Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Pair of Rookies Duel at the Trop, Well, Maybe Not Duel...

The Rays had been on the West Coast for 7 days before coming back home this weekend for 3 against the Blue Jays. I was stuck working all weekend. I was off last night, but so were they. Tonight, I had to work, but had a chance to get out as early as 9:30. I thought at the very least I could catch the last 2 innings on the tube at home. Tonight was a rare night when 6 different rookie pitchers were starting in 7 different games in the American League. Two of the best (rookie pitchers) in the business were among them in Rick Porcello (10-7/4.21 ERA) and Ricky Romero (10-5/3.95). Porcello pitched superbly tonight, but ended with a no-decision while Romero had one of his worst starts this year, giving 6 runs in less than 4 innings. A couple of rookies were set to square off in Tampa Bay tonight as well. The Baltimore Orioles were sending 25 year-old righty Jason Berken to the hill against David Price, the 23 year-old rookie left hander for the Rays. Price was among the preseason favorites for Rookie of the Year, but some horrible performances on the road, plus a boring 5-5 record coming into this game have quieted the buzz. That and the performance of his teammate, Jeff Nieman who was not even expected to make the team, never mind the rotation this year. The 6’9” right hander from Rice University has surprised the baseball world by going 10-5 with a 3.86 ERA. He will take the hill tomorrow night against the Orioles, gunning for his (AL rookie leading) 11th win. Price has been nearly untouchable at home this year-I don’t know if young Mr. Price is married or even in a relationship, but somebody is making him some good home cooking! The Orioles are last in the AL East and held a 48-70 record coming into tonight’s game, but with bats in the lineup like Brian Roberts, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Luke Scott, they aren’t an easy team to pitch against. In fact, facing Price and 5 relievers, those 4 went 7 for 15 (.467) on the night. The problem is that all those hits came with no one on base. The O’s were just 2 for 12 (.167) with runners in scoring position, leaving 13 runners on base. On the other side, the Rays power-duo was powerless, with Longoria and Pena combining to go 0-7 leaving 6 men on base themselves. Joe Maddon, who shook up a bottle of black hair dye before the game, shook the line-up a bit and it worked. He started switch-hitting Ben Zobrist (1-3) in the lead-off spot, Crawford (3-4) remained 2nd, with Longoria and Pena batting 3rd and 4th. Pat Burrell hit in the 5th spot and went 2 for 4 with a solo homerun. He also struck out twice, leaving 3 ducks on the pond, so not too much changed. Greg Zaun (1-4) hit sixth, with Gabe Gross (2-4 HR) batting 7th. BJ Upton hit 8th and it worked. He had his first good night at the plate this month; his bat woke up, stretched and started hitting balls over the Trop. He missed hitting for the cycle by a double, going 3-4 with 2 RBI including a solo home run (his 8th) in the 6th inning which proved to be the game winner. Reid Brignac got the start at shortstop to give Jason Bartlett a day off. Reid batted 9th and went 0-4 with 2 Ks. David Price was good, but not great. He was not very economical with his pitches and hasn’t been all season. He has phenomenal stuff, but he topped 100 pitches in just 5 innings, again. That is not enough for a starting pitcher in a pennant race. Until that changes, he’s just a really good long reliever, but that is just my opinion. I do love the guy, I am glad he’s on the Rays and I think he will have a very long and very successful career IF he can learn to throw less than 20 pitches an inning. I had walked (slowly) past the TV in the office at work, wishing I could be there for this game. I have seen Price win (in-person) five times this year, I wanted to be there for number 6 and I wanted it to be tonight. Anyway, Prices night ended after 5 innings, with him striking out 5 and yielding 2 runs on 7 hits, while walking (this is my biggest issue with young Mr. Price) 3 batters. Of the 7 hits, only one, a double by Adam Jones (his 22nd) went for extra bases. Fortunately the Rays were coming off of a night off and the bullpen was ready, because they were needed. Lance Cormier, Russ Springer and Grant Balfour each got credit for holds, pitching 1 shutout inning each. Springer had just finished off the 7th inning when the last customer left and we started turning the lights out to head home. When I got in my car, I decided that I didn’t want to go home, even though Price had already hit the showers, I NEEDED to be there to witness his 6th victory. I turned the key and put the gas pedal to the floor. There was no traffic heading over the Sunshine Skyway into St. Petersburg and I was parked two streets away from the Trop by the top of the eight inning. I had been listening to the game on the radio. Kam Mickolio had come in for Baltimore in relief and shut the Rays down in