Results tagged ‘ Scott Kazmir ’

Rays Show Confidence in Pitching Coach Jim Hickey……….Really?

Elaine Thompson / AP

Sometimes I truly think that the Rays Front Office loves to use subliminal and subversive messages to gather information on the public perception of an event or something that makes them go…..hmmmmmmm?  But I have to admit, this one move, this 180 degree change of heart that shows something towards Rays Pitching coach Jim Hickey keeps him here for another Rays season. And for the life of me, I do not see a solid reason while he is still employed by the Rays. And you know the local kool-ade drinking media will not voice their dismay over this action………..nope, they will remain wihin the party lines.

But I do not have Press Credentials, or even an inside information mole to give me things like them. I get my information from watching 80 games a year at the Trop., and every game that shows on the air. What could be their logical reasoning to let go of Hitting Coach, Steve Henderson today who’s Rays hitters only set new Team Records in homers, runs scored, RBI and stolen bases this season, but keep a Pitching Coach who’s starters and Bullpen relievers took a definite two steps backwards in 2009. I mean Hickey does have some Houston roots, so he might understand this next scenario without him having to have flash cards or pictures.

What has seemed to happen this season to the Rays pitching staff is akin to a guy doing the Texas two-step in a deep foxhole. You can go forward, you can go back, but only two step no matter what. And that is what his Rays staff has done most of the season. they have made slight improvements and altered their course in games, but the end result is always the same……..sometimes the “pitch to contact” system delivers up a long ball instead of a ground out or a double play ball for the defense. 

And if that system doesn’t work do you blame Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, or Rays Manager Joe Maddon? In reality you can put the check mark next to both names, because Friedman keeps Hickey and Maddon keeps believing in him. But in my mind, the only culprit here is the mechanic who tunes the system and makes it run smooth, clean and with a minimum of problems. And this season, Hickey looked more like an apprentice than a master craftsman.

Sure he got dealt a bad deal two years in a row when Troy Percival took his glove and went home to rehab, but at no time in the season did the team try and promote from within or try and isolate anyone to take over that role for the season. Other teams call on the veterans, or even a hot shot prospect with a cannon on his arm. At one point, the Rays signed Jorge Julio to a minor league contract maybe hoping he still has some gasoline in his tank. But the team instead adapted a much discussed and faulty plan of using pitching match-ups as a basis for the later innings.

Steve Nesius / AP

This works well when you base your Spring Training team on to this formula, and not adopt it in the middle of trying to stop a losing month, or keep a string of wins alive. The match-up system has to be nurtured and fcoused on totally, not just based on situational 8th, or 9th innings hitters. And with this team bascially only having three reliever that can be trusted with hitters from both sides of the plate, it makes your options a bit tighter in the games.

And who has to be the craftsman behind all of this, well the Pitching Coach. Sure Maddon and Hickey can go over situational devices and plan accordingly, but life doesn’t always go by the book, and Hickey doesn’t always give the same sage advice as Maddon. I actually can not see the correlation between these two at times. Maddon is the always thinking, mind turning a million miles a minute, and Hickey is just, well Hickey. I know Maddon does scribble a few hints and stats on his personal score sheet to check on later in the games, but I really do not see the collective brain trust in Hickey by his side.

Sure Hickey does the Rays pitchers Side Sessions and the Bullpen Session with his pitching staff, but I sometimes see more vocal words coming out of Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi’s mouth than Hickeys in relation to the pitches. I might not see the video work he does with “Chico” Fernandez to get these guys ready for a ballgame, and I do not know his personal preparation routine for game days. But what I do see is a guy who sometimes goes by the book more than his instinct and wisdom. The black statistics on that white printer paper might have a few highlighted marks on it, but i do not see him as a strategist in the least…………sorry.

So if a guys starters leave and do better in other locales, can you give credit to a guy that used to be their Pitching Coach, or do you question why they prospered away from the “pitch-to-contact” scheme of Hickey’s gameplan. How can Jason Hammel go from a hot and controled environment like the Trop and have a lower ERA in of all places, Coors Field in 2009.  Edwin Jackson was a stud in the making as a pitcher even before he went to Detroit in a trade. I mean the Rays considered him for the closer role before, and with the recent plight of Percival, why did they not consult E J  and see if he would take on the task?

And you know I am going to bring up Scott Kazmir and his seeking advice outside the organization from the man who was his first Pitching Coach in New York, Rick Peterson. Oh how that must have burned deep inside Hickey that he was not visually equiped to notice a small step adjustment for maximum velocity. I bet if they let him, he would have drove Kazmir to the airport that next morning and kicked him out of the rental car haflway there………..(just kidding, maybe).

Chris O’Meara / AP

So if the Rays Bullpen gets rebuilt in Hickey’s mold with the financial restrictions in mind, it might only be a tweaking of the current system. Even if Chad Bradford and Percivals money comes off the books, there might still not be enough to achieve a maximum upgrade, but it can be done.  But is Hickey the guy you want to entrust with that job, or is there someone within the Rays system like Xavier Hernandez, who has been fine-tuning the Rays Triple-A guys for several years.

I actually have more faith in Hernandez than I do Hickey based on what Hernandez did as the Rays snatched starters from the Bulls throughout the year and he still had the arms to take the Triple-A Championship. Gone by that time was David Price, and Hernandez manipulated the system when injuries to Mitch Talbot and other hit the Bulls staff. But still Hickey will be manning the pitching charts and books for the Rays in 2010. But how long will his luck go before he finally runs out of gas or chances with the Rays?

You know they took a big PR gamble a few years ago after the Rays last game of the season when he hit a Rays batboys truck at an intersection, and drove around the car and proceeded home. He was stopped by the St. Petersburg Police Department several miles dow
n the Interstate and did not act in all in the manners of the “Rays Way”.  

But Hickey showed remorse to the Rays Front Office and recieved a year contratc to show he was to change his ways.  And considering at that same time the Rays were going through a slew of “problem chld” situations with Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, they could have just sent him on his merry way and not looked back.  I hope that the Rays made thew right decision and that Hickey does make me regret this posting, but I do not think that is going to happen.


Maddon will not be able to sheild him again if the Rays starters or even the Bullpen falls on hard times. He will be directly in the crosshairs, and I think he knows it now. During the last home stand there was a guy in Section 136 that had a sign that read” All I want for Christmas is a Pitching Coach”.  Well, the Rays decided to retain their present Pitching guru, and the hot seat begins right now. Hickey needs to not only get this team to totally believe in his system now, but also the fans so he doesn’t hear the chants and the catcalls before the next All-Star break.

Maddon can not protect him now. I remember seeing a comment that he called Hickey “one of the best pitching coaches” Maddon has has in his career. Hickey is a bit younger than most of the sage PC in the league, but if his ‘pitch-to-contact” system doesn’t gel right in Tampa Bay in 2010, the contact he will feel is the swift kick in the behind as he leaves the clubhouse door.


Rays Ironman Done for the Year


Chris O’Meara / AP

Man, it has seemed like such a long season. It has truly been a struggle to sometimes remember some of the good times and the rough bad times, but one thing has remained consistent in 2009. You knew Rays starter James Shields was going to take the mound every 5 days no matter what happened. Rain or shine, you knew and counted on the guy who got the nickname “Big Game” James from a friend years ago to take the hill or the Rays. And one of the greatest highlights of the season was seeing Shields firmly establish himself as a constant force for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Last night as he took the mound for the 33rd start of the 2009 season, it is really remarkable if you scan behind the number on Shields in 2009. Some will shock and amaze you, while other statistics will just seem just plain “D-Ray” like in their stature. But above it all, he has truly gotten the title of “Ironman” on this team, and it is so deserved.  For in this down year. Shields has now crossed the 200+ inning mark for the third year in a row. To put that into total perspective, no other Rays pitcher has even done that feat more than once in their total Rays career.

