St. Petersburg-The Rays found themselves in a familiar position on Friday night. In danger of dropping their third straight home opener, and second in three years to Toronto, the Rays saw a good starting effort falter amidst no offensive run support in the later innings while the opposing team took a lead off of the bullpen. It was a situation that had played out time and time again in the second half of last season, and the Rays were facing a familiar fate in the ninth inning Friday before the team scored three runs in the inning to beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-5 in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 38,437 at Tropicana Field.
The Rays were put in the position of having to come from behind after Toronto scored three runs in the seventh inning off of Rays starter Jamie Shields, who pitched six and two-thirds solid innings before faltering in the seventh. He finished the ballgame having given up three earned runs on six hits and two walks over 6.2 innings of work. Ultimately the last third of the seventh proved to be the wall of no pass for Shields, who struggled to get the final out of the inning having retired the first two batters in order. Gregg Zaun tripled in Alex Rios for the first Toronto run, as Hill had reached base thanks to a single in the prior at bat. Aaron Hill, the next batter, hit a ground rule double to center which brought home Zaun, and Reed Johnson singled in Hill before Shields was removed. Brian Stokes got the final out of the inning for the Rays.
Toronto took the lead in their half of the eighth inning, as Troy Glaus teed off of reliever Shawn Camp with a man on base to give the Blue Jays a two run lead. Camp later got the second out of the frame before being removed in favor of Jae Kuk Ryu, who pitched a scoreless 1.1 innings and was the pitcher of record for the Rays during their ninth inning rally.
Gustavo Chacin got the start for Toronto and pitched six innings while spotting the Rays a three run lead. All three runs off Chacin came on solo home runs in the second, third, and fifth innings. Ty Wigginton was the first to tee off Chacin with his first blast of the season in the second, and he was followed up by B.J. Upton an inning later. Both players also had two hits. Akinori Iwamura hit his first major league home run off of Chacin in the fifth inning, part of a tremendous 4 for 4 effort. However other than the home runs, Tampa Bay's lineup did not register an extra base hit.
With the three runs in the bank, the Rays still went into the bottom of the ninth two in the red, and to get out of their debt they would have to face one of the toughest creditors in the American League; Toronto closer B.J. Ryan (hoo-ray metaphors!). The inning didn't exactly begin in the Rays' favor, as Rocco Baldelli popped out after an extended at bat, however Ty Wigginton followed him up with a single to put a runner on first with one out for the team. One pitch later, and the bases were cleared. Delmon Young hit his first home run of the season off of Ryan on the very first pitch that he saw to close the two run gap with one swing of the bat. But the Rays, greedy as they were, weren't content with going to extra innings.
Akinori Iwamura followed up Young, and on a 1-1 count he shockingly laid down a bunt on the third base side which stayed fair and allowed him to reach base safely and give the Rays their winning run just 270 feet away from home plate. After Jonny Gomes flied out to center, Elijah Dukes narrowed that gap between Iwamura and victory by 180 feet after he singled to left on a base hit that Iwamura was able to propel into a two base gain for himself. B.J. Upton, at the plate and hoping to register himself as having been responsible for the winning hit, did so indeed as he recorded the second hit of a two hit day, hitting a choppy ground ball to Blue Jays shortstop John McDonald, which McDonald was unable to barehand, allowing Upton to reach base and Iwamura to score, giving the Rays a victory. Ryan finished the ballgame with not only the blown save, but also a loss as he gave up three runs on five hits in two-thirds of an inning of work. The win propelled Tampa Bay into first place in the American League East following the defeat of the New York Yankees at the hands of Baltimore. The Rays currently hold a 0.5 game lead on second place Boston.
3B Akinori Iwamura-Scored the winning run and homered as part of a 4 for 4 day.
2B B.J. Upton-Drove in the winning run and homered as part of a two hit day.
SP Jamie Shields-Inability to complete sixth cost Rays the lead, but gave team 6.2 solid innings.
Top of Order-In 12 PAs, Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, nor Rocco Baldelli reached base.
RP Shawn Camp-Served up go-ahead home run to Troy Glaus in eighth.
C Dioner Navarro-Had a hit, but also grounded into two double plays.
For thoughts on my personal experience at the game, please follow the jump...
