The Tampa Bay Rays have continued to display their newfound power to those western teams and fans who didn’t know before what they were dealing with. They took two out of three games in Arlington, then defeated the Angels 64 last night in that series opener back home. The last roadtrip saw them go 73, one of the best records they have ever had on a roadtrip of that length.
Matt Garza returned to Texas for the first time since he and Dioner Navarro almost turned MLB into MMA. But, as Dr. Weird would say, “This time… should be different!” Indeed it was Garza threw a twohit, twowalk, ninestrikeout shutout of the feared Rangers offense. It was a well timed, much needed role reversal for him with run support behind it in droves. Former Braves pitcher Kevin Millwood came back from injury and surrendered four home runs to Rays hitters in the 70 victory. Willy Aybar hit a rare left handed home run down the right field line, trying hard to displace my opinion that he should give up switch hitting altogether. Carlos Pena hit one out for the third straight game, Eric Hinske smashed a hanging curveball over the center field wall, and Gabe Gross took the very next pitch after that to the opposite power alley and gone. Garza was about as great as I’ve ever seen him, and the team backed him up.
The teams unfortunately switched spots in Saturday’s game, which the Rays lost 30 on an eight inning three hitter by virtual unknown Matt Harrison. Two of those hits were in the first inning, but produced zero runs, which would be their final tally. Edwin Jackson didn’t pitch too badly other than Ian Kinsler’s home run on his very first pitch of the game. So after basically taking this day off, would the offense recover for Sunday night’s rubber match?
Well of course they would. They broke out an early 71 lead, holding on to win 74. Pena hit yet another home run (a three run shot deep into the seats), as did B.J. Upton, who showed his old power stroke with an opposite field line drive over the wall after having been benched the previous game for not running out a double play ball. The ninth inning turned into Chinese water torture. With Scott Kazmir having given up two runs in seven innings, the Rays had a five run lead. Juan Salas, appearing for the first time since September 26, 2007, allowed a walk and a single. So on came the dominant Grant Balfour. However, with two outs, he walked the bases loaded, then walked in a run to bring up Josh Hamilton. The most dangerous hitter in the lineup coming up with a chance to tie the game was enough for Joe Maddon to call for one of his most bold moves ever as a manager: intentional walk. With two outs and the bases loaded? This hadn’t been done since Barry Bonds was walked by the Diamondbacks in 1998. But, sure enough, the Rays agreed to do it, showing Hamilton the utmost respect and bringing up Marlon Byrd with the game on the line. Dan Wheeler came in, despite Byrd being 4for8 with a home run against him. The Rays continued to defy the odds as Byrd struck out swinging on a breaking pitch to end the game. After that dramatic finish, it was time to return home.
The team came back to Tropicana Field with the threat of Tropical Storm Fay postponing a game. It ended up turning south, enabling the series to be played in its entirety. The opener saw Hinske and Cliff Floyd hit early home runs to put up a 51 advantage, which became 54 a few innings later. Andy Sonnanstine pitched just over five innings and managed to pick up his 13th win of the season, aided by a comforting insurance run from Justin Ruggiano in the bottom of the eighth inning. That run came after Jason Hammel made a rare late inning appearance and induced a double play with the go ahead run at the plate. Upton caught himself in another controversy about running plays out when he was unsuspectingly tagged out by Mark Teixeira as he waltzed into second base with an apparent double. This time it’s slightly justified because there was nobody near the base and Teixeira made a heads up tag from behind him. But he was still (rightfully) booed by the home fans as he stood out on second base. They won anyway as Aybar had three hits against his brother’s team, again batting left handed and proving me wrong. Sonnanstine’s win brought him within one of the franchise record, Rolando Arrojo’s 14 wins in 1998. Another day, another routine victory.
The Rays of St. Petersburg have two more games with the Angels of Anaheim before hitting the road again. They’ll be on national television three times in the next week: Wednesday night on ESPN2, Saturday afternoon on FOX and Sunday afternoon on TBS. The next Saturday will feature the Rays in their first FOX home game as they host the Orioles. So, Rays fans and all nonbelievers, you have your golden opportunity to watch the team in the spotlight. They are now 7648, ½ game behind the Angels for the best record in the league, and a new record 28 games over .500. The Red Sox remain 4½ games behind, and the Yankees a full 10 games off the lead. This is a real Major League team, regardless of what Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman continue to tell people. Until that record is extended even further, go Rays.
