Archive for April, 2011

Niemann, Zobrist lead Rays to series sweep

April 28, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — He may not have gotten the no-hitter, or the shutout, but Jeff Niemann pitched his best game of the season Thursday night against the Twins.

Niemann held the Twins hitless through six innings while facing the minimum until Denard Span singled on a soft liner just beyond the reach of Elliot Johnson at shortstop to lead off the seventh. Span would come around to score on a single later in the inning, but those two hits would be the only ones of the night for the Twins as the Rays won, 6-1, at Target Field.

“It was a great game and everything was clicking,” Niemann said. “This is a huge confidence boost. It’s something that I needed. The team’s been playing so well and I felt like I was that guy that was kind of stopping the momentum the whole time.

“It’s great to keep the momentum going and just get a win. It’s great.”

With the two games on the schedule Thursday, Rays manager Joe Maddon swapped the order of Niemann and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson based on statistical research. Niemann has traditionally pitched much better at night than in day games, and the switch paid off for the Rays, as they completed the series sweep.

Before the game, the Rays had a feeling Niemann was on the verge of getting back on track, especially with the way his bullpen session went earlier in the week. After struggling through his first four starts of the season, Niemann finally broke through Thursday to pick up his first win since Sept. 24, 2010.

“It was very big, because that really can get him back in a groove,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “From a couple years ago he’s taught us that he may struggle a bit, but when he catches fire, he gets really hot. Hopefully this is the game that’s going to catapult him. He looked more like he had prior to his injury last year.”

Including Niemann’s performance, Rays starters have pitched seven or more innings in 12 of the club’s last 15 games. Their ability to pitch deep in games was even more important this week against the Twins, as a short start could have taxed their bullpen with Thursday’s pair of contests and three more games this weekend.

Even with his near no-hit performance, though, Niemann still had to share the spotlight in the nightcap with Ben Zobrist, who had a career day at the plate.

Zobrist, who had a four-hit, eight-RBI performance in the day’s first game, continued to swing a hot bat in the nightcap. He wasted little time adding to his RBI total for the day, belting a two-run homer in his first at-bat of game.

With 10 RBIs on the day, Zobrist was three shy of the Major League record for RBIs in one day, according to Baseball Almanac.

“This must be what it’s like to feel like Sam Fuld,” Zobrist quipped. “I really had no idea what was happening. I just was kind of in the zone and just trying not to think about it too much. Just go up there and have good at-bats, and I just felt real comfortable, obviously, in the box.”

In the sixth and eighth innings, Zobrist led off with a single and a double, and later came around to score. He finished 8-for-14 in the series with two home runs, three doubles, a triple, 13 RBIs — one more than he had upon arriving in Minnesota — and six runs scored.

With his 10 RBIs over the two games, Zobrist now leads the league with 25 RBIs, after coming into the day tied for 13th in the Majors with 15 RBIs. Zobrist’s 10 RBIs in one day is the most since Garret Anderson had 10 in one game for the Angels on Aug. 21, 2007, against the Yankees.

Zobrist has 18 RBIs over his last five games. The last player to accomplish that feat was Sammy Sosa in 2002, from Aug. 10-14. Sosa also had 20 over five games from Aug. 8-12 the same year. The last American League player to have 18 RBIs over five games was Reggie Jackson, from June 14-18, 1969.

With 25 RBIs this month, Zobrist set a new Rays club record for the most RBIs in April, surpassing four others who had previously set the mark at 24.

“We’ve seen guys have great days before and that’s what this game is all about,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “The guy came up in a lot of big situations and he was swinging the bat pretty well today. We pitched him inside and outside, we threw changeups and breaking balls, and he hit pretty much everything we threw up there.

“Every mistake, he killed it. It was a hell of a series for him, but a lot of guys got on base for him.”

Johnny Damon also extended his hit streak in the game, singling in the third inning to put his run at 16 straight games. Damon was 4-for-9 in the two games Thursday, with three runs scored and a triple.

