Tagged: Jeff Nieman

Catching Up

That title has so many meanings. 

First, it is good to be back.  Vacation was great.  A week at a resort ain’t bad no matter what.

But, obviously, I have missed alot.  Let me check that, I have not written about alot.  I have missed nothing. 

Second, it seems that “catchin’ up” is exactly what the Rays have been doing.  They fought back in this tough division to take the lead by a game, only to fall back out of it before finding themselves back in the thick of it with a few strong games of late.

Here are some of the things I have seen over these last weeks.

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Rays Resilience

The Rays have not given up on this season at all.  As I mentioned, they took the division lead a week or so ago, despite a 7-game losing streak.  Then, just as soon as they got the lead, they relinquished it to the Yanks again. 

Even though they currently sit in 2nd place in the division, they could easily have packed it in.  They overcame a mini-losing streak in the last few weeks before getting a nice start from Jeremy Hellickson his last time out (before today).  Then they seemed to hit rock bottom, being shut out by the last place Orioles on Friday.  Now they have won 2 in a row (again, behind a strong start from Hellickson) and find themselves wrapping up the weekend in the thick of it once again.

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One Game Out

The Rays are sitting just one game behind the Yanks. 

They are heading into a very difficult series with the AL West division leading Texas Rangers.  There will be no easy wins there.  The Rangers are as good as it gets, and the Rays will have to be on top of their game if they want to get closer than they already are.

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Hellickson is Awesome

How good is this kid?

His win today pushed his record to 3-0.  He has given up almost no hits in his starts; specifically, he has not given up more than 3 hits in any of his three starts.  And he is still a kid.  He has stopped any bad baseball played by the Rays to inspire them to wins in each of his starts this sesaon. 

In other words, he is exactly what a contending team needs down the stretch.

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DL?  What DL?

You would have thought that the Rays would have faltered when 19 wins of their starting rotation left at the exact same time with shoulder injuries. 

I know that I was very worried when Jeff Nieman and Wade Davis went on the DL together.  However, Andy Sonnanstine and Hellickson have not missed a beat, pitching solid baseball over these last few weeks to bridge the gap to the two starters’ return from their respective ailments.

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What’ll Joe Do?

Finally, there are some really important decisions Joe Maddon will have to make in the coming days.

First, he will have to decide what to do once Nieman and Davis return from the DL.  Does he replace a hot Hellickson and solid Sonnanstine or does he ride the hot hand and send the incumbant starters to a “rehab” in the minors?  You would think that Sonny’s move to the ‘pen is a foregone conclusion–he’s a great spot starter, but it is tough to rely on him longterm–but you really don’t want to send down Hellickson.  Tough one.

The other decision will be what to do when Carlos Pena returns from his plantar faciatis issue.  Maddon has already said that nobody from the bullpen will be sent down.  So, does that mean Dan Johnson’s days are numbered?  They might be.  He has a ******** .405 OBP, but his average (.125) is pitiful, even when compared with Pena’s.

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Caught up.  Now let’s get ahead.

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Rays Streakin’ Heading into Break

We’re Streakin’!!!!

I don’t know how today’s game will go. 

What I do know is that over the course of July, the Rays have been playing as well as they have all season long.

And that is saying something.

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FLEX SCHEDULE

Heading into Interleague play, back in June, the Rays sat with a supberb record of 32-12.  They were 20 games over .500 and playing the best baseball in the league.  They were the talk of the league and considered a shoo-in for the playoffs. 

Then disaster hit.

The Rays became human.

They started to lose at a Devil Rays-esque pace.  Over the course of 30 games the Rays won only 12, falling out of first place in the AL East, out of the wildcard spot in the AL, and into the spot they finished in last season: 3rd.

It was heartbreaking.

Then something weird happened.

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FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!!

In the final game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, BJ Upton pulled a, well, BJ Upton, and loafed after a ball in the gap. 

After being called out by Evan Longoria on his lack of hustle, BJ threw a temper tantrum. 

