The Tampa Bay Rays rebounded from an Opening Day mishap to take two out of their first three games of the year in Fenway Park.
Evan Longoria came up huge in the second and third games with a home run in each game and three hits in the finale. He also had two RBI in the first game. After an atrocious start, Carlos Pena took the muchhyped Jon Lester 420 feet out to dead center field to assure victory in game two. Jason Bartlett continued striking out too much, but getting hits whenever he did make contact. That safety squeeze play by him and Gabe Kapler made Lester completely clueless. Matt Joyce and Shawn Riggans also hit home runs in that third game, each one critical as the Rays edged out a 43 win.
Pitching was also effective in this series, despite the rocky start by James Shields. Shields’ career home ERA was 3.21 and his road ERA was 4.82 entering this season. He can just never find a routine away from Tropicana Field. Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza were each excellent in their own ways en route to victory. How they held the Red Sox to one run apiece is almost beyond me, but they are great pitchers, so they can figure out even the best of lineups. Joe Nelson was good, though a little scary. Lance Cormier held the fort down well in the first game. Grant Balfour was looking strong, especially with the changes to his style he is now painting 9495 mile an hour fastballs on the corners as opposed to firing 97 MPH over peoples’ heads and drawing futile swings. He also mixes in an occasional curveball, which was actually called a “plus pitch” by people who worked with him at Durham. Troy Percival still scares me, but he did manage to earn the save in the final game despite Jason Varitek’s home run.
A good start for Tampa Bay, indeed, but a tragic start on the West Coast. 22yearold Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, hours after pitching six scoreless innings against the Oakland A’s, died in a hitandrun traffic accident in Fullerton, California. Adenhart had been projected as a top prospect for the Angels and could have been great within a short time. But now the team and his family have lost him to a senseless drunk driving crash. Hopefully there is justice for all when the ensuing case wraps up, but the pitcher and the man lost, as well as the lives of two others, can never be replaced. R.I.P. Nick Adenhart.
As life and baseball move forward, the Rays travel to Baltimore to face the Orioles three times before coming home for the first time in 2009. Baltimore just won their opening series against the Yankees, so they should be taken seriously. If the Rays do that, they are in good shape. 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.
Our Tampa Bay Rays, America’s new team, have taken a 20 lead in the Division Series, knocking off the White Sox in a 62 classic. Rays starter Scott Kazmir was starting to have a “here it goes again” night by promptly loading the bases (hitting Orlando Cabrera was unintentional, Harold Reynolds) and allowing two runs before his team even hit. The Rays got one back with a Dioner Navarro single while narrowly avoiding more Chicago damage. Kazmir pitched very effectively after the early runs scored, but was down until the bottom of the fifth inning.
After a Jason Bartlett single, Akinori Iwamura brought out a slice of his Japanese years. He took a 11 fastball out and over the plate from Mark Buehrle and drove it deep to left center field… carrying… carrying deep… and gone for a leadchanging home run. That’s classic Iwamura power out into the opposite power alley, where he hit at least half of his regular season home runs. He took a welldeserved curtain call afterwards. Kazmir left after 5.1 innings pitched with two earned runs surrendered, pitching well for a guy who threw 37 pitches in the first inning. Grant Balfour came in for an epic rematch with Orlando Cabrera, whom Balfour quickly silenced with a groundout, going on to get out of the inning with the lead.
