I had been planning on going to Wednesday night’s game ever since I got a taste on Tuesday night when I showed up fashionably late, but just in time to see JP Howell strike out the side (out of order) in the 9th inning to preserve David Price’s 6th victory (all at home) and the Rays third (all at home) win in a row. I got so energized just watching an inning and a half, I need a full nine (or more if need be) of exciting live baseball at Tropicana Field!
That coupled with Rick Porcello
and Ricky Romero both being unsuccessful in their bids for their 11th wins themselves. The Rays very tall (6’9”) right-handed rookie pitcher, Jeff Nieman (10-5) is the scheduled starter and he too will be gunning for his 11th victory, which would lead all rookie hurlers. This would of course further his campaign for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, the same trophy that his teammate Evan Longoria took home last year. Longo was the first ever Rays player to win it and if Nieman can follow in his footsteps, well, it wouldn’t be the first time a team produced back to back winners, but it would be cool…
At around 4 PM I finally decided (said out loud) that I was definitely going. A quick check of the oil and coolant levels cash for clunkers update coming soon) and I was on the road to I-275. Traffic was very badly congested and it took nearly 45 minutes to get through Palmetto-I think I got sunburn waiting at all the traffic lights. As I hit US19, the traffic disappeared, making way for a sudden downpour (rain is illustrated via CT file photo). It was nasty, low visibility and the road was oily and slippery, Blanca (yes, we named our car) and her balding tires were sliding all over the place. I was terrified, but somehow made it over the Sunshine Skyway and pulled into my secret (free) parking spot on 5th Avenue South. I got out of the car quick and sloshed through puddles, holding my camera bag closely and hoping that the rain wouldn’t get to my Nikon. I removed it from the bag once I got to the Trop’s entrance because I always shoot a picture of the lineup cards (which are normally wrong) on the outside of the stadium and I realized that there was no memory card in the camera. Fudgicles! I trotted back to the car, hoping that there might be one hidden in a pile of trash in my very messy car. I was in luck. Buried under peanut shells and bottle caps under the passenger side seat there was a very old and sticky 512 SD card that still worked. I was wetter (mo wet) than I would have preferred, but my camera and I were back in business and I hurried to my spot behind the Rays bullpen (the Rays are 10-1 when I sit in Section 130, Row G, Seat 2). At around 6:30 Jeff Niemann entered the field. As he walked out you could hear the thunder from outside and it added to his grand entrance. He started stretching and I could hear a chorus of “Man, that guy is tall” around me. I went through my bag and realized that not only had I forgotten a memory card, I also didn’t bring back-up batteries, a cowbell, a pen or my debit card-I also had no cash, this could be a long and thirsty night. I sent a text message to Esther Gin, whining about everything I forgot and wishing she was there with me. She has derby practice on Wednesday nights and with a bout this weekend, that was more important. By this point Greg Zaun had joined Niemann in the pen and he was working up a sweat (which isn’t easy in a 72 degree dome) hitting Zaun’s mitt with his fastball. Niemann started by tossing 5 feet behind the rubber in the pen and worked his way up to the simulated mound. I asked Zaun how he looked and he said “tough to hit”. Fair enough. By 7:00 it was time for the ceremonial first pitch and 10 year-old Griffin Alstott took to the mound. His father, Mike Alstott, was an All-Pro fullback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a fan favorite. The National Anthem was sung and another little kid said “play ball!” into a microphone and Jeff Niemann was ready on the mound for the scheduled 7:08 first pitch. He threw an 89 MPH fastball over the plate for called strike one, which is the best way to start a ballgame, and we were under way. Niemann worked Brian Roberts (a favorite of mine and many other bloggers!) and struck him out swinging with a 93 MPH heater. There were about 18,000 people at the Trop last night, maybe 15 thousand at this point, but they already on their feet ringing their bells when Niemann got 2 strikes on Nolan Reimold, the DH for the Orioles. I had seen Jeff toss some great games this year, he’s had two shutouts so far, and I was ready for something special. I was already thinking about a no hitter when Reimold lined one sharply over BJ Upton’s head to the centerfield wall. He was in with a double. So much for the no-hitter. Adam Jones popped out and Nick Markakis shot the 2-2 pitch, with 2 outs and a runner on 2nd, to deep left to end the inning. Rookie Chris Tillman (1-0 4.88 ERA) was making his 5th start for the O’s tonight and it was coming against Jason Bartlett. He followed Niemann’s lead and started him off with a fastball for a called strike before he bounced back to the pitchers mound for the first out. Crawford squared to bunt for a hit, but it hit the