ST. PETERSBURG — They were not searching for inspiration that early spring morning. And, looking back, that probably explains why it arrived so easily.
For it was just another mundane drill. The same message hitting coach Derek Shelton had preached since being hired a few months earlier. Rays hitters, Shelton insisted, were going to be more consistent about making contact with a runner on third and fewer than two outs.
Surveying the scene, and anticipating Shelton's spiel, leftfielder Carl Crawford summed it up thusly:
"Is this the get-the-(man)-in drill?"
Just like that, a slogan was born.
(Well, maybe not just like that. Crawford's version had a more colorful M-word to describe the baserunner. Either version works.)
Get the man in. Or G.T.M.I. for short.
That's what the T-shirts ordered by clubhouse manager Chris Westmoreland say. That's what the players in the dugout shout during game situations. And that's what the Rays have been doing better than any other American League team.
"Whatever makes it stick in your mind," Crawford said.
After struggling for years to be even average with runners on third base and fewer than two outs, the Rays are now getting the man in more frequently than any team in the AL. They have gone from a 49 percent success rate in 2008 to 58 percent heading into Thursday night.
"It's not just the guy at the plate," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's also happening in the dugout during these moments. Everybody is really involved in this now. I know the hitter can actually feel it in the dugout. We have covered it so much, and Derek continues to cover it on a consistent basis; I want it to become part of our culture."
Shelton likes to dismiss his role in the evolution, but situational hitting was one of the things Maddon wanted him to focus on in the spring. The Rays already were a strong offensive club. They hit for power. They drew a lot of walks. They took extra bases.
But the Rays were not particularly efficient. They were terrible on bunts. They had too many strikeouts. And they did not do a very good job of getting runners home from third base with fewer than two outs.
So Shelton worked on changing the focus in those at-bats. To make the hitters more cognizant of pitch selection and making contact. The early results? The Rays were ninth in the league in success rate last season, and they are now first. (By the way, the Indians, where Shelton was the hitting coach last season, have gone from seventh to 14th without him.)
"The players deserve all the credit in the world for this. They've taken something we emphasized, and they've run with it," Shelton said. "They've made it a focus. And when they don't get it done, it bothers them. And when they do get it done, not just one of them is happy, but everyone is happy. The thing we've stressed is this is a team stat. This is not, 'Hey you got the RBI.' No, this is a team stat."
Shelton has not necessarily changed mechanics. His emphasis has been on the strategic approach. With runners in scoring position, a pitcher is more likely to stick with his best stuff, so a hitter has to adjust accordingly. The idea is not to find a pitch that you can hit a mile but to look for a pitch that you can handle well enough to get the runner in from third base.
"Runner on third base with less than two outs, runner on second base with two outs, I think our mind-set is more about just driving in one run," Maddon said. "They're not trying to hit the ball over the wall and getting all of these runs in. I think they are more aware of making contact and not just being big with their swings. Those are all good thoughts.
"There are situations where a strikeout, to me, is acceptable. Two outs and nobody on? A double is better, so I'm good with that. A runner on first base with two outs and you're trying to drive him in with a double, I'm good with that. But if you have a runner on third base with less than two outs, a strikeout is a really bad play. If you have a runner on second base with two outs, a strikeout is a bad play. There are times when a strikeout is an okay play, and there are times when it is a bad play."
The mental approach seems to be bleeding over into these other situations. The Rays not only lead the league in getting the runner home from third with fewer than two outs, they also have been the AL's best team with runners in scoring position.
Going into Thursday's late game in Seattle, Tampa Bay had an absurdly efficient .319 batting average with runners in scoring position. Considering that the typical AL team was hitting .251, it's hard to imagine the Rays continuing at that pace for much longer.
Still, no matter where the numbers end up, the approach should not change. The emphasis is still the same.
Just get the (man) in.
John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.