Tagged: Willy Aybar

The Ups and Downs of a Ten Game Roadtrip

The Rays return home from a ten–game, three city roadtrip tonight to face the Yankees in a potentially season–deciding divisional series. I just returned home to Tampa myself on Saturday, back from a 16–day journey that went through the backwoods of Gaskin, Florida; New Smyrna Beach, Florida; a family mini–reunion in Escondido, California; and back to New Smyrna Beach. Thanks to this vacation and the All–Star break, I didn’t watch a live Rays game for about two weeks. I managed to keep track of their progress via the Internet, but I only saw a few highlights until late in the White Sox series.

So how about that catch Carl Crawford made in the All–Star Game? He robbed Colorado’s Brad Hawpe of a game–tying home run. This marked the first time Crawford had ever brought a home run back, and the only time Crawford will ever save Jonathan Papelbon. Between that and a single earlier in the game, but mostly the catch, Crawford earned himself the All–Star MVP Award. Congratulations to him for representing the Rays appropriately.

Following the Rays’ sweep of the Royals in which they made three consecutive eighth inning comebacks, it was time for a series in Chicago — and a place on the losing end of baseball history. On Thursday, July 23, White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle dominated the Rays for nine innings with no hits, no walks and no errors. A perfect game. Not even the old Devil Rays were ever victimized by perfection. But Buehrle did just that. Center fielder Dewayne Wise, who nearly robbed Cliff Floyd’s walk–off home run last year, deserves a lot of credit. He made arguably the play of the decade in the ninth inning to rob Gabe Kapler of a home run. So the Rays have made history in one of the worst possible ways.

I honestly have thought since last season that this team was the type that could be perfected. They strike out all the time and have trouble with certain types of pitchers, most notably left–handers who change speeds. That is Mark Buehrle. Rays fans have to watch these highlights forever now, so I hope this is not all the 2009 team is remembered for. Congratulations anyway to Buehrle.

Saturday afternoon started out just as badly, but later became one of the Rays’ greatest days. David Price’s fastball only reached the high 80s and he was torched for six runs in three innings by the Blue Jays. Tampa Bay trailed 8–0 through four innings and later fell behind 9–1. At that point I said that the Rays could bring in Fred Flintstone to pitch and it would make no difference. Then it happened — professional hitters actually started hitting. Carlos Pena hit a three–run triple off the wall in right center field that instantly cut the deficit to 9–4. It was 9–7 by the time the ninth inning rolled around. The battling offense and good bullpen work kept the Rays alive. Pena hit a towering home run off Scott Downs to make it 9–8. Willy Aybar, who had handed the Blue Jays at least one first inning run due to defensive ineptitude, then proved his worth by blasting a pitch to center field, over the head of Vernon Wells and over the wall.

Tie game. The Rays had come back from eight runs down to even it up, on the road no less. The game dragged on into the 12th inning, when Tampa Bay castoff Shawn Camp surrendered a go–ahead double to Jason Bartlett. Joe Nelson (in because J.P. Howell had already been used) walked three of his first four batters to load the bases. Could this comeback really go to waste? Aaron Hill thought it could. He had already hit two home runs. No third time charm, however, as Nelson struck him out to preserve the lead. Adam Lind then fell to The Great Equalizer by grounding out to second base. Rays win 10–9, capping off the biggest comeback in team history. They desperately needed that game to keep up the pace with the Yankees.

After a 6–4 roadtrip, those Yankees are next on the schedule. They enter Tropicana Field for a huge three–game series that could drastically alter the playoff race. With the Rays pitching their aces in this series, it’s about time to show the old news who the new kids are, just like we did in 2008. The Rays might have a better team on paper, so they should prove that on their home field. Until next time, go Rays.

World Series!

The Rays are going to the World Series!

Rays World Series 2.jpg

Did anyone out there think those words would be echoed across America in 2008?  Anybody?  Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?

Well, it has happened in the franchise’s 11th season.  It became official when Chip Caray screamed those aforementioned words as Akinori Iwamura touched second base and leaped in celebration.  The last 1990s expansion team to reach the World Series has finally done it.  After a historic meltdown in game five and a lifeless game six, the seventh game turned on its head — and did the same to baseball.

