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Baseball Notes

Success in Tampa Bay starts with the starters

By Nick Cafardo
May 23, 2010

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The Tampa Bay Rays have pieces that fit together well, and when they don’t — as was the case with veteran DH Pat Burrell — off you go.

Gabe Kapler is one of those pieces that has fit for a second straight season, in the role of righthanded-hitting outfielder who plays vs. lefthanded pitching. But he’s more than that.

He is unique because he has seen things from a perspective few players ever will. The one year Kapler left baseball as a player (2007), he managed the Red Sox’ Single A team in Greenville, S.C.

When he looks at teams, he can break them down pretty well. He understands the ebb and flow more than most. He understands team karma, chemistry, the banter in the clubhouse, the way guys react to wins and losses, and what they do to prepare for the game that night.

Looking at the Rays, who start a three-game series against the Sox tomorrow, he said, “We’re very confident. It stems from the success we’ve had and a feeling we have that every time we step on the field something good is going to happen.

“People care about each other. We’re a real team. We love to win and we love to play the game right.’’

That’s for sure. The Rays have the best record in baseball and have done it without a superb offense. Some of their thumpers — Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton, in particular — have struggled.

Pena’s problems have been more severe than anything David Ortiz has gone through, yet manager Joe Maddon has kept him in the lineup, feeling that patience will be rewarded.

Upton remains an enigma to some. He has all the talent in the world, but never the consistency. A former coach of Upton’s said, “I think he just needs a change of scenery, and that’s not to imply that Tampa Bay doesn’t create a good place for him. But sometimes you just need a new perspective on things, and I think he might take off if he were someplace else.’’

On the other hand, the young pitching staff — starters average 25.6 years old, second-youngest in the majors — has been lights-out. Over their first 28 decisions, the starters were 22-6 with a 2.59 ERA. They allowed two earned runs or fewer 28 times in the first 41 games and three earned runs or fewer 35 times.

The elder statesman of the group is James Shields, 28, who may not be the ace but could very well be considered the leader.

“If you put out five cards, they’d all be aces on this staff,’’ Shields said. “We push each other a lot. We’re always in competition to see who’ll be the first guy at the gym.

“There’s a lot of talent and we’re all trying to do our part and help out the bullpen in any way we can by pitching deep into games.’’

And the bullpen does need help. Lefthanded set-up man J.P. Howell — who was instrumental in the Rays’ run to the 2008 World Series — had shoulder surgery last week and will be lost for the season.

In 32 of their first 40 games, though, the Rays didn’t go to the bullpen until at least the seventh inning.

“We know as starters that we have to take the pressure off our bullpen,’’ Shields said. “It’s not something we obsess over, but I think we approach it like everybody needs to do what they’re capable of doing every time they take the mound. If everybody does that, things will take care of themselves.’’

The philosophy is sound; in other words, skate your wing. But there will be bumps in the road. They will have to get into their bullpen before closer Rafael Soriano.

With the budget maxed out — especially with the Rays on the hook for another $6 million of Burrell’s salary — it may be difficult for them to go out and get that key piece of the puzzle.

But who knows? Teams tend to stretch their budgets when they feel they’re close. With Carl Crawford and Pena due to become free agents and unlikely to re-sign, the Rays may feel the urgency to go for it now.

Crawford, for his part, says he’s not even thinking about the future.

“You can’t fill your head with what might happen next year,’’ he said. “You’ve got to play for now. This is pretty exciting here. I don’t think you’re going to find this kind of atmosphere in too many places in baseball, so I’m enjoying it.

“I went through a lot of losing early in my career, and now we’re winning, so I don’t take anything for granted. It does me no good to think about the future or another team.’’

Shields, Crawford, and Kapler are mindful of this, too: You can never let up in the American League East.

“I’m a little surprised at the way the Red Sox started off, given the talent they have over there,’’ said Shields. “I think we have a great rotation. New York has a great rotation. Toronto has been terrific. Boston has established guys who have won championships.

“We all know in here that before all is said and done, Boston is going to be there, which makes our meetings against them very important.’’

“No doubt,’’ said Crawford. “People, I think, are ruling out Boston. No way. Boston is tough. Those guys can really pitch and they can really play. You take them for granted, you’re crazy.’’

TALENT UNMASKED
In Cervelli, Yankees have quite a catch
Francisco Cervelli (left) was supposed to be the backup catcher who could give the Yankees good defense and save them about $3 million by letting Jose Molina go. Now he’s a potential starting catcher.

“We knew he could catch in the big leagues all along,’’ said general manager Brian Cashman. “What we didn’t expect is the level of offense he’s given us.

