Sunday, May 31, 2009

Look! A leadoff hit!

B.J. Upton is not in the starting lineup during this Sunday afternoon series finale between the Rays and the Twins. Rays manager Joe Maddon wanted to give Upton the day off which, when coupled with Monday's off day, will mean a two-day rest for Upton.

Ben Zobrist batted leadoff and singled in his first at-bat, proving that leadoff hitters are allowed to lead off with hits.

One at-bat doesn't mean a whole lot, except after one at-bat Zobrist's average as a leadoff hitter is 800 points higher than Upton, who raised his season average to .200 with a hit in four at-bats Saturday.

Maddon said Upton will bat leadoff Tuesday when the Rays and Royals open a three-game set.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Price looks right

Grant Balfour received the biggest ovation of his life Saturday. Nearly 30,000 inside the Trop stood and cheered as the Rays reliever entered the game.

Oh, wait. They were cheering for David Price, who was headed to the dugout.

My bad.

Price's good.

The lefty struck out 11 and allowed one run in 5 2/3 innings Saturday against the Twins.

It was a heck of an improvement over his first start last Monday when he walked five batters and struck out six in 3 1/3 innings at Cleveland.

Rays manager wanted to see Price pitch deeper into the game and have better command of his fastball. Check and check.

Price left with the Rays up 4-1.

The rookie, so big in last year's postseason, isn't the savior of this team. But a few more outings like the one he turned in Saturday will go a long way toward getting the Rays above .500 and challenging for another trip to the postseason.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dark days at the Trop

Carlos Pena was on his way to first base after drawing a first-inning walk off Oakland starter Dallas Braden on Thursday afternoon when the stadium lights at Tropicana Field went off.

Braden jumped off the mound as the building grew dark.

You can understand Braden being a tad spooked, what with the thunderstorm pounding the Trop from the outside.

The scoreboard, video board, sound system and lights through the stadium continued to work. Just the lights suspended from the catwalks lost juice.

The A's left the field as everyone waited for the lights to come back on. It would take 15 minutes or so before they came on fully juiced.

This is a good time to trot a favorite story among those who have covered this team for many years.

It happened when Hal McRay was manager. The lights went out during a mid-season game in 2002. After the game, Carter Gaddis of the Tampa Tribune asked McRae what he thought when the lights went out.

"Carter," McRae, began, "the lights went out around her a long time ago."

A Devil Rays classic.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sonny at the bat

Who needs Pat Burrell when you have Andy Sonnanstine?

The Rays pitcher, forced to bat because of an error on the Rays lineup card, doubled home a run against the Indians in the Rays five-run fourth inning Sunday.

Sonnanstine lined the bal over the head of Indians left fielder Ryan Garko, who was playing a tad shallow.

It was the first extra-base hit of Sonnanstine's career.

Sonnanstine, who takes a great deal of pride in his batting ability, bunted into a force play during his first at-bat and looked at a called strike in his second.

The double raised Sonny's career average to .417.

Lineup card error means no DH

The No. 3 hitter in the Rays lineup received a nice ovation when he came to bat in the first inning Sunday. More than a few Rays fans even stood.

A normal response when it is Evan Longoria, but this time it wasn't the 2008 American League Rookie of the Year, but pitcher Andy Sonnanstine.

Yes, Andy Sonnanstine.

Sonnanstine was forced to hit because of an error on the Rays lineup card that listed Longoria and Ben Zobrist as third basemen. Longo was supposed to be the DH.

The mistake was brought to the attention of the umpires in the middle of the first inning. After huddling amonst themselves then with Cleveland manager Eric Wedge, the umpires called the Indians off the field.

They met with Rays manager Joe Maddon for a few minutes.

Their decision was Longo was out of the game, but since he didn't bat or play the field, he was eligible to come off the bench.

After a 13-minute delay, play resumed with Sonnanstine the No. 3 batter in the lineup.

It was the first time a starting pitcher batted at Tropicana Field.

Ken Brett was the last starting pitcher to hit in an American League game. He did that for the White Sox on Sept. 23, 1976.

