I went over to Al Lang Stadium this afternoon to watch the Rays play Houston in what was my first game of the spring. Ever since I have gotten back from Brazil, I had lots of schoolwork to do, and it is only this weekend that I finally had more time to do some leisure activities. Yesterday I was at the ACC Tournament in Tampa, so I penciled in today to see my first baseball game of the new season.
I must say, there is nothing quite like going to the ballpark. I had a good time yesterday, and because events like the ACC Tourney are novelties that you only see come around once a blue moon, I don't regret going yesterday. But while I enjoyed myself, baseball will always be a different experience. And a baseball game on a sunny but not oppressively hot day at Al Lang Stadium on the water in St. Petersburg is about as good as it gets. And Sunday was one of those days. With the plethora of other events in the area, there weren't even that many people there. Everything was perfect today, except for the outcome.
Still, in my first experience observing the 2007 Rays, I took some notes on their performance. I had to give up scoring the game after a little while because I am rusty and couldn't keep up with the defensive changes, but I took two pages of notes all the same. My observations from today's game follow the jump:
- The first inning was by far the sloppiest of the game. The Rays committed two errors that led to an unearned run charged to starter Jamie Shields. The first one was charged to Akinori Iwamura, although it was charged by the book only. It is true that Iwamura threw a little offline, but he did so after making an excellent backhanded stab of a hot shot down the line. The throw came in a little bit off the bag, but it was nothing that even a cardboard cutout couldn't reach out to get. Unfortunately, we didn't have the cutout's services today, we had Hee Seop Choi, and the ball went past him for an error. To his credit though, Choi actually moved to grab an errant Iwamura throw later in the game. The second error was more of a stupid decision by Rocco Baldelli more than anything else. He threw home on a single by Mike Lamb in an attempt to gun down Adam Everett, even though Everett was already well on his way to the plate. The throw was not that wild, but Shawn Riggans got in Everett's path on his way to the plate to try and catch the ball, and the two collided, impeding Riggans from getting the ball and advancing the runner to second. More of a mental mistake than anything else.
- Iwamura made a nice play, as well as a nice throw this time, later that inning when he dove to get a sharp grounder down the line, then tossed to first accurately to get the Fielder's Choice. Brendan Harris made a good play as well later that inning when he backhanded a ball deep in the hole and made a perfect throw on to first to get the runner. It wasn't a flashy SportsCenter play, but it was a tough one that Harris made without the dramatics of a Derek Jeter.
- Jamie Shields had a very good second inning, retiring the side in order with a couple strikeouts. He did the same in the third inning, though he struggled a bit with his control in the process. He got Houston to go down 1-2-3 in the fourth. Overall, I'd say he had a good day. He was victimized by poor fielding in the first, which certainly hurt him, and he got hit a little hard, but he settled down afterwards and worked very effectively.
- What absolutely frustrated the hell out of me was the fact that our offense was brought to its knees by Brian Moehler. Apparently the memo didn't make it around the clubhouse that Brian Moehler is a horrible pitcher, he was horrible in the NL's biggest pitcher's park last year, and has been for several years. He was a non-roster invitee. Yet, if you looked at his first three innings of work, you'd have guessed that Roger Clemens or Andy Pettite had stayed with the Astros and that one of them was on the hill.
- The Rays finally touched up Moehler a bit in the fourth when they were able to march two runners into scoring position. Elijah Dukes singled for the first hit of the game, and then Delmon Young absolutely impressed the hell out of me by having perhaps the finest at bat I have ever seen out of him. He protracted a count with Moehler by taking the pitches that were clearly out of the zone while fouling off those he could do nothing with, and finally after what must have been six or seven pitches, he earned a walk. Fine at bat by Young, and I will be very pleased if I see more of this during the regular season.
- The next batter was Jorge Cantu. Remember the days in which Cantu used to be the Rays' most reliable run producer? Seems like a distant memory, and that continued today as he grounded out to the shortstop with two runners in scoring position to retire the side. To his credit, however, he really got screwed on the previous pitched. Moehler delivered a pitch ankle-low and clearly inside that the home plate umpire called a strike. And this was such a blatantly missed call that I think it screwed Cantu's thinking up. I could discern it was a ball from far up on the third base grandstand. The Houston battery then called a mound conference immediately after that pitch, thus giving Cantu even more time to think about the previous pitch, and I think that ultimately screwed with his head too much. The call was an honest mistake though, and other than that, the umps called a pretty good game.
- Seth McClung had a horrible inning in relief of Shields in the fifth. He was everywhere but in the strikezone the entire inning, and the one pitch he put squarely into the zone was smacked into center for a two RBI single. He threw balls that were head-high at least five times, and was absolutely wild. It was painful watching really, because you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't want Seth to succeed, but man, it seems like absolutely no progress has been made with regards to control.
- Chad Orvella was much better. He got into several protracted counts with Houston hitters in the sixth, and gave up a double, but also struck out two and didn't allow a single run to cross the plate. Overall, he looked very good, much better than he did last spring.
- Joel Guzman continues to do a surprisingly excellent job on defense. As a late game sub, he made a nice dive on a hot shot over at the hot corner in the eighth and made a nice throw onto first to get the out. Of all the infielders, the meaty Guzman would be the one I would least expect to be so agile and make so many good plays, but he has been first rate this spring.
That being said, am I necessarily worried? I would be lying to you if I said a 1-10 record didn't bother me in the least, simply because the way in which this 1-10 record has been obtained is so similar to the way in which the team played in the second half of last season. It just looks like the same team. But at this point, the reality still is that we have played but 11 games so far this spring, exhibitions at that, and that we still have a long way to go before the regular season. There is absolutely no correlation between spring performance and regular season performance, and if there was, it would probably show that the teams with the best spring records usually fare worse in the regular season.
Think about it, this has been a competitive team in springs past, only to see horrible play come around in the regular season. What honestly can the inverse mean? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I am just going to take the next couple weeks to enjoy my favorite part of the baseball calendar: the personal, relaxing nature of Spring Training baseball. Win or lose.