The Rays are back in a first place tie with the Boston Red Sox after exacting some just vengeance on the Orioles. After Baltimore took the opener 8-1 (I blame jetlag and Aubrey Huff), the undying Tampa Bay team used Andy Sonnanstine and Matt Garza, whose very jobs are at stake, to send the Orioles tumbling back towards their proper place in the standings. The game today was lowlighted by B.J. Upton’s recurring shoulder injury and an Adam Jones home run off Garza, but was made up for in spades and highlighted by Carl Crawford and a winning attitude. Well, that, Jonny Gomes blasting a home run off of Ray hater Brian Burres (who has never beaten us), and Upton only being sidelined for a few days. Good series minus the first game, and we have now taken three straight series and won eight out of nine games. Here we come, baseball world.
The next step in proving the Rays’ worth may be more important than every other test combined. The Rays now go to Fenway Park for a weekend series with the Red Sox in a battle for supremacy. On Sunday, we’ll have the grand return of one of our Generals, Scott Kazmir, to help strengthen the lines of defense and win this war. The way they handled the defending champions last weekend, they really could do it all again. I will throw parties if we keep seeing wins like this. This team is only getting better with the maturation of Evan Longoria, the surprise play of Eric Hinske, and the impending returns of Kazmir and Cliff Floyd.
So, in short, a great job by the Rays over the last week and a half, and at least a little more of this (or beyond that, we can only hope) will push us over the top and through the glass ceiling. The optimism is paying dividends. So until next time, go first place Rays.
The Tampa Bay/Orlando Rays have won their first game at Champion Stadium, the great Spring Training home of the Atlanta Braves. They beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-4 on the strength of home runs by Evan Longoria (2) and former Toronto Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske (5). Carl Crawford stole his fifth base of the year in his effort to recapture the lead in stolen bases, and a returning Dioner Navarro went 3-for-4 to continue putting up the solid stats he had prior to his injury. James Shields picked up his second win of the season (7 IP, 4 R, 2 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 5 K), Dan Wheeler pitched a perfect inning, and Troy Percival earned his second save with a perfect ninth inning that included a strikeout. They hit on mostly all cylinders tonight, despite a home run from Vernon Wells and Carlos Pena striking out all four times he came up. Defense was also a question, as two unearned runs threatened to blow the game. The offense (for the most part) saved it by finally hammering former Tampa Bay bat boy Jesse Litsch, who finally didn’t own the Rays like he did in 2007.
The Rays’ win puts them up at 9-11 and drops the Blue Jays to 10-11. Always nice to drop your division rivals down a notch. They needed the win to swing momentum back in their favor after Edwin Jackson went from being a Cy Young Award caliber pitcher to being Edwin Jackson. They also want to show their new acquisition Dan Johnson how the new Rays are supposed to play.
Speaking of new acquisitions, the Rays traded for Milwaukee’s Gabe Gross, sending Minor League pitcher Josh Butler to the Brewers to get him. Gross is a good pinch hitter and defensive outfielder who can tee off right handed pitchers. With 20 HR in 612 MLB at-bats, he can hit a few home runs here when a spot in the outfield opens up. Plus he went to high school in Dothan, Alabama, not too far from my grandpa’s farm. With Mike Cameron and Tony Gwynn, Jr. already on the roster, Gross became expendable to Milwaukee, and we got him for a little more than a Wal-Mart gift card. I think he can fit in here, especially if others continue to be hit with injuries (not that I hope this happens).
The Rays have also committed themselves to the environment on Earth Day and beyond. The team purchased Green Tags, which go to support alternative power resources, to offset carbon dioxide emissions from the travel to and from Tropicana Field. They also employ a cleaning company that uses environmentally friendly
chemicals, stock biodegradable cups at their concession stands, and utilize
energy efficient lighting throughout the stadium. Win or lose (and hopefully win) on the field, at least they have shown a commitment to something positive here. I think it’s a great idea to go with this trend and do the little things to reduce their risk of destroying the Earth. I hear even NASCAR is getting in on the act now, which shows how much this awareness has grown. And the Rays also plan to make their new Waterfront Stadium LEED certified, which is the highest green building standard in America.
So on this Earth Day, the Rays win in every facet of the game. They have never lost a regular season game at Champion Stadium, and the streak looks to continue tomorrow and Thursday before the Boston Red Sox come to town to introduce themselves to the Rays. And then get swept out of town, if I have anything to say about it. On a final note, a huge congratulations goes out to John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves, the future Hall of Fame pitcher who recorded his 3,000th strikeout tonight against the Washington Nationals. As the Braves look to recapture first place in their division and run to the playoffs, Smoltz has hit this historic milestone and proven that he is not finished yet. He needed four strikeouts tonight, and he got 10. Already one of only two pitchers to have 150 wins and saves, he is now the 16th pitcher in Major League history with 3,000 strikeouts. I hope to be at his Hall of Fame induction speech, and maybe Maddux and Glavine will join him at the podium. So I’ll continue to look for both of these teams to win more games and post surprisingly good seasons, and I’ll be back when the Disney magic resurfaces.