Tagged: Sam Fuld

Phelps Tops Rays But Granderson Sidelined Again

GAME 47

YANKEES 9, RAYS 4

Friday was just like any other night for the Yankees. They lost two players to injuries at Tropicana Field but they still won the game.

David Phelps pitched into the eighth inning before being struck on the right forearm on a line drive off the bat of Ben Zobrist while Curtis Granderson left the game in the fifth inning with a broken fifth knuckle on his left hand after being hit by a pitch. But New York still was able to steamroll to victory over Tampa Bay.

Phelps (3-2) was throwing a perfect game through 4 1/3 innings until James Loney doubled to right to break it up.

Meanwhile, the Yankees batted around and scored three runs in the second inning off right-hander Roberto Hernandez (2-5). Lyle Overbay keyed the inning with a two-run double and Jayson Nix followed with a RBI single that scored Overbay.

The Yankees padded their lead to 5-0 in the fourth inning on a two-out single by Chris Stewart and Brett Gardner deposited his fourth home run of the season into the bleachers in right-field.

Hernandez left the game after yielding five runs on six hits and three walks while he struck out three in four innings.

But the Yankees batted around again in the fifth off left-hander Cesar Ramos.

With one out the Yankees loaded the bases and Ramos then walked Nix to force in a run. Stewart followed with an RBI single and Ramos then forced in another run by hitting Robinson Cano with a pitch with the bases loaded and two out.

Down 8-0, the Rays finally got to Phelps with consecutive singles by Jose Lobaton and Yunel Escobar to begin the sixth inning. Matt Joyce laced an RBI double to score Lobaton and Zobrist and Luke Scott drove across single runs on an infield groundout and a sacrifice fly, respectively.

The Yankees added a run off right-hander Jamey Wright in the seventh on a one-out triple by Nix and he later was able to score a wild pitch by Wright.

The Rays then added a run in the seventh on a one-out triple by Kelly Johnson and a sac fly by Sam Fuld.

With two out in the eighth, Zobrist then ripped a line-drive off the right forearm off Phelps. Manager Joe Girardi immediately replaced Phelps with left-hander Boone Logan.

Phelps surrendered four runs on six hits while he struck out four and did not walk a batter over 7 2/3 innings.

With the victory, the Yankees improved to 29-18 and they maintained their one-game lead over the second-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Rays dropped to 24-23 and they are five games behind the Yankees in fourth place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Despite giving four runs, Phelps was absolutely brilliant in his fifth start of the season. In his past four starts, Phelps is 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA. Phelps, 26, has given up eight runs on 19 hits and nine walks while striking out 22 over 27 1/3 innings in those starts. It appears Phelps has earned a spot in the rotation and will keep it as long as he continues to pitch this well.
  • The lower part of the batting order gave the Rays fits. David Adams (sixth), Overbay (seventh), Nix (eighth) and Stewart (ninth) combined to go 8-for-18 (.444) with a double, a triple, six runs scored and five RBIs. Teams are finding that pitching tough against the heart of the order is fine as long as you don’t underestimate the lower half. It is obvious that a lot of pitchers are doing just that and they paying the price for it.
  • Rays manager Joe Maddon said Gardner’s two-run home run off Hernandez in the fourth inning was the back-breaking hit of the game. Gardner entered this season with 15 major-league home runs and the most he ever hit in a season was seven in 2011. He now has four in the 47 games he has played this season. His career high is real jeopardy this season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The Yankees very well might have been able to break open the game even wider of they had gotten anything positive out of Vernon Wells. The 34-year-old outfielder was 0-for-5 and made the final out with the bases loaded in both the third and fifth innings. He left a total of eight men on base and, after reaching base on a fielder’s choice in the eighth inning, he got thrown out trying to steal third.

BOMBER BANTER

If you are absolutely sick to death about reading about Yankee players dropping like flies daily please feel free to skip this section of my report.