Few personal game experiences in Rays history have topped the one that I had this evening. Sure, I went to the Inaugural Game. And yes, I did see Wade Boggs jack #3000. But I was young at the time, I didn't like baseball when either incident occurred, and I couldn't really appreciate the significance of these events at the time I experienced them. No, the only game I have ever attended in Rays history which surpasses this game in terms of the greatest victory would have to be Opening Day 2003 against the Boston Red Sox when Carl Crawford hit a walkoff home run that gave the Rays a victory over Boston in Lou Piniella's first game as skipper. That game surpasses this only because Crawford was such a young player that the home run represented a sort of "coming out" for him. Few remember who hit the game-tying home run in the eighth, and that would be Terry Shumpert. But everyone remembers Crawford with his fists pumping as he circled the bases following the homer. To see that walkoff and Crawford was special in its own, but the fact that it came on Opening Day against the Boston Red Sox of all teams made it ever so much sweeter.
That is not to take anything away from today's game. Certainly the game today deserves a place in its own right as one of the most special in team history. However the Opening Day 2003 game was just the Perfect Storm of factors give it the edge. However there is something to be said for watching your home team beat the other ballclub with its youth, its future, and not some fluke performance from a dead end veteran (I.E. Shumpert). And I must give Rays fans credit. While there were some bad apples who chose to either a) exit the building prematurely or b) get drunk early and heckle incoherently for the duration, most Rays fans were dressed up in team garb, they were numerous, and most of all, they were vociferous. I have never seen a home crowd support the Rays like that bunch did in the ninth inning of the game, even before Delmon Young homered and even before Ty Wigginton reached base. The cause? That stupid fomenting video clip of all the movies meant to fire the crowd up. Meh, whatever works. That isn't fair though, the crowd was pretty supportive of the team throughout the game, though it reached its peak in the ninth.
As for the pomp and circumstance that accompanies any opener, it was I'd say ramped up this year. For starters, Florida Governor and St. Pete resident Charlie Crist was on hand to throw out the first pitch, and he was caught by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. There is just something about two politicians with jerseys tucked into their jeans that screams "Opening Day". Or maybe it was "O'Canada" that piqued my interest?
As for the stadium, I'd say that I was wholeheartedly impressed. The major changes this year, as I try to remember what I say in going around the stadium were:
- Team Store-The team store was renovated for this year. Gone are the useless upper level and cluttered aisles, they were replaced with hardwood and tile flooring on the bottom floor. The display cases are much improved, with the displays of clothing much more like what you would find in a department store. Much more professional. The upper level is now devoted to the merchandise of other teams, so the Yankee and Red Sox fans can do their shopping segregated from everyone else. Major bonus. Overall, there aren't really any more items for sale with the new layout, maybe even less, but any inventory decline is not noticeable, and the open layout and easy navigation brought about by the change makes any inventory reduction well worth it.
- tbt* Party Deck-The Beach has gone the way of the moniker "Florida Suncoast Dome", and the concourse and seating sections which formerly composed it have been stripped down and re-branded as the "tbt* Party Deck". And fear not, you can get a copy of tbt* here from any one of the 200 boxes in the area. The branding of tbt* throughout this area is very conspicuous, you cannot walk two feet without a logo in your face. With all that said, that doesn't mean that they necessarily did a poor job. While the re-branding was characterized as making the area "Ybor City-like", it reminded me far more of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I suppose that you could call it Ybor for marketing's sake, but the lampposts, signage, and street lighting reek of the New Orleans landmark. Still, they did a good job in renovating the area. I like the red and black color scheme found throughout, and they really went to great detail in trying to re-brand every piece of the section. I'd say they did a superb job with it, although they should really look into reducing the pricing.
- Scoreboards-By far the most obvious of all the changes this offseason to the ballpark was the addition of one huge scoreboard, with another auxiliary one located above the Batter's Eye. This also involved changing the layout of the advertising covering the back walls. The huge scoreboard is composed of one large scoreboard, as well as two other ribbon board to the lower left and right of the major one. "Tropicana Field" in green letters appears above the big board, and advertisements dot the rectangular area between the length of the old boards and the height of the new one. These ads fill up space not taken by the board. The rest of the back wall is covered with tall ads on a faux-brick facade, and this covers the entire area from above the Power Alley Pub to the right field party suites. The ads usually consist of a banner ad with a lit sign for the company near the top, as well as a 3D representation of that company's logo on top of the ad. The only original ad remaining in the entire swath of the renovation was the Tropicana ad with the red and white striped straw coming out of the orange. That was retained and worked around, while additional ads appear above the Batter's Eye. The Kane's Furniture strikeout countdown is now electronic and on the far left side of the restaurant. The auxiliary scoreboard is centered pretty much exactly in the middle of the Batter's Eye, and provides lineups and stats.
