"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Tampa Bay Rays
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Goose Eggs

Phil Hughes pitched well. Jeremy Helickson pitched better–changed speeds beautifully and had control–to the tune of 3 hits over 8.2 innings. Nice way to celebrate his 25 birthday.

Rays 3, Yanks 0.

The Yankees hit the ball hard again but without any luck–right at fielders. Then bupkis the few times they had runners on base. Bum luck and it’s just one of those things, man. It won’t last.

Raul Ibanez made an error that led to a run, Hughes and Boone Logan gave up solo dingers. And that was that.

So, a lost weekend in Tampa to start the year. Drag.

At least the Knicks won an exciting game against the Bulls at the Garden. Forty-three for Melo, including two huge three pointers, one at the end of regulation, another near the end of overtime.

Yo, where’s the holiday candy at?

Magic Number Shmagic Number

Freddy Garcia

Freddy Garcia suffered his first loss since July 15th. (Photo Credit / Darren Calabrese - Canadian Press)

Author’s Note / Excuse: Apologies for the delayed post. If you need further proof that the NFL, not Major League Baseball, is the National Pastime, try getting online between 1 and 4 p.m. on a Sunday to access photos from a baseball game to include in a recap. The requisite sites were performing at speeds not seen since 1997.

Threads in this space, elsewhere in the Blogosphere, the Twitterverse, Facebook — basically anywhere you search for Yankees information — have featured criticism of Joe Girardi for managing passively over the past week and a half. That judgment was typically reserved for his bullpen maneuvering, specifically in the one-run losses in Baltimore, Anaheim and Seattle, and then again in the series opener at Rogers Centre Friday night. Not as prevalent in those threads was that the “A” lineup, while physically present on the field, was doing little to help the winning cause.

Then on Sunday, with the Yankees’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot at five, the starting lineup looked more like one you’d see in mid-March than mid-September. Girardi has stated publicly that he’s been looking for places to give the regulars some rest. The counter, “Win the games, win the division, secure the playoff spot and then rest people.” And so it was that the only regulars in the starting lineup were Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, A-Rod and J Martin.

The result was a feeble, fundamentally unsound 3-0 defeat that left the Yankees 4-6 on this season-long 10-game, four-city road trip. Brandon Morrow dominated the Yankees, striking out seven and walking only one. The Yankees had five hits, only two of which left the infield. Like in the early going Saturday, they ran themselves out of potential scoring opportunities. In the first inning, with Eduardo Nuñez Nuñez on second and Robinson Canó on first, Canó was thrown out on the tail end of a double steal. Later, in the top of the sixth, Nuñez, who Michael Kay and John Flaherty lauded on the YES telecast during his first at-bat, once again incited fans’ ire by inexplicably trying to turn a single into a double. Nuñez hit a clean single to rightfield. Nuñez tried to catch Jose Bautista napping, but it didn’t work. Bautista fired behind the runner to first base, where Edwin Encarnación fired to second to catch Nuñez by a mile. Inning over, potential rally over. Nuñez’s one-out double in the ninth inning marked the only other time in the game the Yankees had a runner in scoring position.

Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia surrendered three runs on five hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings, and he made a throwing error that contributed to one of the three runs. In short, Garcia did little to pitch himself into consideration for either five-man rotation over the final two weeks of the regular season, or the playoff rotation.

Other things we learned …

* The Ghost of Raul Valdes, who pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh, may have shown that he could be the Yankees’ LOOGY over the next two weeks and into the postseason.

* The Yankees’ bullpen, in the last two games, pitched 9 1/3 innings of shutout ball. The group allowed just two hits and walked four — three by Scott Proctor — in that span.

* The Rays are white-hot. They beat up the Red Sox again and are surging toward a September comeback to rival the 2007 Colorado Rockies. The Yankees have a six-game edge over the Rays in the loss column, which may seem cushy with only 10 games left, but this week’s series at Yankee Stadium cannot be taken lightly. Depending on Monday’s result against the Minnesota Twins, sweeping the Rays would clinch that coveted playoff spot for the Yankees, leaving next weekend’s series against the Red Sox open for clinching the division.

This week features the games the regulars get paid the big money to play. Let’s see how the manager and the team respond.

Magic kit

 

Rays Update: Hair, Catwalks, and Kyle Farnsworth With A Crossbow

These days, the Rays are the Yankees’ rivals every bit as much as the Red Sox are. So in the know-your-enemy spirit, and given all the renewed Rays interest sparked by friend-of-the-Banter Jonah Keri’s new book “The Extra 2%,” I figured I’d gather up some recent developments down in Tampa.

Yep.

First of all, Rays manager Joe Maddon is awesome. I’m sorry, but he is. I loved his golf pants efforts last season, and he’s still in full support of his players getting goofy with their personal appearance:

I might have preferred to get an “almost” in there before the “wherever,” but I applaud the sentiment. Although I think we’ve all seen by now that ballplayers hardly need much encouragement to grow fantastically horrible facial hair.

Last season, Maddon complained when the Trop’s bizarre house rules cost the Rays a run, after a pop-up hit one of those oddly placed catwalks and went for a single–saying the team needed “a real baseball field.” He subsequently apologized to the injured party via Twitter:

“most recent whine was my getting on Trop roof, have since apologized to said roof and r now on much better terms, maybe best ever…”   RaysJoeMaddon

Now, the Trop’s bizarre, byzantine ground rules are changing… or, rather, changing back to what they were before last fall’s Division Series. TampaBay.com explains, sort of:

At the request of Major League Baseball, the 2011 regular season ground rules pertaining to the catwalks at Tropicana Field will revert back to the language that was used during 2010 regular season. Tropicana Field’s ground rules were changed prior to the 2010 American League Division Series. 2011 Tropicana Field Ground Rules.

BULLPEN AREA
- Ball lodging on, under or in the bullpen seating area: OUT OF PLAY. A ball is deemed to be lodged when it goes in or behind equipment or seating or, in the umpire’s judgment, is deemed otherwise unplayable.
- Ball enters the bullpen seating area and rebounds out of the seating area: IN PLAY.
CATWALKS, LIGHTS AND SUSPENDED OBJECTS
- Batted ball strikes catwalk, light or suspended object over fair territory:
- Batted ball that strikes either of the lower two catwalks, lights or suspended objects in fair territory: HOME RUN.
- Batted ball that is not judged a home run and remains on a catwalk, light or suspended object: TWO BASES.
- Batted ball that is not judged a home run and strikes a catwalk, light or suspended object in fair territory shall be judged fair or foul in relation to where it strikes the ground or is touched by a fielder. If caught by fielder, batter is out and runners advance at own risk.
- Batted ball strikes catwalk, light or suspended object over foul territory: DEAD BALL
Previous rule:
- Batted ball strikes catwalk, light or suspended object over fair territory:
- Batted ball that strikes either of the lower two catwalks, lights or suspended objects in fair territory:
HOME RUN.
- Batted ball that strikes either of the upper catwalks, lights or suspended objects in fair territory: DEAD BALL and the pitch does not count. Any declaration of an Infield Fly after the hit shall be nullified.

You know what, Maddon was right the first time: that team does need to get themselves a real ballpark. Damn.

Finally, a Marc Topkin profile of our old frenemy and current devilish Ray Kyle Fransworth last week turned up several facts about the man of which I was not aware:

  • He lives in the Disney owned and operated town of Celebration, Florida.
  • He is a non-practicing Mormon.
  • He has been sober for the last two years, after some hard drinking in his younger days.

The article’s overall tone is generally one of “oh look, he’s not actually that terrifying, he bakes holiday cookies!” but it undercuts that point with details like this:

Farnsworth’s 2003 technically perfect pursuit, tackle and takedown, plus subsequent pummeling, of Reds pitcher Paul Wilson — captured in photographs and still-popular video — remains his greatest hit, though a similar 2005 tussle with Royals reliever Jeremy Affeldt is close.

“He went crazy wanting to fight everyone,” said Affeldt, now with the Giants. “I’ve been in the weight room with him after that working out, and there’s no bitterness. It’s like it never happened. Kind of weird.”

And:

That competitiveness and machismo thread runs through everything he does: high-intensity workouts, martial arts training, marksmanship, paint ball and his beloved hunting, as he switched from gun to crossbow five years ago to make it more challenging as he pursues deer, turkey and hogs on his 2,500-acre plot in Georgia that is his favorite getaway.

Sober cookie-baking Disney mormon or not, the image of Kyle Farnsworth running after a hog with a frigging crossbow is quite a vivid one.

Old Friends Are Best

Six years ago if you’d told me Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon would, in 2011, both sign relatively inexpensive one-year contracts with the Tampa Rays, it would have been jarring. Really, it’s still a bit jarring. Time and change come to us all, yet it’s odd to think how quickly yesterday’s superstars become today’s late-offseason bargains: Manny Ramirez made $20,000,000 last year, and last week he signed for $2,000,000. He didn’t get old overnight, but he started getting paid like an old player overnight. He is still only 38.

The real winners of this move are the few, the proud, the Tampa beat writers and columnists, whose clubhouse just got about 12 times more interesting: Damon is outgoing and easy to talk to and always sticks around to offer goofy quotes, and for a player who rarely talks to the media, Manny manages to provide plenty of material. Not that either new acquisition is destined to be useless, by any means. Damon had quite a lousy 2010, by his standards, but still produced more than the average left fielder, and is a clever enough hitter that he’ll be finding his hits here and there even after his bat speed and power deteriorate further; Manny fell off too, but I wouldn’t want to see him up against my team in the late innings with the game on the line, and I doubt too many pitchers would either. With that said, Damon was, even four or five years ago, not the best fielder- I remember bleacher fans at the Stadium joking about his “perfect 20-hoppers to first” – and hasn’t gotten better with wear and tear, which means right-handed visiting hitters may find their BABIP getting a nice boost in Tampa next year. Manny, of course, will probably not be seen in the outfield unless he jogs out there to urinate between innings.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Damon is getting paid more than twice as much as his brother-in-hair, even though he’s nowhere near twice as good a player as Ramirez, and just one year younger; I can only assume that Manny’s positive steroid test played a role, and perhaps the lingering ill-feeling after his acrimonious breakup with Boston (where he was more or less accused, at various times, of faking or exaggerating an injury, missing spring training to make promotional appearances, and shoving an elderly traveling secretary to the ground). When I mentioned these signings to a friend, her first thought was that Tampa might be looking for veteran leadership on their young team, and she wondered if it was really a good idea to have Manny try and full that role. But I don’t think any team’s management would view Man-Ram as that kind of figure, although you could do a lot worse that having young players watch the way he hits. I think he’s there for his pop, as well as his talents as a box-office draw and attention grabber. I have a hard time imagining that he won’t give the Rays their $two million’s worth.

