You may recall that, just yesterday (May 20), I wrote a piece opining on what the Rays should do with pitchers Scott Kazmir and Troy Percival, who have each been suffering from command and confidence issues this season. They have come up with one viable remedy that I did not include: both pitchers have been sent to the 15day disabled list.
The excuse for Kazmir is a right quadriceps strain, which is probably minor, but still causing a hitch in his delivery. There are other unofficial causes to his time off, such as the loss of his fastball and the need to clear his head. This is a good thing to do for him right now. Just get him away and let him heal. Then decide on another course of action based on his progress.
Meanwhile, Percival’s case may be a little more serious or, in fact, career ending. Right shoulder tendinitis is the official reason. It is a legitimate injury, as he has complained of shoulder pain. But it could be the end of the line. He has flown back to Riverside, California to speak with his family and consider retirement.
This is the fourth time since joining the Rays that Percival has seen the DL. He had hamstring and back problems in 2008, the latter of which kept him out of the playoffs. He never got it together after the middle of last season. Joe Maddon actually said that he would not be surprised if he did go ahead and retire. It would be an unfortunate ending to a great career, but seeing as he initially retired after 2006 due to arm injuries, he made a nice second effort. I think he should just leave it up to those who can still pitch a full inning without either pulling a muscle or blowing a lead.
In the place of the injured pitchers, the Rays have called up 23yearold shortstop Reid Brignac and 28yearold relief pitcher Dale Thayer from AAA Durham. Brignac had a good start, hitting .291 with three home runs so far for the Bulls. He is likely to be up as a reserve for a short time. Ditto for Thayer, who has an 0.93 ERA in 16 appearances with six saves at Durham. He also pitched phenomenally there last year, ending up with a 2.77 ERA (it was under 2.00 most of the season) in 52 games and racking up more than one strikeout per inning. He would make his Major League debut in his first appearance as a Ray.
Also being rumored to join the team soon is the one and only David Price, the number one Draft pick from 2007 who loudly burst onto the scene in 2008. In eight starts at AAA, he is only 14 with a 3.93 ERA with 35 K in 34.1 innings. He did, however, pitch five hitless innings in his last start on May 17. They are also allowing him to throw more pitches per outing as he refines the fastball command and masters the changeup. He could still boost this starting rotation right now and get a little more experience against some of the best competition out there. This would be a good move, at least for a few weeks.
As I write this, the Rays hold a commanding 151 lead over the Marlins at Landshark Stadium. Hey, look at that Brignac just got his first Major League hit. He has now put that 0for10 stint from last year way behind him. And Gabe Gross hit a home run. Good for him, he needed it. They led 130 after three innings, so I believe they should win this one as automatically as the Harlem Globetrotters win on tour. Until next time, go Rays.
Instead of recapping the series the Rays split with the last place Oakland A’s (more on the epic finale later), I will contribute something of a little more importance. Some of the series’ downfall was caused by two downtrodden pitchers: starter Scott Kazmir and closer Troy Percival. What can we do with them? Here are some viable options.
First, there is the case of Dontrelle Kazmir. Excuse me, Scott Ankiel. Regardless of his name, Kazmir has gone 44 this season, which is not even the worst record on his team. However, his ERA is an alarming 7.69 and he has allowed seven earned runs in each of his last two starts. 29 walks and only 35 strikeouts in 45.2 innings will never get the job done for him. Especially with his fastball only occasionally reaching 91 miles per hour, when he should be regularly hitting 94. But it usually stays around 88. His slider is as flat as cardboard. He says he is 100% healthy, physically. But there are mechanical and mental blocks so large a bulldozer couldn’t knock them down.
Joe Maddon has stated that he will stay with Kazmir, on schedule as he has been. But I think he needs more evaluation and another solution. I have two possible ideas.
One possibility is to move him to the bullpen. He can work off to the side on his mechanics and get his head back in the game. Pitching only one or two innings at a time, he can let it fly without fearing an early exit. Barry Zito’s demotion to the Giants’ bullpen last season did him well. Why not try it here?
The other option is to send him down to minor league rehab. Kazmir would have to accept the assignment, but I think he should if he knows what the longterm effects can be. He can be sent to AAA, or even AA Montgomery. Jeremy Hellickson has pitched very well there this year, and once he returns from shoulder spasms he can go to Durham with either David Price or Wade Davis being called up to the Rays. A stint in either AA or AAA would do Kazmir good as he can pitch pressurefree and get his old self back. It may be starting to work for Dontrelle Willis. Maybe we should go for it here if everyone will go through with the plan.