X-rays taken of Granderson’s left hand indicated a broken knuckle of his pinky finger. Though the team did not indicate a timetable for Granderson’s return, he will miss a minimum of four weeks and the team will have to place him on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday. Granderson missed the team’s first 37 games of the season due to a fractured right forearm he suffered after being hit by a pitch on his at-bat of spring training on Feb. 24. Granderson had played in only eight games and was 7-for-28 (.250) with a home run and three RBIs.  . . .  There was better news regarding Phelps. X-rays taken of his right arm were negative and the team reported he only suffered a mild bruise. The team Phelps is expected to be able to make his next start.  . . .  The Yankees activated right-hander Ivan Nova from the 15-day disabled list and assigned him to the bullpen. Nova, 26, was 1-1 with a 5.68 ERA in four starts until he was placed on the disabled list April 27 with a strained right triceps. He would have returned on May 13 but  –  in typical Yankees’ luck this season  –  he suffered a strained left oblique, which set him back two additional weeks. In order to make room on the roster for Nova, the Yankees sent right-hander Dellin Betances back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Betances, 25, had no record and no ERA, giving up one hit and two walks while striking out two in three innings covering two appearances.  . . .  Mark Teixeira expects to begin a minor-league rehab stint with the Double-A Trenton Thunder next week and his return to the major leagues could come soon after. Teixeira has been sidelined since early March with a partially torn sheath in his right wrist.  . . .  Stewart returned to the starting lineup on Friday for the first time since May 16 and he was 2-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Stewart had been unable to start behind the plate due to a strained left groin suffered May 15 in a game against the Seattle Mariners. Rookie Austin Romine started in his place.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their weekend road series against the Rays on Saturday.

Rookie left-hander Vidal Nuno (1-1, 1.13 ERA) will start for the Yankees in place of left-hander Andy Pettitte. Nuno threw five innings of three-hit shutout baseball against the Cleveland Indians on May 13. In fact, Nuno had pitched eight scoreless innings to begin his major-league career until Nate McLouth nailed him with a solo home run to lead off the 10th inning in Tuesday’s game in Baltimore that the Orioles won 3-2. Nuno has not pitched against the Rays.

The Rays will counter with left-hander Matt Moore (8-0, 2.29 ERA). Moore held the Orioles to one run over seven innings on Sunday to extend his winning streak to eight games. He is 3-2 with a 3.99 ERA in five career starts against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 4:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

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Yankees Do ‘Little’ Things To Cloud Rays’ Horizon

GAME 146

YANKEES 6, RAYS 4

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon out of necessity to cover for his team’s weak offense employs a combination of aggressive base-running, bunts and forces the opposition into making mistakes. There also is an old axiom of sports if that a team loves to employ a certain strategy they really hate it when you turn the tables on them.

The Yankees did just that on Sunday by frustrating the Rays with four stolen bases, two sacrifice bunts and they forced two errors as New York played a little “small ball” to send Tampa Bay out of Yankee Stadium with a series loss and pushed them a game further back in the pennant chase.

The Yankees batted around and scored five runs in the bottom of the third inning to send left-hander Matt Moore (10-11) to the showers early using two walks, two stolen bases, a sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and finally a good old-fashioned home run to put the Rays in a deep hole early.

Eduardo Nunez sparked the uprising by drawing a leadoff walk and stealing second base after Moore had made four attempted pickoffs. Derek Jeter followed with a single into center in which center-fielder B.j. Upton’s throw was off-line, allowing Nunez to score and Jeter to take second.

Nick Swisher, on his own, laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Jeter to third and Alex Rodriguez singled up the middle through a drawn-in infield to score Jeter.

Moore compounded his misery by throwing a pitch in the dirt to Robinson Cano that got past catcher Jose Lobaton and allowed Rodriguez to take second. Rodriguez amped up the pressure by stealing third base and a frustrated Moore walked Cano on four pitches.

Moore then had Russell Martin down 0-2 in the count but Martin battled back to a 3-2 count before he slapped a four-seam fastball to the opposite field and it landed out of the reach of right-fielder Sam Fuld and into the first row of the bleachers in the short porch in right-field for Martin’s 17th home run of the season.