After he finally exited the game in the 8th inning, he had already thrown 774.1 innings in his combined Rays career. Now look at that number for a minute, 774.1 innings can be translated into 2323 total outs.  And this is a guy who only entered his third full season with the Rays in 2009. The more you dig into his numbers, the more this guys impresses you. In the American League, Shields is one of only four pitchers to surpass that 200+ mark the last 3 seasons joining the Fraternity of Justin Verlander (Det), Roy Halladay (Tor) and Mark Buehrle (CWS), and if you want to go League-wide, he is one of only 9 to complete such a large task in the MLB during that same span adding the names of Javier Vasquez (Atl), CC Sabathia (Cleve/Mill/NYY),Dan Haren (Ari), Matt Cain (SF) and Bronson Arroyo (Cin) to the long list.

Quite an impressive group, and he doesn’t even get the acknowledgment of being the “ace” or number 1 guy for the Rays most nights.  His 33rd start last night also tied his 2008 record for most starts in a season and is only one start off the team record set by Scott Kazmir in 2007. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that Shields was dazzling the Rays scouts with his tremendous Arizona Fall League campaign where he posted a 1.74 ERA and struck out 29 batters, while walking just 2 during 30.1 innings. He capped that AFL season off with a win in the championship game for the Phoenix Desert Dogs.  The “Big Game” moniker has followed him for a long time.

And with his 8 innings last night, he finished the season with the most innings he has ever pitched in the MLB. Shields had garnered at least 215.0 innings the last three seasons, and his 8 innings tonight gave him a total of 219.2 innings in 2009.  The final tally still brought him 4.1 innings short of the Rays record of 224 innings set by Tanyon Sturtze back in 2002. So this feat has established the senior member of the Rays rotation to be a work horse of the Rays staff. Maybe we will see him in Sunday’s Finale as a relief pitcher to get the 4.1 innings? Probably not, but it would be exciting to see since he would have gotten his 5 days rest.

And Shields is totally okay with that notion. But the 2009 season has been a bit bitter sweet for him. He did post his 11th win to get his record close to .500 at 11-12 during last night’s game, but it is his first losing season as a starter in the league. He did experience a slight losing streak when he only went 6-8 in 2006 when he first burst upon the scene for the Rays, but from that spot on  he has enjoyed a 12-8 and a 14-8 record the last two seasons. And that 14 win mark in 2008 put him in a three-way tie with ex-teammate Edwin Jackson and the ex-Ray Rolando Arrojo for the Rays team record. Close , but no cigar for Shields.

Steve Nesius / AP

But 2009 has not always been kind to him. He saw his ERA spike upwards from his 3.56 total in 2008, to a lofty 4.14 ERA this season. It has been a rough and long season for his 4th year starter for the Rays. Shields did increase his strikeout total from 160 in 2008 to 167 this season. But it has been a year of constant adjustments for Shields in 2009 to get hitters out, and to find a new strategy on the mound with almost every hitter.  His 12 losses are a career high, but can be directly contributed to the fact that he has not gotten the run support he needed at times from his own team.

And to say he has been left out to dry this season is an understatement. When you are battling the opposition’s number one guy, you need your squad to produce runs to counter any problems you might be having on the mound that night. In 2009, the Rays hit only 4.38 runs per 9 innings during his starts. And in the offensive-oriented AL East, you need at least 5 runs a game to even stay on par with any of the divisions’ five teams. That 4.38 total is the 5th lowest support given to a starter in the AL this season, and the Rays have score 3 runs or less on 17 of his starts just this season.

But Shields can point to the run support as a contributing factor to his first losing season, but he also points to some un-Shields like consistency throughout the year. 2009 is the first season he has not thrown a complete game, and last season he threw back-to-back complete games at home against the Angels and the Red Sox. It has been eating at him that the year did not follow a familiar set-up, and Shields has been making  the needed adjustments on the mound all season, but  he still might end up the leading the AL in hits allowed with 239 this season. And the danger doesn’t end there.

Shields also in the Top 3 of runs scored against him this season with 113 total runs crossing the plate. And if he did not have enough to worry about already, he is tied for second in Home Runs Allowed this season with 29 homers. But there is a some brightness to all of these shadows right now for the young ace. This offseason he knows he might have to work on tweaking more command and control of his breaking balls, and might work with a few different grips to force some more movement out of his pitches. But when he reports for the 2010 Feb. Spring Training, he will fresh with a new attitude and goals for a breakout season.

So as he strolled from the mound after being replaced by Rays Manager Joe Maddon, the 10,554 rose to their feet and gave the Rays Ironman a standing ovation for his contributions to the Rays in 2009. Jame Shields has come a long way from being a 16th round selection in the 2000 June Draft by the Rays. He will be enter his fourth season in the majors next season, and has vowed to get back to his usual dominance in 2010. That might include a few extra minutes in his usual 3 1/2 hour workouts in the offseason, but the extra sweat and pitching groundwork might be the essence needed to push himself and the Rays back into the playoff hunt. 

Nam Y Hun / AP

2010 might be the season for the Rays to show that they are serious about contending every season, and the guy at the forefront of that explosion will be Shields. If he wants to remain the top dog in the Rays rotation, he will have to combine a bit more control along with a hint of pitching finesse in 2010. But Shields has answered the Rays call before, and will again and again  in the near future. It is not like the Rays have asked Shield to carry them on his back, but that is just an example of the level of commitment this young pitcher has to his team. He knows as far as he goes, this team goes in 2010. ‘Onward and upward” might be a motto for Shields next season, because you can surely picture him being the Opening Day starter for the second year in a row for the young Rays. 

Was Kazmir Andrew Friedman’s First Mistake?


 After I got home last night after the Tampa Bay Rays  victory, I did my usual routine of switching on the television after 1 am and the first thing to pop on the big screen was the celebration video of the Los Angeles Angels players partying like rock stars after they clinched the American League West. And within all that wild chaos on the video I saw a familiar face enjoying the moment. There among the red and white jerseys of his Angel teammates was their newest rotation member hoisting up a champagne bottle like he had done so many times before in the last year.

There jumping up and down and getting pelted time and time again with a jet stream of the  bubbly sweet nectar was ex-Ray Scott Kazmir. It was a bitter sweet moment for a Rays fan like me to see him getting that chance to again shine on the playoff front. But the silent events that unfolded behind the scenes to complete this trade to the Angels might actually have been the first honest mistake of  Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman’s  Rays career. 

There have been murmurs and innuendo coming from both Rays clubhouse and the 3rd floor offices since that trade transaction. That the Rays trade chattr device known to me as the “cloak of darkness” might have alienated not only fans, but some people within the Rays family. There have been more than idle chatter that the Rays Coaching staff was informed of the primary discussions, but as thing got more heated, they were left out of the loop in the process of this trade. Rays Manager Joe Maddon did have a hint of the Angels interest since they were biting at the bit back at the end of July for Kazmir. But during that latest development, it was thought he was on a “need to know” basis.

That most of the trade parameters were defined before Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s pre-game Press Conference, and the fact it was pushed back to 5:30 pm only heightened the anticipation of an “official” completion of the trade before that scheduled game against the Tigers. But what really showed the “cloak of darkness” in full effect might have been the disclosure by  St. Petersburg Times writer Marc Topkins  when he asked Kazmir in the Visitor’s locker room about the rumors, to hopefully dispel the rumors floatingf around, or get a great first reaction quote on the whole shebang, but Kazmir had no prior knowledge of anything brewing on anything at that moment. 

