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Rays notebook, 7/6

July 6, 2011 Comments off

Pickoffs becoming valuable weapon for Shields

MINNEAPOLIS — With two pickoffs in Tuesday night’s game, Rays right-hander James Shields increased his Major League-leading total to 10 on the year.

Shields is the first right-hander to record at least 10 pickoffs in a season since Jack McDowell had 13 for the White Sox in 1993. His 10 pickoffs also are the third-highest total for a right-hander since the stat was first recorded in 1974 — behind McDowell and leader Charlie Hough, who had 16 in ’88.

With nearly half a season remaining, Shields has an excellent chance to pass both McDowell and Hough.

“He works at it, he cares,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s so hard to get pitchers to understand that you could really help yourself — not only just by picking somebody off, [but also] by shortening leads — by causing the other team to do something different because you are good at it. I don’t think enough pitchers spend enough time doing it.”

Shields’ pickoffs came in big situations Wednesday as well, helping him minimize the damage done by the Twins’ offense. In the first, Shields picked Alexi Casilla off at second base, ending the inning and limiting Minnesota to just one run in the frame.

In the fourth, Shields picked Rene Tosoni off first base for the second out of the inning. He then struck out Jason Repko for what essentially amounted to a double play.

“It’s definitely high for me, I didn’t expect to have 10 pickoffs for the year,” Shields said. “But we’re doing a great job with getting the right plays in the right situations. … Pickoffs are always good as a pitcher. It saves you pitches, saves you maybe a couple runs.”

Hand contusion could sideline Damon vs. Yanks

MINNEAPOLIS — Fortunately for Johnny Damon, X-rays showed nothing was broken in his left hand after he was hit by Twins starter Francisco Liriano for the second time Wednesday.

Unfortunately for Damon and the Rays, he could still miss some time in the next series against the Yankees.

“I’m hoping to have a speedy recovery tonight so I can get back in the lineup,” Damon said after Wednesday’s game. “It got me pretty good — probably the worst I’ve gotten in my career, and I’ve taken one off the face before.”

After being hit by two pitches in his first two plate appearances, Damon left the series finale against the Twins with a contusion on his left hand.

Liriano hit Damon to lead off the game and hit him again to begin the third inning. Damon was hit on his left hand the second time, and it was noticeably swollen after the Rays’ 12-5 victory.

“It’s definitely a day-to-day thing,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday. “We’ll reevaluate tomorrow. But for right now, there’s a chance — more than likely not tomorrow, but maybe the day after that, or Saturday — that he’d be able to play.”

Damon remained in the game to run the bases in the third, and the veteran designated hitter said he tried to ice his hand and keep the swelling down to stay in the game. Damon was replaced before he was due up in the fourth, as Sam Fuld batted for Damon and walked.

Now, Damon is just hoping the injury only lasts a couple days and doesn’t keep him out until the All-Star break.

“I got lucky,” Damon said. “One inch either way, it could be really bad.”

Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach, who also was Damon’s teammate in 2005 with the Red Sox, said he expects Damon back in the lineup sooner rather than later.

“He’ll be in there [Thursday],” Shoppach said. “Come on, it’s Johnny Damon — 15 straight years, 140-plus games. It won’t be long, if it’s long at all.

“I watched this guy once run into the fence in Fenway, slit his eyelid, had to have stitches on his eyelid — played the next day.”

Foot issue contributing to Longoria’s struggles

MINNEAPOLIS — When third baseman Evan Longoria grounded out to third base in the first inning Tuesday night, he did not exactly fly down the line towards first base.

The reason for that was a nerve issue in his left foot, which has been an occasional problem for Longoria. Manager Joe Maddon said it was just something Longoria is going to have to fight through.

“It’s like a toothache — sometimes it just grabs you the wrong way and it might zing or burn for a moment,” Maddon said. “Then, all of a sudden, it goes back to normal. That’s what he’s got.

“It could hurt him and then go away. That’s pretty much what happened.”

Longoria has not put up his usual numbers all season, and he has especially struggled lately. In his previous seven games before Wednesday, when he went 3-for-4 with a homer and four RBIs, Longoria batted just .115 with two doubles, a home run and four RBIs.

While the foot issue may have been the cause for Longoria’s recent slump, Maddon pointed to the slugger’s early season oblique injury to explain his low numbers through the first half of the 2011 season.

“It began with the oblique … that was a month,” Maddon said. “By not playing for that first month, I think that really set him back. He’s been trying to play catch-up ever since.”

Maddon said he was not concerned with Longoria’s numbers, and the skipper believes that the bigger concern was his third baseman getting over the nerve issue in his left foot as quickly as possible.

If nothing else, not making the All-Star Game and struggling through the first half of the season could serve to help the long-term growth of the young Rays star.

“I’m sure it serves as motivation for him,” Maddon said. “I know he’s not been up to his standards, but he’s still a pretty good baseball player regardless. He still does some great things for us.”

Damon surprised by final out call Tuesday

MINNEAPOLIS — As he hit first base in the ninth inning Tuesday night, Johnny Damon was sure he was safe. In fact, he was already thinking about the fact that he had brought the Rays’ hottest hitter — Ben Zobrist — to the plate with the bases loaded.

Or so he thought.

Damon was shocked that he was called out, but what really surprised him was the way first-base umpire Gary Darling made the call — very matter-of-fact, with no emotion.

“The umpire walked off like it wasn’t even a close play, like I was going to get called out regardless,” Damon said. “Normally on a bang-bang play, you’ve got to try to sell it. When there was no emotion, I thought for sure he was calling me safe. [The Twins’ players] looked pretty stunned, too. The Twins were kind of laughing and saying they got one. And unfortunately for us, it happened to be in a key situation of the game.”

Rays manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday’s game that he agreed Damon could have been safe.

Maddon also said he thought Darling had a good game Tuesday night as the first-base umpire.

“I thought he made a lot of good calls,” Maddon said. “So the last play of the game — that probably was the closest out of all the tough calls he had yesterday.”

As for the emotion — or lack of it — Maddon was not surprised by that, either.

“[Darling] was the same way on the other three [close] plays,” Maddon said. “If you look at the replays of the other three plays — very matter-of-fact safe, very matter-of-fact safe, very matter-of-fact out.”

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

Shields struggles early in loss to Twins

July 5, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Like fellow All-Star David Price did a day earlier, right-hander James Shields struggled early Tuesday before settling in.

Also like Price, Shields received minimal run support as the Rays dropped their second straight to the Twins in a 3-2 loss at Target Field.

“You’ve got to score more than two runs to win,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We got to get off the schneid with our offense. We’ve got to be more consistent.”

Shields opened his start giving up a single and double, with Twins leadoff hitter Ben Revere eventually scoring on a grounder to third by Michael Cuddyer. In the third, Shields allowed two more runs, as Revere led off with a single and Alexi Casilla followed with a walk.

Two batters later, Cuddyer singled to right and a fielding error by right fielder Matt Joyce allowed both runners to score on the play.

“I kind of noticed that he got jammed off the bat,” Joyce said. “It was one of those in between plays [and] I didn’t know if I was going to be able to catch it. So I came in hard and tried to make a play on it. I realized at the last second that I wasn’t going to be able to catch it, so I tried to slow up and stop it, but it kind of skipped on me and went right under my glove.”

Along with Joyce’s play, the decision by third baseman Evan Longoria to throw to first on Cuddyer’s first-inning grounder, instead of throwing home, allowed the Twins first run to score.

“Longo had an option of throwing home or throwing to first base,” Maddon said. “I think he could’ve had the runner at home.”

Entering the game tied for the American League lead with a .987 fielding percentage, the Rays have been strong defensively all season.

But in a tight game on Tuesday, a couple missed plays made a big difference.

“Those are two runs there that we could’ve gotten,” Maddon said. “But again, when you lose a 3-2 game, you’re going to dissect a lot of these little minutiae of the game. We need to be able to outhit some mistakes on occasion too.”

In his first start after being named an All-Star, Shields went six innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits. He also had five strikeouts against three walks and picked off two runners.

Shields faced just one batter over the minimum in his last four innings of work.

“I was fighting myself the whole entire game,” Shields said. “I minimized my damage the best I could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough tonight. It is frustrating. I think overall we’re pitching the ball pretty well, we just need that timely hitting. Sometimes, that’s just the way the game goes.”

Twins starter Scott Baker was dominant through five innings, giving up just one unearned run on three hits and one walk with three strikeouts.

After tossing only 62 pitches, Baker left due to a mild right elbow strain. Baker said he began to feel discomfort in the third, but did not leave until after the fifth.

“Probably the last couple innings I was just trying to spot up and hit my spots,” Baker said. “I don’t think it affected my pitching by any means. It was just uncomfortable. Honestly, I almost didn’t say anything and continued to pitch, but it’s just not smart.”

The Rays did not fare much better against the Twins bullpen, though, as they managed just one run on four hits over the last four innings.

Final Vote candidate Ben Zobrist was the biggest bright spot offensively for the Rays, going 3-for-4 with a double and a stolen base. Zobrist also scored a run on a Twins’ error.

The Rays made things interesting against Twins closer Matt Capps in the ninth, forcing him out of the game in favor of lefty Glen Perkins.

B.J. Upton led off the inning with a solo homer to left, and Casey Kotchman singled to bring the potential tying run to the plate with none out. Capps then got Sean Rodriguez and Sam Fuld to fly out, but walked Kelly Shoppach.

Perkins came in and got Johnny Damon to ground out to end the game. Replays showed Damon appeared to have beaten the throw to first, which would have brought Zobrist to the plate with the bases loaded.

“Did you guys see the replays?” Damon asked reporters. “I felt like it was pretty obvious. … I crossed the bag, I was like, ‘This is awesome, we’re getting our hottest hitter up here.’ Then as you could see in my reaction, I was stunned.”

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

Rays notebook, 7/4

July 4, 2011 Comments off

Final Vote candidate Zobrist gets a break 

MINNEAPOLIS — On Monday, one day after being named a candidate for the All-Star Game Final Vote Sponsored by Sprint, second baseman Ben Zobrist got a day off to rest.

It was Zobrist’s first day out of the lineup since May 22, and just the third time this season that he has not been on manager Joe Maddon’s lineup card.

“[He has] just a little bit of a head cold kind of thing,” Maddon said. “He could’ve played, but we talked about it and I said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ I’ve been looking to give him a day off anyway, so this is almost perfect.”

In 83 games, Zobrist has batted .256 with a .342 on-base percentage and 27 doubles, which ties him with Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for the Major League lead.

As Zobrist rested, third baseman Evan Longoria was back in the lineup after sitting out on Sunday for the first time in nearly a month.

“These guys have been playing every day and doing a good job of it,” Maddon said. “They’ve been grinding it out well, but we’ve got to take care of them at some point. I know the break’s coming up, but I want us to finish strong in the first half, too.”

Maddon pondering post-All-Star break rotation

MINNEAPOLIS — Manager Joe Maddon has thought about the club’s first two games after the All-Star break, but he has yet to settle on who will take the mound against the Red Sox.

It could be All-Stars David Price and James Shields on an extra day of rest each, but Price’s participation in the All-Star Game could alter that plan. Shields will not pitch for the American League, so he remains likely to pitch in one of those games against Boston.

“It could switch up, but we’re still debating a couple of things,” Maddon said. “Shields is good, but [the question is] how David gets utilized.”

Maddon expects to talk with AL manager Ron Washington by the end of the week regarding Price and how Washington plans to use him.

He definitely expects the lefty to see some action against the National League.

Rays poised to witness history

MINNEAPOLIS — On their current road trip, the Rays will face two players — Jim Thome and Derek Jeter — on the verge of reaching major milestones.

As the Rays opened a series against the Twins on Monday, Thome sat just five home runs away from being the eighth player in Major League history to hit 600. And as he rejoined the Yankees on Monday after spending nearly three weeks on the disabled list, Jeter was just six hits shy of becoming the 28th member of the 3,000-hit club.

So the pregame question for manager Joe Maddon was, Which accomplishment is more impressive?

“I’d say probably 600 home runs is more difficult to achieve,” Maddon said. “If you look at the number of 3,000-hit guys, does that exceed the number of 600-home run guys? I’m going to say from that perspective, I think that would be the one way to look at it.

“But both are awesome accomplishments, and [they are] both really deserving, classy individuals. I’ve got a lot of respect for both guys.”

The other question was what Maddon thought about having either milestone come against his ballclub.

Maddon was there on Sept. 6, 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig for the all-time record. Then the Angels’ bench coach, Maddon saw the Orioles get a boost from Ripken’s accomplishment.

“My biggest concern with that was the momentum, or the energy about the team because of that happening,” he said. “That’s my bigger concern. It’s not the fact that he may get it against us, it’s all the complementary surrounding components that may benefit the Yankees or may benefit the Twins if that were to happen against us.”

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