The other concern is Troy “Tank” Percival. He was saved in today’s game, but only after he loaded the bases and fell behind every hitter into threeball counts. In 14 appearances, his ERA is 6.35 and opponents have hit .304 against him. This from a guy whose career opponents’ batting average is .135. He never seems to get through an inning easily, if at all. He scares every Rays fan and has driven some to drinking.
After watching him blow games (he is 6for6 in save opportunities, but not without some heart attacks) since the middle of last season, I have come to the conclusion that he is a worthless hack. Tampa Bay Rays management, it is now time that Troy Percival be released from the team, effective immediately. A Kazmir move to the bullpen could hold the spot until the return of Chad Bradford. Jason Isringhausen can lead a committee of closers. We have depth with the likes of Wheeler, Balfour, Howell, Shouse and Nelson, all of whom have a better recent track record than Percival. He is very replaceable.
With that out of the way, I will soon talk about that huge win today and what a lift Ben Zobrist brings to the Rays.
I was on vacation for a few days in New Smyrna Beach as a threeweek 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 sevengame tour at 43.
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 30 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 73.
Saturday was the highlight of the series as the Rays marched to a 145 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 43 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 10 in the first inning, then scored five on a long series of hits to take a fourrun 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, 75.
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 42 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 threehit game for the first time since last postseason, and Pena went 2for3 with two walks and three runs scored. For the first time all season (seemingly, at least), he had no strikeouts. With an 82 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 lighthitting 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 lefthanded pitching. However, his fourth hit would never arrive as he chopped the ball to Longoria, who threw to Iwamura for the longawaited final out. The Rays pulled out an 86 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 onerun 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 97mileanhour fastball could have been unhittable then, but now all the pitch is good for is a souvenir. I know it was a sixrun 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 43 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.
The Rays narrowly pulled one out of the fire last night in their first game at the new Yankee Stadium, winning 43 courtesy of Carlos Pena’s 10th inning home run.
Tampa Bay built a 30 lead on an Evan Longoria double, Akinori Iwamura sacrifice fly and Dioner Navarro single that each drove in a run. (Navarro may be turning it around now, backtoback good games). Andy Sonnanstine pitched as well as I have ever seen him (7.1 IP, 4 K, 0 BB), but left two minor leaguers on base in Ramiro Pena and Jose Molina. Home plate umpire James Hoye (who I blasted in this commentary last June) was calling a very liberal strikezone. But this liberal wasn’t bringing peace; Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher was ejected for arguing balls and strikes, and it nearly happened later to B.J. Upton. Back to the game: Dan Wheeler struck out Derek Jeter with two men on base for the eighth inning’s second out.
Then mystique and aura sent the Rays into purgatory. J.P. Howell entered the game and walked Johnny Damon on five pitches, four of which were low and outside. I knew that both that and putting Pena and Molina on base were bad signs. Sure enough, slowstarting Mark Teixeira promptly hit a gametying double almost off the chalk in the left field corner. Howell has been decent statistically so far, but his 02 record and two blown saves have all Rays fans concerned. Then the homer groundscrew pulled the tarp over the field right after the Yankees tied the game. Thankfully, the rain delay was about 30 minutes or less. Now with the game tied, the Rays got nothing done in the ninth inning thanks to strikeouts (What else is new?), and the Yankees also blew their opportunity.
Then came the tenth inning. Carlos Pena, who is an automatic strikeout once there is a two strike count (three in this game), led off against lefthander Phil Coke. Coke never got to two strikes, as Pena blasted a 10 pitch over the right center field wall to give the Rays a crucial 43 advantage. Tampa Bay actually fought back to get the lead, but could they hold it? Troy Percival would provide the answer.
Derek Jeter was retired before Johnny Damon doubled over Upton’s head on a ball Upton appeared to be jogging in front of. Percival promptly threw a pitch away to send the tying run on to third base. Teixeira hit a fly ball to right center field, but Gabe Gross caught it too close to home for Damon to try it. With that bullet dodged, Hideki Matsui, a lifetime owner of the Rays and a huge latefgame threat, stepped in. But Percival channeled the spirit of the Rally Monkey and induced a fly ball to Carl Crawford to save the Rays’ narrow win. This game has “instant classic” written all over it, especially to us Rays fans. Teixeira’s signature Welcome to the Yankees moment was shattered by Carlos Pena’s leagueleading 12th home run. And by the way, Troy Percival’s ERA is a mere 2.08. That’s a figure from his peak years when he could throw 100 miles an hour.