plate (he would have been out by a mile) and he got a second chance. He maximized the opportunity and drilled one to left field that bounced over the wall for a ground rule double. It seemed kind of eerie that both number two hitters had doubles in the first inning for their team’s first hit of the night. Longoria followed up with a long drive out to Markakis in right field. He made a nice running grab, but had no chance to stop CC from tagging and going to third base. Ben Zobrist (hitting cleanup again) stepped in from the left side of the plate. He worked the count full with 2 outs and looked at a high fastball for ball four. Carlos Pena followed suit and look a fastball (with a full count) for ball four to load the bases with two outs. I was hoping to hear Flo Rida over the PA (meaning Aybar was coming up) but I didn’t. Pat Burrell stepped in with the bases full and two outs. Wieters went out to the mound for a chat with his pitcher, who didn’t take his advice and three pitches later, Burrell was ahead 3-0. I (along with half the fans there) was screaming “Don’t swing Pat!” He listened and took a perfect fastball for strike one, then fouled off another to fill the count. Everyone was on their feet (with their fingers crossed) as Tillman threw the 31st pitch of the inning. Burrell chased it and popped up to Felix Pie to end the threat and the inning. At the end of 1, it’s a scoreless ballgame. Luke Scott (playing 1st base) lead off and grounded out to the infield shift. Wieters followed with a single up the middle to bring up Melvin Mora (.260/4/33 in 331 at bats). Mora swung on a 0-2 fastball and shattered his bat (the barrel flew 12 rows up in the stands) but the ball made it as far as the pitchers mound for a 1-4-3 inning ending double play. Tillman was settled down now and he got the Rays in order. Niemann started off sharp, but with two outs and a full count Brian Roberts drilled a double off the wall in right center. Reimold stranded him there, grounding out to second base to end the inning. Tillman, who needed 31 pitches to get through the first, was breezing along at this point. He needed 11 pitches to sit Bartlett, Crawford and Longoria down in order. Jeff Niemann didn’t want to be outpitched, so he used just 7 pitches to get through the top of the fourth inning, the score still locked up at 0-0. Tillman got both Zobrist and Pena to hit pop flies and he had a one-hit shutout working in the 4th. He still needed to face Pat Burrell with 2 outs, though. Pat (I owe you an apology) blasted Tillman's first offering, a fast ball over the FS Florida sign in left centerfield for the Rays second hit and first run, it was Burrell’s 12th homer of the year and it gave the Rays a 1-0 lead. Greg Zaun hit a chopper straight up the middle and Brian Roberts made a fantastic play on it, but Zaun beat the throw for an infield single. This was the first time I had noticed Luke Scott holding a runner at first base, he looked less than comfortable. With 2 out and a man on, Tillman got Gabe Gross to look at strike 3 on a HUGE breaking ball. I have to say, this Tillman kid has great stuff. His fastball is accurate at 94 miles per hour, his change up is effective and his high 70’s curve is baffling. He will be a solid starter on the O’s staff next year. Niemann started the 5th inning with a first pitch strike to Wieters (as he had done in every inning so far) before he blooped a single just out of Bartlett’s reach. Melvin Mora was up and looking for redemption after his inning killing double play ball in the 2nd. He laced a double off the left field wall, but Crawford fielded it quickly and Wieters didn’t try to challenge his arm. There are no outs and men on 2nd and third base. Niemann is in trouble for the first time of the day. Felix Pie pounded a pitch into the dirt right in front of the plate. It didn’t bounce up, it just died there. Pie had his head down motoring to first and he was there by the time Niemann had picked up the ball. We’ve got the bases loaded and nobody out for the shortstop, Izturis. He lines the first pitch he sees straight up the middle, but wait… Jason Bartlett made a diving stop and got up to throw a clothesline to Zaun getting Wieters by a step. That was an amazing play! This brings up Brian Roberts with the bases loaded and one out. He rips one to the same spot and Bartlett makes another amazing grab, but this time flips to Zobrist at second for the 6-4-3 inning ender. WOW! What makes that even more incredible is I read that that was only the 4th double play that Roberts has hit into all year (in 475 at bats). That could not have been scripted any better. Niemann definitely owes Bartlett a diner for those two plays. It’s the bottom of the 5th and the Rays are clinging to a 1-0 lead and BJ Upton is set to lead off. He hits the fastball to deep right, but Markakis is there for another great grab. This guy is one of the best hitters in the league (.307/15/84) and even tonight, when he went 0-4, he saved at least 3 extra base hits with his glove. They lack pitching, but with Roberts and Markakis on the squad, I can see why so many people collect the O’s, those two are awesome on both sides of the ball. Speaking of awesome, favorite players who get