Rays of hope

Welcome back, baseball! (And good riddance, spring training!)

click to enlarge HELLUVA PITCHER: Jeremy Hellickson in action last season. - Kevin Tall
Kevin Tall
HELLUVA PITCHER: Jeremy Hellickson in action last season.

The Bolts have been battered blacker and bluer than their old — and better-looking — jerseys.

The Bucs… yeah, don’t get me started.

But the Rays are back, and they’re healthier than… last week?

The injury bug has bitten many a Ray this spring: B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings collided in center field, taking the former out with a lower back injury and leaving the latter with a sore right arm. Sam Fuld carried over an injured right wrist from last season and does not expect to dress for the opening game (or for many games thereafter). Reid Brignac, battling to claim the spot at shortstop, is suffering from plantar fascilitis. At this point, it seems it would be easier to compile a list of Rays players who weren’t laid up at some point this spring. Geez, even David Price took himself out by toweling off too vigorously…

“It’s happened to me two times before, the towel kind of catches the back of my head and it pulls my neck forward and I just felt it a little bit in the back of my neck,” Price said. “I just want to be cautious with it.”

No wonder I never hear any metal playing in the clubhouse; the ace lefty is apt to paralyze himself if he starts head-banging.

While we’re talking pitching, Tampa Bay has decided on a starting rotation of James Shields, Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann, who narrowly beat out Wade Davis for the fifth spot. Davis is set to begin the season as a relief pitcher.

“We just like the idea of Jeff in the rotation now; we also like the idea of Wade in the bullpen, just based on their abilities,” says Rays manager Joe Maddon. “Wade can come out of the bullpen, possibly throw some high-velocity numbers and make an impact there.”

The thing is, Niemann just hasn’t been the same since his stint on the disabled list in 2010. Mentally, once his game starts heading downhill, there seems to be no stopping it. Conversely, Davis, who’s had his own struggles, has shown the propensity to bounce back.

“It’s just a tough situation," says Maddon, “and a good situation that we’re in, at the same time — having these two guys being as good as they are. And believe me, it’s one of the more difficult things we’ve had to do since I’ve been here, making this particular call.”

Difficult call or not, I’m not sure it was the right one. But Maddon could prove right and the Rays will have another good arm in the ’pen.

So, about those spring training games I told you guys to check out… Oops, my bad. But really, so what if they lost a few games? The Grapefruit League isn’t intended as a barometer for the coming year. Take last year’s ass-kicking spring performance, for example. Tampa Bay killed it at Charlotte Sports Park, faring particularly well against division rivals. Come the regular season, well, there’s no real nice way to spin losing six consecutive games to open the season and eight of your first nine. They still made the playoffs, briefly, so take spring training to mean as little or as much as you like. I think it’s inconsequential; you don’t rag a guy for having a bad day at the gym, right?

But what was the problem facing the Rays this spring? An old, familiar ailment: no hitting. The Rays have had what Maddon called a “bad offensive camp so far.”

“Otherwise the other work’s been pretty good; the work’s been great,” Maddon says. “The performance overall has not been horrible. We just have not hit. And with that, when you don’t hit, that can infect the rest of your game a little bit. But overall I am not displeased with the camp; we just have not hit to our potentials yet, that’s why you’re seeing a little bit of a lag.”

Look, I’m no one’s cheerleader. But this is an exciting team to watch, underfunded but willing to rehash the Cinderella tale every season. I love baseball, and Tampa Bay is a good place to see good baseball. There’s a perfectly good park — albeit in the wrong location — kept at a lovely 72 degrees Fahrenheit for each of the 81 regular-season home games. So whether you’re part of the rare and elusive breed of Rays backers, fanus hometeamus, or just a transplant looking to be obnoxious and catch a game when your team is in town, come on in, the baseball’s fine.

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