“He’s really been a complete catcher for us. The pitchers love throwing to him. He’s a great kid who works hard with every pitcher. He has a very good arm and really has an excellent feel of how to call the game.’’

The Rays stole six bases Tuesday night, but nobody seemed to be blaming Cervelli; they were getting huge jumps on A.J. Burnett. With Jorge Posada out 3-4 weeks with a hairline fracture in his foot, the Yankees shouldn’t miss a beat.

“I have some confidence in myself,’’ Cervelli said. “The more I play and do well, that builds confidence. Especially hitting, because there are such great pitchers in the big leagues that you have to learn the pitchers and what they throw, and it makes you a better hitter the more experience you get.

“I’m just happy to be able to help Jorge. He’s one of the greats of all-time, and I’m honored to be around a player like that.’’

Entering last night’s game, Cervelli was hitting .342 with 17 RBIs and he’s been particularly solid with runners in scoring position. The 24-year-old has tortured the Red Sox, hitting .389 (7 for 18) with 7 RBIs.

With Cervelli’s emergence, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do with catching prospects Austin Romine and Jesus Montero.

Romine, son of former Sox outfielder Kevin Romine, was hitting .328 with 3 homers and 26 RBIs entering yesterday with Double A Trenton and, according to Cashman, “can catch in the big leagues right now.’’

Montero is more of a hitter than Romine, but the 20-year-old Venezuelan has struggled at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, hitting .244 entering yesterday with 3 homers and 19 RBIs.

Nice problems to have.

COMPLAINT DEPT.
Angry Ortiz is off-base with actions
The David Ortiz “I’ve been wronged’’ victory tour last week was a real turnoff. We understand that he is frustrated and that he was hurt by media stories declaring he was done, but to come out and say that it’s the last time he’ll ever be pinch-hit for?

This from a guy who was admiring his work Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium to the point where he was thrown out at second base in one of the more unprofessional pieces of baseball you’ll ever see. Ortiz (above) isn’t the first or last slugger to do that, but given what he’s endured, hustling out of the box might be a better way to go.

Instead of indirectly criticizing Terry Francona by telling WEEI, “You have to believe in your players,’’ he should have thanked his manager, who let him off the hook for what could have been an even more embarrassing moment had the Sox not come back to win.

Imagine if Hanley Ramirez pulled what Ortiz did? He’d be benched.

But given that Ortiz is finally hitting again, we’re sure the Sox didn’t say anything to him, lest they send him into another pout.

Ownership has been firmly behind Ortiz, even after his name was leaked as one of those players who came up positive for a PED in the 2003 random testing, something Ortiz has never explained. If he doesn’t know what he tested positive for, it’s strange he hasn’t tried to find out.

As for Ortiz’s statement, “I’m going to be done when I’ve decided that I’m done.’’ Huh?

Keep up those long stretches of hitting a buck-fifty and you’ll be done when your employer says you’re done. No matter what he does the rest of the season, Ortiz is likely to be done in Boston unless he takes a massive pay cut.

With the Sox unlikely to pick up the $12 million option on his contract, Ortiz may have to resume his career elsewhere at a fraction of what he earns now. World Series MVP Hideki Matsui went that way when he had to settle for a one-year, $6 million deal with the Angels this past winter. The market for one-dimensional players simply isn’t there, as Jermaine Dye has found out.

When you think about it, there could be a very limited market for Ortiz, because teams are using the DH spot as a rotation for their older positional players or other platoons. Ortiz would not likely accept a pinch-hitting role like Jason Giambi’s in Colorado.

It might behoove Ortiz to embrace the first baseman’s mitt during interleague play and show people he can play the position. He also might want to hustle and respect the fact the organization has stood by him.

ETC.
Apropos of nothing
1. Best comment I’ve read on Hanley Ramirez, courtesy of CBSSports.com’s Scott Miller: “Ramirez also is the only player in the game capable of winning both a batting title and the Westminster Dog Show by the time his career is finished’’; 2. When St. Pete Times writer Joe Smith tried to reach Pat Burrell on his cell phone, Burrell texted back to “lose my [expletive] number.’’ Don’t worry, Pat, most teams have already lost it; 3. If David Ortiz and Victor Martinez keep hitting, there’s no chance the Sox will acquire Chris Iannetta; 4. The New Britain Rock Cats have the tallest and shortest players in professional baseball: 7-foot-1-inch reliever Loek Van Mil and 5-3 shortstop Chris Cates; 5. Are people really getting sick of “Sweet Caroline’’?

