ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were just beginning to find their groove when SS Yunel Escobar was forced out of the lineup with a right shoulder injury that eventually earned him a spot on the disabled list.
The team has an 11-4 record since Escobar’s departure on June 24, but Rays manager Joe Maddon is eager nonetheless to get his starting shortstop back into the mix.
“(Ben) Zobrist has done a really good job of filling in, but if Yuni comes back and plays the way he did last year on a consistent basis, that would be a big plus for us,” Maddon said.
Escobar’s second chance to start replicating a 2013 campaign in which he played stellar defense while hitting .256 with nine homers and 56 RBIs comes tonight, when he will come off the DL.
Maddon he fully expects Escobar to be in the lineup against the Blue Jays, and he’s confident he’ll add some pop to the offense, particularly when the Rays are facing a southpaw.
“Bat-wise, he’s probably our best hitter against left-handed pitchers right now,” Maddon said of Escobar, who is hitting .350 (20-for-60) against lefties this year. “He has really good energy and he makes us thicker.
“Again, we’re in the middle of the season now and guys are going to get tired, and he’s a fresh body. The more fresh bodies we can have, the better we’re going to be.”
RHP Brad Boxberger has been pitching in a lot of high-leverage situations recently. The time might come when the reliever finds himself pitching in the highest of leverage situations.
“He’s probably going to be a closer someday,” Maddon said of the University of Southern California product, who came to the Rays along with Logan Forsythe in a seven-player trade with the Padres last winter. “He’s definitely got it within his abilities, if that’s what he’d like to do.
“He only needs about five pitches to get warmed and he’s ready to go, and he’s relatively quick to the plate. He’s got a really nice heartbeat about him and he’s got good stuff, so he’s got all the ingredients.”
One of those ingredients is an ability to strike batters out. Boxberger went into Wednesday night’s game ranked fifth among AL relievers with a 13.1 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio.
Even better, he’s limited opposing batters to a .153 average. That’s fourth-best among AL relievers and includes a .123 opponent batting average in 21 appearances since May 1.
Show and tell
The Rays are convinced that RHP Jeremy Hellickson’s troubles in 2013 were mostly a result of the elbow issues that required surgery to repair and delayed the start of his 2014 season until Tuesday.
That initial outing did nothing to alter their opinion.
Hellickson lasted only 41⁄3 innings in his first start of the year, throwing 84 pitches while allowing six hits and one run, but Maddon believes Hellickson’s stuff was an indication that even better outings are ahead.
“I thought he was pretty good,” Maddon said. “His fastball velocity was good, the curveball was really good and he threw some good change-ups. The first inning, he was 91, 92 mph on the (radar) gun and there was a jump on the fastball around home plate.”
The move to shortstop seemed to sit well with Zobrist. During Escobar’s absence, Zobrist started 14 of the Rays’ 15 games at short, and during that time he raised his batting average 22 points to .266.
“He’s an offensive shortstop,” Maddon said of Zobrist. “Anytime he plays over there, his offense kicks into gear. I think it’s because he likes the way he sees the game from that particular spot on the field.”