By Chris Glover
Perhaps it’s not a great idea to title a column the same as one of the most beloved pieces of American literature ofthe 20th century [I totally had to Google 'On The Road.' I am embarrassed that Chris learned more about American literature in the UK than I learned, you know, in America. Guess I should have been paying attention instead of goofing off in Mrs. Bell's English class. -Mark] but when you grow up watching US sports in the UK, the slightest glimpse of live action is considered to be an epic event. That’s why we drive for five hours to watch the lowly Broncos and 49ers play out a terrible game, or why, as a 10 year old, one is overjoyed at the prospect of a St Petersburg Cardinals game when in Florida on vacation. The prospect of seeing the Rays three times in a year, never mind a week would have been no more than a daydream.
Having moved to Toronto last October – within a Jose Bautista swing of the Rogers Centre no less – I can finally enjoy regular live baseball, even if it’ll only feature the Rays a few times a year. To add to the excitement of the three game series in Toronto, I was lucky enough to be able to catch a game down in Miami to round out a week that would have blown my mind as a kid back in England.
North of the border
After buying my beaver tail soup and watching the ceremonial moose ride, we were ready to start the game (what, you’ve never been to a game north of the border before?), and the gulf in class between the pitching and defense on the two teams was almost immediately obvious. The bizarre double error play which allowed Elliot Johnson to reach third was perhaps unlucky, but watching Encarnacion boot the ball round the infield was laughable and when a group of Canadians start booing you in your home stadium, you know you’re pretty bad (judging by the scorers assessment of Upton’s first at bat, they also don’t think too highly of Jesse Litsch). In 22 starts Encarnacion now has 10 errors compared with 19 for the entire Rays team and his combined UZR for the year is -40 runs! The lack of emphasis on defense for teams who can’t pay the biggest offensive stars is baffling to me. Of their usual lineup only Bautista is a plus defender while Encarnacion, Davis and Hill all lack even average skills yet haven’t added too much offensively either. I have never been more appreciative of having Longoria and Kotchman at the corners.
It was my first time seeing Hellickson live and it was an impressive display though six innings from the youngster, who used his changeup to devastating effect (38 thrown, 27 strikes, 10 swinging strikes). Despite Garza’s excellent start to the season in Chicago, it is looking like the decision to back Hellboy to succeed right now looks like another successful application of ‘the process.’ The gap between his talent and the Jays’ ‘prospects’ like Litsch, Reyes and Cecil is cavernous.
For all their faults, you have to credit the Jays team with never quitting and it took a good bullpen outing to extinguish their rally and send the home fans back to their igloos unsatisfied (these Canada jokes are going to cost me). The bullpen continues to perform well and the addition of Howell adds further depth to this impressive unit. Cruz once again looked very good, stranding the runners he inherited for the sixth time in seven chances while Peralta got Hill to fly out after Maddon once again showed his willingness to walk hot players in unconventional situations. The game really summed up what Tampa Bay has been about this year and kicked off my week of festivities in style.
Game two of the short series was dominated by pitching and while Wade Davis was good (7.2 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 K), Ricky Romero was even better (7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 6 K). Romero was visibly emotional following the death of a young friend yet he seemed to be able to channel it well and turned in one of his best outings of the season. Too many quick innings and just one base runner through the first five innings provided much frustration for the few Rays fans at the Rodgers Centre and the game was ticking along quietly until Davis left a changeup over the middle of the plate which Arencibia duly crushed 400 feet (or 121.9 metres for the home fans) to centre [My brain says I should edit "centre" to "center" before posting this but, I cannot resist the unintentional humor of using "centre" in a recap about a game in Canada. More beaver tail soup please!-Mark] field. The last six outs for the Rays all came when the batter was ahead or level in the count but given the success the majority of players have had this year with their aggression it’s hard to be too down on this approach.
Splitting the series wasn’t a terrible result though having largely silenced Bautista’s other-worldly bat (1-6, 2 BB) and thrown out two quality outings from their starters, the Rays may feel they could have taken both of these games with a bit more timely hitting.
Let the summer begin
Everything about Florida means summer to me (I know it’s still spring but you get the idea). Although not in the familiar confines of the I-4 corridor, it was great to be back. It was my first time at Sun Life Stadium, which while nice enough as a facility is really an advert for not sharing stadiums for multiple sports. The Stadium lacks the design of some of the recently built parks like Camden Yards or AT&T Park and the 15,000 or so fans in attendance were scattered throughout the stadium generating a lack of atmosphere that would make a Wimbledon tennis crowd blush. The lack of a roof is also a major issue and I can see why this has been such a sticking point in negotiations for Tampa’s new stadium. Despite only being in the high 80s, sitting in exposed stands gets uncomfortable quickly and the fans seemed to be less concerned with buying beer/food (and generating revenue) as trying to keep cool. The canopy proposed in the latest failed stadium for the Rays would likely address the majority of the issues and I’d hope a similar solution finds its way into future plans. That said, given that back home I would be overjoyed to not have to wear a jacket and carry an umbrella at this time of year, you won’t find me complaining too much about the Florida sun.
As for the game itself, there were no problems and after Shields drove in a run in the second, it was all Tampa. I’ve been fortunate enough to see two of Shields’ three complete games in person this season and Sunday’s effort was as dominant as anything he’s thrown all year. Big Game James (or is it Complete Game James now?) was able to induce 23 swinging strikes and took care of the first 21 outs with just 86 pitches. Long at-bats in the 8th by Stanton and Ramirez in the 9th pushed Shields’ total pitch counts into the 120s but a complete game never really seemed to be out of reach. I had taken up residence behind the bullpen for the final few innings and Farnsworth did nothing more than loosen his arm, such was Shields’ command of the Marlins. Edwin Rodriguez called Shields’ changeup the best he has seen this year and having generated 12 swinging strikes it is hard to argue with the Marlins’ boss. His game score for the outing was 93 – the best of the year to date (including Verlander’s no hitter against Toronto).
It was great to see Longoria get a couple of hits and that ridiculous BABIP of .236 will hopefully continue to rise over the next few weeks and months. With Johnson going 0-5 and Fuld continuing to regress to his career levels, the inevitable questions about Desmond Jennings’ arrival in the big leagues are going to get louder and I wouldn’t argue against the notion that this team could use another spark plug at the top of the order. Of Joyce and Longoria’s nine homers this year, five of them were solo shots and two hit by Joyce came with only Longoria on base. The top two spots in the order have only been on base for homers five times this year, thus failing to fully capitalize on Joyce’s form to open to the year.
I hung around after the game to catch a glimpse of the players as they boarded the coach and the affability of the team was only further enhanced. After a stream of Marlins players’ Lamborghinis and SUVs departed the stadium, the Rays fans were treated to long autograph sessions from several players, led by Longoria, Price and Damon. Johnny stole the fashion show with his suave hat/shades combo and after being told by the security officers that by going over to sign autographs he would need to ‘re-clear’ security, Evan just shrugged and said ‘so what’. Therein lies why this team is just so damn fun to root for.