Tagged: J.P. Howell

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.

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On Again, Off Again

Lately the Rays have paralleled what I have done to this blog: on again, off again. I don’t know why I’ve been gone for so long. A big part of that had to do with me traveling out of and back to Tampa for a few weeks, though I have had Internet access and have been following the Rays. Some big moves have been made and big games won and lost in recent weeks, so let’s just cut to the good news.

–Gregg Zaun, recently acquired from Baltimore, has become one of my favorite Rays players. He blocks pitches, something I saw Dioner Navarro put very little effort into, even with nobody on base. He also refrains from throwing the ball into center field. He’s even better than Navarro offensively now, which was never true last season. If he were a bit younger, I would go ahead and trade Navarro and keep Zaun for a few years. He has been big with this pitching staff and the bottom of the lineup.

–I also like the pickup of Russ Springer. The veteran relief pitcher has been good everywhere he’s been in his long career. He can bring yet another dimension to the Rays bullpen and teach the younger guys some new things. His experience is valuable as much as Zaun’s.

–Pat Burrell… hitting home runs? It looks like he stopped being Adam Everett and finally went back to being Pat Burrell. He has nine home runs since the All–Star break, even hitting two in consecutive games. If he finishes at this pace, he may eclipse 20 home runs for the season — a distant thought after those first three atrocious months.

–B.J. Upton has also homered in two straight games and brought his season total up to nine, matching last season. He needs to finish this year like the 2008 playoffs all over again or he may be out. This is a good start.

–If Upton fails to deliver, I have the perfect guy to replace him: Desmond Jennings. Not a big name… yet. But he is a 22–year–old center fielder with the Durham Bulls who is rising like a comet through the Rays’ system. Between AA and AAA this year, he’s hitting .315 with nine home runs, 43 stolen bases, 56 walks and just 62 strikeouts. After missing most of 2008 with injuries, he is back on the map in a big way. I would consider calling him up in September, if at all possible. There is at least an outside chance he can start somewhere next year. I am a big fan of his, so I’ll be cheering for him.

–How about the work of Jeff Niemann? I knew in Spring Training that he was the man for the fifth starter spot, and he has proven to be at least number three, if not better. After his latest win, he is now 11–5 with a rotation–best 3.71 ERA. His fastball and curveball are starting to work very well together and that top Draft potential is shining through. Jason Hammel is having a decent season with the Rockies, but Niemann blows him out of the water.

–J.P. Howell is turning out to be a very serviceable closer. Even though he gave up an inexcusable walk–off to home run to Ryan Freaking Langerhans in Seattle, he has generally been shutting hitters down lately. As long as they give him good pitching in front of him, and preferably a multiple–run lead, he can finish out every game if they let him.

–I need to attend more games. I’ve only been to one this year, watching the Rays beat the Red Sox. Money shortages and my time out of town have prevented me from attending more often, but I think I’ll be going to Friday’s game against the Texas Rangers, who stand in the Rays’ path to a Wild Card berth. I’ll be looking for intriguing September games as well.

I could also rant about the Rays’ numerous problems, which include: Leaving the bases loaded, striking out too often, giving up big hits and home runs to every team’s lightest hitter, allowing line drives into center field with runners in scoring position, leaving the bases loaded and striking out too often. But I can save it for the next losing streak. We need a sweep of the Orioles and then the Rangers to cap off Joe Maddon’s Johnny Cash phase. Until next time, go Rays.

Citrus Series Sweep

The annual Citrus Series ended with three games at Tropicana Field, in which the Tampa Bay Rays swept the Florida Marlins by scores of 7–3, 3–2 and 5–2.

The crowds for the weekend games were not bad — 35,790 for Saturday’s game featuring Pat Benatar, then nearly 30,000 Sunday. That is a good sign, right along with the five–game winning streak.