Willy Aybar scoring on a go–ahead single and hitting a home run to pad the lead; Matt Garza pitching amazingly well despite an early home run; David Price proving to be the present as well as the future.  What do those events equal?

9=2, of course.

With the 3–1 win in game seven, every baseball expert and just about every fan is proven wrong.  Yankees?  Old news.  Red Sox?  Couldn’t stand up to the heat.

I stood behind this team, my local franchise, for its first ten painful seasons.  I still remember hearing about their first ever minor league game.  I have vivid memories of their first pitch, the first game, and the first win.  I watched Wade Boggs’ 3,000th hit go into the right field stands.  I’ve seen the debuts of blue chip talents like Kazmir, Upton and Shields.

As great as all of that was… nothing up to this point could ever compare to this improbable American League Championship run.  I knew all those lean years were building towards something.  And finally, in 2008, we have our something.  This is an amazing, inspirational story that we should be telling kids for decades to come.

Now we have a World Series to win, so beware Philadelphia.  I think we can take you.  We start Wednesday night, so be here.

Until next time, go 2008 American League Champion Rays.

Rays Up 3-1 In ALCS… One More Win

You would normally think that after a team scores nine runs in two straight games, an offense would start slowing down.  Especially one like this in its current situation.  But there was no letdown in ALCS game four at Fenway Park.  Home Run Derby started early for the Tampa Bay Rays as Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria homered one after the other in the first inning off Tim Wakefield, whose Ray gun has run out of bullets.  Willy Aybar blasted a home run into the streets in the third inning, leading to Wakefield’s early departure.  The Rays would go on to beat the Red Sox 13–4 to build a substantial 3–1 series lead.

This was the most confidence I had in this Rays team all season.  I had my reasons.  Wakefield was pitching on 16 days rest.  The last time a pitcher won a playoff game after sitting out for that long was in the 1939 World Series.  His 19–3 mark against this team had also slipped to 19–5.  Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine pitched 13 innings against Boston in September, allowing absolutely no earned runs.  As I said before the game, his strengths and abilities matched up well against the Red Sox lineup.  Even against that big lumbering guy that used to be David Ortiz.

Sonnanstine allowed three earned runs (two with the game out of reach) in 7.1 innings as he looked about as great as I’ve ever seen him.  It reminded me of Bobby Cox’s decision to pitch Steve Avery over Greg Maddux in the fourth game of the 1995 World Series.  Avery pitched like his old phenom self, the Braves took a 3–1 series lead, and they won the trophy.  Sonnanstine won this game for us in strong fashion, setting up James Shields to finish the job on Thursday night.  The double–jointed ping pong player deserves to be roundly applauded for the job he did to bring us where we are.

The Rays playing for the grand prize, imagine that.  It’s like when the Buccaneers, themselves a longtime laughingstock, won the Super Bowl in January of 2003.  They beat the odds and captured the attention of the nation.  Well, one more win and the Rays can take that same stage the Bucs did.  Shields is going up against Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has all the ability to stifle the Rays and bring the series back to Tropicana Field.  (Which, by the way, will have no tarped off seats.)  Not to mention the Red Sox were down 3–1 last year to Cleveland and went on to win the next seven games.  But I still like the Rays’ chances, based upon the momentum they have and Shields’ big game potential.  And any sixth or seventh games would be at home.  But that’s a conversation I hope we don’t get around to.  So until the champagne is in the air, go Rays.

Two Games Up, Playoff Spot Within Reach

Those 2008 Rays… just when everyone wants to give up on them and leave them for dead, they storm right back in their faces.  One step back, two steps forward.  The cliches are actually coming true this season in Tampa Bay.  There is not one disappointed Rays fan right now, as they have defeated the Boston Red Sox two games to one at Tropicana Field to gain a two game division lead.  They have now won 90 games — yes, 90–win Rays, believe it or not — and are now down to a magic number of three (Rays wins/Twins losses, and we get them next) for a playoff berth.  These last two games coming back from the vicious Monday night beating usually reserved for Monday Night RAW, have been two of the most important and exciting victories ever for this franchise.

