Joe Henderson Columns
Rays get a chance to build needed momentum
Late last season, people started referring to pitcher James Shields as "Big Game James." It's a cool nickname, to be sure, even if it is a little suspect. I mean, at that point the Tampa Bay Rays hadn't actually played in many big games, if you catch my drift. But Shields starts tonight against the Minnesota Twins, and I think this is as close to a "big game" as you can find on April 28. After Monday's 7-1 victory at the Metrodome, the Rays have a chance to win consecutive games for only the third time this season. Since beating the New York Yankees 15-5 on April 13, the Rays have lost nine of 13 and never followed up one victory with a second. Shields did his best last Thursday at Seattle to stop that foolishness, but the Rays didn't back him up and lost, 1-0. It has been that kind of season.I thought this team was absolutely flat over the weekend at Oakland, and that was after an 8-2 win Friday night. The Rays were dreadful for the last two games of that series, and that's one reason you can argue that tonight's game is the biggest of the season. The Rays have lost five consecutive series since opening the season by taking two of three at Boston. Winning tonight would not only stop that streak, it would give the Rays a chance to build much-needed momentum. That's right. I used the phrase "much-needed momentum," and it's still April. Take a look at the schedule. Things are about to heat up. Red Sox are coming Boston won its 11th consecutive game Monday, but considering the Rays' struggles, it's actually encouraging to only be 5½ games behind the Red Sox. The Rays will have a chance to tighten things up starting Thursday, when Boston hits Tropicana Field to start a four-game series. The series triggers a run of 13 consecutive games against the American League East, including seven against the Red Sox. That buzzing noise you hear in the background is the Rays' wake-up call. That takes us back to Minnesota and the final two games against the Twins. At some point, you figure the Rays will begin to play more consistently, and this would be an excellent place to start. You've watched this team. You know the frustrations that have marked this opening month. Starting pitching has been spotty (except for Jeff Niemann, who was strong once again Monday night). Hitting has been all over the place. Moving B.J. Upton to leadoff sounded good and likely will be eventually, but with a .160 batting average and .288 on base percentage, it doesn't look so hot right now. Catcher Dioner Navarro has struggled at the plate as well. The bullpen has sputtered at times, and all the clutch hits and plays that marked last season's magic run have been missing. Talent is there The length of a baseball season can seduce people to fall back on the word "eventually" - as in, things will turn around "eventually." In this case, though, I think this team needs a spark - soon. The talent is there for another postseason run, and normally, I believe talent will prevail eventually - especially over 162 games, when every wart and weakness on a team gets exposed. There has been something puzzling about this first month, though, It's perplexing. It's baseball. But it also needs to change Yes, it's early in the season. Given the frustrating inconsistency the Rays have shown, though, it's not that early.