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’ strikeoutprone, foulbunting 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 injuryriddled 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 twoday 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 numberone 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.
Two more 2008 Tampa Bay Rays have left the team for more playing time overseas.
Relief pitcher Scott Dohmann, who beat Grant Balfour for a roster spot on Opening Day before the world knew of Balfour’s flamethrowing prowess, has signed with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan’s Nippon Pro Baseball. Dohmann was in the Tampa Bay organization for two years, compiling good statistics in a horrendous bullpen in 2007 before falling off the wagon (6.14 ERA in 12 appearances, with a better 3.46 ERA in 33 games at Durham) last season. His departure does not leave much of a dent in the Rays bullpen, though they certainly could use the talent depth. I have no idea whether or not he’ll be any good in Japan. Every player who goes there reacts differently. Regardless of how he takes it, good luck to him in this endeavor.
First baseman Dan Johnson, who hit possibly the single most important home run of the Rays’ 2008 regular season, has been sent to the Yokohama Bay Stars in exchange for cash, the St. Petersburg Times reports. He will forever have a big place in Tampa Bay baseball history for his heroic efforts on September 9 at Fenway Park. Having arrived at game time after his callup from Durham, Johnson pinch hit in the ninth inning against the vaunted Jonathan Papelbon. He promptly launched a home run over the Red Sox bullpen to tie the game, which the Rays would win 54. Without that win and the ensuing momentum, the Rays may never have won the division or had home field advantage in the ALCS. He hit .307 with 25 home runs, 84 walks and 75 strikeouts at Durham and .200 with two home runs in ten games in Tampa Bay. I think that with his good batting eye and power, he is the type of player who can be a star in Japan. As long as he can mentally respond to the pressure, he can be great overseas. Hopefully he does very well in Yokohama and he can relate a great experience back to us in America.
I will be keeping track of these players’ seasons in the Far East next year. On an unrelated note, Tropicana Field hosted its first ever regulation football game, the NCAA’s Magicjack.com St. Petersburg Bowl between South Florida and Memphis. USF won 4114 behind excellent quarterback play from Matt Grothe, who may finally live up to the hype and become a toplevel QB next season. Until more moves are announced, or Hank Steinbrenner balks at his $26.9 million luxury tax, go Rays.
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 71 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 135.
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 RaysTwins 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.
I have now successfully uploaded pictures from Friday night’s Rays-White Sox game to my MySpace photo album. Thanks to post-production work in Kodak EasyShare and Adobe Photoshop, they look good for public viewing.
The same can be said for the Rays tonight. After a performance that would have had the Rays jumping into quicksand on Friday night, Andy Sonnanstine pitched the greatest game of his career to date. He threw a complete game, three-hit shutout, allowing only one walk and striking out four. His ERA plummeted to 5.55 as that start just might have saved him from AAA. At least for one night, he turned around his horrible beginning to the season and showed signs of life for the first time since Spring Training. There still may be a spot for him here, especially putting up stats like the ones he had tonight.
Carlos Pena returned as the designated hitter and went 2-for-3, and Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton also had multi-hit games. Crawford was caught stealing thanks to a timely pickoff move from Mark Buehrle, and Jonny Gomes dodged a rundown on a similar play and stole second base. They do need to learn how to read pickoff moves and general things about baserunning that come with experience. Too many of those rookie mistakes will put them in the same hole as the previous ten years. They won the game, which lets them off the hook tonight, but obviously that can’t continue.
Well, the series is even thanks to an excellent pitching performance, and tomorrow will decide it. Tonight was fun and games, though, thanks in part to Tropicana Field’s Wrestling Night featuring Jonny Gomes. I would like to have seen that, in part because of the players involved, and also to see if past-their-prime guys like Buff Bagwell and Scott Steiner are still in shape. And in baseball personnel news, the Rays claimed Dan Johnson off waivers from the Oakland A’s. Johnson is a decent power hitter with good first base defense who could make a good fill-in when necessary. So until next time, bring on Dan Johnson and go Rays.