it done offensively and defensively… Jason Bartlett shoots Tillman’s change-up off the center field wall and stretched it into a hustle double. That is why he’s my favorite player. My other fav, Carl Crawford was up next with one out and a runner on 2nd. He fell victim to Tillman’s 78 MPH breaking ball (very JP Howell-like) and struck out swinging. Longo couldn’t get the timing down against Tillman. The rookie pitcher changed speeds so well and had so much movement on all his pitches tonight. Longo ended up tapping a grounder to Mora to end the inning. All Star catcher Dioner Navarro (another Troll fav) wasn’t in the game, but was signing autographs in between every inning, making the kids around me VERY happy. Navi rules. In the top of the 6th, Niemann still had the shutout going and had just 71 pitches to begin it. His ERA had dropped to 3.71 (which I think is best for rookie starters). He had struck out Roberts to open the game, but hadn’t repeated that since. He must’ve been thinking about that too, because he Reimold and Jones swinging for his 2nd and third Ks of the day. Markakis grounded out to Zobrist to put the cap on another 1-2-3 inning. I had called the David Price versus Jason Berken match-up on Tuesday a “pitchers duel” but I was kidding, this one (Rays 1, Orioles 0) in the 6th really was. Jeff Niemann looked like the Ace of the staff (which I think he is) and Stillman looks VERY promising. That said, Ben Zobrist swatted the first pitch of the inning well over Markakis’ head into the right field seats to give the Rays a 2-0 lead. ZORILLA! It was Zobrist's 20th homer of the season and just his 3rd since the All Star break. Tillman was not rattled. He got Carlos Pena to look at called strike 3 (on the curve), but allowed Burrell to squeak a single past Scott at first for a single. Tillman threw his change and got Zaun to hit a weak fly ball to Pie in left for the second out. Gabe Gross (0-2 so far) hit Tillman’s 100th of the pitch of the night to mid-center and right into Adam Jones’ glove to finish off the sixth inning. Neimann opened the 7th by striking out Luke Scott on a big curve ball. Matt Wieters (who hits the Rays well) took a free pass. It was the first walk that Niemann had allowed and just his 44th this year. After the uncharacteristic base on balls, both Lance Cormier and Brian Shouse began tossing in the Rays bullpen, but Jeff struck out Mora on a 93 MPH heater for the second out. Felix Pie drilled one to deep, deep left, but Crawford made a perfectly timed catch as he crashed in the wall behind him. It wouldn’t have been a homerun, but it would have scored Wieters, another nice play behind Niemann. That’s two dinners now that he owes his defense. Even though he had passed 100 pitches last inning, Tillman was still on the mound to start the bottom of the 7th. STRETCH! BJ Upton greeted him by clobbering the first pitch of the inning (again) over the 370 sign in left center. That was Bossman Junior’s 9th of the year and second in as many games. That gave the Rays a 3-0 lead and spelled the end of the night for Tillman. I thought he pitched an excellent game. Take away 3 bad pitches and he shut the Rays down. Cla “The Claw” Meridith took the ball for the Birds with no outs in the bottom of the 7th. He was another JP Howell type of pitcher. He stayed in the 70s and 80s and had a sweeping curve of his own. Spare a walk to Longoria, he got through the inning with no damage. Going into the 8th, the Rays lead 3-0. Jeff Niemann was still going, even though he was up to 98 pitches and Dan Wheeler appeared ready in the Rays pen. He started Izturis off to a 0-2 before he popped out to Upton in center. Brian Roberts, who was 1-3 with a double, was up. Niemann served him a 90 MPH fastball and Roberts deposited it into the center field stands, over 400 feet away, the longest homer of the evening. It was Neimann’s 103 pitch of the game. Surprisingly, the fan who caught the ball threw it back on the field. Man, Rays fans are getting hardcore! That was the night for Niemann; he left to a standing ovation and tipped his hat to the fans on his way to the dugout. He allowed 1 run on 7 hits and left with his ERA down to 3.71. If the pen can hold on, this will be his 11th win of the year. Dan Wheeler got the call and promptly got both Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones to ground out to second and shortstop to finish off the top of the 8th. Chris Ray (0-1/6.27 ERA) got the call for the 8th for the Orioles. Carlos Pena led off with a very rare single. With the count full to Burrell, Pena took off for second base. Burrell checked his swing and was called out on strikes and Wieters fired a strike to Izturis to tag Pena for the double play. Gabe Gross lined out to Adam Jones in centerfield to end the inning. JP Howell got the call in the ninth for the second day in a row and he made quickly (anticlimactic even) work Markakis, Scott and Wieters-getting each of them to ground out to end the inning and the ball game. The game was incredible! Everything went so smooth on the field. No errors, no controversy, just a really tight pitchers duel. One thing that I thought was odd though-Brian Roberts and Carl Crawford have 5 stolen base totals