The damage left Moore pitched out, having thrown 45 pitches in the inning. It also gave Hiroki Kuroda (14-10) a nice cushion to work with.

Kuroda came out blazing against the Rays, striking out the side in the first two innings.

But Ben Zobrist nicked him for a solo home run to lead off the fourth inning. From there Kuroda sailed through the Rays’ lineup until the sixth inning.

The Yankees then used an error, two stolen bases, a walk and sacrifice fly to score an unearned run in their half of the fourth.

Nunez reached first after reliever Brandon Gomes misplayed his comebacker to the mound. Nunez then stole second and third base. Jeter walked and, one out later Rodriguez launched a sacrifice fly to the warning track in right-field to score Nunez.

Kuroda, meanwhile, was pitching a gem through five innings, having given up just the one run on two hits and he had walked no one and struck out nine. But he stumbled in the sixth.

The 37-year-old right-hander walked Lobaton to open the frame and Desmond Jennings followed with an infield single. Kuroda then walked Zobrist to load the bases.

Evan Longoria then hit a potential double-play grounder to Rodriguez at third but the ball took a big hop over his glove and two runs scored on the single as Zobrist raced to third.

Matt Joyce followed with an actual double-play grounder to score Zobrist, which drew the Rays to within two runs.

However, the Yankees bullpen shut the Rays down over the next three innings with rookie David Phelps striking out Jennings looking with runners at first and second and two out in the seventh to preserve the lead.

David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Rafael Soriano came in to toss a scoreless ninth to pick up his 40th save in 43 chances this season.

How frustrating was the loss for the Rays? They drew two ejections.

Maddon was ejected from the game in the third inning after home-plate umpire Paul Emmel chose to warn both teams after Moore had thrown a pitch that buzzed over the head of Curtis Granderson two batters after Martin’s home run. When Maddon questioned Emmel’s warning he got the heave-ho.

Joyce was tossed from the game by Emmel after he struck out looking on a Robertson curveball to end the eighth inning.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 83-62 and they also maintained their one-game lead in the American League East over the second-place Baltimore Orioles. The Rays are now 78-68. They are five games in back of the Yankees in the division and trail in the wild-card standings by four games.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Nunez has brought back the one element the Yankees have been lacking all season: Speed on the bases. Nunez stole three bases in the game, which gives him 10 on the season. He is second on the team and he trails Rodriguez by three despite the fact he has been at Triple-A most of the season. Nunez is also hitting .294, which means he might be a more viable option as a right-handed DH then a slumping Andruw Jones.
  • Martin’s home run is part of a huge resurgence for him since Aug. 21. Martin is 19-for-67 (.283) in that span with four home runs and 14 RBIs. That has finally raised Martin’s season average over the “Mendoza line’ and he is now hitting .209. All Yankee fans can say to him is “It is about time, Russell.”
  • Kuroda’s line did not indicate just how well he pitched despite the sixth inning. He did give up four runs in six innings but Kuroda ended up giving up just four hits and two walks while he struck out 10. Unfortunately for him, both of those two walks ended up scoring. The bottom line is Kuroda is the true ace of the staff at this point of the season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

I have been hoping for a game like this where there was some “small ball” mixed in with some long-ball. It was, for the most part, a well-pitched game and the Yankees were able to keep their lead in the division with the toughest part of their schedule now behind him. Nothing to criticize about that.

ON DECK

The Yankees will get a day to rest their bumps and bruises before resuming their homestand on Tuesday starting a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

The atmosphere will be electric as left-hander Andy Pettitte (3-3, 3.22 ERA) will make his first start since he went on the disabled list on June 27 with a fractured left ankle. Pettitte will be limited to about 70 pitches. Over the past 10 years, Pettitte is 12-9 with a 4.84 ERA against the Blue Jays.

Left-hander Ricky Romero (8-14, 8.57 ERA) will start for the Jays. Romero is in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, which ties him with the franchise record for futility. He is 3-7 with a 5.00 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by MY9.

 

Nova’s Star Reignited As Yankees Dim Rays’ Hopes

GAME 145

YANKEES 5, RAYS 3

So much of life seems to move in circles and Ivan Nova’s path to Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays certainly came full circle.