Rays pitcher Matt Garza was the last pitcher to hit in an American League game when he batted for the Twins in 2007.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rays return home with some momentum

Well, you knew Troy Percival was in for a rough outing, giving his lack of work this season and, well, he's Troy Percival. Good thing the Rays handed him a six-run lead to protect Wednesday.

Hey, look at it this way: At least Percy gave those Orioles fans who stayed around for the bottom of the ninth something to cheer about.

The Rays scored four times in the ninth then held on for an 8-6 win.

The Rays return home Thursday to face the Indians for the start of an eight-game homestand that features four with the Indians and four with the Athletics. Not exactly a daunting task, since both are last-place teams.

Wednesday's win was the swing victory in what became a 5-4 road trip that could have been - should have been - better.

They held the lead in every game.

The bullpen blew leads in both games at New York and again during Sunday night's loss at Boston. The Rays were able to rally both nights against the Yankees. They had no answer for the Red Sox, despite having the tying and go-ahead run on second and third and one-out. Jonathon Papelbon pitched himself into and out of the jam, striking out Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford to close the door.

Percival aside, the bullpen did a very good job against the Orioles. They picked up six shutout innings in Tuesday's loss and picked up another 3 2/3 shutout innings Wednesday.

James Shields fell apart in the Red Sox comeback last Friday.

Andy Sonnanstine gave further cause for concern Tuesday in Baltimore when he gave away a 5-1 lead in what appeared to be a matter of seconds. He's now 1-4 with a 7.27 ERA.

Designated hitter Pat Burrell left the road trip before Wednesday's game and returned to St. Pete so he could have his sore neck examined.

Despite that, the Rays showed some positive signs.

Upton's bat is showing life. Dioner Navarro has contributed offensively.

Jason Bartlett continues to hit, an indication, perhaps, his hot start may actually be a hot season. He now has five home runs this season.

Evan Longoria continues his record-setting RBI pace.

Crawford bruised his right shoulder making a diving catch Wednesday, and that will be a cause of concern.

So is Burrell's neck.

The Rays are 16-19. They have a chance to push themselves above .500 during this homestand.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sternberg gets high marks from

According to, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is one of the top owners in major league baseball, ranking fifth in a story on the web site.

The rankings were based on several factors:

- Team's success or failure on the field.
- Willingness to spend money to improve the team.
- Stability and capabilities of the front office and management.
- Amenities at the team's venue.
- Club's culture and interactivity with fans.

Since taking over the franchise after the 2003 season, Sternberg has certainly upgraded the organization in each of those areas.

Here are the top-five baseball owners according to
1. Henry/Werner/Lucchino, Boston Red Sox

2. Arturo Moreno, Los Angeles Angels

3. William DeWitt, St. Louis Cardinals

4. Steinbrenner Family, New York Yankees

5. Stuart Sternberg, Tampa Bay Rays

And here are the bottom five:

1. Peter Angelos, Baltimore Orioles

2. Tom Hicks, Texas Rangers

3. David Glass, Kansas City Royals

4. Jeffrey Loria, Florida Marlins

5. Ted Lerner, Washington Nationals

Sunday, May 10, 2009

He's Mr. RBI to you

Evan Longoria is on pace to drive in 223 runs this season, which would be a major league record and pretty darn near impossible.

Unless the Tampa Bay Rays continue to play the Boston Red Sox.

Longoria’s five RBIs in Saturday’s 14-5 mauling at Fenway Park raised his RBI total to 44 – 21 in nine games against the Red Sox. Five if his 11 home runs have come at the expense of Boston pitching. Longoria is batting .367 overall, .405 against the Red Sox.

Longoria’s 44 RBIs are the most through 32 games since Brooklyn’s Roy Campanella had 45 in 32 games in 1953.

"Pretty unbelievable," Longoria told reporters in Boston after Saturday’s win. "It seems like every time I come to the plate, someone's in scoring position. And a lot of times, it's with less than two outs. All I've got to do is hit a fly ball or a ground ball to shortstop and it's an RBI. Our offense has really, really started to go in the right direction. It makes it easy to hit when you've got guys out there with less than two."

