Thursday, June 18, 2009

Crabs Win, Kazmir Looks Sharp, Williams Ties FSL Record!

Last night the Tampa Bay Rays were far away from the Bay area, they were in Colorado trying to win their 7th game in a row. One Rays pitcher was in Florida, rehabbing lefty Scott Kazmir was scheduled to make his first rehab start for the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League. With Kaz pitching 50 miles away and the Rays off in Colorado, it was a pretty easy decision to make as to which game I was going to attend tonight. The drive there was rainy, but pleasant. The last time I had been to Port Charlotte, Alex Rodriguez was on the Rangers and it was a spring game. Port Charlotte is now the Rays minor league hub and the stadium and surrounding grounds are beautiful! I am not going to say that I have been to many of the minor league parks around the country, but this stadium is by far the most fan friendly and nicest park I have ever been to. They managed to find the balance between big league amenities and an up close and personal feel.

The kids' playground is a really nice touch that more parks should include. Alas, this isn’t an infomercial or ad for their stadium, this is game coverage! I’ve been trying to think of a way to start this story. I could wring every last metaphor out of the weather… Mother Nature provided the lightning, but Scott Kazmir brought the star power. Nah, I’ll just talk about the game.
I was mixed up on the start time and arrived two hours early, which wasn’t a bad thing. I watched the Crabs take BP in the cage and Lakelands Flying Tigers take BP on the field. I spent a few minutes watching Kaz warm up his arm on one of the side fields, he had the catcher’s mitt popping. I wondered if he would look that good with live opponents standing in. After his warm-ups, he wrapped his arm and body to a degree of extremity that I have never seen. I joked that it was a good look for him and told him I was a mummy for Halloween, once; it got a lot of laughs. That had him smiling. He seemed to be right at home joking with his teammates and being on this small stage. Looking back, he was pitching in the Florida State League for the St. Lucie Mets just 4 years ago. Our pregame conversation was minimal; he said his arm felt great and he was excited to face live batters. I told him I was excited to see him feeling better.
In talking with one of the Stone Crabs officials, he said they loved having the Rays rehabbing here, but they hadn’t been good luck for the team. The extra crowds they bring out are great, but our record is just 1-6 with them in the lineup. The one win was last Thursday when Pat Burrell went 0-4 for the Crabs. Darin Downs turned in an All Star performance on the hill and the Crabs won 7-2.
Minutes before the first pitch, I hit Kazmir with 3 quick questions. Are you ready? Are you nervous? Are you excited? He responded yes to each. I guess I was, too, mostly excited though.
Last week, with Pat Burrell in Charlotte, he took some heat (mostly from me) for blowing off the fans, the media and not standing with the team on the field for the National Anthem. In case anyone is curious, Kaz did the opposite with all 3, spending nearly 20 minutes signing autographs for the youngsters before the game and treating us media freaks like old friends, and standing proudly on the mound as Charlotte’s trainer sang the National Anthem.
Play ball! Scott Kazmir, who was wearing number 35 tonight (outfielder John Matulia wears 19 for the Crabs), was ready for the first pitch. The right handed Joe Tucker, the Flying Tigers leadoff man, was ready for it. STEE RIIKKEE! The home plate umpire called. I love starting a game off with a first pitch strike. After one more swinging strike, Tucker popped out to center, bringing up switch-hitting Chris White. White also had strike one called, but managed a single to left. So much for a no-hitter. Jeramy Lester was next. He struck out swinging, on a pitch low in the dirt. White stole second during the at-bat and the announcer informed the crowd that if the Crabs strike out 10 or more batters, everyone in attendance will receive a free junior Frosty from Wendys (a 99 cent value). Wow, come on Crabs!!!
Chris Clarkson, the Flying Tigers big (6’4” 225) DH was next. He drew a walk. Michael Beltram, the only lefty in the line-up for the Tigers, was up with 2 on and 2 outs. Kaz got a quick 0-2 lead on him. He fouled off the next offering, and then struck out swinging on a nice slider in the zone. One inning down, 1 hit, no runs, two strikeouts. He threw 18 pitches in the inning.
I checked with the guy with the radar gun, Kaz’s fastball was coming in between 90-92 MPH, which is the norm for him.
Its time for the Crabs half of the first. Left handed prospect Charlie Furbush, who missed all of last year with an injury, takes the hill for the Flying Tigers.
Designated hitter, Sean O’Malley (normally shortstop) led off with a single to center. Shawn Williams, playing 3rd base to give All Star Greg Sexton a day off, drilled a double off the wall, giving the Crabs runners at first and second with no outs.
