The Atlanta Braves soundly defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the opening game of 2009 by a count of 41.
Derek Lowe pitched an absolute masterpiece, going eight innings allowing only two hits and no runs. He only had four strikeouts, but that’s just Lowe being Lowe. He allowed zero walks as well. Mike Gonzalez did allow a run before proving his worth with big strikeouts of Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez with the tying run on base.
How about that Jordan Schafer? He came up against Brett Myers and hit a home run in his first Major League atbat! He became the 99th MLB player ever to accomplish this, and the first Brave since the one and only Jermaine Dye back in 1996. Not only did Schafer do it, he hit it to the opposite power alley in left center field. In Citizens Bank Park. It gets no better than that.
Brian McCann and the reformed Jeff Francoeur also hit early bombs in support of Lowe. McCann’s was an absolute cannon shot into the second deck that followed a great atbat from Chipper Jones. Francoeur tagged Myers on the first pitch of the second inning on a line drive into the left field seats. Sure enough, he was spraying the ball around all night.
Now the Rays will march right into Fenway Park and manhandle the Red Sox in similar fashion. That is, if I have anything to say about it. The Braves and Phillies meet again Tuesday night, weather permitting. Until next time, go Rays and Braves.
Today is the big day in baseball… almost. It’s the eve of Opening Night when the Braves
maul face the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. So before it’s too late, here are the probable lineups for our Tampa Bay Rays and my Atlanta Braves for the 2009 season:
1. B.J. Upton, CF Joe Maddon made the surprise announcement today that, upon his return, B.J. will be the Rays’ leadoff hitter. Even though he led the league in times caught stealing in 2008 with 16, he stole 44 bases and walked 97 times. Despite his 134 strikeouts last year, he still sees pitches and can be the guy to let his teammates gauge opposing pitchers. With his power likely to return after labrum surgery, he could be like our Bobby Bonds. Except hopefully he learns to run hard every play. He should be a very good tablesetter.
2. Carl Crawford, LF Crawford is the ultimate baserunner in the game today. Despite injuries slowing him down in 2008, he is back to hopefully steal 50 bases and hit .300 again. (I would also like at least 1015 home runs.) Predicted by Buster Olney to be the MVP of this division, he is ready for a huge comeback season. He and Upton will be running circles around the opposition.
3. Evan Longoria, 3B The 2008 American League Rookie of the Year should have no trouble hitting 30 home runs in season number two. This is a great spot for him to drive in some runs. What he needs to do the most is stay in shape, recognize pitches better and remain wise on the basepaths. His defense really can’t get that much better. We’re looking for some moon shots out of this spot.
4. Carlos Pena, 1B Who better to clean the bases up than Pena? He rebounded from a horrendous start last year to hit 31 home runs, including a few gamewinners. As long as his timing is right, every outfielder better be prepared for some whiplash.
5. Pat Burrell, LF If Carlos can’t do it, then Pat can. Continuing the alternating leftrightleft batting order that will give opposing managers migraines is the powerful Pat Burrell, acquired during the offseason when the Phillies let him go. He, too, can hit about 35 home runs and draw about 100 walks to compensate for a low batting average. The 345 hitters will drive pitchers up walls.
6. Dioner Navarro, C The firsttime All Star was the best contact hitter for the 2008 Rays with a .295 average. Batting behind these guys, he will see good pitches for lacing line drives all over the field. This could be another big RBI spot.
7. Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler, RF The lawfirm of Gabe & Gabe at your service. Gross will face righthanded pitching, Kapler left handers. Both are good for an occasional home run, and we all know Gross is always a prime candidate to win a game late.
8/9. Akinori Iwamura, 2B The former leadoff hitter will hit eighth against right handers, ninth against left handers. Since June 2007, Iwamura had been doing the little things to set the table for the Rays offense. He was in that spot over Jason Bartlett and Crawford because he sees more pitches (70 walks in 2008 to Bartlett’s 22 and Crawford’s 30), despite not being as good a base stealer and striking out over 100 times every year. If he very slightly improves his batting average, home runs and baserunning at the bottom of the order, as well as keeping up his great defense, I’ll be satisfied. The hitting eighth thing seemed to work well when he played with Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic, so he will be fine here.
9/8. Jason Bartlett, SS Rounding it out is last year’s team MVP. Bartlett rebounded with a .389 August and ended up hitting .286 for the season with 20 stolen bases. Maddon likes speed at the bottom of the order, and I think it’s a big plus. With him hidden down here, there are absolutely zero easy outs in the Rays lineup.
1. Yunel Escobar, SS Here is a guy who can be a big catalyst starting games off. He draws the occasional walk and does not strike out often, and has shown strong contact hitting ability during his first two MLB seasons. He can run, but needs to refine those baserunning skills (2for7 base stealing in 2008). He can at least hit doubledigit home runs, hopefully, bringing a little power to a team that needs it. Escobar is a good wellrounded player and the right choice to lead off.
2. Kelly Johnson, 2B The former leadoff hitter will settle for second now. Johnson is usually good for about 15 home runs and 1015 steals a year, so he is certainly multitalented. He runs up pitch counts too, though he runs into more frequent strikeouts. His tendency to swing at the first pitch occasionally ran him out of that leadoff spot, though he’ll be fine hitting between some very good players.
3. Chipper Jones, 3B No doubt about this one. He won last year’s batting title at an amazing .364. As long as he plays at least the vast majority of the season, he will be a huge run producer as he always has been. Best case scenario, he puts up more huge totals and locks up his Hall of Fame spot.
4. Brian McCann, C The best offensive catcher in the game throughout 2008, McCann is nearly guaranteed to hit .300 with 20 home runs. He and Chipper will have to consistently produce as they have proven they can to make the Braves winners. I see another big season from these guys.
5. Garret Anderson/Matt Diaz, LF Anderson will likely bat here when he plays, which will be more often than not. Diaz may be dropped one or two spots. Anderson can hit at about a 15 home run pace, especially against right handers. Diaz is coming off of an injury riddled season and could become a .300 hitter again. They might be overlooked, but they will burn those who don’t figure it out.
6/7. Jeff Francoeur, RF Bobby Cox looks to be experimenting with hitting either Francoeur or Casey Kotchman sixth. In Francoeur’s case, he needs to elevate his game now to get his reputation back. A horrible 2008 gave him a gravesite, but he need not dig into it yet. His new batting stance and renewed attitude have given him new life this Spring, as he hit .328 with seven walks and only six strikeouts, a miracle by his standards. He has been spraying line drives, two of which resulted in home runs. He can bounce back to at least 20 this year and earn some respect.
7/6. Casey Kotchman, 1B A solid contact hitter who rarely ever goes down on strikes, Kotchman hit turn almost any pitch into a hit. He has .300 potential and should reach 1520 home runs. Add that to very good defense at first base, and we have ourselves a competent replacement for Mark Teixeira.
8. Jordan Schafer, CF Yes, it is official. Bobby Cox and Frank Wren have announced that 22yearold Jordan Schafer will start the 2009 season in center field for the Braves. The fivetool star of the future, he will start as the eighth hitter as he learns on the big stage. Schafer hit incredibly well this Spring and led the team in stolen bases. If he can just make contact more often, he will be a dynamic player here very soon. Good luck, Jordan. And
sympathies to Gregor Blanco, who was surprisingly sent to AAA Gwinnett.
9. Pitcher’s Spot Self explanatory
Rays Pitching Rotation:
1. James Shields Big Game James set the world on fire last season, winning 14 games with a 3.56 ERA and coming up big in the postseason with their only World Series game victory. Having pitched 215 innings in each of the last two seasons, he can save the bullpen for late or even give them a rare night off. That deadly changeup will be back in full force and beating everyone else’s aces.
2. Scott Kazmir Despite his inability to pitch after the sixth inning, Kazmir was reliable with his 3.49 ERA last season. He can do better, as he proved in 200607. As his prime years hit, he will finally figure everything out and potentially become a Cy Young Award winner.
3. Matt Garza The savior against the Red Sox in last year’s postseason, Garza is back in the third spot this year. He put up a perfectly good 3.70 ERA and finally learned something about controlling his anger on the mound. A more level Garza can bring himself up to an elite status. Any upgrade from last year would be good for now.
4. Andy Sonnanstine The ultimate contact pitcher, Sonnanstine bumped himself up significantly last season and managed to win 13 games. He does not throw very hard, but this prevents the 460foot home run from coming out of his arm. His good offspeed pitches throw hitters off. This guy can be another hidden surprise.
5. Jeff Niemann The Rays are slow about deciding this spot officially, so I’m making that choice here and now. I selected Niemann over Jason Hammel because he was more of an investment (fourth overall Draft pick in 2004), he is more unique (6’9″, 280 pounds, big overhand delivery) and he was dominant for the majority of the Spring. I think Niemann has more potential than the similarlytalented Hammel. So he should take this spot and, hopefully, hold onto it serviceably until David Price shows up within the next few months.
Bullpen: Troy Percival (Closer), Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse (plus Chad Bradford and Jason Isringhausen once injuries are healed)
Braves Pitching Rotation:
1. Derek Lowe Without Tim Hudson for most of the season, Lowe assumes the official ace role in Atlanta. He was the prized acquisition of the offseason, stolen right out from under the Mets. He had a 3.24 ERA in 2008 and has pitched consistently well for each of the last few seasons. The big sinkerballer should prove to be a major upgrade and help make the Braves strong contenders again.
2. Javier Vasquez This was another offseason gem from the mind of Frank Wren. Vasquez had a mediocre 2008 with his ERA at 4.67 while losing an amazing total of 16 games. Pushed away by the White Sox after this, he has something to prove and has been better before, so he can likely return to older form. Hopefully that ERA is under 4.00 and he wins 16 games this time around.
3. Kenshin Kawakami Yet another newcomer joins the rotation. He went 95 with a great 2.30 ERA last year in Japan, and even hit eight home runs there during his career. He usually has good control and gets hitters out through bad contact. We shouldn’t see too many baseballs flying over his head.
4. Jair Jurrjens Well, there is at least one constant. Jurrjens broke out last season with a 3.68 ERA while winning 13 games. He also doesn’t like to give up home runs and makes hitters chop the ball into outs. At his age, he can easily step his game up to another level.
5. Tom Glavine The wise man is back and he better be improved from 2008. But that’s not too much to ask. In 13 starts, he went just 24 with a 5.54 ERA, his worst since his 1987 call-up stint, which also read 24, 5.54 (nine starts). This Spring he has looked like the vintage Glavine the Braves need, throwing strikes all the time and getting quality outs. If he even steps back 23 years, it’s an upgrade. We will need him to be the Hall of Famer we know he is one more time and hold the fort down until Tommy Hanson debuts.
Bullpen: Mike Gonzalez (Closer), Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan, Jeff Bennett, Blaine Boyer, Jorge Campillo, Buddy Carlyle, Eric O’Flaherty (What, no Boone Logan or Manny Acosta?)
The season starts tomorrow and Monday, so be there or be excommunicated. Permanently. Until next time, go Rays and go Braves.