Upton was removed from the starting lineup for the next handful of games, something that BJ and manager Joe Maddon said was because of injury, but the rest of the fans with any baseball acumen knew was an unpublished suspension.

And the Rays took off.

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BACK ON PACE

Since the fight, the Rays have gone 9-3 against some of the better competition in the league, the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, and a team they SHOULD beat, the Cleveland Cav-, um, Indians.

A win today will move the Rays to 54-34, right back to where they were about a little over a month ago. 

20 games over .500 again.

They would have the second best record in the AL and (possibly) get to within 1 game of first place, behind the New York Yankees.

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Jeff Nieman is on the mound today.  He is 16-4 since last July.  Pitchers cannot be much better than he has been the last year. 

The Cleveland Indians are, well, a team that is on the downturn, let’s say.

20 games over .500 would look pretty good going into a mid-season rest.

How much longer could this streak of good play go?

We’ll see…

Speedy Post: Nice Win Gets Rays Closer to First

The Rays ended the month of June with a really nice win against a team they HAVE to beat if they want to be in the running for a playoff spot, the Boston Red Sox.

Their 9-4 thumping of the Sawx Wednesday night was pretty darn impressive, as the run output from Boston was augmented with some meaningless runs late in the game. 

Matt Garza did just what the Rays needed him to do: shut down the opposition.  He gave up only 6 hits in his 7 innings and looked in command throughout.  He ran out of gas in the 8th inning, but it didn’t really matter at that point because the Rays had a commanding lead.

I had thought that the Rays would be able to beat down Daisuke Matsusaka, but it didn’t really go that way.  He was far from impressive, but he was also far from dominated by the Rays offense.  It was the Sox ‘pen that fall apart, namely Manny Delcarmen

And, let’s face it, you can’t win if your bullpen stinks on any given night.  Luckily, the Rays’ hitters were able to take advantage of Delcarmen’s lack of control.

What really helped to force the Sox pitchers hands was what has helped the Rays to beat Boston 5 out of 9 games thus far this season:

 Stolen Bases!!!

The Rays were able to run on Sox catcher Jason Varitek fairly easily, stealing on 2 of 3 base attempts.  That might not sound like alot, but when NONE of the stolen bases were taken by guys with last names of Upton, Crawford, or Bartlett, then you are talking about some really good base running.  (Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist were the thieves in the game)

If you are a Rays fan, you are not only happy with the result of the game but also with the fact that Tampa Bay sits just 1 game behind the Sox for second place in the AL East and only 2 games behind the Yanks for the division lead. 

Unfortunately, if they aren’t careful during this tough 4-game series in Minnesota, they might give up all the ground they gained last night. 

It will be up to Jeff Nieman and the Rays hitters to start July off the same way they finished June: with a win.

Five Battles to Watch for in Spring Training

As Spring Training approaches (not fast enough, despite my Indianapolis Colts’ moving the Bowl of all Bowls), there are several areas on the Tampa Bay Rays that are in need of shoring up.  These five areas certainly “ray-se” concerns among fans, and failure for Andrew Friedman and company to address them may result in a long summer for the Boys in Blue.  

Here are the five key areas of consternation heading into these few weeks before pitchers and catchers report:

DH

Rays fans loved Pat Burrell in 2009.

He did an amazing job of keeping those in attendance at the Trop cool every night as the human oscillating fan. Hearing Dwayne Staats announce, “Swing and a miss,” with regards to Burrell never got old. Wait…it did.

No folks, “The Bat” was far from a fan fave-the typical fate of so many .221, 14 hr, 64 RBI guys making 9 million dollars. As of this moment Burrell is still a Ray-not for lack of trying, though. While the much maligned Milton Bradley’s name was bandied about as a possible replacement at DH, nothing happened. Tough to know whether that was for the best or not.

The question remains, though: Who will fill the DH role in 2010? There is no clear cut answer. It seems unlikely that Tampa Bay will look to free agency to find a Burrell replacement. The addition of closer Rafael Soriano and the resigning of Kelly Shoppach pretty much ate up the petty cash lying around Stuart Sternberg’s office. Promoting from within might occur, with Willy Aybar itching for a chance to play every day. A Burrell trade could happen too, but the price tag for the 33-year-old veteran might be a little high for most teams.

