Rays expect return to small ball to pay dividends
Tampa Bay focusing on timely bunts, aggressive baserunning with versatile lineup
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- While it's early in Spring Training, Rays fans got a peek Sunday afternoon at what this season's offense may resemble.
With two outs in the bottom of the third in a game against the Twins, Desmond Jennings singled to center off right-hander Anthony Swarzak. David DeJesus followed with a single to right.
That's when Jennings forced the action, rounding second and steaming toward third. A good throw very well could have nailed the Rays speedster. But given the situation, right fielder Oswaldo Arcia hurried his throw and it was wild. The ball ended up in the Twins' dugout. Jennings walked home and DeJesus moved to third on the error.
Evan Longoria put an exclamation point on the rally with his first home run of the spring, a blast that landed over the left-field wall.
Jennings noted that opposing teams should get used to seeing the Rays' offense force the action.
"That's what they want us to do here," Jennings said. "Any time you can get opportunities like that and steal a run, a bad throw goes in the stands and you score a run. And then there's another runner on third. Getting stuff started like that fires up the team."
Chaos on the bases, putting pressure on the defense -- that didn't happen in 2013 like it did in years past, which is represented in the runs the team scored. While the 2013 Rays did score three more runs (700) than the 2012 squad, that differential should have been greater, since last year's team bested the 2012 group in hits by 128 and walks by 18.
Rays manager Joe Maddon would like this year's offense to be more active on the bases, like what happened in the third inning Sunday.
"Yeah, we didn't do enough of that last year," Maddon said. "We did not run the bases as well as we normally do, go from first to third as well as we normally do. When asked to bunt, we didn't do that as well as we used to.
"I think a lot of that had to do with the skill set of the players. It was a different group of guys. It wasn't as much of an athletic team ... as the previous ones had been."
But Maddon noted that athleticism isn't a necessary component.
"Even if you're not the fastest guy in the world -- although Desmond is among those -- you can still go from first to third," Maddon said. "If it's within [your ability] to be able to bunt, you should be able to bunt. And we work on it ad nauseam. We don't just talk about it.
"The guys who are supposed to bunt in certain situations in the game get the practice to do so and do wonderfully in practice. We just have to take it into the games. Those are the kinds of things moving forward that we have to get better at."
Aggressive moves on the bases and well-executed bunts can lead to more good things happening, which is what occurred Sunday when Longoria put one over the fence.
"I think all of the things we do on offense complement one another," Maddon said. "When we do get a bunt down well, whenever we choose to do it, I often see it as leading to other things, too, not just the one run you're looking for.
"There is that component -- and, again, it depends on the pitcher. Some pitchers can be rattled, some cannot. But the one that can be, if you can do things like that versus him, it can really snowball."
Jennings believes that this year's offense is capable of accomplishing a great deal.
"A lot of people that can hit anywhere in the lineup, play any position on the field," Jennings said. "We just have a lot of different options. If I'm hitting first or David's hitting first, we get the same effect, the energy, the baserunning, stuff like that. So we feel like, regardless of how our lineup is set up, we're in a position to win."
Longoria observed that the lineup will be set up in many different ways.
"It's nice to know that we have guys that can be shuffled around the way they are, and no matter who is in front or behind me, I feel pretty confident at this point," Longoria said. "Because we know pretty much everybody that's going to be in the lineup on a daily basis, and you know what to expect out of each guy.
"I think every guy has an expectation for themselves, too, and is a little bit more comfortable, as opposed to in years past, when we've had to figure out our identity on offense. And this year I feel like we'll try to take what we had last year and build on that. Kind of take that grind-for-nine-innings mentality, and start to do some more things offensively, which is great. Not having to wonder what's going to happen, being able to know that guys know who they are."
Longoria thinks the team's difficulty playing small ball in 2013 will be a thing of the past because of the players' comfort level on offense.
"Guys who have a year or two of experience in the same lineup, it really translates into just understanding how certain situations are going to play out through the course of the year," Longoria said. "When you have guys that come into a new team and coming into a new lineup, they're kind of figuring out what their role is going to be in that lineup. Whereas now, whether it's Des or David at the top, maybe [Ben Zobrist] or even [Matt Joyce] at the top. There's a ton of different ways we can set it up, but I think that everybody understands who they are as a player."
If this year's team can improve running the bases and doing the little things, the yield could be high.
"The difference between 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96 wins [is because of things like that]," Maddon said. "It's not 10 extra swings in the cage or whatever, 20 extra ground balls, it's what you're thinking and it's these little things in regards to the game that you're going to find those couple of extra victories that are going to put you over the top."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.