Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hinske = AL East title

What went wrong with the Rays this season? Simple. We can sum that up in two words: Eric Hinske.

Hinske, who hit 20 home runs and drove in 60 RBIs in a very non-Burrell season in 2008, is headed to the playoffs with his third team in three years. This time it's the Yankees, who won the AL East title last Sunday.

That makes it three seasons, three AL East titles for Hinske.

He was with the Red Sox in 2007. The Rays signed him to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training before the 2008 season.

Hinske, who was not resigned with the Rays after last year and signed with the Pirates instead, ended up in the Bronx after a June trade.

He mentioned that fact to Rays manager Joe Maddon the last time the Yankees were in town.

With the Yankees the favorites to win the World Series this October/November, Hinske has a chance to do what Don Baylor did in the late-1980s - reach the World Series in three consecutive years with three different teams.

Baylor played for the Red Sox in 1986, the Twins in 1987 and the A's in 1988.

The Red Sox blew the series in the famous Game 6 collapse and a Game 7 collapse that no one seems to remember, and the A's were upset by the Dodgers. In between Baylor won a World Series ring with the Twins.

Hinske celebrated the World Series title with the Red Sox in 2007 and made the last out against the Phillies in 2008.

His absence this year could be one reason the Rays stumbled to a third place finish. The '08 Rays were energized by the presence of such veterans as Hinske, Cliff Floyd and Trever Miller.

The Rays need a lot of things if they want to return to the postseason in 2010 - a closer, a catcher, a designated hitter.

Maybe they should resign Hinske for his karma.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My favorite Mark Hendrickson story

Former Ray Mark Hendrickson is on the hill tonight for the Orioles, and that calls to mind my favorite Mark Hendrickson story.

My second-favorite was waiting out an eight-hour rain delay at Tampa International Airport inside the same air side terminal as the big, 6-foot-9 lefty. It was during February a couple of years back, and the bay area was pounded by the most rain it received in 100 years.

I began talking to Hendrickson, who asked me not to mention anything about him pitching for the Rays lest he be bombarded by autograph request by the rest of the stranded passengers. No problem. It's not like me to cause waves.

I spent the next four hours or so walking around the airport when I again bumped into Henderickson. He told me no one had asked him for an autograph, which had him wondering: Was he going unnoticed? Or, did no one care?

Anyway, that's my No. 2 Mark Hendrickson story.

Here's No. 1.

Hendrickson joined the Rays in 2004, and I spoke to him early in camp. Naturally, we talked about his days in the NBA. Naturally, the subject of Michael Jordan came up.

Hendrickson said he played against Jordan but never guarded him, which I thought was odd. Didn't Jordan drive the lane on Hendrickson at least once?

Nope, Hendrickson said.

OK. Whatever.

Sometime later I was at the Red Barn Flea Market, where I bought a rather large bookcase for my house. It was so large I couldn't fit it into my car, so I called Tom O'Neill, the Herald's photo editor at the time, and asked if Tom could duck out of the office for a few minutes and helped me get this bookcase home. Tom had a pick-up truck, you see.

Tom said to give him 15, 20 minutes.

I killed time in the Red Barn's book store, where I picked up a book of Sports Illustrated photos. The photographers at the paper had a small library of such books, and I figured it was the least I could do for Tom.

As I waited in the parking lot, I glanced at the book's cover, which showed MJ dunking over some hapless defender. I couldn't quiet make out the defender's face, but I could see the last letters of the his last name. They spelled "rickson."

I looked closer at the face.

Was it ... ?

Why yes, it was.

Michael Jordan throwing one down over Mark Hendrickson.

I never asked Hendrickson why he wouldn't admit to that. What the heck. It's not like Hendrickson was the only NBA player to be dunked on by MJ.

Now, the only major leaguer pitcher? Sure.

Still, no shame in that.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

No fun with no postseason

The Rays were mathematically eliminated from the postseason Tuesday night, though they were officially eliminated sometime early in their 11-game losing streak.

You know what that means?

No champagne showers.

No Rayhawks.

No playoff tickets.

No playoff crowds.

No Grant Balfour kicking dirt at Orlando Cabrera.

No home runs from Evan Longoria.

No games ending past midnight.

No auxiliary press box in the tbt Party Deck.

No missing deadlines because the games ended past midnight. No writing for the Web site only.

No 11th inning dashes to the plate by Fernando Perez.

No bombs over the Green Monstah by B.J. Upton.

No Matt Garza out-pitching Jon Lester.

No saves for David Price.

No beating the Red Sox for the pennant.

No moving the center of the baseball universe to Tropicana Field.

No Joe Buck. No Tim McCarver.

No cold nights in Philly.

No rain in Philly.

No side trips to Wilmington, Del.

No memories.

No fun.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pena still smiling, still leading in home runs

It was team photo day Saturday for the Rays, which meant first baseman Carlos Pena was at the Trop sporting two pins sticking out of his bandaged left hand and, as always, a smile.

