MLB: An important first week for the Tampa Bay Rays

I realize that there is definitely a difference between the first week in April, and the last week in September (or even October). The Royals were in first place in the AL Central until April 14th a year ago before remembering they were the Royals and they needed to go ahead and pack it in.  This weekend there was a poll on ESPN this weekend asking how much stock you put in a team’s record after the first week. Rightly, the vast majority of America said none at all.  That’s not to say the first week is completely useless, though.  Storylines to watch develop that might have some real impact on the season. Questions are not answered in the first week, but questions can be raised (or reaffirmed).

In the first series of the season Tampa took 2 of 3 at Fenway.  That’s not the whole story, though.  Peter Gammons of ESPN said that, while the Rays won the opening series in Fenway last week, they didn’t NEED to. Gammons’s point was that you can’t "fake it" for 162 games (i.e., that the Rays really do have the talent to compete). He’s right that the Rays have the talent, but assessing whether or not the Rays possess the talent to compete isn’t why that series was important.

A lot of times in sports you hear people say that "winning is a mentality". It's one of those universally accepted mantras in sports. Sometimes that’s hard to swallow when these players are making serious coin. It's hard to accept when this is game is a job for them. If you take that into another arena like an attorney doing litigation (which I plan on doing in my future), it doesn’t work. If I lose a bunch of trials in a row (and somehow manage to keep getting work) I can’t just tell my clients “well, sorry, I just don’t have the mentality to win… guess I should have told you in advance. Also, no refunds.”

During the 2008 regular season, the Rays were 2-7 at Fenway (losing the first 7). The two wins the Rays posted were courtesy of some late inning heroics. No starter got a win in Boston last regular season. Those last two wins were crucial for the post season. I remember thinking to myself when the last series in September started that the Rays needed to get at least one win. My feelings were not because the race was so tight and the Rays needed the games so they could win the dvision. Instead I felt Tampa needed those games because they would have to win on the road agasint the Sox in the post season and the Rays players needed to know they could.  Of course, the Rays got two wins in September, won the AL East, and sauntered into Fenway in the post season and shelled the Sox in games 3, 4, and most of game 5. Then they showed some resolve in closing it out back in Tampa, to be sure. It all seemed lost after Game 5 but they rallied, do not think that was lost on me.

I agree with Gammons that you cannot fake talent for 162 games. And don't get me wrong, the road for the Rays last seasons was rocky at times and they pulled through. Right before the All Star Break, the Rays went on a skid. At no point did the they stop being the franchise that rarely lost less than 100 games in their first decade in the majors. Sure, the Rays hung tough all season, getting big late seasons wins. Sure, in the playoffs the Rays blew a 7-0 lead in Game 5 of the ALCS and still gritted out a series win. The thing about major league baseball, though, is that it's a grind. The same reason that you cannot fake talent is the reason that you can also battle through some of that adversity unlike in other major professional sports in America. In baseball, you do not have the benefit of thought during the regular season. You don't often have more than one day off at a time so to really sit and reflect is just not an option. Hard to get too caught up in what's happening, good or bad. That's part of the reason that a long layoff before the World Series seems to snake-bite teams. They have a second to stop and think instead of continuing to roll

The reason this was a big series for the Rays is, largely, because of the off season. I can understand that "this is a young team" and "most of the guys weren't a part of that losing culture" or whatever. Shenanigans, I say. The Rays had an entire off season hearing how great their year was but how they didn't have any chance of getting back to the post season. The Yankees "got better" with all their acquisitions and the Sox were "getting healthy" compared to last season. "Good job, boys. Hope you enjoyed it" seemed to be the sentiment.

Then, in the first game, Josh Beckett just dominates and James Shields stuggled. "Good job, boys. Hope you enjoyed it", was ringing in the players' ears. Of course, the Rays responded in the final two games of the series getting the W's. It's not an entire season, but it's important because the Rays know they can do it again. They didn't need to prove it to everyone else, they needed to prove it to themselves.

The week that was raised a few issues for the Rays worth keeping your eyes on (or not since you know I'll do it for you). The first is a little something I like to call "WTF IS GOING ON WITH SCOTT KAZMIR?" Who the hell is this guy. I mean, I really like Kaz and I want him to do well. Sure he got a victory in his first and only start. Honestly, though, he benefited in his win against Boston from a liberal strike zone. Kaz struggled all night to really get the ball over. Control has been his struggle his entire career. In 2008 he started on the DL, coming back a month into the season.  He looked better than ever for a while. In fact, his season started going south right after I unsuccessfully tried to trade for him in fantasy (thank you to the guy who turned me down). His starts in last year's playoffs were an adventure to say the least.  This season it will be really important to keep an eye on what Kaz does in that second slot.

The other story that showed itself week one also involved pitching.  With David Price showing last October that he would be major league ready at some point in 2009, Rays fifth starter Edwin "consistently inconsistent" Jackson became expendable. The Rays got some much needed outfield help for Jackson in the form of Matt Joyce (who some of my Tigers fan friends were sad to see go). At some point Price is going to get called up. He might start in the bullpen but, at some point, he will be in the rotation. The question is whether Jeff Neimann, or whomever is starting in that fifth slot, can hold down the fort. In his start against the Baltimore Orioles, Neimann got rocked in the first inning, giving up 5 runs. He endedu up pitching 5.1 and giving up 6 on 6 hits. That Baltimore jumped on him early could be nerves, considering he did settle in quite nicely. But, it might not be. Assuming the Rays stay healthy, David Price stands be a big piece. Tampa isn't like other franchises. Making a move during the trade deadline, a la Yankees or Sox, is not really an option becaue of the payroll restrictions.  David Price coculd be that influx late in the season but only if the Rays remain competitive. If the team gets shelled every fifth day, they won't. That means Nieman or whomever needs to keep the Rays relavant deep into the season.

Have something you want me to talk about or have a question you'd like answered, leave me a comment and I'll see what I can do for you.

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