For more analysis check out Jay Jaffe over at Pinstriped Bible, talking about how the additions of Damon and Ramirez give the Rays flexibility. I know it’s way too early to surmise anything, but on this frigid winter day I’m not loving the Yankees’ odds against Tampa or Boston.

—-

And speaking of old friends… Bill Clinton had dinner in Miami last week with Alex Rodriguez and Cameron Diaz. While none of those people are on my “If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?” list, I have to admit that, like the nymag.com headline, I’m curious about what they might have talked about. Other than “so, being incredibly rich: pretty cool, eh?”

Schadenfreude: scha·den·freu·de, noun, often capitalized \ˈshä-dən-ˌfrȯi-də\

Congratulations are in order for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are on the verge of acquiring one Kyle Farnsworth for the low, low price of, per Buster Olney, 3.25 million dollars plus an option.

Oh, where do we start. How about with evil maniacal laughter?

Now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, I think this is both good and bad news for the Yankees. Good news because it is entirely possible that the Rays will call in Farnsworth to try to protect close leads, which is likely to mean a lot of heartbreaking late Rays losses on towering home runs. Bad news because now it would be a really, really bad idea for New York to start any kind of scuffle with Tampa. Yankee batters better be nice and respectful and not crowd the plate.

In fact, Farnworth has pitched very well against the Yanks on multiple occasions, and had some very good years along with his bad, and supposedly has a new approach these days that involves throwing fewer  sliders that don’t slide directly down the middle of the plate… and so he may not end up being a terrible pickup for the Rays. Conceivably.

Nevertheless, [rubbing hands together sinisterly] MWA HA HA HA HA HA!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, R-E-T-I-R-E-M-E-N-T

AP Photo

In this confusing, turbulent world of unceasing change, it is always reassuring to know that a few precious things will always stay the same. Among these rocks in the surf  is Gary Sheffield, who as you may recall is 42 years old now and did not play last year, but met with Joe Madden at the Winter Meetings to explore the idea of making a comeback with the Rays. Apparently the Rays never followed up on this, with the result that Sheff is “99.9%” sure he’ll retire, and also, of course, is feeling “a little disrespected.”

As you’ll probably recall, Gary Sheffield feels disrespected when the wind blows, or when a bunny looks at him the wrong way. Not to get all Psych 101 on you but I always figured that was how he kept himself motivated. And I imagine he could be a real headache to manage, but I always loved watching the man hit. He had the perfect at-bat music the last year or two of his Yankee career (Ludacris’s “Move, Bitch,” a song I often wish I could blast while trying to push through the thick swarms of slow tourists outside my office building), and it would pump up the crowd while hapless third-base coaches and players cowered as far from the likely path of his scalded liners as they respectably could.

If this is the end for Sheff I wish him all the best, and I hope he finds a good post-playing outlet for all that competitiveness and bad-ass energy.

Up Against It

The Rays need to win today or else their season is over. I figure Matt Garza will give them a good start and they’ll live to see another day.

[Picture by J. Parthum]

Did You Expect Anything Less?

Or anything more, for that matter?

The Yanks and Rays have battled for first place all season long so it is entirely fitting that the Division Crown comes down to the final day of the regular season. If both teams win (or lose), the Rays take it.

Time to put a halt to the forgettable baseball that has been played around these parts for the past month. Starting this week, either at home against the Rangers or on the road against the Twins, the Yanks will defend their title. Either way, we’ll be root-root-rooting our hearts out.

Starting…now:

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

[Picture by Bags]

Home Alone

The Rays are good, really good. But their park is empty. Ken Belson has the depressing details in the Times.

Rays-ing to the Occasion

On my way home from work, I flipped on ESPN Radio as Michael Kay was interviewing Andy Pettitte. Midway through the conversation, Kay asked Pettitte which was the bigger priority: simply making the playoffs, or winning the division.

Pettitte’s answer was telling.

“Obviously, you just want to get to the dance,” he said. “But as for me, I want to win the (American League) East. I think we’re the best team in the East, so why not go out and win it?”

