Rays notes: Tampa Bay gets some midseason spring training

Joe Maddon is having his team arrive to games early to practice some drills.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A little spring-training flavor has reached Tropicana Field.

So it’s mid-June. No problem.

Call Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon serious about sharpening his team’s focus during the homestand. On Monday, he spoke about how it’s "going to take a lot of work" during a 10-game stay at home to turn around the Rays’ season. He hinted at various efforts to accomplish that work, and Tuesday afternoon, Tampa Bay players began pregame stretches at 3:30 — much earlier than normal — and took part in spring-training-like drills to fine-tune their fundamentals.

"Our guys were great today," Maddon said after the 30-minute session ended. "They really were. When you do things like this, major-league players sometimes renege at it. I’m just being honest. Our guys had great enthusiasm today and ran the drills really well. I was really pleased with that. And again, like I told them yesterday, it’s not a punitive situation. It’s about them refocusing."

The Rays worked on their bunt defense, practiced turning double plays and their outfielders fielded balls near the right-field wall. Earlier in the afternoon, Maddon also observed extra batting practice taken by catcher Jose Molina, shortstop Yunel Escobar and outfielder/designated hitter Matt Joyce.

The Rays plan to do similar pregame work Thursday before a series opener against the Houston Astros at Tropicana Field. The practice received positive reviews.

"We usually do it during the All-Star break," right-hander Alex Cobb said. "I think the sense of urgency has kind of kicked in a little bit for us. So the way we’re interpreting it is, ‘It’s not too late right now.’ If we wait off until the All-Star break, it might be a little bit too late. We might have dug ourselves a little bit too big of a hole to come back from."

Third baseman Evan Longoria is confident that the work will produce the intended results. With the Rays entering play Tuesday with a 28-43 record, the majors’ worst mark, he knows urgency must be in ample supply.

"I don’t think it’s bad, once in awhile, to refresh your memory on certain things," Longoria said. "We definitely have had some difficulties with some of the fundamentals throughout the course of some of the games that we lost. … The inability to turn double plays has been kind of a thorn in our side. And so, I’ve been guilty of it. Everybody has been guilty of it at a certain point. It’s just a matter of, like Joe says, anticipating and trying to put yourself in the right position to make those plays."

CHOPPERS BECOME SUBJECT OF CHATTER

High choppers, for whatever reason, have become more frequent at Tropicana Field. Don’t consider Maddon a fan.

He voiced his displeasure following Monday’s victory over the Baltimore Orioles, after Nelson Cruz produced a run that tied the score at three in the top of the eighth inning with a high chopper to Longoria. (That ball appeared to hit home plate off the bat.) Still, Maddon said he has spoken with grounds-crew members and Dan Moeller, the head groundskeeper, about the strange rise in high choppers off the dirt here.

"My one question was, ‘Is it (the dirt) drying out?’" Maddon said. "Everything is the same. Nothing has changed. So is there a reason why maybe it’s getting drier quicker? He thought that might actually be the case, so we’re going to find out if that is true or not and then make some adjustments."

So there appears to be mystery about the increase in these difficult-to-field ground balls. Longoria, for one, doesn’t have an answer.

"I think it might just be bad luck or good hitting," he said.

"We have a lot of guys who throw ground balls. Obviously, Jake (McGee) throws really hard and beats a lot of guys. Cobb and Arch (Chris Archer), they throw ground balls. That’s just been kind of an unfortunate outcome on some of the plays. But overall, I feel like the field has played pretty well."

LONGORIA’S HAIR CREATES BUZZ

Longoria debuted a blond mohawk Monday night, and credit the World Cup for his inspiration.

The three-time All-Star said creative hairstyles in the World Cup, currently held in Brazil, gave him the idea to go blond with his interesting hairstyle. He had sported the mohawk before Monday’s series opener against the Orioles, so going blond served as his hat-tip to the world’s game.

"I just figured with the World Cup and all the interesting hairstyles that they have, just kind of give some support to the USA and try to loosen it up around here even further," he said. "We’ve started to play well. We’ve started to play closer to our caliber of baseball, and I think everybody has made a conscious effort to do something different or just bring a different attitude to the ballpark — whatever it is. And so this is my contribution."

Why not?

The Rays entered Tuesday as winners of four of their past five games. And Jaime Edmondson, Longoria’s fiancée, told The Buzzer on Tuesday that she was "pleasantly surprised at how hot he is as a blond."

Sounds like a win-win situation for Longoria. Maybe, just maybe, Maddon will embrace a similar hair-color change someday.

"I’m not beyond something like that," Maddon said.

WORTH NOTING

— Jerry Sands’ confidence is part of the reason why Maddon has faith using the player in late-inning, high-leverage at-bats. The returns have been stellar. On Monday, Sands earned his second pinch-hit, game-deciding RBI in the eighth in as many games. Is the confidence at the plate something he has developed or is it part of his personality? "I think a little bit of both," Sands said. "Obviously, in order to play this game for this long, you have to have a little bit of confidence. It’s a tough game. You fail a lot. … I’ve failed a lot playing this game. I’ve had some tough years."

— Maddon offered no new developments on the possible returns of right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (arthroscopic surgery on throwing elbow) and outfielder Brandon Guyer (left thumb fracture). Hellickson made his third rehab start, second for Triple-A Durham, on Tuesday night in Louisville. Guyer, meanwhile, has played three rehab games with Durham, and he went 0 for 4 with a walk as the designated hitter Monday against Louisville.

— Utility man Sean Rodriguez received the start at third base Tuesday, with Longoria listed as the Rays’ designated hitter. Tuesday’s game was Longoria’s second this season as the designated hitter. He has started all 72 of Tampa Bay’s games this season.

— The Rays signed right-hander Brent Honeywell, their second-round comp pick (No. 72 overall), and right-hander Blake Bivens, their fourth-round selection. Honeywell, who can throw a screwball, appeared at Tropicana Field on Tuesday and said he’ll begin his career with the Princeton Rays at the rookie-ball level. He plans to join Princeton later this week. "This is a dream come true, man," Honeywell said. "I can’t wait. I’m just a ballplayer. I’m ready to play."

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