Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ode to Kaz

You can argue that Scott Kazmir never lived up to his potential in Tampa Bay.

At one point, Kazmir was among the top young pitchers in baseball. He left the Rays Friday in the trade with the Angels as the third- or fourth-best pitcher in the rotation.

At one point, the Rays didn't have a chance unless Kazmir was on the mound. His recent stretch of good starts notwithstanding, you couldn't think that this season. Or last.

But this is what Kaz brought to the Rays in his nearly six seasons at the Trop: credibility.

Especially during the first few years of his career. As long as they had Kaz throwing every fifth day, the Rays had a chance to win at least once a week, and during those days, that was actually acceptable.

Injuries slowed his development. Some within the organization question his work ethic and desire, especially after he signed his big contract early in 2008.

But what I will remember most about Kazmir, besides the fact he never ducked the media no matter how poorly he pitched, was Game 5 at Boston during last year's ALCS.

Rays manager Joe Maddon switched his rotation to have Kazmir pitch at Fenway Park instead of James Shields, who is no "Big Game James" on the road.

It seemed like a dumb move. Maddon was ripped in the Boston media.

Kaz allowed two hits and struck out seven in six innings, turning a 7-0 lead over to the bullpen.

Kazmir had pitched the Rays to within nine outs of the World Series. He bowed up and found a bit of the old Kaz. He was the ace everyone believed he would be.

When you consider the lousy teams he pitch on when he first came to Tampa Bay, Kazmir deserved the chance to be the winning pitcher in the game that clinched the American League pennant and sent them to the World Series.

Alas, the Rays bullpen wasn't up to the task, and the Rays would need a full seven games to win the pennant.

Of course, that made Kaz the Game 1 starter in the World Series, another fitting honor for the two-time All-Star.

But I will always remember that October night in Boston, when, for six innings Kaz silenced a nation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

'That was for you, Monty'

Greg Montalbano never had a chance since that first battle with testicular cancer as a college freshman in 1996. Operations were followed by more tumors that were followed by more operations that were followed by more tumors.

Montalbano once referred to himself as a “tumor machine.”

Montalbano never had a chance.

But he had friends, and two of those friends honored his passing Saturday morning with big days on the baseball field.

In Boston, Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis tied a career-high with six RBIs in the Red Sox’s 14-1 against the Yankees.

Closer to home, Rays first baseman Carlos Peña homered twice, scored three times and drove in four runs, including the game-winner in the bottom of the 10th to push the Rays past the visiting Rangers 5-4.

“He was my right-hand man in college,” Peña said of his former teammate at Northeastern. "The one thing that comforts me is I know he’s in a better place, but we’re going to miss him greatly.”

At some point while Youkilis was taking his grief out on the Yankees, Peña wrote a message on a piece of paper: “That was for you, Monty.”

“I just figured that I’d make a little note,” Peña said, “and if something happened I’d flash it to the camera.”

That “something” happened in the second inning when Peña drove a fastball from Rangers pitcher Tommy Hunter into the right-field seats.

Peña flashed the sign toward the TV camera next to the Rays dugout after he circled the bases.
“I hope the family saw it,” Peña said.

Peña hit a two-run homer off Hunter in the fourth inning for his American League-leading 34th home run.

In the eighth, Peña scored what appeared to be the winning run when he hustled home from first on Pat Burrell’s two-out double off the top of the left-field wall.

Rays closer J.P. Howell blew his first ninth-inning save of the season in the ninth, but all that did was set Peña up for another big hit.

Rangers relief pitcher Jason Grilli came on to pitch the 10th. He drilled Rays leadoff hitter Evan Longoria and walked Ben Zobrist.

Peña stepped up and singled to center to score Longoria.

“His good buddy passed away, and he got a little emotional lift to get through this game with the game-winning knock,” Howell said. “It’s pretty impressive, and that makes you wonder if there’s other things out there helping you out.”

It was Peña’s third two-home run game of the season and the 16th of his career. It was also the third time since August 2008 that Peña ended a game with a hit, though it was the first this season.