As the Rays continued to roll, Maddon improved to 418-417 over his career with the club, marking just the second time he has owned a winning record at the end of a day as Rays skipper, the other coming when he was 7-6 in his first season at the helm, on April 16, 2006.

With the series sweep, their first of the season, the Rays improved to 14-11, while pushing their record since April 10 to a Major League best 13-3.

“We played well in all components of the game,” Maddon said. “Pitching was great, defense was spectacular, we started hitting the ball with a lot more regularity, and really hit the ball hard and well. Just good at-bats. That’s about as well as we’ve played for three consecutive games this year.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Zobrist’s eight RBIs propel Rays’ blowout

April 28, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Ben Zobrist’s good week only got better on Thursday afternoon.

Entering Thursday’s Game 1, Zobrist had 15 RBIs for the season, eight of which had come in the Rays’ previous three games. With four hits, including a three-run home run, Zobrist put up a club-record eight RBIs in the first game of a day-night twin bill as the Rays rolled to a 15-3 victory over the Twins.

Zobrist’s eight RBIs broke the previous club record of seven, set by Carlos Pena in 2007.

“I did not know that,” Zobrist said of the record. “Any time you have that many RBIs, it’s because your teammates are getting on base for you.

“That’s a team thing, RBIs are.”

In the first inning, Zobrist helped the Rays get out to an early lead with an RBI single. In the sixth, he followed a pair of one-out singles with a three-run blast to right field for his sixth home run of the season.

Zobrist later added a pair of two-run doubles, in the seventh and in the ninth. With his performance, Zobrist was the first player in the Majors with eight or more RBIs in a game since Adam Lind did it for the Blue Jays on Aug. 31, 2009.

In his last four games, Zobrist has three home runs, and five homers in his last 11 games.

“He just came up at the right spots and didn’t miss,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon.

“Ben’s just not missing. He’s getting his opportunities, the at-bats have been working, and he’s done a great job with it.”

Of course, Zobrist was far from the only Rays player swinging the bat well. While the temperatures remained chilly at Target Field, the Rays’ bats stayed hot in a second straight easy win over Minnesota.

The first five batters did not get hits like they did Wednesday night, but the Rays got on the board early with a two-run first inning, and they didn’t stop there.

“Everybody kept having good quality at-bats,” Zobrist said. “We can be a very dangerous team up and down the lineup.”

Twins right-hander Nick Blackburn fared even worse than lefty Francisco Liriano did in the series opener, which was the opposite of what the Twins needed to open Thursday’s day-night doubleheader.

Blackburn lasted 3 1/3 innings, giving up seven runs — five earned — on eight hits and four walks.

“I just couldn’t throw strikes,” Blackburn said. “Everything I was throwing was going in the dirt. It was just one of those days. It’s not very often I have to tell myself to the get the ball up.”

After the two-run first, Casey Kotchman belted a solo homer in the second. In the third, a walk, single and two Twins errors brought in two more runs for the Rays, and in the fourth, Blackburn surrendered two more runs on a walk, triple and two singles.

Just as they did in Wednesday’s 8-2 victory, the Rays kept hitting even after knocking the starter out of the game, scoring in six of the first seven innings.

“It was a pretty good day for us,” designated hitter Johnny Damon said. “Hopefully we can continue this.”

Damon extended his hit streak to 15 games with a second-inning single, also notching a triple, two walks, a stolen base and three runs scored. Matt Joyce went 3-for-4, with two walks, two runs scored and one RBI. B.J. Upton also went 3-for-4, walking twice, driving in a pair and scoring three runs.

Overshadowed a bit by the Rays’ 15-run outburst, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson delivered yet another quality performance by a Rays starter on the mound. Tossing 6 1/3 innings, Hellickson gave up three runs on seven hits with three strikeouts and one walk.

Hellickson, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, which is about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Target Field, picked up his second straight win in front of about 100 friends and family members, improving his record to 2-2 with a 4.31 ERA.

