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Rays need more than pitching and defense to reach mountaintop

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Published:   |   Updated: April 1, 2013 at 05:27 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

In the middle of a Grapefruit League game, in the middle of the Grapefruit League season, Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney came to bat with the bases loaded and one out and his team trailing the Toronto Blue Jays by a run.

It was a perfect spot for the Rays’ new first baseman to deliver a game-changing hit, to drive a ball into one of the gaps and score a couple of runs, maybe clear the bases.

That’s one of the reasons the Rays signed Loney to a one-year deal in early December. In addition to Gold Glove-caliber defense, Loney is a contact hitter who doesn’t have much pop but does have the ability to drive in runs.

So Loney, with a chance to break the game open, was fooled by a pitch and hit a weak grounder to third base, too weak for Jays third baseman Eugenio Velez to make a play anywhere, not at home plate and not at one of the bases.

Loney was safe with an infield single that drove in the tying run.

In his corner of the dugout, Rays manager Joe Maddon clapped.

Why? Because the Rays scored a run. Because Loney didn’t strike out. Because Loney was batting with a runner at third and less than two outs and found a way to put the ball in play and had a productive at-bat.

The Rays are about to embark on the 2013 season, and as usual, high expectations surround the team that is built on pitching and defense.

The offense, of course, will be a factor. But unlike in 2012, when injuries and poor seasons at the plate helped undermine a sensational pitching staff, the Rays expect the 2013 offense to be a deciding factor in a good way.

Loney’s mid-March at-bat is a prime example.

“Our personnel is going to be a little different,” hitting coach Derek Shelton said. “We have some guys who are going to be a little more contact-oriented, and I think that’s going to help in a big way.”

Gone are first baseman Carlos Peņa and center fielder B.J. Upton, a pair of power sources with plenty of swings and misses.

In their place are Loney, shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson.

Johnson is the high-strikeout bat of the three. But Loney and Escobar are known for putting the ball in play.

“I think there’s more contact,” Maddon said. “You argue contact versus power, we may be, theoretically, missing some power, but I think there’s more power to be had among guys who didn’t hit for their normal power last year.”

The Rays batted .240 last season, the lowest team batting average in franchise history. It was also 12th among the 14 American League teams in 2012. Their 1,323 strikeouts were the second-most in the league. Their 697 runs were more than only three other teams.

A big part of the offensive woes were tied to the left hamstring of third baseman Evan Longoria.

The bats were humming through the first month of the season. Then Longoria partially tore the hamstring April 30 and the offense struggled over the next 85 games.

“I think the biggest thing is the more Longo is in it, the more consistent our lineup is,” Shelton said. “And it’s not just him being in it, it’s where everyone else goes, and also the threat of the lineup coming back to him. You always have to watch where his spot is in the order. It’s obvious we were a different lineup last year with him in it than with him out.”

The Rays were 20 games above .500 with Longoria in the lineup and three games under .500 without him.

Besides Longoria’s health, a big key to the Rays success this year will be designated hitter Luke Scott, whose production in 2012 was impeded by the season-ending right shoulder surgery he had in August 2011. Scott will start the season on the disabled list, but the Rays are hopeful he won’t miss much time.

“A healthy Luke Scott changes this lineup,” Shelton said.

So will a more productive Desmond Jennings, a more productive Matt Joyce and another steady season from Ben Zobrist.

“The way Desmond played this spring definitely changes things,” Shelton said.

The additions of Escobar, Loney and Johnson weren’t as ground-shaking as the trade that sent James Shields and Wade Davis, a pair of pitchers, to the Kansas City Royals for a quartet of prospects, including outfielder Wil Myers, the 2012 consensus minor league player of the year. But those additions were made in an effort to add more contact hitters to the lineup.

“As much as we liked Carlos Peņa, he struck out a lot,” Longoria said. “We may be able to put the ball in play a lot. Does that make us a better team? Not necessarily. But in those situations where we do need to put the ball in play and we were not getting those strikeouts, it can make us a better team.”

The Rays batted .340 last season with 49 strikeouts in 327 plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two outs. Escobar hit .364 in the same situation while striking out once in 29 plate appearances. Loney hit .444 and drove in 19 runs with just three strikeouts in 35 plate appearances.

“We should be able to put the ball in play more, which should put us in a situation, especially with runners in scoring position, we can make more contact and score runs with outs,” Shelton said.

The idea is to get the returning players to improve their at-bats with runners in scoring position. Actually, the idea is to get them to improve all of their at-bats.

The Rays, despite all the strikeouts last season, managed to lead the American League with 571 walks. Their on-base percentage, though, was a middle of the pack .371.

The Rays were also eighth in the league with 175 home runs, though 116 of those came when the bases were empty. What’s that saying? Solo home runs don’t beat you unless they come in extra innings?

“We’ve never really been the team that’s going to live and die by the three-run home run,” Longoria said. “We’ve always been a team that’s going to kind of fundamental ourselves into a lot of wins, so that will be very important. We get guys on with walks and singles and win with a couple of hit-and-runs and a couple of sac flies.”

Zobrist sees this as a lineup that can sneak up on teams. No one will confuse the 2013 Rays bats with those in Detroit or Anaheim. Yet Zobrist feels the Rays have enough players who can hit the ball out of the park to make up for the loss of Upton’s 28 home runs and the 19 from Peņa.

“I think we’ll have more impactful hits, game-changing hits, home runs,” he said. “I think you’re going to see both Longo and Luke Scott add a lot to the lineup. We missed them last year. They’re going to stay healthy, and I think we’re going to see what we can do with those two guys in the middle of our lineup.”

Maddon wants to see his team cut down on the strikeouts. He wants more productive at-bats with runners in scoring position, especially when there is a runner at third base and less than two outs.

Maddon wants the offense to take some of the pressure off the pitching staff. Hey, the occasional blow-out win doesn’t hurt, right?

Longoria sees a lineup that can reach Maddon’s goals, one that is filled with experienced players. “Professional hitters,” Longoria called the new guys.

“We have the talent to win, we know we have the talent to win,” Longoria said. “It’s just a matter of are we all capable doing what we’re capable of doing? Do we all put those seasons together like we know we can? And do we all stay healthy? I know I’ll do my best to stay healthy and continue to work hard, and I know Luke will and everyone else here will. It will be exciting.”


rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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