Pettitte has been a part of 11 playoff teams, including 8 Division winners, in his Yankee career. Certain Yankee players, and definitely manager Joe Girardi, would not be as candid as Pettitte in their replies to a similar question. So to hear that level of honesty was refreshing.

And for the first part of this four-game grudge match against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pettitte’s teammates have answered the call to push for a division title. Tuesday’s 8-3 win increased the Yankees’ AL East cushion to 2.5 games, thereby guaranteeing that they’ll be in first place when the Red Sox enter town this weekend to close out the home schedule. The Orioles’ 9-1 romp at Fenway put the Red Sox a little further in the rearview mirror.

Speaking of the Red Sox, these Yankees-Rays series are bearing a strong resemblance to the classic Yankees-Red Sox battles in the late 1990s through the middle part of this past decade, aren’t they? The games are long, action-packed, loaded with playoff-level intensity. You could sense that even games like this one, where the Yankees sprinted to a 5-0 lead after one inning, would have its share of nerve-wracking moments. The Rays have made a habit of coming back from big deficits, home-run prone Phil Hughes was on the mound, and Mariano Rivera was likely unavailable after throwing 25 pitches Monday.

I’ll admit it: I’m still not sure what Hughes will provide on a per-start basis other than throwing a lot of pitches, give up a home run or three, and maybe last five or six innings. Based on his last few outings, what I wanted to watch closely on Tuesday was his handling of batters once he got ahead in the count, specifically 0-and-2. He had six 0-2 counts, and allowed two walks, a loud flyout to right, and had three strikeouts. Hughes struck out six overall.

Hughes demonstrated a level of guts that proved why he will likely be in the starting rotation come October. There were three specific occasions where Hughes went into “grind” mode:

1) Top 3, Yankees up 5-1, two out. After Hughes issued a wild pitch on ball four to Carl Crawford that allowed the lead runner to advance to third, Evan Longoria delivered an RBI single to cut the lead to three. That brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Dan Johnson, who hit two prodigious home runs off Hughes last Thursday in St. Petersburg. Hughes won this battle, getting Johnson to ground out to Mark Teixeira to end the threat.

2) Top 4, Yankees still up 5-2, one out. BJ Upton bounced back to Hughes for what should have been an inning-ending 1-6-3 double play, but they only got the force at second, thanks to a gross miscommunication at second base between Robinson Canó and Derek Jeter. Knowing his trusted middle infield tandem gave the Rays an extra out, Hughes had the demeanor of Dante from “Clerks” for the next two batters (“I’m not even supposed to BE here today.”), loading the bases on a single to Jason Bartlett and a walk to John Jaso. Two pitches later, Hughes got out of the jam by inducing a soft grounder to first from Ben Zobrist.

3) Top 6, Yankees still up 5-2, two out. Hughes reared back and fired a 92-mph, Eff-You fastball right down the pipe that Upton swung through.

That pitch had the look of being Hughes’s last one of the night … until Girardi sent him out there for the seventh. My first thought: “Bad Idea Jeans.” Sure enough, Bartlett led off with a single and advanced to second on Jaso’s groundout. Girardi then removed Hughes for Javier Vazquez. My first thought: “Bad Idea Jeans.” And sure enough, Carl Crawford floated a single to left to drive in Bartlett and bring up Longoria with Vazquez and his intimidating array of whiffleball pitches keeping the lead intact. It should be noted that at this point, I was mentally prepared to scrap my original angle and rewrite the recap featuring an all-out assault on Girardi’s bullpen management, but Vazquez got Longoria to hit the ball on the ground. Inning over. Quality start preserved, lead preserved.

The offense responded with two more runs, only to have Vazquez and Joba Chamberlain do their best impressions of John Wettleand circa 1996 on the Rays’ next turn at bat. Chamberlain, with the bases loaded and one out, Houdinied his way out of it by striking out pinch-hitter Brad Hawpe and getting Jaso to fly out to center.

An extra insurance run in the eighth courtesy of back-to-back two-out doubles by Brett Gardner and Jeter provided the final margin, as Chamberlain pitched a stress-free ninth. Not until that last out was recorded, though, was there any relief.

Pettitte believes the Yankees have the best team in the division. They may be, provided they maintain the level of production in clutch situations they showed Tuesday — 5-for-10 with runners in scoring position, seven runs scored with two outs — continue to receive quality starts through the rest of the rotation and get capable relief pitching.

A sweep, which is still in the offing, would almost solidify Pettitte’s theory.

Rumble in the Bronx

All season long it’s been Yanks-Rays, Rays-Yanks. Now, the two teams play four games in the Bronx. First place is at stake.

This is what it is all about. And that’s word to Joe Torre.

Never mind the preamble:

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

[Photo Credit: Joe Conzo Jr]

We Know Drama (and Twitter)

So much happened in the 25-minute span from 10:30 p.m. ET to 10:55 p.m. ET, in Tuesday night’s Yankees-Rays game. Five plays, specifically, spread over seven outs. All with the specter of a fifth straight Yankees loss and 1 1/2-game deficit in the American League East. Thanks to Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada, Carl Crawford and Greg Golson, the Yankees earned a split in the first two games of this three-game set in St. Petersburg and vaulted back into first place.

First, Granderson’s incredible diving catch robbed Ben Zobrist of an extra-base hit — possibly a three-bagger or even an inside-the-park homer — to end the ninth inning, bail out David Robertson and send the game into extras. Three pitches later, Jorge Posada repositioned a Dan Wheeler fastball into the restaurant above center field to give the Yankees the 8-7 lead. Posada’s bomb sent the Yankees’ Twitter universe into upheaval as beat writers, columnists and bloggers — myself included — attempted to describe the sudden turn of events in 146 characters.

Mark Feinsand of the Daily News called the shot “ridiculous.” Our friends at RiverAveBlues guessed that Posada’s blast “probably would have hit the restaurant glass in the Bronx.” I wonder if it would have been out at Yankee Stadium I?

Bottom 10, enter Mo to close it against Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce. Crawford reaches on a single. Longoria also unloads to center. “Holy cow, that looked gone. Instead, Granderson catches Longoria’s drive at the track in dead center,” read the tweet from the Ledger’s Marc Carig. Crawford, however, made the first of his two base running gaffes here. Instead of tagging and ending up on second base, Crawford went too far, and was forced to retreat to first. He proceeded to steal second. This set up the second Crawford gaffe: Joyce hit a high fly ball to shallow right field, and if you watched closely, you could see the play developing as Golson sped to circle the ball in order to catch it in optimal position for the throw to third base. Crawford sped toward third and Golson fired what Michael Kay called a “laser” to third. Alex Rodriguez picked the throw on a short hop and tagged Crawford on the shin.

Game over. Arms raised. Fist pumps abound.

Carig later reported via Twitter that Golson didn’t think Crawford was going. Granderson was yelling from center field to alert him. Watching the whole series of events, I can only think of my father’s assessment of Rickey Henderson, and how he used to scoff at broadcasters who lauded his base running skills. Dad was, and is, of the opinion that Rickey was a great hitter, great athlete, great base stealer, but a terrible base runner. He didn’t tag when he was supposed to, he didn’t run hard out of the batter’s box, etc. Crawford’s hiccups are more of the lack of instinct. The Yankees made Crawford pay for his hubris.

It was one of the wildest finishes to what may have been the best regular season game the Yankees played since A-Rod’s walk-off home run beat the Red Sox in 15 innings last year.

* * *

Lost amid the hubbub of the last two innings was how events progressed to that point. Storylines heading into the game were as follows: 1) Four straight losses, two of them coming in disappointing extra-inning fashion, to relinquish control of first place for the first time since August 3. 2) Bullpen question marks. The Meat Tray and Chad Gaudin prominently involved. (To this end, Michael Kay recited a quote during the My9 telecast from pitching coach Dave Eiland: “Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” a not-so-subtle metaphor for the Yankees’ long-term thinking and plans to get the main horses for the bullpen healthy in time for the playoffs. Those horses will likely not include the Meat Tray or Gaudin. Back to the recap.) 3) Swisher and Gardner out of the lineup. 4) Tex with a broken pinky toe on his right foot. 5) Perhaps most flagrant, manager Joe Girardi says he’s gunning for the division but acting like he’s gunning to open the playoffs in Minnesota to face Carl Pavano’s mustache.

To add even more reasons to drive fans into a questioning frenzy, Girardi trotted out a lineup that was essentially 5 1/2 deep to support Ivan Nova, who was opposing Matt Garza, ye of the no-hitter.

The way both offenses started the game, though, combining to strand seven runners in the first two innings (four in scoring position), it was only a matter of time before the dam broke and the numbers got crooked in a hurry.

For the Yankees, that time was the third inning, when they exploded for four runs, the rally capped by a frozen rope of a home run by Robinson Canóo. In the fifth, an A-Rod home run and another tack-on run had many Yankee fans feeling comfortable with a 6-0 lead.

That was, until Nova lost the strike zone and coughed up the lead in the fifth. Willy Aybar’s pinch-hit home run — off a good 1-2 pitch by Boone Logan that was just golfed into the seats — cemented the 7-run comeback. The Yankees got the tying run right away, and then both bullpens took over. Before the Posada home run, three Rays relievers combined to retire 11 consecutive Yankees.

The Yankees’ relief arms were equally good. Logan, to his credit, retired four in a row after the Aybar home run and Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood and Robertson combined to allow just one base runner. Until he arrived for the ninth, Robertson had warmed up on three separate occasions.

The Yankees needed this win badly. Any shot of confidence will help, the way they’ve literally limped through the last week and a half. And if these two teams meet in the ALCS, we can only hope, as Ian O’Connor tweeted, that it goes seven games and each one resembles the first two games of this series.

Hit the Bricks Pal and Beat It (Boom Bap Remix)

The Yanks have lost four straight, seven of their last eight. They’ve been back-and-forth with the Rays for first place all season, a steady give-and-take, a dance. Now, the Rays are up by a half-game. But unless something horrible happens (the Red Sox trail the Yanks by seven games for the wildcard), they are both making the playoffs.

