Break Out The Brooms, Yet Again

Scott Kazmir

Backed by a one-hit complete game from James Shields in the series opener, six shutout innings from Scott Kazmir and stellar bullpen work on Saturday night, and Carl Crawford's 3-for-5 performance in the finale, the Tampa Bay Rays swept the Los Angeles Angels this weekend. Tampa Bay improves to 21-16, five games above .500 for the first time in franchise history.

The Tampa Bay Rays kept up their winning ways this weekend, sweeping the American League West-leading Los Angeles Angels in a three-game series at Tropicana Field.

And, boy, what a weekend it was.

For starters, James Shields turned in one of the strongest pitching performance in Rays' history on Friday night, toying with Angels hitters on the way to his second complete-game shutout in his past three starts. In fact, Shields, who improved to 4-2 and lowered his earned run average to 3.14, delivered the second one-hitter in team history as well, striking out eight without issuing a walk. The 26-year-old right-hander now sits among league leaders in innings pitched (51.2, 10th), strikeouts (39, eighth,), and wins (four, 10th). And, by the way, he is trailing only one pitcher in complete games, too—Roy Halladay, who seems to throw a full nine innings on a nightly basis. Not bad for a pitcher who was once regarded as a fringe prospect in the Tampa Bay farm system.

Shields' incredible start to open the series was perhaps the highlight of an encouraging weekend—by a long shot. There is something about Friday night series openers at Tropicana Field, it seems, when Shields is on the mound. If one remembers correctly, Shields was nearly as dominant on Friday, April 27, when he guided the Rays to a 3-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox by tossing nine shutout innings, allowing just two hits against one of the most potent lineups in all of baseball. Then, much like this past weekend's series, the Rays went onto win the next two games of the series, sweeping the Red Sox for the first time in the club's 11-year history.

Shields came back down to earth fast in the next start, though, and was roughed up for seven earned runs on 10 hits at Fenway Park last weekend, one of the worst outings of his career. When he returned to St. Petersburg, however, he quickly regained his stellar form, allowing only one hit, a single up the middle by Angels' infielder Brandon Wood. The outing was certainly not a surprise, as Shields has been almost unhittable at Tropicana Field this spring, having posted the best ERA mark at home (1.16) in the American League.

Coming off of Thursday night's extra-innings win in Toronto, Shields' performance in the series opener also provided the Rays' stellar (so far), yet overworked bullpen some much-needed rest. He worked ahead in the count the entire game, frustrating hitters by effectively mixing up speeds (his change up was on) to the Angels and their manager, Mike Scioscia. While he was definitely on his game, he did not do it alone, as the Rays' defense played exceptional behind him. Two words for the incredible diving catch thatCarl Crawford made in left field, preserving the one-hit bid—"Web Gem." More like five words, actually, "Web Gem of the Year."

Jon Garland has been a respectable addition to the Angels' pitching staff, posting a 4-3 record, 4.30 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in eight starts this season. Injuries to Los Angeles ace John Lackey and Kelvin Escobar in spring training shined some new light on the team's strange decision to trade starting shortstop Orlando Cabrera for Garland this winter. At the time, Los Angeles had a surplus of talented pitching, with Jered Weaver in its projected 2008 rotation as well. In there absence the trio of Garland, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana, who each started a game against the Rays in the series, has eased some of the worries revolving around the issue. The group—at least Saunders and Santana, who combined to go 12-0 prior to the start of the series—is perhaps the biggest reasons why the Angels sit atop the standings in the West.

On Friday night Garland kept Tampa Bay in check, nearly matching Shields by scattering four hits over eight shutout innings in a tough-luck no-decision. Justin Speier wasted his teammate's effort, though, perhaps becoming a side note in baseball history—the first pitcher to give up a walk-off home run to rookie third baseman Evan Longoria. Longoria's two-run blast, which set off a wild celebration among the 12,000-plus fans at the Trop that night, helped push Tampa Bay to its seventh consecutive home victory.

Kazmir returns to form

Going into Saturday night's game, ace left-hander Scott Kazmir had not factored into any of the Rays' 19 victories (at the time.); quite surprising, especially considering the team is off to its best start in franchise history. Kazmir, sidelined for much of the season so far due to an injury sustained during spring training, was assigned the daunting challenge of facing Boston, at Fenway Park no less, in his first start back from the disabled list last Sunday. He struggled with his command, allowing three earned runs while walking three in four-plus innings as the Red Sox enabled their fans to pull out the brooms themselves, sweeping the Rays at their home park. Kazmir was hit with the loss, falling short in his quest to take sole possession of first place for the all-time franchise wins record.

He turned some heads with an excellent bullpen session earlier this week, though, prompting pitching coach Jim Hickey to rave about Kazmir's command. In the aftermath of his rough outing, this was definitely a good sign headed into his second start. Matching off against Saunders, who was looking to become the first pitcher in the American League with seven wins, Kazmir lived up to the hype (from Hickey's excitement over the bullpen session, at least), scattering three hits over six innings to earn career win number 36, passing Victor Zambrano for the most victories in team history.

With the win, Kazmir has now made 100 appearances in the major leagues, and is 36-30 in 99 career starts. His numbers are strong, for the most part, perhaps most evident by his 3.63 ERA and an impressive 1.39 WHIP. In addition, Kazmir has held opposing hitters to a .247 batting average. Still, considering the lefty's diverse arsenal, nasty stuff and reputation as one of the best young left-handers in the game, one might be surprised by how few wins he has at this point in his career. Though he is still only 24 years old, perhaps he would have a 20-win season under his belt if he was pitching for another team over the past few seasons. Tampa Bay's bullpen over the years is arguably the biggest reason why.

The Rays' pen was once again terrible in '07 (and for most of Kazmir's time with the team), to put it mildly. With the likes of Shawn Camp, Brian Stokes and company blowing leads on a consistent basis, Tampa Bay relievers posted an ERA of 6.29 in 2007, worst by any bullpen in the last half century.

This year, however, Kazmir has something working in his favor that has eluded him for much of his young career—an effective relief corps to back him with the ability to consistently hold leads. Sure enough, after tossing six shutout innings and leaving the game with a chance for a win on Saturday, he experienced the perks of having an improved bullpen first hand. Dan Wheeler once again worked his magic for the Rays, escaping a difficult eighth-inning jam unscathed, before Troy Percival earned his ninth save in 10 chances. Percival, who has instilled high expectations and perhaps a "culture of winning" for each reliever on the staff since his arrival in February, bounced back nicely from his first blown save of the season on Thursday in Toronto. The veteran reliever, who continues to move up the all-time saves list, shut the door with a 1-2-3 ninth while increasing the Rays' consecutive scoreless innings streak to 22.

Crawford, Floyd pick up Sonnanstine in finale

Sunday, perhaps surprisingly given the Rays' recent struggles at the plate, it was the offense that picked up the pitching, to an extent. Andy Sonnanstine struggled in his bid to become the fastest pitcher in team history to reach six wins. Sonnanstine scattered eight hits, allowing five earned runs in five innings, destined for a loss when Torii Hunter's tripled chased him from the game in the sixth inning. Carl Crawford, however, helped the Rays quickly regain the lead, belting a three-run home run off Speier, a blast which proved to be the highlight of a 3-for-5 afternoon at the plate for the speedy left fielder. Crawford, who leads the American League with 30 runs scored, brought the score to 7-5 with his third homer. Cliff Floyd, in his first came back since coming off the disabled list, had two run-scoring singles to lead the offense as well. Floyd's return to the lineup should help an offense that has struggled to score runs at times—as of Sunday, though, the Rays are sixth in the American League with 171 runs scored as a team.

The bullpen, yet again, would not relinquish the lead, with J.P. Howell and Percival combining to hold the Angeles to a lone hit over the game's final four innings. Howell improved to 2-0, tossing three one-hit, shutout innings to lower his ERA to 2.88. Without question, he has had a better start to May than the man whose strikeout record he eclipsed during his collegiate career at the University of Texas. For a hint, think cheating (in more ways than one), country music and John Daly.

All in all, a good weekend for one of the most exciting young teams to watch in all of baseball. Going into to Saturday, the Rays were scheduled to face three pitchers who were searching for their seventh win, with another six-game winner, Chien-Ming Wang, expected to take the hill Monday night for the New York Yankees. It has been Tampa Bay's excellent pitching, though, that has been worth writing about.

Draft Update

In Sunday's St. Petersburg Times, Rays beat reporter Mark Topkin lists five players who the Rays are considering selecting with the first overall pick of the June amateur draft—Pedro Alvarez, 3B Vanderbilt University; Tim Beckham, SS Griffin (GA) High School; Brian Matusz, LHP University of San Diego; Buster Posey, C Florida State University; Kyle Skipworth, C Patriot (CA) High School.

Alvarez is one of the top collegiate third baseman in the country. The junior from New York entered the season with high expectations after earning Baseball America first team All-American honors as a sophomore in 2007. Playing behind David Price, the Rays' first-round selection (number one overall), he batted .386, with 18 home runs and 68 RBIs, helping the Commodores to the '07 SEC Championship. Sidelined for the opening weeks of this season with a hand injury, he has posted a .322/ .434/.570 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 29 games for Vanderbilt, which is 37-15 on the year.

According to Topkin, Alvarez is asking for a signing bonus in the $8 million range. Keith Law of Scouts, Inc, ranked the left-handed hitting Alvarez as the fourth best prospect entering the draft.

Beckham (not to be confused with the University of Georgia infielder Gordan) is regarded by many, including Law, as the most talented player in the draft. The kid ran a 6.33 60-yard dash time at the Perfect Game USA 2007 National Showcase (enough said, right?), and appears to be the top athlete in this year's high school class.

Matusz, through the weekend, is 10-2 with a 2.05 earned run average in 13 starts. He has held batters to a .223 average, posting a 122/20 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Posey's transition from shortstop to catcher (where he lacked real experience before stepping foot in Tallahassee) has been well documented. A true athlete behind the plate who also pitches, he is leading the Seminoles with a .471 batting average (90-for-191), with 15 homers and 62 RBIs. Try this for a line, primarily against the top pitchers in the Atlantic Coast Conference no less—.471/.570/.843.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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