I rushed home from work last night to catch the first televised Rays game of the spring – against the Yankees in Tampa. Missed the top of the first (which is fairly usual for weekday afternoon games), but caught the rest of what turned out to be the Rays’ second straight loss to start the spring…
Wisely or not, I decided to stay up and watch last night’s effort – partly because I wanted to see Matt Garza’s debut, but mostly because I’m just plain excited at having baseball to watch again.
By the time that Jonny Gomes popped up to end the game however, I was left with a distinct feeling of deja vu.
If I’m honest, it wasn’t the greatest all-round performance by the Rays anyway. Two nicely timed homers (a 3-run Cliff Floyd shot, and a 2-run blast from Carlos Pena) aside, and it was a story of missed opportunities at the plate. Twice we loaded the bases – once failing to score with only one out, and once scoring only once despite having nobody out. You’ve got to convert in those situations.
That being said, in truth the six runs we did manage looked like they would, and indeed should have been enough. Garza pitched nicely without ever completely getting on top of the Orioles’ hitters, and, as often seems to be the case with the Rays, was hurt by the longball – a two-run shot by erstwhile Ray Aubrey Huff being the blow that saw him lifted in the sixth. But with a one-run lead, and Gary Glover and Dan Wheeler shutting down the rally through the seventh, and things seemed ok.
Despite all the changes, we are still the Rays, however. And I was wary of the way things were going from one (non-)decision in the top of the eighth. I suppose that the choice that Joe Maddon had was in a way a question of baseball philosophy. One run up, two innings left, do you want a good hitting outfielder or a good fielding outfielder in the game? Perhaps I’m biased because one of the players in question is Jonny Gomes. But look at the situation. One out, facing a difficult lefty (Jamie Walker), Nathan Haynes coming up. Now Haynes was in the team because left handed hitters beat up on Daniel Cabrera, the O’s starter. But now its a lefty – and of Haynes’ 48 ML plate appearances before last night, all but two had come against right handers. Which, while far from conclusive does indicate that maybe he’s not so good facing the lefty.
So what do you do? Do you pinch hit with Gomes, who hits 70 points better against leftys than rightys, and is actually a much better outfielder than people either realise or give him credit for. Or do you leave in Haynes, which is all but surrendering an out, because he plays superior defense. Now I don’t know about you, but I always do whatever I can to go after that insurance run.
Maddon of course saw things the other way, and Haynes struck out rather pathetically on three pitches. And, just to rub salt in the wound, he went on to make an error, misplaying a Huff drive of the wall in the bottom of the inning, ultimately leading to another Baltimore run.
Not that I’m blaming Haynes for the loss. Or Maddon for that matter – although once again he showed his rather worrying habit for leaving a pitcher in when it was clear he didn’t have his stuff. The guy in question last night was Al Reyes, who coming into the game in his new setup role, walked the first hitter he faced on 4 pitches. Even watching on TV it was obvious that Reyes just could not find his groove, and by the time there were two men on and Huff was at the plate, the right course of action was pretty clear. Bring on the lefty from the ‘pen (we’ve got two of them this year!) and look for the ground ball double play to escape the inning.
But he didn’t, Huff doubled, and by the time the inning was over the O’s had turned a 6-5 deficit into a 9-6 win.
If I sound overly frustrated about all that, then its most probably because I’m tired. And I know that its early days, but if the Rays are serious about progressing up the standings, then we absolutely have to be able to close out games when we have a lead going into the home stretch. Especially against teams like the Orioles.
Expected news from the Rays yesterday, as the announcement was made that CC’s option for 2009 has been picked up, while Rocco Baldelli’s has been declined. Obviously given his situation, the decision over Rocco’s option is no surprise – though like many fans I’m sure I do hope that we haven’t seen him in a Rays uniform for the last time.
Of course picking up CC’s option was an even bigger no-brainer. At $8.25million, he will still be one of the biggest bargains around, and I for one hope that he will be in St Pete for years beyond this current contract. Though for the stat-watchers there is obviously a big question mark hanging over him this year – his 5-year streak of increased batting average is getting tougher and tougher to keep going. It was up to .315 in 2007, and you know what, I think the smart money could be on a .316+ year in ’08!
We’ve also signed Dan Wheeler to a 2 year extension which, considering the cost – $10m – is an encouraging sign that the bullpen is a serious focus. Its one of the last pieces of the puzzle, and Wheeler is the sort of solid pitcher that we need to have around for the late innings.
