Rays Close Out Difficult Road Trip

The Tampa Bay Rays will look to close out their nine-game road trip with a win this afternoon against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim. After a convincing win in the series opener, Tampa Bay struggled to score runs in a 6-1 loss on Tuesday night.

The Tampa Bay Rays will look to close out their nine-game road trip with a win this afternoon against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim. After a convincing win in the series opener, Tampa Bay struggled to score runs in a 6-1 loss on Tuesday night.

The Rays, in fact, could not muster up anything off of Los Angeles starter Jered Weaver, who scattered four hits in eight strong innings. Weaver improved to 6-6 on the year with the win, lowering his ERA to 4.45. It was the first time in his young career that he got to face Evan Longoria, who, like Weaver, played his college baseball at Long Beach State University. With head coach Mike Weathers watching on, the Big West baseball powerhouse was well represented at Angel Stadium, as it was Longoria who offered one of the few bright spots on the nigh for Tampa Bay. The Rays' rookie third baseman, who went 3-for-4 with two home runs in the first game in Anaheim, collected two doubles in three at-bats, raising his batting average to .262. With his pair of extra-base hits, he now has 14 doubles on the season.

Weaver's only other blemish on the night, though, was the solo home run he surrendered to Gabe Gross, his fifth of the year. Gross had that game-winning blast a few weeks back, and although he is primarily known for his defense, is starting to see the ball a little bit better at the plate. The 28-year-old outfielder has a line of .233/.333./ .414, for a .747 OPS in a limited role but has played excellent defense in right field and has a strong throwing arm. He is a great defensive replacement late in games, but provided one of the few offensive highlights off of Weaver in the loss.

Weaver has now won his last two starts, a good sign for him, as he has definitely had his fair share of struggles this spring. Opponents are batting .267 of of him, and have a .703 OPS against him as well. The Angles right-hander has an ERA plus of 94, meaning that, all things considered, he has been a below-average pitcher this season. ERA+ is the statistical tool which adjusts a pitcher's ERA according to the pitcher's ballpark and the ERA of the pitcher's league. If a pitcher has a mark at 100, then they are exactly league average.

Thus, Weaver is not exactly off to an excellent start. Just a few seasons back, he was a savior in the Angels' rotation as a rookie in 2006, posting an 11-2 record, 1.03 WHIP, 2.56 ERA and 178 ERA+ in 19 starts, only two years after the club made him the 12th pick of the 2004 draft. He graduated to the majors quickly, considering he was a difficult sign. This year, though, has been a different story for the younger brother of Jeff Weaver. He has struggled with his command at times, but—judging by how effective he was against the Rays last night—perhaps he is turning the corner for what could turn into the game's most dominant pitching staff.

B.J. Upton was the only other Tampa Bay player to collect a hit, as Scott Shields came on in the ninth to preserve Weaver's lead, striking out two in a no-hit frame in a combined four-hitter. Vladimir Guerrero led the way at the plate for the Angels, going 2-for-4 with a two-run home run off of Tampa Bay right-hander James Shields. In front front of his family and friends, Shields threw all nine innings only to suffer the loss, also surrendering a two-run home run to Los Angeles left fielder Garret Anderson. Scoring six runs off of one of the better starters in the league is a good sign for Los Angeles, which has relied on its excellent starting pitching to push itself into first place in the American League West. The club needs for Guerrero to start hitting, especially considering he appears to be on the decline. Perhaps the wear and tear of the game has taken a toll on his body, as he seems like different hitter this spring. (In Buster Olney's blog this morning, he features quotes from a few talent evaluators who feel that he is just not the same offensive weapon he has been in year's past…at least not right now.)

The Angels outfielder is batting .268/.332/ .460, and that slugging percentage is more than 100 points less than his career mark of .575. While his OPS of .792 is tied with Casey Kotchman for the club lead, it is not what the Angels are accustomed to, considering the monster hitter he has been for so long. Although two months is too small of a sample size to read to much into this, the Angels need him to turn into the "Vladdy" of old. If so, perhaps the Angels will run away with the division title. Guerrero's shot last night was his ninth of the season, brining him within one of catcher Mike Napoli, who has had a surprise start and leads the team with 10 homers.

Kotchman, a Seminole High School product, is quietly having a strong season in his own right, and leads his team in hitting while playing excellent defense at first base. He is one of the premier defenders—truly a solid glove man—at the first base position. Although he does not hit for the power normally associated with a corner infield spot, the former first-round pick has posted a solid line of .306/.351/.441.

Above all else, though, the main reason for the Angels' success—similar to the Rays'—is undoubtedly their excellent pitching. While Tampa Bay roughed up one of their better starters, Joe Saunders, on Monday night—with most of the damaging coming during an inning in which the Rays hit back-to-back-to-back homers for the first time in club history in a long frame for the Angels left-hander—the team has one of the majors' strongest rotations. One of the staff leaders has been Saunders. He did, however, turn in one of his worst outings of the year in the loss by allowing eight earned runs on nine hits, throwing just above half of his pitchers for strikes, as his ERA jumped to 3.32 in only his third defeat of the season. Regardless, he has been a nice surprise, and although he is bound to regress dramatically in the second half—as seen on Monday in the Rays' 13-4 rout—to this point he has been of the American League's most consistent starters.

