Rolling Rays planning for more good news
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For months, the Tampa Bay Rays have been waiting for all the pieces of their battered lineup to fall back into place.
Now, on the heels of their hugely successful road trip, that could finally happen this week in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field.
The club plans to bring back designated hitter Luke Scott on Tuesday from the disabled list, where he's spent the last month rehabbing a strained oblique.
Manager Joe Maddon confirmed the news prior to Monday night's home game against the Kansas City Royals. And he also revealed another significant move expected to unfold later this week: Evan Longoria transitioning from DH back to his familiar home at third base.
For a team that's won 11 of its past 13 games, the dose of good health news was a welcome change from the wave of injury updates that beset the Rays earlier this season — at one point including 14 players on the disabled list.
The only unknown in the mix is who'll be sent down to Triple-A Durham in the corresponding move to accompany Scott's return. Utility infielder Sean Rodriguez has been considered the most likely candidate, given the Rays' abundance of backup infielders and his offensive struggles with a .214 average.
But Rodriguez went 5-for-13 over the weekend as the Rays swept four games from the Angels. If he does get demoted, the move would only be temporary for the third-year Ray, since he no doubt would rejoin the team Sept. 1, when rosters are expanded.
"Scotty's ready to come back tomorrow (Tuesday), and we have to make a decision on what to do tonight," Maddon said. "Really, up and down from 1 through 9 tomorrow is going to be pretty interesting. Obviously, it's another good thing. We're getting closer to what we're supposed to have looked like all season now."
Scott's return provides Maddon with an array of new options. If Longoria needs to see more action as DH, Scott can play first base in place of Carlos Pena at times. Or Scott can DH with Longoria back at third and either Pena or Keppinger playing first.
The key to making the new configurations work, explained Maddon, is the strong play of Ben Zobrist since shifting from second base and right field to shortstop two weeks ago. Zobrist came to the Rays as a shortstop but has rarely played there until now, and his solid defensive performance while continuing to hit well has filled a considerable void for Tampa Bay.
"Zobrist being able to play shortstop permits all these other things to happen," Maddon said. "You can do that and have all these other players you'd like to have on the field at one time. You also feel like you're not really losing anything defensively, because we don't run away from our defense. I think more than anything, Zobrist playing shortstop is a really key component of this thing."
Longoria has been strictly a DH since returning to the lineup two weeks ago, after missing 85 games with a hamstring tear. But he's been regaining strength and mobility and could see his first work at third since April 30 during this home stand, which concludes against the Oakland A's Thursday through Saturday. Rather than move him to third base later in a game, Maddon plans to start Longoria to give him a chance to go through his usual pregame routine.
"That way he can stretch, prep and just do the normal thing and go out there," he said. "… I think (trainer) Ronnie (Porterfield) and Longo has done a nice job of bringing us back to this particular juncture. And it's incumbent on us to really use him at third."
Simply having Longoria back in the batting order has had a positive impact on the Rays. He rejoined the team just in time for its back-to-back sweeps of Toronto and Minnesota and has played an important role in its 11-2 run (including a pair of homers and a 5-for-16 showing at the plate in four games against the Angels).
They're 25-10 overall with him in the lineup this season, 42-44 without his services. Here's another indication of his value: With Longoria in the batting order, the Rays have averaged 5.17 runs per game, tied for third most in the majors with Texas and trailing only the Yankees (5.54) and Red Sox (5.29).
When he was on the DL for three months, they averaged only 3.86 runs per game, lowest in the AL and fifth lowest in the majors.
The club is hoping that Scott, given time to sharpen his offense during his recent rehab assignment with Class A Charlotte, will get back in the groove he displayed just prior to his second trip to the DL on July 23.
In 10 games prior to his injury, Scott was hitting .385 (15 for 39) with three homers and nine RBI. Overall, he has struggled offensively this season with a .225 batting average, though he led the team in RBIs with 45 prior to going on the DL a month ago.
Scott said he enjoyed watching his teammates win eight of 10 on the road but is looking forward to rejoining them.
"I watched and was there with them in spirit, praying for the guys," he said. "I'm just happy to see us finally get some success and start to realize our potential. It's been a long time, but it's coming at the right time."