Updates on nine
1. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins — His benching for loafing came as no surprise to one person in the Red Sox organization. “We had to get on him all the time about that,’’ he said. “Unfortunately, what happened here in Boston is that Manny Ramirez took the kid under his wing, and while Manny helped him as a hitter, he also took up some of Manny’s more unflattering aspects, like not hustling at times. Hanley is a terrific player who will have a long career and be very successful. We always felt immaturity was an issue that he would eventually grow out of. But maybe it hasn’t quite taken hold yet.’’ Would the Sox be able to get Hanley Ramirez back in a deal? A National League executive said, “I would doubt it. Even with his problems, he’s their superstar and they need him in Miami.’’

2. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees — This Anthony Galea investigation could become troubling for a whole new group of athletes if they were injected with human growth hormone by the Canadian doctor now facing federal charges. Court documents indicate that three Boston athletes were “treated’’ by Galea. Everyone around the Red Sox is playing dumb on this, but names might start to come out. What we know is that the feds eventually will speak to A-Rod about the “treatments’’ he received from Galea. A-Rod has been very quiet on this one, but it could be very damaging. He has a great chance to shed his steroid image with many years of “clean’’ play, unless this Galea investigation derails it.

3. Red Sox players — If the Sox fall out of the race, a number of players could be dealt for prospects to replenish the farm system. They could land multiple players for Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Victor Martinez, Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, and Jeremy Hermida

4. Garrett Atkins, 1B, Orioles — Must admit, I thought Atkins was going to be one of the best values in the free agent market, but he has turned out to be exactly what the Rockies thought he’d be: a hitter who struggles. Entering yesterday, Atkins was 0 for his last 15 and 6 for 28 (.214) with runners in scoring position, with five double plays and four strikeouts. Overall, he was batting .221 with a .283 slugging percentage in 113 at-bats, with no homers, 4 runs, and 6 RBIs. His time in Baltimore could be done, even though he signed a one-year, $4 million deal (with a $500,000 buyout). He could even be released if things continue to go this badly.

5. Rich Harden, RHP, Texas — Nolan Ryan was warned by many that Harden wasn’t going to be much of an innings guy when he was acquired essentially to replace Kevin Millwood (traded to Baltimore) in the Texas rotation. So far, those experts are right. Harden has thrown 43 2/3 innings in nine starts, lasting only five innings or fewer in five of them. The Rangers bullpen is incredibly overworked, and suffice to say they are out there looking for a starting pitcher. Good luck.

6. Mike Lowell, 3B/1B/DH — A Rangers official told me last week he’d love to get Lowell in Texas. Based on Lowell’s performance to start the season, he would appear to be a good fit; the Rangers are looking for a righthanded hitter who can produce.

7. Jason Place, OF, Portland Sea Dogs — He’s the No. 1 pick (2006) you don’t hear much about because he has had a tough ride in the Red Sox system. He was recently sent home “to clear his head,’’ according to a Sox official. Place has had a few personal issues, including confrontations with teammates. Place, who is 6 feet 2 inches, 205 pounds, was hitting .127 at Portland. He was the 27th overall pick in 2006, taken one spot ahead of Daniel Bard.

8. Jerry Manuel, Mets, manager — He seems to be on a 24-hour firing watch, his chances hinging on every win and loss. If he leaves, to whom do the Mets turn? There are obvious in-house choices such as Bob Melvin, a special assistant to general manager Omar Minaya; Terry Collins, the minor league field coordinator; and manager Wally Backman (Brooklyn, NY-Penn), who some believe could be the long-term solution. Question is, do you go with Backman now or someone else in the interim?

9. Jason Bay, OF, Mets — Scouts are astonished at how little power Bay has exhibited: one homer in his first 157 at-bats entering last night’s game. Bay’s average (.280) and OBP (.368) are fine, and his 16 RBIs are low but acceptable. His stats have been better at Citi Field than on the road, another oddity. “He’s not driving the ball like we saw in Boston,’’ said an NL evaluator. “He’s getting fooled on off-speed stuff a lot. They paid him to be a power hitter. He’s a streaky hitter, and maybe the homers will come in bunches like they did at times in Boston.’’ Many believe Bay never should have left Boston, which seemed a perfect place for his skills.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: “Alonzo Powell, the new Mariners hitting coach, won three consecutive batting titles for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League, in 1994 (.324), 1995 (.355), and 1996 (.340).’’ Also, “Javier Vazquez is 143-143 as a starter and 1-0 as a reliever.’’ . . . Happy birthday, Cesar Crespo (31), Ricky Gutierrez (40), Kevin Romine (49), and Reggie Cleveland (62).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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