The Tampa Bay Rays remained unbeaten in the land of Mickey, defeating the Toronto Blue Jays and their ace, Roy Halladay, 5-3, in the second game of this year’s Disney experiment on Wednesday night. Though attendance was concerning in the series opener—the Rays were, however, competing with an Orlando Magic playoff game—and tonight as well, expanding into the Orlando market with the three-game home-away-from-home series is an important step for this team.
There are many negative columns being written about the team’s effort to tap into the “19th-ranked designated market” in the United States. Increasing brand awareness in such a popular tourist destination, though, is an innovative idea that will only benefit the Rays in the long run.
Plus, as evident by Jason Hammel’s performance tonight, perhaps a little bit of Disney magic is rubbing off on the diamond for the Rays, who entered the game five games back of the Boston Red Sox for first place in the American League East.
Hammel, who picked up his first win of the season in his previous start against Minnesota, turned in his second consecutive quality start, scattering four hits and three earned runs over six solid innings. The 25-year-old right-hander is now 2-1 with a 4.32 ERA. Hammel, though, did struggle with his command a bit, issuing four walks and surrendering two home runs to Toronto right fielder Matt Stairs, whose recent offensive performance factored into the Blue Jays’ decision to part ways with disgruntled designated hitter Frank Thomas.
Dan Wheeler came on in relief of Hammel, shutting down the Blue Jays with two scoreless innings to earn his fifth hold. Troy Percival then pitched a scoreless ninth inning to earn his third save with the Rays, number 327 for his career, which now places him ahead of former Tampa Bay closer Roberto Hernandez for sole possession of 11th place on the all-time saves list. Percival needs three more saves to tie former New York Yankees stopper John Wetteland for 10th all time.
Third baseman Evan Longoria, whom the Rays locked up to a six-year contract last Friday, continued to swing the bat well, delivering a clutch two-run single off Halladay in the Rays’ four-run sixth inning. Longoria, recently called up from Triple-A Durham, also hit a big homer on Tuesday night.
Eric Hinske collected an RBI single in the fourth inning as well, once again causing damage against his former team. Hinske, coming off a 3-for-4 performance in which he was just a single short of the cycle in the Rays’ 6-4 win last night, is now batting .327. Even more impressive, the former American League Rookie of the Year has posted a .407 on-base percentage and is second on the Rays with five home runs.
Game Notes: Carlos Pena started at first base for the first time since injuring his right hamstring over the weekend. Pena went 1-for-4, and is now batting only .197, though six of his 14 hits have been home runs. The ’07 American League Comeback Player of the Year, fresh off a season in which he set the Rays’ single season record by hitting 46 home runs, is still getting on base, and leads the team with 11 walks; due to his plate discipline, he still owns a respectable .337 on-base percentage and .788 OPS. Gabe Gross, recently acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for former second-round pick and minor league pitcher Josh Butler, had quite a day on Tuesday. After scoring the winning run in the Brewers’ extra-innings win over the St. Louis Cardinals, he was informed he was being traded to Tampa Bay less than 20 minutes later. The Brewers dealt Gross, a former quarterback at Auburn, to make room for Chris Gwynn Jr., who returned from the disabled list. He arrived in Orlando on Wednesday, and could be available tomorrow. To make room on the roster, the team designated for assignment first baseman/designated hitter Dan Johnson. Johnson came to the Rays on waivers last Friday, and did not appear in a game in his brief stint with Tampa Bay.
Kazmir Set To Rejoin Rotation: The Rays were the trendy “sleeper” team in the American League this March following the team’s strong showing in spring training. A plethora of injuries, however, have hindered the Rays so far this spring. The biggest cause of concern, of course, is the status of ace left-hander Scott Kazmir, who has been on the disabled list since the end of March. Kazmir, who led the American League in strikeouts last season, threw 64 pitches without issue in a rehab start for Single-A Vero Beach today, allowing four earned runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. The southpaw is expected to come off the disabled list on Friday, setting up a return to the rotation on May 3, just in time for the Rays’ series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park next weekend. He will make one final tune-up start, though, for Triple-A Durham on Monday.