Right fielder Ryan Royster hit a single, right up the middle, clearing the bases and putting the Crabs up two to nothing.
All Star first baseman, Cody Cipriano, a fan favorite and all around nice guy hit into a fielder’s choice and was picked off of first base. Two outs, bases empty for Henry Wrigley who walked. Catcher Christian Lopez struck out on a curve ball with Wrigley running. We go to the second inning with Charlotte leading 2-0.
Kazmir got the first two hitters he faced to hit weak grounders to shortstop. Audy Ciriaco came up with two outs and bases empty. Kazmir started him with a strike, as he has done to every batter so far this game, but Ciriaco drilled a ground ball down the line into left field. Joe Tucker was up; he was down in the count 0-2 when he squibbed a grounder to second to end the inning.
I had managed to get a seat in the front row behind home plate, seeking the best vantage point to watch the rehabbing lefty. Not far to my left was a drunken heckler in a Red Sox tee-shirt. I only saw him drink one beer, but it went right to his head. He got loud quickly, and the dominantly retired crowd didn’t like it. Within minutes there was a cop there to tell him to tone it down. I love it- I wonder if the heckler made the police blotter. I started imagining heckling being the number one crime in Charlotte County when I realized the inning was starting.
Furbish got the first two Crabs out quickly before Emeel Salem reached on an infield single. Shawn O’Malley followed with a beautiful bunt single down the first base line. O’Malley and Salem pull off a double steal. For O’Malley, it’s his 21st swipe of the year. I like this guy. Shawn Williams promptly doubles down the third base line to clear the bases. In two at-bats, Williams has two doubles and 4 RBIs. Royster went down swinging to end the inning.
With a 4-0 lead, Kazmir set the Flying Tigers down in order, striking out Laster on three swings to end it. He needed only 11 pitches (8 strikes) to finish the inning; he hit his max at 93 MPH on the radar gun.
The Stone Crabs also went down in order in the bottom of the 3rd.
Kazmir is looking sharp and confident, working quickly, and throwing strikes. He has not looked this sharp to me all year. Although the competition isn’t big league hitters, he looks untouchable, regardless of the opposition. Facing Chris Clarkson for the second time (walk in 1st inning) he struck him out swinging. Michael Bertrum grounded out to short next. Santo DeLeon also hit a weak grounder to short, but Omar Luna’s throw to first was off, so he reached on an E-6. Kaz struck out their catcher, Jordan Newton to end the inning. That puts Kaz up to 5 strikeouts (halfway to a free Frosty!) with 1 walk and two hits allowed. He has thrown 53 pitches.
In the bottom of the 4th the Crabs failed to score. Second baseman Matt Hall led off with a single, but he was erased on a fielder’s choice. At the end of 4 innings, the Stone Crabs still lead 4-0.
Kazmir started the 5th inning with a quick ground out. Then Joe Tucker singles to center. He gets Justin Henry to fly to out to left, but after that pitch manager Jim Morrison emerged from the dugout and headed to the mound. Kaz had reached his 65 pitch limit and it was non-negotiable. The crowd rose to their feet cheering Kaz and he tipped his hat before entering the dugout. He was one out away from being the pitcher of record, but his pitch count was to be strictly enforced. I, for one, was pretty impressed he lasted 4-2/3 innings on 65 pitches. He threw 69% percent of them for strikes (44 out of 64) and was in complete control the entire ballgame. His final line was 4-2/3 scoreless innings, 5 strikeouts, 1 walk and three hits. He looked effortless out there; he looked like the Scott Kazmir that won the attention of the league in 2007 when he went 13-9 with a league leading 239 strikeouts. Kaz stayed in the dugout for a few minutes to chat with pitching coach Bill Moloney and accept hi-fives from his teammates. Joe Callendar (who was an infielder last year for Vero Beach) came on in relief and got Chris White to fly out to left field to end the inning.
In the bottom of the 5th, The Stone Crabs still lead it 4-0. Kazmir left the field to head to the clubhouse with the trainers and to speak with the media. I was curious what Kaz had to say, but I was also here to watch the ballgame. I figured that there were enough scribes there for him to talk with anyway.
Charlie Furbush, the Flying Tigers starter, was lifted as well. Right hander Lester Olivaros started the 5th for Lakeland.
He struck out the first two Crabs he faced before his defense failed him allowing Cipriano to reach on an error. He got Wrigley to pop out, ending the inning with the score frozen at 4-0.
Callender remained on for the 6th and got the first two Tigers out on ground balls. He walked Michael Bertram, who moved to 2nd on a wild pitch, but he got De Leon to fly out to end the threat and the inning.
Sparing a walk to Matt Hall, Oliveros sped through the Crabs in the bottom of the 6th.
Right hander, Kevin Boggan took the ball for the seventh inning. He got the Flying Tigers out 1-2-3 with 2 ground-outs and a K.