The media “cloak” has found its way into the Visitor’s locker room, and did not even include the main trade piece knowing anything about the proposed trade yet. Since Stuart Sternberg’s hand-picked group took over the everyday activities of the Rays, they have always employed a complete media “blackout” from discussions or even knowledge of things in the works concerning personnel decisions. It almost brings you to mind the dealings of traders on Wall Street to do not try and let any information out so that they can skirt problems with the SEC, and retain any questions of wrongdoing from the onset of an announcement.

And on that faithful night in Detroit, the Rays were still rock solid in their “cloak of darkness” motif about any sniffing around of any impending situationbetween the Angels and Rays. But the National media was not going to just sit around waiting for Friedman to finally announce anything, so they went to their Plan “B” and quickly consulted their trusted Southern Cali sources to began to decode the impending trade, and stay off the toes of the Rays management. The hunt for this “exclusive scoop” and “first-hand” information out on the deal was there for the picking, and they ran with it without a confirmation from the Rays. 

But even with the numerous reports filtering out of the Los Angeles area of a  strong deal in place, the Rays just remained completely silent. And that is when the real fiasco began to finally get legs of its own and was plastered wall-to-wall all over the Internet by sources like, and Sports Illustrated all  throwing out Tweets and web postings reporting without a doubt that the Kazmir deal was going on and that it was entering its final stretch run. And all during this time Kazmir was frantically on his cellphone trying to get a hold of his agent to get some personal confirmation or denial of the event unfolding like a flag online. Becuase if the rumors were true, then he had to quickly get himself mentally and emotionally ready for any timely decision by the Rays.

And credit has to go to Kazmir for staying under control and doing his usual pre-game routine and not falling into the trap of getting baited to give out  false information or any nibblet of quotes about things that were not made public. And that is where I think Friedman made his biggest honest mistake of the night.

Even if the discussion was just in the first chats or coming to the final  tweaking phases, it was would have said volumes if Friedman had taken Kazmir aside and told him some of the parameters so he could at least play along with the Rays usual “cloak” during trade conditions until the official announcement later that evening.

But they left the young leftie out to dry, and even as he was out tossing the ball around with fellow leftie David Price before the game, the wheels were turning somewhere above him to finish this trade before the game. The Rays great idea of moving back Maddon’s pre-game chat with reporters  was causing a flurry of activities to confirm or deny anything before the game. At this time, even a small reminder from Friedman or PR Vice President Rick Vaughn to the media that “Trade discussions and actions are not being played out in the media, and if we have something to say to you……we will call you” might have meant volumes to the anxious media crowd.

And so began a three hour flip flopping of Sports websites along the Internet super highway jockeying for position by both posting and pulling posts concerning the possible trade. The media giants were going forward and backwards at the same time trying to gain  a foothold on this story, but without any confirmation, it was pure speculation at the time. I wish I had saved a bevy of the postings to a MS Word note pad about the hundreds of posting and retractions within that small period of time of credited media journalists that were at the mercy of their weak sources in this transaction.

And all the while, Friedman remained silent and out of sight. In reality, he was probably boxed up in a suite upstairs away from media ears and eyes to finalize this with a minmal of trouble. He might have been aware of the media storm brewing below him, but it was minor compared to the deal he was trying to complete at the moment. The episode took on a huge life of its own for a few hours, and even during the pre-game analysis with the FSNFlorida/ Rays television  announcers, you could see a sense of nervous energy bouncing off of them as they tried to make sense of all the drama being played out on the electronic media sources.

And in the end, it was not even Friedman that told us of the trade, it was Rays “walk-about” guru Todd Kalas after the team issued a formal Press Release on the transaction during the Rays post-game show. I am sorry, but I wanted to hear it from Friedman’s own lips. That Kazmir was no longer a member of the Rays. I wanted to see his reaction to the room when the news broke “officially”. At that time, Kazmir was no longer in the Visitor’s locker room at Comerica Park. He had left to go back to the Rays team hotel and get things sorted out for his next step in the morning.

Even with all the multiple postings and various retractions of comments by the media giants, the deal went on and was completed before the end of the Rays game against the Tigers. But what a circus it must have been in the Press Box between the first to the last inning. You wonder how many of the assembled media people felt slighted, and how many of them were proud of their skills to at least sense the deal and report on it accordingly to the public. But in the end, the Rays silence might have cost them a bit of trust with the public.

People, do forget the true magnitude of getting that deal completed and not waiting until the next morning. The deal had to be sign, sealed and delivered to the MLB Offices in New York so that the Angels could choose the option of putting Kazmir on the post season roster. On September 1st, he would not have been able to be included on the roster. Could this deal have actually taken almost a month to complete? Could this whole thing have been on the back burner since the July 31st Trade Deadline with an eye on how Kazmir would rebounded on the mound, and both teams letting that deadline pass with no resolution on Kazmir, knowing they still had time to work out a deal?

I can understand, and  in a small way admire Friedman for trying to keep the Rays business quiet and uncomplicated until the final results were hashed out completely. But in this odd case of leaked intel, since the proposed deal had flowed through the seams of the Los Angeles Times, I would have thought it merited a little smoldering of the fire before it got out of control. And it quickly festered into a media frenzy that no one could get an honest answer good or bad out of the Rays camp. And in that moment, a simple seed of deception was planted within some people’s minds.

With the episode done and gone now for almost a month, I look back and see the perils and the pitfalls that the Rays could have avoided and not made the Rays fans, and some of their own team feel alienated by their front office. Sure there are still unanswered questions that plague the event of that night. You want to know Friedman’s true reasoning for not even shooting down the untrue rumors or even acknowledging the truth after it was put out in the open. You want to believe all was done to protect Kazmir and the organization from unfounded speculations and rumors.

But the true fact is now it brings Friedman down to earth in my mind. He is no longer the “boy genius” some people have labeled him. Like so many other MLB GM’s before and after him, this is going to be a event that will follow him for a long time. Some things might have been played different, but in the end, some will see this whole episode as a honest mistake in keeping the Rays party line strong and not bending to the media wants and desires. 

Opinions will vary on if the trade was done the right way from top to bottom. My personal opinion is that it made him human, it made him someone who might do it a bit different if he does it again, and that is part of the learning process of his chosen position. Even if he stays solid in the belief of the present “cloak”, he will know the pros and cons now of such a move, and what backlash or opinion might rise up after such a move. Moving a popular player will not be viewed the same by everyone. Some might feel betrayed, other open minded to a change if it is positive.

Sure, you and I might have taken both Maddon and Kazmir aside before Batting Practice that day and just gave them a small “head’s up” on what might go down in the next few hours. What finally told me that the deal was done was the simple fact Kazmir was in the dugout with the team for a few innings, then vanished from sight. If you have watched him at all over the season, he doesn’t go into the clubhouse and sit at all during the game unless he needs treatment. He is always out on the dugout rail or on the bench with the other pitchers watching those games. The absence of Kazmir from the dugout spoke volumes to me at that moment.

So in last night’s video you see Kazmir enjoying the moment, spraying his new teammates and relishing the fact he is going to make another trip to the playoffs. You know on his way home he probably called a few of his former Rays mates and told them he wished they were there with him, and was both excited and upset that he was not in a Rays uniform and celebrating with his old team that night. But what is done is done, and Kazmir now can go on and help his new team try and take the same American League Pennant his old squad hoisted into the rafters in April.

Kazmir might not be here anymore in body, but the smiling good-natured spirit of Kazmir is alive and well in the hearts and mind of Rays fans, who genuinely are proud he has another shot at the big prize. The Rays may stay within their “cloak of darkness” theory involving discussions and trade in the future, but hopefully this event showed them that when another source is openly discussing your business and boldly showing your hand, you have to man-up and also put your cards on the table. Andrew, the media went around you and called your bluff that day and you held the cards tight, but in the process, you might have lost some firm supporters both in the stands and within the organization. And that my friend, is not a winning hand at any time.

