This team will give us a heart attack before the season is over. This past weekend, the D-Rays took two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays. The series saw the Rays win a game they were trailing 6-0, lose a game they were winning 4-0 and win a second game in which they were trailing 2-1 in the 7th. In baseball, it is about winning series, and anytime you take two of three on the road against a division foe is reason to be happy. The D-Rays are 3-3 and will host the Orioles tonight for their home opener.
Highlights from the weekend
The offense is going to be fine. In the first week, the team scored 32 runs (7th in the AL) with a team batting average of .261 (9th). Not great numbers, but they are solid, especially when we consider that the team is missing their starting middle infielders, Jorge Cantu (day-to-day) and Julio Lugo (15-day DL). The power numbers are about what we would expect from this team as they have hit 8 home runs (6th). This is a team that is capable of the long ball, but still needs to manufacture runs to be effective. One cause for concern is the lack of stolen bases. The team has one stolen base in the first week of the season (Carl Crawford). Joe Maddon apparently is having the players be more selective when they are running, unlike past seasons when players like Lugo, Crawford and Joey Gathright were given the green light at all times to cause havoc on the basepaths.
The pitching on the other hand is going to give us agita all season long. In the span of four days the pitching staff pitched a complete game shutout (Mark Hendrickson), gave up six runs in the first three innings (friday), lost a game 8-4 in which the Rays were winning 4-0, and then Scott Kazmir, almost got his first complete game of his young career in a 5-2 win on Sunday. The team pitching is last in the American League with a 7.06 era, which includes Hendrickson’s amazing performance on Thursday night. The staff is also last in hits allowed (71), last in HR allowed (12), 11th in walks allowed (23) and 13th in strikeouts (28).
A bright note was Kazmir’s performance on Sunday. We have seen more dominating performances by Kazmir, but we have not seen a better pitched game by him, than what he displayed on the mound againt the Blue Jays. We commented last week after his opening day start that our biggest concern was his pitch count. Against the Orioles he threw 104 pitches in 4+ innings of work. On Sunday, Kazmir threw 119 pitches in 8.2 innings including a whopping 82 for strikes. But his pitch count only begins to tell the story. Kazmir showed guts and poise on the mound. In the third, after a sacrifice bunt, he faced second and third with one out. He proceeded to get Reed Johnson and Alex Rios to strikeout swinging to end the threat. In the fourth, with first and second and one out, he enduced an inning ending double play from Shea Hillenbrand. He also seemed to find his groove again late in the game. After giving up 2, 2-out runs in the fifth to fall behind 2-1, it would have been easy to give up on Kazmir and send him to the showers. But Joe Maddon stuck with him and Kazmir went 1-2-3 in the sixth and the eighth. From the sixth, until two outs in the ninth, Kazmir only gave up one hit and walked none. In addition, he was much more selective with his slider. In time, the slider will be Kazmir’s best pitch, much like Randy Johnson, another hard throwing lefty. Most people are aware of how hard Johnson throws, but baseball people know his best pitch is his slider. Only when he learned how to control the slider and when to use it did Johnson become the dominant pitcher that he is. For a pitch like a slider to be dominant it needs to be thrown less often, not more. There is a saying in baseball that a hard thrower doesn’t learn how to pitch until he hurts his arm. It was just one game, but Kazmir is beginning to show that he can be a good pitcher and not just a dominant one.