It was April 6, 2012 opening day at the Trop, featuring a rematch of the famous Game 162, albeit minus the extracurricular subplots, and plus the Yankees full cast of characters.
For the Rays, the cast of characters had changed, particularly in terms of position players, and for the better, in the opinions of most.
Still, a game featuring a starting pitching matchup of CC Sabathia and James Shields promised to be a low scoring pitcher’s duel, with the two workhorse starters sure to go deep into the latter innings.
Regarding the Rays, however, it’s never wise to expect anything, unless, of course, it’s the unexpected.
Carlos Pena’s highly anticipated return to the Rays, after a 1 year hiatus in Chicago, got off to a rousing start, hitting a 1st inning grandslam off of Sabathia, a pitcher he notoriously has looked inept against over his career, igniting the sold-out crowd at the Trop.
Still, the 4-0 lead would dissipate, as Shields command wasn’t there, and by the time he departed,
The Rays trailed 6-5.
Nonetheless, after multiple opportunities to grab the lead back, the Rays would procrastinate until the 9th, this time against the legendary Mariano Rivera, for a blow the lead and then come from behind victory, capped with a walk-off hit by Pena.
A homecoming to remember, for sure, for Carlos, delivering 5 RBI in the Rays 7-6 opening day triumph.
But a pre-cursor of what was to come in the ensuing 87 games? Not exactly.
April 30th, 2012 – Evan Longoria Hurt
A pitcher’s duel takes place at the Trop-hardly out of the ordinary, as the Mariners and King Felix come to town, with reigning rookie of the year Jeremy Hellickson on the mound.
The game itself, while arduous to the naked eye, to be certain, had its share of exciting moments, if you stayed up late enough.
Down to their final out in the 11th, BJ Upton hit a broken bat RBI single, tying the game at 2, and in the 12th, Elliot Johnson (more on him later), singled to score Ben Zobrist, as the Rays walked it off with a 3-2 victory, capping a 15-8 highly successful month of April.
Of Importance: Unfortunately, Johnson was forced into the game not to pinch hit, but to replace the injured Evan Longoria, after the latter injured himself on a stolen base attempt in the bottom of the 3rd.
Compounding the situation, Desmond Jennings would injure himself later in the week against Oakland, and was deemed Day-to-Day.
Keppinger and Jennings would miss a combined 8 weeks of playing time, simultaneously, while Longoria is still yet to return, 10 weeks later.
The lack of potent right-handed bats particularly hurt the Rays against left handed pitching, making life a lot more difficult for the lefty heavy Rays lineup.
July 8th, 2012 Rays Finish First Half
The Rays wrap up the first half in Cleveland, and, after losing 2 of the first 3 in a 4 game set, they come out extremely sluggish, against a surprising Indians team that, at the time, leads the Rays by ½ game in the chase for one of two AL Wildcard spots.
James Shields, who has just 3 wins in his last 12 starts, following wins in 5 of his first 6, puts forth what can best be described as a yeoman’s day of work. He’d throw 121 pitches over 7 innings, allowing 5 runs, and leave the game with the Rays trailing 5-4, and on the hook for the loss.
The Rays offense, meanwhile, meandered through the first 6 frames, and trailed 5-0, before rallying for 4 runs in the 7th to narrow the gap, prior to a Shin Soo Choo solo homer in the 8th, giving the Tribe a 2 run lead. Spearheaded by a solo homerun by Will Rhymes in the 9th, the Rays, like they did on opening day, would rally off of an elite closer, this time in Chris Perez.
Elliot Johnson would follow with a single, and Carlos Pena, who sparked the 6th inning rally with an infield single, would follow that up with an RBI triple here, to tie the game. ‘Los didn’t hit the ball particularly hard, nor far, but with a straight hit and run on, and the outfield in a no doubles defense, Michael Brantley was unable to make a sliding grab and the ball skipped by him.
Had he caught it, Johnson was a dead duck and easily would have been doubled off, ending the game. With the infield drawn in, Ben Zobrist ripped a single to right, scoring Pena to give the Rays a 7-6 lead.
Unlike the afformentioned all-star closer for the Tribe, the Rays own all-star closer, Fernando Rodney, would not blow his 2nd save of the season, despite back to back 2 out hits in the bottom of the frame.
The save was Rodney’s 25th, and, like they did on opening day, the Rays had improbably rallied for a 7-6 win, heading to the All-star break with a 46-42 record.
Rays News and Noteworthy
The Rays went 31-34 without Evan Longoria’s services which, while far from gaudy, is admirable, at the very least, considering the division they play in and the other injuries that have surrounded his
(Writer’s note: I am aware that all teams have injuries). Furthermore, they have managed to go 14-11 against the AL East in his absence.
David Price has taken over as the proverbial ace of the Rays starting pitching staff, going 11-4 with a 2.82 ERA.
He has allowed more than 3 earned runs in just 2 (two) of his 17 starts.
Matt Moore, meanwhile, has bounced back strong after a rough month of April.
