And That Happened: Sunday's Scores and Highlights

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Royals 3, Tigers 2: A lot of people experience anxiety about
taking a day off work. They check their email a lot, allow themselves
to be preoccupied, and generally feel as though the office can’t get by
without them. This is baloney, of course. The world goes on fine
without you. No one is so damn important that they can’t take a day
off. Well, no one except Brandon Inge. That dude is freakin’ essential,
it seems.

Mets 3, Giants 2: At this point, any game the Mets don’t forfeit
due to a lack of warm bodies has to be considered a victory. This one,
however, was a bona fide win, with Daniel Murphy singling in Jeff
Francoeur to win it in the ninth. After the game, however, all of the
questions were about David Wright. Jerry Manuel: “Nobody wants to ask
me about Murphy’s game-winning hit? You guys are really bad.” Look
Jerry, David Wight is practically the last major league-quality hitter
the Mets had left, so his health is big news. When a couple of
out-machines luck into hits in what will certainly turn out to be a
meaningless game, there’s really nothing that can be said about it
besides some variation of “blind hogs find acorns.” Cut the press boys
some slack.

Cardinals 7, Padres 5: The Cards are as hot as anyone right now,
having won eight of ten and continuing to maintain a five game lead
over the Cubs despite Chicago’s recent spurt. Yadier Molina and Colby
Rasmus were the heroes in the ninth, capping off a come-from-behind win
with an RBI single and a home run, respectively. Actual quote from
Heath Bell after the game: “I was surprised how big it was when I took
my pants off.” Context, my friends, is everything.

Angels 17, Orioles 8: Nothing like a tight extra-innings affair.
The nine runs scored by LAA in the 13th were the most scored in a
single extra inning in 14 years.

Nationals 5, Reds 4: Josh Willingham hit a massive home run,
doubled, had three RBI, and scored the winning run from third on a
heads up play when Drew Sutton lollygagged a throw in from shallow
right in the eighth inning. You know what that makes Sutton, don’t you?

Rays 5, Blue Jays 2: Cast in an unlikely role for which he is usually ill-equipped to act, Gregg “Z-Game” Zaun launched a pinch-hit home run in the eighth to break a 1-1 tie. Approaches the unreal, really.

Rangers 4, Red Sox 3: And the Rangers take the series and the
wild card lead. I presume that this will be reported in most quarters
in terms of Boston’s continuing struggles as opposed to the Rangers
staying hot, because it’s impossible to report on anything in which the
Red Sox are involved without casting them in the lead role.

Marlins 10, Rockies 3, Rockies 7, Marlins 3: The class of 1993 splits a doubleheader as they battle for the NL wild card. The Class of 1993 — San Francisco and Atlanta — follow close behind.

Indians 7, Twins 3: Cleveland scored six in the third inning,
with the first three of those runs coming on eight pitches. The Indians
are playing spoiler. Says Grady Sizemore: “Guys are playing loose and
having fun. We had kind of fallen back and now we’ve got nothing to
lose. So now we can go out there and just relax and play, and sometimes
you get your best baseball when you’re playing that way.” That’s swell,
but this happened to the Indians last year too. Perhaps it means that
Eric Wedge inspires nervous, sloppy, and all around chokey play when it
matters, and can only inspire a relaxed vibe when there is absolutely
nothin’ on the line. Guys like that often become ex-managers.

Astros 8, Brewers 5: Geoff Blum drove in four as the Astros
rallied in the eighth inning to come from behind. In other news, the
Astros box score made my mind wander again — my lord, that team fails
to interest me for some reason — and it wandered into the paintings of
Edward Hopper, who just so happens to be my favorite artist. I go back
and forth (and forth) between Early Sunday Morning, Office at Night, and Automat as my favorites, though there are no small number of his paintings
which stun and enthrall me. Strange to me, though, is the fact that a
guy who lived in New York and spent so much time painting modern
American life in the middle of the 20th century never touched on
baseball. At least not that I know of. Maybe it just didn’t speak to
him. Maybe every game he ever saw struck him like Astros games strike

Athletics 3, White Sox 2: Mark Ellis hits the game-winning home run off of Bobby Jenks in the bottom of the ninth. Oh, and I think these throwbacks looked sweet.
Bob Geren even went all Connie Mack before the game, wearing a suit,
tie and hat to exchange the lineup cards before changing into his
uniform. According to the game story, someone gave him hell from the
stands, however, because Connie Mack wore a straw hat. That, my
friends, is some good, informed heckling.

Mariners 10, Yankees 3: Chamberlain, Aceves and Gaudin do their
part to make Sergio Mitre’s seat in the Yankees’ rotation feel less
hot. Derek Jeter passed Luis Aparicio for the most hits ever by a
shortstop. Omar Vizquel is still playing, however, and is only five
hits behind Jeter. If you think that Omar isn’t sitting in his secret
Antarctic lair, watching dozens of video monitors, stroking an exotic
cat, and contemplating some devious sort of attack on Jeter in order to
incapacitate him and claim the record for himself, well, then you just
don’t know the capacity for evil and cunning that resides inside the
mind of Omar Vizquel.

Philles 4, Braves 1: Atlanta blows a chance to make a real race
out of it in the east by dropping two of three. Looks like it’ll be
more important for fans like me to watch the Marlins, Rockies and
Giants’ scores than the Phillies scores. Two homers for Ryan Howard.
J.A. Happ walks six but gets away with it because the Braves squandered
a couple of chances.

Dodgers 9, Diamondbacks 3: Randy Wolf was 3-4 with a homer and three RBI and struck out ten over 7.2 IP. He’s the Wolf. He solves problems.

Pirates-Cubs: Postponed: It’s really gonna suck for the Pirates
to have to end the season at Cincinnati, jog back up to Chicago to make
this game up, and then head back to Pittsburgh to host Game one of the
division series.

2018 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

A lot of teams start one season looking very different than they did at the end of the previous season. Usually you can see those changes coming as early as August or September. What the Rays look like now, on the eve of the 2018 regular season, however, is very different than the sort of change we assumed as recently as the Winter Meetings.

We knew they’d let Alex Cobb walk in free agency and they did. But we did not expect them to trade Evan Longoria, to designate Corey Dickerson for assignment coming off an All-Star year, to trade 30-homer outfielder Steven Souza, or to trade Jake Odorizzi as spring training was getting underway as opposed to some time later when, perhaps, he could bring more value. The baseball justifications for some of these trades were better than they were for others, but the way they were done and the timing of it all cast a pall on the offseason, appearing as they did to be payroll slashing moves. The certainly didn’t impress the MLBPA, which filed a grievance against Tampa Bay last month, accusing them of pocketing revenue sharing money instead of trying to make the team better.

None of that played well, but if you take a couple of steps back, it’s possible to defend it all by realizing that even with all of those guys, the Rays were an 80-win team last year and would not have had a huge amount of upside this year if they had kept it all together. I’ll leave it to prospect experts, number crunchers to decide whether the Rays did a good job of tearing it down — and I think they could’ve done better than they did with stopgap measures until their minor league talent matures — but it’s at least understandable that they wanted to tear it down and start anew.

Until the fruits of those deals — and the fruits of a minor league system which has been pretty darn good in recent years — are ripe, though, the big league Rays are going to have a lot of question marks.

On offense the biggest question mark is health and durability. Here’s a pretty plausible Opening Day lineup Kevin Cash may send out there:

DH Denard Span
3B Matt Duffy
CF Kevin Kiermaier
RF Carlos Gomez
2B Brad Miller
C Wilson Ramos
1B C.J. Cron
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
LF Mallex Smith

Not terrible, but not durable or, in some cases, consistent. Kiermaier has had some freak injuries, but the nature of his play — hard, fast and diving for stuff — makes that a hazard and, as such, he’s really only played in one full season. Matt Duffy missed all of last year and, let’s face it, has never struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Wilson Ramos knows the disabled list like few others. Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron and Brad Miller have had fairly substantial swings in production across recent and within recent seasons. Adeiny Hechavarria and Mallex Smith are not serious offensive threats.

It’s easy to squint and to imagine Span, Kiermaier, Ramos, Gomez and maybe Cron forming the nucleus of a respectable attack, but it’s also easy to see half of that lineup playing in only, like, 107 games, Cash penciling in dudes like Jesus Sucre and Daniel Robertson a lot or putting Denard Span out in the outfield more than he should to cover for whoever. The Rays featured the 14th-best offense in the AL in 2017. I can see a case for it improving a tad, but not by much, and if the injury fairy flies through the window, this could be really bad.

On the upside, most of these guys can pick it pretty well, so the defense should be pretty decent and potentially even superior. The pitching is good on paper too, but there is gonna be some weirdness afoot if Cash sticks with the plan he outlined earlier this month.

Even with the departure of Cobb and Odorizzi — and even with the season-ending surgery to top prospect Brent Honeywell — the Rays have five good starters in Chris Archer, Nate Eovaldi, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Matt Andriese. Except they’re not going to use all five starters in their rotation. They’re going to go with a four-man rotation and a bullpen game every fifth day. At present it appears that Andriese, who started 17 games last year, is the odd man out and will be part of the all-hands-on-deck crew on day 5, whenever that comes up.

Early on this should not make a difference. There are a lot of off days in the first month of the season, so the need for that bullpen day will be pretty limited. One wonders, though, what this will do to their effectiveness and durability as the temperature rises and the season wears on. Yes, “bullpenning” got a lot of press in the postseason, but the idea that a bullpen can stay fresh with such a high-level of use for 5-6 months with few days off is a questionable one. That’s especially the case when three of the Rays’ four starters — Eovaldi, Faria and Snell — pitched limited innings last year and can’t be expected to go six or seven innings per start in 2018 (who can anymore?). Maybe Archer is a horse, but the rest of your games you’re going to need three relievers to finish things up based on how life works these days. Maybe more.

In light of that, is the bullpen going to be able to handle nine innings once every five days? Color me dubious. I think they’ll be fried by July. At least if they truly do use that fifth day as a true bullpen day and don’t, say, just call up a new fifth starter every week and a half and use that slot to audition organizational depth before ultimately just handing it over to Andriese. Indeed, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d wager that the fifth day plan morphs into that pretty quickly and that we’ll be smiling at the notion of a true bullpen day by the All-Star break.

As for the arms in that bullpen, Alex Colome is the closer, mostly because the Rays couldn’t find anyone to deal him to this past offseason. In support are old hands Daniel Hudson and Sergio Romo, neither of whom have been relief aces in recent years, even if Romo did do well for the Rays after coming over late last season. Dan Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek and a cast of similarly anonymous guys will take the ball a lot. Even Johnny Venters, who had three Tommy John surgeries, could be in the mix at some point. The cast will be as big as “Love Actually.” Whether they are as annoying depends on who you’re rooting for.

Where does that leave the Rays? It leaves them with some serious dice rolling in the lineup, some good defense, some respectable pitching but a potentially odd and possibly detrimental approach to its deployment. It leaves them with a still very good farm system and a roster that looks really nice for 2020. I think it leaves them in some pretty serious trouble for 2018, though, especially in a division as top heavy as the AL East.

As far as on-the-fly rebuilds go, it’s not a bad one, but it’s still one that’s gonna leave the Rays in the low-80s win-wise at best, with some pretty serious potential downside.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL East.