As much as he was impressed by Zobrist, Maddon really liked what he saw from his rookie right-hander.

“It starts with Hellickson for me,” Maddon said. “Jeremy came out, we got some runs, and he held them in check and permitted us to keep batting on.”

Hellickson appeared to run out of gas in the seventh inning, which his manager attributed to all the sitting the right-hander had to do during the top halves of innings.

When asked about it, Hellickson didn’t have a problem with the long innings in the dugout.

“I’ll take those all day, every day,” Hellickson said. “I’ll sit in there as long as they want to stay out and hit.”

It was a true team effort for the Rays, as seven different players scored at least one run and every starter except for Sam Fuld and Kelly Shoppach hit safely at least once.

With the win, the Rays improved to 12-3 since April 10, the best record in baseball over that stretch. Maddon also improved to 417-417 for his career, the first time he’s been at the .500 mark since 16 games into his first season with the club in 2006.

Right now, Maddon is very happy with the way his team is playing.

“The energy’s there, the want to is there, and that’s all you can ever ask for as a manager,” he said. “I really like the way we’re going about our games right now. And I really believe it’s going to stay.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Rays beat 4/28

April 28, 2011 Comments off

Fuld, Damon pack punch at top of the order

By Jordan Schelling /

MINNEAPOLIS — With Sam Fuld leading off and Johnny Damon batting second, the Rays have one of the most productive top-of-the-order duos they have had in years.Entering Thursday’s games, Fuld was batting .350, with a home run, eight RBIs, a .411 on-base percentage and a league-leading 10 stolen bases. Damon was hitting .260, with four home runs and 19 RBIs, which leads all No. 2 hitters in the Majors.

“Those two guys together is kind of fun to watch,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “I really think if we just keep these guys rested and well, in that regard, I think that you’re going to see a pretty good level of performance on a regular basis. I think that’s the key to both of them performing well is making sure that we don’t permit them to get tired.”

Fuld is batting at a .351 clip in the leadoff spot, which leads the American League. In the 15 games Fuld and Damon have batted at the top of the order, the Rays are 9-6, and the two have combined to score 38 of 68 runs scored by the Rays in those games.

Damon’s first-inning single Wednesday night extended his hitting streak to 14 games, which is the longest April streak in club history and the ninth longest streak overall. His second RBI Wednesday night was the Major League leading sixth game-winning RBI this season for Damon.

Damon singled in the second inning of Thursday’s Game 1 of the Rays’ doubleheader against the Twins to tack onto the streak.

“Sam has been very productive in his first at-bat of the game, doing something that permits us to score first,” Maddon said. “One of our goals is to score first, and they’re definitely helping us do that.”

Followers flock to Fuld’s new Twitter

MINNEAPOLIS — Forget the “Legend of Sam Fuld.” The Rays left fielder is now on Twitter.

Before heading to the ballpark Thursday for what promised to be an exceptionally long day, Fuld signed up for an account @SamFuld5 and posted his first tweet around 10 a.m. ET.

“I just figured, ‘Why not?'” Fuld said. “I got convinced by a couple guys here to do it. It’s like a whole new world for me, I’m trying to figure out the nuances of it.”

Rays lefty David Price was one of the main proponents in getting Fuld to join Twitter, and also in getting Fuld’s follower count up so quickly. Just as his popularity has soared over the past few weeks and his legend has grown on Twitter, fans responded quickly to follow Fuld.

“Generally speaking, everything that’s gone on has been really surprising, but great,” Fuld said. “I’ve been enjoying it. This whole thing has been a great ride so far. It’s been a month, but it’s felt like a lot more than that. It’s just been a whole lot of stuff going on, and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.”

What does Fuld plan to use his account for? Will followers get periodic updates about where the left fielder had dinner after a game?

Fuld says he wants to do much more with it than that.

“Part of my reasoning behind it is to help raise money for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, that’s one of the big things behind it,” Fuld said. “I’m definitely going to use it as a platform to speak about that stuff.

