Back on Christmas Eve 2008, Dave Cameron said of all the non starting major league players that deserved a full-time job, Willy Aybar stood out from the rest of the pack. Over six months later, Aybar still remains ahead of the pack. Filling in wherever needed, Aybar has accumulated 170 plate appearances this season. All he has done is put up the best numbers of his career. After last night's three hits including his seventh home run, he is hitting .287/.382/.483 with 14 extra base hits. He also has as many walks (23) as strikeouts (23).
Most teams would be panicking to replace a player of Evan Longoria's caliber, but for the Rays all they need to do is just pencil Aybar's name in. A switch hitter, Aybar just fills in, becomes the Rays #3 hitter and the offense doesn't miss a beat. While Longoria remains one of the best defenders at third base, Aybar is an adequate replacement despite what "local experts" say.
Longoria's cranky hamstring is going to be an issue for the next few weeks; however, Aybar's steady play should ease some of the pain. After signing an extension worth a possible three years and $4.8 million dollars this offseason, Aybar has produced 0.9 WAR or $4 million dollars worth of production so far. He won't grab many headlines, but Aybar likes to keep it on the "low" anyway.
B.J. Upton got things started early last night hitting a solo home run on the first pitch of the game. It was Upton's seventh home run of the season and his fifth in June. It was also the team's 39th home run for the month of June, setting a new team record for jacks in a single month. As the weather has heated up, so has B.J. With his shoulder finally healthy, Upton hit .324/.395/.562 with 15 extra base hits in 120 plate appearances for the month. Maybe those who vote for team MVP should take note that with a healthy Upton the Rays went 19-7 in June; I'm just saying.
Carl Crawford continues to torment Toronto's pitching staff. CC hit his second home run of the series, his eight of the year. Like Upton, Crawford also hit five home runs in June and finished a slugging percentage of .500 or better for the second straight month. His power looks to be blooming, however his speed has been lacking a bit. After starting the season a perfect 30-30 in steals, CC went 10-16 in June and grounded into four double plays. There haven't been complaints publicly, but you have to wonder if the turf is taking its toll on his legs once again.
I don't know if a day off is in Crawford's future, but Ben Zobrist returned from a semi-day off. After missing most of Monday's game (9th inning defensive replacement), Zobrist officially went 1-1 last night, however he reached base three times (two walks) and drove in a run via sacrifice fly. Jason Bartlett also had a hit, but whiffed twice on two pitches that were about four feet off the plate. Even MVP's have a bad game here and there. The Rays were once again a little too aggressive on the bases with a caught stealing and a pickoff, however the bats again were mighty with three home runs and two doubles.
The Rays got another stellar start from Matt Garza, who scattered seven hits and allowed just one run over seven plus innings. Like Jeff Niemann the night before, Garza didn't strike out many (3) and relied heavily on his defense. Once again he threw over 70% fastballs and maintained velocity throughout. Garza averaged 95 mph on the fastball and maxed out at 97.4. His last pitch of the game registered above 96 on the gun. There is something about Garza and the Blue Jays. In his last six starts against Toronto he has allowed just two earned runs in 45 innings; call it blue magic.
James Shields takes the mound against Ricky Romero in the matinee finale. The Rays have pulled three games ahead of Toronto and are now just four games behind Boston. They could do some serious damage to the Blue Jays psyche with a sweep today. The Jays are just 6-11 against the AL East while the Rays are 15-12.
Final note: Don't call J.P. Howell a closer, just call him the Iceman; six games "chilled" and counting.