Tonight gives Matt Garza against the kid Nova, in his biggest test yet. Should be fun. I see the Bombers scoring some runs–don’t know if they’ll haul in the Score Truck, but more than enough to win.

Time to get back to the business of being in business.

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

Whoa, No

Over at SI.com, Tim Marchman asks if the Tampa Bay Rays are unusually prone to being no-hit?

Tampa Bay’s hitters are good, but they have a flaw: They are, essentially, a take-and-rake lineup. The team rates fifth in the American League in on-base percentage, but fourth from the bottom in batting average. They lead the league in both walks and strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances, and are fourth-worst in both groundball-to-flyball ratio and line drive percentage. Basically they draw walks, hit for extra bases and otherwise beat the ball into he ground, which is essentially what you would be looking for in a team especially liable to being dominated on a given afternoon.

Additionally, their home park is possibly the worst in baseball for the base hit. Tropicana Field has reduced base hits by about 11 percent compared to an average park this year; the Rays and their opponents have hit .256 away from Tampa Bay this year, but just .238 at the Trop. The only worse park for the base hit in the majors has been the Oakland Coliseum.

Tampa Bay Rays IV: Rev On The Deadline

As I type this, neither the Rays nor the Yankees has made a deadline deal, but that could change by first pitch with the non-waiver trading deadline of 4pm Saturday bearing down on us. Both teams are said to be looking for a designated hitter, but the Yankees are in more urgent need of a relief pitcher (though apparently not urgent enough to give Jonathan Albaladejo an extended look).

On first glance, it might seem the Yankees would be wise to stay in the DH market to cause problems for the Rays, who trail by just two games in the AL East entering this weekend’s three-game set at the Trop, but the real threat to their playoff chances is the Red Sox. Though the Sox are another 5.5 games behind the Rays, they are the second-place team in the Wild Card race and thus the team with the best chance of keeping either the Yanks or Rays out of the playoffs, and the Red Sox big target is relief pitching.

Of course, all of that is mere speculation for now. The hard facts are that the Yankees took two of three from the Rays in the Bronx two weeks ago to even the season series at 4-4, but the Rays have gained a game back in the interim by winning eight of ten and their last six in a row. The Yankees last visited Tropicana Field on the first weekend of the season, taking two of three from the Rays then as well.

In the second game of that series, the Bombers put up four runs in six innings against Wade Davis, who starts for the Rays tonight against Phil Hughes. Davis had more success against the Yanks in a rematch in the Bronx in May, and has been sharp of late, turning in three straight quality starts and posting a 3.47 ERA in his last eight games.

Hughes, meanwhile, seems to be wearing down a bit as the season progresses. He was effective in two of his last three starts, but those came against the lowly Royals and Mariners, while the Angels, Blue Jays, and Mariners in a previous turn got to him good in his other most recent starts. Going back to his start in CitiField on May 17, Hughes has posted a 5.47 ERA over 12 starts, though good run support has lifted his record to 7-3 over that span. However, it’s worth noting that two of Hughes’ recent duds came after his previous start was skipped. Five of his last eight starts on regular rest have been quality and a sixth saw him allow three runs in 5 1/3 innings. Hughes will be be on regular rest again tonight.

(more…)

Tampa Bay Rays III: Get On The Good Foot

It has been two months since the last meeting between the Yankees and Rays, the teams with the two best records in baseball who also happen to share the same division, but the two teams have 13 games against each other in the second half starting with this weekend’s three-game set in the Bronx. When they last met, the Rays padded their lead in the East by winning a pair of slugfests at the Trop by a combined score of 18-12, sending the Yankees packing five games out of first place. Since then, the two teams have switched places, with the Yankees entering this weekend’s set with a two game lead in the East, having thus gained seven games on the Rays in the last two months.

Introducing that last series, I wrote about how the Rays had played over their heads to that point, scoring more runs than their component offensive numbers would suggest thanks to some effective baserunning and clutch hitting. Indeed, the primary difference between the two teams thus far has been run production. The Rays and Yankees are one and two in the AL in both fewest runs allowed (Rays: 3.85 R/G; Yanks: 4.00 R/G) and defensive efficiency (Yanks: .714; Rays: .708). The big difference is is on offense, where the Yankees have scored 5.33 runs per game with potential for second-half improvements from Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and a healthy Jorge Posada, while the Rays have scored 5.05 runs per game despite slugging just .405 as a team, the ninth-best mark in the league, which suggests they’re more likely to head in the other direction.

The Rays have improved at catcher, as 26-year-old rookie John Jaso has solidified the position with his strong on-base skills (.274/.393/.377), while former Yankee prospect Dioner Navarro, now also 26, has been farmed out to Triple-A after hitting .216/.268/.314 in 531 plate appearances between last year and this. They have yet to solve the designated hitter spot, however. When they last met the Yankees, the Rays had just dropped Pat Burrell in favor of Hank Blalock, but since then they’ve released Blalock as well, turning to Matt Joyce, the outfielder they received from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson. Joyce has shown some on-base skills of his own, walking 11 times against just seven strikeouts in 15 games, he hasn’t actually hit yet. Altogether, the Rays DHs have hit .240/.307/.373 on the season.

