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Desmond Jennings makes instant impact with Tampa Bay Rays

OAKLAND, Calif. — Desmond Jennings insisted he was not growing frustrated with his extended three-season stay at Triple-A Durham.

But he is sure playing like he is making up for lost time.

Finally called up Friday and put atop the Rays lineup, Jennings is off to a sensational start, going 6-for-11 with four extra-base hits, stealing three bases and showing off his blazing speed with a dazzling dash to score from first Saturday.

Manager Joe Maddon, who will read as much into a player's look as his actions, said he could tell from the first moment he saw Jennings on Saturday afternoon in Kansas City that he was prepared to grasp the opportunity.

"When he walked into the clubhouse in K.C. I could see in his face that he was ready," Maddon said Monday. "That's really an abstract comment, but he just looked comfortable. He looked confident. Ready to go. I just saw that. There was no fear, apprehension, anything about him. He demonstrated that in the (first) two games. And I think it's going to continue."

In his first three games, Jennings, 24, has exceeded his production from his 17-game introduction to the majors last September (when he was 4-for-21, hitting .190), impressing with his instincts and his athleticism.

Obviously he has a better idea what to expect, and he's coming off a better season with the Bulls. But he is also more comfortable, with both the opportunity to play every day the Rays are providing and the role — as the leadoff hitter — he is used to filling.

"I've felt good at the plate," Jennings said. "That's what I've been doing pretty much my whole career. And doing that here, that's made me feel better. I just feel like my job is to get on base, however I can."

And he said knowing he will be in the lineup every day allows him to play more relaxed.

Maddon said the key to success for Jennings is working at-bats — taking balls, swinging at strikes and fouling off borderline pitches. He did it well during his breakout 2009 season in the minors — when he hit a combined .318 between Double-A Montgomery and Durham with an .888 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) — and last year not so much (hitting .278 at Durham with a .755 OPS).

"That's what he's supposed to be," Maddon said. "Last year the at-bats weren't as brisk. This year he started getting the ability to work the at-bat back."

Jennings said there wasn't any major change in his approach either season, but he knew what the Rays were looking for and was trying to show them.

"I figured I'd get here when they felt like it was time for me to be here," he said.

Jennings started in left again Monday but is considered a natural centerfielder, which makes him the heir apparent if the Rays trade B.J. Upton by Sunday's deadline for non-waiver deals.

"Absolutely he's got centerfield qualities — the speed, the range," Maddon said. "Probably the arm is not what you would consider above average, but it's definitely average or right around there. So if he had one tool that doesn't necessarily fit all the way it might be his arm strength, but everything else plays at a very high level."

The explosive speed invites comparisons to former Rays All-Star Carl Crawford. "Kind of a similar skill set," Maddon acknowledged.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Desmond Jennings makes instant impact with Tampa Bay Rays 07/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 7:17am]
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