Rays notes: Players and coaches remember Tony Gwynn

Tony Gwynn was a gift to many throughout baseball, and within the Tampa Bay Rays, memories of his impact remain alive. They span decades, from Joe Maddon's impressions playing with him as part of the amateur Boulder (Colo.) Collegians in 1980 to treasured advice received by Logan Forsythe early in his time with the San Diego Padres.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tony Gwynn was a gift to many throughout baseball, and within the Tampa Bay Rays, memories of his impact remain alive. They span decades, from Joe Maddon's impressions playing with him as part of the amateur Boulder (Colorado) Collegians in 1980 to treasured advice received by Logan Forsythe early in his time with the San Diego Padres.

That's what baseball lost Monday, with Gwynn's death of cancer at age 54: A complete ambassador, a friend and mentor to many.

"Nice guy," Maddon said. "Really nice guy. Soft-spoken guy, always smiling. But really an artist when it came to hitting."

Yes, Gwynn was an artist in the batter's box, but he also was a giver. That was the theme that rose Monday evening, when hearing from those within Tampa Bay's clubhouse who had interactions with the Hall of Famer. Gwynn was as strong off the field as he became on it.

"I really believe he could see what's out there," Maddon said of Gwynn as a hitter. "He's one of those guys who can miss people intentionally."

"You try to absorb everything he says, especially just knowing his career and the type of hitter that he was," said Forsythe, a utility player, who was part of the Padres from 2011-2013. "All around him, he had everything, and it's tough to take something from there, because he has so much. But I was able to take a couple things. That's something I'll never forget."

First baseman James Loney had memorable encounters as well. He was one of Tony Gwynn Jr.'s teammates on the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He and Gwynn Jr., an outfielder, worked out at the same facility in San Diego. Loney also spent one Thanksgiving with the Gwynn family.

"He's just a great inspiration to everybody around him," Loney said. "I feel like he touched a lot of people -- the way he played the game, the things he accomplished and just the person he was.

"I remember he was just real loving and heart-warming and very welcoming. They're just nice people all around and wanted to help out anybody they could. I just felt like he was one of the best type of players you would want to be around."

Bench coach Dave Martinez, who spent time in the National League with the Chicago Cubs, Montreal Expos, Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves during his playing career from 1986-2001, remembers a respect earned through observation. There were times when he would watch from afar and stand in awe of Gwynn's skill.

Whether Gwynn was a teammate, a teacher or a foe, he made an impression.

"He was fun to watch," Martinez said. "I used to come early when we were in San Diego, just to watch him hit it off the tee almost every day. I used to come out there just to watch him hit."

MCGEE PLEASED WITH FIRST SAVE

Reliever Jake McGee noticed little difference between his first save of the season earned Sunday in a victory over the Houston Astros and his normal seventh-inning role.

Recently, much has been made of the Rays' by-committee approach to their closer situation after Grant Balfour's struggles. On Sunday, that strategy created opportunity for McGee, who entered with one career save before the afternoon.

"It seemed kind of the same," said McGee, whose lone save before Sunday came on July 11, 2013, against the Minnesota Twins. "My thought process was the same -- just one pitch at a time, just focusing on the hitter at hand."

McGee allowed one hit and struck out one to preserve the Rays' 4-3 victory. He said he didn't know before the game he would be the ninth-inning option if a save opportunity presented itself. Maddon confirmed that ninth-inning matchups dictated his choice to use McGee.

"It's kind of the same as any (appearance)," said McGee, who has a 1.47 ERA in 30 2/3 innings this season. "Just trying to focus on getting outs and making my pitch."

MADDON WANTS MORE FROM RAYS

The Rays began a 10-day homestand Monday at Tropicana Field, and Maddon views the span as a time to make a much-needed run. Tampa Bay entered winning three of its past four games, but the manager knows more can be done with upcoming series against the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates.

"We're a better ballclub than we've shown to this point -- there's no question," Maddon said. "How do we get to that level? It's just going to take a lot of work. … Ten-game homestand, I want to get a lot of work done now and try to get this thing back on track, because to wait until the All-Star break would be too late."

The prospects look daunting. The Rays began play Monday 13 ½ games back of the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East and 10 contests behind the Kansas City Royals for the AL's final wild-card spot.

But Maddon, forever the optimist, remains a believer. He said the Rays, above all, must become better with their fundamental approach to the game. He hinted that some exercises, similar to spring-training drills, are in the works to sharpen their focus.

"My expectation is not to watch playoff games at home," he said. "My expectation is to participate."

WORTH NOTING

-- Maddon said he's uncertain if right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (arthroscopic surgery on throwing elbow) will need a fourth rehab start. Hellickson is scheduled to make his third rehab start Tuesday in Louisville for Triple-A Durham. He's 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in two rehab starts so far. Maddon also was vague about outfielder Brandon Guyer's return. Guyer (left thumb fracture) was 1 for 3 with a double, two walks and three runs scored for Durham on Sunday against Louisville. Maddon said Guyer, on the disabled list since May 26, would return when the player thinks he's ready.

-- Maddon called the situation involving Yunel Escobar's questionable hustle on Sunday in Houston over. Escobar hit a double in the fourth inning that could have been a triple after centerfielder Dexter Fowler dived for and missed the ball near the left-centerfield wall. That evening, Maddon expressed surprise that Escobar didn't reach third base. On Monday, Maddon labeled the situation a "moot point" and a "dead issue." He said he had a discussion Monday with Escobar during early batting practice before the series opener against Baltimore. Escobar declined comment.

-- Outfielder/first baseman Jerry Sands said he hasn't earned a nickname for breaking three bats on three consecutive swings as a pinch-hitter in the eighth of the Rays' victory Sunday. He found a reason to smile about the uncommon sequence like many who watched it. "Nothing yet," Sands said. "They had a bunch of stuff on the TV about it. I'm glad I gave them something to talk about instead of us just winning."

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.