Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ray Pride Part IV - When it RAYnS it Pours

Every once in a while you find a musician that is writing the type of music that fits perfectly with how you as an individual are feeling. This isn't an often occurrence, nor does it seem like one you can anticipate or look forward to, rather, it simply occurs and it takes that moment to realize that it happened.

This fall, Chuck Ragan, Tim Berry, and Ben Nichols are taking their acoustic guitars on the road for a tour tabbed 'The Revival'. The musicians will perform solo sets, as well as collaborating with one another. Along the way, the tour will pick up musicians to open, one of which, Mr. Austin Lucas.

I never thought I would be one to get into this type of music ('this' being so-country, so-bluegrass). In any event, this is a musician I highly recommend.

The Tampa Bay Rays have been served up with a fair amount of unfortunate luck over the past couple of weeks. Despite this, they remain in control of the American League East by three games as they finished up their west coast road trip. During this road trip, the Rays have rhymed off 5 wins in 7 games due mostly in part to the clubs deep and highly underrated bullpen.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote that Troy Percival would be the clubs biggest addition. His presence alone should help some of the young, inexperienced bullpen arms come around. Additionally, his presence allowed pitchers such as Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and J.P. Howell to take on less stressful roles. Interestingly, these 'lesser roles' have resulted in Howell, Balfour, and Wheeler being the three most valuable relievers, respectively.

The Rays season has been especially spectacular with all of the hurdles the club has had to climb to get to this point. Entering the season, the Rays anticipated Rocco Baldelli to have at least a minor role with the team out of Spring Training. A degenerative disease to the muscles nearly pushed Rocco to retirement in mid-March. While the loss of Baldelli would not have been a reason behind any failures of the Rays, the teams resiliency despite missing one of their key bats is a testament to the teams depth.

Another hit came in the form of missing team ace, and Cy Young hopeful, Scott Kazmir for the first month of the season. This could have been a factor in sinking the Rays hopes at exceeding a franchise best, 70 wins, although expectations were higher entering this season (see 9=8). Kazmir has struggled to be a true stopper for the Rays this season, in that he is going under 6 innings per start.

As if missing the teams ace, and starting right fielder/designated hitter were not enough, Dioner Navarro exited a game early in April after a cut opened on his hand that resulted in 12 stitches and an 18 day absence. To lose three players in the span of a week is a big blow for any team, let alone a team that had never had a winning season.

At this point, the Rays had been off to a relatively quick start, winning 3 of 4 games and beating division rivals in Baltimore and New York. However, a couple days later, the Rays took two more hits to their 25 man roster, placing Cliff Floyd and Matt Garza on the 15 disabled list.

The loss of Floyd was not a big one from a performance stand point. Yes, the club had higher hopes for his production this season, but he was brought in to be a mentor and a clubhouse leader. Missing a month is a hit nonetheless, and one the Rays seemingly dealt with in stride going 17 and 14.

Garza, on the other hand, should have provided a much greater loss, as his missed starts meant the Rays would be forced to use both their 6th and 7th starters. The time off for Garza, however, obviously helped, as the 24 year old has been downright dominant posting an ERA below 3.50 since.

As of April 11th, the Rays had lost five projected starters and were about to lose another. The loss of Willy Aybar, however, was a blessing in disguise.

At this point, Evan Longoria had not been tearing the cover off of the ball in triple A, although we are talking about a seven game sample size, and any statistics would be useless.

Longoria was off to a nice start, showing adequate power and strong plate discipline. His opening month line of .273/.388/.527 showed that Evan was ready for the majors and that the 22 year old had star written all over him.

While May was not as friendly to the rookie, his ability to play slick defense allowed for the Rays to keep Longoria in the lineup. Improved defensive play is one of the main reasons the Rays have seen such an improvement from the 2007. The combination of Bartlett at shortstop, Longoria at third, and BJ Upton in center have made the Rays a formidable defensive squad and taps into Andrew Friedman's plan of 'preventing' runs.