Perhaps Rays fans should prepare for another breezy summer inside the Trop.

 

2B

This position was occupied by several people in 2009.  Akinori Iwamura was certainly one of the Rays’ most beloved second basemen of all time (sorry, Brent Abernathy).  However, he is now gone, doomed to the Sarlaac Pitt.  Other second basemen of 2009 include Reid Brignac, Joe Dillon, Willy Aybar (what an experiment in futility that was) and the great Ben Zobrist.

While Zobrist may very well become the Rays everyday 2B in 2010, there could be a problem should Zorilla be moved to right field instead. Brignac probably will not be the every day answer-though it would be neat to see him break camp as the starter so we can see what he can do with consistent at bats-so the Rays might just consider the recently acquired Sean Rodriguez.

Side Note: I know that every team wishes they had a player with the last name “Rodriguez” simply so they can take that player’s first initial and add it to “Rod,” ala “A-Rod.”  But, seriously, Rays fans, let’s please avoid calling him S-rod, ok?

Rodriguez has some serious pop (easily 20 hr power) and shouldn’t be a defensive liability should he take over the 2B position.  I am sure that the Rays see him as a long term answer at that spot in the infield, but it will remain to be seen if Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon will give the youngster the green light coming out of Spring Training.  If he can win the job when the team breaks from Port Charlotte, many things would be cleared up as Zorilla’s move to right would be set.

 

RF

Should S-Rod (oops!) take the 2B competition, the question of who will be the next right fielder becomes simple arithmatic.

Zobrist’s bat and strong arm at the corner outfield position would be a perfect fit.  He would seemingly complete one of the better outfields in the majors and finally settle the revolving door that the Rays have had at that position for years. 

However, if Zobrist were forced to man the 2B position because Rodriguez was not ready for the majors and Reid Brignac was, well, the same ol’ Reid Brignac-a move that Maddon may not frown upon as much as may be thought-then the Rays could potentially be in trouble in right.

In the offseason they unloaded one of the Gabes (both Kapler and Gross were really one entity in 2009, but the Kap has stuck around for about a million in 2010) which means more playing time for Kap-should he earn it.  But his struggles with righties means that the Rays will have only 1/2 of a right fielder-not ideal.

Right fielders in waiting (for how long is to be determined) might be Matt Joyce, Justin Ruggiano, Fernando Perez, and Desmond Jennings, but it is difficult to determine whether or not any are ready to be with the big club.  Jennings, Ruggiano, and Perez may be better suited for CF, which limits thier contributions to RF to a simple “fill in” status from time to time. 

Joyce was a big part of last year’s Edwin Jackson trade, a trade that Maddon has consistently said may work in the Rays favor despite Jackson’s double digit wins and All-Star appearance in 2009 and Joyce’s almost season-long stint at Durham.  Will this be the year that Joyce shows his own All-Star potential and takes the right field spot by force? 

If Rodriguez could take over 2B and Joyce was the every day RF (or at least could platoon with Kapler) then that might give Maddon the option of using Zobrist as that super-sub again-something that certainly worked in the past.  Perfect scenario?  Maybe, maybe not.  It would seem that Zobrist would prefer to have his position staked out beforehand so he could maintain his focus throughout the long season. 

This might be the most contentious position battle as we near spring training.  However, the emergence of either Joyce or Rodriguez will clear everything up quickly.

 

5th starter

The Rays seem to have gotten their money’s worth (we hope) in the Scott Kazmir deal.  Adding the highly touted Sean Rodriguez and the potential of lefty Alex Torres and infielder Matt Sweeney (the biggest Sweeney) has put the Rays in a great position for the future.

However, after moving Mitch Talbot to Cleveland in the Kelly Shoppach trade (he was the player to be named later) the Rays find themselves potentially a little thin in big league ready starters.