The rookie southpaw’s numbers (5-6, 4.42 ERA) aren’t impressive to the naked eye, and when taken out of context.
But, following his worst outing, a game in which he was staked to a 4-0 lead and, in turn, allowed 8 runs to Oakland and seeing his ERA skyrocket to 5.71.
Moore has turned it around, particularly in the month of June, which saw him go 3-0 with an ERA of just 3.16.
First-Half Pitching MVP
Rodney, another in a long line of great free agent finds and reclamation projects by the braintrust, has simply been…lights out. “Kimbo Slice” as he is affectionately known by his fans and teammates alike, is 25 of 26 in save attempts, with a 0.93 ERA.
In fact, after his lone blown save of the season (May 26th, at Boston) he came back the next day and retired the Red Sox in order, less than 24 hours after giving up a walkoff homer to Jared Saltalamacchia in the loss.
In fact, Rodney has become so popular amongst Rays faithful, he’s even sparked his very own fanclub, “Rodney’s Archery Club”, homage to Fernando’s trademark celebration after each and every save. You can follow them on Twitter @RACRays
First-Half Hitting MVP
Joyce, who is hitting .279 overall with 11 HR, and .387 OBP, has also held his own against left-handed pitching, often a knock on him in the past.
Matt has a .259 average with a .368 OBP vs lefties (for reference purposes, Carlos Pena and Luke Scott are hitting .173 (.300 OBP) and .151 (.222) respectively, against lefties)
Honorable mention: Ben Zobrist (.249 with a .371 OBP, 2nd in the AL in walks) and Jeff Keppinger (.310 with a .362 OBP, and hitting a gaudy .400 against lefties). Evan Longoria also gets a nod, as indicated by the Rays respective record with and without him in the lineup.
Biggest Disappointment: The defense. While it’s easy to try and pinpoint this on Longoria’s injury, bear in mind he himself had 6 errors before going on the DL.
As a whole, the Rays have made 71 errors (2nd to last in the majors, only to Baltimore), after just 73 a year ago (best in the majors).
Even the statistic itself doesn’t begin to tell the entire story, as there have been multiple instances of mental breakdowns and plays that could, or perhaps, SHOULD have been made, that weren’t.
For a team as reliant on pitching and defense as the Rays are, particularly in the ongoing absence of Longoria and the other injuries scattered about, it’s unrealistic to believe they can make a playoff run with such shoddy, if not atrocious, defense.
Other First Half Notables
Dishonorable Mention: Hideki Matsui: Despite the hoopla around his signing, “Godzilla” is hitting an anemic .175, with a ghastly .233 OBP. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll stick around once Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld return. Jose Molina: Brought on in large part for his defensive prowess behind the plate, he’s left a lot to be desired when it comes to keeping pitches in front of him, despite his ability to frame pitches. And, while not known for his bat, .190 is .190.
Biggest Surprise Player: Elliott Johnson. While his defense often leaves a lot to be desired, Johnson’s bat, which was often non-existent in years past, has shown up since being forced into the role of an almost everyday player. Johnson is hitting .275 with an OBP of .339, and has come up with clutch hits in several big spots, and has shown a good penchant for drawing walks and working good at bats.
Honorable Mention: Jake McGee. The southpaw reliever started the season slowly but has arguably become the Rays most reliable option out of the bullpen, outside of Rodney. Mcgee has a 32/7 Strikeout to walk ratio and a 1.86 ERA, while holding opposing hitters to just a .181 average.
So, where do the Rays go from here?
The Rays have remained in the thick of the wildcard hunt, and owner Stuart Sternberg recently was quoted as saying that he doesn’t believe the division title is out of reach (Note: the Rays enter play 7.5 games behind the 1stplace Yankees).
While pundits like to discuss whether or not the Rays will be “buyers or sellers” at the deadline, I tend to think you won’t see much of a departure from the norms of years past.
The fact that they have remained in the hunt amidst the injuries, exacerbated by horrendous defense and, for the most part, inept hitting, has to be encouraging for any Rays fan.
Given all that, the “additions” will come in the form of (hopefully) the injured players returning. While Longoria is probably a month away, the timetable on Joyce and Sam Fuld is said to be around two weeks.
You may see a small move to add another bat, but of bargain basement pricing. The bottom line is that without the defense returning at least somewhat to the form of years past, this isn’t a team that’ll even sniff the postseason.
Without the return of Matt Joyce (and Evan Longoria, ultimately, even if it’s in early September), this team isn’t making a deep push into late October.
For now, the Rays are taking the right approach of concentrating on who is available, not who isn’t, as Joe Maddon recently stated, and took some time Thursday to focus on fundamental aspects that haven’t been executed throughout the first half.
This 10 game homestand, starting tonight against the Red Sox, is of the utmost importance in starting off the 2nd half, as the schedule becomes quite nasty thereafter, with 19 of the ensuing 25 games on the road, including extended visits to the west coast on each trip, and only 6 against sub-.500 teams.