That Tuesday night game cost me about a gallon of water and a few hours of time best saved for work, but it was worth the wait.  The Rays’ Andy Sonnanstine and Josh Beckett matched last week’s pitcher’s duel with more of the same.  The Red Sox scored on a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning, an unearned run charged to Sonnanstine (after an unusual Evan Longoria error, which followed a hit that only occurred thanks to a missed third strike call).  An inning and a half later, on the very first pitch, Carlos Pena launched a hanging Beckett curveball for his 29th home run of the year, hitting the first row of left center field seats and tying the game at one.  In the ninth inning, Boston decided to call on Justin Masterson to avoid using Jonathan Papelbon.  Maybe they should have thought about avoiding defeat.  Jason Bartlett’s leadoff single fell into right field between three fielders, followed by a mildly controversial walk to Pena.  He swung and missed a fastball that would have made the count 1–2, but timeout was called before the pitch due to a stray bullpen ball entering the infield.  Out of the Red Sox bullpen, too.  Pena ended up walking on a close 3–2 pitch.  Two batters later, Cliff Floyd took an 0–2 slider to the shinguard to load the bases.  Dioner Navarro stepped up, fell from 2–0 to 2–2, then hit a hanging sinker right back up the middle.  Very far up the middle, in fact.  The ball flew over the head of a desolate Coco Crisp, Bartlett scored, the Rays won, and victory ruled the day.  The ball actually bounced over the wall, but the game ended after one base anyway… the Mets have the Grand Slam Single, and the Rays now have the Ground Rule Single.  This is what pennant races and playoff games are all about.

My vision of Rays playoff games came last night, featuring the bats big and small taking the hammer to Tim Wakefield (see, he only owned the Devil Rays, not these guys) and winning 10–3.  Matt Garza had a mediocre pitching performance drowned in offensive support, pitching 4.2 innings on three days’ rest.  Willy Aybar, Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez all homered, Aybar and Perez (normally switch hitters) doing so right handed against Wakefield.  David Ortiz’s two home runs only dented a catwalk and the stat sheet.  The Rays are now up by two full games in the American League East division, and the magic number for their first division title is now ten.  The playoff magic number is a mere three following Minnesota’s 6–4 loss to Cleveland.  This means that if the Rays win their first two games against the Twins, they will clinch their playoff berth on Friday night, on ESPN, in a game that I am attending.  I sincerely hope they can pull it off then and there — I would love nothing more than to be in that rocking house when the celebration begins.

Now it’s time for the Rays to beat the Twins back into their own dome and rightfully claim their playoff spot.  Until they finally accomplish this historic feat, go Rays.

How The West Was Beaten

The Tampa Bay Rays have continued to display their newfound power to those western teams and fans who didn’t know before what they were dealing with.  They took two out of three games in Arlington, then defeated the Angels 6–4 last night in that series opener back home.  The last roadtrip saw them go 7–3, one of the best records they have ever had on a roadtrip of that length.

Matt Garza returned to Texas for the first time since he and Dioner Navarro almost turned MLB into MMA.  But, as Dr. Weird would say, “This time… should be different!”  Indeed it was — Garza threw a two–hit, two–walk, nine–strikeout shutout of the feared Rangers offense.  It was a well timed, much needed role reversal for him with run support behind it in droves.  Former Braves pitcher Kevin Millwood came back from injury and surrendered four home runs to Rays hitters in the 7–0 victory.  Willy Aybar hit a rare left handed home run down the right field line, trying hard to displace my opinion that he should give up switch hitting altogether.  Carlos Pena hit one out for the third straight game, Eric Hinske smashed a hanging curveball over the center field wall, and Gabe Gross took the very next pitch after that to the opposite power alley and gone.  Garza was about as great as I’ve ever seen him, and the team backed him up.

The teams unfortunately switched spots in Saturday’s game, which the Rays lost 3–0 on an eight inning three hitter by virtual unknown Matt Harrison.  Two of those hits were in the first inning, but produced zero runs, which would be their final tally.  Edwin Jackson didn’t pitch too badly other than Ian Kinsler’s home run on his very first pitch of the game.  So after basically taking this day off, would the offense recover for Sunday night’s rubber match?