Nova reached the All-Star break 10-3 with a 3.92 ERA coming off a brilliant rookie season in which he was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA. But then came a surprisingly rapid decline in which he was 1-4 with a 7.28 ERA in his last eight starts and he ended up on the 15-day disabled list on Aug. 22 with inflammation of his right rotator cuff.

Nova, coming off the DL to make his first start in three weeks, was simply brilliant in pitching six-plus innings in front of a national television audience on FOX Sports as New York reclaimed sole possession of first place in the American League East with a clutch victory over Tampa Bay.

Nova (12-7) gave up two runs on just four hits and two walks and he struck out eight batters in an 85-pitch effort that drew a standing ovation from most of the paid crowd of 46,856 at Yankee Stadium as he left in the seventh inning.

The victory for the Yankees, coupled with the 5-2 loss of the Baltimore Orioles to the Oakland Athletics later on Saturday, allowed the Yankees to reclaim a one-game lead over the Orioles in the standings while the Rays dropped to four games back in third place.

The Yankees were able to get to Rays starter James Shields in the second inning.

Raul Ibanez opened the frame by drawing a walk and, one out later, Curtis Granderson timed a change-up and drove it deep into the bleachers in right-field for his 39th home run of the season.

Three pitches later, Eduardo Nunez smacked a high cutter into the stands in left-field to make it 3-0. Nunez, playing his third consecutive game for a hobbling Derek Jeter at shortstop, also had his season come full circle after being sent down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on May 11 and being recalled on Sept. 1. For Nunez it was his first home run of the season.

The Yankees added a run off Shields (14-9) in the fifth inning with two out. Ichiro Suzuki, batting leadoff for the Yankees for only the second time since he was acquired for the Mariners on May 23, singled to left and stole second base. Jeter then drove in Suzuki with hot smash up the middle.

The Rays were finally able to get to Nova in the bottom of the sixth inning when Evan Longoria was able to launch a two-out solo home run into right-center.

Nova, returning with a very strict pitch count, left in the seventh after giving up a leadoff single to Jeff Keppinger.

Manager Joe Girardi elected to bring in Boone Logan. Logan retired pinch-hitter Ben Francisco on botched bunt attempt in which Logan was able to throw out Keppinger at second. However, Ryan Roberts stroked a double down the left-field line to advance Francisco to third.

Joba Chamberlain replaced Logan and promptly retired pinch-hitter Sam Fuld on a hard-hit ball that Chamberlain snagged on a high bounce and threw out Fuld to save two runs. Nonetheless, Chamberlain was tagged for a two-out, two-run single by pinch-hitter Luke Scott to cut the Yankees’ lead to a single run.

Chamberlain was able to escape further damage by striking out Desmond Jennings on an 0-2 curveball.

David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and the Yankees added an insurance run in their half of the inning on a one-out double by Robinson Cano off lefty reliever Jake McGee and Alex Rodriguez followed with RBI single up the middle.

Rafael Soriano came on in the ninth and he pitched around a Francisco single and walk to Carlos Pena to strike out pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson swinging for his 39th save in 42 opportunities this season.

With the victory the Yankees ran their season record to 82-63. The Rays are 78-67 and are finding their hopes of winning the division looking very bleak.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Though Nova refused to blame his weak second-half performance on his shoulder injury, it was obvious that something was definitely wrong with him. But 23 days of rest brought back Nova’s velocity and command of the strike zone. The Rays also might have had something to do with it. Nova is 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA in his eight career starts against the Rays.
  • Granderson is getting his home-run stroke back after a long slide at the plate. Gramderson has hit five home runs in his past six games. He is 7-for-22 (.318) with five home runs and 11 RBIs in that six-game span. After being benched for a few games against left-handers, it appears Granderson is starting to get hot again.
  • Rodriguez was 2-for-4 with a big RBI in the eighth inning. Since coming off the disabled list, Rodriguez is 14-for-47 (.298) with three home runs and nine RBIs. Only five of his 14 hits have been for extra bases but A-Rod appears to concentrating on making contact and hitting the ball where it is pitched rather then swinging for the fences.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The bullpen was a little leaky on Saturday. Chamberlain had been pitching much sharper of late but he was victimized by Scott’s single that allowed two inherited runners to score. Though Soriano and Roberston have had good seasons in the wake of the loss of future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, the rest of the bullpen has been a bit more inconsistent in the second half. They need to get better with the playoffs looming.
  • Eric Chavez was 0-for-3 in the game and he suddenly has fallen into a prolonged slump. Since Aug. 19, Chavez is 10-for-51 (.196) with no home runs and two RBIs. His season average has dropped from .305 t0 .283 in that span.