- Functionality-It was really hard to get a full read on the new scoreboards, but based on my early impressions, they look awesome. The video boards are very large and crystal clear, while providing more statistical information and stats rather than just flashy crap like the large scoreboards of so many other stadiums do. The problem was that the scoreboard system suffered from technical problems for a lot of the evening, I.E. incorrect batter and pitcher identifications, wrong pictures, incorrect statistics, players attributed to the wrong teams, slow response to changes in the batting order, etc. However I am just assuming that these issues are just growing pains, and I am understandable of that. Still, if they are able to get the scoreboards working correctly, what an addition we have. The line score and a wealth of statistical info appears on the main board (including pitch type, speed, and pitch count on a rotating basis!) as well as the player photo and either their box score for the game or personal info. Rotating batter and pitcher stats show on the two smaller boards, and range anywhere from the traditional stats to K/9, BB/9, WHIP, OBP, and SLG. Very impressive. I wish they would show the pitch count more, however, instead of the pitcher's line score. Also, perhaps they could remove the info about the player's DOB, hometown, etc. so that it doesn't appear on every turn at bat, or every time that pitcher steps back on the mound. The main board looks great, but it also can look sort of cluttered, and the removal of this unnecessary information would make it look better. The lineup boards are excellent as well, as they offer a forum for more statistical information during the course of the game. I was pleasantly surprised by the additions. I thought that these boards would be used more often for fomenting and advertising, when in reality they really do contain some nice information. Nearly everything I would want is on these boards, albeit not all of the time. Most of the advertising/fomenting occurs on the left field ribbon board now, as it really was most of the time before. The only four original stadium scoreboards remaining are the matrix boards on the facade of the upper deck. Two display out of town scores, while the other two display the score and the time of day.
- Turf/Field-This change was much more subtle than I thought it would be. The new turf really doesn't look all that different from the old turf in my approximation, and it looks far closer to the old turf than it did for last Saturday's exhibition contest. I suppose its fine if it plays well and all. As noted elsewhere (and complained about), a small section of the left field wall between the foul poll and the end of the diagonal curve of the wall has been lowered. This was apparently an attempt to create opportunities for "Web Gem" catches by Carl Crawford, but the complaint has been that it is an injury magnet waiting to happen and that it will rob players of extra base hits because of the increased chance of ground rule doubles. Personally, I don't care. We'll let time decide on that. But the area behind the wall, formerly just a party area, is no longer "just" a party area, it is a local tourist, beach-themed party area. Whatever.
- Aesthetics-Considering the fact that last year's renovations covered most of this, there was little to work on this year, however it should be noted that the last of the old leaf, multi-colored theme has been purged from view of the seating arena, although it still is alive and well in the rotunda. The only major indoor change this year was the addition of tarp over the very last rows of the upper deck. Quite honestly, I think the way that it looked last week, with nearly all of the upper deck tarped off, made it look no better, and actually more cavernous. The way they had it set up today was better, however. The tarp now only covers the last 15 or so rows, and this makes it look fine. The tarp is the exact same color as the seats. The major aesthetic change outdoors was the landscaping done outside Gate 1. I would say that they did a good job with this as well, considering the native plants and mulch put in really cleaned up the dirty, plain look of the banks of that tributary. It looks like a landscaped walkway now, and I suppose that was the goal, so mission accomplished. The problem is, they still have not cleaned up that disgrace of a creek. It still looks more like an industrial barge canal with trash than a good-looking moat. At least some of the trash was cleaned up in there, but it still looks very ugly. I wish that there were a way to rectify this.
- Other Changes-The words "Tropicana Field" now appear in orange font on the press box facade, with the signs for the TV and radio networks being smaller...The re-naming of the luxury club as the "Whitney Bank Club" has resulted in the painting of the facade of the second deck above the club dark blue with "Whitney Bank Club" block letters hanging off the second deck...Some of the concession stands had their menus changed and booths refurbished, so a lot of them now look less like standard concession booths and more like unique entities...Come on, the team racks up sponsorships with Dunkin' Donuts and Chick-fil-A, and neither one of them has a concession stand in the Trop? Weak...A row of seats behind the Rays bullpen was dedicated to military personnel from MacDill AFB, who will be offered tickets to that area for home games.
- Conclusions-I am really of the impression that the team did an excellent job with this round of renovations. Not only have they created a larger forum by which baseball information can be broadcast by their addition of the video boards, but they actually are using them properly. Further, the renovations done to the Beach really give that area a much-needed revitalization. Across the board, the team's renovations were all done spectacularly, and the overall change in this ballpark since the addition of the themed walls in 2003 has been immense. Most of that immense change has been as the result of the renovations pursued by Rays management, and they deserve credit for how professionally they were implemented. Excellent job on all of them, it has really enhanced the ballpark experience.