Rays notes: Joe Maddon defends hitting coach Derek Shelton

Left to right: Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey (48), manager Joe Maddon (70) and hitting coach Derek Shelton (17) watch against the New York Yankees during spring training.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hitting coach Derek Shelton has become a convenient target for some frustrated Tampa Bay Rays followers.

Manager Joe Maddon wants to hear no part of it.

On Tuesday, Maddon defended Shelton, who has served as Tampa Bay’s hitting coach since October 2009. Entering Tuesday’s series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Rays had scored 236 runs in 65 games for a 3.63 runs-per-game average, the lowest-scoring offense in the American League. They had been shut out nine times, after only suffering eight shut outs all of last season.

"Honestly, I believe zero percent is Shelty’s fault," Maddon said. "The thing that people don’t understand about how we work here is that here, we cross-pollinate. Everybody is involved in everything we do here. … Shelty’s outstanding, an outstanding worker."

Shelton has received criticism in the past, and he has shown little concern about his job security throughout it all, including now.

Still, the most recent struggle has become noticeable. In going 1-13 from May 26-June 9, the Rays scored 35 runs, their lowest-scoring 14-game span since totaling the same amount from April 14-30, 2004. In the same stretch, they hit a woeful .105 (10 for 95) with runners in scoring position.

"That’s typical from outside looking in that people want to blame somebody when things aren’t going well," Maddon said. "And again, I would do something if there was a communication breakdown, a philosophical breakdown, methodology breakdown. Of course. But there isn’t. So just to think that you’re going to bring somebody up that’s going to push different buttons, that always amuses me, quite frankly."


Sign him up

At some point, reliever Jake McGee will receive a chance to show what he can do as closer with the Rays’ new by-committee approach. On Monday, Maddon announced that Tampa Bay would move away from Grant Balfour as the lone closer after the 11-year veteran allowed five runs and four hits in a loss to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.

McGee has received praise from Maddon as the Rays’ "one true All-Star," which makes sense when considering that the hard-throwing left-hander has become Tampa Bay’s most consistent arm. McGee has a 1.59 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings this season, mostly in his familiar seventh-inning role.

Compare that to Balfour, who has a 6.46 ERA and 21 strikeouts (two blown saves) in 23 2/3 innings. Though Maddon refused to narrow the possibilities for closer — he said the whole bullpen, including Balfour, remains an option depending on ninth-inning matchups — McGee figures to be one of the favorites to appear often, along with relievers Joel Peralta (4.18 ERA, 11 career saves) and Juan Carlos Oviedo (2.25 ERA, 92 career saves).

"No, just the same," McGee said when asked about possible new pressure with the by-committee approach. "Like what they talked about in years past with me and Peralta — like, ‘You might throw the sixth or seventh or you might throw the eighth.’ It’s kind of the same in a way."

So has McGee ever set a goal to be a closer?

"I haven’t really had a goal," he said. "But I just wanted to go out and be what I am now and just work and get better and have the season I’ve had so far this season. It’s good things, so I just want to keep it going."

That sounds good to Maddon, who has confidence in McGee when the chance presents itself.

"I know how he’s going to handle it when he gets the opportunity — he’s going to be very good at it," Maddon said. "It’s just going to depend if we need him before that (the ninth) to stop something. But I have no doubt that he’ll be able to handle the ninth-inning role."


Catcher Ryan Hanigan, on the disabled list since May 28 (retroactive to May 27) with a right hamstring strain, is confident he’ll return to the Rays’ lineup Wednesday.

He took early batting practice Tuesday at Tropicana Field, a day after he went 0 for 3 with a walk as the designated hitter for High-A Charlotte against Bradenton at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. He had hit .212 with three home runs and 22 RBI before the injury.

"I was tired of watching," Hanigan said. "The injury feels better, so my leg feels strong.

"I just want to help, come back and try to contribute and try to bring some energy and help out."


— Right-hander Alex Cobb has formed a partnership with isoBLOX, a protective sports gear brand that has offered its technology for head protection to softball and youth baseball players. The technology also has been developed for major-league protection. On June 15, 2013, he sustained a mild concussion when a liner off the bat of the Kansas City Royals’ Eric Hosmer struck him near the right ear. Cobb missed two months because of the injury. "For some reason, it has been an epidemic going around the league," Cobb said. "A lot of guys have been having to be faced with it. So the best thing that happened this offseason for it was that we were able to have the opportunity to wear something on the mound in big-league games."

— Brotherly love was part of the flavor Tuesday at Tropicana Field. Rays catcher Jose Molina and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina held a reunion on the field pregame. Yadier’s 5-year-old son, Yanuell, also made appearances on the field and near Jose’s locker before batting practice. A surprising fact: Before the night, the brothers had only played against each other twice, on June 24, 2010, and June 24, 2011, when Jose’s Toronto Blue Jays faced Yadier’s Cardinals (Jose won both times). "It’s always fun, and it’s always good to see him and to have him in the same field that I am," Jose said. "I’m just going to do it and try to beat him. … Real proud of him and just being where he’s at at this point of his life, I’m just proud of him."

— Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson will make a rehab start for Triple-A Durham on Thursday in Indianapolis. Recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his pitching elbow since late January, he has targeted a late June return to the Rays’ rotation, possibly in time for a June 27 doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.

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