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Baseball Notes

Those reports of Rays’ demise were premature

JOE MADDON Aims to home in JOE MADDON
Aims to home in
By Nick Cafardo
May 8, 2011

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It’s Mother’s Day; do you know where your Tampa Bay Rays are?

Right smack in the middle of things in the American League East, that’s where.

The Rays have not disappeared off the face of the Earth, as some expected, after losing free agents Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, and Joaquin Benoit and trading shortstop Jason Bartlett and starter Matt Garza. They even lost Manny Ramirez, who retired after five games, but they have managed to hang around after an 0-6 start.

“Pitching and defense, that’s how we’ve done it,’’ said Johnny Damon. “Maybe we don’t have the lineup Boston and New York do, but we have the pitching and we’re scoring enough runs and getting timely hits.

“We’re playing as a team. We’d like to be better, but all things considered, we’re hanging around, and hopefully we can get hot again and start showing everybody we belong here.’’

They’ve hung around because the Sox and Yankees have allowed them to. The Yankees have been in first place most of the season but haven’t run away by any means. The Sox are struggling to make it to .500 after their 0-6 start.

In other words, this is a very flawed division. There were visions of 100-win seasons for the Red Sox and/or Yankees, but that seems unlikely now. The three teams could be bunched up the way they have been the past few years. That would be amazing considering the Rays payroll is less than $40 million, while the Yankees and Sox are anywhere from $170 million to $200 million.

The Rays players have been opportunists.

Sam Fuld has come down to Earth a bit offensively, but defensively he’s been outstanding. He and Damon have combined to make up for the offense lost in Crawford.

Ben Zobrist has 25 RBIs — 10 of which came on the same day, in a doubleheader — while Damon, who has batted third at times, has 24. They’ve also added their centerpiece hitter, Evan Longoria, who returned last week after three weeks on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

Those who watch the Rays every day call them “gritty’’ and “overachievers.’’

Some say their bullpen eventually will bite them and Damon will get old fast. But not so far.

The starting pitchers have been able to go deep enough into games so as not to tax the bullpen. David Price, James Shields, and Wade Davis have combined for 10 wins. Young Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann have been more erratic, but not that bad. Niemann went on the disabled list Friday and will likely be replaced by veteran Andy Sonnanstine in the rotation.

The Rays brought up righty Alex Cobb (a Boston native) for an emergency start after he went 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA at Durham, and outfielder Brandon Guyer, who was hitting .356 with 6 homers and 18 RBIs at Triple A.

Kyle Farnsworth has emerged as the closer and is 6 for 6 in save situations — though his body of work screams that it won’t last. Leading up to him, Joel Peralta and Juan Cruz have been solid. Relievers Rob Delaney and Cory Wade are waiting in the wings at Durham.

They’ve had their offensive issues. Reid Brignac hasn’t hit consistently enough to keep the shortstop job and is occasionally nudged by Sean Rodriguez. One of baseball’s biggest enigmas, B.J. Upton, is hitting .252 with 5 homers and 18 RBIs. The Rays really needed Upton to step up and be the five-tool player he should be. While there’s still hope at age 26, it just hasn’t happened.

The Rays continue to struggle at the gate — averaging just over 16,000 fans per game — and there has been speculation that general manager Andrew Friedman might leave for Houston, where his father is heading a group of local investors seeking to buy the Astros.

The Friedman group seems to be lagging behind Houston businessman Jim Crane, though, and there already is speculation that Crane, if he gets the team, would try to hire Friedman to run it.

What’s interesting about the Tampa Bay situation is that owner Stuart Sternberg does not give his executives written contracts, so technically Friedman could leave at any time for a better opportunity.

“This has no bearing on me professionally,’’ Friedman said, “and I’m very happy in my job. And it would not be proper for me to comment on the business of another team.’’

There’s always talk that Sternberg could leave and buy the Mets from the Wilpons since he resides in the New York area and is a Mets season ticket-holder.

No doubt, the Rays don’t have the roster depth of Boston and New York, but they are better than Baltimore and Toronto simply because of their starting pitching. And to this point, they’ve been a better team than the Red Sox.

One area where manager Joe Maddon feels the Rays must get better is playing at home.

“We have to do a better job defending the Trop in the future,’’ Maddon said. “We have to play better here. That’s been our trademark the last several years.’’

Another trademark is that they’re almost always better than you think. And so far, that is true again.

