Tagged: Jeff Niemann

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.

Rays Winning at Home

The Rays have won four of their first five games on this homestand, beating Minnesota the first two times around and giving the Kansas City Royals the same treatment. This is a great sign right before a huge road series with the Yankees.

The starting pitchers are finally turning it around. They have all had winning stuff. Jeff Niemann pitched the best game of his career tonight — a two–hit shutout, no less. He was nearly untouchable, even with the huge lead. The bullpen has looked good, though I would still relegate J.P. Howell to middle relief.

The offense is picking it up, even without Jason Bartlett. Ben Zobrist hit a grand slam tonight, already the fourth of his career. Matt Joyce finally got his call–up and immediately made his case to play right field everyday. He has hit two long home runs in the last three games. B.J. Upton is finally over the Mendoza Line. Carl Crawford… well, somebody finally caught him stealing. But he is still on fire at the plate.

This post was made to show that I am still following the games, and finally regaining a little confidence in this team. Hopefully they don’t turn around and tank in New York. 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.

Road Splits and Not Giving Up Just Yet

I was on vacation for a few days in New Smyrna Beach as a three–week school break began, so I decided to wait until the conclusion of this roadtrip to comment about it.  The last two series were not exactly what the Rays ordered, but they did return from the seven–game tour at 4–3.

They had their bats full with the Red Sox in Fenway Park during the weekend.  Friday was a difficult loss featuring James Shields wasting a 3–0 lead with his magic Boston curse.  In fact, the sixth inning had Boston score five times on Jason Bay and J.D. Drew home runs.  With nobody out.  Good thing I was watching something on my DVR during that inning.  For that I still have my living room TV.  The Rays never recovered, losing 7–3.

Saturday was the highlight of the series as the Rays marched to a 14–5 win, despite the first home runs of the year from Rocco Baldelli and Julio Lugo, both former Tampa Bay starters.  Scott Kazmir picked up the victory behind, among other things, Evan Longoria’s 11th home run.

Sunday was an immensely frustrating loss.  It could become a DVD titled “Everything Wrong With the Rays.”  They held onto a tie until the bottom of the eighth inning, when David Ortiz and Jason Bay manufactured a run with the Green Monster and the Red Sox took a 4–3 lead.  Akinori Iwamura reached second base against Jonathan Papelbon, then Jason Bartlett singled to shallow center field, slowly enough so Iwamura could score… except he didn’t.  He held up as he was not entirely sure the ball would drop.  I had just finished telling my dad the Rays had tied the game when I saw him standing at third base.  Game not tied.  At that point, though I certainly didn’t want to, I pessimistically thought “no way this run scores.”  Especially when Carlos Pena pinch hit.  He can hit boatloads of home runs, but it is either that or a strikeout.  And once it gets to two strikes, the third one should just be spotted.  Sure enough, strikeout number one.  B.J. Upton (translate B.J. into slang and that has been his 2009 season) then became strikeout number two as high fastballs failed him yet again.  Carl Crawford pulled the same “I don’t hit fastballs” crap and became strikeout number three.  This finished off possibly the season’s worst loss.

After an actual off day (for once), it was off to Baltimore to face the Orioles to find out who belonged in last place.  The Rays went down 1–0 in the first inning, then scored five on a long series of hits to take a four–run lead against former (Devil) Ray Mark Hendrickson.  Andy Sonnanstine proceeded to give every run back and hand the Orioles the game.  Adam Jones topped it off with his second home run of the game, worth three runs.  Scoring was halted after the third inning as Brian Bass shut Tampa Bay down with four shutout innings in relief.  Baltimore won, 7–5.

