For the first 10 years of Tampa Bay baseball, it was easy to have sympathy for the Devil Rays. They'd routinely finish last (fourth in 2004!), they had some colorful characters (not to mention Lou Piniella for three years), and your AL stars could pad the stats against these lovable losers.
Things are very much different in 2008, as you know. The Rays exorcized their nickname, a few young players grew up, and here they are, in the dog days of August, still the best story in baseball. And on this particular all-play Sunday, no team generated more interesting nuggets (fantasy and otherwise) than your Tampa Bay Rays. Let's get a rundown:
• Is Joe Maddon a strategic genius or a kook? That's for the reader to decide.
Juan Salas and Grant Balfour were making a mess of the ninth inning in Texas Sunday night (one hit, three walks), putting what looked like a sure Tampa Bay win in jeopardy. The Rangers were down to their last out but they had the bases loaded and Josh Hamilton striding to the plate as the tying run. Nail-biting time.
Maybe Maddon had a Home Run Derby flashback, because he decided Hamilton wasn't going to decide this game. He ordered Balfour to walk Hamilton intentionally, then brought in Dan Wheeler to face Marlon Byrd; Wheeler struck out Byrd and there's your ballgame. If you're scoring at home, it's the second based-loaded intentional walk covered in Baseball-Reference's Play Index over the past 53 seasons (Buck Showalter, another checkers guy in a chess world, walked Barry Bonds with the sacks full in May, 1999).
Enough of the history lesson, back to the fantasy slant. Balfour technically wasn't brought into a save situation here, but nonetheless he missed a golden opportunity to put his stamp on the closer spot while Troy Percival rehabs (there's no timetable on Percival yet; he may need a knee scope, he may not). Balfour was so wild Sunday one of his intentional balls to Hamilton sailed to the backstop, and keep in mind he blew a save at Oakland Thursday (albeit that was a no-room-for-error appearance). Looks like we'll see committee behavior in Tampa for the rest of the month, with Wheeler holding the keys for now.
• B.J. Upton homered, collected three hits, hustled, and made everyone happy in the Rays dugout Sunday. Maybe he signed his commitment to his team, too. Anyway, he's out of the doghouse, and Maddon went out of his way to praise Upton after the game. Smiles, everyone, smiles.
• Scott Kazmir's golden arm looked plenty live Sunday (6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 7 K), and he scored his first win since July 21. He also ran up a bunch of pitches (114), as is his wont; he's worked more than six innings in just one of his last 12 starts. That's the rub with Kazmir, the element that's keeping him from becoming a fantasy superstar.
• The Rays are just scheduled for six games this week, like most of the majors (only five clubs play seven), but there's no guarantee they'll get the full series in with the Angels. Tropical Storm Fay is expected to hit the Tampa Bay area Tuesday, and Rays president Matt Silverman admitted Sunday that "two out of three is the most likely case." The Rays and Angels could double-up on Wednesday to complete the series, but having Anaheim return for a make-up on Sept. 1 seems to be the preferred option. I'm no meteorologist, so feel free to research this one on your own if it has a significant effect in your weekly planning.
I was going to stick in Tampa Bay and discuss Jon Gruden's quarterback collection, but instead let's give the other 29 MLB clubs some quality time:
• Edinson Volquez says the two extra days of rest he got earlier this month have made a world of difference, allowing him to clean up his mechanics and clear his mind. You can't argue with the results: he cruised over the Pirates Tuesday, and he mowed down the Cardinals Sunday (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 4 K).
• Something's gotta give in Baltimore the next couple of days. The Orioles are just throttling the ball right now, but Boston comes at them hard with Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka. You can't really sit any of the major players from the Mora & Markakis Mafia, I suppose; a shame Adam Jones isn't around to get in on this. It looks like Luke Scott's Achilles tendon is feeling better these days: he's at .391 this month and he roped a couple of homers Sunday.
• Kosuke Fukudome had another tough afternoon (0-for-4, three punchouts), while the scrappy guys on his heels kept hitting (Reed Johnson had four knocks, Mike Fontenot two). There are ways for all of these guys to play at the same time, and Lou Piniella doesn't have me on speed dial, but I'll be stunned if Fukudome doesn't sit some during the coming week.
• Emilio Bonifacio drew his fourth Washington walk Sunday, to go with his 22 strikeouts. That's a problem for a leadoff hitter (any hitter, actually) and more disconcerting than his .229 average. We haven't seen a bonanza of steals, either, just two. You have my endorsement to keep using Lastings Milledge and even Willie Harris in deeper leagues, but Bonifacio slides onto the probation list.
• Salomon Torres is dealing with a sore groin, though the Brewers considered him available to pitch Sunday. "It was just stiffness," Ned Yost told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "But when it's stiff, you don't want to take a chance. It wasn't that he pulled anything." Torres said his legs, particularly his hamstrings, were normally tight and he needed to get them loose before warming up. However, recently his groin has nagged him with tightness that had gotten progressively worse, culminating Saturday where he couldn't pitch a second inning.
• It was silly of the Dodgers to recall Clayton Kershaw just in time for a Colorado start back on July 22, but the left-handed phenom has been brilliant since (four home starts out of five helps the cause). Kershaw threw six innings of one-run baseball against the Brewers Sunday (unfortunately the bullpen blew his lead), and here's the full story on Kershaw's last five outings: 31 IP, 9 BB, 29 K, 1.45 ERA, 1.10 WHIP. He'll get a different kind of test next weekend at Philadelphia.
• Did the Mariners drop the ball by not aggressively shopping Raul Ibanez earlier this month, or did contending clubs fail to realize how much was left in the tank? We'll never know for sure where the blame truly lies, but we can enjoy the frozen ropes coming from Ibanez just about every at-bat these days. He cranked out five more hits Sunday at Minnesota, putting him at .377 with 28 RBIs for the second half.
• Injury Lap: Ryan Braun (ribs) got back into it Sunday with two homers, including a temporary game-tying homer in the top of the ninth (Andre Ethier spoiled it a few minutes later with a walk-off homer, his second of the day) . . . Nothing's bothering Milton Bradley, other than his sore back, quad injury, and sinus problems. It was the back that kept him out Sunday . . . Hank Blalock is hoping to start a rehab stint Monday, though his shoulder kept him from infield practice Sunday . . . Rickie Weeks left Sunday's game with a sprained thumb but doesn't expect to miss much time, if any . . . Billy Wagner has elbow and forearm discomfort and he's not ready to come off the DL. He'll be re-examined Tuesday, and don't make any hard assumptions . . . Alexi Casilla (thumb) hopes to take live batting practice Monday . . . Brandon Moss left Sunday's game with a sprained ankle; X-rays came back negative . . . Victor Martinez (elbow) had two hits at Double-A Sunday and now heads to Triple-A Buffalo . . . Hideki Matsui (knee) took 15 at-bats in a simulated game and might be ready to go Tuesday. I'm still keeping expectations very tempered here . . . Todd Jones (shoulder) clearly wasn't right Friday and the Tigers acknowledged as much, putting him right back on the DL.
• Roy Oswalt was passable but not outstanding in his first four starts off a groin injury, so it was hard to expect what he did against Arizona Sunday: a one-hitter over eight brilliant innings, with two walks and 10 strikeouts. Maybe Craig Biggio Day gave Oswalt a little extra bounce in his cleats. Oswalt is humble to a fault, even after a gem like this. "I got through it," the veteran shrugged. "They were hitting it pretty well but I got them to hit it right at someone." He'll work in New York next weekend.
• Speed Round: Like a lot of AL hitters, Jason Kubel digs in against the Mariners pitching staff. He racked up eight hits this weekend, and is 13-for-19 against Seattle this year (three homers). The Twins head to the Emerald City in a week . . . Just a routine day off for David Wright, Garret Anderson and Akinori Iwamura, if you wanted to know . . . Another steal for Willy Taveras, giving him seven over the last five games and 59 for the season. I don't know how many steals he's aiming for; he's pretty much locked up the title (now 18 clear of Jose Reyes) . . . I'll have a dish of whatever Carlos Pena is having, man is he locked in right now. And top it with some of Ty Wigginton's pixie dust. I'm getting a healthy kickback on the Wigginton run, but sadly I don't own Pena anywhere . . . No one blows a save in New York if Johan Santana throws a complete-game shutout (3 H, 0 BB 7 K, 113 pitches) . . . I don't know where it all went wrong for Brian Bannister, but I give him a lot of credit for facing the media Sunday and answering all the questions after the Yankees rocked him for 10 runs. We need more guys like Bannister . . . Ben Francisco has two hits, and exactly two hits, in eight of his last nine starts. Make of that what you will . . . If you figured out Mike Mussina and Ryan Dempster in March, you're a better man than I am. Dempster looked pretty nasty in Miami (have a peek at the 10 whiffs), while Mussina worked five clean innings after a rocky first against the Royals (three runs) en route to his 16th win.
• Handshakes: Brad Lidge (three strikeouts); Joe Nathan (four-outer, nervous ninth); Brian Wilson (first in 11 days); Jensen Lewis (despite two singles, one a bloop); Jose Valverde (rock-solid for about a month now).
• There's no cheering in the press box, but I need to tip the cap for Tom Glavine, who's probably facing elbow surgery and ultimately, retirement. Glavine's been on my radar for 25 years now; I never really forgave him for that five-goal massacre he put on my high school's hockey team. Alas, when he made the majors with the Braves in the late 1980s, I pulled for him as most of New England did. Thanks for the memories, lefty.