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Tampa Bay Rays have surprisingly strong first half of the season

Things we learned during the first half of the Rays season:

The franchise is not dead yet, and the cycle is not over. Despite all the players who left town for great gobs of greenbacks, the Rays are nine games above .500 (47-38) and have the third-best record in the American League.

Just a guess here, but you probably didn't see that coming.

Me, neither.

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Andrew Friedman is a genius. I know this because it says so on his business card. Also, because a baseball executive replenishing his lineup after losing so many pieces in the offseason (and on a nickel-and-dime budget) is like a farmer putting the apples back on the tree.

And the next time I go shopping for a used car, it would be very nice if Friedman could go bargain hunting with me.

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Just asking: Which player would you rather have: Carlos Peña (hitting only .228 but with 17 home runs for the Cubs) or Casey Kotchman (hitting .338)? Oh, and with Kotchman, you save $9.250 million.

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You can think of Johnny Damon two ways. On one hand, he is 37. On the other, he is 12 years old for the 25th consecutive year.

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Does anyone still think the Rays got robbed in the Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce trade? I didn't think so.

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Catching? I'm in favor of it. I'd love to see the Rays with the next Johnny Bench. Heck, at this point, I'd like to see them with the old Johnny Bench. He's only 63, you know.

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Just asking: Who would you rather have on the mound? Matt Garza (4-7) or Jeremy Hellickson (8-7)? Oh, and with Hellickson, you save roughly $5.5 million.

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Manager Joe Maddon is a bright, well-rounded man who is respected across the nation for his baseball mind. So why does he appear to be at his most popular when he is swearing into the face of an umpire?

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The way I figure it, the top 10 ex-Rays from last year are making more than $65 million in salary this year alone from their new teams. What say we put the savings toward a new stadium?

Gotcha. In Tampa Bay, there is nothing that will start a loud argument more quickly than yelling "new stadium" in a crowded theater. On the list of America's most unpopular phrases, it's somewhere between "computer virus" and "Kardashian sisters."

Still, while we're on the subject, here's an idea. We agree to build a stadium, but only if it guarantees a retractable roof, a massive scoreboard and long-term contracts for David Price and Evan Longoria. Deal?

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Just asking: Which pitcher would you rather close out your games? Rafael Soriano, who had 21 saves by July 4 last year, or Kyle Farnsworth, who has 17 this year? Also consider: Farnsworth is making $7.4 million less than Soriano is with the Yankees.

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For the Rays, the most surprising performance — and the reason they've won — is the bullpen. The unit hasn't dominated like last year's pen, but those pitchers had combined for a 3.62 ERA entering Monday (3.18 this time last year), and they had given up 173 hits (174 last year). With this starting rotation, that's good enough to contend.

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Don't give Friedman all the credit for good trades for the Rays. After all, James Shields traded in last year's finish for this year's start, which might be the best swap in Rays history.

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ZZ Top called for Dave Martinez. The lead guitarist wants his beard back.

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The mystery continues with B.J. Upton. I'm not sure there ever has been a Tampa Bay athlete with a greater chasm between potential and production. Even now, his bosses rave about his ability and how much they like the guy, but for whatever reason, hitting success hasn't happened for Upton. With his salary, and with the trade deadline approaching, you cannot help but wonder whether it ever will.

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Just asking: Whom would you rather have in left? Carl Crawford (hitting .243 with only nine walks and eight steals) or the combination of Justin Ruggiano and Sam Fuld? Crawford, of course, until you factor in that $142 million contract he signed in Boston.

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Just think: If Manny Ramirez hadn't retired after testing positive (again), he'd be nearing the end of his 100-game suspension. Bet he'd be juiced at the thought.

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I still can't figure out why the Rays are so much better on the road (26-17) than at home (21-21). Do they like pillow mints that much?

Here's an idea: Next time they're at home, why not disguise the Trop to look like Boston or Houston or Anaheim?

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He remains one of the most versatile players in baseball, but lately, Ben Zobrist has been pretty much a second baseman. He has played only two positions all year. Just to keep him on his toes, however, he has batted in seven different spots in the lineup.

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Scott Kazmir. Whew.

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The difference between listening to Brian Anderson analyze a game and Kevin Kennedy? Anderson doesn't sound like Ben Stein taking attendance in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

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Not to say that Iowa shuts down to watch every time Hellickson pitches, but the next time he starts, I say we take Iowa and move it to the other side of Nebraska, just to see if anyone notices.

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Here's a question: If players won their spot by fan vote, the way the All-Stars do, who would be behind the plate for the Rays tonight? Kelly Shoppach? John Jaso? Or Durham's Jose Lobaton (hitting .305)?

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The best part about Kotchman's success is that he can see the highlights. Last year, when Kotchman hit .217 for Seattle, he had a blocked tear duct that affected his vision to the point that he compares it to looking through a dirty windshield.

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Just wondering, but has anyone checked Shoppach's tear ducts?

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For a pitcher, the most important thing is pitch location. For Joaquin Benoit, ex-Ray, that evidently does not mean "Detroit."

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At some point, don't the owners of the Yankees and Red Sox have to wonder what all that extra payroll is getting them?

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Ever wonder how different this season would be if Ramirez hadn't tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs one hit into his Rays career? It would be louder. It would be more controversial. At times, it might be funnier. Eventually, however, it would have ended badly. We just skipped all the big headlines along the way.

Don't be too angry at Ramirez, though. At least the Rays don't owe him $21 million, the way the Dodgers do.

• • •

Half a season down, and can the Rays keep it up? It depends on the starting pitching, because it always does, and the defense, because it always has. It also depends on Longoria's bat and J.P. Howell's arm.

Also, on the bullpen.

But you knew that already.







Tampa Bay Rays have surprisingly strong first half of the season 07/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 1:25am]

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