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Rays

Escobar, Loney thriving in looser setting

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Published:   |   Updated: July 19, 2013 at 08:12 AM

TORONTO - The jump-shot motion Yunel Escobar makes after a big defensive play is just the type of shenanigans his detractors talked about in December when the Rays traded for the highly skilled yet highly unpredictable shortstop.

Escobar has played for managers who wouldn't stand for that type of showboating. He has had teammates who would shake their heads at the move.

In Tampa Bay, well ...

"I love it," David Price said. "He is a kid at heart. . He's one of my favorite teammates of all time."

James Loney, who usually catches the throw that finishes the play that has Escobar going all LeBron James in the middle of the infield, is another head-scratching case.

That he couldn't hit and certainly couldn't hit for power were two of the reasons many thought the Rays shortchanged themselves when they signed Loney to a one-year, $2 million contract on the first day of the Baseball Winter Meetings.

And yet .

"I was talking to Joe Maddon before I signed here and I said, 'You're going to absolutely love James Loney.' His defense and then what he's bringing right now (offensively), he's a huge, huge piece of our team," said Jamey Wright, a teammate of Loney's last season with the Dodgers.

The Rays, who open the second half of the season tonight against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, are in second place in the American League East and atop the wild-card standings. They couldn't have reached that position without Escobar and Loney, two players who arrived with baggage and questions marks and have performed in a manner that makes Rays fans wonder what all the fuss was about.

Players seem to resurrect their careers or reach their potential while playing for Maddon.

Wright, also a newcomer to the Rays this year, described the atmosphere around the team as "Christmas Day every day."

"They have been a huge part of our success this year," Ben Zobrist said. "I think the personalities they bring to the club help balance things out, too. James is low-key, consistent, just a kind of chill personality, and you need that. And you also need the opposite, which is Yuni. He's excited all the time. He's a passionate player."

Joe Torre, Loney's manager with the Dodgers, said in December that Loney has the potential to be an offensive threat, but Torre was always waiting for it to show up.

It appears Loney's talents have arrived.

"It's just a good atmosphere that we have," Loney said.

Loney is batting .315, tied with Baltimore's Chris Davis for the best average among AL first basemen. He has nine home runs, tied for 13th among AL first basemen but just six shy of his career high.

"If you pound it in to him to hit home runs, hit home runs, he's going to hit less and play less," Maddon said. "If you pound it into him to go out there and play, not worry about results and just be a baseball player, you're going to be rewarded with a lot more."

The same can be said for Escobar, who is tied with Boston's Stephen Drew and Detroit's Jhonny Peralta for the best fielding average among American League shortstops at .989.

Ask him to be the Stepford Shortstop and you're going to have trouble. Let him be himself and you're going to get Gold Glove defense, a productive bottom-of-the-order bat and, yes, a little hot dog.

"A lot of the transgressions that were held against him would never have been transgressions here," Maddon said. "The things that people have gotten upset with, I would say 95 percent, maybe 98 percent, would not have been a problem here as much as they were somewhere else."

Of course, writing gay slurs on his eye-black, which Escobar did last year with the Blue Jays, would have landed him in trouble in Tampa Bay, as well, Maddon said. But Maddon said he believes Escobar never would have made it to the field with those words written on his eye-black if he were a Ray.

Still, the incident only added to Escobar's reputation as a bad teammate, a reputation that never had legs inside the Rays clubhouse.

"I think more than any other team we're judgment-free," Sam Fuld said. "We were just eager to see what he was like as a person and as a ballplayer. First impressions can be deceiving, and the impressions that some of us may have gotten in the past may have been deceiving, because he's been awesome. It's really cool to see just how comfortable he feels and how much fun he's having and the energy he provides us on a daily basis. I think he's really thrived in this situation."

Escobar has said many times this season that he appreciates how Maddon lets him be himself.

When Sean Rodriguez asked Escobar early in spring training how he liked being a Ray, Escobar told Rodriguez that he never had so much fun playing baseball.

"Those two guys have been huge additions," Fuld said. "It takes a really good player to be an actually everyday player, especially here, and I think James earned his role as an everyday player early on. And Yunel's defense, it's not by accident. He's out there working on it every day. I think that goes a little underrated, his work ethic. Both of them, it's not an accident they're doing so well."

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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