DM3229FIRST INNING (A look back)…
The Rays have the best record in baseball and have won 11 of their last 13…How good is this team?

The Rays are on pace to win 119 games, so no, they are not *this* good. But they are pretty good. And what is really promising is that this team doesn’t have to be this good the rest of the way. 94 wins should be good enough for a playoff spot and the Rays need only go 80-63 the rest of the way to win 94 games. This team can do that in their sleep. Compare that to the Red Sox who would have to go 86-57 to reach 94 wins. There is a big difference between playing 17-games over .500 and playing 29 games over .500…..THIS IS A PLAYOFF TEAM

SECOND INNING (Headlines)…
With Kelly Shoppach on the shelf for a while, John Jaso has made the most of his few starts…Should Jaso be starting against all right-handed starters?

Dioner Navarro cannot hit righties and probably should have abandoned switch-hitting a long time ago. But when Shoppach returns, both Navi and Shoppi will be facing righties. So it wouldn’t be a good idea to cut Navi off from righties now only to have him back in there at some point down the road. More likely, we will see Jaso and Navarro split the duties against righties….NOT YET

THIRD INNING (Headlines)…
Reports are that John Jaso has made significant strides defensively…Could the Rays look to trade Dioner Navarro during the season?

When Kelly Shoppach returns, Jaso will go back to Durham and resume his role as the Rays third catcher. Unless Jose Lobaton is ready to be an injury replacement, the Rays won’t look to move Navarro during the season. But with Kelly Shoppach under contract for 2011, there is no reason to keep Navi around next year. Whether he is traded or the Rays decline to offer arbitration, next year’s catching tandem will likely be Shoppach and Jaso, which will save the Rays about $3 million….NOT UNTIL AFTER THE SEASON

FOURTH INNING (Headlines)…
Hank Blalock is off to a hot start in Durham…When might we see him up with the Rays?

First we have to figure out who he would replace. Two bench spots go to Gabe Kapler and the backup catcher. That leaves Willy Aybar and Sean Rodriguez. Blalock plays the same positions as Aybar but Aybar is fairly well entrenched. Rodriguez is struggling a bit at the plate, but is more valuable defensively. And we all know how much Maddon values defensive flexbility. So there doesn’t appear to be any room. The problem is, if Blalock keeps this up, other teams will notice and Blalock will give the Rays an ultimatum. And the Rays don’t like giving up value for nothing in return. The next non-catching/pitching injury will probably earn Blalock a promotion…JUST WAITING FOR AN OPENING

FIFTH INNING (Headlines)…
The Rays just gave Ben Zobrist a 5-year deal worth about $30 million…Is there anything about this deal not to like?

In a word, no. But that is typical Rays. They are never going to do a deal unless it is on their terms. Even the Pat Burrell contract was considered a steal at the time. And with Zobrist, the deal is perfect for the Rays. The guaranteed part of the contract (3 years) goes through his age-32 season. And that is the absolute outer-limits of his middle infield-playing days. At that point, the Rays can decide if his bat is still Zorilla enough to warrant paying him as an outfielder or first baseman….THE RAYS BEING THE RAYS

SIXTH INNING (A look outside the box)…
The Rays begin a stretch of 20 straight games versus non-AL East foes beginning with Oakland and Kansas City…Besides the Yankees, what other team should Raysheads watch closely this week?

The big series right off the bat is Minnesota at Detroit. The Twins look like the real deal while Detroit is lurking just behind. The Tigers then get the Angels at home. These series will be a good early test for the Tigers. If they play well and prove they are playoff contender, the Rays, Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays could find themselves with another team in the mix for that second (Wild Card) playoff spot…..DETROIT

SEVENTH INNING (Oddsmakers)…
Career games with the Rays for Tim Beckham: 0.5

What is interesting about the former overall #1 pick, is that the Rays don’t need him anytime soon. At some point Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez will hit arbitration and Beckham would be a nice replacement. But will he progress enough in next 2-3 years? The physical tools are there…OVER

Games with the Rays this season for Leslie Anderson: 30.5

Everything right now points to a September call up. And with Hank Blalock, Dan Johnson and Fernando Perez available, he won’t be needed as an injury replacement…UNDER

Games for Matt Joyce with the Rays before the All-Star break: 0.5

He is not even going to touch a baseball for a month. Then he will need to get back in baseball shape and do a rehab assignment…UNDER

Innings pitched for the Rays top 5 starting pitchers: 1000

This is the goal, but even with all the innings thrown early on, they are still only on pace for 1030ish. This only happens if none of the pitchers miss any starts. That’s a lot to ask for…UNDER

EIGHTH INNING (On deck)…
With the A’s and Royals in town this week…which pitching matchup could be the key to the week?

We are looking forward to Friday’s game against the Royals. In two career starts versus Kansas City, Jeff Niemann has thrown 17 innings and allowed just 1 run on 6 hits and a walk with 16 strikeouts. That includes a 2-hit shutout last June. Sometimes a player just has another team’s number. And other times, the other team is just due. Let’s hope it is the former….JEFF NIEMANN vs BRIAN BANNISTER

NINTH INNING (Putting out the fire)…
Does Kevin Kennedy’s heroic efforts on a recent Delta flight give him a pass with Rays fans?

Sometime next week he will say something dumb and we will remember why we miss Joe Magrane and why we crave more of Brian Anderson…ABOUT A WEEK

Is there any chance the Rays will reach league average attendance this season?

League average last year was a tad over 30,000. So far this year they are averaging just under 26,000. It will take a miracle…NO

We hear that you pick your beverages each series based on the opponent…What is your poison pick this week?

With JP Howell still on the mend, the Rays need Grant Balfour to pick up his game and somehow rediscover another inch or two on his fastball. So in honor of The Mad Australian, it is Cooper’s from Australia…COOPER’S PALE ALE

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