Friday, May 23, 2008

Milledge gets his page in Sports Illustrated

Not to be overshadowed by the Rays first-ever appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a full-page spread on Lastings Milledge, the Palmetto product who roams center field for the Washington Nationals.

A dapper Milledge appears in the “First Person” section of this week’s issue. You know, the one with Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford in all his cartoon glory on the cover.

Milledge answers six questions. The topics range from the negative reaction he received from his former teammates on the New York Mets to his ability to play the tuba, which he learned in the seventh grade.

“I miss it,” Milledge is quoted as saying.

Who knew?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rays get SI cover

Here it is.

Not sure what to make of it. Would have been nice to have an action shot of Carl Crawford or James Shields or something a little more traditional, but, hey, the Rays made it to first place so I guess we live in a different world now.

Not sure if a cartoon will count toward the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. I guess only time will tell.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The first-place Rays: Believe it

I wrote this sentence Wednesday night for the Rays on-line notebook:

“The Yankees responded with a 2-1 victory, their third in their last eight games, and moved within 3 ½ games of the first place Rays.”

I’ve been covering the Rays since their inaugural season in 1998, fulltime with the Bradenton Herald since 1999, and I’ve always wondered if there would ever come a day when the Rays would be among the best teams in baseball.

The answer? Yes.

I don’t know if I will be writing sentences like that in September or a month from now or a week from now. But the season is old enough to know what a team has, and the Rays have the goods to hang with the top teams in the American League this season.

The pitching is not a fluke.

The bullpen is the envy of most teams.

The defense makes everything work.

Now, if they can start hitting, they will remain a force.

There were some pretty dark days at the Trop in years past. I remember many nights walked to the parking lot with Dick Scanlon of the Lakeland Ledger after another miserable loss and we would talk about how it couldn’t possible get any worse, and, of course, it would.

The other night I walked to the parking lot with Scan, and we wondered if it could get better.

Yes, if the hitting comes around, it can get much better.

I think we’re looking at a fun summer of baseball in Tampa Bay.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Florida: A baseball state

It is Monday, May 12, and here are some win/loss records of interest …

Florida Marlins 23-14 .622
Tampa Bay Rays 21-16 .568
New York Mets 19-16 .543
New York Yankees 19-19 .500

The Marlins have the best record in baseball. THE BEST RECORD IN BASEBALL!

The Marlins and Rays have better records than the Mets and the Yankees.

It’s early in the season, but still the Rays and Marlins?

If I told you six weeks ago the Florida teams would have a better record than the New York teams, what would you have said? Yeah, me too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

20 wins for Sonny? Don't laugh

I was talking Tuesday with a buddy of mine who used to cover the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they were Devil Rays when he was on the beat before he fled for all the color and pageantry college football has to offer.

“Who is Andy Sonnanstine?” he asked.

Good question.

Sonnanstine was a 13th round draft pick in 2004. The Rays took Jeff Niemann with the fourth pick in that draft, so you can see why Sonnanstine would be an afterthought.

Still, the right-hander with a fastball that doesn’t scare anyone learned how to pitch in the minor leagues. He learned to throw strikes, work ahead, pitch to contact, avoid big innings and give his team a chance to win.

It was about this time last season, with the Rays rotation that included Jae Seo and Casey Fossum imploding on a nightly basis, when we began to hear Sonnanstine’s name. A lot.

Sonnanstine had been in big league camp that spring, but I couldn’t for the life of me place a face to his name.

Sonny quietly sailed under the radar, which is probably the best thing to happen to him.

When my buddy was still covering the Rays for another newspaper, pitchers like Chris Seddon and, to an extent, Jason Hammel, represented the next wave of arms that would save the day in Tampa Bay.

Sonnanstine never had those expectations. He just arrived last June and began producing.

On Tuesday at Toronto Sonnanstine stopped the Rays losing streak and won his fifth game of the season to take over the team-lead in victories. His five wins in 32 games represented the fastest start by a Rays pitcher in team history.

His 10 wins since Aug. 15 are the third-most of any major league pitcher. Sonnanstine doesn't create the buzz like James Shields and Scott Kazmir. Not yet, anyway.

It was suggested during spring training by another writer on the beat that Sonny would win 20 games in a season.

I laughed then.

I’m not laughing so much now.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Who wants to mess with this pitching staff?

This whole Scott Kazmir-coming-off-the-DL-and-someone-has-to-leave-the-rotation thing kind of had me worried, because, and I know this sounds very weird when talking about Tampa Bay’s pitching, but here goes: Do you really want to mess with this pitching staff?

The bullpen is the best in baseball and the starting rotation is among the best in the American League, and yes, we are still talking about the Rays.

Kazmir’s return for Sunday’s start in Boston means someone has to leave the rotation and the likely candidate is Jason Hammel, but he is out of minor league options, meaning he would have to clear waivers before the Rays could send him to Triple A Durham, and they wouldn’t want to risk that, so they would shift Hammel to the bullpen.

The odd-man out there would be J.P. Howell, since Hammel would fill Howell’s role of long-man. But one reason why the bullpen has been this good has been Howell’s ability to eat innings on those rare occasions when a starter falters, like Hammel did Tuesday in Baltimore.

Knowing this, the Rays might have looked for another starter to send to Durham, and that would have been Andy Sonnanstine, because he still has options.

But Sonnanstine has been more than solid, following his one bad outing with three great outings, including a complete-game shutout.

So moving Sonnanstine would not only have been unfair to Sonnanstine, it would have been unfair to the team.

But, and maybe this is a sign the Rays are finally catching some breaks, reliever Gary Glover has a sore shoulder, which means he will be placed on the disabled list in a move that will open a spot on the pitching staff for Kazmir and one in the bullpen for Hammel.

Isn’t it amazing how things are falling in place for this team?