Pitching to Contact


Chris O’Meara / AP

There are moments during the game, and also during the post-game that I question this whole “Pitching-to-Contact” system and its basic premise to induce ground balls outs and secure pitch counts for starters. The system seems almost laughable at times when the pitcher’s only seem to last until the middle of the 6th innings at best, and the pitch count as gotten the better of Tampa Bay Rays pitching staffs. But then I see some of the Rays rookies use the system, having been taught it in the minor leagues, and it does show that it has some merit if the right pitchers are used in the system.

And that might be the hidden key that everyone else has missed for the Scott Kazmir trade. Power pitching doesn’t belong in this system. The basic ideal of the system is to confuse and induce ground balls and hittable balls for strikeouts and foul ball put outs to minimalize the scoring chances of your opponent. And Kazmir was brought up as a power pitcher, and we have seen him try to conform to the system, but the system ended up eating him up like a chew toy and spit him out all over the mound. 

How much more acceptable would the idea of this recent trade have been if Andrew Friedman has just said that Kazmir was not a good fit for the Rays pitching system, and that after both sides tried to make it work, a change was needed by both sides to succeed from this point forward. I could have accepted that reasoning in a heartbeat, and known that Kazmir was hurt the last two years trying to conform to a system that was foreign to his own pitching style. But why is it a young power pitcher like Kazmir could not develop into the system, but some one like Jeff Neimann is a natural for it?

There is the ruse. There is the hidden answer to it all, the system doesn’t pick the pitchers to be employed into it, the team does that. And a pitcher like Kazmir and even James Shields were not in the current Rays system under Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey where they could learn the system at the lower levels, then come up with a total understanding of it all. And that might be the reasoning for the reduced strikeouts and some of the anemic outings by Shields also this season. He is adapting to the system, but it has not clicked with him yet.

Mike Carlson / AP

So what is this “Pitch-to-Contact” system, and why is it as hard to master. Well, first off, it is actually developed to help pitchers keep the ball down and hopefully go deep into ballgames. The system plays heavily on the pitchers physical fundamentals and his ability to fight off fatigue in game situations. And if the system is not taught in the lower levels, it get harder and harder at the Major League level to readjust and rethink your entire mode of pitching. That is why Shields has seen difficult outings and barrages of hits when in the past he would have just powered his way past a batter.

 And there are success stories even within our division of pitchers who have adapted the system and gone on to major success in the league. Toronto’s Roy Halladay converted to this method of pitching in 2006, and his abilities and his stamina have grown every season. Now this concept of pitching to contact is not based on just throwing the ball down the middle and hoping for the best. It is actually playing to the individual pitcher’s strengths and adjusting speeds and quadrant location to maximize their abilities during every at bat in a game.

But changing a pitcher’s mindset gets hard the more time he is in the majors. We are taught at a young age to “throw it by” an opponent or even using our breaking ball to set up our “out” pitch. This system throws all of that into a basket and relies more on the ability to induce throwing low into the zone and hopefully getting more ground balls that you defense can easily convert into outs. And this system is better perfected in the minors than at this level of the game. That might be the basic reasons that Rays rookies David Price and Jeff Neimann are having the success they are having this season. They have been taught the system in the minor leagues.

One of the basic rules of the pitching to contact system is getting ahead in the counts to hitters. As we have seen in the past, this has been a true problem for the Rays pitching staff. But this system employs a system of pitching low and to outer quadrants and letting the ball be hit, if it is in the zone more on the ground than in the air. That the past notion of “painting the corner” or trying to just itch the outside of the corners is a thing of the past, and is not a part of this system.  The past belief in “painting” or nibbling at the corners actually is a negative if you want to preserve your pitch count and stay in the game later.  The pitching to contact system can increase your outings if you follow its rules.

Nam Y Huh / AP

The Rays Coaching staff believes that by keeping pitches down, it will lead to more ground ball that their defense can handle for easy outs. And just because this might lead to more hitters getting their bats on the ball doesn’t go hand in hand with more runs crossing the plate.
The point of this is to show that getting hitters to put more wood on the ball will not automatically mean more runs crossing the plate. This is especially true in Tampa Bay in 2008, where the abilities of a talented infield meant more outs for pitchers unafraid to have the ball put on the ground.  For this system to work, a pitcher has to believe in it 100 percent.

You can see where this system could be a pitcher’s best friend after awhile helping him become more pitch efficient and maybe transforming that into going deeper into ballgames, but you can maybe effectively gauge some of that on the kind of pitcher, and what he basically throws to be a great indicator of his success or failure in this system. Here are a few examples brought to light by the U.S.S. Mariners blog back in Feb 2007 on this system:

“Great pitching+great command: You shouldn’t care about pitching advice.
Great pitching + horrible command: chuck it down the middle, let them swing and miss.
Hittable pitches+great command:  You want to live on speed changes and hitting the corners.
Horrible pitches+horrible command: You’re not going to be around long anyways. “

This system right now has its good and bad moments posted all over the Rays 2009 season. I can not say that I truly think that every pitcher on the Rays staff right now is fashioned to use this type of pitching system, or could develop it into his own arsenal to become more effective on the mound. But because the recent influx of the Rays rookie pitchers, and their ability to adjust and transform their pitching styles into this system might be a good indicator of future success. But for this system to truly work to perfection, the Rays defense again has to step up a bit and take it back to and above their 2008 levels.

Gail Burton / AP

I guess you can say that the jury is still out on if I believe this system can be employed by all five of our starters with effectiveness. But right now the advent of the system is beginning to show both signs of good and bad in our rotation. Some need to further adjust their styles to adapt the system totally into their pitching, but some also have come miles in the last few months to use this system to its extremes. All in all, if this system is taught at the lower levels of the farm system and employed all the way up the ladder, the next influx of Rays pitchers will also be able to use and adapt their abilities perfectly to conform to the system.

But right now, the Rays starters are beginning to show some signs of really getting this system ingrained into their every day pitching, and that could be a major thing going into 2010 ans beyond for the team. Who knows if this system will be here in two seasons, or might even be trashed the moment the team doesn’t retain their current Pitching Coach. But the reality of it all is that if the Rays infield defense and the pitching staff can both get on the same wave length, we could see another run like 2008 in the near future.

Rays Fan Favorite Says Goodbye


When I went to my local gas station today to get my morning paper, I had a sense that it was going to be a special day today. No, it was not the clear blue skies, or even the bird chirping above me in the old oak trees, there was a special crispness to the air. I was not sure why at the time, but something just seemed to click in the wrold today. All just seemed pleasant in Happy Valley. So I wentinto the store and bought my usual morning Moon Pie and a Dr. Pepper, then picked up my local paper for viewing back home in the outside porch swing.

And I followed my daily routine that you could set a watch by, first checking out the Sports section, then doing an always mind rousing game of “Catch my attention” with the rest of the paper. I had done this since I first went to college to get my mind used to processing lead paragraphs and getting into that “journalistic mindset” I hoped to use post-education in my life. But a funny thing happened to me this morning. As I was glancing and bouncing from headline to headline, I usually just pass over all the advertisements without a hint of thought and just check the lead-ins of each story on the page.

But today, a great big color ad on page 3-A of the St. Petersburg Times caught my eye and made me smile and reflect on an old baseball buddy who was now miles away looking at a different water scene. For in front of my eyes was a beautiful eye-catching ad done by the Times advertising department, and it definitely made my day. It was the “Goodbye” message from a player we all got to know well in his short time with the Tampa Bay Rays. But above all, it was the closure most of us needed after a fast and furious trade made during the Rays last road trip. A lot of us did not get to say our goodbyes, or even voice a single note of support or “thank you’s” to this guy.