Sure, the rotation looks fine at the top with James “Big Game” Shields and Matt “Just As Big Of A Game” Garza.  Spots 3 and 4 should be fine with David Price and Jeff Nieman, especially if both build on their 2009 performances.

But where do the Rays go from there?

At the moment the 5th spot is manned by Wade Davis, but he was hardly consistent in his 6 starts last season in spite of his 2-2 record and 3.72 ERA.  While he struck out an impressive 36 in 36 1/3 innings, he also had games where he simply blew up. 

If Davis does win the 5th spot, who do the Rays turn to should somebody or, God forbid, two somebodys get injured?  In the wings stand Jeremy Hellickson (he might be ready sooner than we think-hopefully) and-<gulp>-Andy Sonnanstine.  Not exactly a scenario that inspires great confidence.

The likelihood of the Rays adding a 5th starter via free agency seem small, though veterans such as Vicente Padilla and Joel Pineiro might be interesting (both would likely expect more than the Rays could afford).

At the moment it seems that Joe Maddon’s squad will be content with the arms they have and head into Spring Training hoping for two things: 1) that those aforementioned arms remain healthy; and 2) that one of the guys in camp really stands out to claim the 5th spot.

Co-Post 2: Judging the Rays’ Callups

We are now through the first week of Septemeber!  The season is quickly approaching its final end.

It feels like a good time to get away from what the Rays might be doing on the field these days (especially since it could be better) and take a look at the guys who have been recently added to the expanded Rays roster.

Ginny at The Watercooler and Bob at More Cowbell are doing another co-post. 

This time the duo will be analyzing the September callups of the Rays and deciding whether each player’s promotion to the big club should be designated a

GOOD CALL or a BAD CALL.

Remember, just because a guy is moved to the MLB roster does not always spell good things for the team.  Or does it?

Let the debate begin!

After reading Bob’s analysis, click here to See what Ginny thinks!

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Reid Brignac

.282 AVE    24 2B    8 HR    44 RBI    5 SB

 

This is the third time Brignac has been moved from Durham to St. Pete.  Over the course of the season it seems that the guy has logged more air miles than a pelican!  He has had so much promise, yet has yet to break Spring Training with the club and become a regular starter.  All that aside, Joe Maddon has said that having Brignac is a good thing because when starter Jason Bartlett needs a day off he can avoid putting Ben Zobrist in a position he has rarely played this year and simply plug in Brignac.  I like that idea.  It allows Zorilla to concentrate on 2B or RF and keep his bat steady.

 

GOOD CALL

See what Ginny thinks!

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Wade Davis

10-9    3.40 ERA    1.25 WHIP    158 IP    140 K

 

I get chills when I think about what this guy can do on the mound.

This 24-year-old righty has been seen as the next big thing in the Rays system.  How amazing is it that the Rays can continually put out the “next big thing” for their fans year after year? (see: Evan Longoria, Jeff Nieman, David Price, Wade Davis)  He will make his first start Sunday for the Rays against the Detroit Tigers, and I think that the entire Republic will have its eyes glued on the screen (or in person, hopefully) to see just what the kid can do. 

Having him on the roster now gets him a few major league starts before Spring Training next year.  He just might have a shot at cracking the rotation next year, especially with the move of Scott Kazmir out west.

 

GOOD CALL

See what Ginny thinks!

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Shawn Riggins

 .200 AVE    2 2B    1 HR    5 RBI    (11 Games)

 

The call on this move is kind of tricky.  I think that the addition of Gregg Zaun was a godsend for a club whose catcher play was inconsistent offensively at best.  Seeing Zaun from the left side and Dioner Navarro from the right side has really helped the offense click a little more from the backstop position and the results have been pretty solid (who can forget Zaun’s grand slam!?).  Adding Riggs might be a mistake, though.  He will not log much playing time with the big club because of the reasons mentioned above and whatever playing time he does get will take away–and disrupt–the smooth flow that has been established by the Zaun/Navi platoon.  It can’t hurt having Riggs on the bench, but if he gets some playing time I think the results will be less than desirable.