“You realize how blessed we are,” Peña said. “I dedicated this game to him (Montalbano) and for his memory.”

Here is a link to a great story on Montalbano that ran in the Boston Globe last October while the Rays were in Boston playing the Red Sox in the ALCS

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Niemann my leader for AL rookie of the year

Here is something I never thought I would write: Jeff Niemann should be the American League Rookie of the Year.

Not that I didn't think a Rays pitcher would win the award this year, I just thought that rookie would be David Price. I don't think I was alone in that assumption, either.

Back in March, the story was how the Rays would baby Price at Triple A to keep him fresh for the late summer playoff push.

Well, the Rays are making a playoff push, and one reason is because Niemann has emerged as the best pitcher in the rotation.

Price, who returned to the big leagues sooner than the Rays planned because of the injury to Scott Kazmir, has pitched like a rookie.

Niemann, who almost didn't make the team out of spring training, is the reason why the Rays still have playoff hopes.

He is 11-5, leading the staff in wins, ERA (3.71), complete games (2) and shutouts (2).

He leads all American League rookie pitchers in wins, complete games and shutouts. Detroit's Rick Porcello and Toronto's Ricky Romero are tied for second with 10 wins each.

I have voted for the AL ROY in past years, though I won't this year, and I tend to lean toward a rookie who is involved in a playoff race. I figure it is tough enough being a rookie. Throw in the pressure of playing meaningful games and the pressure only gets dialed up.

Trying to learn the game at the big league level while trying to help your team reach the playoffs is a lot to ask from a rookie.

That said, Porcello and Niemann are two pitchers I feel are legit ROY candidates.

As far as position players go, Nolan Reimold of Baltimore appears all over the hitting categories, but he plays for a last-place team.

Gordon Beckham of the White Sox is also having a nice year, but his numbers aren't Evan Longoria numbers.

I think the ROY is going to be a pitcher, and at this time, I think it should be Niemann.

The No.5 starter is pitching like the staff ace. Take him out of the rotation and you can take the Rays out of the Wild Card hunt.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rays won't sign first two draft picks

Apparently, LeVon likes his money. At least his agent, Scott Boras, does.

LeVon Washington, the high school infielder/outfielder selected by the Rays in the first round of the draft back in June, is not expected to sign by tonight’s midnight deadline, according to Rays vice president of baseball Andrew Friedman.

"We are disappointed that LeVon has chosen not to sign with the Rays," Friedman said in a statement released by the team. "We offered him a bonus consistent with late-first-round picks. Immediately following the draft, he seemed eager to sign but it has not materialized. We wish LeVon great success with his baseball career."

Friedman also said the team will not reach an agreement with infielder Kenny Diekroeger, who they took in the second round. Diekroeger had signed with Stanford University and said from the outset that he was prepared to play college baseball.

Washington, a Gainesville-Buchholtz High product who signed with Florida, said on the night of the draft that he had told the Gator coaches he was going to sign with the Rays.

"When we drafted Kenny, we went in with our eyes wide open, knowing he had a strong desire to attend Stanford University," Friedman said. "We knew that we would either be signing a top talent or receiving a comparable pick in the 2010 draft. We wish Kenny all the best at Stanford."

This is the first time in team history the Rays were not able to sign their first-round pick.

They will receive equivalent draft picks in the 2010 draft as compensation.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Can Garza match Kaz?

See what I mean about good pitching?

Scott Kazmir shakes off a two-run homer in the third inning Saturday and pitches into the seventh. Loads the bases with no-out in his last inning, but gets a ground ball to force a runner at second. He gives up a run to get an out. The rest of the inning is left to Russ Springer, and the rigthty does his job.

The Rays led 5-2 at the start of the seventh Saturday and would win 5-3.

Kaz gives them a quality start. The offense does enough against Toronto's Brian Tallet and the Rays say "goodbye" to the five-game losing streak.

As I blogged Saturday and later wrote in my Sunday column in the Bradenton Herald, the Rays have to get better outings from their starters and they have to get them on a nightly basis, or it's goodbye postseason.

