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 1642 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 atbat 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 twoout, twostrike 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 gametying double bounce over his glove earlier, overran Kapler’s foul popup and dropped it. The very next pitch gave the Rays the lead. From that point it was game over as they won 43.
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 10 lead. The Rays entered the bottom of the sixth inning down 21. 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 threerun home run after hits by Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. Then Gabe Gross promptly hit a tworun blast. Five runs, no outs. Longoria later hit a tworun double off former (Devil) Ray Jesus Colome. The Rays won 83.
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 40 hole in the fourth inning, which quickly became 42. Two innings later after a Gabe Gross walk, Kapler struck again as he lined a gametying 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 54.
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 sixgame 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.
This was the perfect time to go two weeks without my computer, and thus with no means through which to post any updates here. (For the record, I got a RAM upgrade and the removal of viruses which ultimately led to a system restore though, thankfully, I got backups of my data.) There have been too many updates for me to count lately, on the Rays front as well as all around the baseball world. Numerous signings have taken place, and just as many are left to be made. I’ll go ahead and give a few thoughts on some of the bigger moves in recent weeks:
Rays sign Gabe Kapler: Here’s a guy who turns 34 in August (he’s not as old as I thought he was), so he has a veteran leadership quality about him. Added to that is his World Series ring he earned with the 2004 Red Sox. With the news that B.J. Upton will be starting his season a bit late, this was a good signing for outfield depth and for the locker room. Kapler has decent power and can make great defensive plays when necessary. Here, he reunites with Gabe Gross to reform the Gabe & Gabe lawfirm.
Rays sign Lance Cormier: This is a good bullpen depth move, even though it is yet another righthander and he may only be a borderline candidate to make the Opening Day roster. He did just have his best season with the division rival Orioles, and he is not yet 30 years old, so this can be a really good under the radar pickup. From what I remember of his time with the Braves, he wasn’t that bad. If someone’s arm falls off, he can fill in nicely.
Rays sign Jason Bartlett to avoid arbitration: $1.98 million may be underpaying this guy for his fundamental contributions to the Rays. But at least they didn’t have to fight through the arbitration process. Great to see them agree on this deal and get back to work for the 2009 season. Ditto for Grant Balfour, who also avoided arbitration for $1.4 million (that’s over $2.1 million Australian).
Red Sox sign Rocco Baldelli: I can give Rocco a free pass on joining the enemy because he’s returning to his home area, and he’s not exactly an elite player. The Rays moved on, so Rocco went home. Hopefully he has the best season of anyone on that team and the rest of them choke.
Red Sox sign John Smoltz: Never let me read that again. I hate this.
Reds sign Jonny Gomes: Another former Rays outfielder goes elsewhere for work. He can smash home runs and occasionally steal a base, if nothing else. But he may be doing it at AAA because he only signed a minor league deal. Ouch. Maybe they should have signed him as an enforcer.
Padres claim Rays pitcher Jae Kuk Ryu off waivers: Well, he’s finally gone. Now we can move on to pitchers who have a future.
Scott Kazmir and J.P. Howell to pitch for Team USA in World Baseball Classic: This would do nothing but help the Americans in their redemption chase. This is just the beginning for Rays players; Dioner Navarro will catch for the pitchingheavy Venezuelan team, Matt Garza has been invited to pitch for Mexico due to his heritage, Akinori Iwamura will play for defending champion Japan as he did in 2006, Grant Balfour will pitch down low with the nice Australians, and Evan Longoria has also been named to the provisional American roster. Congratulations to these guys and all others who may participate in the tournament to make it a more interesting one.
There has been a lot more going on, moves both big and small, but still too many to name right here. Though I do like to see the Braves signing pitchers, namely Japanese control pitcher Kenshin Kawakami and potential ace Derek Lowe. Speaking of the Braves, I have not forgotten to book my annual trip to see them in Spring Training. On March 21, I will be right behind home plate in the upper level at Champion Stadium to watch the Braves square off with the evil known as the New York Mets. Catch me there if you can, and of course I will be searching for regular season Rays tickets soon. I will also announce the FanFest date and attractions as soon as I find out about them. (The currently rumored date is Valentine’s Day, February 14.) Until next time, go Rays.