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Rays focus on doing little things better on offense

TAMPA

Manager Joe Maddon has some big expectations for the Rays offense this season.

He likes the names he can write in the batting order, with Evan Longoria in the middle, with June callup Wil Myers and August acquisition David DeJesus for the full season, with Ryan Hanigan coming over.

He likes the balance, likes the depth, likes the versatility.

He definitely likes the possibilities.

"There's a lot of interesting stuff," Maddon said Sunday. "People asked me the other day, 'What do you need?' I'm pretty happy with what we've got."

But he'll be happier if the Rays can do a better job with some of the small things that tend to make big differences in games, such as bunting, stealing and taking extra bases.

"We didn't do enough of that last year," Maddon said. "We did not run the bases nearly as well as we normally do, we didn't go from first to third as well as we normally do. Whenever asked to bunt, we didn't do that as well as we used to."

Part of that can be attributed to not having the right players, a less athletic group than in previous seasons, having lost speedsters such as Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton.

But also that the players they did have didn't always do the right thing, failing glaringly to execute or take advantage of a promising situation.

As a result, those type of tactics have become a primary focus this spring, and there have been some encouraging signs. In Sunday's 3-3 tie with the Yankees, for example, Desmond Jennings took advantage of a pitcher's inattentiveness to steal third. The next inning, a bunt by Sean Rodriguez, and the resulting throwing error, led to two runs.

"Small ball," Rodriguez said.

Improvement can be significant. In ranking ninth in the American League with 700 runs last season, the Rays, according to Baseball Info Solutions, were 10th in manufactured runs. They were 12th in the AL in steals with 73 (in 111 tries) and attempted the second-fewest sacrifice bunts, 26.

"I feel like we really need to get better in the small things, especially with runners in scoring position," second baseman Ben Zobrist said.

Maddon considers Jennings, the only Ray with game-changing speed, the key to get the running game going.

Jennings' steals dropped from 31 in 2012 (when Upton was also in the lineup) to 20, and he was caught a career-high eight times. Maddon suggests that Jennings became a little timid as he struggled offensively for parts of the season, and that by getting on base more, he should be more willing to take chances.

"When you don't get on base often enough you lose a little bit of that musketeer attitude you need to be a really good basestealer," he said. "So I think Desmond getting on would really be uplifting to some other guys regarding basestealing."

Jennings said he has gotten the message.

"I feel like I probably can be more aggressive this year on the bases, get back to stealing bases and running," he said. "Get on base more, try to force the action more."

And though Maddon is still not going to have the Rays bunting in all the traditional situations, he admits they need to be better at it when he feels it is the right matchup. He bases that not only on the game situation but who is pitching (and how likely he is to get rattled), who is batting, who is on base and on deck.

"It's not like you want to be a bunting team, but there's going to be different moments," he said. "I want us to be able to do that when it's called for."

Power, especially from Longoria and Myers, is still going to be a key to the Rays' success. So is consistency from James Loney and Yunel Escobar. And overall increased production from Jennings, Zobrist and Matt Joyce.

But the small things can matter, too.

"Taking advantage of the little things," Joyce said, "I think will lead to big success at the end."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays focus on doing little things better on offense 03/09/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 10, 2014 10:00am]

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