Matt Garza throws this afternoon against the Jays.

I just saw him bouncing around the clubhouse while rock music rocked the room. He looks loose as ever. Garza always does before a start.

He needs to give the Rays more today than what he gave them in his last outing at Anaheim - six runs (four earned) in 3 1/3 innings. He needs to do what Kaz did Saturday: give them a quality start and turn a lead over to the bullpen.

Garza does that and the Rays win two straight with both victories going to the starting pitcher.

When was the last time that happened? Aug. 1 and Aug. 2 when David Price (seven innings, one run) and Jeff Niemann (eight innings, one run) beat the Royals on back-to-back nights at the Trop.

The rookies can do it. How about the vets?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Location, location, location

It doesn't matter if Pat Burrell gets another home run or not, or if B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro continue to slump or the Rays offense fails to get hits with runners in scoring position.

There will be no October baseball beyond the regular season finale in St. Pete if the Rays continue to get poor starting pitching.

It's that simple.

James Shields retired a career-best 16 straight during one point Friday night. Problem was, he put the Rays in a 5-0 hole before settling down. With Roy Halladay pitching for the Blue Jays, that means one thing: Ball game.

Scott Kazmir is pitching Saturday night, and Matt Garza pitches Sunday. That should favor the Rays, but both were rocked in their previous starts and both have been so inconsistent that you never know what to expect.

The current rotation is one-game above .500 - 35-34, and that's with Jeff Niemann's 10-5 record.

I've written this plenty of times this season: Things can't be good if Niemann is the best pitcherion the rotation. Nothing against Big Jeff and everything against the Big Three.

Shields is 7-9 with one win since June 20.

Kaz is 6-7.

Garza is 7-8.

David Price is 5-5, looking great one start and like a rookie the next.

The Rays need consistent starts out of their starters if they plan to make a run at another postseason. At this point of the season, it is kind of much to ask that from a rotation that has been consistent in its inconsistency.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Upton not happy about batting ninth

No one expected B.J. Upton to be happy about his free-fall through the batting order from first to last, but his reaction has been a little, well, this is what he told the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday:

"It's almost like a kick in the face," he said.

And ...

"To go from being a leadoff guy and last year hitting (No.) 2, 3, maybe 4 … it's just like I'm back where I started (as a 19-year-old rookie). I was in the 9-hole, the 8-hole and kind of worked my way up. I know I'm not a 9-hitter. I know I'm not a bottom-of-the-order type of guy," he said.

OK, here's the deal:

As the leadofff hitter, Upton killed the Rays, batting only .140 during his first at-bat of the 86 games he spent at the top of the order. If it wasn't for manager Joe Maddon's undying loyalty, Upton would have been dropped to seventh long ago.

That loyalty from his skipper might be one of the factors that will keep the Rays from the postseason.

This was no knee-jerk reaction by Maddon. Those 86 games were enough for Upton to prove that he is a top-of-the-order guy.

Maddon dropped Upton to seventh to take a little pressure off Upton and maybe help the center fielder regain his stroke. Then Maddon dropped Upton to eighth and now ninth.

Upton has only three hits in his 20 at-bats since being moved down the order in favor of Jason Bartlett. Nine of those 17 outs were strikeouts.

So, he's embarrassed. So what?

We all saw last October what Upton can do when he's swinging the bat well.

And, we saw during the first four months of the season what happens when Upton struggles.

Maybe the "kick in the face" is what Upton needs to pick up his offense, because patience and confidence from the manager didn't work.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rangers seem for real

Uh, what's up with the Texas Rangers?

Aren't they supposed to wilt in the Texas heat?

Aren't they supposed to go away?

Don't the Rangers know that the American League Wild Card is predestined to come out of the AL East?

Guess not.

The Rangers just took two out of three in Anaheim and are poised to overtake the Red Sox for the lead in the Wild Card.

This means the Rays have to pass two teams in the Wild Card race, the slumping Red Sox and the surging Rangers.

