Today was the type of game that you'd expect the Rays to lose. Road game. Yankee Stadium. Andy Pettitte. A less than stellar starting lineup. Edwin Jackson on the hill. And to top it all off, a high-pressure situation for the bullpen. The ingredients were all there for failure, and yet some how, some way, the Rays pulled out their second straight win in New York and earned at least a split of the four game series at Yankee Stadium. But encapsulated in the 6-3 final was so much more. It was the reversal of trends that had been long-established in the Rays' painful history. Whether these reversals stick is quite another matter in itself, but for now, you've got to be feeling good.
One start does not a track record make, unfortunately, for RHP Edwin Jackson. The failures of his past have been expounded upon ad nauseum. But on Saturday afternoon, you saw the potential for a fresh start. It started off as the same old Edwin Jackson: too many baserunners, specifically walks, and lots of extended counts. But something was different today. The accompanying runs that chased him out of ballgames last year didn't show up. Sure, the pitch count might have worried you, but at the end of the day Jackson left with a respectable line. He chewed up six innings of work, surrendering just five hits and two walks for one run, while striking out five. It was an excellent start to the season for Jackson, one that he sorely needed.
Does it mean that he is turning the page? Doubtful. For all of his overall success, he could have easily been chased from the ballgame early had the Yankees capitalized on the numerous baserunners that they got on against him. The same poor luck that befell Jackson all of last year turned around for him, and he was able to take control in his last couple of innings. Also of concern for the Rays should be the ease with which the Yankees were able to make contact off of the Rays' righty. New York batters launched 10 fly balls to only four ground outs among balls in play, and some of those fly balls could easily be extra base hits the next time around. So there are some trends that Jackson still needs to correct. But on the whole, this was a good start from the much-maligned right-hander, and he deserves some credit.
Some other observations:
- The bullpen remained a mixed bag this afternoon, but on the whole things came out well. RHP Dan Wheeler continues to be the workhorse, as he tossed a perfect seventh inning today. So far this season, Wheeler has pitched in every game and has not allowed a baserunner. Also doing well today was RHP Al Reyes, who rebounded from a poor outing on Wednesday evening in Baltimore to get the crucial final out in the eighth inning with two runners on base. RHP Troy Percival made his first regular season appearance as a Ray in the ninth, and got the Yankees to go down in order to get his 325th career save.
- On the flip side of the bullpen's effort was LHP Trever Miller. Miller came on in the top of the eighth inning and proceeded to nearly give away the farm. He was ultimately charged with two runs on four hits in 0.2 innings of work before Reyes cleaned up his mess. Of all of the Rays' free agent signings this off-season, Miller certainly seems like the most destined to fail. I don't know why the team thought that bringing him back would be a good idea after his horrid 2005 season here. Miller, soon to be 35, isn't getting any younger, and his slipping numbers (lower strikeout rate, higher ERA, walk rate, and WHIP) don't suggest a rebound. Obviously the team has at least $2 million sunk in him, so he won't be going anywhere soon, but hopefully we'll see his appearances limited in the future.
- The bats weren't nearly as prolific today as they were in last night's 13-4 beatdown of New York, but there were a few bright spots, led by RF Jonny Gomes. Gomes started out the day very poorly, as he misinterpreted his first hit off of the right field wall in the second inning and started trotting around the bases as if he had hit a home run. When New York got the ball back into the infield, they got Gomes in a rundown between first and second base and tagged him out. The second inning was pretty much the extent of Gomes' problems on the day, as he misplayed a fly ball in the bottom of the inning off the bat of RF Bobby Abreu. It occurred when he backed into a shaded part of the Yankee Stadium outfield, lost track of the ball, and it dropped right in front of him. However Gomes more than atoned for these two errors in the fifth inning, when he lined a ball over the left field fence for a three run homer that proved to be the final margin. While Gomes' defense will never be an asset as he plays, the platoon strategy of playing Gomes against left-handed pitchers got off to a good start today, as he hammered Yankees LHP Andy Pettitte. Hopefully the Rays will continue to primarily use Gomes in these situations, and hopefully he'll continue to have success.
- The Rays' second home run of the day was hit in the eighth inning
by 3B Willy Aybar. While it would be Aybar's only hit in three at bats,
he did also draw a walk and was very competent in the field. So far, he
is proving to be a more than adequate stopgap for Evan Longoria.
- 1B Carlos Peña had an interesting day. He was plunked in his first two at bats by Pettitte, and was walked in the third AB. His only two official at bats on the day resulted in strikeouts, but he did his on base percentage a lot of good nonetheless.
- SS Jason Bartlett continues to impress in the field with the glove,
and he added some offensive punch today as well, going 2 for 4 with a
double. Though he scuffed a little in the eighth inning on defense, he
still had a good game overall and was immensely valuable to a Rays
pitching staff that put a lot of balls in play. The difference between
Bartlett this year and Brendan Harris last year is like night and day,
and with each passing game, the disparity becomes clearer.
- C Shawn Riggans made his first start of the season this afternoon, and though he didn't top his offensive effort in Friday night's game, he showed something far more lasting. In working with Rays pitchers, Riggans seemed at ease. He was not afraid to slow down the pace of the game and call for mound conferences, even with pitchers over ten years older than him. That type of courage and confidence is uncommon for catchers appearing in just their 15th major league game, and I think it is a credit to how Riggans worked. A benefit that I have always thought that Riggans brings to the table is his rapport with the Rays' young pitchers. He has caught nearly every young pitcher currently in the major leagues or in AAA Durham, and his seven years experience in the organization could be immensely beneficial as the Rays call up their prospects. Familiarity is a comfort to prospects in unfamiliar places, especially so when that "familiar face" has proven to be competent at working with pitchers. In that regard, Riggans is a tremendous asset. If he keeps a passable batting line to go along with his reputation for good defense and if he continues to work well with the staff, he could be a wonderful starting catcher. It will be interesting to see what Riggans makes of the present opportunity.
- Lastly, congratulations to DH Elliot Johnson for recording his
first major league hit at the Stadium. He made excellent contact on his
fourth inning single, and although it seems odd that he would be
starting at Designated Hitter and not in the field, he made the most of
his opportunity. While Johnson's stint in the major leagues may last as
long as IF Ben Zobrist remains on the Disabled List, hopefully Johnson
will make the most of his opportunity, regardless of how short it is.