Rhymes already making waves with Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Will Rhymes couldn't wait to get off the plane Tuesday night from Durham and make his way to Tropicana Field.
"I dressed as fast as I could and I was out there in the bottom of the eighth," said the 5-9. 155-pound second baseman, who arrived just in time to watch the Rays finish off the Seattle Mariners for the second straight game.
Rhymes never imagined that one night later he'd trade his spot in the dugout for a place at third base, making his Rays debut and first major league start at third barely 24 hours after taking the roster spot of injured star Evan Longoria.
And it didn't take long Wednesday evening for the small-in-stature infielder to make a big first impression.
Rhymes rapped out two solid singles in four at-bats, one of them setting up a two-run double by Jose Molina that gave Tampa Bay its first lead of the night in the fourth. The speed he flashed scoring from first on the two-bagger suggests he'll be a threat on the bases, not to mention a valuable man off the bench as a pinch-runner.
And while he wasn't challenged much at third, making the only play that came his way, he looked particularly sharp after moving to second base in a defensive shift in the sixth — initiating a clutch 4-6-3 double play and making a nice over-the-shoulder catch on a potential bloop single.
Not a bad first night on the job, especially since his contributions helped the Rays defeat the Mariners 5-4 for their 10th win in the last 11 games and 12th in the last 14. The victory raised their AL East-leading record to 17-8 — tied with the Rangers and Dodgers for best in baseball.
There were plenty of helping hands in the outcome — a gutsy six-inning, 11-strikeout effort by James Shields who survived two homers to raise his record to 5-0; Luke Scott's catwalk single that began a two-run inning in the fourth and his homer in the sixth that deflected off center fielder Michael Saunders over the wall for the deciding score; and 1.2 brilliant shutdown innings by Joel Peralta to earn the save.
And there was the new guy in town, Rhymes.
"It feels good to kind of get on the board early and kind of relax a little," he said following the game. "I've only played in one other organization, but this one has a great feel. It's relaxed and encouraging and it's all about winning. I know everyone wants to do individually, but everybody here is pulling in the same direction."
Manager Joe Maddon's use of Rhymes at both third and second during the game – eventually moving shortstop Sean Rodrguez to third and Elliot Johnson to short – may well be a sign of things to come in what he calls "a revolving door" approach to replacing Longoria. Expect to see plenty of shifting around at third over the next two months while Longoria heals from a partially torn left hamstring.
And judging from Wednesday, expect to see more of Rhymes.
He signed with the Rays in the offseason after playing parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. He made a strong first impression in Detroit, hitting .304 in 54 games with 12 doubles, three triples and a homer. Last year, he slipped to .235 in 20 games with the parent club, spending most of the year with Triple-A Toledo, where he hit .308.
When he was non-tendered by the talent-rich Tigers in December, the Rays signed the 29-year-old to a minor league contract in January and invited him to camp. He struggled at the plate during exhibition games (at .188) but made a good impression with his speed, smarts and solid play in the field, which included a half-dozen starts at third.
Rhymes was sent to Triple-A Durham when the season started and he was hitting .231 (21-for-91) with three doubles, two triples and a homer when the call came in Tuesday for Rhymes to pack his bags and join the Rays.
"I can't thank them enough for bringing me in during the offseason and giving me such a good opportunity," he said. "I wasn't exactly knocking the cover off the ball in Triple-A. But I guess they look at the track record. … It's a break. I know it's tough to lose Longoria – it's terrible for the team and I'm not trying to fill his shoes at all. But if I can do anything to help them win a game here or there, that's all I'm trying to do."
Rays manager Joe Maddon likes what he saw during spring training in Rhymes and is eager to see what he'll bring to the Rays' mix now.
"We gave him a lot of work in spring training and he's been playing some in Durham, and he's very comfortable with it," Maddon said. "We talked about it – it's good. He's a very nice baseball player. On the offensive side of things, he's the kind of guy who doesn't normally swing and miss. He hits lefties and righties almost equally well. Always going to give you a great effort. He's a really interesting guy for us to have."
And a guy with an interesting background. Rhymes, a Texas native, was a Lamar High School teammate of Rays' starter Jeff Niemann, who stands at the opposite end of the height-weight spectrum at 6-9, 285. He went on to play collegiate baseball at William & Mary in Virginia, majoring in molecular biology. On a team that already boasts a Stanford economics major and statistics wiz in outfielder Sam Fuld and Bowling Green University economics degree-holder in reliever Burke Badenhop, Rhymes should fit right in.
More than anything, he just wants to fit in where the Rays need him. "That was part of the appeal of coming here," he said. "They were going to kind of let me move around and play different positions, but it's pretty cool to get that opportunity and that they trust me enough to throw me out there. That means a lot."
The greatest challenge in playing third over second?
"These guys hit the ball hard," he said. "... The main difference is the ball gets on you pretty quick so I just try to knock it down and bounce it over there."
Rhymes has no plans to change gloves for his new assignment, taking his trusty second baseman's mitt into battle.
"I guess most guys probably do (change), but I'm comfortable with my glove," he said. "I've been using it for several years and I use the same one. It's probably a little small, but I'm small, so proportionally it's probably fine."
All that matters to Rhymes now is finding a way to keep coming up big.