It's not enough the Rays have to deal with the Yankees and Red Sox. Now they have this team out West, too.

The good news for the Rays is they have six games remaining with the Rangers, starting with a three-game series at the back end of the Rays next homestand. They don't return to Texas until the last weekend in September.

The bad news is the Rays follow the Rangers into Anaheim, where the Rays start a three-game series Monday night. The Rays haven't won a series in Anaheim since the 1999 season. They have won once in their last 11 games in Anaheim.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Stupid rule? Not when you had been warned

If I hear one more person say the rule is stupid I'm going to scream.

I am referring to Rule 7.05 (g) of the Baseball Rule Book that says a ball lodged in equipment in the bullpen is ruled a dead ball and runners are awarded two bases from where they were when the pitch was thrown.

So, the wild throw from Boston pitcher Danial Bard that sailed past Red Sox first baseman Victor Martinez in the eighth inning Tuesday night and made its way into an equipment bag in the Rays bullpen was ruled the same as a ground rule double and cost the Rays a run in a game they would eventually win 4-2 in 13 innings.

To say it all started with the sacrifice bunt by Willy Aybar would be misleading.

It actually started a while ago when the Rays were told by umpires to keep the bullpen area clear of bags and jackets and whatever else relief pitchers carry down there.

They didn't.

So there we were Tuesday in the bottom of the eighth, the score tied at 2-2 and Ben Zobrist on first.

Aybar dropped a bunt in front of the plate. Bard picked up the ball and threw it past Martinez and down the right field line where it bounced into the Rays bullpen.

The bullpen at the Trop is in play. The ball can rattle around out there like a pinball, bouncing off the bench, chair legs and the wall. As the long as the ball isn't lodged in the padding of the four-foot wall, it's in play.

Unless it rolls into an equipment bag, which, this ball did.

Rays manager Joe Maddon couldn't argue, because he knew the rule and he knew he had been warned in the past.

Yeah, Zobrist had scored before the ball became lodged, but, what are you going to do? A stupid rule?


But had the Rays relievers kept the area free of bags and whatnot, we would never have learned of the rule's existence.

And maybe we would have been home at a decent hour.

But then we would have missed Evan Longoria's 13th inning home run, and that was worth the wait.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Now leading off ... not Upton

Some managers move players up and down the lineup. Some managers like a set lineup.

Some managers are quick to drop a slumping hitter down a few spots. Some managers stick with a set lineup.

Rays manager Joe Maddon likes a set lineup. Aside from tweaking the bottom of the order based on platoons and keeping to the right-lefty-righty look, Maddon wants to send the same guys out there in the same spots.

He does this for two reasons: He's spent a great deal of time in the offseason figuring out the batting order and he doesn't want to show a lack of faith in his players.

Maddon said the best thing a manager can do for a slumping hitter is to maintain his confidence in that hitter, and that's why he stayed with B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot for so long. Maddon was hoping Upton would find the stroke that led to a productive June.

But Upton strikes out too much and walks too little. In between, he doesn't get nearly enough hits.

So Maddon decided on a change. It was a long time coming, because Maddon spent a long time mulling the move. Changing leadoff hitters to Maddon is the same as changing quarterbacks in football. It can't be a knee-jerk reaction, and the guy you stick in there better be able to do the job. If not, the only option often is to go back to the former No. 1, and we know how that worked out.

So Maddon moved Jason Bartlett, the team's leading hitter to the top of the order Monday and kept him there Tuesday. Maddon said he does not have a time frame on how long Bartlett will be the Rays leadoff hitter. Bartlett will likely tell Maddon he can or can't handle the job.

It's the right move for the Rays right now, because the offense is struggling. Upton gives them no spark at the top of the order.

Bartlett has a higher batting average and on-base percentage. He walks more and strikes out less. He's also a much better base runner than Upton.

Not sure if Bartlett can provide the spark that will carry the Rays to the postseason. But giving Bartlett one more at-bat than Upton on a nightly basis can't hurt.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thoughts on a near no-no

A few of us writers spent more than a few minutes Saturday afternoon talking to Rays pitcher James Shields about Mark Buehrle's perfect game and how Shields had never thrown one and what it would be like to even throw a no-hitter.