between them and there was not a single steal in this game. Carlos Pena (thrown out by Wieters) was the only one to even attempt a steal. Anyway, this was probably Niemann’s 3rd or 4th best game of the year and there was some sweet defense (Bartlett, Crawford, Markakis, Roberts) from both teams. Tillman was impressive in his 5th start of the year and gives the Orioles a bright spot in their rotation. I stuck around the stands for a few and watched a postgame interview with Jason Bartlett on the field. He was named player of the game-not because he was 1-4 at the plate, but because of those two beautiful plays to end the 5th inning. I saw the MVP Trophy that was awarded to Bartlett last year when the Tampa Bay Area sportswriters named him Rays team MVP last season, it is in a trophy case at the Trop. In reality, Niemann was the games MVP, but he was long gone into the clubhouse at this point. Todd Kalas (from Sunsports TV) sat down with JP Howell for a postgame chat. All Howell did was throw a 9-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth inning for his second save in as many nights. Howell excused himself and Kalas (maybe waiting for someone who never showed) seemed to be interviewing an empty chair. I actually watched the ghost discussion for a few minutes before I realized that I, Todd and the apparition were the only ones left in the Trop that didn’t work there. I started to make my way outside, calling the wife to give her fair warning that I was heading home. The rain had ceased (during the 4th inning) and it was cool and pleasant outside for my (one-mile) walk to the car. It was as dark a night as I can remember (something about the moon being conquered by Mars), I don’t know. On my way to the car I encountered a young man who warned me of walking threw that neighborhood. He was quite frazzled, red in the face and he alleged that he had been beaten and robbed. I was genuinely concerned about him until he started dropping racial slurs, then I wanted to beat him up myself-we parted ways. Anyway, I found the car-all of her windows were intact (I forgot to take off the radio face) and there were no parking tickets on her window. Sweet. I got in and turned the key to head home and end the night with some Netflix in bed, but as I turned the key, there was silence. No engine turning over, no radio playing metal music, no lights turning on, nothing. Fudgicles again! It was a complete downpour when I had arrived in St.Pete-I put my lights on for safety even though it was daylight out. When I got out of the car, I was so preoccupied with keeping the camera dry and then finding a memory card, I didn’t think about the lights. Fortunately the game had just ended and there were 18,000 people or so, most with cars who could help me. I called Esther Gin and confessed my stupidity and then set out to flag someone down. A guy who lived in the apartment building that I had parked in front of had tried to help me. We connected our cars and were charging (with no results) for a good five minutes. He tried revving his engine, but then noticed smoke; a second later we had fire. (man, I WISH I had my camera out for that!) The freaking jumper cables had caught fire and the flame were a foot high!!! He shut his engine and I had a towel in my car that I was able to smother the fire with. The cables had totally melted and it melted the fiberglass header panel on his pick-up. I felt terrible. This guy had tried to help me and I set his truck on fire! Triple fudgicles!!! I cleaned up what I could and he drove away, leaving me with no cables to go along with my dead battery. I stood beside my car, hood up on 5th Ave South in Downtown St. Pete, frantically waving my arms hoping that a Good Samaritan might exist. If I had a nickel for every person that drove right past me, I could buy season tickets right behind home plate. If I had a dollar for every one who shouted obscenities at me, I could buy an import beer there. I was hungry, thirsty, lonely, cranky, irritated, mad at myself and generally hating the world, but I was still trying to flag someone down, with no luck. I had pretty much had it with humanity when a nice couple (with cables) stopped (at 1:15 AM) and got me started. Thanks Chris and Rita, you guys rule!!! I made it home, drank half a beer and crashed. Big congratulations to Jeff Niemann on getting his AL rookie leading 11th win of the season and doing so in a commanding performance! Congrats to the rest of the Rays, too, on an amazing offensive and defensive effort, they are ready for the playoffs! The Rays won their 4th game in a row, but the Red Sox won as well, while the Rangers lost. That puts the Sox ahead of the Rangers by a game, the Rays are 3 games back and the Twins are 5 back. Let’s see if James Shields (7-9) can keep the streak alive and make it four in a row for the Rays tonight. A couple quick endnotes. 1. None of the cards in the blog today are up for trade, these are all Troll keepers! 2. Tomorrow will bring back either the "Rays Card of the Day" or the "Ex Ray Report". Both regular features of the blog, in theory. 3. Tomorrow, there will be a HUGE Hall of Fame themed contest. You must follow this blog to enter, stay tuned. Go Rays! Troll out.