Joyce dedicated to not being left behind

March 12, 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE — This much we know: Matt Joyce would just as soon be left in right.

But from the direction things seem to be heading, the 2011 All-Star selection is looking at another time-share arrangement in right field with Ben Zobrist. The difference this year is that Joyce has come to terms with the platoon situation he’s likely facing, something he struggled to accept last year.

In his heart, the 27-year-old lefty batter from Tampa believes he’s up to the challenge of hitting left-handed pitchers effectively and thus being an everyday player in right. But his biggest priority this season is trying to control what he can, contributing whenever and wherever manager Joe Maddon gives him the chance.

“I just want to be consistent, just help the team every day, whatever way I can,” he said. “It’s not always going to be hitting — it’s defensively, on the base paths and really trying to round out my game and improve in every aspect.”

Joyce made a compelling case in 2011 to persuade Maddon to pencil him into the lineup on a daily basis, regardless of whether a righty or lefty was on the mound.

He hit a career-best .277, after a torrid start that saw him leading the majors for nearly two weeks with a batting average as high as .377 in early June. And he finished with 19 homers and 75 RBI and appeared in a career-high 141 games (starting 121).

But in the final analysis, Maddon felt that Joyce still needed to make more strides against left-handed pitchers. Against righties, Joyce found his groove with a .292 batting average along with 16 homers and 60 RBI in 370 at-bats.

Facing lefties, however, his average dropped to .213 with three homers and 15 RBI in 92 at-bats. That was a marked improvement from his partial season with the Rays in 2010, when he hit .262 in 191 at-bats against righties and .080 in 25 at-bats with lefties on the mound.

Last September, Joyce even spoke to Maddon about his desire to become an everyday player, and the skipper told him he would be — but the time hadn’t arrived. So this season, Joyce has reconciled himself to that reality while dedicating himself to being the best hitter he can be when he’s at the plate.

“I just want to consistently help the team win,” he said. “You can’t control whether you’re going to hit .300. All you can do is have good at-bats and try to do the job that’s presented in front of you, whether it be getting the runner over or hitting a sac fly or whatever the case may be.”

That said, he would like more chances to face lefties along the way.

“The only way you’re going to get better at something is if you do it,” he said. “So I’m just looking for the chances and waiting for the opportunities, and trying to take the best advantage of them as I can.”

After his sensational start last year, Joyce hit a rough patch — in part because pitchers began adjusting to him, in part because he was bothered by a shoulder injury that made it difficult to swing through the ball. His batting average for June and July combined was only .179 before getting hot again in the stretch, hitting .274 in August and September.

Only two of his 19 homers came in the last 31 games, but Joyce saved a big one for the Rays’ final run at the postseason: a three-run blast that helped them beat the Yankees 5-3, one day before the historic 8-7 comeback in 12 innings to capture the Wild Card berth.

Maddon foresees continued growth for Joyce.

"He's as dangerous a hitter as we thought he is," Maddon said. "I think that's going to continue to get better as he understands what they're trying to do to him better. As a complete player, I thought you could see a little bit of an improvement almost everywhere last year. That's the thing in our meetings we set out for him. We wanted to make him a better baseball player, not just a hitter."

Joyce has gone three for 16 to date with two walks this spring training with a home run. One of the hotter hitters in camp is Jeff Keppinger, the former Giant signed by Tampa Bay in the offseason. He’s 5 for 13 for a .385 batting average. Keppinger is a lifetime .324 hitter against lefties, so it’s likely that he’ll platoon with switch-hitting Zobrist at second, with Zobrist moving to right field to bat right-handed against lefty pitching.

But Joyce could still get his chances against southpaws who aren’t overpowering against lefty hitters.

He’s out to make the most of those chances as they arise and establish greater consistency from both sides of the plate. Yet he’s not thinking in terms of amassing specific numbers.

“When you put numbers on things, you tend to either stress out about it or get caught up in the numbers — and you can play little mind games with yourself,” he said. “I think everybody has a general number for every aspect of what they want to achieve. But the numbers are for the fans. If you want to break it down more than that, break it down to having good at-bats and keeping it simple.”

Joyce kept his mind on some other pursuits in the offseason, which he spent mostly in Tampa with family and friends. He took up guitar and piano as a way of relaxing and has enjoyed both pursuits.

“It’s nothing crazy — it’s not like I’m a musician by any means,” he said, smiling. “It’s just something that’s fun to do and kind of a release. I don’t have any musical background, and I haven’t had any lessons or anything. It’s just one of those things where you learn a song and try to pick up a couple of more. So I know about two or three on both the piano and the guitar right now.”

Now he just wants more chances to strike the right chord from the left side.