 HR; one HR in 2008).

  • Five players (Pena, Upton, Longoria, Burrell, Zobrist) struck out more than 100 times, while Crawford reached 99. Bartlett had a career–high 89 in 137 games. This is actually down from last season, when seven players reached triple digits.
  • Crawford stole his first 32 bases consecutively, but ended up being caught 16 times. He claims he was safe on half of those, and I can recall at least one (in New York) where he was indeed safe.
  • Troy Percival remained on the payroll the entire season, despite posting a 6.35 ERA in 14 games before going home in May. He still earned $4 million.
  • Lance Cormier and Randy Choate were the anti–Percival, pitching surprisingly well after signing minor league contracts. Cormier held down a 3.26 ERA and Choate 3.47.
  • Longoria hit 8 home runs with 26 RBI against the Red Sox.

Those are some random bits of information to close this out. Join me again soon for Part Two: Honest Opinions. Until next time, go Rays… and anyone who beats the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies.

The 2009 Season Is Unofficially Over

The title says everything.

The Rays went 1–5 in their last homestand, their worst since 2005, then tanked a four–game series with the Yankees in which they got torched in a doubleheader, gave up a walk–off home run and blew an eighth inning lead. Perhaps worst of all, they lost Carlos Pena for the rest of the season.

Here is a little rant I wrote, initially submitted to my college newspaper’s sports blog:

The
Tampa Bay Rays effectively eliminated themselves from MLB playoff contention this past week thanks to an exhausted bullpen and a mismanaged squad.

The Rays faced a season–deciding homestand with the rival Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox held a four–game lead in the Wild Card standings, so the Rays had to win that series to realistically have a shot at toppling them.

Joe Maddon made the decision to start Andy Sonnanstine in game one against Jon Lester. While Lester has had a subpar history against the Rays, he has been an outstanding pitcher for three years. On the contrary, Sonnanstine had good career marks against Boston, but had struggled so badly this season that he spent two months in the minor leagues.

Nonetheless, Maddon chose him to replace the traded Scott Kazmir in the biggest game of the season. The strategy blew up in their faces.

Sonnanstine only lasted four innings, allowing five runs — three earned — as his defense and pinpoint command betrayed him. The Rays lost 8–4.

Following the game, Maddon took the surprising step of defending his pitcher, saying he “threw the ball really well.” Really, Mr. Manager of the Year?

How, exactly, does a finesse pitcher issue four walks, just two strikeouts and two home runs and throw really well? Maddon is stretching it in his defense of Sonnanstine. We respect you and think you have done a good job with the young guys. But just admit you made the wrong decision. It would be a first.

The Rays beat Josh Beckett the following night on ESPN thanks to a home run barrage of their own. Even so, Maddon used seven pitchers in his effort to micromanage every matchup. Three of his relievers issued costly late-inning walks and were pulled out of the fire by a three–run Rays eighth inning.

There would be no saves made in the must–win series finale. Boston beat the Rays 6–3 to take the series. Two relievers, again brought in for matchup purposes, allowed two late insurance runs that sealed their team’s fate. The number crunching does not always work, and it failed Maddon miserably in this series.

The Rays then had the daunting task of hosting the Detroit Tigers, who led the Central division entering Tropicana Field.

The first game had the Rays and Tigers tied at one entering the final inning. J.P. Howell, normally the closer, promptly allowed Detroit to take a 3–1 lead on a hit and two walks. Again playing the matchup game, Maddon replaced him with another left-hander, Randy Choate.

Choate allowed a hit to score a fourth run — one that would decide the game, as a comeback attempt by Tampa Bay ended in a 4–3 defeat with two runners stranded in scoring position.

Game two saw the Rays leap out to a 4–1 lead after just one inning. James Shields allowed six runs, but the game was ultimately lost by the bullpen. Three relievers combined to allow the decisive runs to score in an 8–6 loss.

The finale was the most gutwrenching blow. Up 3–1 in the ninth inning, Lance Cormier struck out the first Tigers hitter. Maddon inexplicably removed him for hard-throwing Grant Balfour, who walked Miguel Cabrera. Howell was next, and he walked a pinch-hitter and found himself pulled. Russ Springer then entered the game to deal with right–handed hitters.

After a hit loaded the bases, All-Star Brandon Inge stepped up with a golden opportunity to give Detroit the lead. He fell to a 2–2 count, then got a hanging slider. He proceeded to hit it to Timbuktu.

By that, I mean it was about a 400–foot grand slam. The life was zapped from the Rays yet again. When Maddon returned to make yet another pitching change, he was booed by the home crowd. This may be the first time he has ever deserved such an indignity. But he brought it upon himself.