Next day Shields takes a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Royals at Tropicana Field.

You look for signs during no-hitters and perfect games.

The fact Shields talked about throwing the day before was one, and would have made a heck of a lead had Shields finished the deal.

Rays manager Joe Maddon noticed one in the middle of the game when the answer to the daily trivia question was Dick Bosman, the Rays minor league pitching coordinator, who would have thrown a perfect game once if not for his own fielding error.

Here is another: Jim McKean was the umpire supervisor watching the game from the Trop's press box. McKean worked 10 no-hitters during his major league career, which stretched from 1973 to 2001.

Yet he never worked home plate in any of them.

Maybe that's why Shields didn't get the no-no. McKean was seated behind home plate.

Remembering Thurman

It was 30 years ago when I heard the news over the radio while sitting in my bedroom writing a letter to some baseball player to ask for his autograph.

Shortly after there was a knock at the side door of our house. It was Pat, my friend from next door. He was crying. He, too, heard the news.

Thurman Munson, the Yankee catcher, was dead, killed in a plane crash.

Munson was just one of many of my childhood sports heroes. There was also Joe Namath and Dr. J and Roger Staubach, whose hand I once shook before a Cowboys-Jets game at Shea Stadium.

I wore my chest protector inside-out during CYO baseball games so the orange would show, because that's how Munson wore his. My coach would tell me to fix the chest protector so the blue side showed.

I would tell him this is how Thurman Munson wears his. He would tell me, "You're no Thurman Munson." I would mutter something like, "Yeah, well you're no Bill Virdon."
Virdon managed the Yankees at the time.

Years later I would argue with Red Sox fans that Munson was better and tougher than Carlton Fisk.

I once talked to Lou Piniella about Munson when Lou was managing the Rays. Lou had tears in his eyes when he talked of the ovation Munson received the day after his death, when the Yankees tried to hold a moment of silence at Yankee Stadium, and of how Bobby Murcer drove in all five runs in a come-from-behind walk-off win against the Orioles the following Monday.

The Yankees flew to Ohio for Munson's funeral, than flew back to New York and beat the Orioles.

Sunday was the anniversary of Munson's death, and 30 years later I can still hear Pat knocking on the door.

Here is a link to a Daily News story on Munson ...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sitting tight at deadline might prove best move

In 2008, the Rays didn't get Jason Bay at the trade deadline, and many of us thought the Rays were sunk by the non-move, especially when Bay was traded to the Red Sox, who were at the time chasing the first-place Rays.

Turned out to be a wise move. The Rays held on to the prospects the Pirates wanted in exchange for Bay, won the division and the pennant and reached the World Series.

The Rays didn't make any moves this season, and that might turn out to be a wise move, as well.

The Rays had a definite need for another right-handed power-bat in 2008.

They have that this season, though Pat Burrell hasn't provided the pop the Rays had hoped for when they signed the DH in January.

Basically, every thing the Rays need they already have.

Starting pitching? Check.

Defense? Check.

Offense? Check.

What the Rays have, though, are inconsistent starting pitching, slumping hitters and a defense that is not as tight as it was last year.

The Rays feel they can receive the same pop of adding a player if some of those who are struggling return to their productive states.

A productive Scott Kazmir bolsters the rotation.

A productive Burrell, Carlos Pena and Dioner Navarro bolsters the lineup.

The Rays protect their prospects like a mother bear protects her cubs, so they aren't going to give one or two away for another arm in the bullpen.

If V.P. of baseball Andrew Friedman is going to part with a prospect, he's going to want an impact major leaguer in return.

While the Rays are very much alive in the postseason chase, they are far enough out of both the division race and the Wild Card race to mortgage the future on what might be a failed attempt at October baseball no matter how well a trade pans out.

Friedman thought he assembled a playoff team last offseason. He still does.

And if the bats come alive and Kazmir continues to pitch well, he might just be right.