BOMBER BANTER

Girardi said using Suzuki in the leadoff spot had to do with Suzuki’s success against Shields and was not something that will be happen frequently. Suzuki entered the game 14-for-46 (.307) against Shields. The move paid dividends because Suzuki was 1-for-3 off Shields with a stolen base and a run scored.  . . .  If his rehab continues without any setbacks, outfielder Brett Gardner could be activated from the disabled list next week. Gardner has only played in nine games this season and his return was delayed by surgery on his right elbow in July. Gardner is not able to swing a bat but he could be used as a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement in the outfield.

ON DECK

The Yankees can win the series against the Rays with a victory in the rubber game on Sunday.

In their final regular-season meeting with Rays the Yankees will send Hiroki Kuroda (13-10, 3.17 ERA) to the mound. Kuroda gave up three runs in 6 1/3 innings in a no-decision the Yankees lost to the Red Sox on Tuesday. Kuroda is 1-1 with a 6.17 ERA against the Rays.

The Rays will counter with rookie left-hander Matt Moore (10-10, 3.68 ERA). Moore gave up two runs in four innings in his last start against the Orioles. He is 2-1 with a 3.44 ERA against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.

 

‘Little-Ball Yanks’ Use 2-Run Error To Deflect Rays

GAME 136

YANKEES 6, RAYS 4

When things are going bad on the field and nothing seems to help, baseball teams sometimes revert to one tried-and-true method to get back on track: A closed-door team meeting. The New York Yankees held one two hours before the game on Wednesday and it maybe turned their fortunes around.

The Yankees benefitted from a seventh-inning throwing error by Elliot Johnson to score two runs as New York downed Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 16,711 at Tropicana Field to reclaim sole possession of first place in the American League East.

After a slide that eroded a 10-game lead on the second-place Baltimore Orioles on July 18 to a tie going into Wednesday’s game, the players and coaches held a 20-minute meeting in the visitors’ clubhouse to stress what Alex Rodriguez suggested as “doing the little things” the rest of season instead of trying to hit home runs all the time. They then put the new credo into practice and it appeared to work.

With the game tied 4-4 in the seventh, Andruw Jones and Steve Pearce opened the inning with back-to-back singles off Rays left-hander Matt Moore. Manager Joe Girardi then put the team’s new motto into action by having Jayson Nix drop down a sacrifice bunt to advance both runners.

Rays manager Joe Maddon then removed Moore in favor of former Yankee fan punching bag and reliever Kyle Farnsworth.

Derek Jeter slapped a high-hop bouncer into a drawn-in infield and second baseman Johnson fielded it and fired to home plate to nip pinch-runner Ichiro Suzuki. However, Johnson’s throw was high and up the third-base line and eluded catcher Jose Lobaton. Suzuki scored and Pearce also was able to score as the ball caromed along the fence in front of the Yankees’ dugout.

The bullpen trio of Boone Logan, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano blanked the Rays over the final three innings to preserve the victory for starter Hiroki Kuroda (13-10). Kuroda gave up four runs – including a solo home run by Luke Scott in the sixth that re-tied the game – on eight hits and two walks and he struck out three batters.

Soriano hurled a perfect ninth to record his 36th save in 39 chances this season.

The Yankees awoke from their hitting doldrums, which saw them limited to six hits or less in their previous five games, as they trailed 1-0 in the fourth inning against Moore (10-9).

