I have enjoyed watching this series against the Orioles and it is not just because we have won both games. I say that because watching these 2009 Orioles reminds me a lot of watching the Rays once Joe Maddon took over the club. It is hard to want to pay attention to a team 27 games out of first place but the Orioles definitely are a franchise moving in the right direction.
In the outfield, they have young talent such as Felix Pie, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis. Adam Jones is in the midst of a breakout season right now and looks like the player everyone wants B.J. Upton to be on a nightly basis. Markakis has always been a nemesis to the Rays and is a solid young player. Pie has had his ups and downs in his career that started in the Cubs organization but it is far too early to write him off. Luke Scott and Nolan Reimold are the other power bats to watch; Remold has made quite an impression as a rookie while Scott practically carried the Orioles with his bat in the first half of the season. The Orioles wisely decided to stop putting Brian Roberts on the trade block and inked him to a deal and he remains one of the peskiest leadoff hitters around He has 46 doubles on the season and has scored 87 runs hitting in front of Jones and Markakis. While Matt Wieters has failed to live up to the insane amount of hype people placed on him in March, the rookie has not embarrassed himself this year and it is obvious by just watching him that he is going to be a stud.
The pitching staff is floating a lot of young arms out there right now and that leads to a lot of inconsistency. Chris Tillman looks much better than most 21 year old pitchers in organized baseball, Brian Matusz has promise, David Hernandez has looked good at times, and I really like Kam Mickolio out of their bullpen. The trade that McPhail pulled off to get most of Seattle’s talent for Erik Bedard should be classified as a federal felony.
Why do I bring up so much news about the Orioles on a Rays blog? I do it to point out just how tough this division is going to be going forward. The big budget Yankees and Red Sox will always be tough because they can buy talent and both teams have put renewed efforts into what have historically been under-utilized farm systems. The Rays, for a time, were the only team that solely built young talent up but the Orioles clearly are in that mode now. The Jays – it’s tough to see where they are going. Giving away Alex Rios for nothing at least gets them out of a burdensome deal, but they are still stuck with Vernon Wells and J.P. Riccardi failed to trade away Roy Halladay at the deadline this year when his value was at its peak. Given the shape of the franchises as they stand today, I could easily see the Orioles finishing 4th in 2010 with the Jays occupying the basement for the first of a few years as they rebuild in the post-Halladay era that gets under way no later than 7/31/2010.
It sure was nice to see B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell hit homers in the same game two games in a row. Burrell’s bomb were both no doubters but Upton’s home run tonight may have been the best swing I’ve seen him take since late June. I cannot recall the last time I saw him pull a ball with authority like that. Having Burrell and Upton hit with consistency is crucial to the Rays playoff hopes which now sit around 21% pending what happens in Texas tonight.
Jeff Niemann looked sharp once again mixing fastballs and curves. He did struggle with location from time to time and it took an amazing effort by the defense in the 5th inning to bail him out of a bases loaded jam with no outs. With 11 wins and a 3.71 ERA, Niemann is certainly near the top of the list for AL Rookie of the Year candidates – something nobody would have dreamed of back in March or even late April. It is almost comical to think that the only two starters on the staff with W-L records better than .500 are the two rookies Niemann and Price.
The Rays try to sweep the series tomorrow against lefty Brian Matusz. The talented rookie has had a rough go of it at the major league level permitting 32 baserunners in 13.1 innings and allowing 11 of them to score. He is coming off a terrible start at home against the Angels in which he gave up five runs and 11 hits in just over five innings. The Rays counter with James Shields who has been rather awful in the second half of the season if you take away the near no-hitter against the Royals. Shields won his only start against Baltimore earlier this season but the top of their lineup has hit him rather well. It would be great to get this sweep to head into the critical series against Texas starting this weekend. As I type this, the Rangers squandered a 4-1 lead and lost to the Twins 5-4 putting the Rays two games back of the Rangers and three behind Boston. The good news – the Rays have six games left against each of those teams so the Rays truly control their own destiny.