ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Joyce chuckles now as he tells the story about how the Rays outfielders were gathered during a pitching change in the April 7 game in Chicago, and B.J. Upton was grumbling about former teammate Edwin Jackson throwing another dazzling game at them.
"B.J. was like, 'Man, sweet trade. Why did we trade Edwin?' " said Joyce, who just happened to be the player they got for Jackson in the December 2008 deal with Detroit. "I was like, 'Wow, man, thank you very much for that. I'm going to go walk to rightfield now and be by myself.' "
Upton quickly realized his faux pas, but Joyce didn't need an apology.
"I thought it was one of those funny moments," Joyce said.
Besides, the way it has been going since, Joyce is the one people should be asking about.
The 26-year-old Tampa native sits atop the major leagues in hitting again this morning with a stunning .367 average, and he is third with an equally impressive 1.071 on-base plus slugging percentage, turning what started as a hot streak into a monthlong showcase. In his past 25 games, the left-handed hitter has hit a torrid .429 with 15 extra-base hits (including all eight of his homers) and 22 RBIs.
"I'm trying to ride it as long as I can," said Joyce, a product of Armwood High. "A lot of hits have fallen. Some bloop hits have fallen, and some line drives have been caught. I can't control whether or not they fall. You just try to have good at-bats. … At least I can tell my grandkids that I led the major leagues in hitting for a little bit."
Joyce said he doesn't pay much attention to the stat sheet, joking that his father, Matt, does it enough for both of them — and most of the fans in the Tampa Bay area — and likely has been busy collecting various and assorted copies of the leaderboards.
"The fact that he's not texting as much as he usually does is worrying me," Joyce said.
Joyce probably isn't going to stay up among the elite, since he's considered more likely to hit for power than average. But with the changes he has made from last season, and even the adjustments after his 1-for-20 start this season, the Rays aren't putting limits on anything.
Some alterations are obvious: He is keeping the barrel of the bat in the hitting zone longer, and he is making a concerted effort to use the whole field, resulting in a number of line drives to leftfield for hits he didn't used to get.
Others are less so. He says he is more relaxed and has reduced the pressure he put on himself during the slow start after a talking-to by manager Joe Maddon. And his confidence, which is a key part of his approach, grew when he started having some success.
Also, he bought into hitting coach Derek Shelton's plea for consistency.
"Sometimes in the past, when things didn't go his way, he'd want to change something," Shelton said. "I think he's matured. Now in our daily conversations we're talking about being as consistent as possible. … The biggest thing with him from last year to this year is just the consistency."
The one thing missing has been success against left-handed pitchers. This season he is hitting .190 (4-for-21) against lefties (compared to an MLB-best .397 vs. right-handers) and is .167 (12-for-72) for his career, with one of his 33 home runs.
There's plenty of debate over whether Joyce's success is a result of not facing many lefties, or a reason that he should get to see more. But since Maddon controls the lineup card, his opinion counts most. And he isn't ready to turn Joyce loose yet, saying only that he will let him face lefties whose profile creates a favorable matchup.
"Right now it's working so well with him the way it's going, why mess with it?" Maddon said. "I can say with certainty, if he was playing against lefties, he wouldn't be leading the league in hitting right now."
This week's return to Detroit provided a good measure of how far Joyce has come. The Tigers made the deal at the time because they had other young outfielders and wanted Jackson, who they got 13 wins out of in 2009 and then traded in a three-team deal that netted them Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer, among others.
They still claim they knew what they were giving up.
"We always thought he'd be a really good hitter with power," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said of Joyce. "He's doing very, very well. Good for him. He's a good kid. He's got a real sweet swing. And he's got a loud-sounding bat. He always has.
"He's a good outfielder, too. He's just a good-looking player."
By now, even Upton has noticed.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org