The turnaround would begin the next night with Jeff Niemann facing Brad Bergesen.  If they couldn’t win this game, they would be in dead last place and their season facing an early crash.  Another former Tampa Bay regular, Ty Wigginton, gave the Orioles a quick lead with a home run.  He would end up with three hits.  Jason Bartlett then hit his fifth home run of the year to tie the game.  This also ties his career high for home runs in a season, set in 2007 with the Twins.  (Bartlett would later steal his ninth base in 10 tries.)  Tied at two in the sixth inning, the Rays took a 4–2 lead, then put together a monster insurance inning with four runs against Bob McCrory, who was sent to AAA after the game.  B.J. Upton had a three–hit game for the first time since last postseason, and Pena went 2–for–3 with two walks and three runs scored.  For the first time all season (seemingly, at least), he had no strikeouts.  With an 8–2 lead and Niemann in line for the win, in came Troy Percival.  It was time for every fan’s favorite nightmare…

The Troy Percival Tank Show!

It started with a double by light–hitting Cesar Izturis.  Then Brian Roberts, one of Baltimore’s notorious Rays killers, hit his fifth home run of the year (third against Tampa Bay) into the right field seats.  Then Felix Pie, who hits a home run once per lunar eclipse, smashed a room service fastball about 420 feet over the center field wall.  The panic button had to be hit, even after Nick Markakis was retired on a flyout.  Aubrey Huff (another former Devil Ray and one of those Rays killers) doubled to right field, advancing when Gabe Gross lost the ball behind him.  So much for Percival’s streak of good outings.  It was past the time to drag him off the mound, so Joe Maddon did just that and called upon J.P. Howell.  Huff scored on a Melvin Mora single.  Lou Montanez was then retired on a fielder’s choice.  Wigginton came up, looking to tie the game and knowing that he destroys left–handed pitching.  However, his fourth hit would never arrive as he chopped the ball to Longoria, who threw to Iwamura for the long–awaited final out.  The Rays pulled out an 8–6 victory.

Here is Mr. Percival after the game:

“I felt good and there was no excuse for it.  I was just getting underneath the ball, which I didn’t think I was doing down in the bullpen.  But that’s the strongest my arm has felt in two years. And I was just throwing the ball down the middle.  I guess I should have treated it more like a one–run game and really focused on hitting my edges and what have you.”

Why, exactly, would he think he is the Percival of 1999 instead of 2009?  His 97–mile–an–hour fastball could have been unhittable then, but now all the pitch is good for is a souvenir.  I know it was a six–run lead, but nearly every strike he threw was being hit hard.  He can’t even make winning as fun as it should be.  Troy should be thankful for the insurance runs and for Howell’s bailout.  (Jason Isringhausen has done well in rehab and may be on his way up too, so his spot is possibly in serious danger.)

Now for Carl Crawford watch: he has stolen 22 bases in as many attempts.  He also left the last game with a bruised shoulder after making a great diving catch.  Ben Zobrist performed admirably in his place.

Pat Burrell was also out with an injury, sent back to Tampa with a neck ailment.  This may very well be what has slowed down his performance this season.  He has not been fully able to finish off swings and look directly at the pitcher to follow the ball.  So it is time for a cure and, soon after, the home runs we have been expecting.

As I noted earlier, the Rays still finished 4–3 on this roadtrip despite its turbulent nature and bitter losses. Even with the above rants and problems, it is a relief to at least escape with series splits.  Now they return home to face the Indians and A’s.  I am looking to get tickets to one of these games, but I don’t know which one yet.  Please, if you can, get out to Tropicana Field during this homestand.  There will be lower attendances expected and fewer opposing fans.  This is a great time to catch Rays baseball live.  They can use the support and the home wins.  Especially against teams they are supposed to beat.  Until next time, go Rays.

Surviving New Yankee Stadium: Part Two

Those pesky New York Yankees keep biting at the Rays, but the Rays giveth and the Rays taketh away.  They edged out an 8–6 victory at the new Yankee Stadium to complete the two–game sweep and earn their first three–game winning streak this season.

The Rays were off to an early 4–0 lead thanks to home runs from Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria behind Jeff Niemann, who mysteriously left the game after just over three innings.  He walked four Yankees without recording a strikeout, so his 78 pitches in that short timespan just might have done it.  Lance Cormier came in and the game was tied on his watch before Ben Zobrist (Mr. Timing) did it again, blasting a home run off Andy Pettitte to make it 5–4 Rays.