Crawford stolen base count: 20for20. He has racked up nine consecutive games with a stolen base, and this is his seventh consecutive 20steal season.
B.J. Upton (7) and Evan Longoria (2) also stole bases in this game.
Tonight the Rays go for the sweep as Jeff Niemann matches up with Andy Pettitte. Niemann has been The Riverboat Gamblers so far, On Again, Off Again. Pettitte has seemingly been that way for a few years straight. Which pitchers we get should determine the outcome of the game. Until next time, go Rays.
The Rays defended their home turf successfully this weekend, winning three out of four games against the enemy from Boston to improve to 52 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 106.
Tampa Bay took back Tropicana Field today with a solid 53 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 tworun 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 17for17 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 31 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.
As today is an off day for the Rays, the last one of their regular season, I have returned here to review the drops, upswings and loops this roller coaster of a roadtrip has brought us so far. They were swept out of Canada by the Blue Jays, then thrust into the spotlight of Fenway Park, where they amazingly survived the last two out of three games to send Boston back to a 2½ game deficit. Everyone from callups to former World Series winners played integral roles in getting the team back on track.
First, however, the Toronto sweep. This series was so depressing I couldn’t even watch SportsCenter all of last weekend. (Though I caught most of my NFL highlights elsewhere.) Who with any Major League experience lets Gregg Zaun hit a walkoff grand slam with two outs and the lead? I thought I would have had a reasonable chance to get him out. Yet Troy Percival threw a first pitch fastball almost dead center, leading to the crushing defeat. He has brought out more tanks than the space shuttle since his latest injury. (More on that later.) Then it was equally painful to sit through the Rays’ lack of support for the outstanding Matt Garza, who has owned the Blue Jays all of this season. The 10 loss came only because the Rays, in turn, have been owned by the noticeably less talented David Purcey, who has only allowed one run in 16 innings against them. The sweep almost knocked the Rays out of the coveted first place spot, and now they had to contend with the Red Sox in their imposing house.
Those Red Sox would, as one might expect, win the first game behind Jon Lester’s defeat of Edwin Jackson, who allowed three first inning runs but was otherwise effective. Hitting with runners in scoring position would prove to be about as challenging as running a marathon while solving a Rubix Cube. (First game: 06.) After the offensive lethargy of game one, it was the same for much of game two. Jason Bay tagged Dan Wheeler with a two out eighth inning home run to give Boston a 43 lead that could have vaulted them into first place and turned all their fortunes around for good. With Jonathan Papelbon in to close the game out, it looked like Red Sox Nation would be gearing up for some victory dances. But the big closer had one weakness…
Wait, Dan Johnson? The guy the A’s unceremoniously waived four months ago? Him? Well, there can be only one, and that would indeed be him. The guy who lit up AAA pitching by hitting .307 with 25 home runs, 84 walks and only 75 strikeouts terrorized Papelbon by smashing a 32 fastball over the Red Sox bullpen, tying the game and paralyzing the rabid home crowd. He arrived at the stadium around game time, then pulled that rabbit out of the hat only a few hours later. Fernando Perez, only a switch hitter for the last four years, then hit a ball left handed off the Green Monster for a double. Dioner Navarro once again delivered him home as he did twice in the Toronto series with a double of his own. This was the first RISP hit of the game for the Rays, who finished a horrid 117 in that department. Percival then came on in relief and scared Rays fans again with a leadoff walk. After two outs, pinch runner Jacoby Ellsbury stole second base, then took third base on the (yet another) throw into center field by Navarro. However, in an act of karmic justice, Coco Crisp popped out to end the game and keep the Rays in first place.