The Rays did not beat the Red Sox and Tigers, nor did they beat the Rays. The Rays beat themselves.

And
Joe Maddon may have beaten himself out of the playoffs.

That is about as accurately as I could have summarized that painful week in Rays history. They have now lost eight consecutive games and will now have to travel to Fenway Park in an effort to help the Texas Rangers earn a playoff spot. Personally, I’m cheering for the Rangers.

I have also come across a very interesting system created by Cubs fans: the Hate–Dex 2000 Ratings System. It is a series of arbitrarily assigned hate points to a series of players on the team. Explanations should also be provided. Naturally, everyone would have different opinions on this subject, but I feel the need to post mine. So here they are.

Pat Burrell (Hate–Dex Rating: 18) – I know you had a strained neck early this season, but seriously, who turned you into Adam Everett? Half the home runs, 80% of the batting average and all the strikeouts. You better hit 35 home runs in 2010.

B.J. Upton (HDR: 17) – A man named Desmond Jennings is at Durham waiting to take your job. He is basically you without the strikeouts. You can’t even catch up to an 89 mile–per–hour fastball anymore, which would make several of our coaches better hitters than you.

Dioner Navarro (HDR: 16) – Please pretend to act like you care. Baseball is a game of adjustments, so when pitchers adjusted to you after your .295 2008 season, you responded by hitting in the .220s and short–hopping throws like never before. I’m thankful you lost in arbitration. Your next adjustment will be to that hard wooden bench.

Andy Sonnanstine (HDR: 13) – “Epic fail” would be a good assessment of your season. Maybe even an understatement. You went from fourth starter to AAA journeyman overnight. How does a pitcher of your style give away so many walks and get hit as hard as you have? Keep your stuff packed, you may be next on the train out of town.

Grant Balfour (HDR: 12) – Speaking of adjustments, I knew hitters would adapt to you. But where have you gone? Pitches that used to finish the big bats now end up on somebody’s mantle as a souvenir. At least you admitted recently that you have been “freaking terrible,” so that knocks off a few points. But please, shake yourself and trust what got you here.

Carlos Pena (HDR: 10) – You hit 39 home runs this year, a phenomenal figure. But the price you paid was… well, everything else. More errors in the field and a batting average lower than those of some pitchers. That uppercut strikeout/foul back swing should have resulted in even more home runs. Though you are by all accounts a nice guy off the field, as am I, all the strikeouts made me want to break your bat over your head.

J.P. Howell (HDR: 8) – Your statline still looks decent and you have made some nice saves. But please for the love of the Rays quit bouncing pitches in front of the plate. This has been a recurring theme all season, and now maybe you have finally had a wake–up call by costing us important runs bouncing the ball away. If you would stop skipping stones so much and actually pitch like you did before, our team would be easier to watch.

James Shields (HDR: 4) – Every time I watch you, you pitch at one of two levels: mediocre and bad. I’m shocked your ERA is still under 4.00. You have been jobbed out of a few wins by your team, but a little consistency would be appreciated.

Carl Crawford (HDR: 2) – You’re not running so much anymore. That takes away from our offense. Try a bit harder in these last few weeks. Run when we need you to and make your stats look better. It’s a win–win situation.

That’s about it for hating on our players. I’ll be cheering them on to whatever they can accomplish for the rest of the season, but any playoff hopes are now dead. Until next time and next year, go Rays.

UPDATE (9/11/09): My Rays rant was posted by The Minaret. You can find the published version here.

The Ups and Downs of a Ten Game Roadtrip

The Rays return home from a ten–game, three city roadtrip tonight to face the Yankees in a potentially season–deciding divisional series. I just returned home to Tampa myself on Saturday, back from a 16–day journey that went through the backwoods of Gaskin, Florida; New Smyrna Beach, Florida; a family mini–reunion in Escondido, California; and back to New Smyrna Beach. Thanks to this vacation and the All–Star break, I didn’t watch a live Rays game for about two weeks. I managed to keep track of their progress via the Internet, but I only saw a few highlights until late in the White Sox series.

So how about that catch Carl Crawford made in the All–Star Game? He robbed Colorado’s Brad Hawpe of a game–tying home run. This marked the first time Crawford had ever brought a home run back, and the only time Crawford will ever save Jonathan Papelbon. Between that and a single earlier in the game, but mostly the catch, Crawford earned himself the All–Star MVP Award. Congratulations to him for representing the Rays appropriately.

