Rays hope Joyce’s return sparks offense

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Matt Joyce fought his way through a torrential rainstorm Monday night, driving into town after a brief rehab assignment in Daytona.

“It was like a monsoon or something, it was brutal,” he said Tuesday afternoon by his locker inside the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse. “I had to slow down to make sure I made it here.”

Inclement weather aside, Joyce couldn’t get back to the Rays fast enough — given the gray skies that have hovered both over him and the team’s anemic offense the past month.

Joyce’s strained left oblique felt surprisingly good after only a few days into his rehab work with Class A Charlotte and let the Rays know he was ready to return,

After going 8-15 in his absence, they gladly responded with a welcome Matt.

In fact, the man who has provided much of the punch to the recently punchless offense was immediately penciled into the lineup’s cleanup spot Tuesday night against the Cleveland Indians.

“I got a chance to go play (with Charlotte) and everything felt great,” he said. “I played two games in Daytona and felt like my timing really wasn’t that far off. I was seeing the ball pretty well and hit a couple of balls hard. I felt like I was ready. I told ’em and they said, ‘Hey, come on up and let’s go.’ ”

To make room for Joyce, the Rays optioned utility infielder Will Rhymes back to Triple-A Durham. And then they turned their attention to trying to beat the Indians, following a 3-2 loss in the opener of a four-game series Monday, with one of their key pieces back in the offensive puzzle.

Joyce, batting .279 with 11 homers and 34 RBI when went on the disabled list June 20, said the extra rest during the All-Star break benefited him. “You take three days off to where you can just shut everything down and just try to stop pushing the envelope a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes everybody needs that and it really helps your body out.”

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was understandably pleased, considering his team has hit .220 in its last 18 games dating back to June 18. The Rays have been held to seven hits or fewer in 15 of their last 20 games. So the return of his 2011 All-Star outfielder to the lineup could provide a much-needed boost.

“You can see the significance of one other name in the lineup and how it impacts us,” he said of Joyce’s presence Tuesday.

Maddon also said he’s encouraged by the progress of outfielder Sam Fuld, coming back from wrist surgery. Fuld went 1 for 3 with a walk Monday night in Durham.

“He’s reporting like he’s feeling really good,” he added. “His body feels good. The wrist feels good. The timing is still off a little, but (overall) he’s feeling pretty good.”

Maddon praised Rhymes, who batted .233 (.318 in his last 10 games), playing the field well (including turning a gem of a double-play against Boston over the weekend). But Maddon says he’ll benefit from getting more playing time in Durham, rather than spending most of his time on the Rays’ bench.

“Will’s been playing good,” he said. “He’s a great guy. He plays our kind of game. He plays hard. He’s a great teammate. He’s outstanding actually … it’s just one of those baseball moments. Close to 100 percent of his playing time is going to be gone by having Matt back.”

Joyce, meanwhile, couldn’t feel better returning to the active roster, finally having the opportunity to help the team he’s only been able to watch for the past month. The Rays have lost 12 of their last 18 and now rest precariously at 46-44, tied for the third with the Boston Red Sox in the AL East, though still in the thick of the wild card hunt.

“We’re in a situation where we’re pushed against the wall and we have to really start winning games,’ he said. “There are a lot of expectations. The guys just want to win. We know what’s coming up and we know what’s at stake.”

“You’ve got to have the ability to stay focused and not get overwhelmed by the situation,” he added. “We know what’s at stake and everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to go to the playoffs. And obviously we want to keep the guys who we have and keep moving forward.

“You have to be able to relax, have fun and forget about the expectations and the pressures. This game comes with a lot of all of those.”

For Joyce, it also came with ample frustration, following a recent setback in his rehab assignment while sliding. But now he’s ready to try and give the Rays a lift.

“We’ve slid a little bit out of first place and obviously we’re not where we really want to be,” he said. “But hopefully, we can get on another run here.”