Anyone who knows me also knows I have a special place in my Rays past memories for Scott Kazmir. He has always been one of those Rays players who always made time, even a few seconds for a fan, no matter what was going on around him. And it is that slice of kindness and humanity that will always has me thanking my lucky stars I got to meet such a great player. Kazmir was just one of those guys who when he talked to you, talked like you were friends for a long time, and that was always a treat. Always had a smile on his face, and even knew some of our names and said them out loud when greeting us.

Sure, he might have come over and chatted knowing I wrote a blog, or he might have just come over with the realization that I speak some no BS when it comes to baseball. But just the fact he came over was amazing to me. But if you ever watched him on days where he did not pitch, or “held court in the dugout”, you would get the idea. He knew the fans were important, and he cherished the loyalty that this fan base had for him. But, most of all, he made himself an open book for all of us to enjoy during his Rays career.

The advert was amazing because a lot of Tampa Bay is still on the fence with the deal, and not sure which way to support at times. But in the end, with this visual if him smiling from the page which was firmly in my hands, I knew that he was going to miss us too. Kazmir really enjoyed the attention and the admiration of the fans, both young and old. Heck, he was one of the only players I ever saw right after coming off the Bullpen mound warming-up for a game to go to the Bullpen wall and sign a few autographs. But that was Kazmir.

I have to say, after the way the trade went so quick, I am so glad I got to have a few seconds with him playing a simple game at the Rays Gameworks party jousting for rebounds and making long 3-point shots. That will be my last moments with this great pitcher, playing a NBA-style basketball game moving the joysticks at break neck speed while both of us fed our competitve spirits.  I almost wished I was 20 years younger so i could hang out with him more at that time. But that is how much he put everyone at ease who met him, and that is a special gift that will be with him long into his baseball career.


On a day when the front page of the Sports section mourned the loss of an offensive giant on the Rays, it is funny that page 3-A is going to have the most impact on me today. Not lost in the moment is the visual closure we can now have knowing that when he got on that plane bound for Los Angeles, he might have thought about the fans he left behind. But with this ad, we have that clsoure, that meaning of what this guy meant to us as Rays fans. It might have been a non-verbal “Goodbye”, but I can still hear him talking, laughing and enjoying his Rays tenure……..and with that a single tear came down my cheek.


Kazmir Deal has me Dazed and Confused

Steve Nesius / AP

Not sure why last nights often delayed finalization of the eventual announcement of the Rays sending Scott Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim effected me so much. like this. We all had a gut reaction that the team finally made a decision based on business and not talent. But why is my head still buzzing with questions and a gut feeling of fan betrayal by my franchise? Why is it I have a silly instinct we do not know all the facts yet, and that the real reasoning will anger me more down the road?

When the Rays traded away Fred McGriff to the Chicago Cubs, or even when my baseball buddy Toby Hall to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it did not get to the pit of my stomach. Maybe this time it is the stark realization that we all knew was coming, someday,some time. But this trade came right out of leftfield for all of us.

Heck, I personally was thinking that maybe in early January the Rays would have to revisit the thought of life without our fireballing leftie, but last night’s actions were not completed with ease or grace and it tore through the Rays Republic like a dull knife into a fine steak. Tearing roughly at our hearts and digging deep into our ever swirling thoughts and adverse reasoning for such a move now at this pressure moment in the season.

Eliane Thompson / AP

And the final realization that he was going to play the rest of the season out with an American League division leader and playoff contender seems to throw even more gasoline on the campfire. Logical thinking was missing in the reports and the final conclusion to the trade. Think about this for a second Rays fans. If we do garner an eventual spot in the playoffs, we could face Kazmir wearing that red and white jersey Angels gear as early as mid- October. And if he dominated us that day, I would chalk it all up to instant karma getting some revenge on the Rays front office.

I really still a bit numb and the constant waves from anger to understanding is not helping matters at all right now. The whole trade make-up at this point in the playoff drive is mass confusion to me and it still rolls around in my mind like a clump of tapioca pudding blocking the funnel points within my mind. My current Rays thought process has been reduced to a puddle of odd muck.

Screaming in my mind is the thoughts of “was this truly a salary dump?”, and thoughts of a conspiracy theory of if this had a level of motivation from the Pitching Coach that maybe Kazmir could not conform to “his” system? But I will hold that anger for another blog. This is  a Irish wake for the loss of a young ace who might just flourish under his former Pitching coach, and make all of us regret this move. And deep within the recesses of my mind, I hope he gets us right between the eyes.

I seem to remember something Kazmir said around the time of the Trade Deadline that “if he wanted to go somewhere else, he would not have signed that contract extension in 2008”.  How did someone who held 8 individual player bio pages in the Rays 2009 Media Guide all of a sudden become expendable?  And he was in the first season of his recently signed 3-year contract, it is not like he was going into his option years, or facing Free Agency in 2010.

Sharon Ellman / AP

I was incredibly excited when in 2008, on my birthday, Kazmir signed his 3-year contract extension covering 2009-2011, with a club option for 2012. And it still puzzles me deeply that a guy who is the Rays All-Time leader in wins (55), strikeouts (874) and  quality starts (62)  can just be tossed away for prospects?

The Rays return of  low tier players in this deal is not so wildly impressive that it merited a fast and furious trade. Those same minor league players that might have been in the same proposal the Angels dangled in front of the Rays noses before the Trade Deadline. Hopefully the player to be named later announced after the end of this season will be the keystone to this move. If not, the Rays gave up too much for so little in this deal.

I have seen Kazmir sweat, bleed and endure heartaches in the Rays colors since he got here from the New York Mets.  So to say I am not happy right now would be a true understatement. Kazmir has been as special to the Rays community as he was on the mound. Fans used to flock to events with Kazmir because of his ever-growing smile and pure joy to chat with the fans. I know i will miss the head nods and the small chatter with him before a start.

Steve Nesius / AP

Also moving onto Anaheim with Kazmir will go the Scott Kazmir Foundation, which held annual poker tourneys and helped the Children’s Dream Fund in this area. Gone will be his swagger when he walked in for charity events for the local Edwards Family Foundation he co-founded with ex-Ray Bobby Seay and boxers Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy. And gone will be those extra set of hands he supplied for the Rays Field Renovation Program, which he did in conjunction with the Rays Foundation.

More and more this is smelling like a Risk Management decision that an ex-Wall street guy like Andrew Friedman could see from a mile away. Was Kazmir a failing commodity to the Rays? Was there a downward skills spiral coming that none of us could see beyond his recent resurging numbers? Could there be a plausible action/reaction here that would make us understand the move?

As of right now, the answers are just dust in the wind. The Kazmir decision has been made on a purely unemotional level and have been claimed to be a “business decision”. And that is the clincher to all of this. For everything Kazmir has been, or could have done for this team, the ultimate decision might have come down to a few numbers and letters on a report or a email.

But truth be told, if we face Kazmir in the postseason either in the relief role or as a starter, I will clap for him. I am still swirling in the sea of information and gut reactions to this trade. But I am taking it more on the level of a guy is now gone that I trusted with my team, a player I knew would do it “The Rays Way” no matter what. I am dealing with a huge explosion of emotion and will be for some time.

Steve Nesius / AP

Trades are never fun, and when they make no sense they send you into a turmoil of unexpected actions and reactions. This is a decision by this new ownership group that has me befuddled and confused and we all deserve answers to our questions. Screw the business aspect of it all for a moment. Is this going to be the Rays “company line” from now on? Use our personnel to the
ir height of trade value, then pluck them from the Rays tree and moved onto another bush to ripen.

