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Remember his effort if not his name

John Jaso, here driving in two runs with a fifth-inning single Sunday, left the Rays’ spring camp for Triple A with pointed instructions from manager Joe Maddon to improve his defense.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

John Jaso, here driving in two runs with a fifth-inning single Sunday, left the Rays’ spring camp for Triple A with pointed instructions from manager Joe Maddon to improve his defense.

ST. PETERSBURG — He had spent six summers packing his bags and traveling from one minor-league town to another. The hotels were often cheap, the food was usually weak, and the dreams were slowly diminishing.

So when he finally got the call to the big leagues in September 2008, the rookie catcher was ready to embrace it all. The Rays were in a pennant race and at the start of a crucial nine-game road trip. Toronto. Boston. New York.

The kid had finally made it. He was one of the guys. Joking with Longoria. Hanging out with Peña. And now, with the bus on the way to the airport, he was going to be part of the time-honored hazing practice of rookie singers.

Classic rock. That's what he would sing. Hotel California. Fat Bottomed Girls. With a Little Help From My Friends. When Carlos Peña called his name over the loudspeaker, John Jaso would be ready.

Except Peña called him Mike Jaso.

"Everybody thought it was hilarious that I couldn't come up with the right name," Peña said. "Everybody knows who Jaso is now, right?"

Well, yes and no.

"From that day forward," manager Joe Maddon said, "he has been Mikey."

Call him Mikey. Call him John. Or just call him hot.

Jaso stuck with the Rays through the 2008 postseason but had not appeared in another big-league game until being recalled from Triple-A Durham a couple of weeks ago when Kelly Shoppach went on the disabled list.

Since then, Jaso has hit .429 and earned praise for his improved defense behind the plate. A late addition to the lineup Saturday night when Dioner Navarro came up with a sore leg during batting practice, Jaso hit his first big-league home run. Less than 24 hours later, Jaso hit a two-run single in the fifth to break up a scoreless tie.

"His at-bats in general have been really, really good," Maddon said. "Drawing walks, laying off borderline pitches. He's playing well."

If you could just ignore those first eight seasons bouncing around the minor leagues, you might say Jaso, 26, has arrived quickly. Because, barely two months ago, he looked like just another body in spring training for the Rays.

He had made five minor-league All-Star teams and was considered a quality hitter, but Jaso was not a major-league-quality catcher. He sat too low in his crouch, trading function for comfort. He struggled to block pitches and throw out runners. And no one was praising his ability to call pitches or handle a staff.

Asked about his defensive ability early this spring, Maddon described it as 4-A. In other words, caught between Triple A and the majors.

"It was disappointing," Maddon said. "Not good enough."

Maddon was not afraid to tell Jaso that. And that may have turned out to be the turning point in a minor-leaguer's career.

It was early in spring training when Maddon called Jaso into his office and told him his defense was not acceptable. Maddon had found a 21-day program designed to break bad habits through repetition, and he handed it over to bullpen coach Bobby Ramos to work with Jaso.

"It was very bluntlike. He straight up told me, "I don't like the way that you catch,' " Jaso said. "It was obviously a shot to my ego, but I took it and dealt with it. Basically, it was good hearing that. There wasn't any beating around the bush. I didn't want to waste another season trying to figure out what they wanted. I got the exact idea from him, his exact opinion."

For three weeks, Jaso and Ramos worked every day. Ramos got Jaso to sit higher behind the plate, improving his ability to move around and block pitches. Even now, they work on different drills in the bullpen before games.

"I like Jaso. I wasn't as high on Jaso when I was in Durham," said pitcher David Price. "He's come a long way. He's worked at it."

Chances are, Jaso is still in the big leagues on a temporary basis. Shoppach could be back in June and, since Jaso has minor-league options remaining, the logical move would be to send him back down.

But that doesn't mean it is a sure bet. Based on a very small sample of games, Jaso is potentially Tampa Bay's best offensive catcher. And if his defense continues to improve, the Rays might consider some more creative options.

With just 20 plate appearances, Jaso has five walks, six RBIs and six hits. That's more walks, more runs driven in and the same number of hits that Navarro has in 49 plate appearances.

Still, Jaso understands his place. He has put in enough time and seen enough heartbreak to realize how this story might end.

"I'm getting a little more settled, but I still get the adrenaline rush going out there," Jaso said. "I know more and more this is definitely where I want to be. Whatever happens, if I do get sent back down, I will work as hard as I can to get back up here.

"I definitely don't take this for granted. I don't think like, 'Well, I deserve this because I put in all this hard work.' Because I had a lot of close friends in the minor leagues who were very hard workers and got released. So I know not to take this for granted. I'm definitely appreciative of what I have."

At the moment, the Rays appreciate this catcher named Jaso.

John or Mike, it doesn't matter.

Remember his effort if not his name 04/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 26, 2010 7:06am]
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