 

BAD CALL

See what Ginny thinks!

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Andy Sonnanstine

Last start:  4 IP    8 H    3 R    4 BB 

 

Sonny is kind of a strange situation in that he was brought up September 1st because of the departure of one Scott Kazmir.  His first start did not go much better than the previous 15 before it.  This is a great chance for Sonny to earn a spot in next year’s rotation, but he did not impress in his first game back.  He’ll be moved back one day to allow Davis to start at the Trop on Sunday and to get Sonny into the double header against the Yankees Monday.  I am losing some faith in Sonnanstine’s ability to get batters out, and he may be ticketed for a long relief spot if he’s not careful.

 

NECESSARY CALL!

See what Ginny thinks!

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Fernando Perez

.278 AVE    3 2B    0 HR    2 RBI    8 SB    (13 games) 

 

(This is Davey Lopes…but the ‘stache is the same–I can’t find a good pic of Perez’s stache!)

If the mustache doesn’t get you excited, then you must be dead!

This is one of my favorite players.  The “Columbia Kid” was impressive in his stint with the Rays last season, culminating with a 2008 playoffs to remember.  He is exciting on the basepaths and plays above average defense in center or right field.  His bad is adequate, but he is also young (26) and will get better.  His switch hitting ability is another plus.

He comes along at the right time, for BJ Upton’s ankle injury will sideline him for a few days.  I think that this is a perfect chance for Perez to show the front office that he and BJ are the same age, possess the same skill set (minus the power for Fernando), but totally different salary situations.  Hmmmmm….

 

GOOD CALL

See what Ginny thinks!

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The September callups for the Rays used to mean that the year was over.  That it was time to figure out what to do next year. 

I don’t think that is the case just yet, though things don’t look so great.

The guys above are all guys who could/should break Spring Training on the Rays major league roster.  They should all be contributers to next year’s team as well.

This opportunity, though, comes with alot riding on it.  Not only do they get to audition for the team for next season, but they can help get the team to the playoffs if they do well.

I’m hoping for some great baseball from these guys over the next few weeks!

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR OUR NEXT CO-POST, COMING SOON!

Go Rays!

Detroit Disaster

Things seem to be blowing up a big in MoTown. 

It isn’t end-of-the world type stuff, but it sure feels bad.

Today’s game seems indicative of a team that is losing that killer instinct that playoff teams must have.

The Rays had this one wrapped up. 

Then the Tigers unwrapped it.

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Bal-FORE!!!

Jeff Nieman had just completed 7 solid innings.  His performance paired with Saturday’s game from David Price gave the Rays back-to-back 7+ inning, quality start outings in Detroit–not the easiest place to win.

While there were runners on, the Rays still had a 3-1 lead and were ready to hand the game over to our awesome Aussie, Grant Balfour.

He got two guys out.

It was the third one that was a little tricky.

Placido Polanco teed off and launched one over the wall to give the Tigers the 4-3 advantage.  Fernando Rodney made it hold up in the 9th.

No, it wasn’t a 9th-inning wild pitch, but it was just as jolting.

Aren’t these games the ones we used to win?

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Good Starts, Bad Finishes

Today’s game seems to fit in well with the way the Rays have played recently. 

Sure, the starting has been somewhat spotty, but it is the relieving that is killing us.  And I thought that the bullpen was one of our strong suits in recent weeks.

Uh-oh.

Today it was Balfour.

Wednesday it was old reliable, JP Howell.

I know we’re talking about two games here, but these are two games that the Rays HAD to have. 

Instead, these two wins were transformed into losses, making the Rays playoff squad slowly looking like they are transforming into also-rans.

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Unlucky 7

The Rays came into the last 7 games having gone 6-1 in their previous 7 games.

Things were good.  Really good.

Our guys were starting to get hot just when they needed to and no team in the league wanted to play them.  They were a playoff team.  Taking the wild card was just a formality.

Then something happened when Texas shut us out on a Sunday.

Since then we are 3-4.

What is worse is that up to last Sunday we were in the wild card hunt.  We had narrowed the gap to 3-3.5 games.