Sandwiched in the Rays batting order between Carl Crawford, who is batting .331 and seems to always be on base these days, and Carlos Pena, who leads the majors with 13 home runs, Longoria finds himself coming to bat in ideal situations.

With Crawford a threat to steal on every pitch, Longoria sees more fastballs from pitchers who want to give their catcher a chance at throwing Crawford out. Longoria also finds himself facing a pitcher whose concentration is split between the batter and the runner.

With Pena hitting behind him, Longoria sees a steady diet of strikes since walking Longoria could mean a two-run homer by Pena.

"My swing is right where I want it to be,” Longoria said. “And I mean, the guys behind me hitting, it helps a lot with the pitches I'm getting. It's a credit to them and a credit to everybody else, too. As far as my swing goes, I feel really good."

Still, Longoria has handled the bat well all season, even before Crawford got hot.

He was the American League player of the week twice in April and was the American League player of the month for the month of April, becoming the first reigning rookie of the year to win player of the month during the first month of his sophomore season.

Crawford said Longoria has that “it factor,” that all great ball players have.

Pena, who agreed with Crawford, offered a more detailed answer during the Rays last home stand.

Pena offered Longoria’s grand slam against Boston on the recent homestand that lifted the Rays to a 6-2 victory. The grand slam came one night after Longoria started the Rays on their way to a 13-0 bashing of the Red Sox with a bases-loaded, three-run triple and came off Boston starter Justin Masterson, who has been tough on Longoria.

"And that particular at-bat he had two strikes on him, and (Longoria) had not looked very pretty against Masterson. He had been very difficult on him,” Pena said. “Yet I saw him step out, take a deep breath, kind of shrug his shoulders. I'm just thinking what's going on inside him, that he's saying, 'there's only one thing I can do and that's trust my ability.' That's what it seemed like to me. And sure enough, on the next pitch he hits it out. And that to me is huge, how can you slow it down so much when everything is so quick around you. Situation, we're down, bases loaded, he's got two strikes, there's two outs. You know we need a big hit, and yet he still has the presence of mind to slow it down and say, 'I'm just going to see this ball and put the barrel on it.' ”

It was mentioned to Pena that is how Pena hits.

“He's just a kid,” Pena said. “That's what's so impressive.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Did we just witness the turning point?

The moment the 2008 season became the 2008 season was that May night in Toronto when Troy Percival blew the three-run ninth inning lead and the Rays still won. Remember?

Carl Crawford hits a bases-loaded sac fly and Dioner Navarro follows one batter later with a grand slam.

The Rays used to lose games like that all the time. Blown leads became blown wins.

Not that night, and not for the rest of the 2008 season.

These past two nights in the Bronx seemed like 2008 for the Rays. The bullpen gave away leads, but the Rays still won.

It took a 10th inning homer by Carlos Pena on Wednesday night and back-to-back homers by Crawford and Evan Longoria (MVP! MVP!) off Mariano Rivera on Thursday for the Rays to build their first three-game winning streak of the season and sweep the Yankees in a two-game series.

By the way, that was the first time Rivera ever allowed back-to-back homers during his Hall of Fame career.

The late-inning comebacks. The late-inning power. That looks familiar.

If the Rays shake off their poor start and make a run at the postseason, I think we will look at those two nights in the Bronx as the moment 2009 became 2009.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A pair of no-hitters for the Rays

The No. 9 and No. 1 hitters are vital in Joe Maddon's lineup, because he likes speed at 9 so when it turns over, it's as if the Rays have two leadoff hitters.

When it works, the Rays offense is a scoring machine.

When it doesn't, they are iffy.

Right now, the Rays are operating without a leadoff if you consider center fielder B.J. Upton's current funk.

To call it a slump would be an insult to slumps.

Upton was 0-for-5 in the Rays 8-4 loss to the visiting Orioles on Monday, which extended the funk to 5-for-50 and dropped his batting average to .152.

