D'Backs Look to Leave Fish Floundering

(photo courtesy AP)

Once upon a time a series with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays was a walk in the park. But the suddenly hot D'Rays have won eight in a row and are looking to extend the streak against Randy and the Baby Backs. Managing Editor James Renwick sees the Snakes taking a big bite out of the fish and gaining ground as the Dodgers get Yanked.

Isn't this just our luck?

When the Diamondbacks looked at the interleague schedule before the season the conversations went something like this.

"Gotta go out East, Baltimore got Javy and Ponson. Toronto's always tough with Delgado and Halladay. Damn, then we get the Yankees. Well, at least Tampa Bay is after that."

Oops.

The Devil Rays come to town the hottest team in baseball. Winners of eight straight and in 3rd place in the AL East they own the franchises best record this late in the season. Admittedly that record is a still below .500 29-34, but there isn't any way to sugarcoat it. The D'Rays are hot.

It won't help the D'Backs much that both John Halama and Mark Henrickson, Tampa's two lefty starters, will be pitching games one and three. The Backs bats have struggled against lefties, no one more noticeably than Steve Finley. The veteran center fielder is having a tremendous season, but his .294 average dips to just .210 when facing southpaws. In fact with the notable exceptions of Shea Hillenbrand (.333 with four homers) and Danny Bautista (.338 but no ring ding dongs) none of the regular Diamondback starters have had much success off left handers this season.

But then again, who really are the ‘regular Diamondback starters?'

Don't expect clear cut answers to that question this weekend when the D'Backs take on the D'Rays at Bank One. Manager Bob Brenley figures to mix and match his lineups all weekend. One player you can figure seeing a lot of time is recently called up catcher Juan Brito. Robbie Hammock's knee is still obviously bothering him, and his offensive production has shown it (he's hitting just .226 on the season). Don't bet on Hammock sitting the whole series, but don't be surprised if his name gets penciled in for Gonzo against one of the lefties out in left.

Game one follows a distinct pattern the D'Backs have seemed to follow. When Randy starts, tough lefties start against him. Halama was a bust in Seattle, and the Devil Rays really had no reason to believe he would live up to the promise he showed in the Mariners' farm system, but by golly if he hasn't. Just 2-1 on the season, Halama will make his first start of the season against the Diamondbacks. When he has his command he is a groundball pitcher who induces the double play, and he's had his command this year (just 9 walks in 29 and a third innings). With their southpaw struggles the Diamondbacks might be the perfect team to give Halama his first start against, and D'Rays Manager Lou Pinella knows it.

Not that the Diamondbacks are worried. Randy Johnson has won his last three starts and is 9-4 with a 2.77ERA on the season. The Big Unit has been stellar, but one minor cause for concern could be Johnson's tendency to run out of gas around the fifth. He's averaging just six innings per start over the last three, and with a bullpen that needs rest, the D'Backs would love to see Randy cut down the number of pitches and get them deeper into the game.

Game two features two youngsters making only their second starts of the season. After a less than stellar outing last week against Toronto, Andrew Good returns to the mound and faces off against Dewon Brazelton. Brazelton took a no decision in his first start of the year, but carries just a 1.54 ERA into game two of the series. Meanwhile the white hot D'Ray bats will be licking their chops against Good.

As a team the Devil Rays are hitting an astronomical .302 over the last week led by potential All Star, and potential trade bait, Carl Crawford. Crawford is a superb lead off hitter in the Ricky Henderson model, combining power and speed to be an all around threat. Over the last seven days Crawford is hitting .445 with eight runs scored, five RBI, and four stolen bases. The pride of Rhode Island Rocco Baldelli has struggled a bit this year but also seems to be coming around, hitting .375 over the last week. Even slumping Aubrey Huff is getting it done offensively. While this past week's .231 average is below his season mark of .268, he has still managed to score six and drive in six during that time.

Game three pits Brandon Webb against Mark Henrickson, and this is the game with the most question marks for the D'Backs. Webb seems to have returned to the form he showed last year with a 2.81 ERA in his last three starts, but Henrickson, who carries a 4-5 record, has been even better, going at least seven innings in all of his last three starts and riding a minuscule 1.66 ERA into Sunday's rubber match. Advantage left hander, as Brenley will likely rest Chad Tracy and possibly even give Finley a day off.

For the Diamondbacks this series is an important one. A great outing from Steve Sparks helped the D'Backs avoid being swept by the Yankees, and they still carry a 5-4 interleague record into this weekend against the Devil Rays. With the Dodgers getting the Yanks this weekend a sweep would do wonders for the Diamondbacks, and two of three should help them pick up a little ground. But buyer beware, if the D'Backs lose this series it becomes less and less likely the team will try to add players in trades, and more and more likely they'll try to unload salary in return for prospects.

Those red hot D'Ray bats should get cooled off some by Johnson, and just that little momentum switch should help the Diamondbacks to their first sweep since…I dunno, the beginning of time? Watch for Good to get knocked out early on Saturday, but the bullpen (rested after the Unit goes eight innings on Friday) to step up and hold Tampa at bay until the Diamondbacks bats can do some damage. In the finale the youngsters (Olson and Green in particular) will come through, bringing the high flying Henrickson down to earth, and the resulting blowout will sound the sirens that this season isn't over, and the D'Backs aren't done.

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