The Rays Report: Team turnaround in post-Manny era

“I just think it’s coincidence,” Maddon said. “We just weren’t hitting. You can’t really emphasize that enough. It has nothing to do with Manny being here or not being here…


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“I know people are going to say that. We could just as easily [have] this record with Manny here. We just had to start shooting our guns better than we had.”


Still, opinions vary. Manny’s departure allowed for the emergence of overnight legend Sam Fuld, who is tearing it up in left field, right field, at the plate and pretty much everywhere he feels like going. The 29-year-old outfielder — acquired in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs — leads the American League in stolen bases and is tied for third in all of Major League Baseball. He also had an immediate impact defensively, gunning down Chicago 1B Paul Konerko at the plate from left field in the 9-7 victory, perhaps a game-changer. The next day, he made a heroic, full-extension diving catch on Juan Pierre’s would-be triple to right, a grab acclaimed throughout baseball. In Boston he went 4-for-6 at the plate and was a single short of hitting for the cycle. At press time Fuld is first in the AL with a .396 batting average and first in stolen bases with (7); he leads the Rays in hits (21), doubles (7), extra-base hits (8) and slugging percentage (.551). None of this has gone unnoticed by his teammates.


"I heard that the world is covered by 75 percent water and the other 25 percent is covered by Sam Fuld so I’m buying that right now," said Rays ace lefty David Price.  "What he’s doing right is now is big for us—it’s big for somebody to be able to step up when we have guys down like Longo and Johnny. He’s doing a great job."


“We’re looking at this as a blessing for our team,” said first-year Ray and MLB veteran Johnny Damon. “Without Manny leaving, we don’t have Sam Fuld like we do now. Sam Fuld is definitely a better left fielder than I am; he’s probably one of the best left fielders in the game.”


“Because we’re able to throw him out there, our defense becomes instantly better,” he added. “Manny’s departure, although a sad part of baseball, we’re not going to focus on that. We’re going to focus on getting better as a team.”


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Damon, of course, has played a huge role in the team’s recent success as well. The evening of Ramirez’s egress from America’s pastime, Damon hit his first home run of the season. Since then, he’s had an RBI in six consecutive games, a new personal best in his career. He’s also taken on a leadership role in the clubhouse and on the field, providing the veteran presence Maddon expected and some late-inning heroics in two walk-off wins.


“John has really picked us up in the later part of the game,” Maddon said. “It’s nice to have a guy of his stature come in, and he preaches and backs it up.


“He’s the perfect fit for our clubhouse right now,” he added. “He’s backing up and supporting everything I’ve heard about this guy. He’s exactly what we needed.”


The Rays fell short of sweeping Minnesota in Sunday’s 4-2 setback, but three out of four aint bad. There’s no question the Week Two version of the team is performing leaps and bounds above the efforts of the 0-7 edition the week prior. They also lost Damon in that series; he took a pitch on the ring finger of his left hand while attempting to bunt and is day-to-day. Felipe Lopez went 3-for-4 Monday night filling in for Damon as DH.


“This is definitely a pretty special week, especially [with] how we were sitting,” Damon said after his walk-off base hit in Saturday’s win against the Twins. “Hopefully it continues.”

What a difference a week makes, baseball fans. They say time heals all wounds but the Tampa Bay Rays had a pretty speedy recovery from having their Manny-hood removed (too much?). It was more of an outpatient procedure; Band-aid on, you’re all set, go get ‘em team.

“A great player retired, but I believe it is a galvanizing moment for us,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said via Twitter the day Ramirez left the sport instead of facing drug-related disciplinary action.

Those words proved prophetic; that evening the team took its first win of the season, a 9-7 triumph over the Chicago White Sox. After the win-less opening week and Manny’s departure, the team is on a 7-2 tear, taking both games against the Boston Redsox and three of four at home against the visiting Minnesota Twins and the first of four against the Chicago White Sox and former Rays pitcher Edwin Jackson. Jackson had no-hit the Rays in his last appearance at Tropicana Field but this time got shelled for four runs on 11 hits in his first loss of the season.

This is not an exercise in finger-pointing, but the correlation is hard to ignore. Unless you’re Joe Maddon, that is.

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