Meanwhile, tonight Matt Garza makes his Rays debut, and I am looking forward to it. Midnight first pitch UK time, so whether I watch tonight or tomorrow is still to be decided – it will probably depend how awake I need to be for work in the morning!
In other news, I have set up a parallel Rays from across the pond over on Blogspot. The thing I’ve always liked about MLBlogs is the traffic that can be generated for even a relatively obscure blog like mine, but at the moment I’m not convinced that thats going to continue to be the case. So I figured that while I see how things play out, I may as well take advantage of the easy customisability (possibly not a real word) on offer there and start cross-posting to see which I prefer. Hopefully if things work out, and the issues here are sorted then I will continue the main Rays-watching here, and add in some more wider-baseball world posts over there. But we shall see.
Ok, so here we go. 2008. So many things to talk about.
Baseball first, as it should be of course. And I would firstly like to thank the Orioles (and in fact baseball in general) for scheduling openers as day games. This meant that I could watch the Rays take on the O’s at a very reasonable 8.05pm start time. Nice.
As I’m sure you know, James Shields got the nod for the Rays in Kaz’s absence, and a very good job he did too. After a somewhat shaky first inning (understandable in the circumstances) in which he threw 28 pitches and gave up two runs, he was lights out from there on. Final line – 7 innings pitched, 5 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks and 2 K’s. And perhaps most encouragingly, despite not having his best stuff, only 86 pitches in total – if he can keep that up once his arm is stretched out more then several complete games are sure to follow.
Coming in behind Shields, Trever Miller, Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler pitched 2 innings for just a solitary hit, which while not indicative of anything is of course a positive start considering the shambles that was our ‘pen in 2007.
Then we come to the hitting. And I will start on a slightly disappointing note for me. As anyone who has read this blog in the past will know, I was looking forward to Jonny Gomes getting regular play out in right. But while I wouldn’t swap him for anyone (and scroll down to number 18 on this list for just an example of why), even I recognise that he is a little bit too all-or-nothing. I still think he can achieve big things given the chance, but once again he will be sharing playing time this year.
And the man he will be splitting right with is something of a surprise – Eric Hinske. A non-roster invitee, Hinske had a great spring, and deservedly got the start on opening day. He didn’t disappoint either, belting a fourth-inning line drive homer. That shot extended what had become a Rays lead in the second thanks to a swinging-bunt by CC and a 2-run single by BJ Upton. Jason Bartlett and Dioner Navarro added RBI-singles in the 6th to round off a 6-2 win to put the Rays proudly atop the AL East. Navvy had a very strong day at the plate, going 3-4, as well as collecting a stat that I’m guessing we won’t see very often from him – caught stealing at home plate! Part of a double-steal of course, but still…
All in all, it was a very encouraging start – nothing to get too excited about of course, but with the exception of a shaky first the all round performance was very solid. Hopefully its going to stay that way!
As its the start of a new season, there are of course many things changing, and one of them is, I’m afraid, going to result in one of my semi-regular complaints about MLB.tv. Now don’t get me wrong, I love that I can watch the Rays from an ocean away, but seriously guys, you don’t do yourself any favours. My complaints today are twofold – firstly I assume that MLB.tv are hoping that people switch to the Silverlight media player. Well, I would be happy to try it, except that it won’t install on my old computer. Fine, I can live with that. Except that the Media Player no longer has the nice options for resizing the picture. Last year (and during Spring Training) you could watch it at the standard half-window size, expand it to the full window, or make it full-screen. Now the full window option has been removed and the full screen option is the native media player zoom, resulting in poorer quality. Why take options away?
The second issue is that judging from last night’s game, MLB.tv is now presenting its games in widescreen. Ok, so I don’t have a widescreen monitor, I’m going to have big black bars at the top and bottom of the picture when I watch fullscreen. I can just about live with that. But when, as was the case last night, the game isn’t shown in widescreen anyway, that means I have the black bars on both sides as well – leaving me with a picture that takes up maybe 70% of the screen rather than all of it. Now I don’t know how many games are now transmitted in widescreen, but I’m guessing that most of the ones that are shown on local networks are not. Which means I’m going to have to put up with small pictures and big black borders this year. Nice.
Ok, rant over, and onto the new blogosphere. First impression – I like the look. Its definitely eye-catching. But its going to take a while to figure everything out. I also think it would have been nice to give a bit more of a heads-up to existing users – would an e-mail have been too much to ask? I don’t think I’m alone as well in wishing there was a user-guide to the new interface somewhere around here… but I’m sure that these little things will get easier soon.