Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Notes on the Rays Series

Rays 7, Twins 1
Twins 4, Rays 3
Twins 8, Rays 3

Though it wasn't quite a QS, this was a huge step forward for Scott Baker. His command was much better, as he struck out 7 in 6 IP and, most importantly, kept the ball in the yard. He also had a string of 10 straight batters retired from the end of the 1st through the 4th. The XBH he allowed with 2 out in the first weren't great pitches, but the Evan Longoria 2B was very nearly foul and Carlos Pena's 3B was nearly caught by Cuddyer at the wall. The 2 runs allowed in the 5th, despite a WP and a PB, really just came down to: Alexi Casilla isn't quite tall enough and 2 bloopers around a BB. Baker has moved out of Baker 2006 territory and into the realm of Francisco Liriano this April, i.e. pitching OK overall, but not doing a very good job of scattering/stranding baserunners.

Speaking of Liriano, he was terrific until the 6th inning. His biggest trouble the last couple of starts has been retiring the leadoff man. He was able to work around it until the 6th, but putting the speedy guys on in front of the boppers is not a recipe for success. It's too bad he couldn't quite get through the 7th (really, Casilla should be 2 inches taller), but I love seeing him out there after the 6th with the Twins in the game.

The key to the Rays rally in the 6th was BJ Upton stealing 2nd despite being picked off. We all know that Justin Morneau has had a tendency to wear down over the course of the season, so these early days off from the field are important. But I miss him when he's not out there defensively. Cuddyer made some mistakes at 1st on Morneau's first day off in Chicago. Brian Buscher didn't exactly make a mistake in this game, it's just that he's a very deliberate player. You can see it in his ABs - it helps him avoid expanding the strike zone, but it also makes him just a little bit late on fastballs he should be attacking. On the pickoff play with Upton, he was just a smidge too slow getting the ball out of his glove. Make that play, and Longoria is batting with 2 out and the bases empty.

I have to compliment Buscher on the way he took that RBI HBP in the 6th. He barely flinched. That's the sign of someone who understood the situation and was mentally prepared to get hit.

Great work by Jose Mijares striking out the middle of the Rays' order after allowing a leadoff walk to Carl Crawford. I suspect he's seen the last of Rochester.

Joe Nathan is going to have to concentrate on throwing his first fastball down - that's twice now he's been taken deep on the first pitch of his outing.

Nick Blackburn was at his best on Wednesday night. Not just because he got 11 ground ball outs to 7 fly balls. Not just because he mixed his pitches effectively. He did a fine job of damage control in the 2 innings where the Rays were able to string some hits together, getting Evan Longoria twice with RISP. The only walk he allowed came with 2 RISP to a LH hitter with 2 out in the 7th. Because he pitches to contact, some grounders will sneak through, and some fly balls will drop in, but he was able to stay away from the fat part of the bat enough to limit the Rays to only 1 XBH.

As I predicted, Gardy has been sticking with Blackburn longer this year. He certainly had justification to make a pitching change as the 7th inning jam unfolded. But he stuck with his starter, and Blackburn held the Rays to just 1 run in the inning. That confidence in the starters is going to pay dividends down the road.

When the offense is scuffling to score runs, isn't it wonderful when the other team spots you a 4-run lead in the 1st inning? That rally went ground ball single, IF single chopped over 3B, BB, uncaught popup for a run, WP for a run, IF hit for a run, WP for a run. Almost as many runs as the Twins had mustered in the first 2 games of the series, all thanks to wildness from the pitcher and inefficient defense.

If Justin Morneau's HR total winds up a little bit lower than you were hoping at the end of the season, remember his 4th inning RBI double. That was within about a foot of being a HR, high off the baggie in right-center field. That's a HR in most other parks - certainly at the new Yankee Stadium.

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