After another run doubled the lead, Dan Wheeler got the first two outs in the eighth inning before a Derek Jeter single brought up Johnny Damon.  On one pitch, Damon tied the game with a home run into the second deck.  This reminded me of the Damon of 2006 who reached the upper deck so often you would think he had been taking some of Roger Clemens’ cocktail.  Regardless, the game was tied at six.

Mariano Rivera entered in the ninth inning, and knowing his lackluster track record in tie games, I thought maybe we still had a chance to win right then and there.  Carl Crawford stepped in and forced a nine–pitch plate appearance before blasting a cut fastball down the right field line and gone for his first home run of the year.  Talk about picking your spots, there is another classic example.  Speak of the devil, Longoria followed with his own moonshot to left field for his second home run of the game and tenth of the season.  This guy once again proves that he is a primetime player.

Brian Shouse wisely came in for the ninth inning’s first two hitters, inducing weak ground balls back to him by Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano.  With switch hitter Nick Swisher due up, Joe Maddon called on Joe Nelson, who used his trademark vulcan changeup and well–placed fastball to strike Swisher out.  Rays win, 8–6, and take the sweep.

The Rays hit six home runs as a team, including leading off the game (Bartlett) and the two off Rivera.  It was the first time since July of 1998 that Rivera had allowed two home runs in one game.

Ben Zobrist and Gabe Kapler (starting in place of B.J. Upton) each stole their second bases of the season, picking up for the all–powerful Crawford.

This game and the previous two have finally proven that the Rays still have the competitive fight and late–game drive that they had in 2008.  It was as good as dead for the first few weeks, but now the life is springing from the team, as may the hope from our fans.  As Dewayne Staats and Kevin Kennedy (good broadcast team, by the way) alluded to following this game, these will be the ones the Rays look at as the turning point at season’s end.  These were nothing short of huge victories in epic battles, and the Yankees have mercifully been taken down a few pegs while the Rays climb that ladder.

Next is an equally important showdown in Boston as we meet the Red Sox yet again.  James Shields can handle Brad Penny, so we better win that first game.  They beat Penny once already and have now won six out of eight games, so why not?  Until next time, go Rays.

Rays Take Series From Boston

The Rays defended their home turf successfully this weekend, winning three out of four games against the enemy from Boston to improve to 5–2 against them so far in 2009.  It was the first series they won since the opening series, also against the Red Sox.

Saturday’s game was not the one to attend as Jeff Niemann ended his good outing streak at two, allowing six runs (five earned) in three innings of work and making another case for David Price.  Despite a comeback effort featuring a Carl Crawford stolen base and a Carlos Pena home run, the Rays lost 10–6.

Tampa Bay took back Tropicana Field today with a solid 5–3 victory.  James Shields got into first inning trouble before escaping and going on to a nice performance: 7.1 IP, 2 ER, 6 K.  J.P. Howell nearly let it get away by surrendering a two–run home run to the dangerous Kevin Youkilis, but an insurance run manufactured largely by Jason Bartlett sealed the deal.  Troy Percival actually made it look easy with a perfect ninth inning for the save, his third in as many opportunities, despite a fan taking away what would have been the final out and later having a ball hit to the warning track.  He scares me just a bit less now.  His stats are very good so far.

Speaking of stats, an amazing baseball feat was accomplished today by Crawford.  He stole no fewer than six bases in the game, tying the modern era MLB record.  Eddie Collins, Otis Nixon (with the great 1991 Braves) and Eric Young are the only other players to achieve this milestone.  (Young was the most recent, in 1996.)  Being a huge fan of stolen bases, as well as Crawford himself, I recognize this as one of the single greatest feats in Rays history.  Carl is now a perfect 17–for–17 on the basepaths this year.  This is the type of comeback we needed from him.  Of course, he would never have done it without getting on base five times in as many plate appearances.  Congratulations, and may we see more games like this one in the near future.

The most important statistic, however, is 3–1 — the Rays’ series record.  They take home some huge wins and will now host Baltimore for what will hopefully be an easy dose of vengeance.  Until next time, go Rays.