The pitchers did very well throughout the series. James Shields earned a quality start Friday night and his bullpen shut it down for the win. Scott Kazmir returned Saturday and went back to throwing 92 MPH fastballs. He wasn’t horrible, which is an improvement. He allowed two runs in five innings with one walk and five strikeouts. David Price allowed two hits, but five walks, in more than six innings on Sunday. Chad Bradford and J.P. Howell teamed up to give the Marlins loaded bases with just one out, then a walk forced in a run. Howell realized where he was, then struck out Ronny Paulino and Ross Gload to end the sweep.

The bullpen has been great since June 8, as they have allowed seven runs in about 55 innings. Howell started out slowly, but has reverted to last year’s success. Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour have also improved following bad beginnings. Balfour is even striking out hitters with the slider now. By comparison, the Mets bullpen has lost nine games this month. I knew they were due to implode.

Speaking of imploded teams, the Toronto Blue Jays will host the Rays for the first time this season, which has been a long time coming. Roy Halladay returns from the disabled list just in time to face the surging Tampa Bay lineup. This concludes our five–game winning streak. It’s been fun. Well, maybe a loss is not entirely automatic, just probable. Jeff Niemann needs to bring his two–hitter A–game tonight. Until next time, go Rays.

Mixed Roadtrip Ends in Victory

The Rays hit the road for six games in Colorado and Queens, New York, winning just once in Coors Field but taking two out of three in the new Citi Field.

The Rockies were very difficult to beat (though the losses were close) largely because they are on a streak nearly matching their huge run in late 2007. They have now won 16 of their last 17 games. The one loss was in the Rays series opener when five home runs helped beat them 12–4. Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Kapler and B.J. Upton — quite a diverse group — hit the thin air for home runs. Zobrist and Upton hit long tee shots into the left field seats and Pena hit his about 400 feet to left center field, a hefty shot for a left–handed hitter.

New York was the next stop, not to face the hated Yankees, but the equally hated (by me) Mets. The Mets won the opener 5–3 because Andy Sonnanstine is just not that good this year. I think it should be him that loses his starting job when Scott Kazmir returns. He has been strong in rehab and Andy with his 6.60 ERA and 15 home runs allowed is just the odd man out. We shouldn’t be screwing around with David Price by sending him up and down. Just move Sonnanstine to the bullpen.

Thankfully the Rays won the Saturday and Sunday games by scores of 3–1 and 10–6. Saturday’s game on FOX with Thom Brennaman and Tim “Watch Darren Daulton use his mitt like a glove” McCarver showed once again that the Rays play better on network television. James Shields outdueled Johan Santana, pitching seven outstanding innings and picking up the win. Pena tagged Santana for a long straightaway home run and, after a rain delay, Zobrist joined the party with a shot over the right field wall.

Sunday was a back–and–forth affair with several lead changes. After Brian Schnieder, he of zero home runs all season, hit his second three–run home run of the series to give New York the lead, Tampa Bay stormed right back thanks in part to another long Upton home run. When he hits them, they come late in the game and travel far. They added insurance runs and won the game and the series. J.P. Howell did a good job closing out both games. Maybe he can be a closer now.

Next is the World Series rematch at Tropicana Field as the Rays host the inferior Philadelphia Phillies. Pat Burrell, who so far has hit more like Adam Everett, will be facing his former team for the first time. Hopefully that will set him off. I love seeing the Rays beat the Mets and I may even take greater pleasure in seeing them avenge last year’s losses to the Phillies. Until next time, go Rays.

Nationals Three Up, Three Down

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 16–42 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 at–bat 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 two–out, two–strike 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 game–tying double bounce over his glove earlier, overran Kapler’s foul pop–up and dropped it. The very next pitch gave the Rays the lead. From that point it was game over as they won 4–3.

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 1–0 lead. The Rays entered the bottom of the sixth inning down 2–1. 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 three–run home run after hits by Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. Then Gabe Gross promptly hit a two–run blast. Five runs, no outs. Longoria later hit a two–run double off former (Devil) Ray Jesus Colome. The Rays won 8–3.

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 4–0 hole in the fourth inning, which quickly became 4–2. Two innings later after a Gabe Gross walk, Kapler struck again as he lined a game–tying 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 5–4.

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 six–game 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.