Well of course they would.  They broke out an early 7–1 lead, holding on to win 7–4.  Pena hit yet another home run (a three run shot deep into the seats), as did B.J. Upton, who showed his old power stroke with an opposite field line drive over the wall after having been benched the previous game for not running out a double play ball.  The ninth inning turned into Chinese water torture.  With Scott Kazmir having given up two runs in seven innings, the Rays had a five run lead.  Juan Salas, appearing for the first time since September 26, 2007, allowed a walk and a single.  So on came the dominant Grant Balfour.  However, with two outs, he walked the bases loaded, then walked in a run to bring up Josh Hamilton.  The most dangerous hitter in the lineup coming up with a chance to tie the game was enough for Joe Maddon to call for one of his most bold moves ever as a manager: intentional walk.  With two outs and the bases loaded?  This hadn’t been done since Barry Bonds was walked by the Diamondbacks in 1998.  But, sure enough, the Rays agreed to do it, showing Hamilton the utmost respect and bringing up Marlon Byrd with the game on the line.  Dan Wheeler came in, despite Byrd being 4–for–8 with a home run against him.  The Rays continued to defy the odds as Byrd struck out swinging on a breaking pitch to end the game.  After that dramatic finish, it was time to return home.

The team came back to Tropicana Field with the threat of Tropical Storm Fay postponing a game.  It ended up turning south, enabling the series to be played in its entirety.  The opener saw Hinske and Cliff Floyd hit early home runs to put up a 5–1 advantage, which became 5–4 a few innings later.  Andy Sonnanstine pitched just over five innings and managed to pick up his 13th win of the season, aided by a comforting insurance run from Justin Ruggiano in the bottom of the eighth inning.  That run came after Jason Hammel made a rare late inning appearance and induced a double play with the go ahead run at the plate.  Upton caught himself in another controversy about running plays out when he was unsuspectingly tagged out by Mark Teixeira as he waltzed into second base with an apparent double.  This time it’s slightly justified because there was nobody near the base and Teixeira made a heads up tag from behind him.  But he was still (rightfully) booed by the home fans as he stood out on second base.  They won anyway as Aybar had three hits against his brother’s team, again batting left handed and proving me wrong.  Sonnanstine’s win brought him within one of the franchise record, Rolando Arrojo’s 14 wins in 1998.  Another day, another routine victory.

The Rays of St. Petersburg have two more games with the Angels of Anaheim before hitting the road again.  They’ll be on national television three times in the next week: Wednesday night on ESPN2, Saturday afternoon on FOX and Sunday afternoon on TBS.  The next Saturday will feature the Rays in their first FOX home game as they host the Orioles.  So, Rays fans and all non–believers, you have your golden opportunity to watch the team in the spotlight.  They are now 76–48, ½ game behind the Angels for the best record in the league, and a new record 28 games over .500.  The Red Sox remain 4½ games behind, and the Yankees a full 10 games off the lead.  This is a real Major League team, regardless of what Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman continue to tell people.  Until that record is extended even further, go Rays.

The Single Season Mark Is 71

… 2008 has the title.  The Tampa Bay Rays have won their franchise record 71st game of the season, doing so on August 10, defeating the Seattle Mariners 11–3 to take three out of four games at Safeco Field and improve to an all–time best 25 games over .500.  This was a game of several steps in the right direction, and the Rays are now 4½ games ahead of the Red Sox for the division lead.

As I just mentioned, the Tampa Bay franchise record of 71 wins was officially set at the conclusion of this series.  Not only did they reach this win total for the first time ever, they did it with 45 games left on the schedule.  They have topped their 70–91 record set in 2004, and are set to destroy it by the end of the year.

Rocco Baldelli returned to action in the Major Leagues for the first time in 15 months, hitting an RBI single in his second at–bat and making a diving catch in right field.  He played 5½ innings, which is about as long as he went in rehab games.  He says that with his treatment combination of heavy medication, a new diet and more rest, he can get more active by the end of the season.  For a man with a mitochondrial disorder at the point in which it can zap almost every particle of energy from the body, it’s amazing he can even play the game.  He’ll be needed as a right handed hitter off the bench, especially with Jonny Gomes in AAA for the time being.  It’s great news to every Rays fan that he is now contributing to the playoff push.

Willy Aybar hit two home runs in the series–winning game, both down the
left field line and over the high wall.  Interestingly, he hit them
batting right handed against right handed pitcher R.A. Dickey, a rare
feat for a switch hitter.  It turned out to be the perfect move to
implement that strategy against a guy who throws knuckleballs and
otherwise mostly breaking pitches.  Shawn Riggans also homered to the
same area of the stadium.  For guys making spot starts for Evan
Longoria and Dioner Navarro, they did everything the regular starters
could have done, which is more than what was asked of them and shows
potential ability to be major roleplayers late in the season.

