Q & A with Rays Beat Writer Joe Smith

Fenway West interviewed Joe Smith of the St. Petersburg Times to get ready for the series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

FW: Do you think the Rays can make a run at the wild-card or possibly win the division?

Joe Smith: Yes, I think there’s a chance at both, but they’ve got to take advantage of games like this two-game series with the Red Sox. Making up five games will be tough if they don’t win the head-to-head matchups, because I don’t see the Red Sox, or Yankees, going on a big losing streak down the stretch. The Rays have a chance if they can get some consistency out of their starting pitching. Matt Garza and James Shields have been steady, and fifth starter Jeff Niemannn is a rookie of the year candidate with a staff-best 10 wins, but they’ve also been encouraged that LHP Scott Kazmir and David Price are coming off a strong outings, considering their early-season struggles. Starting pitching and defense is what got the Rays to the World Series last year. And improvements on both down the stretch will determine if they make the postseason again.

FW: Ben Zobrist is hitting .300 with 19 HRs on the year, not many thought he would produce at this level this early in his Major League career. Will he keep it up in the second half?

Joe Smith: I think he will. Zobrist has definitely surprised a lot of people, but it’s not necessarily a fluke. If you ask manager Joe Maddon, he’ll tell you that Zobrist has the best at-bats, day in and day out, of anyone on the Rays. Zobrist works so hard at it, and has done well making adjustments when pitchers have approached him differently. It’s amazing to think he might have not gotten this full-time spot at second base – maybe no All-Star selection – if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate injury to 2B Akinori Iwamura in May.

FW: Why didn’t the Rays make a big move at the deadline?

Joe Smith: Believe me, the Rays tried to make a move. They made some calls on Roy Halladay, Victor Martinez, as well as some potential under-the-radar moves. But they also have limited flexibility financially, with their payroll, so they had to be smart with what they did – because it would impact them the next few years. In reality, DH Pat Burrell was the equivalent of their deadline moves. He their biggest offseason acquisition, at two years, $16 million, but hasn’t produced like he has throughout his entire career. The Rays did sign RHP reliever Jeff Bennett, who was released by the Braves, but that was the extent of their moves. They feel confident the guys in the clubhouse now are capable of making a run.

FW: Do you think there is still bad blood between the Red Sox and Rays now that Crisp and Gomes are elsewhere?

Joe Smith: I don’t think there’s anything like that to speak of. There was a little last year, but with Crisp out of Boston, and it being a year since it all transpired, both teams are more focused on the task at hand – making the playoffs. There will always be a good rivalry between the two, considering they play 18 times a year, and especially if their meetings continue to mean something. But I don’t think there’s any bad blood, at least from what I can tell.

FW: What is your prediction for this short series with Boston?

Joe Smith: I’ve seen enough baseball games to know how difficult is to predict on individual matchups, but these should be two close games. There’s a great pitching matchup in Tuesday’s game with Matt Garza- Jon Lester, a rematch of Game 7 of the ALCS. The Red Sox have been swinging the bats well, but Garza always seems to be at his best when he faces Boston. Should be an interesting two games, that’s for sure.

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