Bottom line: Rays fall to Angels 6-3. Jeff Niemann is a mess. The Rays must decide what to do with their once rock-solid starter. If he’s hurt, fine. Put him on the disabled list and make room on the roster for young, live arms either in the rotation or bullpen (namely, Jeremy Hellickson and Jake McGee). If he’s not hurt, then figure out what the problem is mechanically. The guy can’t go from being highly effective prior to his stint on the DL to this train wreck for no reason, right? The sample size is too large from his time prior to his time on the DL with a shoulder issue. Did he just start sucking randomly? Whatever the cause for his late-season crash and burn, the Rays can not afford to continue to trot Niemann out there only to watch him get shelled and have to try to pull themselves out of a multi-run deficit every five days.
Nightly MVP: Kelly Shoppach, catcher. The veteran backstop dropped a game-tying bomb early on in the game to tie the score when it still looked like Niemann wasn’t going to be terrible. Shoppach is not a stud, but any means, but he is seeing a spike in his slash totals (batting average/on-base percentage/ slugging percentage/ on-base + slugging) this month in limited duties with a couple of dingers. The Rays never put together a serious threat after the Angels’ three-run fourth, but Shoppach gave them a jolt early.
Lowly LVP: Rocco Baldelli, designated hitter. It’s easy to place the blame of Sunday on Niemann, but this is a team game with a team result. Let’s move past the pitcher. Rocco, a fan and organizational favorite, hurt the Rays chances of two early rallies. In the first, Baldelli was the first of TWO Rays to strike out with the bases loaded against former Ray Scott Kazmir (Sean Rodriguez was the other). But what really solidified his spot for this dubious award was his second at-bat when Baldelli bounced into an inning-ending double play following a Carl Crawford single. It was a 1-1 game and Carl had done what Carl does, but Baldelli put the kibosh on any hope of a rally with the grounder to short. He was pinch-hit for in his next at-bat… whammy!
Turning Point: When light hitting Peter Bourjos (25 hits in 128 at-bats) strolled up to the plate with runners on first and second and two outs, it looked for all of the world that Niemann would be able to control the damage. He had a good matchup against a below-average hitter with out-potential all over the place. Whaa haa haaape, waaaz. Yeah, Bourjos tomahawked the Niemann offering over the left-field wall, plating three and effectively ending the game.
Message Sent: With a four-game set against the New York Yankees in the Bronx starting tonight, the Rays remain 0.5 games behind the Yankees in the AL East race. Make no mistake about it, winning the East is a huge deal. It means the difference between facing the Texas Rangers (a team below .550 on the road for the season) at the Trop or going on the road to take on the best team in baseball since the All-Star break, the Minnesota Twins. A lot can be decided regarding the Rays post-season positioning by performing well in Yankee Stadium over the next four games.
Up Next: A showdown in the Bronx with the first-place New York Yankees. Matt Garza (14-8, 3.88 ERA) vs. Ivan Nova (1-0, 4.30 ERA). Garza has been erratic at times this year, but he has also been dominant. Tonight would be a good time for him to show the latter. The Rays pounded Nova his last time out, scoring six runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings.