Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays infield benefits from continuity

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays' decision to return their infield intact will yield an interesting novelty, as — assuming nothing goes awry in the next week or so — they'll have the same four starters on consecutive opening days for only the second time in franchise history, and first since the initial 1998-99 seasons.

More relevant, of course, are what they consider significant actual benefits, ranging from camaraderie to comfort to confidence to continuity.

And those are just the C's.

"We're all pumped to return everybody on the infield," ace David Price said. "We all love them."

With Evan Longoria the foundation at third base, the Rays kept the rest of the structure in place by picking up options on shortstop Yunel Escobar ($5 million) and second baseman Ben Zobrist ($7 million, plus not moving him back to the outfield), and — the final piece — re-signing free agent first baseman James Loney ($21 million, three years).

"I think as a unit we're probably able to cover as much ground as any defense in the league, and we're as athletic and as able-bodied as anybody," Longoria said.

"Coming back this year just gives us that much more confidence. Being able to play with the same guys in the infield — when you understand how the guy next to you plays — it really does make that much of a difference in positioning and just understanding how a guy is going to react when a ball is hit."

In theory, that would be the case for every team. In reality, it's more vital for the Rays because of the frequent, extreme and unorthodox shifts they employ.

"They have a really good feel for that," manager Joe Maddon said. "Communicating with each other becomes easier, so the continuity regarding how we do things definitely is very comforting."

There was some adjusting last season, as Escobar was acquired in a trade and Loney signed as a free agent. But it certainly worked out well, as each of the four was a top-three finalist for a Gold Glove award (though none won) and the Rays overall committed only 36 infield errors, best in baseball and three off the major-league record.

"Last year was a good defense," Escobar said through an interpreter. "Now there's a lot more togetherness. Everybody is just on the same page, everybody is synchronized."

Plus, Zobrist said, they like and enjoy playing, and playing well, together. "You just start expecting it," he said. "It's more of a surprise when it doesn't happen."

Each of the four has enough talent and ability to make the occasional spectacular play, and often does, but Maddon said the real value is much more mundane.

"What they do collectively is really nail down the routine play," he said. "To me, you're looking to make the routine play routine. … The ball that's supposed to be an out is an out with these guys."

Or, as Loney said, "There's no secret, no special answers."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

     
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