Pena still leads the American League in home runs with 39, even though he hasn't played since breaking the middle and index fingers of his left hand on Sept. 7 when he was struck by a CC Sabathia 95 mph fastball during the first game of a doubleheader.

Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira was second with 33 homers at the time of Pena's season-ending injury. Teixeira hit two homers in the night cap of the Yankees sweep, but is homerless since.

At this pace, Pena might just hold on to the lead and win his first home run crown. If so, he will become the first to lead the league in home runs despite missing the final 25 games of the season.

Dick Allen in 1974 and Jimmie Foxx in 1939 won home run titles after missing the final 20 games. Allen hit 32 in '74 and Foxx hit 35 in '39.

Pena, true to form, said he is not rooting against Teixeira or Jason Bay (third with 34), because he does not wish ill on anyone.

But, Pena added, his friends and family are keeping him update on the race.

Should Pena somehow hold on to the lead, it would cap a three-year run that began with the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award after his 46-home run, 121-RBI year in 2007, and the AL Gold Glove after he committed just two errors in 1,099 total chances for the AL champs in 2008.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

CC frustrated with losing or just Burrell?

Word out of Baltimore is Carl Crawford and Pat Burrell argued in the clubhouse before Wednesday's batting practice.

CC wouldn't elaborate, and Burrell, true to form, didn't talk to reporters.

Which leaves us to speculate about what the two were arguing about.

Where to eat after the game?

Maybe Burrell was giving CC tips on how to play left field, and the discussion escalated into a heated argument?

Fantasy football?

Maybe the losing finally got to CC.

Maybe the thought of losing Wednesday and dropping to .500 hurt CC in a way it won't the other Rays, since he is the longest tenured Ray and knows what a losing record feels like.

Or, maybe CC is tired of seeing Burrell mail it in this season.

A better effort from Burrell won't have the Rays in first place, but they'd be in a better place than they are now, which is fighting amongst themselves in Baltimore.

Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters it was nothing.

Except CC isn't prone to public outburst.

So, if CC is yelling at another player in the middle of the clubhouse where reporters can watch, it's something.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Niemann deserves better support

Jeff Niemann, the best pitcher on the Rays staff, will have nothing to show for this season except maybe a bump to the fourth or third spot in the rotation next season.

He leads the staff in wins (12), complete games (2) and shutouts (2), and should be among the league leader in wins if not for a bullpen that continues to let him down.

In his last five games in which he received a no-decision, Niemann turned a lead over to the bullpen four times. The other game was a 1-1 tie.

You can argue manager Joe Maddon should let Niemann pitch deeper. You can also argue the bullpen has been particularly horrible when following Niemann to the mound. Take away three of the blown saves and Niemann is 15 wins.

That would make Niemann the leader in the AL Rookie of the Year race.

Grant Balfour is usually the culprit, getting the loss or letting the trying run score in four of Niemann's last five no decisions.

Nothing cause Rays fans to wince more than seeing Maddon walk to the mound to pull Niemann when the big righty has the lead.

Niemann has a 3.24 ERA in his last five no-decisions. Take away the inherited runners the bullpen allowed to score that were charged to Big Jeff, and his ERA is 1.01.

Can a pitcher sue his bullpen for lack of support?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

DiMaggio, Williams, Pujols, Longoria

Evan Longoria homered off former Ray Edwin Jackson in the second inning Sunday for his 28th home run of the season and his 100th RBI.

For a guy that has struggled this season, Longoria is putting up some pretty good numbers. He will finish the year with at least 30 home runs and around 110 RBIs. Not bad for someone who hit 27 homers and drove in 85 runs as a rookie in 2008.

Longoria has a nine game hitting streak, which means his bat has perked up during this crucial stretch of the season. It looks as if the Rays won't be heading to the playoffs, but don't blame Longoria.

With his home run Sunday, Longoria became the 14th player in major league history, and ninth in the American League to have 40 doubles, 25 home runs and 100 RBI in a season before his 24th birthday.

He joins Hank Greenberg, Hal Trosky, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, Eric Chavez, Aramis Ramirez, Jorge Cantu, Miguel Cabrera and David Wright.

That's a pretty impressive list.

What will be the snapshot of 2009?

The above photo was the snapshot of 2008: celebrations.

Celebrations at home plate after walk-off wins. Celebrations on the mound after clinching something - a playoff berth, the ALDS, the American League pennant.

What will be the snapshot of 2008?
How about Joe Maddon changing pitchers?
Or B.J. Upton looking at another called strike three?
Or Pat Burrell swinging and missing?
Or another soft pop up from Dioner Navarro?
Or ... you get the picture.

The Rays are cooked.

They are hitting now. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria are back, and Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford haven't cooled off.

The starting pitching is still far from a sure thing.

But what has ultimately decided the Rays fate is the bullpen.

There is not one arm out there that you can trust now that J.P Howell can't get anyone out.
Too many innings over the last two seasons has caught up to Howell and Grant Balfour, too.
Not having a closer has caught up to the Rays, as well.

