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Improved two-strike approach helping Tampa Bay Rays offense rank among baseball's best

TORONTO — LF Carl Crawford may have delivered the biggest hit of Monday's game, a two-run homer in the third inning off Blue Jays ace RHP Roy Halladay.

But it was his single up the middle with two strikes in the first that served as an example of what manager Joe Maddon calls one of the club's biggest improvements since last season and a reason why the Rays are among the majors' best in several offensive categories.

Tampa Bay entered Monday's game with the majors' second-best two-strike batting average (.213), behind only Toronto (.218), a huge jump from last season, when the Rays ranked 23rd at .182.

"Our two-strike batting average has been great," Maddon said. "I've been really looking at that because that's always been a point of contention with me in the past. I think if you really look into why we've been a better offensive club, as much as anything I really like the two-strike batting average."

Maddon said a lot of players fail to make adjustments with two strikes and change their approach to focus on putting the ball in play. Two Rays are among the majors' best with two strikes, with SS Jason Bartlett entering Monday's game first (.337) and Crawford ninth (.269). It's no surprise to Maddon that both are hitting over .300 this season.

The two-strike approach played a role Monday, as CF B.J. Upton hit a sacrifice fly in the seventh with one out and a 3-and-2 count.

"I think when it gets to two strikes you can be a lot more productive," Maddon said. "You get to that third strike — move the ball. Even if you move the runner 90 feet, it gives us a better chance of scoring. I've always preached that, and we've gotten better."

Stepping in: With Ben Zobrist playing — and hitting — so well this season, starts for INF Willy Aybar have been sparse.

But Maddon doesn't like having Aybar idle too often, which is why he started the switch-hitter Monday, and he plans to "sneak him in a little more often" until the All-Star break.

Aybar, making just his third start since June 11, went 0-for-4.

"I think it's really important for us to keep Willy active," Maddon said. "You've seen all the big moments he's had recently for us, so to just sit him for long periods of time really bothers me."

Maddon also wanted to give Zobrist a day off.

Zobrist, who is having a career year and leads the AL in slugging percentage (.622), had started the previous 32 games. But he entered Monday with just six hits in his past 40 at-bats.

Zobrist entered Monday's game in the ninth at second.

Close call: Upton nearly found himself on the receiving end of a beer shower in the eighth inning, thanks to a fan in the stands. But the beer a female fan tossed on the field missed Upton, who was unaware of the situation.

"I was turning around to walk back to my position, and I saw the umpire walking over and everyone was looking down at me," Upton said. "I didn't know what was going on. He goes, 'You all right?' I said, 'What happened?' I guess they said two women threw a beer at me."

Money matters: The lawyer trying to recover money from Allen Stanford's alleged Ponzi scheme wants seven current and former major-league players, including Rays 1B Carlos Peña, who had invested with Stanford to turn over millions of dollars, the Washington Times reported. The other players: Greg Maddux, Bernie Williams, Johnny Damon, J.D. Drew, Andruw Jones and Jay Bell. The report states that they are "innocent investors and committed no wrongdoing:" the lawyer, Ralph Janvey (appointed by the Securities and Exchange Commission), just wants to split up the athletes' money among Stanford's alleged victims.

Improved two-strike approach helping Tampa Bay Rays offense rank among baseball's best 06/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 9:48am]
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