CATCHING UP WITH FISK

He’d really like to put instruction on his plate

Having split his career between the Red Sox and White Sox, Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk would love to apply his wisdom to younger players in either organization.

Fisk, who said he has never received a serious offer from either team to do so, wants to work with catchers to teach them the things that made him so successful for more than 20 years in the majors.

“I see things on TV and sometimes I get frustrated,’’ said Fisk, who played until he was 45. “There’s a certain way I played the game, and when you don’t see the things that were so important for me, there are times I’ll yell some things at the TV, and my wife will be like, ‘What’s wrong?!’

“But I love the game and always will. It’s been such a big part of my life.’’

Fisk hasn’t seen enough of Jarrod Saltalamacchia to render an opinion, but he can speak on the topic of being a big, tall catcher, and the problems associated with it.

“The big thing is getting down low enough so the pitcher has a good target and the umpire can see the strike zone,’’ Fisk said. “That’s why for years I worked on my flexibility.’’

Fisk also believes that catchers in general don’t work hard enough on blocking balls, which is so important to the pitcher.

“You’re there to build the pitcher’s confidence,’’ said Fisk, “so if you show early in a game that you can block a pitch in the dirt and show the pitcher you’re in control, he would then have faith in being able to throw that same pitch when he really needs it with runners on base.’’

Fisk, like many Hall of Famers, is outspoken about players who took steroids and their chances of getting into Cooperstown. The thing he’s amazed at is how many steroid users benefited financially from breaking the rules.

“They were able to get themselves huge contracts based on the numbers they put up because they used that stuff,’’ Fisk said. “That’s not right.’’

Asked why owners don’t go after such players with lawsuits to try to recoup some money, Fisk said, “It’s the old ‘he said, he said’ thing, where it’s probably hard to prove. But there seemed to be guys who benefited financially from enhancing their performance with that stuff.’’

BULLPEN CURVEBALLS

Tigers aren’t getting what they expected

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein (left) talks often about how careful you have to be when signing relief pitchers. The Tigers are a perfect example.

Detroit handed Joaquin Benoit, last season’s American League Comeback Player of the Year, a three-year, $16.5 million deal, and he’s been bad.

Over three straight outings (April 27-May 1), he allowed nine earned runs — the same number he allowed all last season with the Rays, when he was arguably the best reliever in the game (1.34 ERA) other than perhaps his teammate, Rafael Soriano.

He also got the loss in two of those games, matching his total for last season as well. Benoit has struggled with his changeup, which was such a great pitch for him last season.

On the other hand, the Detroit scouts find Al Alburquerque in the Dominican Republic, and he has struck out 18 batters in 10 1/3 major league innings, so you’re left to wonder whether it’s worth spending that kind of money for a reliever when you can come up with someone like this?

You have to do it, though, because bullpens are so important. The Red Sox felt they had to pull the trigger on Bobby Jenks for two years at $12 million total and Dan Wheeler (one year, $3 million, with an option), and neither has pitched well.

Right now, it’s clear that hitters simply are not familiar with Alburquerque, who throws a nasty curveball/slider in the mid-80s. The 25-year-old righthander was particularly impressive in an outing against Cleveland last Saturday, when he hurled three perfect innings and struck out six.

Whether this can last through the season remains to be seen, but given Benoit’s struggles, Alburquerque has been a life saver.

The Tigers are also not getting very good news on Joel Zumaya, who electrified the league when he first came up with his 100-m.p.h. fastball. Zumaya, still only 26 years old, can’t get healthy, and he may never be the same.

Zumaya broke his elbow last June and had a screw inserted, and now needs surgery to determine why he still has pain. The Tigers really aren’t anticipating that he’ll pitch in 2011.

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. The American Meteorological Society says cloudy days are better than sunny days for hitters. According to a 15-year study, home batters hit .266 and visitors .256 under overcast skies but .259 and .251 with the sun out; 2. Blue Jays lefty Jo-Jo Reyes needs five more winless starts to break Matt Keough’s big-league mark of 28 consecutive starts without a win; 3. Consensus of baseball evaluators: There is good young pitching emerging in the league, but top positional players are scarce; 4. Nobody works catchers harder and is more demanding of them than Mike Scioscia; 5. Still wondering whether Larry Lucchino emerges as a front-runner to buy the Dodgers.

Updates on nine 1. Jeff Mathis, C, Angels — “He’s one of the best catchers in this league,’’ said Jason Varitek. “He’s a very athletic catcher. He has a good arm. He creates a good situation for his pitching staff. You can tell the pitchers really enjoy throwing to him. He’s fun to watch back there because he does things so easily. He’s one of the best.’’ Mathis could be available.

2. Pudge Rodriguez, C, Nationals — Bench coach John McLaren said Rodriguez is still very good behind the plate at 39. “He controls the running game and he really manages the game like he always did,’’ said McLaren. “He’s still very good at blocking balls.’’ Offense is where Rodriguez has declined, but he appears to be a pretty good risk for a team that needs a veteran catcher. He wants to be the first catcher to reach the 3,000-hit plateau, and entering last night’s game he was 171 shy.

3. Chris Tillman, RHP, Orioles — He has the same ERA as John Lackey (7.16) and is 1-3 after a good start. The Orioles aren’t concerned because Tillman, 23, is the youngest pitcher on the staff. They are considering whether to demote him, and he may have to pitch better in his next start to stay in the rotation. Pitching coach Mark Connors has been trying to get him to throw downhill more.

4. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets — Giants general manager Brian Sabean said the story about him being interested in Reyes is “total b.s.’’ But it’s probably not a bad thought. The Giants have the young players (pitcher Zack Wheeler, first baseman/outfielder Brandon Belt) to trade for a guy who probably won’t be re-signing with the Mets next season (though GM Sandy Alderson said he remains a priority). Last year, Sabean proved to be one of the best at making in-season moves to jump-start his team. A cheaper alternative, as we’ve suggested before, would be Marco Scutaro.

5. Nate McLouth, CF, Braves — This lineup really needs McLouth to contribute again, and since manager Fredi Gonzalez took him out of the No. 2 spot, he has been revived. McLouth went on a 20-for-56 tear with a .471 OBP and a 1.025 OPS over a 15-game stretch. He has never been the player he was in Pittsburgh, but there’s hope he may be again.

6. Tyler Flowers, C, White Sox — Flowers, 25, is at Triple A Charlotte and is trade bait. He was scouted by several teams, including the Red Sox, in spring training. The 6-foot-4-inch righthanded hitter was off to a slow start at the plate (.233, 4 HRs, 7 RBIs) but has been improving defensively.

7. Matt Stairs, PH, Nationals — When you’re 43 and have gone 0 for 13 as a pinch hitter, it’s not good. So when Stairs broke the drought Wednesday with his 100th career pinch hit, he mused, “I wouldn’t say I’m locked in.’’

8. Josh Reddick, OF, Pawtucket Red Sox — He has generated a lot of chatter among scouts this season. The Red Sox would have willing trade partners if they made him available to fill a need such as catching. Reddick, who entered yesterday’s game with 8 homers and 18 RBIs, could help a few teams, including the Nationals, who need a leadoff hitter/center fielder. “I know he tends to be streaky,’’ said a scout, “but he’s an intriguing player because he shows some power and has some speed. I know he probably feels he’s a little bit stuck in the Boston system with the talent they have up at the majors, but he’s a major league player and he’d be playing for a lot of teams in the big leagues right now.’’

9. Lance Berkman, RF, Cardinals — Kudos to the St. Louis brass for taking a chance on Berkman after so many experts thought he was at the end of his career. Berkman had a down season in 2010 — 14 homers, 58 RBIs between the Astros and Yankees — after a spring training knee injury he never really rebounded from. But he’s hitting the way he did in his prime: 10 homers and a National League-leading 32 RBIs, to go with a .392 average entering yesterday’s game. “It’s been a good run,’’ said Berkman. “I feel like I’m seeing the ball good every at-bat. And that’s comforting. Even if you go 0 for 3, before that fourth at-bat, you still feel, ‘I’ve got a chance because I’m seeing it good.’ That’s how I judge whether to panic or not. When you’re not seeing it, you’re just hoping.’’

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “Daisuke Matsuzaka making his first relief appearance [Wednesday night] leads me to mention that CC Sabathia leads all active pitchers with 329 starts and no relief appearances.’’ Also, “John Farrell has the Blue Jays running. Toronto finished last in the AL with 58 steals in 2010, but this year they have 34 in 30 games.’’ And, “Lackey led the AL with a 3.01 ERA in 2007; since then, his ERA has gone up each year: 3.75, 3.83, 4.40, and 7.16 this season . . . Happy 29th birthday, Adrian Gonzalez.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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