This same justice would eventually prevail again in the rubber match. With two critical standings games at stake, Andy Sonnanstine dueled with Josh Beckett, and even outpitched him most of the way, getting into fewer jams than his All Star rival. On it continued, both teams using one pitcher after another and keeping the score deadlocked. The Rays both teams, in fact had numerous chances to close it out and claim victory, but winning appeared to be poison to these guys. Finally, in the 14th inning, Earl Hickey justice struck again. With two men on base and two out, Carlos Pena faced off with Mike Timlin (who beat the Braves in the 1992 World Series, leading to my longstanding beef with him). Pena drove a 10 pitch high, deep to left center field, and gone over the Green Monster for a Nationcrumbling goahead home run. The team would finish 114 with RISP in this one, going a total of 237 in the series. But could it be enough? Percival was back again to find out. He allowed a leadoff double, then two four pitch walks to promptly load the bases for Kevin Youkilis. Joe Maddon and trainer Ron Porterfield immediately marched to the mound and removed Percival after an animated discussion, summoning Jason Hammel (the next to last reliever available, ahead of Juan Salas) to get the save himself. As Percival left the field, perhaps for the final time as Tampa Bay’s closer, Youkilis hit a sacrifice fly to make it 42, but still give the Rays an out. Jason Bay was up next with the winning run, and justice struck once more. Bay, who beat the Rays back in June with a home run off Hammel in Pittsburgh, swung at a curveball, outside and in the dirt, for a demoralizing third strike. After this monkey was lifted away, the less reliable Alex Cora flied out to center field, sparing Percival one final humiliation and giving the Rays the series. Red Sox with RISP: 115, and an .095 average for all three games.
Especially had the team lost one of these last two games, I would rant more on Troy Percival and how he should never close for us again. But, as it is, I still think the Rays should take their chances with Dan Wheeler, who served well during Troy’s previous absences. Grant Balfour is an excellent setup man, and if he keeps up any command and develops a slightly better slider, he could be a great closer. But the choice right now should be Wheeler. Even if he is Cardiac Dan, he can’t be much worse than what we’ve had. Though Percival did have an interesting point last night: “If I’m the weak link, we’re a very good bullpen.” I still say it’s infinitely better than 2007.
The Rays held their ground on opposing ground, winning a series at Fenway Park for the first time since 1999. That was when the team was in its second season, Sammy Sosa was still hitting 60+ home runs, Rick Ankiel was still a pitching prospect, and the Braves were still playing in the World Series. And to pull this victory off now is picture perfect timing if I’ve ever seen it. Now it’s time for one final trip to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and time to finish off the fourth place Bronx Bombers that is, they’ve bombed all season long.
I am attending my fifth Rays game of the year on Friday, September 19 against the Minnesota Twins. I have seats right along the left field line in section 141. This means I get to heckle Delmon Young. I may stop short of comments about bat javelin, but a few “you got traded” and “Garza’s better” chants should suffice. If anyone else is going to this game, please join me in these festivities. And I think five games this season is a substantial increase over two games the previous three seasons combined, especially with as little money as I have to spare. I’ll also try as hard as I can to get playoff tickets, any day, any seat in the stadium. As an added bonus, here is a story on Rays team chemistry from MLB.com. So until the next Yankee conquest is complete, go Rays.
The Rays have managed to capture yet another exciting sweep at Tropicana Field, wrapping it up with an 8-5 victory in today’s game, in which Rays hitters joined many others by using pink bats for breast cancer awareness. Andy Sonnanstine had a merely average pitching performance, but the offense jumped from mediocrity to excellence, scoring three times in the first inning and later taking the lead for good on Carl Crawford’s three run home run to right field. This blast topped off a two stolen base performance, and Cliff Floyd returned with two singles and two RBI in his first Rays home game. Troy Percival shut down his former team twice, once dodging a scare from an error caused by Crawford colliding with Jason Bartlett, to earn a pair of saves over the weekend. By consecutive 2-0 scores behind Shields and Kazmir, then 8-5 today, the Rays picked up their third sweep of the season. And what a time to hit this streak–the Yankees come to Tampa Bay tomorrow to begin a four game series that will test the Rays’ durability and fighting spirit. If they sweep that series on top of everything else, they will unquestionably be the top story in the baseball world. Let’s see to it that it happens and that the Yankees and all their bandwagon fans get run out of here like Joe Torre got run out of New York.
I would also suggest, on top of going to Rays games to drown out visiting fans in support of our team, voting for the 79th All Star Game, which takes place on July 15th. I’ve been voting, and I encourage every fan to vote all 25 alloted times on MLB.com and at stadiums whenever possible. I would especially like it if people voted for Rays players across the board in the American League. (You can write in Evan Longoria and/or Eric Hinske, like I have.) And while you’re at it, pick some Braves in the National League, they deserve it too. There are unheralded Rays (and Braves) who need support for a trip to New York to participate in this historic event. We have the power to let them go, so we should use it. Until next time, go All Star Rays.