Citrus Series Game Two: Rays Beatdown Two

I have a few little things to add about tonight’s Rays game as I am up on a Saturday night out of other things to do.  My viewing of Rays games and, therefore, updates on this blog will become far less frequent from May 26 through July 2.  I will be taking Summer classes at The University of Tampa four nights a week (Monday–Thursday) for six weeks.  So I should write now while the time is there and while my teams are winning.

The Rays defeated the Marlins 10–3 in tonight’s matchup, though it was a much closer game until the end.

Jeff Niemann started for Tampa Bay and brought the good stuff with him.  He pitched six innings, allowing one run (a Dan Uggla home run), walking one with five strikeouts.  This outing was definitely “good Niemann.”  Just like the last one.  He faced off with Sean West, making his MLB debut straight from AA.  He held the Rays to just two runs in five innings.  They should have piled it on early, but they repeatedly left runners on base and took little advantage of walks and singles.

The Rays led 3–1 in the seventh inning when J.P. Howell entered the game.  As soon as he went 3–0 to his first hitter, red flags went up.  When he can’t throw strikes, you know runs are about to score.  He walked two batters, going 3–2 to each of the first three Marlins that faced him.  A hit by pinch hitter Ross Gload scored one run, then Joe Maddon should have taken Howell out of the game.  He refused, and two batters later, Jeremy Hermida’s ground ball was deflected by Akinori Iwamura and the tying run scored.

Howell entered the game with a 2.21 ERA, but obviously was not that great in big late game situations.  He left with the ERA back up to 3.00 and already his third blown save of the season.  He only has three holds; this was not one of them.  He would do so much better if he just quit walking people.  He needs to throw strikes early and often like he did in 2008.  That is his key to victory.

Grant Balfour ended up striking out Hanley Ramirez to end that inning.

Evan Longoria singled home Iwamura, who led off with a walk, to retake the lead in the eighth inning.  The next one saw the Rays spring to life and score in droves.

After a strong inning of relief from Dan Wheeler, the Rays ended up sending 11 batters to the plate and scoring six times to turn a close, dramatic game into another landslide.  Michel Hernandez, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett all drove in runs, and the Marlins even balked one in when Upton squared up to bunt and pitcher Matt Lindstrom panicked and halted his delivery.

Zobrist started the game at second base and finished with three hits.  Hernandez started in catcher Dioner Navarro’s spot and drove in two runs, including the first of the game on a bases loaded walk.  No matter who was in the lineup, the Rays scored enough to get the job done.

And get the job done Jason Isringhausen did.  Initially warming up to go for his 294th career save, he went out there just looking to end the game with a comfortable lead.  Despite hitting a batter on a two–strike count, a strikeout and a short popout ended it and Isringhausen escaped scot free.  Despite a bit of early trouble tonight, I like having him as a viable option to close games.  His track record shows that he certainly knows how to do it.

Carl Crawford Watch: He stole his 26th base in as many attempts, giving him 28 consecutive steals dating back to 2008.  It came in the seventh inning against Burke Badenhop.  Later in the same inning, Bartlett stole his 13th base out of 14 tries.

Ramirez (8) and Emilio Bonifacio (9) stole bases for the Marlins, but neither scored and they still lost.

The Braves beat the Blue Jays once again, this time 4–3.  Derek Lowe pitched his usual strong performance and picked up the win.  He also drove in a run with a single, which factored in the outcome of the game.  Despite another ninth inning scare, Atlanta survived and did the Rays a favor once again, which the Rays returned by beating the Marlins.  This is the first time this season that the Rays and Braves have both won on consecutive days.  Hopefully about 20 more will follow.

That is about it.  I still hope Troy Percival retires.  And that Tom Glavine’s comeback proves successful.  Both men have had great careers, but with drastically different endings.  Let’s see some sweeping now.  We could really use it.  Until next time, go Rays.

The Offseason Train Rolls On

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 re–form the Gabe & Gabe lawfirm.

–Rays sign Lance Cormier: This is a good bullpen depth move, even though it is yet another right–hander 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 pitching–heavy 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.