Following the Rays’ sweep of the Royals in which they made three consecutive eighth inning comebacks, it was time for a series in Chicago — and a place on the losing end of baseball history. On Thursday, July 23, White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle dominated the Rays for nine innings with no hits, no walks and no errors. A perfect game. Not even the old Devil Rays were ever victimized by perfection. But Buehrle did just that. Center fielder Dewayne Wise, who nearly robbed Cliff Floyd’s walk–off home run last year, deserves a lot of credit. He made arguably the play of the decade in the ninth inning to rob Gabe Kapler of a home run. So the Rays have made history in one of the worst possible ways.

I honestly have thought since last season that this team was the type that could be perfected. They strike out all the time and have trouble with certain types of pitchers, most notably left–handers who change speeds. That is Mark Buehrle. Rays fans have to watch these highlights forever now, so I hope this is not all the 2009 team is remembered for. Congratulations anyway to Buehrle.

Saturday afternoon started out just as badly, but later became one of the Rays’ greatest days. David Price’s fastball only reached the high 80s and he was torched for six runs in three innings by the Blue Jays. Tampa Bay trailed 8–0 through four innings and later fell behind 9–1. At that point I said that the Rays could bring in Fred Flintstone to pitch and it would make no difference. Then it happened — professional hitters actually started hitting. Carlos Pena hit a three–run triple off the wall in right center field that instantly cut the deficit to 9–4. It was 9–7 by the time the ninth inning rolled around. The battling offense and good bullpen work kept the Rays alive. Pena hit a towering home run off Scott Downs to make it 9–8. Willy Aybar, who had handed the Blue Jays at least one first inning run due to defensive ineptitude, then proved his worth by blasting a pitch to center field, over the head of Vernon Wells and over the wall.

Tie game. The Rays had come back from eight runs down to even it up, on the road no less. The game dragged on into the 12th inning, when Tampa Bay castoff Shawn Camp surrendered a go–ahead double to Jason Bartlett. Joe Nelson (in because J.P. Howell had already been used) walked three of his first four batters to load the bases. Could this comeback really go to waste? Aaron Hill thought it could. He had already hit two home runs. No third time charm, however, as Nelson struck him out to preserve the lead. Adam Lind then fell to The Great Equalizer by grounding out to second base. Rays win 10–9, capping off the biggest comeback in team history. They desperately needed that game to keep up the pace with the Yankees.

After a 6–4 roadtrip, those Yankees are next on the schedule. They enter Tropicana Field for a huge three–game series that could drastically alter the playoff race. With the Rays pitching their aces in this series, it’s about time to show the old news who the new kids are, just like we did in 2008. The Rays might have a better team on paper, so they should prove that on their home field. Until next time, go Rays.

All-Star Break Happenings

Hello everyone, it’s time for my one and only All–Star break update. I have to sandwich this between a Thursday–Sunday vacation I just took in which I had no Internet access and a flight to San Diego tomorrow (Wednesday) morning. So I’ll do what I can in talking about my teams and their headlines.

  • Jeff Francoeur got traded to the Mets? Seriously?
  • Carlos Pena competed in last night’s Home Run Derby, where he narrowly missed advancement to the second round. Albert Pujols would like to thank the fan who brought an out over the wall and turned it into a home run. Pena had a bad pitcher, Scott McNulty, who threw the ball outside 90% of the time. And he’s an assistant baseball coach at my school. Maybe I should interview him about the experience. I’ll leave out the “bad pitcher” part.
  • Speaking of the Home Run Derby, I thought Nelson Cruz, who lost in the finals to Prince Fielder, was quite impressive. Looking at him, I can see that he’s a good all–around player with an easy power swing. I would like to see him go on to big things. He has already shot up from “Four–A” journeyman to All–Star.
  • Despite my approximately 3,300 votes for Pena, he did not win the Final Vote. I also voted against Shane Victorino because he’s a Phillie, but he won anyway. I would like to thank Dustin Pedroia for opening up a spot for Pena, though I’m surprised Ian Kinsler isn’t there. He should be, he deserves it.
  • The Rays stand at 48–41, 3.5 games behind the Yankees and six games back of the Red Sox. They have started slowly making their move lately, though the last place Oakland A’s have inexplicably given them a lot of trouble. At least here there was no long losing streak prior to the All–Star break. The Braves are 43–45, a half game ahead of the Mets, which is hilarious. I hope the Mets crash and burn for the rest of this season. And beyond.
  • Jeff Francoeur got traded to the Mets? Seriously? He was sent packing for Ryan Church in Thursday night’s trade, the first between the Braves and Mets in more than 15 years. Francoeur had been on the chopping block for several weeks as the Braves had run out of patience, but I never thought they could send him to the enemy. Church didn’t think he would be a Brave either, but here he is. He’s been the better player since last year, and his left–handed bat gives the Braves options between him and right–hander Matt Diaz. This may be a good deal.

