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.
Ladies and gentlemen, the announcement nobody has been waiting for… “Heeeeere comes the injury bug!”
Fernando Perez, the blazing fast outfielder expected to make the Opening Day roster, is making a trip to the Opening Day disabled list. He will be sidelined for about three months due to a dislocated wrist suffered in the Rays’ March 11 win over the Blue Jays. His glove was caught in the grass as he dove for the ball, pulling the wrist out of its socket and creating this worstcase scenario. Had the wrist been broken, a plate inserted between the bones would have healed it in about one month’s time.
Perez will now be out until June, taking the one fast reserve outfielder the Rays had out for the season’s first few months. We are now thankful that they signed Gabe Kapler and kept up their solid outfield depth. (Kapler, by the way, hit a home run in today’s 32 win over the Phillies.)
So with Fernando left to strengthen those running legs until he can swing the bat, the Rays started their road to recovery with the aforementioned win over Philadelphia. James Shields pitched four outstanding shutout innings, and Carl Crawford stole third base to give us the idea that the lightning speed of Carl has returned. All of those hamstring workouts are starting to pay off.
I would like to once again announce that I will be in Kissimmee on March 21 to watch the Braves
destroy face the Mets. I am still searching for Rays games that I actually have the time to get to. So until next time, go Rays.
The Devil Rays looked to be sliding away to a sweep at the hands of the Tigers at Comerica Park after dropping the first two games. "Not so much," said Joe Maddon and Friends. They salvaged a split with big 7-1 and 8-1 victories by top starters James Shields and Scott Kazmir, keeping Detroit tied with the Yankees one game back of the Wild Card lead behind (of all teams) the Seattle Mariners. See, the Devil Rays can impact the playoff race. (Ask the 2005 Cleveland Indians.) Seeing Shields and Kazmir put up consecutive dominant performances against a top team is really a confidence booster. Not that they can do too much to make this season look good, but why not prepare for next year and beyond? Don’t leave the team hanging because they’ll never see the playoffs. I hope they don’t.
Rising From The Ashes…
-The team had a rough start to the series, losing the first two games in Detroit. Edwin Jackson pitched the opener against Justin Verlander, and didn’t do so badly for a 2-11 guy (6 IP, 2 ER). However, Gary Glover, one of the more reliable relievers on this team, blew a gasket and allowed four runs in just 1/3 of an inning, leading to a 6-4 loss. Carl Crawford’s 36th stolen base, B.J. Upton’s three-run home run, and former Tiger Carlos Pena’s first-inning double in his return to Detroit were the highlights. Speaking of Pena, after that double, he went hitless the rest of the series, highlighted (lowlighted?) by an 0-5, four strikeout performance in the finale. His batting average has freefallen to .270. This seems like just another one of baseball’s valleys on its never ending wave. I believe a peak is forthcoming. It was the bullpen’s problem again in game two, as Jonny Gomes’s grand slam tied the game at six in the eighth inning, only for Dan Wheeler (we’re running out of "reliable" pitchers) to give up three more to lose 9-6. We also got a home run out of Dioner Navarro, just his 4th of the season. But the losing continued.
-Winning, however, was just up the road. Navarro added another home run in the third game of this series, his 5th of the year. Navarro was hitting as low as .173 earlier in the season, but is all the way back up to .200 thanks to a string of solid hitting. Cheers to the catcher for pulling himself together and drawing closer to his potential and actual abilities. James Shields pitched masterfully in the 7-1 victory (7 IP, 1 ER, 0 BB, 9 K), even striking out Placido Polanco twice. The most difficult hitter to strike out in the American League, and Shields struck him out twice in a game. Though, between them, he hit a home run. Other than that, it was a great game all around. Three guys and three hits and every starter had at least one. Grant Balfour struck out all three ninth inning hitters to close it out. This one was fun to watch and probably even more fun for our players. The staff ace is now 9-7, and things are looking up for him.
-The previous statement can be echoed for left hander Scott Kazmir, who is now 9-7 following the series finale, played Thursday afternoon and won by the Devil Rays, 8-1. They scored seven runs off Tigers starter/playoff hero Jeremy Bonderman, including a two-run home run from Carl Crawford. He also added stolen base number 37 to his season stats, and he is now hitting .316. B.J. Upton went 2-for-3, and leads the team at .327. Ben Zobrist had two hits and two RBIs in a spot start for Brendan Harris. And Kazmir was the main event with a great stat line (6 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 7 K), and the bullpen wasn’t bad in preserving it, though Glover allowed another run. Scott Dohmann has become surprisingly good lately, as he pitched a scoreless eighth inning, and the one and only Al Reyes closed the game out. If only Kazmir could go longer and deeper into starts. His high pitch counts have held him down, though he could still have time to adjust that given his youth. He has still been a phenom, almost a prodigy, in his last two starts. The momentum gained here should carry over to Texas, where we next find the Rangers.
And The Home Of The Braves…
-The Braves lost a big, tough game to the Mets 4-3 on Wednesday on a Moises Alou home run. They almost let it get away again on Thursday, before quite possibly the play of the year saved them from further agony. Up 7-3 in the ninth inning, Atlanta’s Tyler Yates, a former Met, allowed three runs to make it 7-6. On came Oscar Villarreal, and with two outs, up stepped Carlos Delgado. He hit a long, high drive deep to left field…back…back…and Willie Harris leaped at the wall and triumphantly robbed the game-tying home run. This was the ultimate in highway robbery, and a major morale killer for the Mets. But what a huge lift for the Braves. I can see this going up there close to the 1992 Otis Nixon catch on Andy Van Slyke under the greatest home run robberies in franchise, and maybe MLB, history. In such a key game with so much riding on the outcome, to make that catch makes Willie Harris a cult hero in Atlanta forever. Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira added home runs without which Harris’s catch wouldn’t have meant so much.
Bonus: Rick Ankiel?
-Everyone who watched baseball in 1999 and 2000 remembers Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a dominant young pitcher destined for superstardom. His blazing fastball, evil 12-6 curveball, and all-around athletic talent made him one of the most exciting pitchers to come up since Mark "The Bird" Fidrych with the 1976 Tigers. Unfortunately, his career on the mound had another parallel to Fidrych’s: it ended early. Far too early. Against the Braves in the 2000 playoffs, the meltdown began. He threw five wild pitches in a Game 1 start and didn’t make it out of the third inning. At first, he laughed it off as a fluke as the Cardinals reached the next series. There, he only went 1 and 1/3 innings and threw four more wild pitches. It continued into 2001 as everyone seemed to disagree on the cause of this collapse. Mechanics? Mental health issues? Injury? Possibly everything rolled into one. He went MIA until 2004 following arm surgery, when he managed to pitch decently, but not like the top prospect from the 2000 regular season with the 3.50 ERA. The next spring after another meltdown, Ankiel (a .207 hitter with two home runs as an MLB pitcher) announced that he was leaving the mound for good and pursuing a career as an outfielder. In 2005, between A and AA ball, he hit 21 home runs and drove in 75 runs. Still in his mid-20s, he showed more potential in his new spot. But then something went horribly wrong, again. He injured his knee in 2006 Spring Training and, ultimately, was out for the season. Some people feared the end of his career and one of the most dismal endings in sports history. However, he returned in 2007 to AAA and wasted no time making up for it all. He hit 32 home runs as of early August and became one of the top minor league players anywhere. Cardinals fans everywhere called to see him return to St. Louis, and due to an unfortunate situation with infielder Scott Spiezio, he got the opportunity.
In his long-awaited grand return to St. Louis, Ankiel played right field and consistently drew standing ovations from the crowd. In the first inning against Padres All-Star Chris Young, he popped it up for an out. Not exactly a climactic return. Things only got worse as he struck out the next two times he hit. Then the seventh inning rolled around, and Doug Brocail worked him up to a 2-1 count with two runners on base. With the people still behind him, Ankiel found a pitch out and over the plate and drove it deep to right field…and gone. A three-run home run, a prolonged ovation, a curtain call, and national media coverage brought Rick Ankiel’s return to a dramatic, exciting finish. The Cardinals went on to win 5-0 on a dominant start by Joel Piniero, and Rick Ankiel has officially made an impact and announced that he is back. As a long-time follower of his story, I think this is one of the highlights of the season. It definitely rejuvenated the Cardinals and their fans during a disappointing season. And I think Rick Ankiel is there to stay as a power-hitting outfielder, one the fans will love and appreciate for years to come.
