When choosing what to write about for the game today, I'm stuck choosing between three main stories: Hellickson's departure, the offensive explosion, and the bullpen's stellar performance. I guess you guys are going to get lucky and I'll touch upon a bit of all three.
I'm sure Jeremy Hellickson wished his first start of the spring went smoother than today. Not that his performance today was bad; the results certainly weren't what you'd like to see (1.2 IP, 1 HR, 2 BB, 1 K), but today was all about getting some work in to build up stamina for the season. Hellickson didn't seem to have his typical control and he threw almost exclusively fastballs, but again, this was essentially an early spring training outing for him. Even if he looked less than impressive out there, it's way too early to be concerned with his performance.
What is slightly concerning, though, is that part of Hellickson's command problems today appeared to be related to a large blister on his middle finger. Listening to Todd Kalas during the game today, Hellickson has apparently had blister problems in the past on a few of his fingers, but this is the first time he's had a blister on his middle finger. It was making it tougher for him to locate his fastball, and obviously causing him some discomfort on the mound.
Blisters seem like such minor issues, but they do have a tendency to linger with pitchers and be recurring problems (Josh Beckett immediately jumps to mind). It depends on the pitcher, though, so there's no way to say how this blister will affect Hellickson in the future. Maybe it'll go away and cease to be an issue, but it very well could linger or recur in the future. While this is obviously less worrisome than an arm problem, Hellickson could still miss some time this season if this blister becomes a recurring problem.
But despite Hellickson allowing a run in the first inning, the Rays' offense picked up the slack and then some. In particular, the heart of the order was on fire today: Damon went 2-2 with a double and two runs scored, Longo went 2-3 with a double and three RBIs, and Manny went 2-2 with his second homerun of this spring. I really love Manny's swing: it's so quiet and smooth, but he can still unload on a pitch. I can't speak on his bat speed, but he certainly looked fine in action today.
B.J. Upton also had a noteworthy offensive performance, as crushed a deep homerun to left in the fifth inning. Upton did get picked off first base early in the game, caught breaking for second base by the lefty Sean West, but Hanley Ramirez missed the ball and Upton was able to safely reach third base. It wasn't the best bit of baserunning by Upton, but it at least shows that he's working on being aggressive with his steals. He's on record as stating he wants to reach 50 stolen bases this season, which would make him only the second Ray to ever do that.
Once Hellickson left the game, the bullpen picked up the slack admirably. All the performers out there are likely candidates to see playing time in the majors this season, so it was encouraging to see them all pitching well. Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, and R.J. Swindle pitched scoreless innings while striking out one batter each, while Joel Peralta struck out two during his inning of work. Adam Russell didn't strike out anyone, but did pitch a scoreless inning and a third. And Andy Sonnanstine...well, he didn't actually pitch terribly well. He let up five baserunners in only two innings, while striking out one and allowing one run.
- Maddon announced before the game that David Price would in fact be the Opening Day starter for the Rays. Big surprise there, eh? Everyone seemed pleased with the decision today, even James Shields. Shields will be the Rays number two starter, as Maddon rightly feels that Shields is likely to rebound from his performance last season.
- I know this has been said in the GDT and over at The Process Report, but Joyce and Brignac both didn't look great against lefty pitchers today. Joyce has had some good at bats against lefties earlier this spring, though, so I'm hesitant to make any rash pronouncements there. Brignac is a really interesting case, though. His defense is superb and Maddon has stated that he'd like to use Brignac everyday for his defense, but there does come a point where even fine defense can't make up for being a black hole at the plate. What's the break-even point? I'll have to try and whip something together for a post.
- Oh, and the Rays made their second round of roster cuts today. Basically, they cut everyone that was likely to start the season in the minors anyway, so they can get more regular work over in the minor league camp. Now the competition for that final bullpen slot really comes down to Cruz, Delaney, Ekstrom, and Wade.