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Rays

Potent combo at top of order ignites Rays' offense

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:16 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Johnny Damon wasn't officially a Ray until 15 days before the start of spring training.

Sam Fuld didn't know he was going to make the team until the final days of March.

At least Damon knew where he stood. Left field or designated hitter, he was batting second.

Fuld? He was the fifth outfielder until Manny Ramirez's abrupt retirement elevated him to the Rays left fielder, leadoff batter and soon-to-be-legend.

Fuld and Damon are an unlikely pairing at the top of the order, and yet, because the Rays don't seem to do anything easy and because the unlikely has a habit of working out these days under the Trop, you can argue Fuld and Damon have formed the best 1-2 punch at the top of the order, be it Rays or Devil Rays.

Yes, the sampling is small, but does anyone remember Akinori Iwamura and Carl Crawford providing this type of punch in 2008? Or Jason Bartlett and Crawford in 2009? Certainly not B.J. Upton and Crawford.

"We never had that kind of impact leadoff-wise," manager Joe Maddon said.

The impact of the leadoff batter comes in his first at-bat of the game. Fuld took a .316 batting average and .350 on-base percentage while leading off the first into this weekend's series with the Angles.

Damon called Fuld the Rays' "spark plug" after Fuld's breakout night at Fenway Park, and while Super Sammy hit a bit of a bump last week, his impact is one of the reasons the team was able to rise from the canvas after its 1-8 start.

"It definitely helps out when you have a guy out there who's able to hit righties and lefties, get on base, make things happen," Damon said.

John Jaso was impressive last season with his .372 on-base percentage and 59 walks, but he wasn't very good at reaching base during the first inning as a leadoff hitter, with a .244 on base percentage in 45 plate appearances.

"(Jaso) may have seen a lot of pitches, but he wasn't getting on base and scoring that first time through," Maddon said. "I think Sam has been very productive in his first at-bat, doing something that permits us to score first."

Fuld reached base to start three of the six games on the recent road trip, and he scored each time. Damon reached base in four of the six games as the Rays scored at least one first-inning run five times.

Again, the sampling is tiny compared to the time Iwamura, Bartlett and Upton spent at the top, but the Rays like what they see from Fuld. Maddon's biggest concern is not so much how Fuld will adjust to the adjustments the league makes toward him but keeping Fuld healthy and his legs fresh.

While Maddon expects Fuld's batting average to level off, he thinks it won't be too much off a drop-off based on Fuld's approach and the way he can work a count.

Neither does Damon.

"So far, Sam, he's probably been our MVP," Damon said. "He's going out there stopping runs on our defensive side, but also contributing big time for our offense. We couldn't ask for anything more from him. I know there's been some oh-fer games from him lately, but you know what? We don't care, because we know his at-bats are going to be seeing five, six pitches per at-bat, (so) we're getting the pitch counts up."

rmooney@tampatrib.com

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