Injuries to minor contributors such as Al Reyes and Gary Glover indirectly made the Rays a better team. These injuries allowed Grant Balfour and JP Hammel to have more prominent roles on the team.

The Rays could not go a month without suffering a major injury. On May 29th, the club placed closer Troy Percival on the 15 day DL with a hamstring injury. Missing only the minimum did not set the Rays back too much, as they went from having a 1.5 game lead in the division to trailing by 1.5 games. Percival's return solidified a bullpen which had proven itself during the veteran's absence and developed a confidence within the team. At this point, manager Joe Maddon proclaimed that no one was here on 'scholarship' any longer, and that the roster was built on performance.

A week after sending Troy Percival to the disabled list, the club was struck with another blow. Slugging first basemen Carlos Pena had been hit by a pitch and would need some time off to recover. After missing nearly a month, Pena returned and has since posted the two best months of his season. The club did not miss a beat in his absence and finally began working their way into the national spot light. I suppose being the best team in baseball at the end of June is the only way to get some recognition?

July saw the Rays take a few more hits, including the loss of slick fielding short stop Jason Bartlett. Bartlett's season to that point had been less then desirable. While he was still performing at a high level with his glove, his offensive contributions were minimal if any at all. However, Bartlett had shown improvements and was beginning to hold his own at the dish-until he went down with a right knee injury. Nothing serious, but going nearly a month without your best defensive infielder is a tough blow for any team.

Troy Percival and Gary Glover again found themselves on the disabled list. Although, like earlier in the season, the Rays were able to over come these loses as their young arms had built up the confidence to step in and contribute at a high level. The hitters were all coming around and the Rays looked imposing. The team entered the all star break on their lowest note of the season, and many were writing the Rays off-a 'nice' story, but not good enough to overcome America's team, Red Sox Nation.

The trade deadline passed, and much to my chagrin, the Rays avoided making a deal to improve their roster. The team had it's most healthy lineup of the season, and despite only a 3 game lead in the division, Andrew Friedman stood pat. There had been rumor that the Rays struck a deal with the Pirates to acquire Jason Bay, however that never came to fruition and Bay became a Red Sock.

The Rays did make a move after the non-waiver deadline, acquiring reliever Chad Bardford from the Baltimore Orioles. While Bradford is no Fuentes, or any other of the top available relievers, his arrival strengthens an already strong Rays bullpen.

But then the world re-aligned itself and reason for a salary cap began pouring in to the world of baseball. Carl Crawford tore a tendon in his right hand, in all likelihood, the Rays left fielder, and a top of the order bat, would be gone for the rest of the season. Nearly two months without one of your top hitters-time to pack it in boys, nice run.

That, however, was not enough. A day later, the Rays moved Evan Longoria to the disabled list (retroactive to August 8th). The reports were mixed, Longoria had been hit by a pitch and his wrist had swelled up. After sitting out a couple of games, it sounded as if the injury was not serious and Longoria would be back shortly. Longoria was later placed on the DL with a 'fractured' right wrist. He is projected to be out the rest of the month, however one of his check ups had been pushed back, so it is yet to be seen what will happen with Longoria.

As if losing two of the teams three best hitters in a 24 hour span was not enough, the baseball god's errected a voodoo Ray in Boston for New Englanders to take a hack at. Troy Percival headed to the disabled list once again, and the team was now without 3 of its top 11 performers (as per FanGraphs WPA).

The Rays now sit 5.5 games ahead of the second place Red Sox atop the American League East. The team has outperformed their expected win-loss record, however not be an insurmountable amount-probably by enough that can be accredited to having one of the top defensive teams in baseball.

The Red Sox are currently fighting for the wild card, and while they still have their sights on the division, the Rays have enough of a lead to feel confident and comfortable atop the division. I won't say the P word, but it is looking good for my pre-season darlings.

BallHype: hype it up!

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