Jeter opened the frame with a bloop single that Johnson actually had in his glove but dropped in shallow center-field. One out later, Robinson Cano drew a walk. Rodriguez then followed with an RBI double down the left-field line to score Jeter and advance Cano to third.

Russell Martin then stroked an opposite-field, ground-rule double to score Cano and Rodriguez.

However, Kuroda could not hold the lead. In the fifth, Sam Fuld drew a two-out walk, Desmond Jennings singled and Ben Zobrist smacked a two-run triple.

Martin regained the lead for Kuroda and the Yankees with a two-out home run, his 15th of the season and with the hit he also raised his season batting average over the “Mendoza line” at .202.

Moore ended up surrendering six runs (four earned) on eight hits and one walk while he fanned nine.

The victory, combined with the Orioles’ 6-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, allowed the Yankees to reclaim first place in the division to themselves, a position they had held for 84 consecutive days until Tuesday. The Yankees’ season record is now 77-59. With the loss, the Rays drop 2 1/2 games back in third place.  They are 75-62.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • They finally won a game. Shall we have a ticker-tape parade for them on Thursday?
  • Martin, batting fifth behind Rodriguez despite his low batting average, came up with a clutch double and home run and drove in three runs. This season has been very disappointing for the 29-year-old catcher and his contract expires at the end of the season. It is about time he starts contributing to the offense.
  • Jeter continues his amazing resurgence at the plate. He was 3-for-5 to raise his season average to .319. He also tossed in a clutch running catch of a two-out flare to shallow left off the bat of Matt Joyce that stranded two runners and perhaps saved the game.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Kuroda somehow was unable to pitch as well as he had been pitching for the Yankees. He came in having lost his last two games because he gave up three runs early and the Yankees’ offense could not get back into the game. This time, the Yankees handed him two leads and he handed them right back. The Yankees need Kuroda to pitch great down the stretch to have a chance to win the division.
  • Nick Swisher was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and it appears his recent hot streak has come to an end. He was 0-for-11 in the three-game series with the Rays and he struck out seven times. Perhaps he needs to take to heart the Rodriguez mantra and not try to do too much.
  • Curtis Granderson was also 0-for-4 and 0-for-8 in the series. Granderson, all of a sudden, has become virtually useless at the plate. He is 3-for-31 with 10 strikeouts in his last 10 games. His season average has dipped to .231 and it is sinking fast. Granderson seems to have reverted back to his early 2010 form before hitting coach Kevin Long restructured his swing.

BOMBER BANTER

Left-handed pitcher Andy Pettitte threw a short simulated game to hitters at Tropicana Field on Wednesday to get a step closer to rejoining the team. Pettitte threw 15 pitches off a mound in his rehab from a fractured left ankle. However, there is no firm date for his return. Pettitte is scheduled for another throwing session in Baltimore this weekend.

ON DECK

The Yankees open an important four-game series with the Orioles in Baltimore on Thursday.

Rookie David Phelps (3-4, 3.13 ERA) will open the series for the Yankees. Phelps allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Orioles in his last start. Despite the fact that Phelps had absolutely no command of any of his pitches, he still limited the O’s to three hits and the Yankees won the game. He is 1-0 with a 2.79 ERA against the Orioles this season.

Right-hander Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.54 ERA) will come off the disabled list to pitch. Hammel has not made a start since July 13 because he had surgery on his right knee. His pitch count will be limited in this game, Hammel is 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

2012 Rays Will Go As Far As Starters Take Them

As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.

PART 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS

Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.

Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.

What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?

STARTERS

It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.

Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.

The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.

Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.

The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.

Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.

One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.

Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.

BULLPEN

The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.

They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.

Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.

So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.

The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.

The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.

The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.

There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.

That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.

STARTING LINEUP

The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.

The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.

The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.

The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.

The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.

Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.

The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.

Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.

The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.

Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.

To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.

BENCH

Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.

Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.

For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.

Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.

This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.

ANALYSIS

The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.

How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.

So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.

They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.

As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.

But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.

ON THURSDAY – PART 4  BOSTON RED SOX