In the bottom of the 7th, with Oliveros still on, O’Malley leads off with a walk and scores on Shawn William’s third double of the night. He moves to third after Cody Cipriano doubles. Wrigley reached on an error to load the bases. Lopez hit a sacrifice fly to score Williams. Matt Hall grounded out to end the inning, but the Crabs now lead 6-0.
Broggan started the 8th for the Crabs and was greeted by a double from Justin Henry, who moved to 3rd on a wild pitch. He got the next two batters to ground out, but Henry was able to score from third. He walks the DH, Carlson, to bring up first baseman Michael Bertram with 2 outs and a man on. Bertram crushed a fastball to right field, Royster watched it sail as it cleared the fence by twenty feet. Broggan got DeLeon to ground out to end the inning, but the damage was done. It took 8 innings, but the Flying Tigers are on the board. The score is 6-3.
Brendan Wise took over to pitch the bottom of the 8th. He got Luna and Saleem out on ground balls, but Shawn O’Malley was able to leg out an infield single for his 3rd hit of the day.
Shawn Williams steps in and quickly drills one off of the left field wall. He cruises into second base and O’Malley scores his 4th run of the ballgame. For Williams, it is his 4th double of the game. That is not a typo; Williams hit 4 doubles, which tied a Florida State League record. The final line on Williams, he was 4-5 with 4 doubles, 2 runs and 4 RBIs. I am glad I didn’t follow the rest of the media in the Kazmir chase; I got to see a record. I had chatted with Williams a little before the game. He was obsessive in the batting cage, taking 2 extra rounds of BP in preparation. He looked great in the cage, drilling balls all over the place. At the plate, he was seeing grapefruit and ripped doubles to different spots each time. After the game while he was signing autographs for the young fans I kidded with him, “So, how did you do at the plate? Did you get a hit?”
“Yeah, he said, 4 of them.” At the time, he didn’t realize that he had tied a record and neither had I. Williams signed with the Rays in ’06 as an undrafted free agent. He’s been in the system ever since. His scouting report says he is a great fielding catcher who has yet to show anything at the plate. Tonight he played 3rd base and showed a lot.
Going into the 9th inning, the Crabs are holding a 7-3 lead. One of their closers, Austin Hinkle, got the call to finish the Flying Tigers off. Hinkle, who had 13 saves for Columbus last year, struck Newton out on a pitch in the dirt. With a show of lightning as a backdrop for him, he got Ciriaco to ground out 5-3. The Tigers were down to their last hope in Joe Tucker. Hinkle got off to a great start, but Tucker lined the 0-2 pitch to right for a single. Now Justin Henry is their last hope with 1 on and two outs in the ninth. Hinkle gets him to hit a weak fly to center to end the game with the Crabs winning 7-3. About half of the crowd had disappeared after Kazmir left the game, but I was glad I stayed. Led by a record-tying offensive performance from Shawn Williams, the Crabs bats were alive and they won their second game with a rehabbing Ray in the lineup. Joe Callender, who pitched an inning and a third got the win, his first. In fact I think it was his professional pitching debut. He spent last year playing second base for the Vero Beach Rays. Furbush took the loss for the Flying Tigers, evening his record at 4-4. The Stone Crabs combined for 7 strikeouts this evening, three short of a free Frosty. Kazmir will pitch next for the Durham Bulls in North Carolina on Monday, June 22nd. He will be allowed to throw up to 85 pitches. It should be an epic AAA contest. The Bulls are playing Pawtucket and Clay Bucholz will get the start for the Paw Sox. The same guy who spun a no-hitter in his second big league start 2 years ago. It should be an interesting matchup with two VERY talented young pitchers dueling. If all goes well with the Durham start, Kaz will join the Rays on Tuesday as they entertain the Phillies in a rematch of last years World Series. The Phillies will be in St. Pete for 3 games: June 23-25. There is little to no chance of seeing a rematch of Cole Hammels versus Scott Kazmir, but Kaz may see action with a start against the Florida Marlins next weekend.
My drive home, like the drive there, was through pouring rain. It was bright and sunny at the ballpark all night.
Go Rays, Troll Out!
Endnotes: The Stone Crabs will entertain the Flying Tigers for one more game tonight, before a 3-game break for the Florida State All Star Game in Ft. Myers, Florida. Representing the Crabs will be 4 players: pitchers Darin Downs and Matt Gorgen, as well as first baseman Cody Cipriano and third baseman Greg Sexton.


  1. Nice post, and thorough! I saw Kaz in Durham a year or so ago, and that was way cool.

  2. I'm glad to read this. I've always been a Kaz fan, and was getting bummed with all the negativity being dropped on him. If this keeps up and he returns to the old (relatively speaking I suppose) Kaz then that will be awesome!