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Rays' best may be yet to come

TORONTO

There are a number of unexpected explanations for how the Rays have gotten to this point, hovering above .500 one-fifth of the way through the schedule even after a weekend sweep, such as the contributions of Eric Hinske and overall impressive pitching, specifically from the bullpen.
But there are some legitimate reasons to think they might be able to do better.
Some are by addition. Scott Kazmir will get more comfortable and effective. Cliff Floyd will be back soon, taking at-bats now going to Gabe Gross and Nathan Haynes. Ben Zobrist will be an upgrade.
Others will be by improvement. Their leadoff man, Akinori Iwamura, isn't hitting. Their cleanup hitter, Carlos Pena, isn't hitting much. Their No. 9 hitter, Jason Bartlett, is just starting to hit.
"They're going to hit like they have in the past," manager Joe Maddon said. "There's a lot to look forward to."

Jason Bartlett

.243 average, .278 on-base percentage, 3 extra-base hits

Bartlett is showing signs of offense, with hits in 14 of his past 18 games, raising his average 85 points. That's key even in the No. 9 spot, as Maddon talks of the "circular lineup," where it's just as important that Bartlett get on base as it is for Iwamura.

"It's all about confidence," said Bartlett, who came to the Rays with a career .272 average and .341 on-base percentage. "You get a couple hits and you start feeling good. I think that's what it is right now. … A lot of people haven't been able to see what I can do because I haven't been on base a lot. I need to get on base, score some runs, steal some bags, try to make something happen."

Akinori Iwamura

.221 average, .302 on-base percentage, 5 extra-base hits

The Rays are convinced Iwamura will get more hits once he starts hitting the ball in the air less. They just have to convince him.

Their best argument is found deep in the statistical splits. Of the 36 times Iwamura has hit a fly ball this season, he has only four hits (and two sac flies), for a .118 "fly ball batting average." When he hits ground balls or line drives, he has a .377 average (23-for-61).

"The fly ball out is really his bane," Maddon said. "When he's (hitting the ball) on a line or on the ground, he really does his best work, which most hitters do.

"When you're not strong enough on a consistent basis to put the ball in the seats, you really have to work on a line and on the ground. … When we get his trajectory back down closer to earth, he's going to start hitting for a higher number. He's pulling off (pitches) and elevating everything with the bat coming from underneath."
Carlos Pena

.215 average, 7 HRs, 1 2B, 35 Ks in 30 games

Pena says there is nothing to worry about. His sore right hamstring is feeling better every day, his swing is getting more comfortable, and the power is coming.

The signs are there, with a quiet seven-game hitting streak (8-for-30), some other well-struck balls and Sunday his first homer since April 12.

"No concerns at all," Maddon said. "He'll hit his home runs. He'll put a nice streak together pretty soon."

Something that isn't there, Pena said, is any pressure to repeat last season or justify the big contract it led to.

"I can't live off all those questions or I'd go crazy," Pena said. "I'd rather look at it like this: What can I do for my team tonight? Then at the end of the year, the numbers are going to be where they are going to be, and in my mind they're going to be great. But they're going to be great if you allow them to be. … If you force it, if you press for it, then it doesn't happen."

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

By the numbers

.221

Batting
average of leadoff man Akinori
Iwamura

.215

Batting
average of cleanup hitter Carlos Pena

.278

On-base
percentage of No. 9 hitter Jason Bartlett

Rays' best may be yet to come 05/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 11:41am]
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