David Price has been promoted to AAA Durham.  7–0 with a 1.89 ERA at Montgomery, Price pitched 57 innings in which he walked 16 hitters and struck out 55.  He is still undefeated in professional baseball at 11–0, and the Rays believe he can be in a Major League uniform next month.  The way he’s pitching, why not?  The only question is where he would fit in the Rays’ pitching rotation.  They’re afraid to remove Sonnanstine (their winningest pitcher) from his starting role, and even though Jackson is a former reliever, he has been improving and they don’t want him to lose his rhythm.  They also fear screwing with Price’s mechanics by moving him to the bullpen.  Hopefully they don’t pull the Joba Chamberlain with this guy and force him to make too many adjustments in a short time span.  I’m not sure what they should do yet, but maybe the decision will become more obvious by the time it has to be made.

Carl Crawford is on the 15 day disabled list with a tendon injury to his right middle finger.  Maybe he gave the Red Sox the bird once too often.  Actually, it happened on a check swing of all things.  It should be known very soon what the nature and severity of the injury is, but he is already said to be out at least 2–3 weeks.  Perfect time to bring back Baldelli.  Maybe during this time Crawford can regain his full hitting and running strength and return to play like he did in previous seasons.

Rays color commentator Joe Magrane called his last games for the next few weeks in Seattle, as he is now on his way to Beijing, China to do color commentary for NBC’s Olympic baseball coverage. This is his third Olympic Games doing this prestigious duty, and hopefully he does the Rays, the United States, and the rest of the world proud, which I believe he can do. I’ll be watching, Joe.

The Rays begin a three game series with the Oakland A’s, who have lost 12 of their last 13 games, tomorrow in Oakland.  Scott Kazmir pitches the opening game, followed by Sonnanstine and Shields.  Every team in the division except the Rays lost their last games, making a perfect 5–for–5 for us.  Until next time, go Rays.

Rays Soundly Defeat Los Angeles of Anaheim

The series opener against the Angels was a great one to watch, regardless of how late it was in Florida.  In the second inning, the Rays made team history when Evan Longoria, Willy Aybar and Dioner Navarro became the first Rays to ever hit back–to–back–to–back home runs in a regular season game, doing so against Joe Saunders.  Edwin Jackson let the lead get away to 4–3 in the fourth inning, but the Rays responded with a five–run inning their next time up and they never turned back.  Jackson picked up the victory as the Rays beat the Angels 13–4 to give Joe Maddon, who worked in the Angels organization for 31 years, his first road win at Angels Stadium.  Saunders is now 9–3, and 0–2 against the Rays.  There are just some pitchers that this team owns.  Jackson is 4–5 after overcoming a few winless starts.  Longoria hit two home runs in the presence of friends and family in his native California.  Speaking of Californians, the pride of Newhall, James Shields, goes up against Jered Weaver in a battle of young aces tonight.  Shields already has a one–hit shutout of the Angels on his record this season.

As the Rays continue to wage battles with a very good team in their house, I'll briefly pause to thank Stephanie of the Marmol–ade Cubs blog for giving me my first plug from another MLBlogger.  Well, I plugged hers first, but it was nice of her to return the favor.  So thank you again.  I am now a Cubs fan.  Well, after the Braves and Rays are finished with them next week, then we'll talk.  It would make my mom's family proud — it is my grandma’s birthday today and she does need a gift.  So where are everyone else’s plugs?  I’ll get another one about a year from now.

I am giving a speech, the “final project,” in my Principles of Communication class tomorrow night.  I have decided to make it about the Rays' new Waterfront Stadium, which is on its way onto the St. Petersburg ballots.  I'll be telling people what benefits the stadium brings to the team and the city, where the money is coming from, and that they're fascists if they vote against it.  Maybe not the last part, but I could give that message a bit more indirectly.

You know what I haven't had in a while?  Big League Chew.

I'll be back soon as the Rays hopefully continue to average 13 runs per game.  They really do need to win by a little more than nine every game, the bullpen without Percival scares me just a bit.  [/sarcasm]  I write early in the morning and end up publishing random comedy.  Maybe I should do it more often.  Let's just say, until next time, go Rays.