Now?

The Rays stand 5 full games behind the Red Sox in the wild card race, and 2.5 behind the Rangers.

October might be a mere 4 weeks or so away, but it has never felt so far out of reach.

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Kazmir Update

I read the recent MLB.com article about Scott Kazmir and how he felt about being with the Angels.  It was a nice fluff piece profiling the newest left coast acquisition.

He sounded happy.  He sounded excited.  He sounded like he had already forgotten about his time in St. Pete.

When he reference the Rays, he did so to springboard into what he thought his current team could do.

“I got a taste of it last year. You want to go all the way. The Angels are a team that can do it year in and year out. It says a lot about the organization.”

Maybe it says alot about our organization too.

Ring of Fire Tour Begins In “T” for Two and Maybe Three….

    VS   

Toronto, that is.

Wow, what a difference a week and a half makes.

Just when things might have been looking rather bleak, the Rays have come out and, in their last 10 games, rattle off 8 wins.

That makes them the hottest team in the American League right now!

In fact, when fans and experts alike were looking at the team’s upcoming road trip as being extremely difficult and fraught with peril, our guys have done nothing more put together two impressive wins.

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Rays 12, Blue Jays 7

None other than Roy Halladay took the mound for the Blue Jays to kick off the Rays’ 7-game road trip.  And immediately it looked like it was going to be a loss.

Jeff Nieman was not sharp at all, giving up a Rod Barajas grand salami right away in the game.

I’ll admit, I was cursing at the tv and ready to walk away.  Glad I didn’t!

The Rays rallied to beat up the Doc and put together an impressive 12-7 win.  The guy who had no business getting a win, our default ace, improved his record to a more than impressive 12-5. 

You gotta imagine this guy is going to get some serious consideration–maybe along with Scott Feldman of the Rangers–for the Rookie of the Year award.

Carlos Pena remained hot by going yard for number 35 and Ben Zobrist knocked out his 23rd.

They looked like the Rays we love.

They looked like a team that wanted to win.

Most importantly, they looked like a team ready for October.

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Rays 7, Blue Jays 3

The story here was twofold:

1) Carlos Pena hit out two to give him 37 on the year and, more importantly, 200 for his up and down career. 

Not too bad for a guy who had trouble latching on to a team before he landed in Tampa Bay.

2) James Shields finally got some run support!  And, apparently, he celebrated with……some ice cream

Ok.

As has been well documented in the Cowbell, Shields is a guy who never seems to get any help from his offense.  Well, they scored 6 runs in the first 3 innings for the guy, and he made it stand up.  That is definitely help.

I didn’t catch much of this game, but it was nice to see our guys follow up a great performance with one that was just as good. 

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Tonight, Tonight

The Rays will send the suddenly reliable Scott Kazmir (7 of his last 8 outings have been 6 or more innings!) to the hill against the guy we have seen too many times this year, and whose name I am getting sick of trying to spell, Marc Rzepczynski.

Kaz’s ERA is still a nightmare at 6.17, but his record is over .500 for the first time in a long time at 8-7.  He is trying to regain the “ace” label and, I have to admit, he has looked like one as of late. 

One of the biggest knocks I’ve had against this guy is the fact that you can’t count on him.  He’ll go 4 innings as likely as he’ll go 6.  7 is pushing it.

But lately he has been giving the Rays, and the Rays’ bullpen, plenty of innings.

They won’t need a whole lot tonight considering we have an off day tomorrow.  Hopefully Scotty can give us a solid outing, though, and we can complete the sweep.

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The Rays remain 3 games behind those darn Red Sox.  It would be nice to see them pick up a game there tonight considering the difficult series they are going to have to endure in Detroit over the weekend. 

But you take what you can get.

The Rays’ offense has been clicking, albeit via the long ball. 

Again, you take what you can get.

What I’m most proud of is the fact that this team is showing some serious resiliance.  They are not backing down.  And when people are counting them out, they are showing them that they are right back in.

Sweep ’em guys!