PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays expected a difficult decision in picking the starting shortstop, with Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez battling it out all camp.
And with the roster deadline set for Wednesday at 5 p.m., manager Joe Maddon says they're "pretty close" to the final call.
"The 11th hour is a real powerful hour," Maddon said. "We have to play it all the way out."
Brignac and Rodriguez could make the team and platoon. Both have fared well during the spring and improved on the subtle, "under-the-hood" aspects of their games Maddon outlined for them at the beginning.
Brignac, though limited for a couple of weeks by a plantar fasciitis issue, made strides at situational hitting, bunting and baserunning and is batting .286 through 12 games. Rodriguez, while playing strong defense, is batting .250 but has had more consistent at-bats than in the past, narrowing his strikeout-to-walk ratio (13 to 8).
"Nobody was really going to be separating themselves," Maddon said. "Both are really good players, they're both similar kind of players. So you weren't necessarily going to see this tremendous discrepancy between the both. Anytime you get to that point in spring training, like the (Jeff) Niemann and (Wade) Davis (decision), it's always going to be a very close call. And then sometimes it's going to go beyond what the average fan may see in a game. It's tough, but a great problem to have."
Brignac, 26, earned the starting shortstop job last year before losing it midseason and finishing with a .193 average. He said he's more prepared to handle it this year and is happy with what he has shown in camp.
"I feel like I've done what they've asked me to do," Brignac said. "I've sacrificed, I've stolen some bags. I've been aggressive on the basepaths. I just got to show them that it wasn't that I couldn't do these things, it's just maybe with the opportunities that I had, I wasn't as successful with them."
Rodriguez, who turns 27 this month, also was inconsistent on offense last season, batting .223 with 87 strikeouts and 38 walks. He worked on ways he could improve his approach, specifically with two strikes, and find other ways to get on base. Case in point was Monday, when Rodriguez hit a solo homer but also dropped a perfectly placed bunt down the third-base line for a single in the third.
Rodriguez can play most every position, but shortstop is his favorite.
"You want to play every day — everybody does," Rodriguez said. "And that's all I'm looking for."
Brignac and Rodriguez have said the right things, how they want what's best for the team and are willing to help in any way they can. And though Rodriguez said he initially didn't understand when Maddon told him the "under-the-hood" factors could decide the job, he does now.
"I've been trying to get my engine ready," he said, smiling.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.