“I figure I’ll put some interesting stuff on there, whatever interests me. It’s going to be more than just, ‘I went to Starbucks this morning.’ Hopefully it’ll be a little more than that.”

Cold conditions take Maddon down memory lane

MINNEAPOLIS — After his team’s 8-2 victory Wednesday night, Rays manager Joe Maddon said the weather at Target Field reminded him of Game 5 of the 2008 World Series.

“That one was a little bit wetter,” Maddon said. “But this one was, I think, a little bit colder at the end of the day, if that’s possible. I’m walking up and down the dugout, just talking to myself basically about how it does feel like that. I do remember that and I also was thinking about how our guys responded in a very positive way.”

With temperatures in the 30s and wind chill making it feel about 10 degrees colder than it was, the Rays were forced to break out all their winter gear to play the Twins. With snow falling for much of the game, the field was wet as well, though not as much as it would have been with rain.

But the conditions did not seem to affect the Rays.

“I was very pleased with how our guys went about their business,” Maddon said. “Tough circumstances, they know that there’s a day-nighter looming in their face … and they went after it the right way. My hat’s off to our team, I thought they did great.

“We played like it was 75 and sunny.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

At snowy Target Field, Rays roll past Twins

April 27, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — It was like a winter wonderland Wednesday at Target Field, complete with snow, Santa Claus and Christmas carols.

Baseball is not typically played in snow globe-like conditions and “Let It Snow” usually is not played over the loudspeaker. But none of that stopped the Rays from heating up at the plate and taking the series opener, 8-2, from the Twins.

After having Tuesday’s game postponed until Thursday due to inclement weather, it wasn’t much nicer Wednesday in the Twin Cities. The game time temperature was a chilly 40 degrees, with a 17-mph wind making it feel like it was closer to 30.

“It felt a lot warmer in the first inning,” Rays manager Joe Maddon quipped, referring to his team’s four-run outburst in the opening frame.

Leading off the game, left fielder Sam Fuld crushed a 2-2 fastball deep to right field, barely missing a home run, for an easy double. Designated hitter Johnny Damon followed with a single to center field, plating Fuld and putting the Rays up 1-0 just nine pitches into the game.

That one-two punch of Fuld and Damon at the top of the order has been sparking the Rays lately as they’ve become one of the hottest teams in baseball, and they did it again against lefty Francisco Liriano and the Twins.

Damon was followed by a B.J. Upton double, and they both scored one batter later on Ben Zobrist’s two-run triple. Zobrist then scored on a Sean Rodriguez single. Five batters into the game, Tampa Bay had five hits and four runs on the board, with no outs.

“The bats were hot even though we weren’t yet,” Zobrist said. “It looked like it was tough for both pitchers to kind of get everything going the first inning, fortunately we capitalized on it.”

After Liriano appeared to settle in over the next two innings, he struggled again in the fourth, giving up a leadoff single and walking a pair before being lifted from the game. Liriano finished with seven runs allowed on six hits over three-plus innings, with four walks and four strikeouts.

“I was just leaving the ball up in the zone,” Liriano said of his slow start. “It was a cold night, so it wasn’t fun to pitch. I just couldn’t get comfortable and was making mistakes.”

Liriano’s replacement, right-hander Eric Hacker, did not fair much better, walking in a pair of runs with the bases loaded and giving up a sacrifice fly to center field to Zobrist, which made it 7-1.

Zobrist finished 1-for-4 on the night with three RBIs and a run scored.

Davis struggled in the third and seventh, but was otherwise in command throughout. Scattering seven hits and three walks over 6 2/3 innings, Davis gave up one run in the third on a Jason Kubel single, which scored Matt Tolbert, and another in the seventh on Alexi Casilla’s sacrifice fly.

“He was throwing strikes,” said Twins center fielder Denard Span of Davis. “We fell behind in the early innings and he threw the ball over the plate. In conditions like this, that’s all you want your pitcher to do, just to throw strikes and let the hitters get out.”

