A Strange Season Continues

Over the past two seasons, the Rays had the second best home record in baseball as they went 109-53 at Tropicana Field for a .673 winning percentage. In that same time frame, the club went 72-90 on the road for a paltry .444 winning percentage. Yet, here we sit at the end of May and the Rays are playing just .555 ball at home with a 15-12 record but are playing .791 ball on the road as the club has gone 19-5 to date. The club has outscored opponents 144 to 69 on the road but just 120 to 106 at home. I struggle to find the words to explain how a team that has played so well at home over the past two seasons has suddenly become a very average team at home. Is it Pat Burrell’s fault? Was Joe Maddon onto something when he said it was Tropicana Field’s way of getting back at the club for the new stadium talks?  Whatever it is, it is has been very frustrating to watch this team play at home, especially over this past week when the club went a very disappointing 2-5 on this home stand. A sweep at the hand of the Red Sox was painful enough but to only split the series against a struggling White Sox team and watch the staff ace have his worst game of the season yesterday which included giving up a grand slam who was just 4-29 coming into that at bat.

Yesterday was clearly Shields’ worst effort since being on the wrong side of the perfect game back on Mothers Day. On that day, he had some unfortunate hits that were just falling in here or there but yesterday involved very little of that. The White Sox were sitting on first pitch fastballs right out of the gate and hit them hard early.  Normally, Shields has his awesome change-up to fall back on but that awesome change-up was terribly pedestrian yesterday as the White Sox had zero swinging strikes against the change-up yesterday which is highly unusual for Shields. His fastball velocity averaged 90.5 yesterday which was also down from his recent outings and he only had five swinging strikes all day long.  Here is what James had to say about the game:

The Rays did have their opportunities to win but most of those chances were erased when Nix hit his grand slam. The Rays were 4-11 with runners in scoring position but missed a golden opportunity to add to that total when the club had runners at first and third with only one out and Carlos Pena struck out. In fact, Pena collected a hat trick on the day and he now has the dubious honor of having the most strikeouts in the American League. On this home stand alone, Pena struck out 11 times in just 25 at bats and now owns a .177/.295/.354 line on the season. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value at first base this season now stands at -0.4 which is equal to the guy he will oppose in Toronto this week, Lyle Overbay. The only first baseman hitting worse than Pena right now in baseball is Casey Kotchman; not exactly the type of season he or his agent wanted to see him have as he heads into free agency. If there was one shining moment in this series, it was that B.J. Upton is finally pulling balls again. He crushed a home run on Saturday off a high change-up and nearly had a three run home run yesterday as he pulled a 96 mph fastball from Matt Thornton to the top of the fence until an idiotic fan reached over the wall and deflected the ball into Juan Pierre’s glove. Maybe the guy was related to Steve Bartman but he cost the Rays at least two runs with his stupidity.

The Rays were out-scored 37 to 24 on this home series. They were just 53-230 at the plate with 15 extra base hits and three times as many walks as strikeouts which gave the team a .230/.298/.357 slash line on the homestand. The pitching staff had a 4.67 ERA in the series in 54 innings pitched which included a 1.7 homerun rate, a 4.0 walk rate, and a very low 5.0 strikeout rate. The staff’s FIP during this series was even worse at 6.36 so both the offense and the pitching staff can equally split the blame for this unfortunate home stand.  The club heads to Toronto first this week wearing the hockey jerseys for the theme of the trip and the Rays are just 10-8 in Toronto over the past two seasons. The Rays have had a mixed bag of results in the Rogers Centre such as the extra innings grand slam Dioner Navarro hit there in 2008 or the walk off grand slam that Troy Percival gave up to Gregg Zaun in September of 2008. The Rays leave Toronto and head down to Texas to take on the Rangers where the Rays are just 4-8 in the past two seasons but most of those losses came in 2008. The Rays trips to Arlington are most remembered for the Matt Garza meltdown in 2008 with Dioner Navarro on the mound but that is also about the same time Garza changed into the pitcher he is today. The Rays were just 1-5 in 2008 but went 3-3 last season at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The Rays send Garza, Niemann, and Price to the mound against the Jays while the Jays counter with the ever wild Brandon Morrow, Brian Tallet fresh off the disabled list, and staff ace Shaun Marcum. The Rays have had success against both Morrow and Tallet but Marcum could be a very tough challenge as he is pitching some amazing baseball right now with a 2.59 ERA and allowing just 1.03 baserunners per nine innings.  The Jays are an interesting squad who has lived and died by the long ball. The Jays have already hit 88 home runs on the season – that is 19 more than the second place team. Yet, they have the highest strikeout total in the American League at 421, their .310 team on base percentage is the worst in the league, and their .244 team batting average is third worst in the league trailing only Chicago and Seattle.  The Rays job against the Jays is simple – keep the ball in the park. That is something they failed to do against Boston and Chicago this week so let’s hope the club left those demons at Tropicana Field.  The Jays offense is not being fueled by Aaron Hill and Adam Lind as it has been in the past as forgotten names such as Jose Bautista and Alex Gonzalez are carrying the club. In fact, Jose Bautista has more home runs this season (16) than Hill and Lind, combined. Bautista is hitting just .250 on the season but he has a .369 OBP and an unbelieveable .600 SLG%. Vernon Wells, once the focus of fans’ frustration for being overpaid and under-performing is back on track as he is hitting .301/.353/.602 this season.

Simply put, this is not your father’s Blue Jays team that the Rays have been able to do well against these past few seasons. A quick peek at the standings shows the Blue Jays 4.5 games back of the Rays and given the fact these two teams face each other six times over the next nine games, this run of games will either make the Jays contenders or pretenders. The offense will be there for the Blue Jays, the question is, will it be there for the Rays on the road as it has been all season so far?

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About Jason Collette

Writer/Analyst
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