Clear74° WeatherClear74° Weather

Armwood High grad Matt Joyce is big reason for Rays' recent success

Rays leftfielder Matt Joyce hits a three-run homer off Yankees starter Phil Hughes in the sixth inning for the winning runs.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Rays leftfielder Matt Joyce hits a three-run homer off Yankees starter Phil Hughes in the sixth inning for the winning runs.

ST. PETERSBURG

When the trade was completed 19 months ago, Matt Joyce's time had not yet arrived.

He was a bet on the future. A name to be considered at some indeterminate time down the road.

When the trade's other half was named an All-Star 12 months ago, Matt Joyce's time had still not arrived. With Edwin Jackson representing Detroit at the All-Star Game last July, Joyce was stuck in the middle of his fifth minor-league season.

Finally, when the Rays hit a midseason slump and were desperate for offense a month ago, it was time to turn to Matt Joyce. And four game-winning hits later, the Tampa native is a large reason the Rays are one game out of first place in the American League East this morning.

"This past week is something I've been looking forward to for a long time," Joyce said. "Ever since the trade happened, I've envisioned coming home and having success with the team, and being that guy people can count on."

Count on? At times, the Rays' offense has been carried by Joyce.

It happened again Friday night in the first game of an important three-game series against the Yankees. Six pitches into the evening, the Rays were trailing 2-0. The score remained that way until the sixth inning, when Joyce cranked a high fastball into the rightfield bleachers for a three-run homer that was the difference in a 3-2 victory.

"He's going to take Tampa by storm," his father, Matt Joyce, said. "I knew it was just a matter of time because the talent is there. He just had to stay positive and keep working hard."

It was the third time this month that Joyce had hit a home run to give the Rays the lead in the sixth inning or later, and the third time this week that he had driven in the go-ahead run in a victory.

"This guy has had a lot of big hits for us," manager Joe Maddon said. "If his confidence isn't grown by now, it can't (grow). There's no fertilizer out there that's going to grow his confidence if this stuff isn't working."

Joyce hasn't been too bad for Tampa Bay's confidence, either. At the time of his promotion in late June, the team was scrambling. The Rays had lost 17 of their previous 30 games, and a five-game lead in the AL East had turned into a two-game deficit.

Since his arrival, Tampa Bay's season has turned again. The Rays have gone 21-9, and Joyce's presence has been an undeniable factor.

It isn't just the four home runs and 17 RBIs. And isn't just the late heroics. Joyce has had an impact on the rest of the lineup, filling the role of a dangerous bat behind Carlos Peña. After a near season-long slump, Peña has come alive in the past month. He has 22 RBIs in his last 26 games with Joyce around.

"I think Carlos might be seeing better pitches because Matt is hitting behind him," Maddon said. "I think that's connected somehow."

For Joyce, it has been a long time coming. From Armwood High in Seffner to Florida Southern College in Lakeland, he has spent the better part of his life playing baseball in the bay area.

And when he was traded to Tampa Bay from Detroit for a 14-game winner (who was traded again a year later), the natural assumption was that he would be the answer for the Rays in rightfield. Except team officials understood it would still take some time.

So Joyce spent most of 2009 at Triple-A Durham, and he returned there last spring after an elbow strain slowed his progress. He was 25 years old and more than two years removed from his big-league debut with the Tigers, and still he was killing time in the minors.

"It was frustrating, there's no doubt about that," Joyce said. "But one of the things I really like about Joe (Maddon) is he preaches you should control the things you can control and don't worry about the other stuff. So I tried to do my best down there and work on things to get better."

At this point, Joyce is still technically a part-time player. Of his 95 plate appearances, 92 have come against right-handed pitchers. There will come a day, Maddon said, when Joyce will develop into a 500-at-bat, 25-home-run type of player, but at this point, the Rays want to keep him in situations where he has the best chance to succeed.

The batting average is still low (.231), but a lot of Joyce's outs have come on hard-hit balls. He's drawing walks, and his slugging percentage (.487) is behind only Evan Longoria's and Carl Crawford's in the Rays' lineup.

Already this week Joyce had hit a grand slam to break a 0-0 tie in the sixth inning of Matt Garza's no-hitter and followed with an RBI double to break a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning the next night.

Now, three days later, comes a three-run homer to win another game.

"When I hit it, there was a little bit of wonder. I wasn't sure it was going out," Joyce said. "But once I knew it was gone, it was like fireworks going off inside of me. I don't even remember anything after that. I was floating around the bases. It was like running on clouds."

And the other half of that trade that brought him here?

Hours before Joyce's home run against the Yankees, Edwin Jackson was traded.

Again.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Armwood High grad Matt Joyce is big reason for Rays' recent success 07/31/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 1:19am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...