Is theRays front office trading of our favorite players going to revolve into something this impersonal and cold? Are the Rays going to just use business sense from now on and not reward or value playing hurt or extra effort? If the Rays do go this route, maybe it is better they do it like they did to Kazmir. Maybe it is better to clip their wings and send them away before we grow attached to them. Pawns in a business plan played out on the greens grass of the MLB.

Hardest Job in Baseball



Everyone and anyone who has ever take in a baseball game at one time or another have thought they could do the job better than the guy in blue behind the plate. We have all seen the umpires make calls from a distance,or in retrospect with considerable digital enhancements to expose the life of an umpire is not easy. But one of the greatest dangers of being an umpire is not the threat of harrassment or injury from people attending the games.
The biggest threat to their personal health is actually the small white ball that they call for balls and strikes.

The game is played at an extremely fast pace between the pitcher and the hitter. In an instant the ball can travel from the pitcher’s hand to the glove or bat without a conscience of what might happen to it. In a fraction of a second all three members of the pitch’s evolution have to make consierable actions and reactions before the guy in blue even gets a chance to make a decision on the pitch. And sometimes the unthinkable happens.

Sometimes a variable comes to light that barely ever happens in a game,or a simple pitch selection cross-up between a pitcher and a catcher makes the unthinkable happens.  We in the stands usually do not hear the sound of the ball hitting  the metal mask or chest protector before the guy behind the plate goes down in a heap of humanity. It is a constant thing that can nhappen on any pitch in the game. He doesn’t have the ability to think for itself, or redirect its path, the ball can cause more harm in a split second than a Walk-off Grand Slam.


And lightning did strike, twice last night during a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. Twice  a lighting fast ball of twine and leather struck a member of the blue fraternity behind the plate, and twice there had to be a change of positions due to injuries sustained by a member of the umpiring crew to keep the game going smoothly. 

Last night’s game began with the groups crew chief, Jerry Crawford behind the plate. He is considered by many to have one of the most consistent strike zones in baseball. And that is a high honor considering most nights everyone,including the guy selling peanuts, thinks they can call the balls and strikes with more clarity than the umpire behind the plate. In the first two innings of last night’s game, Crawford called 24 strikes and 19 balls between the two teams, which included 5 strikeouts for both squads. The game was going smoothly and Crawford had a good grasp of both pitcher’s arsenals and seemed to be cruising along without incident.


But within a flash, he was gone. Crawford had begun having back spasms after taking a foul tip off the bat of the Jays Arron Hill in the bottom of the first inning. The pitch seemed to hit flush into his mask and it rattled his cage a bit. Instead of  maybe compromising the game, he pulled himself out from behind Home Plate before the beginning of the third inning and umpire Tom Hallion, who began the game at second base went behind the plate to call the contest.

Somewhere during the course of the first two innings, a foul tip came back and got Crawford square in the mask. But do we really know who might have slapped at the ball that finally got got Crawford? During the first two innings, a total of 16 foul balls were hit off the plate by members of both squads. And one of those fouls came straight back and got Crawford right on the mask.

It really doesn’t matter who got him, but it also shows the inherent danger of this position that we all might take for granted. Umpires have been hit by backswings, errant pitches and even shards of broken bats in the past and had to buckle down and keep calling games. For Crawford, who is the crew chief of this umpiring crew to pull himself out of the game, it had to be an extremely painful event.  This is also the second Rays game that Crawford has had to take himself out of this season, He also was injured in the June 21st game against the Mets in Citi Field.


Major League Baseball has 17 revolving umpire crews that travel throughout the circuit on a given year. But during that time injuries and game complications can endanger the group. On May 15, 2008 the MLB actually had six members who don the blues out with injuries, and of that group, five were out with head and neck injuries. and most of those injuries had a direct correlation with a ball striking off of their equipment when they were behind the plate. 

And that has to be another area of major concern for MLB. With the guy calling the games getting more and more injuries sustained because of batted balls or miscommunications between a catcher and a pitcher, it is only a matter of time before a umpire is seriously hurt to the point of extended hospitalization. And most of the catchers in major league baseball take pride in the fact they can get to most of those pitches before they ever get to the umpire’s chest protector.

But in the case of the second injury on Weds. night, Rays catcher Gregg Zaun could do nothing to stop that 96 mph fast ball that tailed up and away and caught Hallion square in the chest. “That was scary,” Gregg Zaun told the St Petersburg Times. “I feel so bad. It’s one of those things I don’t like to see that happen. It’s pretty rare I don’t get leather on a ball.”  And Hallion stayed down as medical staffs from both teams came out to aid him.

But after a considerable amount of time, Hallion walked off the field on his own. He was checked by medical personnel, and it was determined that if he felt no breathing difficulties, he could stay in the game.  The incident effected both Zaun and Rays starter Scott Kazmir who was physically shaken by the event. “You saw it and it hit him flush,” Kazmir told the Times. “And I heard the sound. And the way he fell down, I knew it wasn’t good. You never want to see anything like that. … It looked pretty serious. I missed my location and you kind of feel at faul

But the truth is that Kazmir’s pitch missed so bad  it was the only contributing factor to the injury. Zaun had set up for an outside low pitch and the ball tailed up andin on him and Zaun could not have done anything to stop the ball. The only good that came out of that pitch was the fact Jays batter Travis Snider swung and missed at the pitch and it ended the inning.  And since the team Not the fact he struck out stands out as the positive, but the teams would be switching field positions, this factor made it easier for the medical crews to come out and check on Hallion before the game play was restored. 

And with that, the third member of the umpiring crew went into the Umpire’s room under the stadium tonight and changed into his protective gear. After a 21 minute delay ,  the third Home Plate Umpire of the night, Brian Onora  called the game back into action. And you had to wonder if the facts of the night were swirling in Onora’s mind knowing that two of his crew had already gone down in this game. But Crawford was still at the ballpark and willing to even go out to third base and try and call the rest of the game, but Hallion made it be known that he wanted to continue this game at third base.


MLB has rules governing the umpiring of games, and the possibility of an injury to any of the games Umpiring crews. Rules 9.01-9.05 pertain to the job of the umpires during the course of a MLB sanctioned game.  In Rule 9.02(d) it states:
“No Umpire may be replaced in a game unless he is injured or becomes ill.” 
After that passage it continues onto 9.03, which outlines what is to happen if the number of umpires goes below the required 4 per contest. This section outlines the repsonsibilities and the duties of the remaining umpires and their correlation to getting game completed.

The incidents during this game did become a life threatening situation like in May 1, 2008 for umpire Kerwin Daley. He was behind the plate during a Los Angeles Dodgers versus Washington Nationals game when Dodger starter Brad Penny threw a 96 mpoh pitch that struck him in the head. His 68-year old mother was in the stands that day to watch her son and she was the first one to speak to him besides medical personnel before he was lifted into the ambulance.

In 2008, MLB umpires sustained a total of 38 blows to the head. Within the first two months into the 2008 season, there have already been 20 umpire injuries. These numbers are high,but the ratios are higher yet, when considering that there are only 68 Major League Umpires. Mrs. Danley knew that her son was in a profession that posed a physical risk to him, following surgeries to his shoulder and foot to repair damage he incurred on the field. But head injuries are a different story.


Even with the advent of newer equipment and more caution by both catchers and umpires, injuries will still be a fact of life behind the plate.  But the true fact that neither of the umpires injured in last night’s game had to physically be carted off, or sent to the hospital has to be a sign that the equipment is doing its job to promote a safer environment for the men in blue.  But you also have to tip your hat to the guys behind the plate who are tough as nails.

