MLB Insider: Everyone's ponying up to get Rays on track

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2014 - 6:57 PM
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Tampa Bay’s slow start has been a head-scratcher to manager Joe Maddon, right. The death of longtime Maddon confidant Don Zimmer was the most recent blow to shake the team’s psyche.

Photo: Steve Nesius • Associated Press,

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There were “Zim-dogs,” smothered in chili, in the clubhouse. There was a stick pony to ride in the dugout. There was a new pair of glasses on the manager’s face.

It’s been a long, sad, frustrating week for the Tampa Bay Rays, and Joe Maddon, known as the freest spirit among major league managers, had to call upon every distraction and superstition he could think of to change the atmosphere around his surprising last-place team.

“When you win,” Maddon told reporters Friday, “it makes the world rotate better.”

The Rays’ world was thrown out of its rotation on Wednesday, when longtime coach and Maddon confidant Don Zimmer died at age 83. That his death came in the middle of what would become a 10-game losing streak made the Rays’ misery far worse.

“Zim was a great man, and there’s really no words to explain what he brought to us and what he meant to me,” All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria said. “It’s just been a rough go for us, and this kind of puts the icing on the cake, so to speak. ... It’s just a rough night for us.”

It’s been rough for a while. The Rays were projected by many around baseball to be a powerhouse this season (Full disclosure: I predicted they would be American League champions, especially when they chose not to trade Cy Young winner David Price during the offseason, giving them one of the youngest and deepest rotations in the game).

Instead, they lost lefthander Matt Moore to season-ending elbow surgery, they lost righthander Alex Cobb for six weeks to an oblique injury, and their 4.10 ERA among their starters ranks ninth in the AL. Tampa Bay somehow owned the worst record in baseball (24-38) entering Saturday, 14 games behind first-place Toronto in the AL East.

Their offense has been far worse — Tampa Bay has scored the fewest runs in the American League. After scoring 700 times last season, the Rays are on pace to barely reach 600 this year. Rookie of the Year Wil Myers has been terrible (.227 with five homers entering the weekend), Longoria’s in a power drought, and no Ray has hit more than six home runs. Tampa Bay is hitting just .236 with runners in scoring position.

“I don’t want to be Mr. Negative,” Maddon told mlb.com, “but we can’t keep leaving that many guys on base.”

Actually, Maddon remains Mr. Positive, as always, despite the franchise’s longest losing streak in four years, a skid that ended when Erik Bedard shut out Seattle on Friday. Afterward, the manager made it clear he believes the Rays can get back into the race.

“It’s a long season, and I’m looking forward to every day of it,” Maddon told reporters. “... I’m not concerned, because I know how good our guys are. We’re not back yet. This was one game. But we can build off that.”

Maddon is a master of keeping things light, of deflecting pressure from his players and keeping the six-month season from becoming a grind, and he was at his best on Friday. He wore a new pair of glasses, for one thing, changing his look in hopes of changing his luck.

He also arranged for the nearby Coney Island Grill to send 50 chili dogs to the team’s clubhouse before the game, a tribute to Zimmer, who often ate the snack before Rays games.

And he encouraged Longoria’s idea of having each Ray who scored a run ride the pony-stick toy in the dugout after crossing the plate.

Somehow, it all worked on Friday. But it’s going to take more than gimmicks and distractions to get Tampa Bay into the postseason for the fifth time in seven years.

Notes

Burdi wants in; Gardy asks why not

To some, it sounded like hubris when Louisville closer Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second-round draft pick, suggested that “if they decide to put me in the majors next year or this summer, it would be an honor.” To Ron Gardenhire, it sounded like a pretty good idea.

“I’m like, ‘Is he ready?’ ” the Twins manager said Saturday. “If he throws 103 [miles per hour], what’s he going to fix in the minor leagues? Bring him, we’ll take him right now.”

Well, the Twins will have to wait. Burdi, whose fastball has been clocked over 100 mph several times, will take part in the College World Series next week in Omaha.

Not the gnome he imagined

The Gardy Gnome souvenirs handed out to to fans at Saturday’s game aren’t exactly what Gardenhire had in mind.

When the idea was proposed over the winter, Gardenhire was shown a picture of other gnome giveaways, most of them looking like elves with a beard and elf hat. “I thought it was going to be the happy one,” he said. “I looked at it and said, sure, whatever.”

But creativity took over from there, and Saturday’s souvenirs look like an angry Santa — bald, with a long white beard, an angry look, shouting as he kicks a Twins elf hat.

“This one looks like he’s in one of those [Harry Potter] movies,” Gardenhire said.

Central Intelligence

While the Twins added shortstop Nick Gordon with their first pick on Thursday, their Central rivals were also loading up for the future. Here’s a look at the players who may be influencing the AL Central race within a few years:

Indians: Bradley Zimmer is the only collegiate player to be ranked among the top 50 in both stolen bases and slugging percentage, so the Indians couldn’t resist the University of San Francisco center fielder’s versatility with the 21st pick. He’s the brother of pitcher Kyle Zimmer, taken fifth overall by Kansas City two years ago.

Royals: Brandon Finnegan has hit 99 mph with his fastball, but the lefthander’s 5-11 frame caused many scouts to project him as a future closer. But Kansas City intends to keep the 17th overall pick a starter, as he was at TCU, where he posted a 2.07 ERA.

With the 28th pick, K.C. took another lefty, Foster Griffin of First Academy in Orlando.

Tigers: Derek Hill grew up modeling his game after Torii Hunter, so the Elk Grove (Calif.) outfielder was overjoyed to be joining his hero’s organization. The Tigers believe the 23rd overall pick, who batted .500 during his senior year with 29 stolen bases, more closely resembles the last prep outfielder they drafted in Round 1: Curtis Granderson.

White Sox: With Chris Sale already atop their rotation, the Sox tried to add another, choosing North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon with the third overall pick.

Tall and polished, Rodon has a fastball that can hit 97 mph and a “wipeout” slider, which helped him strike out 117 batters in 98 ⅔ innings for the Wolfpack. He should join Sale quickly.

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