It remained 32 Rays until the eighth inning, when Buehrle allowed a leadoff triple to B.J. Upton, who ran full speed the whole way as he always should. The White Sox starter would be chased out by Carl Crawford, who dinged a little opposite field single to score Upton. He then stole second base without a throw off Octavio Dotel, proving once and for all that good old Carl is back in full swing. Rocco Baldelli lined his first playoff hit into center field to score Crawford. With two out, Dioner Navarro came to the plate to set up another great 2008 Rays highlight. With the count at 11 against Matt Thornton, Navarro lifted a popup to shallow center field. Alexei Ramirez lost sight of the ball and the outfielders didn’t get there in time. The ball dropped in the triangle as Rocco ran like a cheetah after its dinner. Not quite as great as he once was, but as good once as he ever was, he flew around third base and surprisingly scored without much of a play to make it 62. Vintage Baldelli running all the way home was just another embodiment of this Rays team, not to mention another dagger to the White Sox. It was as if he was 22 years old again. Chicago did get another runner on base after a hideously atrocious call at first base on a tag by Willy Aybar, but Chad Bradford spared the umpire and his team with a 543 double play. He followed that brilliantly with a three pitch looking strikeout of Jim Thome to make it 20 Rays and send Chicago back home against the wall.
The Rays will now take a nearly insurmountable advantage into enemy territory, where Matt Garza will get the ball on Sunday at 4:07 P.M. This is the same time as kickoff for a big Buccaneers football game in Denver, but I think my priorities will lie with the baseball team this week. Many others’ should too. Why not? We had great crowds at those home playoff games and continued showing doubters up. Let’s keep riding this tidal wave of success, and until next time, go Rays.
The Tampa Bay Rays have officially won their first ever playoff game, knocking off the large market Chicago White Sox 64 to take game one of the Division Series at Tropicana Field. This home victory obviously marks the Rays’ home territory as their own and gives them important early momentum in such a short series. Despite a home run from the last guy in the White Sox power laden lineup who would be expected to hit one, Dewayne Wise, Rays starter James Shields pitched 6.1 innings and gave up three runs, all on the home run. He left with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, but Grant Balfour came to his aid with strikeouts of Juan Uribe and Orlando Cabrera, who defiantly (and moronically) kicked dirt at Balfour before being silenced by the Terminator. With enough run support to win, Shields escaped that final jam and propelled Tampa Bay to its first playoff victory.
The story of the game, however, was the Rookie of the Year at third base. Right there in front of candidate Alexei Ramirez, Longoria took the very first pitch he saw in the postseason, a get me over fastball from Javier Vazquez, and rocket launched it into the left center field seats. This put the Rays up 10. Later, tied at three, Longoria made his second trip to the plate. After a strike, Vazquez hung a curveball dead center, which Longoria exited stage left for another home run. The ball did its little turn on the catwalk before landing in the left field seats. “Evan Almighty” became the second player in MLB history to hit home runs in his first two playoff plate appearances. The other was former third baseman and current Durham Bulls hitting coach Gary Gaetti, with the 1987 Minnesota Twins. The Rays took a lead they would never surrender, with Longoria adding fuel to the fire with an RBI single in his third time up. Carl Crawford returned to the starting lineup and had his own RBI hit after regaining some of his timing in Instructional League games. The fact that he can swing a bat at full strength at this point is a product of the advancement of the modern medical field. Carlos Pena who writes his very own postseason blog left the game early with blurred vision, but is expected to play in the second game.
ESPN must be paying their anchors to continuously find ways to make fun of Rays crowds. Scott Van Pelt, upon the opening of the 11:00 SportsCenter, said that “a bunch of fans going to see the Rays at Tropicana Field for the very first time” were at the game, adding a sadistic sarcastic smile. He did go on to say it was good of the fans to fill the dome, but then added that they were “a bunch of new fans who probably had to have the ground rules explained to them.” Even as recently as earlier this season, that one might have worked. But Rays attendance jokes became passe when they won their playoff spot in front of another capacity crowd. Their attendance increased by more than 25% this year, counting all those early games. To his credit, Steve Levy recognized this and steered clear of Rays fan shots on later editions of the show.
With that win, the Rays now carry the series advantage into the next game along with that home field advantage. Scott Kazmir, long regarded as the ace of the pitching staff, gets the call for game two against veteran left hander Mark Buehrle. Offensively, some of the Rays (Longoria) need to keep what they did yesterday going, and that’s all they should need. I’ll be watching every minute of it, just as I did the first game. Until that win is nailed down, go Rays.