Crawford commented after the game to the Times that “If he (Hallion) was having any difficulties breathing or something like that we wouldn’t have let him go back out there,” said Crawford, the crew chief. “I would have gone back out there.” These guys know the inherent risks of their jobs and they still do it night after night. Both Hallion and Crawford fully expect to be able to again man spot in the field or behind the plate come Friday night in St. Louis for the Cardinals series. Say what you will about the umpires, but after last night, i have a new respect for two members of that fraternal order.

Save a Horse ( Ride a Rays Fan )

Jim Thacker /DDR

Back in early 2000, I went to work in the Florida Panhandle for Buffalo Rock Pepsi, a local Pepsi distributor who ran a small warehouse out of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Even as a kid, I was never a die-hard country music fan. But considering my new job required me to drive at least 10 hours per day from various stops on the beaches of Destin and nearby Eglin Air Force Base to the Alabama border, I would spend a huge amount of time listening to music on the truck radio.

Jim Thacker / DDR

Sure there were Rock stations all up and down the dial, but this region was dominated by the country twang.
This was when everyone began to idolize the music of Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks and a new music revival was taking over our ears of to explore our Country Music roots. I began to listen more to the rhythm of the steel guitar and the sweet female Southern drawls coming out of my radio and found it to my liking. 

 Jim Thacker / DDR

And also about this same time Country artists were began to incorporate more rock and roll beats and rhythms and this style of music soon melted the two different brands of music together to form a fresh vibrant version of country that seemed to please everyone from sea to shining sea. The music had started to become a focus all over the country, not just to the southern and mid-western parts of the country.
And among those bands using the rock and roll based stage pyrotechnics and lighting antics was newcomers Big & Rich.


Jim Thacker / DDR

The band was different because they wanted to send their fans homes yearning for more of the new brand of entertainment that they presented to the masses at their concerts, and with their CD recordings. They wanted to send you to a new place within Country Music and make you hungry for more. And they truly did just that last Saturday night when they performed a postgame concert during the Rays Country Night.

Jim Thacker / DDR

Considering the band got on late thanks to the Rays staging a comeback victory over the Texas Rangers, thank goodness for the 10th inning heroics of Carlos Pena who sent a ball up the middle to score Evan Longoria and giving the team their second straight win against the Rangers. It was rolling past 11 pm when the stage was finally beginning to be set up and the crowd energized knowing they were going to see Cowboy Troy, Two Foot, Big Kenny and John Rich soon making music as charter members of Nashville’s MusikMafia.

Jim Thacker/ DDR

I have to honestly tell you, I have not been a long time follower of Big & Rich’s music, but during this show I did enjoy and will go to ITunes and download a few of their songs I heard that evening/early morning. I did not have the dedication and the stamina of a pair of Season Ticket holders who sit in my Section who had the field wristbands for the night and went downstairs after the 4th inning and stood all that time in line to be able to get a front row view of the concert.

Jim Thacker / DDR

I even saw a few of the Rays players like Matt Garza, James Shields and Texan Scott Kazmir mingling up front during crowd shots during the concert. Those two fans from Section 138, Jim and Debbie Thacker must have stood under and behind the rightfield stands for about two hours before they were able to run and at least stretch their legs a bit before the concert officially got under way around 11:30 pm that night.

Jim Thacker / DDR

And by the end of the night, Debbie would be rewarded with the back panel of the “Hick Chicks” guitar that was smashed on stage by the band right about the 12:30 am mark.  But the band did entertain throughout the night and did an awesome job of keeping us on our feet and bopping our heads to the drummers beat. Heck, every photo listed on the blog today was taken by Jim as he was in the front row and  got some incredible photos for me.

Jim Thacker / DDR

The band even brought up a young local Rays fan and let him finish off the song “Big Time” with the band right up on stage in front of the 29,000+ Rays fans who stayed for the concert. But you could tell the kid was nervous, but he was a total trooper and did a great job on the fly up there singing with the band. “Big Time” was one of their earlier hits that made it all the way to #20 on the charts. And was one of the first songs that night I knew would have a place on a CD real soon in my collection.

Jim Thacker / DDR

And it really impressed me that they did a 20 minute plus extendion of their song “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” marked with extra riffs and timely ad lib verses to celebrate the night and the Rays. Have to admit here that the next day I was pretty wiped out by all the dancing and the singing I was doing from my seat that night. They were not all songs that I knew by heart, and even some like “8th of November”, which honored the story of Nile Harris a veteran of the Vietnam War caught me a bit off guard.

Jim Thacker / DDR

And before that night I had never heard their hit “Wild West Show”, which is full of Native American imagery and tones. This song is definitely another one of the tracks I am purchasing from Itunes soon.  And more than one woman in the crowd around me were voicing that they wanted the wedding ballad “Lost in this Moment” to be played at their wedding reception or ceremony.

Jim Thacker / DDR

I truly did not seem to attribute this song to the band if I heard it outside of tonights concert because of the gentle vocals of the song, but then I forgot Rich used to be a member of the ballad-rich country band Lonestar before forming this band. The song actually was so well recieved it crossed over onto the adult contemporary charts and rose to the # 12 spot. That is a song that stayed with me long after the end of the concert that night.

Jim Thacker/DDR

So as I walked to my car right about time the DJ at Ferg’s called “Last Call” for the night, I still had a few of those songs ringing round and round in my head. And I know that in the next week or so I am purchasing songs online and maybe even a CD or two of their music for more enjoyment as I travel to and from games. It truly made the night something to remember.  Big & Rich did everything they advertised that night. It was loud, wild and full of unexpected moment from the first note to the last.  

Excitement in the Air at the Trop.

Mark Carlson / AP

If you missed last night’s Rays and Rangers game, shame on you. First off, you missed a classic game of two teams bashing back and forth to try and gain control of their own  sets of destiny for the 2009 MLB Playoffs. Secondly, you missed a game that had more excitement, suspense and total energy  inside Tropicana Field since  the 2008 playoff push. The air was purly electric static with huge charges of excitement even before the game knowing that this 3-game series could be either a starting point, or the ending to fulfilling the team’s playoff goals.

And the crowd of 20,634 that did attend the game last night felt like a crowd much louder inside Tropicana Field. For all 27 outs tere was noise and energy flowing from every side of the stidum knowing that their cheers and cowbells could possibly make a difference in this struggle. But the true hero of this Rays night did not hit, and did not even score a run in this contest. No, the true hero of this game was the re-emergance of our leftie ace back in the saddle and throwing with gusto last night.

It truly looked like vintage Kazmir last night, and we have missed that guy a lot since 2008. But people are eager to forget that every special game, every moment where the team is behind the eight-ball, there has been Kazmir standing on the mound. Seriously people, this is the same guy who busted the Fenway Park curse in 2008, then out did himself with the Rays first victories in the American League Divisional and Championship series last season. Sure in 2009 we might have seen a very sebdued Kazmir, but the fire and the intensity have still been there in the 25-year olds body.

And how much do we forget he is still only 25 years of age and leading this club in almost every pitching category for the team. How soon we forget this is the same guy who in 2007, just outpaced ex-Twin Johan Santana for the AL Strikeout crown. But  sometimes as fans we forget too soon of the good that a player has brought to this franchise. We seem to have tunnel vision at times to all the things this guy has meant to this team in the past, in the present, and inthe future.

Mark Carlson / AP

But there was so much suspense going on besides Kazmir last night. Oh there was a series of home runs that defied the usual course of action by hitting or being grabbed in the field of play. From the Ben Zobrist home run into Section 140’s front row that was actually fan interference, but the umpires and the Rangers did not challenge the call.When Zobrist sent that line drive into the stands, it actually ended up popping into a fan’s glove just 9 inches from the yellow line at would make it a clear home run.