Saunders ranks second in the league in wins, ninth in ERA, fifth in winning percentage, 11th in innings pitches, and eighth in WHIP, despite the shellacking he endured earlier this week. His 1.87 K/BB ratio though, a high batting average on balls in play and the fact he is averaging less than five strikeouts per nine all point towards regression, meaning that some struggles lie ahead for the former Virginia Tech star and his 125 ERA+.

Ervin Santana has been even better. After a dismal campaign in 2007, he is pitching as well as anyone in baseball, having posted an 8-2 mark and 1.03 WHIP in 89.2 innings pitched. Jon Garland has been decent, also, but just a tick above average with an ERA+ of 108. Although his 30-to-30 k/b ratio is concerning, Garland, who Los Angeles acquired from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for shortstop Orlando Cabrera, has been a relatively decent addition.

Plus, Los Angeles recently got a huge boost to its rotation in the form of ace John Lackey, who will take the hill for the series finale against Scott Kazmir and the Rays this afternoon. After missing most of the first two months of the year with injury, he is back and pitching effectively, collecting two wins in three decisions while registering a K/BB ratio of 25-to-6 in five starts since returning from the disabled list. Lackey, who had an excellent campaign in '07, is one of the game's most underrated pitchers. He posted a 19-9 win loss record a year ago, with a 3.01 ERA, and 179 Ks while garnering some attention in the league's Cy Young voting.

Lackey has been outstanding in his career against the Rays, posting a 8-1 lifetime record and 2.35 ERA against the club in 10 starts. He will have his work cut out for him today, however, as the Angels' offense should struggle to score runs off of Kazmir, who has been a force in his last six starts. Runs should be scarce this afternoon in a contest set to begin at 3:05 Eastern Time.

The Angels, with a rotation consisting of Lackey, Santana, Garland and Weaver—and despite the absence of one of their better starters in '07, Kelvin Escobar— have the best record in the American League, 40-26. Tampa Bay swept the West leaders at Tropicana Field, where they are markedly better than on the road—but who isn't?—earlier in the season. However, a series victory against a team that has owned Tampa Bay in Anaheim—in fact, Joe Maddon has a 1-9 record on the road against his former club, for whom he served as the bench coach when they won the 2002 World Series—would be huge for Tampa Bay.

This afternoon, Kazmir and company will look to improve the Rays' record to 4-5 on what has been a difficult road trip, which began with the demoralizing three-game sweep in an eventful series in Boston. Despite the challenging trip across the country, Tampa Bay is still 38-27, leading the Wild Card. The club is also just one game back of the American League East-leading Red Sox, who lost to the Baltimore Orioles last night.

With Kazmir on the hill, the Rays always have a strong chance to pull out a win. There was an interesting piece on the Rays ace left-hander in the Tampa Tribune this morning, in which Rays beat writer Marc Lancaster discusses how Kazmir was not allowed to work on his slider while he was recovering from the elbow injury he sustained in spring training and forced him to miss all of April. He has been relying more on the pitch in '08, and has been lights out ever since his first outing of the year, where he was roughed up in a loss to Boston at Fenway Park. Since then, Kazmir has been absolutely dominant on the hill, posting a ridiculous ERA+ of 298 through all of his seven outings—which really is insane. Overall, after stringing together a streak of six consecutive winning decisions, he is 6-1 and has a 1.40 ERA—compared to the league average of 4.17, the reason for the inflated ERA+ number—and has a sub 1.00 WHIP of .911. To say the least, he has anchored the Tampa Bay rotation the past few weeks. Equally impressive is his 44-to-13 K/B ratio, opponents' average against of .179 (and OPS of .501).

Granted, seven starts is a small sample size to get worked up about. Since the All-Star break in 2007, however, Kazmir has been one of the—if not the— best pitchers pitcher in all of baseball. The numbers do not lie. After the break last season, he went 8-3 with a league-best 124 strikeouts and a nifty 2.39 ERA in 94.1 innings pitched, resurrecting what started off as a disappointing year. He eventually led the league in strikeouts as well, and is 14-4 since the midpoint of the '07 season. He enters today's start coming off a strong outing in Texas, where he stopped the Rays' three-game losing streak by scattering two earned runs in eight strong innings. He struck out six, getting 11 ground ball outs to improve his record to 6-1 while helping the Rays to a much-needed victory. The win set the stage for another series win against a tough Texas Rangers ball club, who are being led by two of the league's hottest hitters, Milton Bradley and former number one overall pick Josh Hamilton.

The road trip is finally nearing its end, but the schedule does not get any easier for the Rays this weekend. The club welcomes its in-state rival, the Florida Marlins, for a three-game series in St. Petersburg.

Note: Through Wednesday, the Rays have the third-highest defensive efficiency rating--the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs--in Major League Baseball. Only the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, whose excellent defense and above-average starting pitching have kept Billy Beane's team in contention, have better marks.

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To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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