the bottom of the 7th. Veteran lefty Randy Choate was starting the 8th for the Rays. He had allowed a leadoff single to Luke Scott when I shut the car off and starting running (literally) towards the Trop. The parking lot was near empty, the ticket windows were closed and there were no security guards anywhere near the entrances, so I waltzed right in just in time to see rookie catcher Matt Wieters taking the grand tour. Sometime between parking the car and entering the stadium, Randy Choate had served up a two-run home run to Wieters making the score 5-4. Joe “Ring of Fire” Maddon wasted no time pulling Choate and bringing in Grant Balfour to finish the 8th and preserve the lead. He allowed a hit to pinch hitter Michael Aubrey (not Huff) in his first at bat of the year, but he struck out Adam Jones to end the inning with no more scoring. Kam Mickolio stayed in to pitch the bottom of the 8th for Baltimore and he was nearly perfect. He went 2 full innings tonight, striking out 4 without allowing a hit. The 25 year-old right-handed reliever has not given up a run in 5 games this year. With the Rays clinging to a 1 run lead going into the ninth, and me clinging to my unpaid for $60.00 seat, JP Howell took the ball and the mound to start the ninth. He served up a lead-off single to Nick Markakis who was 3-4 on the night with a couple of great catches in right field. Not a great way to start off the inning. Howell’s style of pitching is in great contrast to Price and Balfour who both live in the mid-90s. Howell stays below the mid 80s more often than not and changes speeds in that range and also has a huge curveball. He struck out Nolan Reimold and Melvin Mora consecutively, leaving Markakis standing at first. Mora had an awful (typical?) night, going 0-5 with 3 Ks, stranding 7 base runners. Luke Scott, who back in his familiar DH role, stepped in next against Howell. He was the Orioles final hope and could put them ahead with one swing of the bat. He never did swing; he watched 3 quick balls without even thinking about it. Howell dropped in a perfect curve for called strike one. He followed with another breaking pitch in roughly the same location, but Scott took that one and was awarded first base. Felix Pie came in to run for Scott, who was exhausted after trotting to first base. In stepped Matt Wieters (.264/4/20), the Orioles catching phenom who brought them to within 1 run with his 8th inning homer. He had the chance to truly be the hero now, there were two runners on and two outs. It was a quarter past 10, I had been out of work for less than an hour and now I was at the Trop along with about half of the 16,000 (pathetic!) fans who paid to be there. We were all holding our breath, shaking our cowbells and standing on our feet. JP started the rookie off with an 81 MPH change, belt high and right over the plate. Wieters swung and missed, about a half second early. Howell followed with a 78 MPH sweeping curve that ended up in the dirt and Wieters again swung and missed. Two on, two outs, two strikes… Howell from the stretch, he delivers an 80 MPH curveball that dropped into the dirt and Wieters swings and misses, right over it for strike 3. That’s the ball game, say hello to victory, Rays win!!! Matt Wieters saw 3 pitches, none faster than 81 MPH and his bat didn’t come close to touching any of them. Around a hit and a walk, JP Howell struck out the side en route to his team leading 13th save. Jason Berken took the loss, his record falling to 2-11 in 16 starts. David Price notched the victory, improving his mark to 6-5 with a 5.03 ERA. Not terrific, but he is getting better. It still amazes me how different a pitcher he is at home compared to on the road. With tonight’s win, his record at Tropicana Field improves to 6-1 with a 2.82 ERA in 8 starts. Those are GREAT numbers. He’s averaged just under 6 innings a start, striking out 43 batters in 44 innings. Unfortunately, he is Dr. Jekyll on the road with an 0-4 record and an 8.07 ERA, serving up 9 home runs in 32 innings. Horrible! If Price continues to pitch every 5th day, he will have 9 more starts this season. The only problem is that 5 of them come on the road and they will be in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Texas. Things could get ugly. That’s another blog for another day. Right now it’s past 4 AM and I need to get some sleep. I am glad that I got to witness (the tail end) David Price’s 6th victory, I am glad the Rays won. I am glad that we (the Rays) are within 3 games of the wildcard. I am really glad that I don’t have to work tomorrow and I will be at the game for the first pitch. This makes 3 in a row for the Rays, let’s go for four! As a Ginter related side note: I got home from the game to be greeted by an e-mail from Brian in Texas. Although he is a Rangers fan and is my mortal wild-card enemy, he did agree to send a few more Ginter cards my way! That brings me up to 92% completion. Check out the list at
Go Rays!!! Sleepy troll out.

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