Now Upton is basically going through spring training since he missed all the real thing. Those at-bats he would have had during March against Triple A pitchers in places like Lakeland and Dunedin he had during the month of April at the big league-level.

And keep in mind he did have offseason surgery.

So, safe to say, Upton is a little behind. His on-base percentage was above .300 until this current homestand, which meant Upton might not have been hitting his way on base, but at least he was still getting on.

Now he's not even doing that.

That's a big out at the top of the order.

As for the bottom, that spot is currently occupied by catcher Dioner Navarro, who is in a 5-for-45 slump.

That's two virtually automatic outs that Maddon was counting on to be productive spots.

Normally, Maddon flips the right-handed hitting Jason Bartlett and the left-handed Akinori Iwamura at the bottom of the order depending on the starting pitcher. But with Navarro batting .160, well, let's just say you can bat him 10th.

Maddon is reluctant to take Upton out of the leadoff spot, because that would show a lack of confidence in Upton.

That could change, especially with Bartlett swinging such a hot bat - .363 after Monday's 1-for-4, two RBI night.

As for Navie, Maddon said backup Michel Hernandez won't start full time unless there is an injury.

Shawn Riggans starts his rehab assignment at Double A Montgomery on Tuesday, so maybe Riggans can hustle back and provide some help.

But Riggans isn't known for his bat, and he is often injured.

Navarro has to get it going. The Rays have no other choices.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Longo for MVP? Too early to call ... now

There was a moment during Friday's Boston-Tampa Bay game when Dustin Pedroia and Evan Longoria ended up on third base together.

Longoria was defending the base, as he does quite well for the Rays. Pedrioa was there only because he couldn't score from first on a double by Kevin Youkilis.

So there they were, the last two American League rookies of the year. Pedroia, the Red Sox second baseman, followed his with an MVP award.

Those who follow the Rays wonder if Longoria can do the same.

Way too early for MVP talk. But, if there was an MVP of the first month of the season, you couldn't go wrong with Longoria, who had a better start to his sophomore year than Pedroia did.

Longoria is among the league-leaders in every offensive category. He leads the American League in RBIs and leads the major leagues in doubles, extra base hits and total bases.

And he fields his position better than most third baseman's in baseball.

Again, waaaaay too early to talk MVP.

The Rays would have to stay in the postseason hunt the entire season and Longoria would have to be a big reason for the playoff drive.

Those who watch Longoria play every day don't think this will be a problem.

In fact, those who watch the Rays play every day are excited every time Longoria comes to bat and any time the ball is hit his way.

You watch closely because you are certain Longoria is going to do something you've never seen before.

"He’s got that 'it' factor," Rays left fielder Carl Crawford said after Longoria helped win Friday's game with a grand slam. "He lives for those moments. Some guys have it and some guys don’t. He’s one of those guys who has it. He seems to thrive on those type of moments."

That's what you do if you are an MVP-caliber player.

Rays manager Joe Maddon had this to say about Longoria: "We believe Longo is, and I'm going to say something stupid, pretty good, and he's only going to get better."

How much better? MVP better?

We'll see.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Time to lose? Or time for a win?

So the Rays lose tonight against the Red Sox, right?

Recent history says that will happen when Andy Sonnanstine faces Justin Masterson at Tropicana Field.

In this win one, lose one, win one, lose one season, it's time for the Rays to lose simply because they won Thursday night.

But, if the Rays are going though a rough patch, as manager Joe Maddon said before Thursday night's 13-0 win that included six perfect innings from Matt Garza, than it's time for them to shake the slump and put some wins together.

Third baseman Evan Longoria called tonight's game a "test of character."

It is. Sonnanstine has not looked good and the offense lacks consistency and the Rays tend to come out flat after winning the day before. They haven't won back-to-back games since April 12 and 13. They haven't beaten the same team twice since taking the last two games of the season-opening three-game series at Boston.

The players like to mention the season is still young. It's only May 1. They have 139 games left on the schedule.

No time to panic. No time to blow up the roster. No time to stray from the game plan.

All true.

But it is time to prove you can follow up one win with another.