It’s been a very exciting week in Major League Baseball, and it’s not even over yet–who knows what may roll around tomorrow? Keep watching and find out–don’t miss a day, you might miss something. The Devil Rays now have a weekend series with the Rangers…there may not be history there, but maybe Tampa Bay can just continue winning. That’s all I want out of them. Until next time, go Devil Rays.
August 7, 2007. A clear Tuesday night. My mom’s 47th birthday. (Apologies to you for giving away your age. It’s good to just let it go.) And a night on which, in San Francisco, California, 43-year-old Barry Lamar Bonds, son of Pat and the former MLB star Bobby Bonds, broke the most sacred individual record in North American team sports, previously held by Braves (and Brewers) legend Henry "Hank" Aaron.
He hit his 756th home run.
I wasn’t sure how to initially react or what any of my opinions would turn out to be after Bonds finally hit the home run. In the immediate aftermath of the accomplishment, things are starting to become more clear. Bonds hit the home run to right center field on a second 3-2 pitch off of 29-year-old Washington Nationals left hander Mike Bacsik. Bacsik’s father, like Barry’s, also played in the Major Leagues. The home run, in the bottom of the fifth inning with one out, tied the game at 4. Afterwards, Bonds congratulated everyone, then saw a pre-recorded message from Aaron on the video screen. Even if he read it from a teleprompter, it still surprised Bonds, who probably didn’t even care how real it was. He then briefly thanked everyone (sans Greg Anderson), including the Nationals, for their support. He conveniently left out the part where he bashed every one of his critics individually. He’ll probably get to that later. The delusional Giants fanbase cheered as the guy who came up with the ball was hauled away as if he were an almighty world leader. (Personally, I wanted one of those girls that got tangled up in the mob to end up with the ball. That would have been interesting.) Bacsik actually pitched the rest of the inning when the game resumed about…three years later.
Those were the facts…now for a few mixed opinions. As a long-time Atlanta Braves fan (I even include them in my Devil Rays rants), I found it more difficult to cheer for anyone to break Aaron’s record, as Aaron did it as a Brave back in 1974. I found it even more difficult to cheer for Barry Bonds to do it. I believe Bonds took steroids knowingly, dating back to at least 1999. Eyewitness accounts and testimony have backed this up, and right now I believe it. While he was far from alone, he was certainly the most noticeable. Anybody who’s head grows to be the size of a watermelon when he’s in his mid-30s will draw attention. And so will a guy who has treated so many people like dog **** the way he has. He has turned down charitable causes for his time and autographs. He has ripped teammates at the most inopportune times. He has criticized the fans and, more so, the media, even dragging unwilling family members into it. And because he acted alone in being a complete and utter dillweed (the most I can say refraining from my usual MA-rated dialogue), it may be even more so for that reason than over the steroid accusations that I wanted Barry Bonds to fail. It was only a matter of time before he did hit 756 home runs, unless he was run over by a trolley car, but that never happened. I just wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it. To watch this guy who took so much and gave far less over the years and lied about performance enhancers celebrate becoming the home run king would prove to be very difficult. If not for his inflated 2001 season, the record may still be out of reach. In a way, I wish it was. I, for the most part, didn’t want to see Bonds as the home run leader. But now he is. At least it’s over, and we can, years from now, move on to the next guy. I’m a huge fan of what Bonds could do as a player, especially in his early years when he had power and speed like nobody’s business. However, I’m not overly enthralled with this new development. I envision asterisks next to this record now, and that can never be a good sign.
And neither, for that matter, could Bud Selig and Hank Aaron no-showing.
For its historical significance, I caught the entire thing on my DVR. I’ll watch it again the next time I need to escape from reality. Or, better yet, find the true harshness of it.
R.I.P. 755, 1976-2007