The headline coming into the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays series was the return of Sweet Lou.
Lou Piniella returned to St. Petersburg after coaching the Rays for three seasons. Let's just say that during his short stint in Florida, Lou wasn’t given a fair chance. The team had owners who didn’t want to spend any money on bringing in talent that was worth anything.
Well, with new owners and a new squad of players, the Rays are looking to be the team that Lou wanted to have when he was there. They are young and flashy. They can play small ball, or, if needed, bomb it like the Yankees.
This team is for real—whether the experts and critics think so or not. The bullpen—after being dead last in every relevant statistic last year—has turned a 180, and the Rays are near the top of the league in ERA and Holds. This is the main reason the Rays will stay up and around the playoff race all season long.
Now, on to the Cubs and Rays on the field. The Rays took Game Two tonight, after winning the first game. The mind-boggling thing is they won by one run again.
Troy Percival has given all Rays fans a near-heart attack by twice making it close in the ninth inning. Game One was won on a web gem by rookie star Even Longoria and sub-in first basemen Willy Aybar. Game Two ended on a backwards K, with Percival striking out the Cubs' newest star, Kosuke Fukudome.
I don’t think the Cubs thought when they landed in St. Petersburg that the Rays would give them this much of a headache.
Even without slugger Carlos Pena, the Rays showed that no pitcher can scare them, and no team will come in their house and push them around. They got one of the NL’s best in Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano and beat him up.
Look, I know Pena is not hitting well this season and teams are striking him out like my five-year-old cousin in tee ball—but he’s still a bopper and commands respect.
Also the Rays are playing their best ball ever without the face of the team and the lone All-Star the last two seasons (Carl Crawford) hitting anything. He hasn’t gotten his bat going yet, and they are playing like a playoff team. When he is hitting like the first-round fantasy pick everyone made him this year—look out.
I had the pleasure of going to the first two Rays and Cubs games, and the atmosphere was like nothing ever seen before at the Trop. Every team a big-time team comes to town, like Boston or New York, their fans own the stadium.
Well, the games during this season against the Sox, Yanks, and Cubbies have been different. You’ll get the occasional “Let's go Yankees” chant, but nothing like before. The cheers are so loud for the Rays they finally drown out the other teams’ fans.
31,000 plus fans are unheard of at this point of the season as well. The Cubs series pulled those kind of numbers. With the Astros and BoSox coming to town next, I don’t see that stopping.
It’s great to see these changes, to see other teams than the norm winning all the time. Everyone loves the underdogs, and the Tampa Bay Rays are playing that role to a tee this great MLB season.
P.S. Wait until David Price comes up and gets to show the world how great he is—and is going to be, for a very long time.