That’s better than what they’ve gotten from Jason Bartlett at shortstop, but at least Bartlett contributes in the fiel . . . huh? What’s that you say about his UZR numbers this season? Oh. So why hasn’t Reid Brignac stolen his job yet? Bartlett hit what last season? And what makes you think that was anything but a fluke? Hello? Hello? . . . I think they hung up.

Where was I?

Oh, so yeah, the Rays’ offense has its problems. It’s basically Crawford, Longoria, some solid on-base rates from Jaso and Ben Zobrist (.385, but a .398 slugging), the occasional Carlos Peña dinger (he has 18, but is still hitting just .203/.321/.415), and some bonus stolen bases from B.J. Upton when he actually gets on base (.230/.320/.395, but 25 for 31 on the bases). Sean Rodriguez has some power and speed, which is nice from a second-baseman, but he’s drawn just six walks all year (one every 39 plate appearances!) and has a .302 OBP.

Still, with their pitching and defense, the former of which includes a deeper end game than the Yankees thanks to strong showings from hard-throwing 32-year-old righties Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit and spectacular work from newly imported closer Rafael Soriano (1.60 ERA, 4.14 K/BB, 23 of 24 save chances converted), the Rays remain dangerous, and this weekend’s series will likely be just an opening salvo in battle between the two teams down the stretch.

While I have my eye on Sunday’s game, which pits veteran lefty Andy Pettitte against tyro southpaw David Price, both whom ranked among the top pitchers in the league in the first half, tonight’s game presents a far more favorable pitching matchup for the Yankees. It’s not that James Shields is a pushover, though he’s struggled of late, going 1-3 with a 6.29 ERA in his last four starts allowing at least four runs each time out and going 2-7 with a 7.66 ERA over his last nine appearances (eight of them starts, one a throw-day relief appearance in extra innings). It’s more that CC Sabathia has looked unbeatable of late going 8-0 with a 1.81 ERA over his last eight starts, all of them quality, all lasting a minimum of seven innings. He has faced the Rays once this year, holding them scoreless for 7 2/3 innings back on April 10, and is pitching on normal rest having started the Yankees’ last game on Sunday, so there’s little reason to expect his rhythm to be disrupted.

More good news, Juan Miranda has returned to the team to boost the feeble bench, bouncing Kevin Russo back to Scranton and starting at DH tonight and batting eighth between Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. Jorge Posada is behind the plate, making this the best offensive lineup the Yankees have run out in some time.

The Yankees will honor Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner before the game. It seems fitting that they’re playing Tampa tonight given the Boss’s home base there and the added emphasis he always placed on beating the Rays. I expect the Yankees will do him proud tonight.

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Ray of Light

BJ Upton and Evan Longoria screamed at each other yesterday in the Ray’s dugout. The Rays are a frustrated team at the moment. Jonah Keri, who is writing a book on the organization, offers 10 Things the Rays should do to compete for the Whirled Serious.

What The Ray?

On Friday night, Edwin Jackson became the third pitcher to no-hit the Tampa Bay Rays in the last calendar year. No team has ever been no-hit three times in a 12-month span before. What’s more, the Rays are one of the best teams in baseball and have one of the top offenses in the game.

What gives? I search for an answer to that over at SI.com.

Tampa Bay Rays II: Do You Believe In Magic?

The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball and a three-game lead on the second-best Yankees in the American League East. At 28-11, the Rays are on a 116-win pace, and their run differential suggest they’ve been even better than that.

This trick is that, though the Rays have indeed been scoring a lot of runs, they’ve not been hitting much. Tampa Bay is second in the AL and third in the majors (behind the two defending pennant winners) in runs scored per game with 5.31, but they rank 17th in slugging, 18th in on-base percentage, 20th in batting average, and 19th in VORP. According to Baseball Prospectus’s Third-Order Winning Percentage, which figures a team’s expected record from run differential but takes the extra step of figuring their runs from their component parts (hits, walks, outs, etc.), the Rays should be “just” 23-16. That .590 winning percentage still puts them on a 96-win pace, but flips the standings with the Yankees three-games ahead at 26-13, a game better than the Bombers actual record and on a 108-win pace. That’s something to chew on the next two nights as the Yankees, even with a two-game sweep can’t catch the Rays in this series.

Looking at the roster, the only Rays who are hitting are Evan Longoria (raking at .318/.386/.596) and Carl Crawford (putting up a solid walk year at .313/.372/.510 with ten steals, though he’s been caught four times). Many expected a strong walk-year performance from Carlos Peña, but the man the Yankees let go has turned back into a pumpkin, hitting a mere .191/.310/.344. Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett are proving their 2009 power surges to be flukes. After combining for 41 homers a year ago, the don’t have a single long ball between them and are hitting a combined .257/.327/.346 on the season. Similarly, bounce-back candidates B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell haven’t bounced back. Upton is doing a fair job of replicating his miserable 2009 performance minus about 20 points of batting average, and the fork sticking out of Burrell’s back was causing so many issues with airport metal detectors that the Rays just up and released him last week, replacing him with former Ranger Hank Blalock. Job shares at second base and catcher haven’t produced much either (.243/.310/.400 and .231/.336/.300, respectively).

Despite all that, the Rays have scored nearly 20 percent more runs than they should have thanks to some team speed and clutch hitting (.301/.378/.485 as a team with runners in scoring position compared to .221/.302/.351 with the bases empty). Don’t expect that to continue (in fact, it has already begun to tail off a bit as the Rays were leading the majors in runs scored not that long ago). That puts the onus on the pitching and defense.

Despite all that, the Rays are on a record win pace. Why? Pitching and defense, of course. Buoyed by the most efficient defense in the American League (in turning balls in play into outs, that is), the Rays have allowed a major league low 2.97 runs per game. To put that in perspective, no team in either league has allowed fewer than three runs per game over an entire season since 1972, when the Orioles and A’s both did it the year before the implementation of the designated hitter. Last year, the Dodgers and Giants were the stingiest teams in baseball in 2009 and both allowed 3.77 runs per game, as did the Blue Jays, who were the stingiest in 2008.

Rookie Wade Davis, who faces A.J. Burnett tonight, has the highest ERA of any of the Rays five starters. That inflated number is 3.38. As a group, the Rays’s starters, and they’ve only used five of them, have gone 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA while averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings per start. Three of those losses have been charged to Davis, and the Rays scored a total of five runs in those three loses. The Rays’ bullpen, meanwhile, has been merely the fifth best in baseball (by both ERA and WXRL).

The Rays can’t keep up that pace of run prevention, and they can’t keep scoring runs via clutch hitting alone, so it seems clear they won’t continue on their record winning pace. The only question is how much will they fall off their current pace, and can the Yankees take advantage. The two games this week will tell us a little, but not enough.

Jorge Posada is going for an MRI on his foot. Nick Swisher is still out with his sore biceps problem. Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera both threw about 30 pitches last night. Sergio Mitre is also unavailable having started on Sunday. So, Mark Melancon remains in the Yankees’ eight-man bullpen and the bench consists of Ramiro Peña. If the Yanks can split these two games, they should be pleased. Get ‘em next time, boys. Let the rest of the league (the Rays have yet to face the Twins, Tigers, or Rangers) and the law of averages soften them up a bit first.

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2010 Tampa Bay Rays

The story of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays over the last three years has been all about run prevention. In 2007, the last of their wilderness years, they allowed more runs than any team in baseball (944, 5.83 per game) and lost 96 games. That offseason they traded defensively challenged right-fielder Delmon Young for right-hander Matt Garza and slick fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett, and moved Akinori Iwamura to second base to make room for rookie Evan Longoria. Those moves, along with the mid-season acquisition of strong defensive right fielder Gabe Ross, upgraded their defense from the worst in baseball in 2007 (according to defensive efficiency) to the best in 2008, and filled a big hole in their rotation in the process. The result was that in 2008 the newly re-named Rays allowed the third fewest runs in baseball (671, 4.14 per game) and won 97 games and the American League pennant. Last year, some correction set in as the Rays fell just below the major league average by allowing 754 runs (one more than the Yankees) or 4.65 per game and finished third in the division with 84 wins.

The good news for the Rays is that, while all that was going on, their offense has developed into one of the most potent in baseball, ranking sixth in the majors with 4.96 runs scored per game last year, and there are reasons to expect a better performance from their starting rotation this year.

In 2009, Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine combined to make 38 starts for the Rays in which they posted a cumulative 6.32 ERA. This year, Kazmir is an LA Angel (and back on the DL) and Sonnanstine is being limited to long relief. Their places in the rotation have been taken by David Price, the top overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft, and Wade Davis, a third-round pick from 2004 who pitched well in a September call-up last year. I’m among those who believe that Price and Davis, both of whom are 24 this season, could be the top two arms in the Tampa rotation before long.

Price made 23 starts for the big club last year, and though he had his struggles, seven of his last 12 starts were quality, including two against the Yankees, and he went 7-3 with a 3.58 ERA over those dozen outings. There’s no doubting Price’s wicked left-handed stuff, which mixes mid-to-high 90s fastballs with sweeping curves some 20 miles per hour slower and changups and sliders, the latter being his best pitch, that split the difference.

Adding Price and Davis to Garza (26), James Shields (28), and 6-foot-9 sophomore Jeff Niemann (27) gives the Rays a strong, five-deep rotation that has the potential to compete with those of the Yankees and Red Sox despite the relative lack of star power. At the same time, Price and Davis, and to a lesser degree Niemann’s ability to follow up his strong rookie showing, are the keys to the Rays’ 2010 season.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver