ST PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 30: Pitcher Jeff Niemann #34 of the Tampa Bay Rays watches his team against the Kansas City Royals during the game at Tropicana Field on April 30, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The first seven innings of today's game were an incredibly enjoyable experience. With no home broadcast, I was forced to put on the Blue Jays television feed with the Rays radio crew, and the action was absolutely perfect Saturday afternoon baseball: the sort of baseball you can comfortably doze off to.
The Rays jumped out to an early lead in the third inning, scoring four runs off a shaky Hernderson Alvarez. Ryan Roberts crushed a home run, and then Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce doubled in three more runs to give the Rays a nice cushion. After the past few games, it was a shocking experience to get so many runs; I almost half expected the Rays to leave the bases full and leave the inning with only one run from Roberts' homer.
Meanwhile, Jeff Niemann was looking like he hadn't missed any time. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw about 157 different pitches -- okay, technically they have him at 7, but there are likely some classification issues in there -- and kept the Blue Jays off balance for the first three innings. He struck out four batters while only allowing one baserunner, but then got pulled in the fourth inning after experiencing "right arm tightness". Hopefully this doesn't end up being anything major, but is just the result of Niemann's body getting used to pitching at this level again. His velocity definitely declined like crazy over his time out there, so it does look like he'll take some time to get back to 100%.
In other words, after the Rays jumped out to that early lead, it was a very easy to sit back, relax, and let the dulcet tones of Dave and Andy lull you off into a pleasant doze. The Rays did let up two runs to the Jays in the fourth, but things never got close enough to really case much panic.
And then, the eighth and ninth innings happened. Talk about terrifying.
The Rays got an insurance run in the top of the eighth inning when Matt Joyce hit a homer to right -- his 15th of the season -- and that run ended up coming in handy. Joel Peralta came in to start the bottom of the eighth, and he promptly loaded the bases by allowing a double, single, and then a walk. With one out, Adam Lind singled up the middle to cut the Rays' lead down to one run, and the Rays were in serious danger of falling behind. Two on, one out, and in comes Fernando Rodney to try and get his first multi-inning save of the season.
Well, obviously, Rodney ended up hanging on since the Rays won the game...but the way he got there was certainly nerve-wracking. He came out firing like the Rodney of old -- 100 MPH fastballs with no control at all -- but after walking the first batter he faced, he settled down and struck out the next two hitters to end the frame.
And then, come the ninth inning...oh man, my heart still hasn't calmed down. Rodney opened the inning by walking Omar Vizquel, who then got moved up to second base on a sacrifice bunt. The next hitter flied out, but then Colby Rasmus hit a single to B.J. Upton in center. Off the bat, it looked like the Jays had tied the game...but then B.J. Upton uncorked one of the best throws of the season from mid-center to nail Vizquel at the plate.
(h/t Collette on the GIF)
Vengeance -- it tastes so, so sweet. And holy crap, Upton, where is that gun the rest of the time?
- J.P. Howell had his scoreless inning streak come to a close today, as he allowed the Jays' first two runs of the game in the fourth inning. It was overall a forgettable appearance for him: 0.1 innings, two hits, two walks, two runs allowed. I blame it on the fact that he didn't get a chance to warm up that much, and had to come in on short notice after Niemann was removed.
- Speaking of those two runs that Howell allowed. Edwin Encarnacion had an absolute moonshot of a home run today: 488 feet to left-center. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that's the second longest home run of the season, trailing only a 494 home run from Giancarlo Stanton.
- The Rays also got lucky, as the Blue Jays gave them a gift in the fifth inning. There were runners on first and second with two outs, and Edwin Encarnacion was at the plate. The Jays inexplicably decided to try a double steal, and Lobaton threw out Colby Rasmus at second base for the final out of the inning. Rasmus got a horrible jump on the pitch, and it looked like he wasn't expecting a throw.
I'd be really curious to hear exactly who decided to run on that. Was it the Jays' manager? If so, why the heck do you want to take the bat out of the hands of your best hitter (since the Rays would have just walked him then)? And if it was the runners deciding to go on their own....what the hell? That's equally as inexplicable.
- Oh! And then there's the fact that the Jays should have turned a double play on B.J. Upton's soft grounder in the third inning, which would have ended the innings with the Rays only scoring one run. The throw to first was wide, though, and pulled Encarnacion off the bag, so the Rays stayed alive and ended up scoring three more runs. Man, today was an absolute gift of a win.
- Elliot Johnson looks like Two Face after his awkward slide to end last night's game. I can only imagine how sore Omar Vizquel is going to be come tomorrow...
- Wade Davis and Jake McGee both looked quite impressive in their outings today, and they were a big reason the Rays were able to shut down the Jays for so many innings. Considering that the bullpen is pretty well drained right now, though, the Rays are going to call up a reliever from Triple-A to bolster the squad.