A Rays fan in that section leaned forward and actually grabbed the ball before it got to the green colored upside-down “U” shaped piping beyond the playing field. Now if he had not grabbed it in that area, it still would have been a home run, but the fan did not even take into account it could have made it a 1-run double instead of a two-run homer by his leaning forward over the wall for the ball instead of letting it come to him in his seat. that action could have caused the Rays to lose that 2-run advantage if it was reviewed by the Umpire crew.

But the fact would prove moot as Carlos Pena then came up and hit an oppositie field shot to post back-to-back homers by the Rays in the inning. But the home run by Pena not only thrust him back in front in the AL Home Run race, but was also a growing trend of him hitting opposite field shots. And it might be a great thing that he is not bending his back so much and is getting all of the ball early through the zone and sendig it to leftfield.

But the home run of the night that sent the most curiosity and interesting discussions might have been the first home run every hit by Texas Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden. With one out in the eighth inning Teagarden hit a long, high and towering shot that cleared both the “C” and “D” rings before finally hitting a guide wire that supported the Batting Practice netting used to save the windows of the Batter’s Eye restaurant in centerfield.

Mark Carlson / AP

B J Upton was camped under the ball when it hit that wire and went immediately downward towards the outfield wall. The ball took an immediate 45 degree turn and bounced off Upton’s wrist befor finally falling to the outfield turf. The Umpire crew did do the right thing by conferring on the home run before finally waving Teagarden home for his first home run of the season.

But unless you saw the game on television, you did not know about the wire coming into play until you either got home, or saw the video replays in the post-game show. But signaled the beginning of the end for Kazmir that night, and he faced two more batters before finally leaving to a standing ovation from the home crowd. He truly looked like the old Kazmir who would take the ball when a win was needed and turn in a great outing. He might not have been as dominant at the plate as in the past, but he truly got the job done last night.

And with one game out of the way, and both teams in front of us in the AL Wild Card race losing last night, it was a true “win-win” situation for the Rays. But as Rich Herrera of the Rays post-game show always says, “The most important game is your next game. The most important series is your most important series.” And I guess that sums up playoff push baseball at its finest.

Mark Carlson / AP

Last night was a game you knew would have some wild explosive events, but it lived well beyond its own build-up. Tonight might be more of a pitcher’s duel as two hard-throwing righties will take the mound for both teams. Fiery Matt Garza will bring it for the Rays, while hard-throwing Tommy Hunter will counter for the Rangers. Tonight’s game should be a closer contest with mistakes showing up critical at any moment of the game. But at this time of the year, every single mistake, every single extra base hit, and every single cheer from the crowd could make an extreme difference in th games.

Get Ready for a Power filled Series


Steve Nesius / AP

It is that time of the season where a single loss can be a train derailing event towards a successful run at the postseason. Every single nuance of the game has to be clicking in rhythm from the get-go or the dream could come shattering down on you like a broken pane of glass. With the Tampa Bay Rays about to a begin a 3-game weekend set against the team many around baseball have dubbed the “2009 Rays”,maybe it is time for them to remind people around baseball that they are still in this American League Wild Card race.

So what if the Texas Rangers have been anointed this seasons “Rays”. Funny,but aren’t those pesky Rays still only 3 games behind the Rangers and 4 games behind the Boston Red Sox stalking both team’s every moves,and daily taunting them to lose so the Rays can creep up in the standings. Aren’t these the same Rays that people have put in correlation with the “2007 Colorado Rockies” and have stated time and time again will not repeat into the 2009 Playoff scene. How dare those Rays make ESPN’s Baseball Tonight look like fools. They do such a good job of that all by themselves. 

But there is a problem with that premise….Someone forgot to tell the Rays they are not suppose to be in this thing. But the honest truth is that all of this can change in the blink of an eye this weekend. With all three of the  current contenders for the Wild Card race playing key opponents this weekend,separation in the standings will occur this weekend,by hook or by crook.

The Red Sox host the New York Yankees for three while the Rays tuck a 3-game series against the Rangers into the weekend. This combination of six games could,and should bring about a better overview of the Wild Card hierarchy for the last four weeks of the season. After these two series conclude,someone will be chasing someone else for that last spot into the 2009 playoffs. And behind it, the reality, that another team could begin a free fall that will fade them from the Wild Card. 

Jim Prisching / AP

Not to say that the Yankees have the A L East division all locked up yet,but a major fall from grace would have to occur,and all the stars align just right for the Rays to again take the A L East crown. But right now,all the Rays fears and the attention has to be on a team that really does mirror the 2008 edition of the Rays in so many ways. And with Elvis in the building,you never know what is going to happen.

But the key to this series is going to be all about power. Power hitting and power pitching might be the key elements to post a series win, and a leg-up in the Wild Card race. If the Rays take the series 3-0, it could boost them to within one game of the Rangers, and depending on what happens in Boston, could get them within a few games of the top spot. But it is going to be pure adulterated power that defines this series.

And both teams have the power in their line-ups to take any of these game into routs in a single innings. Both the Rays and the Rangers have done just that this season. Each teams boasts a A L MVP candidate, and a A L Rookie of the Year candidate, and both could be riding high after this series. But as usual in events that place power above all else, it could be the simple fact of control pitching and getting first pitch strikes that dominates this series.

And both teams have competent pitching staff from the starters to the closers that could take either team out of rally situations with a single pitch. But that is the fun of it all. To see if Scott Kazmir tonight can get a blast of the past glory and take down the Rangers early and often and control the plate. Or if it is going to be Dustin Nippert, who is 2-1 with a 4.21 ERA in his 4 starts this season taking control of the Rays and shutting them down.

But there might be a slight advantage to the Rays right now just based on the pitching match-ups for the weekend. The Rangers are going to send three straight right-handers to the plate to combat the left-handed Rays. That could play right into the Rays hands as they have feasted on right-handers in 2009. But this is not so one-sided as it might seem. The Rays will combat this with the hard-throwing Kazmir going tonight, then follow with another power pitcher Matt Garza on Sat. night. The series will conclude with rookie David Price taking the mound Sunday.

But the Rangers also boast a pretty good offense themselves this season.  The Rangers have hit a total of 181 home runs this season easily out-pacing the Rays 155 so far in 2009. And both teams are only .007 clicks away in team average this year. This could be a well-balanced series with defensive mistakes proving to be the big indicator of the series winner. The Rangers are modeled after the Rays successful defensive philosophy,and is currently ranked 8th in the AL in total defense. The Rays sit  about 3 slots below Texas at this time.

But even with the Rays defense having an off year, the Rays have a distinctive advantage on the base paths over the Rangers in this series. So could Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and B J Upton prove to be turning points in this series? Only if they get on base and have the right situations to steal bases and get into the Rangers pitching staff’s heads. 

The entire series might come down to the basics of baserunning.  If the Rays get the chance to run, it might be a long night for Texas. But if Texas can control the running game and keep the Rays out of scoring chances, it might turn towards the Rangers advantage. Right now I am feeling confident on the Rays chances to get close again in this Wild Card race.

Marc Avery / AP

Rich Herrera, who does the Rays Postgame Show on the radio always says, “The next game is the most important game of the season.” And that is so true. They are all equally as important as wins to get to that spot you want to be in before that last series of the year against the Yankees in Tropicana Field.

Hopefully at that point the Rays will have either made their play, or will still be right in the thick of it up until the end. Either way this series might be a chance for the Rays to make a statement against all those so-called experts who have doubted, and rooted against the team for most of the season. It is time to play the “Rays Way” and then let the cards fall where they may.