Most of this doesn't really matter, thought. The Red Sox are not going to give up the lead in the Wild Card.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Buzzed in the box

I've heard of pitchers being wild, but Fernando Rodney's last offering Friday was a tad high.

The Tigers reliever almost chocked away a three-run ninth inning lead, but managed to hold on to what became a 4-3 win over the Rays when he got Willy Aybar to bounce out to first base with the tying run at third and the winning run at second.

Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera handed the ball to Rodney, and the hard-throwing right-hander threw it into the Tropicana Field press box, where it came close to hitting an unsuspecting writer who was busy trying to make deadline.

That writer was me. So I'm told.

I was pounding away on the keyboard of my laptop, paying the least bit of attention to what was going on down on the field.

Why should I?

What happens after a game that can hurt someone sitting four floors above the field?

Now, it is a different story during the game. Foul balls sail back here all the time, so you find yourself writing with one eye on your screen and one eye on the game.

In fact, I caught a foul ball off Ben Grieve's bat on Opening Day 2003. Gave it to a kid, too.

Anyway ... back to Friday.

I heard several people yell, "Watch out!" And I heard what sounded like a ball smacking something in the booth, a sound I've heard many times.

By the time I realized what had happened, the ball bounced off the desktop about 10 feet to my right and was pin-balling around the back of the press box.

Soon after, Rodney was confronted by a reporter - not me, I was still on deadline.

Rodney said this: "I know we're not supposed to throw the ball, but I did. I was celebrating the moment."

Good for you, Rodney. Getting save No. 32 is a big occasion for anyone.

Next time hand it to a Detroit fan. You know, the ones who sit behind the third base dugout at the Trop.

You should be able to reach them with ease, unless your control was as wild in the ninth inning Friday.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

How about dressing as playoff contenders?

Another road trip looms for the Rays, and you know what that means? Another theme.

I would suggest dressing like a playoff contender, but, so far, no one has asked me.

Rays manager Joe Maddon held a meeting before Thursday's game with the Red Sox to discuss a few ideas. His big one: Herb Tarlek (above) from WKRP in Cincinnati, the old 1970s sitcom about a radio station in Cincinnati.

Tarlek was known for his checkered suits.

"That got a few scowls," Maddon said. "So I left it up to the guys."

Some suggestions:
Camouflage, which probably came from the boys in the bullpen. The Russ Springer, Chad Bradford crowd.

Some players suggested "business." The old suit and tie, dress for success-look, which would actually work since the Rays have to be all business if they hope to catch the Red Sox.

Still, I like my idea.

One step up and two steps back

You watch the way the Rays beat the Red Sox on Wednesday night and you think there is hope.

But you remember how they played Tuesday and you look down at the bullpen, and you think, no, no October to remember this year.

They lost Tuesday when the Red Sox took an early lead against Andy Sonnanstine, and Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon turned in the first six-out save of his career.

They won Wednesday because the offense, led by Carlos Pena, came alive after the bullpen blew the lead.

The Rays lose one day and you think they're done. They win the next night, and you think, "OK. Here they go."

The players talk of running off a string of victories. Their longest winning streak this season is five, which they've done twice.

They had two five game winning streaks last year. They also had two six game winning streaks and one that went seven games.

They Rays need to run off a string of wins now. They have to catch the Red Sox for the Wild Card lead as soon as possible, because the Sox close the season with 17 games against teams who are a combined 80 games under .500. It will be tough to catch the Red Sox when they hit that soft spot in their schedule.

This win one, lose one is going to get it done.

It's like Bruce Springsteen sang,

"We're the same sad story that's a fact,
One step up and two steps back."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Effort is great, wins are better

There was Joe Maddon late Tuesday night praising the effort after another loss, as if they keep count of effort in the standings.

No, the "E" in Tuesday's 8-4 loss to the Red Sox were the three errors the Rays made, which lead directly to two earned runs and aided another.

Starter Andy Sonnanstine, who pitched fairly well in some big games last season, said he could take some "positives" out of his outing, never mind his outing lasted two batters into the fifth inning.

Shame on you Andy. You know better than to say that when you pitched your team a step farther from a playoff spot.

Tuesday was the start of a crucial three-game, do-or-die series with the Wild Card-leading Red Sox, who also brought some effort of their own to the less-than-half-filled Trop. The Red Sox entered the game with a five-game lead over the Rays and left with a six-game lead.

Now, folks, that's effort.

At this point of the season, the Rays do not need "positives," they need wins. And if the effort doesn't end in victory, what's the point?

The old "E for effort" thing grew stale during Maddon's first two years at the helm, but actually was accurate, especially when you consider what the effort meant least season - a title in the toughest division in baseball and a trip to the World Series.

Sorry, Joe, you and the lads set the bar awfully high last season. No one is buying the "effort" line anymore.

How about showing a little frustration that the season is slipping away.