I’ll be watching the All–Star Game tonight as I pack for San Diego. I’ll be staying for six nights at a little family reunion in Escondido. We should be seeing about 30 of our relatives, including a few that I haven’t met. Hopefully we have some baseball fans in the house. News just broke that Evan Longoria, the first ever Rays starter in an All–Star Game, is out due to an infected ring finger. I hate that for him and the team. Good luck to the remaining Rays and Brave in the game tonight, and until I’m back, go Rays.

Your 2009 All Stars

Rather than dwelling on the embarrassing Rangers series and the Rays giving back their goodwill as they are ever so accustomed to doing, I would like to address the 2009 All–Star Game and its participants. Four Tampa Bay Rays, breaking last year’s record of three, made it into the game with the possibility of a fifth.

Evan Longoria won the voting at third base by a landslide, and for good reason. He has hit 21 home runs and is up about 20 points on his batting average in 2009. He is still doing just about everything he did last year and making his case as a top MVP candidate. Congratulations to the first ever Tampa Bay starter in an All–Star Game. Now do us proud.

Jason Bartlett was voted in as a reserve shortstop by the players. He should have been the starter, and would have been if not for the reputation and Yankee votes for Derek Jeter. He is hitting around .360 with eight home runs — he had one last season — and has stepped his game up in just about every possible way. And he was already the team MVP last year.

Carl Crawford is another very deserving name. Hitting around .320 for most of the season, Crawford now has eight home runs and a blistering 41 stolen bases. Add a few more walks and he would be Rickey Henderson. This lineup falters without a jump start from him. This will be his third All–Star appearance.

Ben Zobrist was a controversial, but sensible, selection by Joe Maddon. Not even a regular starter for nearly two months, Zobrist has hit home runs and done all the right things when games were on the line. He has 16 home runs, eight stolen bases and about a .400 on–base percentage. He has elevated himself in literally every facet of the game. Just like in the regular season, Maddon can play him in several different spots here. And I know he is not the guy to let this get to his head.

Carlos Pena can also be voted in as part of the Final Vote on MLB.com. He leads the league in home runs and usually plays an outstanding first base. I would like to see him finally have this honor and share it with many other Rays and their loyal fans.

On the Atlanta Braves front, they only managed one representative: catcher Brian McCann, who had the credentials to start despite a slow start to the season due to eye injuries. Those have obviously since been corrected. He has been the bright spot in the lackluster offense for the Braves. Chipper Jones is still doing well, Yunel Escobar is having a good year and Nate McLouth was a welcome boost, but McCann is gluing them all together. He has also had to work with a 60 percent turnover in his starting rotation and has done a very good job with them.

I think the biggest name left out was the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler. He was only hitting .255 as of tonight, but was already near 20–20 and has been the spark plug to the Rangers in the absence of Josh Hamilton (who won a starting job anyway). He is in the Final Vote, but I have to vote for Pena. Our apologies to Mr. Kinsler, though his team beating the Rays makes me feel less sorry for him.

Here are the starting lineups:

American League:

C – Joe Mauer
1B – Mark Teixeira
2B – Dustin Pedroia (Should have been Kinsler)
SS – Derek Jeter (Should have been Bartlett)
3B – Evan Longoria
OF – Jason Bay
OF – Ichiro Suzuki
OF – Josh Hamilton (Should have been Crawford or Torii Hunter)

National League:

C – Yadier Molina (Should have been McCann)
1B – Albert Pujols (Obviously)
2B – Chase Utley
SS – Hanley Ramirez
3B – David Wright
OF – Ryan Braun
OF – Raul Ibanez
OF – Carlos Beltran (Will not play due to injury; replacement to be announced)

On an unrelated note, I would like to mention that pitcher Alex Koronis has made his professional debut with the Princeton Rays as a late–inning reliever. The former Tampa Spartan earned a save in his debut on June 30 and has pitched two scoreless outings. This is the first time that I can say a player that I covered, no matter how briefly, has gone on to bigger things. In addition, former Spartan Jose Jimenez hit his first professional home run with the Arizona League Angels on June 23. Keep it up, guys.

Now we have to find out who the starting pitchers and the final men will be. I’m voting for Pena and alternating between Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval and Matt Kemp. Anybody but Shane Victorino because we don’t need any more Phillies. Congratulations to the All Stars, and 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.