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Monday, Jan 26, 2015

Tampa Bay Rays’ Escobar at ease as he finds his way


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We donít know if Yunel Escobar is a solution or a problem.

We donít know if he has found a home or the Rays have lost their senses.

Anyway, meet the new shortstop.

Is Escobar, acquired by trade with Miami, the man to energize the Rays infield? Or is he that that other guy _ the fool who late last season heartily earned a three-game suspension and a ticket out of Toronto for scribbling a homophobic slur in Spanish on his eye black for a Blue Jays game?

The Rays might get a steal, a game changer: big and rangy, a slick, flashy glove, a career .282 batter. Escobar has 720 hits as a shortstop since 2008. Only Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes have more.

The Rays might get a headache: someone who after last season was traded twice in two weeks, who makes great plays, then brain cramps on an occasional easy one, or sometimes doesnít run hard, who has played for Atlanta and Toronto, and when he left, as a piping hot potato, there wasnít exactly universal weeping in the clubhouses.

ďIím happy to be here,Ē Escobar said as Rays reliever Joel Peralta translated. ďIím really comfortable. A lot of guys have made me feel that way. Iím going to play and work hard. Iím going to be the best teammate I can. A lot of people have misjudged me, think bad things about me, but Iím going to be here and try to win games.Ē

Heís 30, and if he canít make a fresh start under Joe Maddon, he might not get many more chances.

Yes, the Rays are taking a chance, but then this franchise is always looking to turn something negative into something positive. For one thing, itís cheaper that way. Wasnít Fernando Rodney seen as disgruntled with the Angels before he became Robin Hood? The Rays have had successes, but also failures, to their detriment.

Their take is that Escobarís eye black idiocy was an isolated incident. Their belief is that their culture and chemistry, easy going, fewer rules, the Ray Way, will help reel him in.

Rays catcher Jose Molina played with Escobar in Toronto.

ďHeís a guy who cares about his teammates, no matter what people think of him right now,Ē Molina said. ďI like having him on my team. Yes, you have to push him sometimes, but who doesnít need that? The talent is there to be one of the best shortstops in the game. People judge him, the bad stuff, but itís small stuff. They donít know him.Ē

New Rays infielder Kelly Johnson played with Escobar in Atlanta and Toronto.

ďHis issue is completely motivation and focus when things arenít going well,Ē Johnson said. ďAs long as heís doing well, heís usually pretty happy and does everything you need. The problem is if heís in a slump. It carries onto defense, then he doesnít run one out, and there was what happened (last year).Ē

Maddon and his staff are enthralled with Escobarís work ethic, his methodical preparation _ and his style, ďchrome to his game,Ē as Maddon put it. He sees a possible All Star and Gold Glove winner.

ďYou think about him and Longo on the left side Ö that gets rather interesting,Ē Maddon said.

The new shortstop admits that he has lapses.

ďSometimes, my concentration, itís a big part of it,Ē Escobar said.

Kelly Johnson used last seasonís incident in Boston to make a point Ö in Escobarís defense.

ďHe wrote it on (his eye black) and we said ĎHey, you probably donít want to do that,í but he did it anyway. But heís not some defiant, crazy guy. Heís not. Heís happy. He loves baseball. He works harder than anybody else. His issue, the only one, is maturity and focus.Ē

Yunel Escobar smiled and shook a reporterís hand to end a short interview.

ďThank you,Ē he said.

And away we go.

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