The early lead helped Davis out, too. With a four-run cushion before he stepped on the mound, Davis was able to pitch to contact while looking to jam hitters inside.

Davis also was one of the few players on the night not wearing much extra clothing to stay warm. A native of Lake Wales, Fla., pitching in snow was a first for Davis, but he stuck with the short sleeves because that’s what he’s used to wearing.

“I’ve seen snow, never pitched in it before,” Davis said. “I tried it before, and I just don’t feel comfortable with [long sleeves].

“You’ve just got to grind it out.”

Maddon, along with most players, were dressed with just the opposite mindset of Davis. They wore as much clothing as possible, including special hats with ear flaps to keep warm.

Many in attendance embraced the wintry weather.

At least one fan dressed as Santa was sighted in the stands, which was even more appropriate when “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” was heard at one point between innings. Another group, shown both on the television broadcast and the video board at the ballpark, was seen shirtless and enjoying ice cream.

“I loved it, I thought that was appropriate, well-done, well thought out,” Maddon said of the Christmas carols played throughout the game. “My compliments. And also to the fans of the Minnesota Twins. To show up en masse like that, under these circumstances, I really thought that was kind of unbelievable. It indicates what a great fan base they have here.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Longoria expected to be activated Tuesday

April 27, 2011 Comments off

By Jordan Schelling /

MINNEAPOLIS — Rays third baseman Evan Longoria is expected to return from the disabled list Tuesday, manager Joe Maddon said.Longoria — who went on the disabled with a strained left oblique April 2 — will begin a rehab assignment Thursday at Double-A Montgomery, where the club hopes to get the All-Star third baseman 15 at-bats throughout five games.

“Everybody is worried, myself included, about fatigue and soreness — the lingering effects of those first couple of games as opposed to getting the at-bats,” Longoria told the Tampa Tribune.

Maddon said Longoria will bat leadoff while playing four games in five days. Longoria is scheduled to play seven innings Thursday and Friday, then take either Saturday or Sunday off to rest his oblique.

He is then scheduled to play nine innings Monday before being activated before Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jays.

“He’ll decide how he feels after the first two, and then if he needs the Saturday, he’ll play Sunday. If he feels good Saturday, he’ll play Saturday and take Sunday off,” Maddon said. “He’ll hit leadoff in each game, so that he’s able to get as many at-bats in as minimal amount of innings possible.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Rays beat, 4/27

April 27, 2011 Comments off

Shields honored to be AL Player of the Week

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not every day that you throw complete games in consecutive starts, so Rays starter James Shields had an idea he’d be considered for the American League Player of the Week Award.

Still, it was a big honor and a bit of a surprise when Shields heard the news.

“It’s exciting,” Shields said. “There’s a lot of good players that had good weeks, so it’s definitely an honor. To be able to be the player of the week for last week is pretty nice.

“I would imagine with two complete games in one week, I definitely thought I was going to be up there. I didn’t know if I was going to win, I’m not too familiar with what everyone is doing around the league. I saw some of the numbers that some other players put up and it was pretty impressive, so I’m honored to have it.”

Shields was just the third Rays pitcher to throw consecutive complete-game wins, joining Rolando Arrojo in 1998 and Albie Lopez in 2000. With left fielder Sam Fuld being a co-winner last week, the Rays have back-to-back winners for the second time, dating back to Scott Kazmir and Carl Crawford in May 2006.

The rest of Tampa Bay’s rotation has been impressive as well, having thrown seven or more innings in 11 of its last 12 games. During that span, the starters have accumulated a 2.46 ERA.

“Over the last few years, I think our starting rotation has done a great job of feeding off each other,” Shields said. “The way [David] Price has been throwing and Wade [Davis], it definitely helps out. You have a little friendly competition between each other and we’re all rooting for each other.”

Maddon sees Fuld garnering All-Star votes

MINNEAPOLIS — After taking advantage of the opportunity given to him this season, left fielder Sam Fuld is now on the 2011 All-Star Game ballot. Rays manager Joe Maddon thinks he’ll get plenty of votes, too.

“I think you’re going to be surprised by how many people vote for him, for two reasons,” Maddon said. “He’s playing really well. You look at his numbers, they’re pretty darn good. You watch every night on ESPN, you see the highlight film, etc.

“But I think beyond that, I think there’s a lot of average Americans that can identify with this fellow, and how he plays the game also I think matters. He’s hard not to like.”

Fuld, who has quickly become a fan favorite for his incredible catches in the outfield and the energy with which he plays, has started 19 consecutive games for the Rays including Wednesday night, at four different positions. Entering the series with the Twins, the Rays were 11-6 since moving Fuld to the leadoff spot on April 7.

Maddon has been pleased with Fuld’s production, suggesting his energy at the top of the order, along with veteran Johnny Damon batting second, has helped turn the team around.

“My biggest concern is keeping him strong,” Maddon said. “I think that’s the X factor there. He’s always going to tell me that he’s well and he can play. We’re going to have to choose the right times to sit him down to maximize his strength, though. I think that, resting him properly, is going to permit him to play, not at quite the level you’re seeing now, but at a very high level for the whole season.”

Rays not thrilled with day-night twin bill

MINNEAPOLIS — When it was announced the Rays and Twins would play a day-night doubleheader Thursday to make up Tuesday’s game, manager Joe Maddon and his club were not shy about expressing their unhappiness with the plan.

Between the poor weather conditions and the late-night travel back to St. Petersburg, the idea of a July doubleheader during the Rays’ next trip to the Twin Cities sounded much more favorable.

Before Wednesday’s game, Maddon joked that he might just spend the night at Target Field due to the schedule. On a more serious note, he also shared some details on the team’s plans that were in place to accommodate for the day-night doubleheader.

The first those involved switching the order of starters Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson, to have Hellickson start Game 1 and Niemann the nightcap.

“It’s just something that’s part of our research stuff,” Maddon said. “Pitching Helly in the first game, in the day game; Jeff’s a little more comfortable in night games. That’s a big body to get going by noon, so we don’t want to tempt biology or whatever.”

For Niemann, pitching in Game 2 gives him the chance to treat it more like any other start.

“I’m probably going to try to get here around game time I guess for the first game, and just hang out,” Niemann said. “I really don’t like hanging around the hotel by myself, I’d rather come here and be around the guys.

“Fortunately for me, it’s going to be a normal day. For the rest of these guys, it’s going to be a long day.”

As for their starter Sunday against the Angels, it will depend on if the Rays need to pitch Andy Sonnanstine in either of Thursday’s games. If night, he’s expected to start Sunday. If he’s unavailable, Maddon said they’d likely bring someone up for the start.

Friday’s starter, lefty David Price, is scheduled to fly home on his own Thursday afternoon during the first game. Price is leaving early in order to get a normal night’s rest before his start.

“That’s just because they’ll be getting in so late that night,” Price said. “Game’s done at 10 p.m., leaving by 11 p.m., pick up the wheels at 12 a.m., which is really 1 o’clock our time, 2 1/2-hour flight, means you’re getting to your house by 4 or 5 a.m.

“I’ll be deeply asleep by then.”

Maddon also noted he had a lineup in mind for Thursday’s first game, and how the game went would dictate his plans for the nightcap.

For at least the first game, he does not plan to use Johnny Damon in the outfield. Damon may end up out there in the Game 2, though, especially with Maddon’s concerns about overworking Sam Fuld.

“With the weather the way it is, with the way the guys have been rested, and with the way we can move a couple guys around — again Sam would be the guy that I’d be most concerned with — I think that they’re all going to be OK and I’m not going to have to worry about that [Thursday],” Maddon said. “Over the weekend maybe, day games after night games, things like that — the two day games after the night game [Friday] bother me more than anything.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.